Saturday, 11 October 2008

Hearing God Through Poetry

What do people mean when they say God has spoken to me? Do they hear an actual voice? Is the voice in their heads or can other people hear the voice too?

Once or twice in my life I have felt God has spoken to me directly. But this wasn’t through a voice but through poetry. I love reading poetry and I read a lot of poems. Sometimes ~I read a poem and have felt that God was speaking to me through it. When that happens it’s as if the words I read became bright on the page. And as I read the poem I feel an overwhelming sense of the truth and rightness of the words. I also feel really moved by them. And they seem to spoke directly to me and my situation at the time. I believe that that was God.

Reading poetry can be a really personal thing. Sometimes a poem can mean one thing to one person and something completely different to someone else. But sometimes God muscles in on what we are reading – he takes it over. This is a great mystery and a great blessing.

This evening I’m going to tell you three connected stories about my life in which a poem and a psalm helped me to become a Christian. This is the story of how God spoke to me through poetry.

Story one. It started in 1980 three years before I became a Christian. It was the summer before I took my A levels. During the long summer days I was bored and restless and didn’t do much, so I took our dog for long walks. I took him to a nearby park and then I’d cross the main road and climb up to Harrow on the Hill.

[Slide 2 – view of Harrow on the Hill]

Half way up the hill is a village and right at the top above the village is a church. It is a very old church. I think it dates back to the 5th century.

[Slide 3 – view of St Mary’s church]

I used to sit on the grave stones for ages thinking about stuff and just look out at the views. Sometimes I used to wake up in the dead of night restless and unable to get back to sleep, so I’d get dressed and leave the house and go for long walks up to the church on the hill.

[Slide 4 – view of church – night]

I didn’t mind about walking through the old church yard with its weather beaten graves and tombstones.

I felt quite safe and really I thought it was a bit exciting, roaming around when everyone else was asleep in their beds or dead in their graves. [Close slide 5]

Anyway, soon the summer was over, I stopped taking the dog for long walks at night and I began to study English Literature again. One poem we studied was “Little Gidding” by T S Eliot. It was amazing reading the poem for the first time because it described exactly my walks up to the ancient church at Harrow on the Hill. In one part of the poem there’s a description of a journey to a 16th century church in the village of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire.

[Slide 5 – view of graves – night]

[Slide 6 – church at Little Gidding]
Although Eliot was writing about his visits to Little Gidding to me Eliot was describing my visits to St Mary’s church Harrow on the Hill. It was really strange.

He wrote
“If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in May time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.

The poem describes some of the details of the walk, the hedgerows are white with blossom, - as they still were when I started walking up the hill in late May, there is a rough track that leads up to the church, the church has a dull appearance and is surrounded by graves. There is also a small farm on the slopes of the hill. All these can be found I expect at hundreds of churches around the country but for me Eliot was describing Harrow..

Then Eliot writes about the world’s end. When he writes about “the world’s end” he is describing a place where the world and heaven are closely connected. And for some reason as I walked up on the hill that summer I did begin to feel that this was a special place. Eliot writes,

“There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.”

But what really knocked me for six was not the physical similarities between Harrow and Little Gidding but how similar my thoughts were to the person on the journey to the church in Eliot’s poem. Because in this poem Little Gidding, Eliot describes my thoughts exactly.

“And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.”

He describes someone walking to the church without any real purpose; someone who walks to the church during the day but also in the middle of the night. Like me the walker is alone and is searching for something – but is not sure what it is. And then Eliot says that whatever it is you are searching for is nothing compared to what you eventually find. And what you find is a holy place in which you meet with God. He writes

" 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,… "

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.”

Eliot writes here that in this place you experience God by surrendering the rational and common sense way of thinking, and give ourselves to him completely., even if it doesn’t make any sense.

I really felt that God was speaking to me through that poem. I felt that he was calling me to be close to him and to know him. And I felt he was telling me that God was present at this place. That I was going to meet with God in Harrow on the Hill.

You couldn’t really describe Harrow on the Hill as a mountain top like Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments or Mount Tabor – the traditional setting for the Sermon on the Mount but I felt that God was here in this place and he was reaching out to me.

