Sweet dreams, form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head!
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams!
Sweet Sleep, with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown
Sweet Sleep, angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child!
Sweet smiles, in the night
Hover over my delight!
Sweet smiles, mother's smile,
All the livelong night beguile.
Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thine eyes!
Sweet moan, sweeter smile,
All the dovelike moans beguile.
Sleep, sleep, happy child!
All creation slept and smiled.
Sleep, sleep, happy sleep,
While o'er thee doth mother weep.
Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace;
Sweet babe, once like thee
Thy Maker lay, and wept for me:
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When He was an infant small.
Thou His image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee!
Smiles on thee, on me, on all,
Who became an infant small;
Infant smiles are his own smiles;
Heaven and earth to peace beguiles.
From "Songs of Innocence"
Unless the eye catch fire, The God will not be seen. Unless the ear catch fire, The God will not be heard. Unless the tongue catch fire, The God will not be named. Unless the heart catch fire, The God will not be loved. Unless the mind catch fire, The God will not be known.
William Blake, Pentecost.
Blake had a way with words, and with ideas. We need to catch fire but not to be too hard on ourselves when the fire is damped down and invisible. This fire was out – or looked that way. It sprang back into life with a few puffs from the bellows and a few dry sticks and logs. How can we open ourselves to the Spirit to relight our fires? How can we feed our own fires and each other as we approach the festival of light?
49 Jesus said to his disciples: ’I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! 50 There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!
O, GOD, giver and preserver of all life,
by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained,
look down upon me with tenderness and mercy;
grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed;
that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness.
O, LORD, let me not sink into total depravity;
look down upon me, and rescue me at last from the captivity of sin.
Almighty and most merciful Father,
who hast continued my life from year to year,
grant that by longer life I may become less desirous of sinful pleasures,
and more careful of eternal happiness.
Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt;
but as my age advances, let me become more pure in my thoughts,
more regular in my desires, and more obedient to thy laws.
Forgive, O merciful LORD, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws.
Give me such a sense of my wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance;
so that when I shall be called into another state,
I may be received among the sinners to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon,
for JESUS CHRIST'S sake.
From "Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784" by James Boswell
Boswell acknowledged Johnson as a most pious friend, who was by no means as wicked as the reader might imagine. Johnson was inclined to melancholy and to a deep sense of his own sinfulness, but any of us could make our own the last paragraph of this prayer.
Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder dates from some 20 years after Johnson’s prayer. May they both be received among the sinners who have obtained pardon.
After discussing statements on the environment and the misuse of Creation by popes over the last fifty years, Pope Francis continues by saying how scientists and other thinkers have contributed to church thinking.
7. Other Churches and Christian communities – and other religions as well – have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing. To give just one striking example, I would mention the statements made by the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion.
8. Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation: “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.
9. At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.
Bartholomew and Francis are close to Blake’s vision:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
But Blake is not sentimentalising. He goes on to catalogue some sins against Creation, specifically cruelty against animals. If we saw a Heaven in a Wild Flower we would accept the world as a sacrament of communion, and not act in this way:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage Puts all Heaven in a Rage. A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions. A dog starvd at his Masters Gate Predicts the ruin of the State. A Horse misusd upon the Road Calls to Heaven for Human blood. Each outcry of the hunted Hare A fibre from the Brain does tear. A Skylark wounded in the wing A Cherubim does cease to sing. The Game Cock clipd & armd for fight Does the Rising Sun affright.
I am never alone when praying the psalms, and this is not just because I pray them in the liturgy and in community. Many people pray the psalms privately, and they, too, are not alone. This is because the psalms, you might say, “refashion” the heart of the person praying.
I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.
On our last L’Arche pilgrimage, those of us at the back of the group were following, not a golden string but arrows chalked on the pavement by the children. Who would not jump at the chance to draw graffiti across a town without getting into trouble? Only in the woods did we need some imagination to read the arrows they had created from sticks and stones.
In Dover town I ended up walking with P, who was happy enough to be walking way behind everyone else. Carrying the banner helped him concentrate on moving along. But we had to stop along the riverbank to watch the Dover ducks, who were quacking loudly. So I quacked back, quietly and politely, and so did P.
But my stomach was rumbling, and that golden string was going to snap if we lost touch with everyone else.
Soon a search party came to chivvy us along, so that we got to Kearsney Abbey park before all the food was gone. That was important to both of us!
Who knows where their golden string will lead them, on the way to Heaven’s gate? Blake’s picture shows us a woman walking beneath the White Cliffs and looking up to where her string is leading her. He does not show how our personal strings ravel together. Those weavings, knots, stitches, embroidery and tangles are part of each of our life’s journey, part of our shared pilgrimage, helping each other to find the way; as P and I did, one morning in Dover.
Of a truth, God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice. Who gave him charge over the earth, and who laid on him the whole world? If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.”
Who’s speaking here? Who is defending Almighty God? This is when the Book of Job suddenly jolts. Elihu bursts in, full of wrath, full of anger, at the thoughts expressed by Job’s friends. They are blaming Job for being wicked, despite appearances, and deserving every misfortune that has come his way, or else blaming God for being unjust to Job.
We saw how the editors of Exodus wrote that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart – and also that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. God could be said to have made Pharaoh’s heart hard because he created him in the first place. You sense that Elihu would not stand for such hair-splitting. ‘God will not do wickedly.’
Who is this Elihu? He’ s not one of the original cast, he just bursts in. Some have suggested that he is the actual writer if the book, giving his own thoughts and opinions. He’s an ‘angry young man’ with no time for what he sees as interminable, sterile philosophising. Here William Blake shows him as young, not set in his ways (or other people’s ways) and naked: he’s naked because he is innocent – like Adam and Eve were before the fall, not diminishing God through overthinking.
God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice. We are capable of both.
From “The Holy Bible, English Standard Version by Crossway Bibles, via Kindle
Gwen Riley Jones is a computer imaging member of the John Rylands library staff iin Manchester. Since the team cannot get into the library, they are working from home, imagining rather than just imaging. William Blake would approve. I hope you do too.
In the Book of Job, 22, his friend, Eliphaz the Temanite says:
“Can a man be profitable to God? Surely he who is wise is profitable to himself. Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are in the right, or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless? “
Job’s comforters have a bad press, indeed Blake, who engraved our image calls them ‘tormentors’. But even if it’s the wrong time and place for it, Eliphaz has a point for us, if not for Job! As Rowan Williams puts it in his discussion on William Tyndale:
Any system of religious activity and thinking that tries to give us some leverage over God – I’ve never denied God a moment of my time, I hope he remembers that – such an attitude is poisonous to our faith.
We create religious institutions that are designed to preserve that divine indebtedness to us, and while we are doing that, we largely ignore the concrete forms of indebtedness toward other human beings to which we should be attending.*
ALL IS GIFT!
Accept the gift of your life, accept that it is a gift, be thankful for every breath! God did not have to bring you into being, and if you suffer, remember that so too did Jesus, his Son. Suffering is shared by God.
Alfred Joyce Kilmer put it this way in his Prayer of a Soldier in France:
My shoulders ache beneath my pack
(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back).
Please follow this link to our post from July last year for the whole poem, written shortly before Kilmer’s death in battle. He concludes:
So let me render back again
This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.
The gift is the redemptive suffering of Jesus; allying our suffering to his is to set ourselves in sympathy with Jesus; so if personal suffering is a gift, that is because of how we receive it, endure it, live it: through him, with him and in him. Him being the one who prayed: O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt. (Matthew 26:29)
William Blake lived near Beachy Head in Sussex, part of the range of chalk cliffs he drew as a background for this verse.
Virginia Woolf was to drown herself in the nearby River Ouse a century and a half later, but today it is the cliffs themselves that attract the lonely, depressed and overwhelmed who are tempted to take their lives.
The Beachy Head Chaplaincy team are Christians from local churches ‘and although we reach out with the love of God, we never impose our faith on the people we seek to help.
‘We believe that by receiving skilled crisis intervention support at their time of crisis, people in suicidal distress can be awakened to the hope that there are other ways forward to address the problems they face.’
The Apostle Judas went out and hanged himself after seeing Jesus arrested and condemned, but the artist of Strasbourg Cathedral’s west front shows us the Lamb of God coming to release him from his noose and away from the mouth of Hell to go in at Heaven’s Gate.
In their different ways, the well-to-do and well-connected Virginia Woolf, and the disciple who was trusted by Jesus, were both privileged, yet both knew despair. It is not for us to condemn them, or any other suicide; rather let us support with prayer and alms brave good neighbours like the Samaritans and the Beachy Head Chaplains, not forgetting the official first responders, Police, Ambulance, Fire, Coastguard and Lifeboats.
And may we be ready with small talk or even a just a smile for anyone we meet. Lead, Kindly Light!
Our L’Arche pilgrimage was like winding a section of Blake’s golden string, only those of us at the back of the group were following arrows chalked on the pavement by the frontrunners. What ten-year-old would not enjoy the chance to draw graffiti without getting into trouble?
In Dover I ended up walking with D, who may be slow, but speeds up to slow ahead when someone holds his hand. Having a banner to carry also helped him along.
Now D does not speak, though he has a vocabulary in Makaton signs (which I must learn again, not having used them for forty years). We were walking beside the River Dour in Dover when a duck started berating us. So I quacked back. D began to laugh, so I quacked even more. So did the duck.
Then D began making little grunts in time with my quacks. He’d got the joke and joined in. We were both still smiling when a few people caught up with us and mentioned lunch. At which point D’s feet found wings!
I think I passed through Jerusalem’s wall that morning.