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Thursday, 25 June 2009

‘Waiting for God and Godot’

Vladimir: It’s the start that’s difficult.
Estragon: You can start from anything.
Vladimir: Yes, but you have to decide.

I was invited to Westminster Abbey this week for the ordination and consecration of a bishop into the Church of England’s Diocese of Salisbury. I’d never been to an event like this - I’d never even visited Westminster Abbey. So it was too good an invitation to turn down.

As might be expected it was a very formal occasion: ceremonial processions of clergy and bishops in full regalia, red for bishops, yellow and white for others, jewel-encrusted crosses on long staves, the Abbey choir in full voice, all the dignity and solemnity of a church confident of its traditional role in England’s history, preserver of continuity and faith, representatives of - as the liturgy proclaimed - ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation’.

The Archbishop of Canterbury takes pride of place in this ceremony, bringing up the rear of the opening procession in his white mitre and full ceremonial gown (I’m Jewish, what do you want, the technical terms for all this stuff?). It’s fancy dress for grown-ups, playing their allocated roles. I noted, with wry amusement, how Rowan Williams, as soon as the opening procession had ensured that all the participants reached their designated spots, swept off his mitre with what seemed to be palpable relief – it revealed his curiously back-sprouting shock of grey hair (springing from his head as if he’d been struck by lightning), which he left for a moment or two before attempting to smooth it down with a worldly sweep of his hand.

Estragon: Nothing to be done
Vladimir: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion

I’d been to see Samuel Beckett’s play at the weekend – and during the long ceremony in the Abbey I couldn’t help contrast the two occasions, both choreographed with theatrical precision, both in love with language, both speaking about the most profound of human concerns (love and hope and service), and both using the technique of dialogue to explore the mysteries of what we are here on earth to do.

‘Do you accept the Holy Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for eternal salvation...’
‘I do accept them’
‘Will you be diligent in prayer...and in all studies that will deepen your faith...’
‘By the help of God I will’
‘Will you be gentle and merciful for Christ’s sake to those who are in need...’
‘By the help of God I will’

And so on – an antiphony of call and response, interspersed with psalms, scriptural readings, and prayers by the community, culminating in the ordination itself, the ‘laying on of hands’ where the 30 or so bishops form a bright red swooping crowd, like a flock of exotic birds, and descend on the ordinand until he disappears beneath a host of outstretched hands as the Archbishop intones: ‘Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant...’

Beckett’s play contains a memorable portrait of a master-servant relationship: that of the silent , ironically-named Lucky tethered by a rope to his master, Pozzo, who treats his servant as an uncomplaining beast of burden and form of entertainment, ordering him at whim to dance, then ‘Stop!...Turn!...Think!’. Perhaps this is how Beckett sees humanity, labouring under its servitude to authorities human and divine. The Bible does contain images of a ‘God’ ordering us around, often in arbitrary-seeming ways, and it seems significant that in the single long speech that emerges from the hapless Lucky – his only words in the play – what we hear when he is ordered to ‘Think!’ is a stream of words that sound like a parody of religious argumentation:

Lucky: Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann [Beckett had a genius for names as signposts] of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension Who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambit divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown...

And so on and on for several uninterrupted minutes, a logorrhoea of sense and senselessness, mirroring our human attempt to construct meaning out of silence and the void.

Does Beckett’s text at this point make any more or less sense than the reading from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians which the Abbey ceremony included? Before faith came we were imprisoned and guarded under the law [like Lucky?]until faith would be revealed therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith...’

The motif within the ordination of the need for help, God’s help, to carry on with life is echoed in Godot – except that in Godot the only help we can draw on is the help we give to each other:

Estragon: What’s the matter with you all?
Vladimir: Help!
Estragon: I’m going.
Vladimir: Don’t leave me! They’ll kill me!...Help!
Estragon: I’m going.
Vladimir: Help me up first. Then we’ll go together.

For Beckett, companionship, human connectedness, our dependence on each other – these are the antidote to oblivion. Rowan Williams would agree, I’m sure. Yet Beckett’s masterpiece, first produced in 1955 and written in the shadows of the death camps and Hiroshima, speaks of a post-religious world where the only faith that exists is in our human capabilities, our potential for concern for each other:

Vladimir: Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!

Sir Ian McKellen delivers the lines with great pathos, and urgency: I see this speech as the religious/spiritual core of Beckett’s play, the author’s own declaration of the necessity for human values in the face of a world in which ‘God’ is absent - in which ‘God’ may be spoken about, and waited for, but never arrives.

The ordination was formal, and moving in its own way. But it was curiously impersonal – to my mind the sermon-giver (a Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge) listed the ordinand’s achievements and qualifications, gave us his CV as it were, but never really said anything personal about him, or to him. Nor did Rowan Williams: all his lines spoken to the ordinand were scripted in advance and printed neatly in the order of service given to us in the congregation. There was more human life, human warmth, on the stage between Vladimir (McKellen) and Estragon (beautifully played by Patrick Stewart), than in the ceremonial drama in the Abbey.

Perhaps that’s the way it needs to be when you are representing the Church, the Body of Christ on Earth, during such a ritualised occasion. But maybe there’s a clue here as to why our theatres are packed and the Church of England is in decline. Maybe the Spirit has migrated from formal religious structures (synagogues too?) into other, more ‘worldly’, places. Places that have the possibility of mixing laughter with a sense of the serious, places where laughter and tragedy can both be accommodated and embraced. (I had never understood until this last weekend why ‘Waiting for Godot’ is described by Beckett as a ‘tragicomedy’. But this production taught me that it is in fact very funny, with both an Irish (and Jewish) gallows humour together with the innate humour that flowers between human beings bound together in absurd situations).

‘Waiting for Godot’ is a profound, religious work: like all the best religion it is open-ended, searching, inquiring after meaning, allowing a full expression of human creativity and compassion without avoiding our capacities for cruelty and destructiveness. It is a text filled with what used to be called – and still is called in some places – ‘the Holy Spirit’. That is, the spirit of life that animates existence and us poor creatures who struggle with existence, the spirit of being that enables us to wrestle meaning out of the chaos of being, the spirit of being that helps us bear the frustrations of waiting, waiting for clarity of understanding to arise, waiting for our inevitable end, waiting for our waiting to end, for Godot to arrive, for the curtain to fall.

Pozzo: They give birth astride the grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more...

Oh, but what the light reveals! While it’s there, while it’s here: what the light reveals!

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