INSPIRATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY WRITERS ARE INSPIRED?

Biblical literalists will tell you the Bible is inspired by God and a picture has arisen of the writers faithfully transcribing God’s inspiring Word. However, poets have long sought from beyond themselves the inspiration of the Muse. That there might be similarity with the Biblical in the kind of inspiration in some artists’ and prophetic voices is suggested by the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who claimed in The Oak and the Calf that for the final draft of The Gulag Archipelago three large volumes written in seventy three days, his was merely the recording hand.

William Blake, referring to his pictures, though he might well have said the same of his prophetic poems, “though I call them mine I know they are not mine”.

The idea of divine inspiration is reflected by D.H. Lawrence, reflecting to a colleague on his approach to his work:

I know how hard it is. One needs something to make one’s mood deep and sincere. There are so many frets that prevent our coming at the real naked essence of our vision. It sounds boshy doesn’t it? I often think one ought to be able to pray, before one works- and then leave it to the Lord. Isn’t it hard, hard work to come to real grips with one’s imagination- throw everything overboard? I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me-and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist. I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said, “Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.

(To Ernest Collings, 24th February 1913 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence)

That it was possible for Lawrence- son of a coal miner- in 1913 to pitch his inspiration at so high a level- scarcely imaginable in a writer in English a hundred years later- demonstrates an intense seriousness in his conception of the possibilities and meaning of art in the twentieth century, which links it closely with the Biblical idea of inspiration.

Whatever, both Blake and Lawrence were brought up as Nonconformists; one was the earliest great English Romantic and the other developed into perhaps the last representative of that great outcrop of writers. Solzhenitsyn, a faithful follower of the Russian Orthodox church writes out of the the great tradition of the Russian novel, but all three writers develop their work out of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

But to get back to the Bible, perhaps you remember the second story of creation in Genesis 2:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2: 7 KJV

Hence inspiration -the breath of God breathed in by Man; with Man as “living soul” created in the image of God (Genesis1.27) ;there follows creative speech (Adam is to name the animals) developing into what, in time, Lawrence is to call “art speech” (“art speech is the only speech”) properly and originally inspired in Man by God.

The idea of inspiration is central to the Old Testament. God inspired Moses, much against his will, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When Moses argues he has not the gift of eloquence he is told by God:

Who hath made man’s mouth…………Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say.

Genesis 4 11-12

The great Hebrew prophetic tradition follows in similar vein. Jeremiah similarly protests about being unable to speak for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1.6) and God reassures him Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me “Behold I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jeremiah 1.9). We hear of Ezekiel’s vivid visions followed by the words:

Son of Man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thy heart, and hear with thine ears“. (Ezekiel 3.10)

The prophetic tradition demonsrates most obviously the Biblical idea of inspiration. The prophets are men with a deep sense of accountability to God, deeply disturbed by the way in which their nation is going and finding, through inspired vision, a voice to express what they are convinced is God’s will. While much of what they say is directed towards the plight of their nation at a particular time, within the fluctuations of Middle-eastern geopolitics, from them emerge great visions like those of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, visions that were to inspire future prophets and indeed Jesus himself , who seemed particularly influenced by Isaiah’s idea of the “suffering servant” and Daniel’s apocalyptic visions.

Yet inspiration is not confined to the prophets. The Genesis stories of creation and the Fall are told at a depth which makes them continue to be deeply meaningful thousands of years later. The psalms are poems written by poets inspired to address God, some in gratitude to the good shepherd, some in distress to a God seemingly turned away. Job’s great drama daringly imagines God giving voice to the creation of the cosmos.

Biblical literalists then are not misguided in seeing inspiration as central to the creation of the books of the Bible. However the power to be a prophet or seer does not guarantee authenticity in itself. The Bible speaks of false prophets. Ezekiel is warned to distinguish true prophecy from those so called prophets who “follow their own spirits and have seen nothing” (Ezekiel 13.7). Of them God says

Have ye not seen a vain vision and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say,The Lord saith it albeit I have not spoken.

Ezekiel 13.7

We are disturbed by Biblical visions that speak of the the destruction of the Ammonites. These are visions, based on an idea of tribal purity at odds with later Christian ideas. Peter’s wonderful vision of being commanded to eat foods he instinctively considers impure (Acts 10. 9-16) is a revelatory turnaround of what he has learned from his religious heritage.

We need, in other words, as well as revelation, critical discernment . It is not enough to claim the inspiration and expect immediate endorsement. Prophecy may stretch the bounds of credibility or seem confusing or downright wrong as sometimes do the later Blake and the later Lawrence.

Yet inspiration, that is true inspiration, has an authority about it that we should be wary of countermanding:

And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.

Gospel of St. Mark 1.27

The voice of Jesus saying and doing what intellectual traditionalists of his day find outrageous, yet calls forth, as the revelatory does, wonder at the voice of counter- authority.

We, of the English language, have been peculiarly fortunate in a tradition of great prophetic voices who from Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Dickens, Lawrence, Leavis have represented a continuity of voices protesting against mainstream thought systems that have led to modern day scientism and technological- Benthamism (the phrase is Leavis’ characterisation of the age) which have vitiated our modern culture and depressed and diverted the religious spirit of the people.

Inspired voices? Our age desperately needs to learn from them.

THE MARRIAGE AT CANA (PART 2)

Last time we looked at a poem on the Marriage of Cana -which if you have not yet read I would encourage you to look at. Here is the story as described in St. John’s Gospel.

And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there. And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus, saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. And there were set there six waterpots of stone after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now and bear to the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was (but the servants which drew the water knew) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

Our first reaction reading this as if for the first time might be to say “What an extraordinary story!”. We might it also find it a very mysterious one. The mystery is less as to the actuality of the miracle : “Did it happen?” or “How did it happen? ” and more on its significance: “Why has John decided to make this the first “sign” of Jesus’ ministry?”

Another way of looking at it is its sheer strange aliveness. We are caught up in a story we are not sure we fully understand so that at the critical moment, when the “governor” of the feast tastes the water, we are filled with suspense. How will he react to this drink that is prepared as water and is purportedly wine? All we are given is a good humoured, genial reaction demonstrating that transformation has indeed been wrought.

The reader’s curiosity is roused by John’s choice of this story, not one of healing as the opening sign of Jesus’ ministry. There is clearly a significance in the use of waterpots normally used for purification purposes. And the underlying significance seems to be contained in the summing up phrase “You have kept the good wine till now”. Wine is used in John’s gospel by Jesus as something he brings as the “true vine”. The Communion service as introduced by Jesus at the Last Supper (not included as such in the gospel unless this story is seen as an alternative symbolic reference) relates the transformation brought in us in drinking the “wine ” of Jesus.

More simply this is a story whose significance is less bound up with the amazement of a miracle but the transformation Jesus brings in his ministry and through his death and Resurrection. The realism of the telling combines with a mysterious hinterland of points of significance that engages our sense of wonder as readers of a fascinating story.

At the heart of Christian belief is the idea of transformation. John’s gospel and this story that is the first sign manifesting Christ’s glory is one that invites us into a reading that takes us beyond the literal, beyond the happening to the significance of the presented happening.

It might be called an inspirational story. John clearly was to inspired to develop the story and give it a primary place in his gospel. The Christopher Morgan poem we looked at last time is an inspired imaginative reflection on the story. With Jesus’ new wine readers are encouraged to seek inspiration.

“THE MARRIAGE AT CANA” : A POEM. (1)

The following poem gives a wonderful sense of the mysterious vitality of the story of Christ’s first sign or miracle from the Gospel of St John.

THE STEWARD’S TALE”

We did not usually run out of wine;
My chief, a stern man, took his stewardship 
So very earnestly. There had been, 
You might say, an administrative slip.

This was, you understand, a marriage feast 
Of consequence. The guests had come from far 
And wide. I startled when I saw the last 
Drops slowly draining from my serving jar.

Word of the shortage had not got around; 
The chief knew nothing. How could I tell him? 
Then the voice of one who knew his own mind 
Bade me fill up six pitchers to the brim.

I turned to see a young man standing there, 
One of the guests, quiet, knowing, benign. 
Do as I bid he said, and have no fear. 
You bring me water I will give you wine.

