In the Beginning …

(With the possible exception of an earlier Trading Places post) this is the first time on this blog that my interest not only in religion and religions but specifically in the Fourth Gospel has come to the fore, so it seems appropriate to begin here: In the beginning.

These three words (two in the original Greek – εν αρχη) are the first words of the Fourth Gospel. εν αρχη ην ο λογος – In the beginning was the word.

But what can that possibly mean? The beginning of what?

Years ago, when I first started studying the Fourth Gospel, I asked several people what they thought, some well-educated, others not so much …

At this point you will probably be wondering why I didn’t discuss it with my fellow theology students or one of the lecturers, so I should explain that I was living in Casablanca at the time and studying alone for my BD, reading books (so hard to get hold of – this was the early 1970s – no Amazon – no internet!) and trying to cope with a correspondence course that took weeks to travel to and fro. And the only people I associated with were other teachers and the belly-dancers and prostitutes with whom I felt so much more at home.

So, as I say, I asked several people what they thought, and most of them – all the educated ones – said something like “the beginning of Time”, “when Time began”. (One girl gave me a much better answer, but I’ll come to that in a minute.)

First, does “the beginning of Time”, “when Time began”, make any sense? Time, like Space, is nothing. It is the void, the emptiness, in which everything exists. Time does not pass, just as Space does not move: we pass through Time. The illusion of time passing is like the illusion that a field of cows is moving past us as we travel by in a train. It is entirely relative.

Space cannot have an edge, a limit, as that would mean it was something, not nothing. (Or that Space is a gigantic bubble entirely surrounded by and enclosed within something which is not space; but then we would have to imagine that that enormous something was situated in Real Space.) The same is true of Time.

And what did this girl say that struck me as so interesting? She said “It must mean: When things began to happen.” Perfect. So the Big Bang or Creation (or whatever) does not mark the beginning of Time but the point in Time when things began to happen.

GUSTAVO ADOLFO BÉCQUER: In the Towering Nave of a Byzantine Temple

(from the Spanish of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer)

Tomb of Doña María de Villalobos

In the towering nave of a Byzantine temple,
by the light filtering down through
the stained-glass windows,
I saw a Gothic tomb:

a beautiful woman lying on a granite bed,
a miracle of carved stone,
her hands on her breast
and in her hands a book.

Beneath the sweet weight of her limp body,
the bed of stone was creased
just as if it really were made
of feathers and satin

and her face retained the radiance
of that last smile
as the sky preserves
the last fleeting ray of a dying sun.

Two angels, their fingers to their lips,
sat on the edge of her stone pillow
imposing silence on all
within the railed enclosure.

She did not seem dead;
she seemed to sleep
in the shadow of those massy arches,
and in her dreams to see Paradise.

Like someone coming on tip-toe
to a cradle where a child lies sleeping,
I approached that shadowy
corner of the nave.

For a moment I gazed at her,
at the soft radiance, and at
the bed of stone which offered next to her
another empty place beside the wall,

and within my soul
the thirst for the infinite rose up once more,
the desire for that life in death
compared to which the centuries are but a moment …

* * *

Weary of the daily battle
I wage simply to survive,
I remember sometimes, with longing,
that dark, hidden corner.

I picture that pale
mute woman, and I murmur:
“Oh, what a silent love is the love of death!
And what a peaceful sleep the sleep of the grave!”

XIX – The Sun

When the dot popped, we are told,
that marked the beginning of Time.

I can’t say I hold with
beginnings of Time,
but one thing seems clear:
if the dot hadn’t popped
or had popped and then stopped,
or if things had unrolled
just that tiny bit faster – or slower –
we wouldn’t be here;

and that now
if our blessings didn’t outnumber
our trouble and pain,
there’d be no one and nothing
here on this earth
but heaving slime and barren dunes
and sticky, burning rain.

ROBERT SERVICE: My Madonna

I haled me a woman from the street,
Shameless, but oh so fair!
I bade her sit in the model’s seat
And I painted her sitting there.

I hid all trace of her heart unclean;
I painted a babe at her breast;
I painted her as she might have been
If the Worst had been the Best.

She laughed at my picture and went away.
Then came, with a knowing nod,
A connoisseur, and I heard him say,
“‘Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”

So I painted a halo round her hair,
And I sold her and took my fee,
And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,
Where you and all may see.

That Other Disciple of John the Baptist (Trading Places continued)

Andrew Brings Peter To Jesus

My alternative choice for a day as a fictional character (it is the anonymous one sitting with his back to us in the painting – perhaps this would actually be my first choice now!) and many, perhaps most, people (including me) would not consider it fictional at all. However, the fact that there are authorities on the subject who would dismiss it as fiction seems to justify my choice.

