O Quanta Qualia

Human Loss

It is a sad fact that much of our emotional energy and much of’ our spiritual endeavour is spent in coping with loss. It is the things, places and people we lose that shape our priorities, dominate our desires and dreams, cloud and direct our prayer life. Jesus said that he came to ‘seek and save what is lost’. In Our Lord’s Incarnation God has entered into a lost world malformed by the breakdown of communion between humanity and creation, within humanity itself and fundamentally between men, women and their Heavenly Father. The Christian’s baptism initiates him into a community of those who have been found, and those who are being called into a new order of creation, into a Holy Communion of all that is seen and unseen. These truths, revealed to us by God’s grace, can provide great strength and comfort in our dealing with loss. The Creed teaches us to ‘look to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ Any experience of reconciliation, healing and communion in this life is only a foretaste and shadow of what is to come.

It is unfashionable in contemporary spirituality to focus on the ‘world to come’. Our forerunners in the faith, whose lives were blighted by loss in ways that most of us can only imagine, looked frequently to the hope of heaven to give meaning to their daily life. For these Christians there was no hope of a “quick fix” and little expectation that their loss could be repaired by any human means. Their hearts were fixed in the eternal, beyond the constraints of the physical world, where if they were ready and prepared they would experience the Sabbath rest of the New Heavenly Jerusalem. The Revelation of St John the Divine tells us there will be neither ‘sorrow or pain and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’. Although contemporary Christians have every aid to live happily in the present, the same future hope, the same four last things, heaven and hell, death and judgement will certainly be part of our spiritual experience. Into all the self-seeking and self-realisation that is the aim of much contemporary spiritual writing and teaching, it is important to throw into the balance that self-evident, yet much ignored truth, that physical death awaits us all. The other experiences of loss and grief in our lives are given to prepare us for that time of surrender and separation.

The Church’s Year

There are times in the Church’s year when our prayers and worship connect our experience of loss with our Christian Hope. All Saints’ and All Souls-tide is one time but it is chiefly in Advent that we are led by the liturgy to count our losses and place them in the balance of the overflowing generosity of God’s love for us. Advent reveals to us the God who has come into the world and claimed it for His own, the advent that comes to meet us in our “lostness” now, and the God who will come in the fufilment of all things to make all things new. Contemporary hymnody and writing does not offer us much by the way of devotional aids to seek hope and comfort amid the changes and chances of this world. For these prayers and reflections we must open the older treasure chests of the church. One hymn that can be found in most books is a poem by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) ‘O what their Joy and their glory must be..’ Peter Abelard was not a saint. He was condemned for heresy three times! Abelard was opposed by St Bernard of Clairvaux who rejected Abelard’s teaching that the things of Faith ‘could be held firmly in the mind.’ As a young teacher in Paris Abelard had an affair with one of his pupils, Heloise. Her uncle, in revenge for her defilement, conspired to have Abelard attacked and castrated. The letters of Abelard to Heloise reflect a heart and mind wrestling with many kinds of loss. In his last years he found refuge in the great Abbey at Cluny, where he ended his life as a simple lay brother. It is at the end of his life that he wrote the, poem “O Quanta Qualia”. I commend this text to you for your reflection and prayer.

Abelard’s Poem

The first verse looks to the hope that ‘God shall be all, and in all ever blest’ In all our bereavements and seeking what is lost we must school our hearts and wills to turn first to God and remember the truth that in His presence as Abelard writes ‘weary ones find rest’. The hymn suggests to us that the incompleteness of our present lives can never made whole until we come to the ‘Vision of Peace’ – the new Jerusalem. Then he writes in verse three, ‘wish and fulfilment can severed be ne’er, nor the thing prayed for come short of the prayer’. In the following verse Abelard introduces the image of harmony and song as a wholeness and communion. We are called to sing the ‘triumph -song which to the angels and us belong’. In the closing stanzas Abelard reveals his method of living with the losses of this present life. In the penultimate verse he writes:

Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
we for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

Abelard echoes the teaching of St Paul that we must set our hearts on the ‘things that are above’: our end and purpose are to be found in this, our heavenly home.

Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham in the diocese of Lincoln.