By Victoria Heard
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day / To the last syllable of recorded time. — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
This is the start of Macbeth’s lament as he hears of his wife’s death. With her dead, he despairs of the meaning of his life and a kingship he gained by murder and betrayal. His cry is stark despair at the sheer weight of days without hope or meaning. He destroyed others, and with his wife dead and enemies at his gates, he sees no future hope. Shakespeare, like the author of any good detective story, is preparing for justice to come to Macbeth in the end. Macbeth cannot meet any morning with hope, so his mornings relentlessly arrive, cheerless and bleak.
I occasionally talk to someone whose view of daily life echoes this cry. The sheer tedium of daily living has become a grey blur or a fog. I have sometimes found myself praying that a crisis may come to such persons, not to add to their burden, but to startle them to see anew. When there is a crisis, either for oneself or for one’s closest family or friend, it can tear the gray lies of tedium. Someone suddenly finds meaning in the little things: the sunlight on the morning table, the sound of birds in the garden, the joy in the smallest ordinary things that were taken for granted. We are suddenly aware of graces that we ignored. We find God is there, and was there all along.
The Book of Lamentations, one of the saddest in the Scriptures, was composed when Jerusalem had been crushed, Judah destroyed, and the people of Judah exiled to Babylon or refugees in Egypt. In Lamentations 2:12, the poet says, “Vast as the sea is your ruin. Who can restore you?” The poet describes the sacking of the city and the death of his children. He cries out that the Lord “has walled me about so I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me: though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer” (3:7-8). Yet suddenly the lament shifts to certainty:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is thy faithfulness. (3:22-23)
His mercies are new every morning. There is desolation all around, and God seems a silent enemy. Yet, the author sweeps all the horror away with a breathtaking confidence in the final character of God. The poet knows that in the midst of the worst of suffering, somehow, somewhere is the mercy and the justice of God. He does not know how. He does not know when. He knows Whom.
Coming from an upbringing with no religion, I never learned until after I was a priest the value of memorizing verses of the Scriptures. I memorized these verses from Lamentations for dark gray days.
Shakespeare knew his Bible, though he seldom quotes it explicitly. For one thing, the very shape of comedies and tragedies is the single certainty that justice will be done, and good wins in the end. In all classical comedies, there are new days and feasts of joy in the end. That is why, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the walk through hell is only the first volume. Even in the depths of Dante’s hell, there is hope and a way out, if he follows his teacher and trusts in God. As Christians, unlike Macbeth, we can always have hope, even surrounded by desolation, knowing that the end of our story is one in which the Son rises, and has already risen.