I am always struck by the way the Holy Week story changes gear at the end of the Eucharist of the Lord’s supper. Jesus, who has been very much driving the gospel story along up until now, gives himself up into the hands of his enemies. He allows himself, freely, to be drawn into a tragic vortex of betrayal, injustice, and humiliation that leads to Golgotha. Do we imagine, for one moment, that his basic instinct to fight for life was any the less than any of us? Reflecting on this mystery brings to mind a passage from Iris Murdoch’s novel Nuns and Soldiers. Tim Reede the artist remains conscious and fights for life as he is sucked into what seems to be an all-powerful inexorable drowning in a mill-race
When Tim’s head rose above the surface of the raging foam he was already close to the tunnel. He could see the waters contending, boiling, stooping as they constrained themselves into the tunnel whose entrance was below the surface. The smooth stone walls of the canal now rose high above on either side, cutting out the light of the sky. Tim thought, oh why did I have to drink this water and not the other? And he thought, oh, Gertrude, Gertrude — he was fully conscious that he was about to die. He took a last gasping breath and instinctively ducked his head into the foam as he was sucked down under the submerged centre of the stone arch.Drowning photo by Matt Zathe Daniels.
Tim had taken another breath. He was aware of the breath as a miracle, a precious amazing event. The something hit him very hard on the head. He swallowed water, choking. He was in total darkness, at any rate if his eyes were open, which he was not sure about. With the realization that he was still alive came an instantaneous absolute death-fear identical with hope. The roof of the tunnel was at this point and for the moment and only a little way, clear of the water. Tim took another breath. All the time he was, in some sort, swimming, that is, he was agitating his limbs instinctively so as to keep his head above the surface. This was difficult since his legs seemed to have been swept below his head rather than behind it, and the strong water in the narrower space had somehow imprisoned his arms. His dabbing feet could touch no bottom below. He made a schematic effort to float on his back, with his nose and his mouth towards the roof, but this failed, and he received in the process a hard bang upon the brow. He had already grasped the problem, which was to keep his face above water while not being stunned and rendered unconscious by a blow from the roof. His body rather than his mind informed him that it was no use. In a moment the roof would descend to the level of the water or below it, or else the whole torrent would plunge headlong into some deep hole. He would die indeed like a rat, and perhaps no one would ever know what had happened to him. No one would know and no one would care. Oh, let me live! He prayed. A little while ago he had seemed to want death, but now he desired so passionately to live. He thought, I must live, I must, I must!
The roof seemed to be descending, more and more often and more and more violently it struck him as he opened his mouth to breathe. He had by now established a rhythm, not just instinctively gasping, but taking a deep breath and holding it with his head ducked down under water, then taking another. He even tried with one hand to gauge the height of the roof before he lifted his head to breathe. This was no help however since the darkness had deprived him of all sense of space and touch and it was difficult to manoeuvre his arms. Moreover his head was spinning with repeated blows and he was swallowing more water. Each time he took a breath he thought this may be the last. He thought this fear, this darkness, is death, that’s what it’s like. But oh, I so much want to live, please let me live, any life is better than death, oh let me only live...