What does the law of God require? Personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience; that we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love our neighbour as ourselves. What God forbids should never be done and what God commands should always be done. (New City Catechism) And what does He require of you, O man – hand teetering above the apple trees, soul teetering between trust and loss, life moving away from what is life, mind stretching out to take it all? What does He require, walking with you, all the garden your playground, all the forest your living room, all the trees yours to climb, every creature your companion? That you do justice, of course – the justice of a king who rules, who set the rules in place, who knows the tides, the times, the spheres, the domes, the ways that all our motions go – and that you love His mercy too, though mercy now’s confused with rules and seems to you to mean permission, the other option far too strict: a God where you’re not God. Walk humbly, too: this option cuts into your conscience, drives you far away from where He walks, into the trees to hide from Him who sees and knows the ways our motions go. What, O man, does He ask of you, when everything He has is yours, with everything laid at your feet, your heart prepared to be His throne, your heart striving to climb? (Image: edited from "Adam und Eva im Paradies", Lucas Cranach the Elder)
With November nearly over, it’s time for my final tribute to the poetry of Denise Levertov. This one is inspired by her simple but stark masterpiece, “Adam’s Complaint“, one of Levertov’s many creative entries into the inner workings of Biblical narratives. My poem looks at the same story from a slightly different angle.
Guilt (After “Adam’s Complaint”) The vilest ruse lay in the lie that knowledge always leads to wisdom: as though all it took was to eat and know and then be somehow as gods. Instead, we found our naked selves hiding in broad daylight, no clothing but wisdom which, always vowing, always taking, ate us as we ate, learning through the futile past that fruit, though pleasing to the eye, is not always food.
"Who told you that you were naked?" His voice Cuts through the trees and fig-leaves. Naked, you stand, glory shattered, Illusion broken, image disconnected, Heart unsure now how to beat. "Did you eat the fruit from the tree?" His voice Asks yet does not need to be told: Your lips stink to heaven and the stain Of falsely bought wisdom's on your teeth, Image disconnected from the lies you breathe. What now? No sense in deceit. His voice Knows the depths and the heights, The stars, the chasms of your heart. Naked, you stand, wisdom disconnected; Swallow your pride and breathe truth.
Instinct (After “Melanchthon”) What prevents man, individually and collectively, from behaving reasonably and morally is not so much ignorance as a self-blindness induced by some passion or desire. (W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand) Thinking, granted, but less like a mind, more like an eager dog in search of a worn-out bone. These things comfort me: in my corner of the garden, familiar, it gives safety, blanket- like, tattered and torn, yet homely in its weathered wear. The mind glimpses, encompasses these things which Bentham sees from his prison tower and knows; surveillance gives the impulse, but instinct the reason. And so a dog returns to its own refuse and Jonah hides for days inside his whale; and I too need corners and familiar scents. Why I am what I am, I do not know. The dog has its goals and its purposes, so too the mole which, though blind, is quicker than the human mind’s quickest percep- tion. Yet we move by more than mere impulse, by brain-waves which fly and flit before we hear them. Reflexes have no accompanying, conscious thought yet some things are learnt and made reflex that should be conscious. “Adam, who told you that you were naked?” No need to teach him to hide his shame in leaves once the brain already knew, “Eat apple”. Automated and unthinking disobedience is the hardest to overcome; and we are cursed (blessed?) with the knowledge that instinct, though enchanting, is not enough, blessed (cursed?) with eyes to see both the apple and the consequence. If blind, we are wiser than our blindness knows, yet too blind to know it. The dog, the mole, defy us, yet we are called to more. “Naked, man, the self”: what’s been bestowed on him, on us, declares we cannot plead ignorance. Man – the height, though helpless before the creatures that preceded him – must bow and rule, burrow and build, obey and reason, trust and know, be blind and see. What calling, what heights beside what depths! What impulse and what instinct, what knowledge planted through that first breath, knowing all the blindness yet breathing still.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to any of my regular readers that I love the hymns of John Newton and William Cowper. Some of you will also know that, for the last eighteen or so months I have been working through a number of their hymns, setting them to new tunes of my own. Tonight I finally got around to recording the first of the hymns that I set to music, one which Newton simply entitled “Adam”. It is a powerful retelling of Adam’s fall, told from the perspective of the Gospel. You’ll have to forgive the technical shoddiness of the recording, but I hope that it can help to open new audiences up to the beauty of Newton’s words.