From the Archives: Projecting Our Way Through Holy Week

The friendly overtures of a person whom we no longer love, overtures which strike us, […]

Will McDavid / 3.23.16


The friendly overtures of a person whom we no longer love, overtures which strike us, in our indifference to her, as excessive, would perhaps have fallen a long way short of satisfying our love. Those tender speeches, that invitation or acceptance, we think only of the pleasure which they would have given us, and not of all those speeches and meetings by which we would have wished to see them immediately followed, which we should, as likely as not, simply by our avidity for them, have precluded from ever happening. So that we can never be certain that the good fortune which comes to us too late, when we are no longer in love, is altogether the same as that good fortune the want of which made us, at one time, so unhappy. There is only one person who could decide that; our ego of those days; he is no longer with us, and were he to reappear, no doubt that would be quite enough to make our good fortune – whether identical or not – vanish.

-Marcel Proust, Within A Budding Grove

Proust’s narrator is in the process of falling out of love with a girl; he reflects on the ordinary kindnesses she may show him that, at one time, would have meant so much, but now they mean little in his near-indifference. Those overtures bring satisfaction to the disinterested person, but at the time he was in love, they would have meant nothing to him except to kindle his avidity, to make him desire more “speeches and meetings.” In other words, the horizon of satisfaction continually recedes; he can take kind words from the girl now as something satisfying and pleasant, but then (in that prior state of mind, the “ego of those days”), he would have only desired more.


This unsatisfaction nurtures human attraction. We ‘want what we can’t have’, the old saying goes. And this unsatisfied element in desire led Wallace Stevens to declare that “death is the mother of beauty”. It is only the lack of something which kindles our desire. Proust, again:

…of [Beauty] we are sometimes tempted to ask ourselves whether it is, in this world, anything more than the complementary part that is added to a fragmentary and fugitive stranger by our imagination over-stimulated by regret.

Beauty, for the narrator here, largely consists in his personal regret over girls he will never know; he artificially adds the quality of beauty to them, and then he tricks his mind into perceiving something objective there, when it is really only the reflection of the “complementary part that is added” by “imagination over-stimulated with regret”.

We all regret. Various unlived lives, unpracticed careers and unpursued dreams weigh on us. They seem to condemn our present; things could be better if we had done this or that differently. And so our imaginations, over-stimulated with regret, imbue these unlived lives with a certain glamour that they almost certainly do not possess for those actually living them. The grass is greener, to simplify.

Palm Sunday tells this story, the story of a nation whose destiny never quite matched the wildest hopes of the prophets, a people under foreign rule who had to compromise to maintain their customs and religion. The gap between expectations of national greatness and the reality of Israel’s Roman occupation weighed on the people; regret for that unlived destiny made them desperate for a sign of power and hope. Thus the beauty of Christ on Palm Sunday is artificial, a product of projection too informed by regret, and implausible Messiah drastically misperceived by a reverent mob wearing the lens of political justification, living the unlived life.

These expectations kill – as the saying goes, an expectation is a planned resentment. Our regrets may produce unwieldy and unrealistic expectations for people, and we sharply condemn them once their actual conduct fails to match our desires. Such was the misunderstanding between the worshipful crows and their ersatz Messiah, Feuerbachian embodiment of their dreams and desires. Yet in the Gospel readings for Palm Sunday, many churches require the congregation to chant the words of the mob. We all have our regrets stimulating our imaginations. And while Christians have historically erred by distancing themselves from that Jewish mob, and many today scorn Prosperity Gospel, we still project our desires onto Jesus. What kind of Messiah are you looking for? If we’re honest, it’s often a projection of whatever hopes or fears or hangups which enmesh us in any given stage of life. Someone to improve us and draw out the real, better me; someone to validate my opinions; someone to make life better and ease feelings of emptiness or uncertainty. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week; we identify absolutely with the mob, or we skirt reality.

If Proust is right – if the force attracting us to people or experiences may be an artificial beauty which our insecurities project upon them – how do we know whether the Jesus we imagine, perhaps even the Jesus we love, how do we know if the beauty we find in him is truly there; how do we know we aren’t encountering our own projections? Some element of projecting is inevitable, but because of this, any authentic encounter with God must be an encounter that we fail, in some sense, to choose. Whatever is self-referential and curved-in and self-justifying about us may be met with something which cuts against the grain of our Adamic instincts. Something we would never imagine nor choose, because it must be something which escapes our control and even imagination.

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The mob in Jerusalem was not alone; Jesus told Peter about suffering and dying, and even for Peter – friend of Christ, a founder of the Church – such suffering was inconceivable: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter identified with Christ the teacher and Christ the healer, but real faith would have to come from a place he never expected it. Even at that late stage, Peter projected his own glorious narrative onto Christ. Just as he couldn’t read the signs which Christ placed, plain as day, in front of him, perhaps the crowd willfully ignored the details incongruous with its narrative: the faltering donkey, the shabby fishermen escort.

Life presents us these same off-color details, signs that maybe our own “upward narratives” – whether wealth, prestige, legacy, power, new fitness regimen, or signs of affection from another – aren’t the end of the story. I, for one, tend to ignore them, the signs that God chooses weakness. As Proust described well, those sorts of simple successes only leave us wanting more, or may even be precluded “simply by our avidity for them.” Satisfaction of our ascendant personal narratives seems something always receding, never certain, and the allure of which may just as easily stem from “imagination[s] over-stimulated with regret”. Regret implies a reaching-out for something we think we can attain, but from Christ, as Robert Capon said, all that’s required is the easiest thing in the world – our deaths.

That death, while we live, perhaps takes the form of daily deaths to identity and various avenues of our attempts to justify ourselves, which distorts our perception of the world and makes beauty unreliable, given its suspect connection to our Adamic egos. But later in Holy Week, we have a story, a counterintuitively (and thereby reliably) beautiful one. We hear simply of a God who came to earth, not to fill in for our regrets or to be our substitute in strength, but to take the condemnation of our regrets upon himself, to be our substitute in weakness. We hear of a God who didn’t climb the ladder on our behalf, but rather one who abolishes it altogether. It even turns out that such a spiritual death may, in fact, prepare the ground for resurrection:

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

-T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”


One response to “From the Archives: Projecting Our Way Through Holy Week”

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