My scallop shell of quiet…

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage. 

Sir Walter Raleigh

This fragment from a much longer poem is supposed to have been written immediately before Raleigh’s impending execution; in fact he was spared for the time being, and lived another 15 years or so. I found it printed on a small blue card, in All Saints Church at Godshill.

I’ve been vaguely familiar with these lines for many years, but I had forgotten them till I found this small card in a rack with other such things, at the back of the church, and bought it to bring home.

At the entrance to the church, in the porch by the south door, is a modern framed extract (beginning “You are not here to verify…”) from TS Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding‘. I have reproduced the whole section from which it is taken:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

I am not aware that the ancient church in this little village deep inland on the Isle of Wight has ever been a place of pilgrimage as such. If so, the fact is not mentioned in any history of the parish I have seen – though there was a Benedictine priory nearby at Appuldurcombe. But All Saints seems to me like a pilgrim church. Up a steep hill above the village, with its medieval lily cross on the wall above the reserved Blessed Sacrament, it somehow asks to be approached quietly, with reverence – not for the building, but for what it means – as at the end of a long journey.

Pilgrimage is increasingly a pattern that calls to me. As I wrote elsewhere here, “We cannot know the way; but our steps are indeed ordered by the Lord (Proverbs 20.24), if we love him, and will only draw near to him in prayer. He simply says, as he always does, ‘Go’, or even ‘What is that to you? Follow me!’ (John 21.21)” Somehow I find I no longer have the need I once had to be sure of the way.

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog, 26/11/2018]

O Radix Iesse

O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
whom the nations will implore:
Come to deliver us, and do not now delay.

In Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann writes,

…in the Psalms the use of language does not describe what is. It evokes into being what does not exist until it has been spoken. This kind of speech resists discipline, shuns precision, delights in ambiguity, is profoundly creative, and is itself an exercise in freedom. In using speech in this way, we are in fact doing in a derivative way what God has done in the creation narratives of Genesis. We are calling into being that which does not yet exist (compare Romans 4.17).

Unlike the language of fact and description we use in everyday talk, in the speech of politics and commerce, law and engineering, the Psalms are not seeking documentation and control, information processing. They are in the highest sense poetry – in which case perhaps Brueggemann misses the point when he says they “resist discipline, shun precision” – for then their discipline and precision are of another order entirely. They are a use of language parallel to (at least in a derivative way) God’s speaking of the Word that brings all things to existence – the Word, in fact, who was with God in the beginning, “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” When we use language like this we are drawing, and drawn, closer and closer to Christ in the the Word, the mercy, that he is. As a poet of more discipline and precision than I dare to attempt once wrote,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

TS Eliot, Four Quartets, 1, Burnt Norton, section II

And the dance that Christ is Lord of is life, and light, and becoming. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1.4,5) If we remain in Christ (John 15.7) ultimately the dark will not overcome us, either, for all that that light lies, like the light of eternity, on the far side of dying. He comes, indeed, to deliver us, and will not delay – already, his word accomplishes his purpose; it will not return to him empty… (Isaiah 55.11)