Monday, December 17, 2007

Lessons And Songs

In front of me is parchment, thick material with old writing on it. Some of it goes back a long way, for we are looking down the wrong end of the telescope, into the cold days of 1980, in a land of mist and rain. In the English class, the poets come and go, speaking of more of Breughel than of Michelangelo.

Our teacher makes us read Dylan Thomas. It is my first introduction to the Voice of Wales. It will not be my last. The poem we are reading is The Hand That Signed The Paper, and it goes like this:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose's quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.

It carries a lesson I will bear for the rest of my life. From that day on, I know that the pen is mightier than the sword. My worst enemies will come at me not with might of arms, but along rivers of ink; with penmanship, not pikemanship. And to resist I will need to learn about words as well.

Yet, a sheet of paper has two sides. The defence of vulnerability is the greatest shield of all, for the fully vulnerable is like a cloud; you may pierce it in many places, but you will not hurt it at all. The barrage of words hurled against the invading force is a counter-attack, not a defence. You cannot make a bow a defensive weapon, no matter how hard you try, no matter what philosophy shapes your action and response.

If you will build a city on a hill, and hedge it around with the engines of defence, those who seek entry may hurt themselves. A city on a hill cannot be hid. Should you then eschew defence? No, but you may post a sign here and there: this is a friendly city, but do not seek to invade or invest, for we are a power under orders from Authority. And yet, there will still be accidents. You may make reparation, but there will always be bitterness. This I have learnt as well.

I too have been hurt before. But there is one precious thing I have learnt, a third lesson. The attempt to bear no ill-will is nothing unless you bear good-will. It is hard to attempt it; it is also hard to believe in it. But after 1981, when she told me what was right but hurt me anyway, I learnt that it is always for the best. You must not hate and you must ensure you do not seem to hate; you cannot completely love, when it is not returned; you just get on with it, for you are you.

And yet, who are you? How do you know? It is the reason we are told to consider ourselves with sober judgement – for Romans 12:3 is as important as the previous two verses, if not more so. It introduces the rest of the chapter, verses 4-21, the evaluative canon with which each of us can judge ourselves and not impose the wrong kind of judgement on others.

For in the end, while there is an objective truth, we are commanded to discretion and sober judgement from a subjective viewpoint. How else can it be, when we do not know except through a glass darkly? Wisdom requires that we discern, describe, distill – and on occasion, dispel, destroy, despair. We seek to approach the objectively true, but there is only one singularity, one point from which all things are objective, and that is God's perspective from infinity and eternity.

From this, I have learnt a fourth lesson: I will always bear faith with my friends, but it may not be the faith my friends desire. I will not abandon them even if they think I have. And I may not act even when they feel I should, because it is a matter of my own judgement, flawed or not. Inevitably, I will lose most of my friends. We all will. Yet, this is the way God treats us too; He will abandon us if we deny him, but He does not abandon us for lack of belief. In times like this, I read II Timothy 2 again and again; it comforts and warns me, as all scripture does.

So here we are. We see subjectively, but judge as best we can. And where our judgement fails, we will suffer for it. But only for a while; for in the end, all things are made new, all things are made clean. At the end, we will rise, we shall be changed, we shall be made incorruptible. There are no tears beyond the end of things.


I was at a wedding this weekend. Rather oddly, I felt, the wedding ended with an arrangement of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Pie Jesu, which is a conflation of the traditional Requiem's Pie Jesu and its Agnus Dei. One doesn't normally think of a requiem as wedding music. And yet, thinking of the god-daughter and listening...

Pie Jesu,
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
Dona eis requiem;
Agnus Dei,
Dona eis requiem

I felt my weariness lifted as I heard the venerable words and translated them: "Merciful Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest; Lamb of God, grant them rest eternal." She who sang had a voice sufficiently beautiful for the task, sweet and deep enough to bring out the sweetness of the truth in those words. What I like about the Lloyd Webber arrangement is the deliberate way in which the seven syllables of the third and fifth lines pace out the idea of a deliberate grace. And I remembered 'sempiternam' in particular from ancient Latin lessons; it is a hybrid of 'semper', which is 'always', and 'aeternam', which is 'forever'. Always and forever, O Lord, grant us rest.

It is my wish for a troubled world, and the people of that world. It has always been my wish, above all human strivings, ambitions and desires. Kyrie eleison!

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger xinhui said...

you know, I've always been a bit jealous of the god-daughter.

but I don't feel that way any more.

Om. =)

Pie Jesu has always been one of my favourite hymns.

Monday, December 17, 2007 10:21:00 pm  
Blogger The Hierophant said...

My goodness. The reference to Eliot in the first paragraph slapped me in the face.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007 11:04:00 pm  
Anonymous ~autolycus said...

xinhui: how odd; do you know T at all?

hierophant: that must have been painful; how about the Auden?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 12:46:00 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home