Strange to say I did not hesitate, though 
Even at this time it seemed absurd. 
Those pitchers were so heavy it took two 
To lift them. I obeyed without a word.

It was with trepidation that I took 
A sample for approval to the chief. 
He sipped, nodded and with a puzzled look, 
Sent me away. Imagine my relief.

Later, as the feast progressed, I heard 
Him laugh and chat, politely tease the groom 
Uncannily an atmosphere of  shared 
Peace almost of blessing had filled the room. 


I often wondered about that young man, 
When I left Cana for another place, 
Another life. Until today, watching 
Them unfix the Nazarene from the cross,
 I recognised at once his gentle face.    

Chrsitopher Morgan in this poem (in the short collection Stalking the A4 The Brynmill Press 2009) is presented by critic Ian Robinson as one of the few contemporary poets whose work continues to “haunt” him

. “He is the best practitioner of English verse I have read in our time. Especially in the twenty first century it is not faint praise to call a writer a supreme master of the iambic pentameter and Morgan’s fluency in other forms is amazing.”

The Marriage of Cana in St John’s gospel is one of the great tales of the gospel. Rich meaning is distilled through Jesus’ direction leading to the transformation of water to wine.

The steward’s predicament here gives another perspective: the telling the tale from another imagined angle, through a dramatic monologue of one who has no previous knowledge of the man Jesus, so giving a fresh view on the power of his influence in creating an atmosphere of “shared Peace, almost of blessing” through the room. Behind this feeling is the cryptic and powerful prediction the Lord has made: “You bring me water I will give you wine“.

The steward speaks in exact, measured terms as one seeking to describe the events simply for a hearer. The precise account and the sure poetic use of enjambement (last Drops), the surprise of the single word active verb for “startled” (it is usually in passive voice) enables us to focus on the steward’s predicament. The introduction of Jesus is striking: first by unexpected voice-he is heard before he is seen- “ the voice of one who knew his own mind“- and then his appearance “quiet, knowing, benign” confirming the authority of voice when the steward is at a loss as to how to break the news. The decisive command is intriguingly reinforced by the fine chime of “wine” with “benign”.

The immediate effect within the poem is witnessed by the steward, in trepidation as he watches the master of the feast imbibe that drink he knows was poured out water. His relief at his master’s reaction is developed into wonder by the transformation wrought in the room.

This is beautifully wrought poetry. The steward’s wonder is prepared for by “uncannily”. As we return to the word we realise it is a stretched four syllable word drawing out the sense of the steward’s feeling as he sees the transformation gradually taking place. Note how the enjambement throws the emphasis on the keyword “Peace”( rhythmically elongated) . We are seeing the room through the steward’s eyes. His additional “almost of blessing” reminds us this is the voice of one who does not know Jesus, trying to find the right word and lighting on the powerful word “blessing” with its strong religious implications (of grace, of revelation) to describe the effects of his action.

That could have ended the poem but there is an additional five line stanza bringing us up to date linking the forgoing story with the crucified Jesus. The one who brought blessing and new life, the one whose “cup” he invited his disciples to drink as his blood at the Last Supper, is the one whose potential is declared in that opening miracle of John’s gospel.

The poem is thus an inspired re-telling of the first sign the inspired gospel writer, John brings of one who continues to have the power to transform.

“THE TOWER OF BABEL: AN UP-TO-DATE VERSION”

(According to Wikipedia the Millenium Dome was designed by Richard Rogers and constructed to celebrate that date. It was described by Prime Minister Tony Blair as “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. It is fair to say that the response given in the Conservative Manifesto- “banal, anonymous and rootless” and “lacking a sense of Britain’s history and culture” seems more in accordance with the general public and educated reaction at the time. The satire I here reproduced written nearer the time reflects a similar feeling.)

