It’s the last Sunday after Epiphany, and the seasons turn, though we have been more bathed in rain than cooked by sun this year, and the sigh collected …
weary pandemic endurers – it is not over yet;
anxious fire survivors – oh, the ever-present threat;
exhales each time rivers’ swelling this time receded – wait – inhale – hold – flood!
anticipated liberation with the fall around the corner, and the freeing it will bring;
… us together though the Convoys and ‘Christian Lobbies’, the letters and the policies brought before us sought to tear us, would have led us deep into the dark.
It’s the last Sunday after Epiphany and the seasons turn again, from light to longer nights of cozy hibernation, of frightened isolation –
oh, Holy One of Epiphany, hold us in the dark with guiding star, with who You are, our sighs, with You, collected.
SARAH AGNEW IS A STORYTELLER, POET, AND UNITING CHURCH MINISTER CURRENTLY IN PLACEMENT WITH WESLEY UNITING CHURCH, CANBERRA. HER POETRY AND LITURGY APPEAR IN WILD GOOSE PUBLICATIONS AS STAND-ALONE E-LITURGIES, IN EDITED ANTHOLOGIES, AND AS WEEKLY PRAYER-POEMS AT PRAY THE STORY. HER MOST RECENT PUBLISHED POETRY COLLECTION IS WHISPER ON MY PALM (RESOURCE PUBLICATIONS, 2022). SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON NGUNNAWAL COUNTRY
for too long I’ve watched my Beauty crawling over the words soaring above the sky dancing between the silent spaces
for too long I’ve waited for my Beauty getting up from her desk walking to the pantry picking up my favourite bone for a good afternoon chew
for too long I’ve been locked with my Beauty in this house down in the garden observing rosellas fleeting and resting on gum branches gazing on shooting stars of the galaxy and the yellow Moon in the night sky
for too long I’ve dreamed of the day with my Beauty climbing mountains smelling fragrances of millions of flowers chasing every hint of animals tasting salt of every lake and leaving my historic marks on every passing pole
Still nothing is too long as long as I am with my Beauty
although sometimes I think I am the Beauty when she accompanies me on my royal parade and I draw the attention and admiration of all when she is busy cooking in the kitchen and I sit on the sofa watching TV when she cleans muck from my eyes or mops the floor of my fur when she hugs me tightly till I ‘purr’ or sticks her face on mine till I look aside
who cares who is whom? We are a happy family in the castle of Beauty and the Beast
XIAOLI YANG IS A THEOLOGIAN, POET, AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND AND IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM. This poem was written during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown.
It appears that to bear the weight of mum’s judgement means not only a sore bum but also a dropped halo. It appears that the Aryan half-pint might have again stolen her favourite manicure set from the middle drawer of the bathroom cabinet while he was supposed to be tidying his sister’s bedroom. It does not yet appear that in this act of descending freedom, of vacating a head that others might gild mockingly with thorns, the embarrassing shape of kenotic love is taking costly form. And it’s not as if
there is chaste indulgence here; this act of discipline reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Christ, this act of judgement upon cobalt and rubicund outlining her own contorted arm and deepening her own overtaxed gaze. A foretaste of arms bearing sin-gnarled stock and hers, those eyes that again will grieve as arms not her own are brought to bear upon her bare first-born, this unexpected fruit in whom her future and that of all shall find shape. And an open roof. Did it fly off with upswing arm so that one who sees everything could weep?
It has been some time too since Paul and Vincent came over, and now this other Paul, and André and Max; seemingly unsedated risk now transformed into dispassion. Was Gala really the benchmark of our friendship, our means of communication, our shared wife? What kind of love did we make to each other in her? And what of love once promised now turned, love now come to assault me? A naked face turned away in a sensuous spell.
JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
After W. H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following words:
About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters; how well, they understood Its human position; how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The American theologian William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain (Abingdon Press, 1984), wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).
Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters’ works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.
But then … they appear.
They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon suggests (and we might add Rembrandt, for example), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).
I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may see what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R. S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, referred to as ‘moments of great calm’:
Moments of great calm, Kneeling before an altar Of wood in a stone church In summer, waiting for the God To speak; the air a staircase For silence; the sun’s light Ringing me, as though I acted A great role. And the audiences Still; all that close throng Of spirits waiting, as I, For the message. Prompt me, God; But not yet. When I speak, Though it be you who speak Through me, something is lost. The meaning is in the waiting.
– R. S. Thomas, ‘Kneeling’, in Not that He Brought Flowers (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968), 32.
JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
The Blake Poetry Prize challenges Australian poets of varied styles and religious and spiritual allegiances to explore the wider experience of spirituality, religion, and/or belief in a new work of 100 lines or less. Entries close on 15 November 2021. More details here.
