If there were Londoners who wanted to escape the tensions of their city in recent weeks they might have been well advised to go northwards to the now peaceful lands of their ancient enemies, once the terrorists of their day.
When the Vikings marauded the British Isles – and as far East as Constantinople - during their three hundred years of pillaging, they left little record of their thoughts or motivation. Not much remains of their writing apart from occasional runes inscribe on standing stones and formulaic phrases, about as articulate as the televised interviews with the London child-looters. But eventually the Vikings settled down and became Sicilians or Normans who let England and France domesticate them.
Scandinavia might have seemed to have spent the ferocious energy of its past until the deranged rampage of Anders Breivik in Oslo reminded us that still waters run deep. Calm surfaces can hide a volcanic pain of repression. When the inner tension snaps, the fallout is destructive, indiscriminate. In Oslo I saw life ‘returning to normal’ but after a crisis we never really go back to the same normality. It was, anyway, just heart-wrenching to see the photos accompanying the names of the mostly young victims read out during the national memorial service a month after the atrocities. Waste is always shameful; but the deliberate wasting of young life cries to heaven like a Greek tragedy, even as the cry returns to earth with an untranslatable silence.
These beautiful, unpolluted northern lands greet their visitors with an intriguing quietness. Even their airports and shopping areas are serene compared with the neurotic chaos of Heathrow. But there are different kinds of silence: the silence of those who cannot find words to express their thoughts and feelings, perhaps because nobody ever took time to show them how; or the silence of nature wearing its different coats of weather, showers speaking to sunny spells; the silence of a group of meditators on retreat outside the grieving city. We went to a tiny village dominated by two unnecessarily large 12th century churches, (the Granavollen Sosterkirkene) that stand beside each other, uncommunicatively, in a common graveyard.
The story offering the more interesting explanation is that they were built by two sisters who had fallen out and refused ever to pray together again in the same church. Their curiosity today attracts wedding parties and tourists. How soberly long stretches of time make our once extreme emotion seem exaggerated and silly. On the Saturday night we celebrated mass in one of the churches, hoping that the shade of the sister who built the other would not be jealous. Afterwards, still wearing my habit, I walked some way down the road in the softly luminous dusk. As I took photos of the red-streaked sky a car with a group of drunken revelers skidded into the driveway of a nearby house. By the way they got out of the car to continue their party I sensed I had attracted their attention and felt a little anxious when I heard footsteps approach me from behind.
A young Viking in a t-shirt and jeans, holding a bottle of booze and trying to stand up straight began to tell me, or to try to, the load of guilt he was carrying. The alcohol that was inducing him to unburden himself was also, however, preventing his fluency. But some communication took place, perhaps, and I hoped he felt he had made his confession as he stumbled away with a drunk’s solemn, sentimental gratitude for any close companionship, however brief. There was a little light pink left in the sky.
From what unshareable loneliness had his cry emerged, both so desperately and so comically? And who was there to blame for it? Surely there must always be someone to blame for the guilt that the guilt-ridden have to carry, the parents for a mass murderer, the economic climate for looters, migration patterns for piracy. If there is no one or nothing to blame how can the loneliness of history’s unanswered questions be bearable? A stubborn silence relentlessly responds to all these groping questions; but they survive as the questions people have always asked and begged for answers to and that they have built churches to house.
Only an even more than Nordic silence points forward. Not a silence that is an absence of words but the silence that is beyond words. Beneath all the history and the tattered records of our ill deeds an unspoilable innocence somewhere and somehow resides, as hard to reach but as full of promise as the fresh oil fields that they say have newly been discovered under the cold Norwegian waters.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)