And the most powerful rulers on earth gathered together and said: let us now speak one language. For now that we know the laws of Science and the power of Technology we shall defer to neither God nor Nature. And we shall make the poor peoples of the world give up their traditional agriculture and make them grow what we want them to grow and make what we want them to make. We shall teach all peoples to worship money and we shall be guided by economic experts who inform us how to control economies to our best advantage. And within these guidelines we shall pretend to allow people freedom, equality and democracy. And we shall teach people to mock the past, to despise tradition and to regard as superstition religious beliefs. And we shall educate them to believe only in progress and we shall encourage them always to want more than they can buy and we shall devise great entertainment industries using the resources of technology to keep them permanently amused, or at least distracted, when they are not working. And people the world over will forget religion and glorify Man. So let us build a great Dome where we can celebrate the progress and lordship of Man where the people will rejoice in our great secular and materialistic society.

And the Lord came down to the city and looked at the Dome which the children of men built. And the Lord said: Behold the people are one and they have all one language, and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do.

And the Lord continued: They worship their own productions and defer neither to Nature nor to me. They have despoiled and ravaged Nature and made growing places deserts. They have proclaimed freedom and they have created docility. They have promoted democracy and get themselves elected as sharp practitioners or media stars who care for the interests of their people when they have neither wisdom derived from the past nor concern for the future. They have claimed to grant equality but only when people have been taught to say “Materialism is all” .

They have advanced education but only an education designed towards the service of Mammon. This is a generation that does not know the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.

And because of this, Nature will rebel because it can no longer sustain Man in his greed and arrogance. And because they do not regard the poor of the earth, those from traditional cultures and religions will resist the powerful and there will be war and rumours of war and there will be terror and rumours of terror. And there will be anarchy and to deal with anarchy more dictatorial rule and in reaction to dictatorial rule there will be rebellion and then to repress rebellion there will be more cruel dictatorships and Man and his works will be confounded.

Then came the Son unto the Father as he watched the building of the Dome and said: All that you say is just and yet there is still the Church which can still do good and there are still those who sing the old songs and dance the old dances and learn from poetry, who read the Scriptures and glorify Thee and seek to advance Thy Kingdom. Before you completely condemn Man give those who love and tend and nurture that which is good within their traditions yet another opportunity to recreate the Garden you designed for humanity where different traditions and cultures and languages might flourish on the good soil you have laid for them ; then these may yet grow to honour Thee as the creative source of all that is good.

And the Lord said: What you say is still my desire.

NOTE

Picture: Millenium_Dome_zakgollop

FROM TOWER OF BABEL TO PENTECOST

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence

(Genesis 11; 6-8a KJV)

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they {ie. the disciples} were all, with one accord in one place.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared to them unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

Acts 2:1-6

In the Tower of Babel story human beings use their collective knowledge and speech to seek to arrogate their status to become gods. God shows this is the way that leads to disintegration. Their collective knowledge and speech is lost and they are scattered abroad speaking many tongues.

In the second story God sends the Holy Spirit to his chosen disciples who carry the knowledge of the resurrection in their hearts. They now have one message to speak to the hearts of people of all tongues.

In our own language we are made aware God speaks to us of love of Him and love of all. We are to bring that assurance to our own culture and participate in its sharing with all cultures.

WILLIAM BLAKE : “JESUS WAS AN ARTIST”

Verily , verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”

GoSPEL OF ST. JOHN 12.24

Curiously, although brought up on the Bible, I never noticed this saying until I read Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov where it is used as an epigraph. The power of the saying acting with the creative insight of poetry immediately struck me.

The saying relates, of course, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his death and its consequences. The single grain of corn if left on the surface is unfulfilled. The buried seed is as dead, but contains new life bringing forth new seeds of growth.

If this sounds like great poetry bringing out the deepest meaning, is this what Blake meant when he distinguished Jesus as an artist? For Blake this did not mean that Jesus expressed himself through the arts. Like Socrates, Jesus produced no written work. Blake sees, however, in Jesus a power of creative imagination central to being an artist or a poet. The Imagination is the quality which Blake, rather like Coleridge, appears to see as the supreme gift.

