Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 7

Adam Willaerts, “Jonah and the Whale”, c.1620

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.


From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.

Jonah 1:17-2:1

There’s a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth that has particularly held on to me since I first read it 20 years ago. It comes at the point when Macbeth decides that the only way to allay his tortured conscience is to simply accept that he must continue as he has started:

I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

It might seem an odd quote to mention here, and a disturbing one at that. But I’ve always seen Macbeth as a play much more about mental illness than about murder, and there are many resonances with what Macbeth says here and, say, anxiety or anger. There’s physically a point when we are consumed by either emotion so quickly and decisively that it would be far harder to calm down than to simply let the feeling run its course. And indeed this is how our bodies sometimes respond; if we fail to breathe properly for long enough while in panic, our bodies eventually shut down so that we have time to reset. Or sometimes when we are angry it takes something dramatic, like punching a wall or having someone react strongly back at us, to make us “snap out of it”.

As with anxiety and anger, so with ignoring God. We begin on a path of huffish indifference, and then it continues until, even in the midst of a storm, we don’t think to pray. And it takes something monumental to get our attention, to break through our indolence and pride.

So it is with Jonah. Again, the scene that awaits us is so familiar that we tend to rush towards it. The children’s Bibles that I read my sons often do: Jonah is in the fish, they seem to say; let’s quickly make him pray and then get out of the fish and do the right thing at last. But that’s not how it goes, at least not how it feels for Jonah, who like Jesus must remain in the tomb for three days before returning to the land of the living. And who knows at which point in the three days Jonah starts to pray; but this, significantly, is the first time in the whole book that Jonah talks to God. The book begins with God talking to Jonah, but at no point in the first chapter does Jonah himself talk to God. Only when God has sent a life-threatening storm and then a giant fish to swallow him does Jonah pray.

It shouldn’t have taken a storm. It shouldn’t have required Jonah to be thrown into the water. It definitely should not have warranted much time at all inside the fish’s belly. But Jonah, like me, takes a long time to shake out of his rage against God and turn towards God instead. Why? Because he, like me, would much rather call the shots than be called to join in what God is doing.

This is why we need Advent, and why I am taking such a circuitous route to get there. Because what God has done in Jesus is so counterintuitive, so contrary to what we would demand of God in our pride, that, if we are to have any chance of seeing God’s work for what it is and participating in it as we should, we’re going to need to learn to listen to God in the midst of our rage. Praise God that He sends storms and whales. Praise God that He has come himself into this rage of being flesh.

And who is my neighbour? Part 3

Being a neighbour is fraught at any time, but in a time when suburbs, states and families are being isolated from one another, it is even harder. As an Australian, being part of an island nation has much impact on how we view our own place in the world, and in this time of reminding myself continually that “no man is an island”, I have turned to this theme for the third and final installment in my video poem series, “And who is my neighbour?”

It’s been a delight to collaborate with Asher Graieg-Morrison who has supplied music for each of these films. Check out his rich and textured work here.

Free ebook and short film: “And who is my neighbour?”

If you have not yet read or bought your copy of Les Feuilles Mortes, you can get a taster of the collection in this free ebook, featuring some poems from Les Feuilles Mortes as well as some old poems and some brand new ones.

You can also check out the short film I made to accompany the book, a collage of poem readings from the booklaunch set to music from Asher Graieg-Morrison and Dustin Ragland’s Young Weather. Thanks to Ashlea Ephraums, Oliver Coleman and Kris Guilford for the poem readings. You can find each of these poems and a handful of others in the ebook.

And if you like what you find here, you can get a digital copy of Les Feuilles Mortes here for just $10, and a physical (hardback) copy here for $40. Paperback copies available soon, and all proceeds from any format going directly to TEAR Australia’s work with COVID-19.

George Herbert at Bemerton

I am the man who has seen affliction…
(Lamentation 3:1)

His portrait would have him
serenely contemplating a garden,
one hand raised beatifically
like the saints of old.

Often I would have my days like that,
passed in that perfect serene of green,
spirit quiet within like the waters without,
no trouble straining pastoral brow.

But poems and pastors are not made like this;
the cure of souls is the work of the broken,
and contemplation is fuel for deed,
the quiet where turmoil turns to seed,

and the man who knew thoughts that were all cases of knives
was no doe-eyed dreamer but a brother to affliction,
and in earth’s pulley his grief pulled upward
and poems sprung from the love-mended rhyme.

