There are many lurkingplaces in the mind and many nooks… The old man is covered up in a thousand wrappings.
(Lancelot Andrewes, Preces Privatae)
Open the door. Let sun expose dust,
moth-eaten wool and mould around cornices.
Years of grime collect on window frames;
you forgot that the sideboard had an underneath.
And there too is the memory chest:
that also needs dusting;
and the bed of your childhood could use some air.
Let in September. True, comes in fits and starts;
opened windows welcome rain as easily as sun.
Yet nothing transfigures when the blinds are all shut
and nothing stifles dying like life.
Well, today is the last day of Advent, and so it is time for me to wrap up my Advent story for the year. If you’ve been following the story so far, you can read the last instalment below. But, if you’re new to this year’s story you can read the rest of it, plus my two previous Advent Stories, “The Gift” and “Pageant”, in this free downloadable PDF of the three stories, together for the first time. I hope the stories can be a blessing to you and to anyone else you choose to share them with. Have a blessed Christmas, celebrating the goodness of God in coming to live as one of us.
When the police officer visited him in his hospital room and showed him a photo that he did not recognise – seemingly of the man the police suspected – she said, “I didn’t think he was your man.” And then she had spoken to his parents, who stood at the foot of the bed. “He’s already confessed,” she said. “And there’s not a chance that he was the man your son saw.”
And, while the explanation helped – that the man at 12 Burden Street had been killed by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who knew the house well and had no need of directions from a thirteen-year-old in the street – and while the panic had subsided and the ghost-court had gone into recess, it had all only been replaced by a new flurry of unfamiliar action: group therapy sessions, individual therapy sessions, silent and unsteady walks around the hospital grounds, rooms filled with pamphlets and booklets with names like, Understanding OCD and The Way Out of Obsessions and Compulsions. Sometimes, when his parents thought he was asleep, he saw them reading the material together, stony-faced, whispering concerns to one another. But when he was awake they would tauten out their voices, as though stretching tired muscles, and say unnatural things like, “How are you going, big fella?” or, “Can we get you anything, honey?”, calling him names they never normally called him and adopting faces that said, Everything’s okay, which they had never felt the need to say before for never having feared that it wasn’t.
And then there had been Laura’s visit, with a bunch of flowers and a card from his class, her dad awkwardly in tow behind her. She had perched next to him at the end of the couch in his room and together they had tried to find words to say and found none, finding only a silence that was, for that moment, the most comforting thing anyone had said. And then she had leant over to hug him and he had felt her breath in his ear and smelt her shampoo and when she left his heart could not stop pounding and he had no idea where to begin thinking.
And Pa, too, always Pa, with books that he had “found somewhere” (the endless supply of books that man had! how did they all fit in his caravan, 0r in the handful of boxes in the attic?). Pa, with old jokes and hand-me-down stories. Pa, with, “Well, you’ve got your two front teeth, so what else do you want for Christmas this year?” And his dad saying, “You’ll be home by Christmas, the doctors reckon.” And his mum saying, “Greg, they’re not sure.” And Pa saying, “Well, we’ll just have to throw a party for you wherever you are.”
And then silence, a breather in the afternoon when they left him alone, no flurry of action, no therapists, no doctors. And then he would take out the treasury of stories that Pa had given him that night, and he would look again, again, at the strange, bewitching words of the Christina Rossetti poem Pa had found for him to read:
The end of all things is at hand. We all
Stand in the balance trembling as we stand;
Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall.
The end of all things is at hand.
O hearts of men, covet the unending land!
O hearts of men, covet the musical,
Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!
While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball,
And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small,
The end of all things is at hand.
The end of all things? he would wonder. Or only the end of the ghosts, of the fear, of hospital rooms and this newly-named, old familiar thing they called OCD? Hell looms vast, he read. He knew that well. But Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small. Great and small. Which was he? The vacuum was great, and he was small.
The silence always passed before he could complete the thought. Soon there was a parent, or a concerned aunt, or cousin, or a therapist or nurse coming to check something or give some reassuring thought, and the poem would have to wait, expectant somewhere hovering around his bed. He knew he would return to it soon, as soon as he had the chance, and that it promised an answer if only he could listen, and promised something more comforting than sleep, if only he could grasp it beneath the sheets and hold it to him as he lay.