For creative imagination we might single out his “sayings” or his power of vivid speech. He speaks creatively not by presenting rules or flat statements or simple directions but by utterances that involve us in seeking to puzzle out what he means. Whether it is by direct teaching or by telling stories, as parables, he leads us into re-thinking. His sayings are ever memorable: think of a few of dozens:

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head”,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,

Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt hath lost its savour wherewith shall it be salted”,

He is an artist as shown by his pervasive story-telling. (But without a parable spake he not unto them. Mark 4.34). Think of the parable of the prodigal son, called the most perfect short story ever told. How he gets us to enter into the state of mind of both sons! with the younger: And he fain would have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat and also with the elder But as soon as this thy son was come which devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf . But he also takes us into the mind of the Father, not directly by thought, but by action: But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. At the end the Father sums up the reason for joy which the elder brother has to decide if he is going to come to terms with : This thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found. In the shortest compass we have been invited to use our imaginations to access three minds and work out our own feelings.

Or think of the parable of the of the Good Samaritan ever an inspiring tale, exposing bigotry, of a person of rejected background acting with charity as against those with official religious duties who passed by on the other side. It is a tale that runs so deep in our culture that we use the phrase, to be a good Samaritan.

The imaginative power that enables Jesus to create such tales also enables him, with supreme quickness, to see into the minds of those seeking to bring him down. Think how he deals with the challenging questions of those seeking to trap him: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? and Jesus’ answer ” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Always he seems equipped through his imaginative understanding of the questioner and what is at issue to answer in a way that, instead of falling into the trap, he puts the questioner on the spot.

But it is not only his speech and parables that show creative imagination. He also acts creatively on those who need healing. He is sensitive to the touch of the woman, who, afraid to speak to him, touches his robe. He brings her forward, in fear, but having “made her whole” he reassures her beautifully: Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. To those whose illness or mental disturbance is caused by awareness of sin he is again reassuring: Son thy sins be forgiven thee

His imaginative capacity to see beyond limits means he refuses dogmatism. Brought up in the Jewish tradition he naturally respects the Law but is also daring enough to challenge its whenit limits thinking.”Ye have heard it said “Thou shalt love thy enemy and hate thine enemy”, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” To those who would condemn the stoning of the woman taken in adultery he challenges” Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone”.

With creative power and highly developed critical understanding, he challenges conventional attitudes both towards sinners , and exposes the self-righteous. Once heard who can forget the story of the Pharisee and the publican?: The pharisee thanked God he was not as other men are. and he is contrasted with the publican who stood afar off and would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me , a sinner

Creative people prize spontaneity and have a natural love of the openness of children. Jesus held up children :

Unless ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven”.

And also he held up those devalued by society : much to her amazement, St John has him in long conversation with the ostracised Samaritan woman at the well:”Give me to drink” and then proceeds to tell her what she needs to know:

Whosoever shall drink of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give them shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

His imaginative action is also declared in his life purpose, his journey carrying his sense of God’s calling. We might pick out particular actions of dramatic power: the Palm Sunday parade on a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple protest, the passover meal, the washing of his disciples’ feet . These are all acts of a man who understands the power of dramatic teaching pointing us to understanding of the meaning of what he is doing.

Wondrously he sees himself not only as a prophet but also the point, God-guided, towards which the Jewish tradition is leading him. On tradition T.S.Eliot is helpful here: by understanding the way in which he, in his art, has been shaped by tradition he develops the awareness of the way in which he can extend the tradition. Jesus steeped in the Scriptures- in the Psalms ( quoted on the cross), in the prophetic understanding of Isaiah and Daniel and Zechariah-understands in what direction he must go, even though that direction leads to the Cross.

To call Jesus an artist is not to delimit him but to point to the nature of his creative power.

THE JOURNEY TO EMMAUS

St Luke 24. 13-35( KJV 1611)

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about three score furlongs.

And they talked together of all these things which had happened.

And it came to pass, that while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.

But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad.?

And the one, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things that are come to pass there in these days.

And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people:

And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death and they crucified him.

But we trusted it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done.

Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre:

And when they found not his body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive.

And certain of them which were at the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:

Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

And they drew nigh unto the village whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.

But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is towards evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together,and them that were with them,

Saying the Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.

And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them by the breaking of the bread.

Comment.

The story of the Journey to Emmaus is one of the great short stories within the Gospels. Its spiritual value is developed, especially in the King James Version of the Bible, by its strengths as literature. It focuses on the walk of two disciples, we presume to their village home, following the crucifixion of their master. Their walk is clearly intended to be one way, but becomes, through the nature of their encounter on the road, a return journey. So they end up at the place they started from but utterly changed.

