Eli, Eli

(beautiful image from here. Strange that a musing on Christ, Faith and Emily Dickinson can be illustrated by a blog on Beat poets.)

Reading about Emily Dickinson brings back all the moments of reading, everywhere, that you have a moment of magic, not in the Disney sense, but in the old ambivalent sense of magic, where something strikes you deep, like an incantation or a word with power seperate from meaning. And, since it's Emily Dickinson, it brings back particularly the bible. There was one line in the New Testament that always had a great personal feeling for me, its in two places, but I won't e'en give verses because anyone who wants to look it up will have no trouble finding it: when Christ is hanging on the cross, and cries out 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?'

I still remember the phrase from my childhood, I don't know why it had so much magic to me then. Maybe it was the ironic power of the moment in the entire crucifixion story, or the feeling of humanity in poor Jesus for a moment, maybe it was because it was in a strange language and sounded eerie when you read it in an anguished voice, I don't know. I remember it, though, like I remember few biblical verses, and it's particularly odd, because it's not one I was ever taught, particularly. I remember reading, it and murmuring it to myself.

I came across it today, in the biography I'm reading, and felt such a pang of sympathy I couldn't help but remember it now. I guess that's why it rubs me strangely now. It's an uncomfortable moment with God, when you think of it, or at least for me. I know many people read the New Testament and feel a special sort of kinship with Jesus Christ, like it's a very humanizing scripture. I never really go that - I always felt, in fact, like the disciples writing the books usually didn't wnat me to get that, but to feel his godliness, since I suppose the assumption was that his humanity was implied by the fact that he lived and died. The New Testament makes me feel as if I am at great distance, it makes me feel as if I could play-act Christ, the way one feels how edifying and terrifying it would be to be a Jew in World War II, or Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings. It's a short hand for courage in suffering, as it were, one that is so used now as to almost feel mythic (or I suppose for many people to actually BE mythic. Except for the Jews in World War II, who certainly weren't a myth). It's an experienced tempered by a feeling that - that isn't me. If I am Galadriel, I will delude myself into keeping the ring, and if I am a Jew, I will not be Elie Weisel, I would beg and plead for my life each moment, double-cross and betray every soul I've ever met. I do not have the courage to raise my chin up and be brave. It's not that I think this courage is foolish, on the contrary, I love these things (as anyone who knows me closer than they'd like will probably attest), it's just that I cannot imagine I would avail myself well in those situations.

And so, since the assumption when I read is that implicitly I am the human one, and the normal one, the feeling is that Christ is neither normal nor human. Which, I suppose is, like I mentioned, more or less true in the narrative, I think. But there's a parallel truth, that others, more sensitive than me, seem to read in the New Testament, one that makes them feel akin. Maybe they are more human or more brave than I, and so they are not to distant from godliness to feel a kinship with it. I don't begrudge them that.

I, I can only feel a kinship with Christ when I feel his psychic, personal, internal pain, and recognize it, and that's only in two places, and this is one (the other is when the fig tree is withered, but that's a whole different story). I can feel being there, and doing something, something so terribly well, and I grew up believing that even Christ worked in faith, not knowledge, I can feel hanging there on that cross, and the sudden confusion, of not being able to believe that all that God has told you is wrong, but of being unable to comprehend how this could positively be right. The conflation of impossible wrongs, that is human to me, but it's not the sort of human that saves your soul, I suppose, I just want to scream at God for being so unkind, for designing a world where this is how things work, and to go take Jesus down and hold him and let him cry. Which, of course, would have probably been kind of awkward at the crucifixion.

Aside from the meaning even, however, it is, like a said, just a powerful set of words. I know (or I think, anyway), Eli just means 'God' in a different language, but *I* only speak English, and I only see the word once, so, to me, it has this unique power, it's a different name. The word God is so muddy so charged, even if you only limit it to, say, how it's used in the bible. I can say God like I'm terrified, like I'm in love, like I'm humble or celebrating my victory, or bold or cowardly, or sad or happy, or hoping the corn grows straight this year. I can say Eli in only one way, and it's such a private, secret way, it's like you're whispering it, it's like when you've grown too old for it, but something hurts so much, that you call out for your mother and call her 'Mommy', and its ridiculously conspicuous and painfully sincere at the same time, and then, afterwards you never say it again, because you're not a child anymore. And it's just such a lyrical cry, rhyme and even a metrical foot, it steps up and down like a cry should. I've tried to write a poem twice and failed from it, but I believe someday, someone will and it will be beautiful, because it practically already is one:

Eli! Eli!
Lama Sabachthani!
Oh, God, Why,
Hast thou forsaken me!


Amanda said...

I always heard, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" which always bewildered me in the middle of the extremely long Easter mass where we all played the part of the crowd. It might have been my favorite line, only favorite because it was so unique against the rest of them.