If you should hear my name among those killed, Say you have lost a friend, half man, half boy, Who, if the years had spared him might have built Within him courage strength and harmony. Uncouth and garrulous his tangled mind, Seething with warm ideas of truth and light, His help was worthless. Yet had fate been kind He might have learned to steel himself and fight. He thought he loved you. By what right could he Claim such high praise, who only felt his frame Riddled with burning lead, and failed to see His own false pride behind the barrel’s flame? Say you have lost a friend and then forget. Stronger and truer ones are with you yet.
Frank Thompson went to war as a young man after his first year at university. He ended up with partisan fighters in Bulgaria, where he was captured by the Nazis and murdered together with his Bulgarian comrades. Irushka was Iris Murdoch, his beloved.
The poem is not about Irushka at all, but about himself, ‘Seething with warm ideas of truth and light’, enough to send him to war in the romantic spirit of Rupert Brooke. It hardly mattered that he would be killed, ‘his help was worthless’. No question in this poem of the rights or wrongs of Nations going to war, nor his duty or otherwise to go there and steel himself to fight against physical deprivation as well as the enemy.
War as romantic but empty of meaning, only false pride.
We offer this reflection from Tagore as a contrast to Frank Thompson’s poem of two days ago. He urged his beloved to forget him, Tagore insists on the sweet sorrow of parting, as a foretaste of death: parting and death do hurt, they cut through the false pride that Thompson accused himself of.
War always brings parting and death, realities that Romantics like Thompson and Brooke minimised, at least before seeing combat.
ON BOARD A CANAL STEAMER GOING TO CUTTACK, August 1891
The quiet floating away of a boat on the stream seems to add to the pathos of a separation—it is so like death—the departing one lost to sight, those left behind returning to their daily life, wiping their eyes. True, the pang lasts but a while, and is perhaps already wearing off both in those who have gone and those who remain,—pain being temporary, oblivion permanent.
But none the less it is not the forgetting, but the pain which is true; and every now and then, in separation or in death, we realise how terribly true.
Glimpses of Bengal Selected from the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore.
I can recall my heart leaping when we drove through an area of the Scottish borders where I had spent a year as a teenager. That visitation was unplanned and quite unexpected, our route had been determined by the morning traffic in Edinburgh. Wordsworth came to his old haunts, distressed with a burden of sad anticipation. But he like me, was surprised by joy.
It had not been the happiest year of my life but it was in the beautiful Tweed Valley, beauty that resonated with my adult self decades later, all unexpectedly. A moment to be grateful for. Now here’s Wordsworth.
“Beloved Vale!” I said, “when I shall con Those many records of my childish years, Remembrance of myself and of my peers Will press me down: to think of what is gone Will be an awful thought, if life have one.” But, when into the Vale I came, no fears Distress’d me; I look’d round, I shed no tears; Deep thought, or awful vision, I had none. By thousand petty fancies I was cross’d, To see the Trees, which I had thought so tall, Mere dwarfs; the Brooks so narrow, Fields so small. A Juggler’s Balls old Time about him toss’d; I looked, I stared, I smiled, I laughed; and all The weight of sadness was in wonder lost. From “Poems in Two Volumes, Volume 1” by William Wordsworth)
Break upon our blindness with Thy light.
Show us, whatever we deem loss,
That love is final gain.
Alistair Maclean gathered the reflections we have shared these last few days from the ordinary people of the Hebrides where he was a Church of Scotland minister, and clearly a good listener. His mysticism is not superficial feel-good stuff, but is born of love of God and the world he has entrusted to us.
Historically it was an event within the life of Jesus and the early church and is now a feast-day for Christians, one that links Easter to Pentecost. But it is more than an historical event, it is at the same time an insight into life that we need to understand to better sort out the paradoxical interplay between life and death, presence and absence, love and loss.
The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, namely, that we all reach a point in life where we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.
When Jesus was preparing to leave this earth he kept repeating the words: “It is better for you that I go away! You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go away you will be unable to receive my spirit. Don’t cling to me, I must ascend.”
Why is it better?
Any parent has heard similar words from their children, unspoken perhaps but there nonetheless. When young people leave home to go to college or to begin life on their own, what they are really saying to their parents is: “Mom and dad, it is better that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go, I will always be your little boy or little girl but I will be unable to give you my life as an adult. So please don’t cling to the child you once had or you will never be able to receive my adulthood. I need to go away now so that our love can come to full bloom.”
To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. The pain in this kind of letting go is often excruciating, as parents know, but to refuse to do that is to truncate life.
The same is true for the mystery of death. For example: I was 22 years old when my mother, died. The pain was searing. Initially we were nearly overwhelmed with a sense of being of losing a vital life-connection (that, ironically, we had mostly taken for granted until then). And our feelings were mainly cold, there’s little that’s warm in death.
But time is a great healer. After a while, and for me this took several years, the coldness disappeared and her death was no longer externally painful. I felt again her presence, and now as a warm, nurturing spirit that was with me all time. The coldness of death turned into a warmth. She had gone away but now could give me love and blessing in new way.
The mystery of love and intimacy contains that paradox: To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. In the paradox of love, we can only fully bless each other when we go away. That is why most of us only “get” the blessing our loved ones were for us after they die.
And this is even true, perhaps particularly so, in cases where our loved ones were difficult characters who struggled for peace or to bless anyone in this life. Death washes clean and releases the spirit and, even in the case of people who struggled to love, we can after their deaths receive their blessing in ways we never could while they were alive. Like Jesus, they could only give us their real presence by going away.
“It is better for you that I go away!” These are painful words most of the time, from a young child leaving her mother for a day to go to school, to the man leaving his family for a week to go on a business trip, to the young man moving out of his family’s house to begin life on his own, to a loved one saying goodbye in death. Separation hurts, goodbyes bring painful tears, and death of every kind wrenches the heart.
But that is part of the mystery of love. Eventually we all reach a point where what is best for everyone is that we go away so that we can give our spirit. The gift that our lives are can only be fully received after we ascend.
It was in the bargain box at the door of the charity shop – a large cardboard egg, covered in a design of crocuses, clearly intended to be the target for an Easter egg hunt. Last year Abel followed the clues well, with a little help from Mummy, up and down and around granny and grandad’s house and garden. The treasure was finally revealed in an unexpected place; this year will be just a bit different, mostly for grandad’s benefit.
Some years ago he was gardening for a living, and around the end of Easter week was at an old garden in town with Abel’s mother and sister, who were both little girls. It was a lovely spring day, so much so that Mrs Turnstone brought a picnic lunch to share in the little park opposite. While the adults were finishing their meal, the girls played happily on the grass, until there came a shout, Mummy, Daddy, come quick!
Among the daffodils they had found a splendid Easter egg shell, like the one at the charity shop. We had no way to tell if it had been a prize in someone else’s hunt, or just possibly it had been left as a present for the finders. We felt it should be seen as a gift, since no one had claimed it and it would spoil if left outdoors, and so would the contents.
Mary went through the garden, looking for her lost Lord one spring morning. He found her. She went from ‘Jesus is nowhere’ to ‘Jesus is now here’ in an instant. Jesus is a gift, he will not spoil. The living Jesus was a much bigger surprise than even a very special Easter egg. He claims us. Let us accept the gift and follow him.
And if one of our readers remembers hiding the egg in the daffodils, thank you; it was greatly enjoyed!
This year’s reflections for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were prepared by the Churches in Malta and Gozo. We are sharing elements of their prayers, but follow the link for the full resources for personal or community prayer.
Naturally, the Maltese Christians draw our attention to the story in Acts 27-28 of how Paul, a prisoner in chains, was among a group who survived being shipwrecked on Malta.
An angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, stood by me this night, saying: Fear not, Paul, thou must be brought before Caesar; and behold, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer; for I believe God that it shall so be, as it hath been told me.And we must come unto a certain island. (27:23-26)
I am floating and at sea
Without direction and fearful of what lies ahead
I come to You, known and yet unknowing
Rising and falling
bring me to a safe haven
a place where I can begin
to hope again
to trust again
in You and others.
Almighty God, our personal suffering leads us to cry out in pain and we shrink in fear when we experience sickness, anxiety or the death of loved ones.
Teach us to trust You. May the churches we belong to be signs of Your providential care. Make us true disciples of Your Son who taught us to listen to Your word and to serve one another.
In confidence we ask this in the name of Your Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I had forgotten this war poem by Mary Webb. ‘So young he is, so dear to me’: this was not just written in sympathy for others, but from her own heart. Her three brothers enlisted, and one was gravely injured. Even so, if we cannot feel with those left behind, there is something wrong with us. Pray for all mothers, wives and families and friends worrying, worrying, at home, as well as the men and women on service.
Oh, Powers of Love, if still you lean
Above a world so black with hate,
Where yet–as it has ever been–
The loving heart is desolate,
Look down upon the lad I love,
(My brave lad, tramping through the mire)–
I cannot light his welcoming fire,
Light Thou the stars for him above!
Now nights are dark and mornings dim,
Let him in his long watching know
That I too count the minutes slow
And light the lamp of love for him.
The sight of death, the sleep forlorn,
The old homesickness vast and dumb–
Amid these things, so bravely borne,
Let my long thoughts about him come.
