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.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 6

God of sea and dry land,
God of Nineveh, Bethlehem
and the belly of the whale,
God of heights, God of depths,
God of my darkest abyss:

I have made
myself my god.
I must
become
Nothing.
You
must
become
All.

I have blocked the channels where
You reach me in my darkest hour.
I have clenched my fist to fight
in place of Your hand charged with life.
I must go I-don't-know-where
to find that You are everywhere.
I must enter deepest night
to find that You alone are Light.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah Day 3

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”

(Jonah 1:4-6)

Why is Jonah asleep? Often I’ve heard Biblical stories like this interpreted to demonstrate complacency or obliviousness: Jonah is asleep because he is not paying attention, spiritually dull. Perhaps this is the case. But, when I think of myself, I often go to sleep – physically or metaphorically – when I don’t want to talk to God. And often this is because I am angry, and I know that to talk to God I will need to let go of at least some of my anger. I can’t maintain all of my rage and also do the self-humbling that is necessary to pray. I know God well enough to not let loose with all my fury, but I’m not ready to unclench my fists enough to fold my hands in prayer.

It’s a guess, but an educated one, to suggest that this might be where Jonah is at here in the story. Certainly it fits with the Jonah we see later, angry enough to die because God has relented and not destroyed Nineveh like he hoped. Jonah knows, I’m sure, that he should have followed God’s command; he knows he shouldn’t be on this boat; he knows he is in the wrong. But he doesn’t want to think about it, because thinking about it would require humbling himself, and he’s not ready to do that. So he sleeps.

It strikes me how often I clench my fists in stress, as though I am ready to start punching at the first moment that it’s required of me. We cannot talk to God when we are like this, not properly. To talk to God, we need to stretch our fingers out, let go of our pent-up rage, and let Him be God while we are children before Him. Sometimes we even need to physically open our hands up before Him as an expression that we are ready to receive from Him whatever He has. But even this is humbling. Attention to God is humbling when all we want to do is listen to our own pre-recorded loops of internal rage.

Like Jonah, we need to be shaken awake and told, sometimes by the least expected of people, to stop hiding from God, huddled in our own fury, and to turn to Him instead – to turn in humility and wait.

Poem after a line from Auden

Prayer, like poetry, makes nothing happen,
if "make" means control
and "happen" means an instant, an event.
No incantations with prayer, no spells;
nor with poems. You leave
scratching your head,
ambivalent to what has transpired.
Sometimes forced, sometimes fluid,
never simple, unless void of all
meaning save the surface.
But prayer and poems both deal in depths;
they refuse surface and befuddle the hurried.
And poems, like prayers, work
with more than words,
sometimes in spite of them:
the conversation between words and rhythm,
movement and meaning,
soul and maker,
music in words
that moves hearts with fingerprints
always unseen.

Vespers: After Louise Glück

Once I believed in You,
still do,
though belief is often evasive, often abstract,
like air, which itself defies grasp
yet needy lungs clutch at it with the certainty
that this, this alone they must have.

And I believe like
the fig tree believes in the soil,
sometimes wilted, sometimes refusing fruit,
always held, always known to the roots.

And at the vesper light, I
believe, not with
the confident certainty of the apologist in debate,
the smug politician turning
divine name to unholy cause,
but like
the bed beneath me believes in the ground,
believes in the frame that holds it.

Matins

O God,
As the sun rises, again,
a little sheepish, over
this hesitant day,
prepare the way
for my often straying feet.
May my yesterdays not repeat
except in the way Your grace has of giving
every new day for new ways of living.

Keep me. Make me new:
I have not loved
as I ought to have loved;
I have not taken the good as gift;
I have not said Yes to all from Your hand.
Whatever day holds - to sit, walk or stand -
may it be You
in every breath - You.

World without end,
and if world should end.
Father, Son, Spirit: Amen.

Extraordinary Time

Deprived of the ordinary markings of days -
drives to work, birthdays, people to celebrate -
we cling
more fervently to organic signs,
the constant shifts in the garden,
which trees have blossomed,
which ones have leaves,
how tall the pea plant has grown,
how white its petals.

These and the aphids signal time:
those and the snails migrating,
the worms beneath the compost,
the dead bird by the granny flat,
rising and falling daily tallies,
who died youngest, who's all clear
and how long until - we cannot say -
only greet other pilgrims on the way, and pray.

Holy Mess

Sanctify the compost heap
where I trudge in dark with the day's dank scraps.
Sanctify the living stench,
soil's second chance,
barren fig-tree's friend.

Sanctify the dishes piled
on piles around the cluttered sink.
Sanctify the time it takes
to scrub and dry,
to sort and stack.

Sanctify numb fingers, ice
on windscreen that delays the day,
brittle tests when patience is small.
Sanctify mess,
sanctify time.

Sanctify unholy pain;
sanctify this senselessness
that drives me to the end of me
and sends me to Your feet.

Psalm (from “Les Feuilles Mortes”)

It can be hard to capture emptiness with words, but often that is the primary emotion that I bring to my poems. This poem is a prayer that I wrote originally as the final part of a sequence of poems inspired by John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. The final track of that album is so sparse it can hardly be heard at times. This is my attempt to set that emptiness to words. The recording was produced for the online launch of Les Feuilles Mortes, with Ashlea Ephraums, a talented young performer, reading.

Buy Les Feuilles Mortes at the Lulu store. All profits go to Tear Australia’s COVID-19 campaign

Autumn Leaves: a preview

As schools reopen in my part of the world, I have had the strange, disorientating experience of returning to work yet nothing being the same. But beside my office in the school library are some gorgeous auburn leaves that soothe me whenever I pass them. So I’m sharing them here with you today, along with a snippet from one of the poems in my new book, Les Feuilles Mortes, which is a kind of prayer for all of us as we imagine life on the other side of Corona.

And do not say, When
all this is done. Think bigger
than the mere return
of leaves to trees. Think seasons
not yet imagined, transformed.

(From “Autumn Leaves: Tanka for Isolation”

Les Feuilles Mortes is available for digital download here. Tune in to the online book launch on Saturday 30th May at 8:30pm Australian Eastern Standard Time.