Choral Evensong 2 July 2017
1 SAMUEL 28: 3-19
CS Lewis had the teacher's talent for asking provocative questions: for instance 'What would we do if the supernatural did in fact occur?” There is a lot of interest in the paranormal and in the supernatural - and in things that go 'bump in the night'. It says a lot about human nature. There was a huge upsurge of interest in spiritualism after the first world war, not only in those who lost someone dear to them, but also in people who wanted to know, in the uncertainty, the loss, of all that had formed a safe and happy life, what the future held in store.
Lewis was using the question to talk about God. The trouble is that God is not an object for our scrutiny or manipulation and yet we also want to believe that life is not random, that there is meaning and purpose in our lives and that someone has plans for us. Of course the atheist points to this drive in us as part of the god myth; our desire for a god that is looking over us and looks after us, whereas the reality, they claim, is that life is random and there is no creator.
Which thought brings us to our first reading and the realisation of what a very strange episode it is. It is clear that Saul, the first king of Israel, has lost his way and lost God’s favour. He is a desperate man. He has lost his prophet, Samuel. He has tried the two methods used in Israel at the time to determine the future, dreams and the casting of lots, the Urim, which are kept in the Ark of the Covenant and God has answered him only by silence. The country is in a state of civil war and soothsayers abound though Saul has banned them, obeying the laws in Leviticus that state that a witch shall not be suffered to live. Nonetheless, in his desperation he seeks out a soothsayer and instructs her to call up Samuel’s spirit. The apparition of Samuel questions why he has been disturbed but tells Saul why God has turned away his face. The implication is that Saul’s desire to know the future is pointless, mainly because the questions that he wishes to have answered are those he already knows the answer to. There is worse to come. Not only will he lose the battle, but he is going to die and all of his sons with him.
The book of Samuel and the story of the witch of En-dor are embedded in our literature. A year after the death of his son at Loos, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called En-Dor (1916), about communicating with the dead. It concludes,
|Witch of Endor by Nikolai Ge, 1857|
Oh the road to En-dor is the oldest road
And the craziest road of all!
Straight it runs to the Witch’s abode,
As it did in the days of Saul,
And nothing has changed of the sorrow in store
For such as go down on the road to En-dor!
This story of the soothsayer at Endor sits oddly with most of the story of the struggle between Saul and David. We see Saul at the end of story and desperate to know the future, so desperate that he vainly attempts, despite all the prohibitions, to communicate with spirits? He attempts to cross a boundary; attempts to manipulate another dimension; tinker with the supernatural but instead finds neither wisdom nor reassurance but only despair.
Kipling’s son John was 18 years old when he went into battle at Loos and his body was never found, despite exhaustive searching by his distraught parents. Kipling was only too aware that his son need not have gone at all because of his poor eyesight and by the date of the poem, hundreds of thousands of families were beginning to come to terms with the loss of sons, father and brothers in France. Kipling can only look forward now to his own death. Hehas sent his son to war like Saul and death is the only result.
The account of the witch at Endor is at least a cautionary tale and a warning not to dabble in spiritualism or to treat God so lightly.