On the road from Jerusalem to their village the mood of the disciples -one of obvious despair and bewilderment- is expressed by the walkers’ body language as “they communed together and reasoned”. “Communed” suggests the close intimacy of their communication and their sadness is conveyed to the one who overtakes them. The sound of the ancient word “holden” (from the verb “to hold” so meaning something like “held” by their preoccupations ) is perfect for conveying this heavy downcast mood which makes them unable to look properly upward and outward to see that the stranger might be Jesus. Giving a perfect summary of the reasons for their sadness the stranger surprises the listeners with his critical response that challenges their understanding of the meaning of what they have experienced. Based on scriptural authority, the stranger shows them there is another perspective. They, in their misery, have not seen what is there to be seen.

We, as readers, are in the position of knowing who the stranger is so we are in a privileged position. We can watch what they do.Yet, as readers, we can identify with the disciples seeing things as they do-so too would we. Thus we watch in knowledge while we are also dramatically involved in the effect that the revelation is going to have on the two disciples.

Obviously stirred by the words of Jesus, the disciples urge him to “abide” with them. The word “constrained” ( compare “invited”) suggests the pressure inside them to urge him. It is the sharing of the meal that brings revelation. The wonderful sentence that leads to this deserves special attention: “And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, that he took bread,and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.” Count the commas!. The commas ensure pauses, adding the slow rhythmic build- up reinforced by the alliteration of “bread”, ” blessed”, “brake” all rhythmically accented. The pauses with the “and”s (four of them including the start) help to isolate each stage of the action, each of significance to the hosts (who will know, anyway, of the Last Supper ritual).

The King James’ Version is rightly famous for its appropriateness for public reading. It is both formal and simple. In addition however it opens the way to imaginative contemplative reading. The build up of clauses and the start “And it came to pass” which works like the word “behold” (at the start of the story) to invite contemplative focus. These phrases help to concentrate the reading for this kind of focus on the significance of what is to pass or be beholden.

The revelation “and their eyes were opened and they knew him” brings it into direct contrast the beginning of the encounter “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him”. Glancing through a variety of recent translations no modern version makes this kind of strong linkage using the eyes: though several have “their eyes were opened” none specifically use the contrasting sense of their eyes being earlier blinded. At this point Christ vanishes. The point of recognition reached, his visual presence is required no longer.

The revelation impels action. The joyous journey back contrasts with their initial outward state of dolour. Their conversation reflects their wondrous joy: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he opened to us the scriptures”. (Again notice the effect of two strong words “hearts” and burn” being placed side by side, slowing speech to emphasise the significance) . Where they were blind before, now they see.

It is this kind of slow , strong rhythmic beat emphasising key words and not allowing a more flat kind of recording prose to predominate. The point of scripture is that it is not there to be ordinary to be presented in an ordinary kind of conversational prose but to direct attention to what is truly significant. What we have in the King James Version is the story beautifully told to bring out the potential for renewed vision enabling a movement from despair to joy.

“MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?”

Gethsemane presents a new situation. Before this Jesus would retire from the multitudes, and also from his disciples to be apart. He sought out solitude to be with God. Three times in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel he seeks to be in solitary places with the God he calls Father. Gethsemane, however, for the first time, reveals a new pressure. He appears to be at odds with the purpose the Father is guiding him towards.

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast and kneeled down and prayed, Saying, Father, if thou be willing remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.(Luke 23.41-42)

What he most longs for is in opposition to what is being imposed upon him by God from which it is clear the only way out is that he must die. This may puzzle us, simply because, we understand from all the gospels that Jesus is preparing himself and his disciples for the inevitability of his condemnation to death. We must allow, however, there to be a difference between the vision of an inevitable future and that future become present.

Does Jesus fear death? Perhaps, being human, he has to know that fear in particularly terrible form:

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. (ibid. 22.44)

But the story of Gethsemane moves from distress and agony to resolution. Through soul-wrenching prayer he has accepted what God has required of him; he stirs the sleeping disciples, for now, he is ready to face his captors.

