This morning a bird I could not name
spanned a sun I could not tame
and on the road the dazzled day
turned and turned its winding way.
Through chicanes, past milkbars ran
the path to work, the time to plan,
but I was struck by birds in view
on Kookaburra Avenue.
And God I'm sure made birds to fly
both for their sake, and yours and mine.
In dying days we see these dreams
and wait for life to burst its seams.
In ordinary time we catch
the moment when we see the latch
of heaven's door creak open, wide.
Wipe dust from street; come, come inside.
The first thing I must own
is that there is no place
in a new heaven or a new earth
for the ancient dirt
that clogs my soul,
no place for the fetid fury
that clings to my speech,
nor for the old-as-Cain
hatred of brother
that kills me the moment
that it kills you.
A nomad for much of my days, I confess
the urge is strong now to stay put, to secure,
to gather and store,
to extend the barns for the coming drought.
Where luxurious waste gathers in wardrobes and pantries, I long
to play the rich fool and leave it be.
Yet still the cloud gets up each day
and leads me to I-don’t-know-where,
and we who have been baptised in Red Sea and cloud
must pack up our chattels and keep our hands empty
with everything but covenant open to loss
and the homes we’ve not built set before us.
I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.
(“Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, trad.)
Truth be told, I hardly think of it,
the end of my roaming, except perhaps as sleep,
or when, longing for an end to all ending things,
I dream of new creations. Yet
the sum of my longing is not halfway close,
bound as I am by my weak desires,
and no more can I comprehend
what waits than a foetus knows what makes
such thrumming noise beyond the womb.
I only dip my feet in Jordan;
I must submerge myself and drift
away from all I think I know
to what I trust knows me.
“The LORD says to my Lord…” (Psalm 110:1). These are surely some of the more mysterious words to appear in the Bible. Who is the second Lord to whom the writer, King David, is referring? Who could even be understood to be David’s Lord apart from God, the LORD? David, after all, was king of all Israel; no-one beside God was higher than him. And yet he looks to another Lord who will be made king over everything and who, mysteriously, will also be a priest forever too. In Jesus, the mystery is, if not resolved, at least given flesh so we can behold it.
Today’s piece is Vivaldi’s powerful setting of Psalm 110, entitled “Dixit Dominus” (“The LORD says”) after the first two Latin words in the psalm. I’ve chosen Caravaggio’s strange Nativity scene, which anachronistically features Saints Francis and Lawrence, to help us to reflect on the wonder that this mighty king chose to come as a tiny baby. Caravaggio’s famous chiaroscuro lighting manages to hihglight Jesus’ face without resorting to the artistic cliches of his day. The presence of two saints known for their love of the poor seems fitting for this simple, peasant scene into which the king of all creation chose to come to earth.
Sit at my right hand
All earth is your footstool;
soon so will your enemies be too.
Yet You sit at our feet, minuscule, helpless,
Creator on the floor of creation,
infinite made finite,
the dew of your youth around you on the hay.
Judge of the nations: the nations come
to see your defenseless form, to catch
the future glory in your minute moment.
Where is your sceptre? You drink
from your mother’s breast; cannot
yet lift your head, nor fight.
Await the voice: “Sit at my right hand.”
But first you will cry, “I thirst”,
and, “It is finished,” and, “My God,
my God, why?” Heaven surrounds you,
but first the sword and the nails.
First the manger, this moment in eternity’s grasp.
Herre, du har skabt os til dig, og vort hjerte er uroligt, indtil det finder hvile hos dig.
Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.
(St Augustine, Confessions)
When I first started learning Danish last year and was looking for anything to help me, I stumbled across an eerily beautiful song called “Urolige Hjerte” by Kloster. Though all I could tell you about the song at the time was that it had something to do with hearts, I was drawn to the song from the start, finding it strangely comforting. Then I learnt that the song was a hymn by 19th-century Danish pastor, poet and educational philosopher N.F.S. Grundtvig. I’ve since written about Grundtvig on this blog and have had a wild stab at some translation of another of his texts. But all this time I’ve been working away at translating “Urolige Hjerte” into English, finding no other full translation of it anywhere online (only this paraphrase, which was still very helpful for some of Grundtvig’s trickier expressions.)
Thanks go to Mikael Rahbæk Andreasen of Kloster, both for first introducing me to this hymn and for giving generous help and guidance in the translation.
Restless Heart (Urolige Hjerte) – N.F.S. Grundtvig
Restless heart, what ails you?
What makes you feel so much pain?
Is He not your very good Father,
Who over everything reigns?
Does He not know your every thought?
Has He not counted the hairs on your head?
Has not He chosen you to be
His very closest friend?
And have you not that precious gift,
That rare, cherished hope?
Or don’t you remember your baptism waters,
And the words that Jesus spoke?
Words that only fit the ones
Who enter God’s heaven, true?
Weren’t the words He spoke to you,
“Peace be with you”?
What then, my soul, can harm you
When you’ve the peace of God?
God’s angels are all joyful,
Forever, on and on.
Will you not join the heavenly shout?
She holds wide the door, God’s loveliest bride.
Won’t you, joyful, come inside,
Embraced by their, “Welcome from God”?
The heavenly bride now enters;
She firmly takes her hold,
With all the bold ones, the warriors,
The ones who strive for their God.
Where the bride has her house, there God’s angels will be.
Where she dwells in stillness, there all worries will end.
There lives all our hope,
And our faith is firmly held.
Restless heart, hold fast:
Let the peace of God enclose you.
Soon all of our pain will dull
And fade away from view.
God’s peace is like a much-prized queen;
Who binds to her is truly wise,
And where she sits upon her throne
Is God’s paradise.
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.”