Heaven’s chimes are slow, but sure to strike at last;
Earth’s sands are slow, but surely dropping thro’:
And much we have to suffer, much to do,
Before the time be past.Christina Rossetti, “Heaven’s chimes are slow”
One of my favourite stories is a little-known work by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Leaf By Niggle”. It is the story of an artist called Niggle who is brilliant at painting leaves. One “leaf by Niggle”, they say, is worth many other artists’ trees. But Niggle wants to one day paint a whole tree, and aims to do so, but is continually interrupted by his neighbour whose petty complaints Niggle still feels obliged to help with. Niggle also knows that he has a big journey that he must undertake one day soon, and he keeps putting off preparing for it. Niggle’s story is so familiar to me: the story of someone whose head is full of creative goals yet they are never realised because life keeps interrupting.
But that – spoiler alert – is not the end of Niggle’s story. If you read to the end, what you find is that all of life’s interruptions have become part of Niggle’s artwork. In the end, instead of having painted a tree, he finds that he has created a garden, and he and his pesky neighbour are now co-workers in the one beautiful garden. Everything that seemed to interrupt Niggle from his artwork was in fact the art in the making.
For me, it’s a beautiful picture of heaven – and I suspect Tolkien meant it that way. It’s also one of the best reflections of creativity and its eternal significance that I have encountered. I have been comforted by it many times when I feel that I am not accomplishing all that I hope to accomplish. I like to think – and I shared a poem of mine here yesterday to that effect – that even all the poems I have never managed to write have become a kind of humus making the nutritious soil for everything else that I have written or done.
I wonder what we will one day make of all the spaces in between things in our lives – those times of waiting or interruption or stasis, those times when we felt we weren’t where we should be, doing what we wanted to be doing. Neurological research even indicates that times of seeming stasis are actually often times when our brains do the work most necessary for being creative. I love the life and poetry of Christina Rossetti for this reason, because in her work I see so much of that fruit of in-between times. One of her most beautiful and powerful works is the three-part poem “Three Stages”. Two of the three stages were originally published as stand-alone poems, and one was reimagined as another poem “Heaven’s chimes are slow”, and there are many years in between each stage. We can see, as Rossetti keeps returning to the theme – seemingly the story of giving up a love that went against the persona’s conscience – the way that time works away at our wounds and struggles. We see the vacillations in a soul that is seeking to do what it knows to be right yet feels the tensions of this decision. And we see some wonderful reflections on the passing of time itself, something that only time can teach us, as in this passage from the final part:
I thought to deal the death-stroke at a blow,
To give all, once for all, but nevermore; –
Then sit to hear the low waves fret the shore,
Or watch the silent snow.
“Oh rest,” I thought, “in silence and the dark;
Oh rest, if nothing else, from head to feet:
Thought I may see no more poppied wheat,
Or sunny soaring lark.
“These chimes are slow, but surely strike at last;
This sand is slow, but surely droppeth thro’;
And much there is to suffer, much to do,
Before the time be past.“
That last stanza always arrests me. They speak of a soul that has struggled, known that struggles do not end easily, and yet has chosen to persevere all the same. “These chimes are slow, but surely strike at last”: there’s something of Biblical power in these words, in the way that they recall moments in scripture like Habakkuk, in the version that Rossetti would have read it: “For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry” (Habakkuk 2:3 KJV). Rossetti goes on also to use images from Ecclesiastes, with its deeply realistic sense of the labours of the soul longing for eternity. It is a poem filled with the aching of our in-betweens.
“These chimes are slow, but surely strike at last.” “Though it tarry, wait for it.” There’s always been a tension for me in the statement that God’s promises “will surely come” and “will not tarry”, even “though it tarry”. How is this true? There’s an ambiguity in how the KJV renders it. The ESV makes the distinction clearer, though no less of a paradox: “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” How can it seem slow yet not delay? Because God is not failing to act, any more than Jesus neglected to stop Lazarus from dying. God is acting, even in the in-betweens. He is working in the stillness and the silence as much as in the earthquake and the body rising from the dead. Nothing is truly an in-between moment in God’s timeframe.
And so we wait, and seek, with Rossetti, to “rest in silence and the dark”. God, thank heavens, is with us, sustaining us in both, and we may even produce some beautiful poems or gardens in the wait.