Out of the Quiet of the Tomb

A man carries a cross as he walks the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)The silence now, the silence to come

It is quiet here.

Not as quiet as you would think. My wife and I both work from home, which means the telephones are ringing and pinging and the laptops are Zooming, making a racket for which our gratitude recently has been refreshed, while the security system announces the presence of deliverymen at the door a couple of times each day, and the local landscaping crews — who will labor ceaselessly through the Apocalypse itself — are running their mowers and edgers and leaf-blowers (the most obnoxious, and perhaps most typical, of all modern American conveniences), and the local commercial traffic of cars and trucks, distant trains, and airplanes keeps up a low-level background roar, and the imperious little dachshund, who regards us all as household servants, bangs on her little steel water bowl like a jailbird in some 1950s prison movie.

These are blessings beyond measure, and they fill me with gratitude — and terror.

I have a little Henry Bemis in me. He is the character from the Twilight Zone episode called “Time Enough At Last,” the antisocial bookworm who welcomes the catastrophe that leaves him the last man on Earth, finally alone with his beloved books, contented — until he breaks his glasses. “That’s not fair at all!” he laments. “There was time, now. There was all the time I needed!” His wonderfully quiet world became terribly quiet.

It is quiet here. Terribly quiet. Come along, into the silence.

If you are very fortunate, you may be a little bored right now. How happy are we, the bored, the exquisitely bored, the contented, here at the top of the heap of a civilization so rich and drowning in abundance that, even with this horrible plague, many, many more of us will die from the effects of too little physical exertion and having too much to eat. “A decent Godless people,” we are. With the gyms closed, the yards and the gardens in my neighborhood never have looked so well-tended as we word-workers invent labors for ourselves (I am digging flowerbeds, though I have nothing to plant in them) and the sidewalks and streets are packed every morning and evening with dutiful walkers, dutifully spaced at the proper six-foot intervals, greeting each other more often and more warmly than we did a few months ago. We have walking gear, of course. We would not walk without it. (I think of the Netherlands, where everybody has a bicycle and nobody has bicycle shorts.) We walk in our walking shoes and in our walking shorts or leggings or sweats, we wear hats against the sun, we keep the proper amount of social distance between us as we move singly or in couples or with little knots of children, we look for the Amazon truck and the Instacart drivers, and we admire our neighborhood for its diversity: There are white people with Audis, black people with Audis, Latino people with Audis, Asian people with Audis, gay people with Audis . . .

I am a little bit proud of these neighbors, too, who are very quietly and without ostentation making sure that money and food and other necessities are getting to people who need them. They are discreet about it, mostly. “American capitalism needs to be inspirited, moralized, completed,” Deirdre McCloskey writes. “Two and a half cheers for the midwestern bourgeoisie.” When I was a child and my family was suffering from a plague of a more personal kind, our doorbell rang in the evening, and when we answered it there were no visitors, only bags of groceries. There was no one there waiting to be thanked. I would like to tell you that such modest acts of charity as I do are done with a heart brimming over with love and holy zeal, but I do my charity superstitiously, as an amulet against someday once again needing that kind of help myself. I spent a long winter many years ago having to drive an untrustworthy car back and forth along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a dangerous highway in the best of times but a casino at 3 a.m. with a foot of fresh wet snow on top of a sediment of oily ice. I prayed every time I saw a car stranded on the side of the road. Whatever I might have seemed to be saying, I know that what I was really saying was: “Please, God, don’t let that be me.”

(No, this does not do me any credit. It is only the truth. I wish I had a better story for you. But this is the one I have.)

Time enough at last. Some of us are finally getting around to reading Middlemarch or Moby-Dick, or watching all those French New Wave films we’ve been meaning to see. Fitness programs developed by prisoners, perfect for home use, are doing brisk business. I’m taking some time to write another book. It is good to be busy and to be productive (“two and a half cheers . . . ”) and to be of some use, hectoring New York Times headlines (“Stop Trying to Be Productive”) be damned. But sometimes, we are not really being useful. Sometimes, we are only distracting ourselves. From what? From the terrible silence.

It is quiet here. Terribly quiet. Come, look. Listen: Silent as the tomb.

All around the world, or at least in the parts of the world rich enough to maintain such chambers of life-saving horrors, there are strange quiet little rooms, where deathly sick people lie in silence with tubes jammed down their throats to help them to breathe. They are terrified. What is it like? It is like being buried alive, patients say. In the terrible silence, none speak. None can speak, and there is nothing to be said. In the terrible silence, there is only the hiss and the whir of the ventilators and other medical machinery, and the plasticky trashbag sounds of doctors and nurses shuffling between patients in sci-fi protective gear, their faces behind shields. Those who die in those rooms die in that silence, in an antiseptic hell beyond anything Dante imagined.

But they do not die alone.

That is the claim Christians make on this Easter Sunday and on every Sunday: That God Himself became, for His own inexplicable reasons, a gradually dying animal like the rest of us, that He would offer His friendship to be abandoned by His friends, that He subjected himself to torture, death, and burial so that He could meet us in the silence of the tomb and in the silence beyond it, that the terrible silence of that place would not be final. Neither the little silence of our days nor the great silence at the end of them is the final word. Some people think of that as “comforting.” I suppose it depends on how you feel about silence.

To say that the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is unlikely would be far too generous. It is preposterous. It is absurd. And it is not even particularly original: Christianity is hardly the first wine cult to have arisen in the backwaters of the ancient world, and the story of the priest-king who dies, is buried, and then returns to life in glory at the onset of spring has been told in dozens of different versions for about as long as human beings have been telling stories. You have all heard the atheist’s argument: “There are a million religions, and you believers reject them all, except one. The only difference between you and me is that there are a million gods you don’t believe in, and for me it is a million and one.” There is some superficial power to that argument and, carefully considered, more than superficial power to it. I am not by profession an evangelist, and if you ask me as a professional practitioner of the dark arts of rhetoric, I might even confess that the atheists have a more reasonable case, and that the merely indifferent (the atheists are far from indifferent!) have the most reasonable case of all.

Even the believers didn’t really believe it, at first. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.” She gathered her friends, and they thought: graverobbers or vandals. Mary Magdalene then saw Jesus — and mistook him for one of the landscaping crew. (“Supposing him to be the gardener,” John tells us. As I said: right through the Apocalypse.) For the sake of argument, take the gospel on its own terms: The disciples already had witnessed at least one resurrection, as Jesus called Lazarus from the grave. Jesus already had shown them His irresistible personal power over death. But the resurrection remained, even for Jesus’s own friends, incomprehensible. They saw brutality and death. They expected silence.

Thomas did not believe until he saw the wounds. Neither did I.

I cannot tell you why I believe this unreasonable thing we proclaim on Easter. But I also cannot really explain to you about the gratitude and the terror, about why I love what I love, including all this joyful noise upon which I depend, even in these terrible times. I can’t tell you why you should visit the prisoners (who are mostly terrible people), welcome the strangers (who never did anything for you), care for the orphans (when you have responsibilities of your own), feed the hungry (who should have saved up for troubled times), seek justice for the friendless (who aren’t really your problem), etc. I can’t tell you why you should pick up your cross and follow instead of running, in perfectly reasonable terror, in the opposite direction. There isn’t anything reasonable in it. And still I do not doubt that in the darkness of that tomb is the place of death where real life begins.

And if this little silence prefigures the great silence to come, then we will come through it, not without wounds and not without terror but not without friends.

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