In the Pelican Guide to Modern Theology, A. R. C. Leaney, an Anglican priest, Doctor of Divinity and professor of New Testament Studies, has no compunction whatsoever about conveying his feelings to his readers, who (it is a work aimed at the layman) are most of them, presumably, in no position to argue:

The Jesus of the synoptic gospels [Professor Heaney informs us], although he is presented there to some extent ‘theologically’, is nevertheless in part a credible historical figure. He is a workman, he forms a group of disciples, he goes forward in faith and does not claim to be more that the expected Messiah or deliverer; though probably he did not claim even that. He repudiates even the idea that he may be good, he is baptised by John, and so forth. If this picture is anywhere near that of the historical Jesus, the figure of the Fourth Gospel is fictional.

I do not agree with anything he says here, but I would love to spend a day in the world of the Fourth Gospel – or, if it is not fiction, to travel back in time to that first day when John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to two of his disciples, who subsequently spent the evening in his company. One of these disciples of the Baptist was Andrew, the brother of Peter; he then brought Peter to Jesus. The identity of the other remains a mystery, and was probably never important because, unlike Andrew, he was not impressed by Jesus and the following day went his own way. (This unknown person has – like the equally mysterious Beloved Disciple – traditionally been identified with the John, the brother of James, but there is no more justification for this than there is for Leaney’s nonsense.)

Anyway, I wrote a poem a while ago about that meeting and that evening. Here it is:

WITH A PINCH OF SALT

John 1:35ff

Imagine you were that other, unknown, one
who spent the afternoon watching and listening
as Andrew and Jesus chatted, the afternoon
and then the evening, watching and noting how they
took to one another.

To Andrew, he was clearly someone special.
To you he seemed just – ordinary – a man.
A serious man. More serious than most perhaps,
and something of a dreamer, but Son of God?
John was losing it, had been living on locusts and honey
out in the desert too long.

When it grew late you took your leave, left them
alone together, still talking, talking. Then next day
you heard that Andrew had brought his brother Simon
to Jesus, that Simon, too, had fallen under
Jesus’ spell. You smiled and went your way.
Those two had always been dreamers. You took
even what John said with a pinch of salt –
John, who after all was Elias reincarnate.

A Thought on Jesus and Paul

It is perfectly legitimate for a Christian to distinguish between Jesus and Paul – for instance when Paul lapses into the puritan work ethic that comes so naturally to him.

There is an air of relaxation about Jesus, a touch of the gypsy, of the Huckleberry Finn.

Jesus, weary from the journey, sat down just as he was
on the ground by the well. It was about noon. (John 4:6)

I love that image of Jesus, “sat down just as he was on the ground” in the heat and dust.

Such a shame that in every painting of this scene he is sitting on a stone bench or on the wall of the well, looking dignified and superior – or worried.

When They Asked, Smirking (JESUS BHAKTI POEMS (ii))

When they asked, smirking, and pulling faces,
‘Where is your father, boy? Why
is he not here
at your side?’

And you stopped talking for a moment to say
‘God does not dwell in temples,
especially not
this den of thieves,’

I think they were laughing at you,
those wise men.
But they were not
just laughing.

The seed of your death had been planted,
O Lord of the blue skies
and wide
open spaces.

0 – The Fool

We are all born fools, then grow up (more or less)
and do as we are told, and put away
childish things. This one didn’t.

Look at him: a poet, flower in hand,
full of unrequited love for all the world.
He doesn’t have to become a child again
to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

There’s another deck – an older one –
which shows a bare-arsed tramp:
a fool for Christ, preaching Amor perhaps,
in the teeth of Roma: without love you are
as sounding brass, a clashing cymbal. Speaking out
(like Paul) though he face sticks and stones, the stake.

The first’s the fool who leaps before he looks;
no angel’s a fool.
The second has died to this world; folly indeed,
not only to the Greeks.
A third’s the fool who writes in verse –
these verses, all these verses! –
“I am two fools, I know:
for loving and for saying so
in whining poetry.” (John Donne)

Another, of course, the fool who reads it – you!
(I greet you!)

And then there’s the old fool (no fool like him)
the once proud oh-so-grown-up
man of gravitas, now with no pride left,
no dignity …
In the end, all of us.
We are all born fools and we all die fools –
stepping, eyes closed, out of the cave
or off the high board into infinity.

ANCIENT SUMERIAN: The Descent of Inanna into the Underworld

Excerpted from: Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel Noah, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1983, pages 52-60

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.

My Lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
Inanna abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
She abandoned her office of holy priestess to descend to the underworld.

In Uruk she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld .
In Badtibira she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Zabalam she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Adab she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Nippur she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Kish she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.
In Akkad she abandoned her temple to descend to the underworld.

She gathered together the seven me.
She took them into her hands
With the me in her possession, she prepared herself:

She placed the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, on her head.
She arranged the dark locks of hair across her forehead.
She tied the small lapis beads around her neck,
Let the double strand of beads fall to her breast,
And wrapped the royal robe around her body.
She daubed her eyes with ointment called “Let him come, Let him come,”
Bound the breastplate called “Come, man, come!” around her chest,
Slipped the gold ring over her wrist,
And took the lapis measuring rod and line in her hand.