Has Jesus, however, had for the first time to glimpse aloneness?- the possibility, not only of being apart from the rest of humanity, but also separate from the beloved Father? Perhaps the early stages of Gethsemane show what will become much more so on the Cross, leading to the cry: Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani? or My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15.34).

Here Jesus’ plight on the Cross, a sufficiently barbarically cruel punishment in itself, is increased beyond measure by the sense that he is abandoned, the God who has always been faithful to him seems no longer present to him; or, at least his purposes seem unfathomable. What he is suffering seems beyond any sense of purpose.

What are we to make of this? Does Jesus’ life end in defeat after all? True,in Luke, he is recorded as later saying:

Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” and having said this he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23.46)

and in John “It is finished”. (19.30).

But in Mark the agonised question is made the final utterance. And is this not something sceptics, like Albert Camus, have latched on to? Jesus’ ministry ends in defeat. He has been proved wrong.

Step back! Consider Auschwitz, holocaust, genocide, slavery -ships. Think of the children Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov speaks of suffering unspeakable cruelty. How we might ask, can Christians dare to preach a gospel of hope knowing of such examples of people suffering abandonment and torture? The message should be strangled in our throats before it could be uttered, unless we have faith that the Crucifixion and the forsaken Jesus were not the end of the story.

For hope can only be uttered because Jesus knew what the crushing sense of abandonment really means. Ultimately without that cry on the Cross Jesus could not be the saviour of all the abandoned and tortured because, for them, there are levels of pain that he might not be seen in his own life to reach.

A small group of disciples, many of them women, watched him on the Cross. For them, Calvary, would be a scene of defeat-a great enterprise ending in disaster. But if that were the case these words would never have been recorded in print. There would be no good news , no gospel. The disciples, by whose witness the words of Jesus’ ultimate loneliness were transmitted to the world were those who, miraculously supercharged with purpose, were able, following the Resurrection, to say, “Look abandonment and death does not end it all. We are not in the end alone and abandoned. Christ is risen! God is, after all, faithful”.

But Christians cannot sound naive or unrealistic in their preaching and spreading of the good news because they know so many are suffering that ultimate loneliness and to them we can speak in knowledge of the Saviour abandoned as well as the Saviour risen.

EASTER POEMS

The Crucifixion

“String him up,” some repoman shouted, (repossessor)

He’s a weirdo” “In the bin, in the bin”,

Yelled another and grabbed some thorns,

Sharp as needles, twisting them round

A fresh-cut-thorn branch. He made

A wreath and forced it down on his head,

The pain piercing his flesh. “Morning vicar”,

This comedian said and darted twigs

At him, aiming at his eyes. With three

Nails, he nailed him naked to the cross,

Lifted bitter drink to his lips, telling

Him drink and stop dropping off, hang

On a bit longer. “Now if he’s really something,”

He said, “He’ll get himself out of this one.

If you’re Christ, and if Christ is God’s

Son, come on down off that cross.

We’ll believe it then, you’ve got a life

On a string, you’re nevergoing to be

A goner”

“That’s it”

Christ said,

“That’s it”.

His senses

Began to fade

Pale and piteous

Like a prisoner

In death, the Lord

Of life and light

Closed his eyes, day

Shrank back, appalled,

And the sun darkened.

The Temple wall

Shattered and split

The solid rocks

Of earth ruptured,

It was dark

As thickest night,

Earth convulsed,

Quaked like a live thing.

The noise brought

Dead men clambering up

From the coffined depths

Who told why the tempest raged so long.

One corpse said

“There is in darkness

Here a bitter fight

Life and Death

Destroy each other, None can know

For sure who wins

Till Sunday

As the sun rises”,

And with these words

Sank back in earth.

From Piers Plowman by William Langland 1330?-1400?

translated by Ronald Tamplin. (from “The Lion Christian Poetry Collection” compiled by Mary Batchelor Lion Publishing 1995)

This translation combines a vivid recent colloquial language with the freshness of Langland’s great medieval poem ( contemporary with Chaucer). Tamplin gives us a sense of Langland’s realism in the frank brutal savagely comic talk going on round the crucifixion spectacle. The cosmic consequences of the death is based on some less familiar details to be found in Matthew’s gospel, much more readily grasped by the common people in the medieval period.

