I dwell amid the city,
And hear the flow of souls in act and speech,
For pomp or trade, for merrymake or folly:
I hear the confluence and sum of each,
And that is melancholy!
Thy voice is a complaint, O crownèd city,
The blue sky covering thee like God’s great pity.
From The Soul’s Travelling by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The City of God is a common theme in the Bible, Zion or Jerusalem, the earthly place where he lives among his people, or the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. A city was, and remains, a convenient setting for a more cultured life that would not have been possible in the hinterlands. Although the airwaves bring us radio, television and the internet – and of course internet shopping – the city remains a magnet for entertainment, dining out, medical care, employment. What is Elizabeth’s problem?
Perhaps it is the flow of souls looking for pomp, trade, merriment or folly: self indulgence in other words. But whether in her 19th Century London as in the first picture, or the 21st Century city, by no means all arrivals flock there for the extras London has to offer, at a price. The city may be a relatively safe haven from war or other troubles but people still have to find a welcome; somewhere affordable to live, familiar food or the sound of their mother tongue.
Chesterton has Mary tell King Alfred about the heavenly city: “The gates of Heaven are lightly locked”, continuing:
“I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, Save that the sky grows darker yet And the sea rises higher. Night shall be thrice night over you, And heaven an iron cope. Do you have joy without a cause, Yea, faith without a hope?”
The sky in both of our pictures is more iron cope than blue cloak; we can well believe that it grows darker yet as the sea indeed rises higher. It is for each one of us to have joy without any apparent cause, and faith in God when all comfort is taken away from ourselves or the people we meet. Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom!