Last night was one of those long, dark nights where sleep is impossible and the mind roils and spins. At times like this, there are words and phrases that enter unbidden into my mind and will not leave. For years, the phrase Abyssus abyssum invocat or its French version, L’abîme appelle l’abîme has been a visitor in my dark nights. I wrote this post that reflects the obsession with the words, asking “Is this a need inside of us, as if we fear the abyss, fear the emptiness, fear the darkness of an eternal night?”
Last night, for some reason, a newcomer phrase made its appearance; “My name is Legion” came to me over and over and demanded investigation. The source is, of course, Mark Chapter 5.
“And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes. And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones. But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.”
“Legion” refers to the Roman legions which occupied the Roman province of Judaea in the lifetime of Jesus. A typical legion was comprised of about 5,000 soldiers, but later the passage in Mark says that there were 2,000 demons. So “Legion” in this passage is a name that refers to a great multitude, in this case, a multitude of demons who inhabited the man with the unclean spirit.
To me, the demon represents the torment of doubt, pain, and chaos that assault the spirit. The name Legion represents all of the multitudes of doubts, pains, and chaoses that relentlessly assail us in the night.
Medieval sculptors knew Legion well. We can see that knowledge in the depictions of the demons and torments to which they gave shape. There was no shortage of terror, suffering, and rending of flesh by the monsters and demons, all made visible by the skill of the carvers.
I like to think that in the creative moment, the hands and eyes and heart and mind combine to create a vision that summons knowledge from all parts of one’s being. I feel that this is what we see in these medieval sculptures. By putting shape and form to the nightmares, they gained some measure of control back from the dark forces. I am not sure who said it, but I read once that the more rationally we live our lives, the more chaotic and irrational is our dream life. In the time of these churches, life addressed both the rational and the irrational. Thomas Aquinas showed how God ordered the universe, and these carvers showed our mortality and the ephemeral nature of our worldly accomplishments.
Today, in the long night, there is for me no consolation in philosophy or religion. Even Boethius cannot help when he says, “No man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune.” And I have always liked reading C.S. Lewis, but this great proponent of Christianity stated, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” A Grief Observed (1961)
So I find no consolation or reassurance. I am left with my fears and doubts. And no matter where I turn, I find nothing that helps.
I have a need, but not a means.
But with the first light of dawn, with the first loud call from our wren in the tree outside, there is hope.