A contrast from the last two posts by Edward Young: Stephen Crane encounters a man, gnawing away at his own heart, self-destroying. Can he hear the word ‘friend’ addressed to him? It appears not. No small talk here!
It seems he has chosen self-centred bitterness over the friendship we have been reading about that would help draw him out of the bitterness of despair. But that risks getting hurt; it’s easier to like, or accept, bitterness than gamble on happiness. Edward Young makes it clear that friendship has to be cultivated; what can you cultivate in the desert?
Let’s pray for those consigned to the desert by the abuse they have suffered from other people’s malice or neglect.
In the Desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it “Because it is bitter, “And because it is my heart.”
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.
“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!
We should recognise and pray for people who tend towards hopelessness, if only some of the time. This is Emily Dickinson.
At least to pray is left, is left. O Jesus! in the air I know not which thy chamber is, — I ‘m knocking everywhere.
Thou stirrest earthquake in the South, And maelstrom in the sea; Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Hast thou no arm for me?”
Or as the Old Song has it:
If you get there before I do,
Just dig a hole and pull me through.
And Jesus got there first, so sing this directly to Him! Remember his words:
Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you. For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.
(from “Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete
by A. E. Housman
The orchards half the way
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.
The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.
Between the trees in flower
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now's the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.
Ay, yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.
From Last Poems by A. E. Housman.
It is as well to acknowledge the other side of the coin. Not everyone accepts the Christian or any other religious view of life. Housman was an atheist, and here seems close to despair: the sumless tale of sorrow is all unrolled in vain. Sorrow is beyond calculation: May fair at Ludlow repeats May fair at Ludlow, repeats May fair at Ludlow; and the sons of men learn sense only when it is too late. The poet was writing in the years after the Great War, and like many of his lyrics The First of May alludes to the futility of war and the price of war in human suffering.
No skating over these questions of human sinfulness and apparent divine indifference!
Well, what was Judas thinking when he went to the authorities for his pieces of silver? He will not have told himself that betraying Jesus was the worst thing he could do, so that’s just what he would do; no, he must have convinced himself that it was the best possible course of action in the circumstances.
Was he trying to force his Master’s hand, engineering a scene such as had happened in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, when Jesus passed through the crowd that was trying to stone him? (Luke 4:16-30) That seems unlikely as Luke says he was looking for a time when the crowd was not present in order to hand Jesus over. (22.6) Was he hoping that Jesus would then and there abandon his peaceful mission, instead establishing the Kingdom of Israel in a brilliant coup d’etat? Or did he see himself as clear-sighted, holding out no hope for Project Jesus, so he would cut his losses and take the money and run.
His suicide suggests that he was not that clear-sighted and cynical. I do not think he expected events to work out as they did; his self image may have been of a Mr Fix-it, forcing change on Jesus. Perhaps he expected the 11 and other disciples to rally round, overpowering or recruiting the posse sent to arrest Jesus and rampaging triumphant into the city. If he thought Jesus would enter into his Kingdom by military or mob force he was profoundly mistaken about him; but so were the other disciples, every one in their own way. But they clung together and did not hang themselves.
And then what? Clearly Jesus meant more to him than the money, the blood money that could not go into the treasury. (Matthew 27:3-8) His suicide speaks of hope abandoned – as we read yesterday, those who have something to hope for survive. Judas surely felt unable to return to the community of the disciples after what he’d done. Peter wept bitterly, but still stuck around. The reality of his prophetic words – you have the message of eternal life – did not sink in until Sunday morning. Too late to save Judas.
But never too late for his Lord and Friend to save Judas. That’s clearly what the artist of Strasbourg Cathedral felt, when he carved the Lamb of God rescuing Judas from his noose at the very gate of Hell.
In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.
Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
Like the child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
He looked; and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.
Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.
She spoke not, nor turned not,
Nor any sign she cast,
Only she stood up straight and free,
Between the flowers in Athelney,
And the river running past.
One dim ancestral jewel hung
On his ruined armour grey,
He rent and cast it at her feet:
Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
Men came from hall and school and street
And found it where it lay.
"Mother of God," the wanderer said,
"I am but a common king,
Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
To see a secret thing.
"The gates of heaven are fearful gates
Worse than the gates of hell;
Not I would break the splendours barred
Or seek to know the thing they guard,
Which is too good to tell.
"But for this earth most pitiful,
This little land I know,
If that which is for ever is,
Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
Seeing the stranger go?
"When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?"
This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs:
"I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher."
Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'.
Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.
Another lyric of Sappho, translated by Bret Carman.
Is your heart filled with disillusion at all things human – vanity of vanity, says the preacher (Ecclesiastes 1.2); the Bible, the Word of God, explores the same feelings of ultimate dissatisfaction with things fleeting and desired, as Sappho. But the Lord God is not fettered, as the Olympians were. His love leads, but also seeks out the lost sheep. As Sappho wants to believe, there is a place of safety, where every tear will be wiped away.
Let us pray that those in the depths of disillusion may find freedom in God’s love, and that we may be a light on their path, and be wise beyond words in our dealings with them.
Soul of sorrow, why this weeping?
What immortal grief hath touched thee
With the poignancy of sadness,—
Testament of tears?
Have the high gods deigned to show thee
Destiny, and disillusion
Fills thy heart at all things human,
Fleeting and desired?
Nay, the gods themselves are fettered
By one law which links together
Truth and nobleness and beauty,
Man and stars and sea.
And they only shall find freedom
Who with courage rise and follow
Where love leads beyond all peril,
Wise beyond all words.
(from “Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics” by Bliss Carman)
Dr Johnson suggests a concise theology of hope – as opposed to ‘improper expectation’. As for that lottery ticket, that requires the common course of things to be changed!
Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged, must end in disappointment. If it be asked, what is the improper expectation which it is dangerous to indulge, experience will quickly answer, that it is such expectation as is dictated not by reason, but by desire; expectation raised, not by the common occurrences of life, but by the wants of the expectant; an expectation that requires the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.
It is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded; for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are less dreadful than its extinction.’ The Idler, No. 58.
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765″ by James Boswell.
“The dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror Of which the tongues declare The one discharge from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre- To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love. Love is the unfamiliar Name Behind the hands that wove The intolerable shirt of flame Which human power cannot remove. We only live, only suspire Consumed by either fire or fire.
T.S. Eliot famously could connect nothing with nothing, sitting where we are now, looking across Margate sands. But he also had an insight into Something breaking through the shell of nothingness.
No easy comfort here, but a person can choose to be consumed by the fire – of love.
Pentecost today, the Spirit descends as dove and fire in this window from St Aloysius’ Somers Town, London.