With their foreheads marked with an ash cross, many Filipinos entered into the season of Lent. It is a long season. Indeed, we are told that the word “Lent” has its roots in “long,” with the Old English “lencten” meaning spring. We can make a guess and say that perhaps it has to do with the lengthening of day during spring.
Lent is thus meant to be experienced as a very long period in an utterly barren place that is the desert, which can be quite frightening. And because we are also told that the number 40 in the Bible meant a period of testing, spending 40 days in the desert must be the ultimate test.
What are we being tested for? What is being tested—measured—by the length of Lent?
As Kafka once observed, “the distance to my fellow man is for me a very long one.” Imagine then the distance between God and mortals! We cannot even begin to fathom the terror of this distance, a terror that can be deadening in its silence. Even the Son of Man experienced the deadening silence of this distance when, in the very moment when He needed comfort and assurance, He felt abandoned by His very own Father.
But the distance between God and mortals becomes palpable not just as we experience the
absence or even withdrawal of God, but also when in our sinfulness and capacity for evil we realize we cannot be helped except through the grace of God. We only need to consider how seemingly intractable the problem of poverty is in our country, and how insurmountable human greed and evil appear to be.
Retreating into the desert and staying there for 40 days can really be a most frightening prospect, not just because the desert is barren, but also because there is nothing much to do there. In the desert, boredom can kill us in a much more terrifying way than the lack of water and food.
The German word for boredom is “langeweile,” literally, a very long while. Boredom is the experience of a very long while when there is hardly anything to do. Our contemporary world detests boredom, and so we either suppress it or cover it over.
But the German thinker Heidegger tells us that boredom is a profound human experience that we would do better not to run away from, but rather bear in the fullness of its weight. Boredom contains within it the possibility of letting us see ourselves and the world with clear eyes.
Perhaps our question then is not only what it is that the length of Lent measures—to which we replied initially as perhaps the measure of the distance between God and mortals. Perhaps an equally decisive question is what allows us to measure this distance, this length that is Lent.
The German poet Hölderlin tells us that poetry is the measure of the distance between mortals and the divine, and that we mortals measure ourselves against the divine all the time. That is the reason we call ourselves—and us alone—mortals, even though we assume that animals and plants die, too. We are mortals only as measured against the immortal God.
This “poet of poets,” as Heidegger called Hölderlin, thus meant that poetry is the measure of all measures. My former teacher in Filipino literature, the poet Benilda Santos, once said that the reason the Pharisees and the Scribes never understood Jesus was that He was speaking poetically all the time, whereas the former were trapped in legalistic and moralistic thinking. Indeed, only with poetic sensitivity can one understand the Teacher when He tells us to look at the birds of the sky and the lilies in the field, that He would destroy the temple and build it again after three days, or that the bread He was about to break was His body.
To be sure, the Pharisees and the Scribes were also measuring all the time. But their measure was not poetic. Theirs was the measure of calculation and control, of scheming and machinations. Fundamentally, they were measuring everything against themselves, and thereby were to be found wanting.
Thus, only the pure, poetic soul can really go through the whole length of Lent. Without poetry—which is a gift both wondrous and supreme—we cannot even begin to understand what it means for us to be dust, and how unto dust we shall return. Without poetry we cannot understand why it is in dying that we can live, and how only by denying ourselves can we gain everything. Without poetry we cannot understand the glory in the very humiliation of the Cross.
The incommensurability between the human and the divine can thus be bridged by faith alone. Sometimes this is manifested even in our human affairs, as when Ninoy Aquino said, “The Filipino is worth dying for.” Such worth is not measured merely by human calculation, but solely by faith and poetic sensitivity.
What is the length of Lent? What does the length of Lent measure?
Only poetry—the measure of all measures—can enable us not only to go through the length of Lent, but also to realize that only in bearing the weight of the distance between God and mortals do we discover His abiding nearness.
But if God must be a poet—He is, after all, the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us—then He Himself is the measure of all measures. He is Poetry made flesh. And so as we endure this very long time in the desert—the whole length of Lent—may we find, as we stand before the Cross and await His glorious resurrection, our true measure.
Remmon E. Barbaza, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University.
From a column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 10th March 2014