One Saturday during that autumn term I took the dog for a walk up to the hill with my sister and our dog. We were walking through the village passing a few shops, when I suddenly stopped. I handed the dog to my sister and told her I had to go into the next shop. So I went in, walked straight up to the woman behind the counter and I demanded she, “Tell me about Harrow on the Hill.” Well she started telling me about the history and the people. But I interrupted her and said. “No, there is something special here and I want you to tell me what it is.” And amazingly she did. She told me that people had been worshipping on the hill for thousands of years. She said the church was built on sacred ground. She said if I really wanted to know more I should join a school of ancient wisdom. And so I did it wasn't a very helpful place. But I did meet a Christian in the school and she became very helpful in my search for God.

[Slide 12 Iona Abby]

Story 2 In the summer of 1983 - four years after that summer when I walked up onto Harrow on the Hill I went to Scotland to visit the island of Iona. I wasn’t a Christian yet but I was still searching for a way to be in a relationship with God. I was actually quite fed up with Christianity. At college most of my friends turned out to be Christians, including Katy, my wife. But for me there was no way the meaning of life the universe and everything could be summed up by a man living in Israel 2000 years ago and dying on a cross. Going to Iona was a rebellion against Christianity.

[Slide 13 Iona Cloister]

For me the island was a sacred place like Harrow on the Hill. There had been a church on the island since the 5th century. It was also a place of pagan worship for hundreds of years before Christians arrived there. For me it was another place that was the world’s end. A place to meet with God.

I wanted to strike out by myself I thought I was getting away from this Christian God to a pre Christian sacredness. But Katy wanted to go to the Abby. So when we got there I stormed through the doors and stepped straight up to the lectern in the middle of the Abby. It had a huge leather bible on it and I just opened it furiously and read the first thing my eyes fixed on: Psalm 139

6 You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea, -

and travel 600 miles from home to an island off the west coast of Scotland

10 even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.”

And I was completely amazed. I spent the next few days in that Abby trying to come to terms with this Christian God that could speak so clearly and directly to me out of the pages of a book.

[Slide 14 Iona Cloister 2]

This was an important step in my becoming a Christian. And it was through a Psalm, an ancient song lyric, another poem that God had used to speak to me.

Story three. A year later in 1984 my student life was coming to an end. I was about to leave college so I thought I was at my last church service with Katy. I remember the sermon was about Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. His face was shinning and he had to wear a veil because he didn’t want to scare the Israelites waiting for him at the foot of the mountain.

Anyway at the end of the service I got chatting to someone. I told him I wasn’t a Christian, I told him I was leaving Hatfield and going back home to Harrow. I don’t know why but I told him I’d miss coming to church.

Then he told me of a friend of his who preached at a church in Harrow and he gave me their phone number and told me he’d contact them and let them know I might phone.

Well later on that summer I did become a Christian. In front of thousands of people and Billy Graham at Portland Road football stadium in Ipswich I gave my life to Jesus. But then I had to go home, back to Harrow, to my Jewish family who could not understand what I had done. They felt so betrayed and hurt. I came back to Harrow clutching a thin paperback gospel of Mark and a study book to help me in my first days of my new life. At home I found the slip of paper with a name and a phone number on it that I’d been given at Hatfield. And I phoned him up this stranger and told him my name and who I was.

He invited me to come to Sunday lunch and then go on to church with him and his family. It’s odd because when I went to visit him I realised that he lived at the top of Harrow on the Hill, about 100 yards from the church yard I’d been wandering around in the middle of the night three years before. Odd because this was my first church family who in those first few weeks showed me God’s love in their hospitality, their friendship, their teaching and their worship. Odd because the poem that I’d read and studied four years earlier seemed to me to have described the situation so perfectly.

When I think back to the first time I read the poem. I’m awestruck by God’s amazing generosity to me. He communicated to me in a way in a way that I could understand and respond to. He took my stuburness and my ego, my interest in poetry and my interest in ancient religion to bring me to his son Jesus.

Loads of people had been praying for me for years. They were patient and faithful in their prayers. And God also waited, patiently. He knew “my thoughts from afar,” he had “searched me and knew me”, “he knit me together in my mother’s womb,” and he waited and brought all things together.

1 comment:

Rufus said...

Dear Professor David,
It's so nice to see your passion for poetry!
I fully agree with you that God indeed speaks to us (for those who have the third eye - the creative eye) through poetry.
I'm a regular fan of your posts.
You may not know how many hearts you touch/inspire in the process. But the list keeps increasing by the day :-)
Keep up the good work.
Regards and all best wishes,
Samuel Rufus
(btw, i too am a young lecturer in English)