This is the fourth baby lamb we’ve buried since we’ve been out here. Some have died of natural causes, others killed by predators. I’ve posted on this once or twice before, and I don’t mean to dwell on or exploit morbidity - but something strikes me every time this has happened - and I feel compelled to clarify and share.
It seems to me that our little modern life is often shaped like a straight line. We are born, we set off into school and childhood, then college, marriage, kids, then a career path on to retirement, then we ease into the thing called death. With career, family, health - almost every aspect of our lives can be pre-visualized along a vague string, with life and death acting as the posts on either ends. These posts are more or less ignored. We are looking for the fast track - we will take hurdles only if it means it puts us ahead of schedule. Life really is a highway. So then what occurs to me is this: the linear life contains within it a fundamental self-deception.
One of the reasons I love the writings of GKC is that he understands that the most ordinary things in life are the most extraordinary things - that’s why they’re ordinary. I have kissed my wife a thousand times, because kissing my wife is extraordinary, and I grow weary of not kissing her. When I meet a new person I shake their hand - in doing so I reach out and touch the stranger, surmounting the estranged and ushering in the intimate and the familiar - the proper relation of myself to my fellow man. This is extraordinary, so I do it every day. And vice-versa, those who have ever met anyone with any clout of "celebrity" can attest to the familiar and horrifying feeling that overtakes us afterwords, when we begin to realize that we've merely met another man. There is more to be said about this, but the failure to understand the seemingly paradoxical reality between the ordinary and the extraordinary is critical. It’s not mere optimism, neither is it pessimism - it’s Christian realism - and the Christian reality is paradox.
Recently, I had the opportunity to help prepare a wedding meal by slaughtering and processing some chickens. We would go pick up a chicken, hold it until it was calm, place it in a cone upside-down, insert a knife into its throat and slice, severing the artery, and the chicken would proceed to kick and flop for several seconds before finally all the blood would drain out of its mouth and neck, and it would be still. At first, it was incredibly sad. It became easier the more I did it. I kept telling myself, “this is the reality of the food you eat - this is what people have done for thousands of years”. And I think that’s true. For the majority of human history most people were closer to the truth of things. They understood that death and life were not two posts holding up either end of a linear existence - they were two forces pushing and pulling each other, creating flow. They understood on a material level that life takes life, and that through death life is sustained. It was this continual and physical connection to the “ordinary” process of life and death that helped them to see clearly the extraordinary nature of life and death.
It seems that in this modern age me and my friends are caught up in wishing, wanting, and marketing our lives to be extraordinary. When we take trips to fabulous places we publish our exploits online - not just to our family, but to our followers - (because) the exploits themselves are not enough. We become adept at fabricating the appearance of the extraordinary precisely because we are incapable of truly experiencing it. And the only reason the illusion works is because we don’t know what the truly extraordinary is supposed to look like anymore.
The point I’m getting at is this: I think that often times our “normal” modern life is actually not - it’s a fabrication that keeps us in the shadow of that which is truly normal - like life and death and relationships and a million other constant realities of our world. We live within the by-products of reality, neglecting the realities themselves. The further we get away from what is truly ordinary, the further we get away from what is extraordinary.
This trend has taken place in religion as well - often the things that we as religious and Christian people address are not the clearly ordinary things like a man’s spirit, actions, sins, and soul. Instead we exhaust our energies in peripheral programs and inflate our simple beliefs into political partisanship. The agnostic may learn to see death as a faraway dream - we’ve learned to do the same with Heaven. When Christ spoke of a New Kingdom, he did so in spite of a king. When he shared the cup of wine to symbolize his blood - he actually shared it and it was actual wine - bitter as well as sweet. He spoke of shepherds because men buried sheep. In short, he showed men that the divine existed inside of the ordinary, but he did so by letting the ordinary exist. The idea of appeasing a god by slaughtering an animal strikes us as strange, because the idea of appeasing wedding guests by slaughtering an animal also strikes us as strange. Not in thought, but in practice. It does not offend our sensibilities, it offends our senses - or it would, if we had the sense to sense it. There is a realm of knowledge that exists only within experience - the idea of suffering is wasted on the man who knows it only as an idea. It is in this realm of knowledge that the spirit operates. The man who hears these words and does them is like a man who built his house on a rock, the man who hears these words and does not do them is still on track to graduate with honors.
My solution to this problem is not that we should slaughter animals and raise sheep - although we should. It is simply this - to understand our place in history, and the limitations of our society and culture. I am by no means a farmer or a man “with his hands in the dirt” - I have only done these kinds of things by chance - but I think I should do them more. If we can reacquaint ourselves with the ordinary then we should as often as we can. I think sometimes men scorn the idea of the supernatural because they have already scorned nature. When I bury the lamb it is profound, because it is nothing special; that is to say, it is universal. Because my beliefs are shown for what they are, an immanent and enduring reality - not something I conjure but something that is thrust upon me. It is when I bury that little broken lamb that I stand both in the garden and on the hill, hearing both the Father and the Son crying out “Where are you?". Though it is in a mirror dimly, I begin to feel the crimson horror and quiet beauty of the Passover Lintel. I shudder, when I look down on that still innocence and see the Lamb of God.