“What do you want for Christmas?” the nurses always asked. Everyone asked that, as though Christmas presents alone could remedy all ills. Every year before this one he had had a wish-list that he’d subtly present to his parents, mostly books. This year, he had no thoughts, except one; and silently each time he would say that same thought, deep in his mind, where only something truly silent and reverberating could be heard. “No ghosts,” he would say, half-statement, half-request. “No more ghosts, please, this year.”
While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s…
Fear, perhaps. The crowd, after all,
lunged and lurched about,
amazed hands raised,
how might this seem
to eyes which had beheld, rejected,
hands which had held and seized.
Too much too soon;
the world had not the ready hearts
it took to take such miracles to heart…
Clung, perhaps, to wait out the storm,
to see how would the crowd change shape,
and crowd and cloud the truth around him.
Clung, perhaps, for refuge.
Or did he cling as we must cling?
Cling as those before had failed.
Every day, the servant said,
I stood and taught, and never did
you seize me then. The failure spoke
much more than all their loud deeds could:
to behold, daily, yet not take hold,
to have in reach, yet never clutch,
to see open hands, yet never grip.
Now the servant’s servants stood
and he must cling – for life, for safety –
all this – yes –
joy: at strength in deadened limbs;
and power: for greater things would soon be done;
and trust: above all, trust. The Crucified
had power still!
No silver, no gold in hand; only the Name.
And to that Name he clung.
And keep –
keep me, keep watch, keep hope.
The pains that crush me are like pricks beside
Your agony, and yet
arms out as though to gather in
more pain, more shame, and thus
Man of sorrows,
what a name,
what a scheme
that stretches out the heavens
yet does not scorn these nails.
my proud sobbing, my heart’s throbbing; take
all my attempts to rise with Self.
Enfold me in Your scars and sing
through endless days.
“We can only silence the guns of hatred with the guns of love.”
– Nigerian church leader, quoted in Open Doors prayer letter
I am broken in my love:
I cry, I steal,
I hurt, I hate.
My heart has guns which fire and kill
and I am daily killed.
I do not understand my friend;
my neighbour dies,
I pass him by.
I do not walk across my street
or see you in your home.
The scarf around your head sparks fear;
is shame to you.
The Nazarene upon the cross
lives not like I have lived.
All exiles, while the Garden grows
far from our homes,
we never meet
or open hands to shake, to greet
and give as we’ve received.
Yet love transformed by crown of thorns
has power to
unload these guns.
Such love has wounds to mend the rift
and make us many One.
O I am broken in my love.
I cry, I steal,
I hurt, I hate.
O Jesus, Nazarene, come heal;
come open doors and sing.
If perhaps in sullen days I might slide back
to where I fell, a child, into the dark,
please wait with me as slowly I am brought
again into the light. Your love has brought
the truth to bear in silent corners, back-
rooms where thick lies have festered in the dark.
Although not whole, I’m neither lost in dark;
I mourn this languid baggage that I’ve brought,
yet every night and morning I come back
to see how far from dark I have been brought.
…and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
What a father did once when an apple looked sweet sent tremors shaking through the earth, breaking roots, severing limbs, sickening soil and bruising leaves, life uprooted from its Tree and grafted into death. What a brother did when he walked through a field and Hell crouched at his flapping tent made the earth cry out for blood, while knotted roots, turned inside out, craved curse like twisted blessing which seven times avenged. What Son once climbed a skull-bound tree outside garden or city walls took the deadened soil and sprinkled cursed roots with the flow of blood, injected life in deadened leaves and grafted family in. What life, what family, grown in Him now where death should hold the sway of wind and trunk, and roots declared too dead to be of any good – now spreads, now heals, now spreading heals. What life has won the day.
No glitch in the creation plan and yet
my mind skips and repeats over old tracks
as though, as though in early days a scratch
a fleck of dust crept in, crept in, upset
the balance of it all. With every beat
the tension in these ancient grooves – this wax –
threatens now to jump, to echo back.
What function is at fault? What needle head
was broken at the start? What plan, what plan
has bred this error in the early heart?
Unglitch, unglitch; return, reboot, play true;
the data will cohere when they are scanned
beneath the eyes that made your every part
and never will the glitching past win you.
Rock-hard hearts: stone rolled away;
see God shake us in His way.
Unseeing eyes: look and know;
cast off doubt at heaven’s show.
Fearful feet: stop and see
the empty tomb, the mystery.
Dust-born flesh: He knows and heals.
The heavens ring with Easter peals…
And all our stony, ashen flesh
is changed now in His endlessness.