“And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom ;and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves opened: and many bodies of the saints which slept arose and came of the graves after the resurrection, and went into the holy city and appeared unto many”.

I’d be delighted if this extact encouraged readers to look at Langland’s work which has become too much neglected in recent years. Langland was a contemporary of Chaucer who uses Middle English rather than Chaucer’s “southren”. It is in unrhymed alliterative form based on Old Germanic (as was Beowulf in Old English).

Try reading aloud to get the sound of the alliterative verse. Individual words can be checked from the above translation- although this will not always be exact. The two Latin phrases quoted from the Bible are in Latin (” “It is finished” and “Indeed this was the Son of God”).

The passage from Langland starts from “His senses Began to fade” in the translation. Enjoy having a go and getting a feel of our ancient tongue and its poetry!

Consummatum est, quod Crist,and comsede for to swoune,
Pitousliche and pale as a prison that deieth;
The lord of lif and of light tho leide hise eighen togideres.
The day for drede withdrough and derk bicam the sonne.
The wal waggede and cleef, and al the world quaved,
Dede men for that dene come out of depe graves,
And tolde why that tempeste so long tyme durede. 
"For a bitter bataille" the dede bodie seide;
" Lif and Deeth in this derknesse, hir oon fordooth hir boother.
Shal no wight wite witterly who shal have the maistrie
Er Sonday aboute sonne risyng- and sank with that til erthe
Some saide he was Goddes sone, that so faire deyde:
Vere filius Dei erat iste
And some seide he was a wicche- "Good is that we assaye
Wher he be deed or noght deed, doun er he be taken."   

FOR PALM SUNDAY : THE DONKEY

          
Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

The Donkey

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorns, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
   And ears like errant wings, 
The devil's walking parody 
  On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth 
  Of ancient crooked will,
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
  I keep my secret still.

Fools for I also had my hour 
  One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears
  And palms before my feet.

G.K. Chesterton 1874-1936

I love the way this poetic monologue gives a sense of the astonishing oddity of the donkey. The picture is humorous, self- mocking without ever being self-abusive. There is an inner self-worth that is to be justified by the finale.

The first stanza offers a fantasising version of an evolving creation with its outlandish projection of a world in which “fishes flew and forests walked”. The alliteration underlies the playful amusement of the picture The comic strangeness anticipates the weird creature presented in the second stanza.

It is worth noting , however, that the spiritual significance of the climax of the poem is suggested as early as the first stanza with the line “And figs grow upon thorns”which will remind all Biblically- literate readers of Christ’s saying (Matthew 7:16) “Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?” The witty suggestion of Chesterton is that there was a nascent stage of creation where this confusion was possible and it was from that kind of state the donkey emerged.

The comic strangeness of the creature develops in the second and third stanzas. “Sickening cry” is followed by the excellent phrase “errant wings”. “Tattered outlaw of the earth” reminds us we might expect to see a handsome horse but rarely a smart-looking donkey. “Outlaw” confirms its oddity. But the third stanza moves to the reaction to the “outlaw” of public condemnation. “Scourge” and “deride” point to the unfolding connection with the passion story-to the One who, made an “outlaw,” was also scourged and derided. The poem as it moves towards “the secret” is revealing the donkey as a victim- primarily a victim of public scorn and this is preparing for the paralleling of the creature with Christ, the victim of the Easter story with which the donkey is to be connected. But if the victim triumphs, if Christ triumphs through the Resurrection, then his chosen creature has the confidence to tell its story as one of vindication. Because of Christ the one who was rejected is no longer incongruous:

Fools for I also had my hour 
   One far , fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears 
  And palms before my feet.

  

On a first reading we await that revelatory final line for the full meaning of the poem to come home to us. It is only then we realise the significance the poem has been so skilfully leading us towards. The donkey owes its sense of worth to being an important participant in a drama of universal human significance.

The poem leaves us with a very interesting question to which the Easter story proffers a possible answer: “If I am made a victim, in what might my sense of self -worth consist?”