If Ye Love Me

So many ways to wash feet:
the posture, not the precise nature of the action, matters – poised
at ground level, familiar with the dust
and grime of the day’s streets,
outer garments shed to throw off all show,
the creak in the knees accompanying the splash
and the mess of the self washing off in the bowl.

So many ways, yet I
am more comfortable to be Peter:
indignant, swinging
between pride and gung-ho humility,
reserved and haughty in equal measure,
more at home with excuses
than the flagrant shame of love.

If I would be a disciple, I need only start
with the crick in these old, ossified joints
as I teach them to get love’s job done.

My Examen

Give me only your love and grace. That is enough for me.
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe

Resolution is void.
The more I look inward,
the more each motive,
each spirit I discern
becomes a snarl, a defiant reminder
that my best attempts are, at best, no good.

Though I ask my conscience to justify
each act from rising to setting of sun,
only the man on the tree has answers for me.
My questions, at best, hammer nails.

What am I doing, have done for Christ?
The soldier sounds the Spirit’s reveille;
Morning exercise leaves me faint;
only Your love, Your grace animate me.

Lying upon my desultory stone,
this alone can console: the sight
of heaven descending to where I lie,
and God in this place, though I did not know.

Isaiah and the Seraph

Chagall_Isaiah_1968
Marc Chagall, “The Prophet Isaiah”

I shame at mine unworthiness,
yet fain would be at one with Thee:
Thou art a joy in heaviness,
a succour in necessity.
(Sir William Leighton, 1614)

Shame and joy move in polyphonic sway:
the vision delights, augments, and yet
diminishes the confidence.
How can I, with unclean lips,
hymn praises without minor chords?

Must burning lips be always scorched
for worthiness to drive the heavy soul?
The quavering voice, the riddling Me?,
the scroll that makes the sinner frown.
Seraph brings the cleansing coal,
while heaviness lags and leaves.

Damascus 2: Pentecost

Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1)
Caravaggio, “Conversion on the way to Damascus”, c1601

I missed the flames that day,
was at my books, learning the whys and wherefores of Law,
determined that every subscript iota
would not be neglected when I stood before God.

The Spirit blows wherever it wills.
Mine was the letter, not the wind.
When, years later, I clutched letters in hand,
I held every one that spelt, I am right.
I missed the flame, but the wind still arrested;
and the Son spoke assaults on my well-crafted name.
The Spirit caught, sent me – though crooked –
blown by its wind to the street they call Straight.

Chiaroscuro

unnamed
Caravaggio, “The Supper at Emmaus”, c.1606

To Cleopas and his friend,
the revelation and its impact no doubt stuck.
Their paradigm, irremediably shifted, could hardly go back.
Such things as resurrections we don’t
forget in any hurry.

Yet for those serving at table, I wonder:
did the light dawn so quickly, so decisively?
More or less a normal night’s work,
and that constant attempt not to eavesdrop
or at least not be seen doing so.

And then, some vague but growing sense
that here was a light altogether different in quality,
such that everything else was jet in the background,
that here was a customer who transformed the meals he ate
and left behind more than he took.

Perhaps, on the table,
after he left, as though spirited away,
in place of the customary tip a piece
of bread leftover, and a cup of wine,
and with the skeleton of the fish course lingering on the plate,
a parchment asking silently,
“Shall these dry bones live?”

Learning Father

800px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project
Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, c.1661-1669

History has few exemplars to be proud of.
The Greeks did well with Priam, at least,
willing to face “iron-hearted,
man-slaying Achilles” for the sake of a son.
My own culture’s replete with absent men,
“bronze Anzacs” taught from birth not to cry.
The Biblical witness, too, leaves something to be desired:
most too busy with wives in multiples to see
sons ganging up on sons, hurling into ditches,
covering many-coloured garments with blood.
Some simply could not hear, over
the chewing of fruit, the sound of the older
saying to the younger brother, “Come for a walk.”
One king learnt too late that all
the years at war, or watching rooftop baths,
did not teach a son to trust or respect his old man.
Only this cry rings out as a lesson: “Absalom,
my son, my son! Would that it were me instead of you.
Absalom, my son, my son. Absalom, my son!”

Perhaps the polygamists, war-mongers and liars
have this to teach us: the insufficiency of one
man of dust to be the all, the end, of the home.
In his frailty and deceit he clears the way
for another tale, another sight:
the wealthy man embracing pig-stained rags,
the fattened calf killed,
the Father’s arms stretched.
This witness alone can teach the twisted tongue
the meaning of our faintly-voiced, “Father.”