We are often impressed by things we don’t fully understand

It can sometimes be doubted whether there is really anyone at all inside a set of magnificent ceremonial robes; all their stiff embroidery and the wonderful effect on those that see them can be at the expense of the true point of the ceremony: we may all know this but then we are often impressed by things we don’t fully understand.

I had an early experience of this as a small boy. At the end of term, the clergyman headmaster used to read in a deep voice a short chapter from the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament. The words were sonorous and they seemed to reverberate in the head. I thought, how wonderful, it’s all in the Bible, it must be true. But as to what it actually meant ‑ wen, it’s holy, I thought, I don’t suppose one can expect to understand. This is the main part of the passage that he used to read to us at the end of every term.

  1. While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
  2.  In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
  3.  And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
  4.  Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
  5.  Or ever the silk cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Ecclesiastes 12, v 2‑6

The mere words painted pictures: ‘the almond tree shall flourish [where?] . . . he will rise up at the voice of the bird [why?] the strong men shall bow themselves . . . the keepers of the house shall tremble . . . silver cord loosed [what for?] … or the golden bowl be broken [can it be?] … pitcher … well … wheel … cistern

The old translation has a wonderful swing, and paints magical but disjointed pictures, with golden bowl and silver cord, and daughters of music and almond trees. But we were never told what it meant, and we never asked! Scriptures are full of passages like this. It was years later that I discovered that these are beautiful allusive descriptions of old age. The almond tree blossom is white, and this is the white hair of age. The keepers of the house will tremble means that the knees will begin to shake; strong men shall bow themselves means the back will become bent; those who look out of windows will be darkened is the failing sight; these are paraphrases surpassingly beautiful and perceptive of old age, but we didn’t know. He shall rise up at the voice of a bird, is the people waking up very early.

Perhaps our headmaster thought some of the explanations might be embarrassing. The clouds shall return after the rain is a riddle. I have heard a clergyman say he thought that meant that when you are old and you get some little ailment you recover and think its passed, only for it to return again. But of course it has a much more literal meaning than that. The words are very beautiful, wonderful verbal robes, but they half‑conceal what is really meant; we have to find the. deeper meaning in them.

There is an account of a great Zen teacher, one of whose pupils attained the Great Enlightenment. The ecclesiastical authorities at the time were looking for someone to fill the post of what would correspond to an arch­bishop. They happened to meet this pupil and they were impressed by him. So they asked the teacher whether the pupil could take on the job. It would, they said, help their Buddhist church in the area. So the teacher put it to the pupil and so the pupil agreed to the job. The teacher therefore said yes to the authorities, but when he was seeing off the pupil he told him: ‘Try not to wear all those magnificent robes in the ceremonies. The truth doesn’t need or want that sort of thing. It impresses people, but really they are getting drunk on beautiful sights and beautiful words. It’s an intoxication for both you and them.’ After that, the pupil did try to wear the plainest things and to speak in the plainest language. But every so often on some great occasion he had to wear the robes and he had to go in a litter in full regalia to the place of the ceremony. He was on his way to one such when the little procession passed a man poorly dressed. Suddenly, to everybody’s surprise, the arch­bishop jumped out of the litter and prostrated himself, in all his finery … it was his teacher and these magnificent robes were down in the dust. The teacher picked him up affectionately, muttering, ‘Drunk again!’

© Trevor Leggett



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