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The powerful silences of Holy Week

All through Holy Week we will be running a series of Easter meditations: this, the first, is by Jean Holloway, a bereavement counsellor whose husband, Richard, is Bishop of Edinburgh.
Advent is a time of expectation and anticipation. Lent is a time of preparation and promise. Yet, for me, Lent is a time of apprehension - and Holy Week the days when apprehension reaches a climax. I may not be alone in feeling that Lent, like autumn, is my natural habitat. I am drawn to the dark, the austere, and the wistful. I find the sunset at the close of day more appealing than the sunrise. I am more at home in moorland than in tropics, and I am moved by music in a minor key. And I am, for reasons I do not fully understand, a sceptic.

There are no role models in the Gospels for women of doubt - the women there found healing and strength in simply touching the hem of Jesus' garment, and they sat at his feet to receive his teachings. They waited at the foot of the Cross during his agonising death, and to one of them he was revealed on Easter morning. Where is the woman with whom I can identify, a woman who is a kindred spirit in doubt?

I feel a strong affinity with the disciples who deserted Jesus at the time of his arrest because he did not fulfil their expectations. He did not live up to their idea of a Messiah or Saviour; so they in turn were overcome by the fear of what would be demanded of them. I am married to someone whose vocation gives people expectations of me. Because of my gender and country of birth, people have expectations of me, and make assumptions. The people I counsel have expectations of my counselling skills. All this should strengthen me, but sometimes makes me weak.

In my work as a bereavement counsellor I must stay with the dark and pain of my clients, or I am of no use to them. A grieving woman told me of the dark which surrounds her, and when I asked if she saw any light at all, she replied that the only glimmer of light was her own death. And yet I believe she will find some door to the future edge open, or some hope to give her enough light to see her way ahead. I will then leave her to make her own way. My work ends when her way ahead becomes possible, and then I will see another person for whom bereavement makes the future unthinkable. But I cannot lead a light, or force the door. I can only be alongside in the dark until the memories become bearable and the future can be contemplated.

I was impressed by the response to the Dunblane tragedy, when many admitted that silence was the only appropriate response. Yet one Dunblane woman appalled me. She said in a radio interview: "People's memories are short. We will get back to normal life." She repeated this, but she was twice wrong. People have memories which last a lifetime, and in old age it is the recent memories which fade, while the distant ones become more vivid. Jews do not forget the Holocaust, the people of Aberfan do not forget their children, and the parents and people of Dunblane will not forget 13 March.

And yet, it is Holy Week in all its sombre and reflective time that draws me back again and again - the reverse of the moth to the flame, for it is the darkness that I feel is real, and in which meaning is to be found. It is the silence of Holy Week rather than the shouts of alleluia that is so powerful. The valley of the shadow of death, stretching between Hosannas and Alleluias, speaks to all people. Death is an inescapable experience, and whatever is on the other side of death will come to all, whether believing or sceptical.

So my apprehension at this time of year is due to the knowledge that at dawn on Easter Sunday there will be rejoicing, but that I will feel I am on the margins. I will open myself to the message that death is conquered and that the world should rejoice. And I will be glad for those for whom this message transforms life and death.

It might seen from the foregoing that I am verging on clinical depression or melancholia, but I experience great joy in the things of this world. I revel in beauty, and I delight in the incongruous and the absurd. I am constantly grateful for my eyesight and hearing through which profoundly uplifting experiences can be received, and for love and laughter and life. But Holy Week is a time when I reach into depths of meaning, confront the momentous mysteries of life and death, and feel the enormous paradox of being utterly alone and at one with all who live and die.