Sometimes a poem comes along that sticks in your head and you find yourself occasionally recalling, if not its exact words, at least the effect it had on you. Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” is like that for me, and Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion is why.
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
The poem meanders on, recalling rather pleasant memories, but the landscape is pock-marked with ugly gashes: the reality of exiles and refugees, shipwreck, executioners. The ironic nature of the twists the poet includes darken the nostalgic mood considerably and temper any romantic notions about heaven on earth.
But the poem is about praising the world, with its mutilations: “Try to praise…,” then the plaintive, “You must praise…” and “You should praise…,” and finally the imperative, “Praise…”
But why should we praise the mutilated world, with its scars, inhumanity, natural disasters, divisions, and unrelenting time?
“Because God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” into the world to show us the depths of his love and the lengths to which he would go for the world. But “he came into the world and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, but his own received him not.”
On this day, Good Friday, we memorialize that moment in time when we brutally executed God.
In his magnificent meditations on the Stations of the Cross St. Alphonsus Liguori offers this meditation in the first person for the sixth station, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus:
My beloved Jesus, Your face was beautiful before You began this journey; but, now, it no longer appears beautiful and is disfigured with wounds and blood. Alas, my soul also was once beautiful when it received Your grace in Baptism; but I have since disfigured it with my sins. You alone, my Redeemer, can restore it to its former beauty. Do this by the merits of Your passion; and then do with me as You will.
Beauty lost, loveliness destroyed, by sin. In the poem, what we are exhorted to praise is the “mutilated world.” But note that “mutilated” is in the passive voice: the world was mutilated by something else, which indicates that the loveliness the poem features is the norm but it has been violated. By what? By sin. Beginning with Original Sin, and extending through each of our actual sins. Mutilated by every one of them.
In the Stations of the Cross we pause to recall the action of a lone woman whose real name is lost to history but whom tradition names “Veronica,” “true image.” She, moved by compassion, put herself at risk to go to a condemned man whose face had been mutilated, and wipe away some of the unloveliness. Even the loveliness of He who is without sin was violently defaced and buried by the brutality of sin—but it was because of sin that he came into the world and submitted, for a time, to the wages of sin: death.
But death, mutilation, sin, ugliness, did not have the last word—they cannot. They are not really real. They are here for a time: blemishes on the beautiful face of the world. They are blots that attempt to dim the light. But the gentle light, dimmed and sealed in a borrowed tomb, returned. And with his return the true tawdry weakness of the ugliness seen in the world was revealed as chimerical. The ancient enemy was exposed as the father of lies, and his power was shown to be nothing more than insinuation and fear.
The man who came back from death exhorted us, 366 times it is recorded, “do not fear.” “In the world you will have suffering, but do not fear: I have conquered the world!” “Do not fear, only believe!” The world is his! There may be wisps of satanic smoke still swirling, puffing themselves up to convince us that they are much greater than they are, but the Lamb who was slain has revealed them to have no more power than we give them over our selves. Sin is only as frightening as we let it become, and it only has the power that it gets from us when we give in to the fear.
This day on which the Lord of Life was slain is Good Friday. It is called “Good” Friday for a reason. The world is his; the world is good. Praise the mutilated world for which the Lord died, and await in hopeful joy the inevitable resurrection.