I see him in the weary file;
So young he is, so dear to me,
With ever-ready sympathy
And wistful eyes and cheerful smile.
However far he travels on,
Thought follows, like the willow-wren
That flies the stormy seas again
To lands where her delight is gone.
Whatever he may be or do
While absent far beyond my call,
Bring him, the long day’s march being through,
Safe home to me some evenfall!
Postcards sent from the front by a lad who died out there.
How at once should I know, When stretched in the harvest blue I saw the swift’s black bow, That I would not have that view Another day Until next May Again it is due?
The same year after year— But with the swift alone. With other things I but fear That they will be over and done Suddenly And I only see Them to know them gone.
Dear melancholy Edward Thomas had great insight that speaks to our age – a century on from his death. The swifts, those fast-flying birds that truly earn their name, come screaming around our house over the summer, often after a couple of short spring-time visits, broken off when the weather turns too cold for their insect prey to fly.
This terracotta bird flies beside our door; it came from Pieve San Lorenzo, a Tuscan village where brown alpine swifts replaced our black ones, but the ladies who sold it assured me it was their look-alike, the swallow. Now there’s a bird we see less of than we did, and the house martin too. I fear that they will be over and done suddenly, and our children’s children will never have known them, only to know them gone.
I miss the martins that used to live in our street, but my children do not remember their nests. At least we can put up boxes for the sparrows and blue tits and leave the doves and pigeons to nest in peace in our trees.
And we can watch and pray to discern how we can make our town and country a more welcoming place for these living pest controllers. The first thing is to acknowledge that we are all part of God’s creation, and not throw his gift back at him, but Laudato Si!
Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham, for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.
Yesterday, we began to ponder these remarkable words of Jesus. Today, we can continue to turn these words over in our minds – as Zacchaeus must have done late that night when everyone else had fallen asleep. How healing Jesus’ words are.
There is no hesitation on Jesus’ part in accepting Zacchaeus’s promise. No cynical words, such as, “Ha. We’ll see how long this lasts. You’ve been a liar and a thief most of your life and now you expect us to believe that you will keep these promises?” Not a word was spoken to that effect. Such remarks would have immediately condemned Zacchaeus to failure, imprisoned him in his past. But that is emphatically not the way Jesus treats anyone: certainly not Zacchaeus, and not us. Instead, Jesus reinforces Zacchaeus’s good resolution by believing in it and in him. How creative and life-giving Jesus’ belief in Zacchaeus is for him.
Jesus also regards Zacchaeus’s promise as sufficient. There is no lecture from Jesus along the lines of, “Right, my good man. Is that all you mean to do? Repaying those you ruined four times the amount you stole is not as generous as it sounds! Those people need at least that much in order to start all over again. And as for giving half your property to the poor, you will barely even feel the loss, you have so much property as it is.” Jesus does not say anything of the sort here, nor does he ever do so. Jesus is friendship, love and forgiveness. So great is his mercy and love that he immediately accepts our good resolutions wholeheartedly and envisions them not as unfulfilled promises but as actual achievements, meriting praise. Today salvation has come to this house, he says. It has already happened. This is what friendship with Jesus means.
Jesus’ friendship gives us the grace of a conversion that almost seems to reach back in time and not merely forward. Jesus can give us a new heart, and new inner desires for goodness, along with the determination to act on these desires – as we see in Zacchaeus’s resolutions. Jesus’ forgiveness is one with his friendship, which means we enter into a continuous inner relationship with him who is goodness. He can therefore fill our present with potential for good – because we are with him. This can enable us to fulfil our potential for goodness by drawing on an inner store of grace and wisdom, which have their source in Jesus.
Zacchaeus had been an unhappy, wounded, even tragic person. He had managed to surround himself with the comforts of wealth, but he did so to the detriment of his emotional life and his need for human relationships. Jesus, simply by being Jesus, swept away the tragedy like fallen leaves in the autumn; Jesus awakened Zacchaeus both to his own human longings and to his deepest human potential. In awakening these longings, Jesus also immediately offered himself as the fulfillment of Zacchaeus’s longings, and as the power behind all his potential. This shows us what we may hope for from Jesus, our beloved Friend.
Perhaps we are tentatively groping toward something, and we do not know what it is. Maybe we are metaphorically on that tree branch, just watching, as Zacchaeus was. Maybe we see Jesus turning to us. Maybe we are very clear only about one thing: that we are lost. Zacchaeus’s story tells us that we can be confident that Jesus will befriend us, too, and offer us as much healing forgiveness, with as much joy as he gave to Zacchaeus. He will also ask something of us: to allow him, and his dearest companions, into our home. Today.