Beyond the Days – reflecting on Philip Larkin’s ‘Days’
In his 1953 poem Days, Philip Larkin poses the question, “Where can we live but days?”
He goes on to say
“Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields”.
In this time of pandemic and constrained living circumstances, for millions here and abroad, the “Where can we live?” question has limited answers. If, though, we think of Larkin’s question as a daily version of the “meaning of life” question, our answers are probably not so different from pre-pandemic 2019. It’s just that having been challenged, we are probably more tuned into our reasons for holding these beliefs and we have found different expressions of them in our daily living.
How, then, in the face of such a challenge as Covid-19, have many of us been able to respond to the bigger picture of “where can we live but days?”. Larkin’s feint mockery of priests and doctors running to help has given way in our times, to a deeper search for interpretation and understanding of our circumstances from medical and spiritual leaders.
History and Scripture have taught us to expect the unexpected and when it happens, we grapple for new understandings. Our reading of Genesis in the early months of the pandemic reminded us that spiritual struggles are part of the human condition. And we remember Jacob’s story and the “Behold, it was Leah!” moment when he realised his version of the future he had worked for with Rachel as his bride, had been changed irrevocably. Jacob had been patient for many years but so often we lose patience and try to exert our own human will to gain some control over our struggles.
C.S. Lewis noted the difficulty of handing over “our wishes and precautions” and that “following Jesus… is far easier than (what) we are all trying to do instead.” So what do we struggle with? And what do we do about it?
A 2014 research article* in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality describes six domains of religious and spiritual struggle, including our beliefs about God and the nature of our personal relationship with God; our struggle with the cause of negative events; our concern or interpersonal conflict about negative experiences with religious people or institutions; doubt; ultimate meaning and lastly, our moral struggles.
Without a pathfinder of faith, these challenges, especially in this season, could be overwhelming. It is stories like Jacob’s that remind us that our lives and our struggles are lived both in and beyond the days of any particular period. And it is through Jesus’s experience of isolation, suffering, death and resurrection that we understand the basis of our faith.
Thinking back to March 2020 and app analytics told us that in March alone, in response to our human vulnerability and suffering, there were 2 million downloads of Bible apps. And there was a 50% surge in Google searches for prayer. Questions are asked about how prayer works. Our faith says we don’t need to remind God of what the pandemic toll is but in prayer, we focus with God on our struggles, knowing that we can only “see through a glass darkly”. With this awareness of our limited understanding, Paul reassures us: “Now I only know in part, then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Through prayer and our faith pathfinders, we can live in and beyond these days. And I also appreciate what Thomas Merton says about a sustained process of “creating reflections and awareness” for “helping life live itself in us”.
- Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222.
Contributed by Ann Nadge.