The funny thing about a seed is that although it contains a living embryo it often appears empty. Holding a handful of seed you can feel, in this smallest and most fragile of beginnings, all the potential of the living thing it will, under the right conditions, grow into. I held some newly born kittens the other day, still with their eyes closed, as their full-grown mother roamed the kitchen in her feline way. Not long before, they were a miniscule fertilized egg. Bound by time as we are, considering how old we are or how much time there is left, we easily forget the continuum of life in which beginning and end, seed and harvest, are interwoven.
First the seed produces tiny roots, breaks open and then the emptiness germinates and bursts into fullness. Eastern wisdom incorporates the complementarity of these two apparent opposites: ‘fullness is emptiness, emptiness is fullness.’ The Christian parallel is the first Beatitude – poverty of spirit – as the live link into the kingdom of heaven. And if the kingdom is not fullness, what is?
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn 12:24).
Lent softens us up to read into the language of paradox. The combination of giving up something and doing something extra makes ascesis work. Physically we send a message to our deep mind and if we are doing it with the right intention (to train not to punish) the physical experience is interpreted. Then we become aware of a different way of seeing everything. Lent thus prepares us for the greatest of all paradoxes in the human range of experience: death and resurrection. Yesterday I heard a brilliant writer speak scathingly of, as he saw them, such myths and crutches generated by religion. Paradox seems nonsense unless you decipher the code, and this happens not just intellectually. It is the vision of faith.
Wittgenstein, no mean intellectual, understood this:
And faith is faith in what is needed by my HEART, my SOUL, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can only say: Only LOVE can believe in the Resurrection. Or: it is LOVE that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to Resurrection …
I am jumping ahead by three weeks, I know. But the Resurrection is folded into the meaning of Lent. And to prepare for a deeper insight in the three days’ drama of Easter, we need to prime our response to paradox. After all, it pervades every moment of our life.
The seed that dies so that it can bear much fruit: this is another parabolic key to open the door into this core dimension of reality. Is this death as we imagine it – is death anything like what we imagine and fear – in the light of this paradox? Is it a termination or a transformation? An end that becomes a beginning? We cannot see the answer to this unless we fall into the ground. To fall is to let go, to lose control.