Inanna set out for the underworld.
Ninshubur, her faithful servant, went with her.
Inanna spoke to her, saying:
“Ninshubur, my constant support,
My sukkal who gives me wise advice,
My warrior who fights by my side,
I am descending to thekur, to the underworld.
If I do not return,
Set up a lament for me by the ruins.
Beat the drum for me in the assembly places.
Circle the houses of the gods.
Tear at your eyes, at your mouth, at your thighs.
Dress yourself in a single garment like a beggar.
Go to Nippur, to the temple of Enlil.
When you enter his holy shrine, cry out:
‘O father Enlil, do not let your daughter
Be put to death in the underworld.
Do not let your bright silver
Be covered with the dust of the underworld.
Do not let your precious lapis
Be broken into stone for the stoneworker.
Do not let your fragrant boxwood
Be cut into wood for the woodworker.
Do not let the holy priestess of heaven
Be put to death in the underworld,’

If Enlil will not help you,
Go to Dr, to the temple of Nanna.
Weep before Father Nanna.

If Nanna will not help you,
Go to Eridu, to the temple of Enki.
Weep before Father Enki.
Father Enki, the God of Wisdom, knows the food of life,
He knows the water of life;
He knows the secrets.
Surely he will not let me die,”

Inanna continued on her way to the underworld.
Then she stopped and said:
“Go now, Ninshubur-
Do not forget the words I have commanded you.”

When Inanna arrived at the outer gates of the underworld,
She knocked loudly.
She cried out in a fierce voice:
“Open the door, gatekeeper!
Open the door, Neti!
I alone would enter!”

Neti, the chief gatekeeper of the kur, asked:
“Who are you?”

She answered:
“I am Inanna, Queen of Heaven,
On my way to the East.”

Neti said:
“If you are truly Inanna, Queen of Heaven,
On your way to the East,
Why has your heart led you on the road
From which no traveler returns?”

Inanna answered:
“Because … of my elder sister, Ereshkigal,
Her husband, Gugalanna, the Bull of Heaven, has died.
I have come to witness the funeral rites.
Let the beer of his funeral rites be poured into the cup.
Let it be done.”

Neti spoke:
“Stay here, Inanna, I will speak to my queen.
I will give her your message.”

Neti, the chief gatekeeper of the kur,
Entered the palace of Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, and said:
“My queen, a maid
As tall as heaven,
As wide as the earth,
As strong as the foundations of the city wall,
Waits outside the palace gates.

She has gathered together the seven me.
She has taken them into her hands.
With the me in her possession, she has prepared herself:

On her head she wears the shugurra, the crown of the steppe.
Across her forehead her dark locks of hair are carefully arranged.
Around her neck she wears the small lapis beads.
At her breast she wears the double strand of beads.
Her body is wrapped with the royal robe.
Her eyes are daubed with the ointment called, ‘Let him come, let him come.’
Around her chest she wears the breastplate called ‘Come man come!’
On her wrist she wears the gold ring.
In her hand she carries the lapis measuring rod and line.”

When Ereshkigal heard this,
She slapped her thigh and bit her lip.
She took the matter into her heart and dwelt on it.
Then she spoke:
“Come Neti, my chief gatekeeper of the kur,
Heed my words:
Bolt the seven gates of the underworld.
Then, one by one, open each gate a crack.
Let Inanna enter.
As she enters, remove her royal garments.
Let the holy priestess of heaven enter bowed low.”

Neti heeded the words of his queen.
He bolted the seven gates of the underworld.
Then he opened the outer gate.
He said to the maid: “Come, Inanna, enter.”

When she entered the first gate,
From her head, the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the second gate,
From her neck the small lapis beads were removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the third gate,
From her breast the double strand of beads was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the fourth gate,
From her chest the breastplate called “Come, man, come!” was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the fifth gate,
From her wrist the gold ring was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the sixth gate,
From her hand the lapis measuring rod and line was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

When she entered the seventh gate,
From her body the royal robe was removed.

Inanna asked:
“What is this?”

She was told:
“Quiet, Inanna, the ways of the underworld are perfect.
They may not be questioned.”

Naked and bowed low, Inanna entered the throne room.
Ereshkigal rose from her throne.
Inanna started toward the throne.
The Annuna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded her.
They passed judgment against her.

Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death.
She spoke against her the word of wrath.
She uttered against her the cry of guilt.

She struck her.

Inanna was turned into a corpse,
A piece of rotting meat,
And was hung from a hook on the wall.

If you wish to find out what happens next, and also something of the back-story, click HERE. All I can tell you for now is that Inanna’s dreadful fate was not as unjust as it might appear here. (And of course, being a goddess, her death was only temporary anyway.) But read the The Epic of Gilgamesh – I love all this ancient Sumerian literature – and you will discover that she herself had been responsible for the death of the Bull of Heaven, her sister Ereshkigal’s husband, after being scorned by Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Just imagine a goddess scorned, for that is what we have in this earliest of all story-poem cycles!