It all begins with knowing nothing lasts forever, so you might as well start packing now. In the meantime, practice being alive.
There will be a party where you’ll feel like nobody’s paying you attention. And there will be a party where attention’s all you’ll get. What you need to do is to remember to talk to yourself between these parties.
And, again, there will be a day, – a decade – where you won’t fit in with your body even though you’re in the only body you’re in.
You need to control your habit of forgetting to breathe.
Remember when you were younger and you practiced kissing on your arm? You were on to something then. Sometimes harm knows its own healing Comfort knows its own intelligence. Kindness too. It needs no reason.
There is a you telling you another story of you. Listen to her.
Where do you feel anxiety in your body? The chest? The fist? The dream before waking? The head that feels like it’s at the top of the swing or the clutch of gut like falling & falling & falling and falling It knows something: you’re dying. Try to stay alive.
For now, touch yourself. I’m serious.
Touch your self. Take your hand and place your hand some place upon your body. And listen to the community of madness that you are. You are such an interesting conversation.
Before beginning the theological task please remove any and all parts of the self currently deemed unacceptable. If suitable replacement parts are available, attach and use these. Please note, these replacement parts must remain hidden at all times. Only socially sanctioned theological tools may be used. Until current guidelines for theological engagement are met, the preferred method of communication is silence.
All theology must be submitted in writing.
What was it for you? Which parts of yourself did you willingly slice off so they would let you do this?
You never get those parts back.
All you can ever do is point to the place they used to be in an attempt to warn others about making the same mistake.
But it rarely works we all sacrifice ourselves on this altar
But sometimes as our hand, poised, ready to remove that very last piece we hear the still small voice whisper
And the knife slick with our own blood slips through our fingers
Stacey Wilson (usually) spends many hours at her local café glaring at her laptop as she attempts to put the pondering of her heart into words. Through her roles at intergen, CBM australia, and Surrender Co., she provides resources, training, and mentoring to support people in their intergenerational ministry journey. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.
It’s been a difficult year my friends. So I do the only thing I know how to do, Like a stubborn frustrated buddha, I sat. I knelt. I prayed. And as always, I cut. Quickly I became aware of two things: Pain And time. Two things that translate strangely to the screen. Knowing, I’ll forget the pain: the cold floor, the bruises, and the way my legs screamed ‘be here’.
And I’ll forget the hours I sat, now condensed to minutes. Seconds depicting moments. Leaping into the future Fitting tightly into the screen. I have been thinking about time a lot. How people say, in hindsight, it took me 10 years to really know what that period of my life was about. And how that simple sentence erases seconds of self doubt, minutes of struggle, and hours of tears. I’ve been doubting, and struggling, and crying. A lot.
I know why I cut paper, it helps me find my edges. It hedges me in when I start to leak out I just cut away what isn’t there. The stuff that isn’t ‘the thing’. Until only ‘the thing’ is left. And yet, I will always know the perimeter of what has been discarded than the evidence that has been left behind.
Mostly, I cut in silence. A quiet prayer. An emptying. A time of no self. As I mark out the thoughts, broken lines of poetry, and old traumas. I thought about the word ‘present’ and the word ‘present’ being all a game of inflection and yet how differently they speak to the world. Because I know I can present well, it is a safety net that has gotten me through the last difficult long year. But I also know that someone that presents well, can present as present. And how I can only get better at the latter as I let go of the former.
So here I am, And I’m thinking about Moses now. And I’m thinking about this burning bush that I am carving. Be here. Be here. I am, I am. I am that I am. I’m always thinking about God. And the way I am entranced by a tree branch as much as the light that filters through And the dappled shadows cast underfoot.
Pearl Taylor is a Melbourne-based visual artist, art therapist and Uniting Church youth facilitator, invested in the ways faith forms our personal narrative. Pearl’s art practice is informed by a pinch contemplative traditions, a healthy dose of the radically-inclusive, and a touch of humour. As she dabbles in theological spaces, it is through creativity that she expresses, connects, and invites others in. She lives on Wurundjeri land.
It is disorienting how a space so beautiful and lovingly fragrant has the life-indwelling potential for such a magnitude of pain. Like summer days sitting in the shadow of a wild rose, pressing one’s nose into the sun-kissed petals of smooth velvet.
Covered in the yellow grains of life-producing possibilities the closeness brings visceral reminders that home, like roses bring pain to those who have been so near and then pull away.
Thorns break into flesh when your presence is left. Time with you appeared to have no end, the young were confident in this. Years passed, service, mission, duty, and love beckoned us to foreign lands requiring an unperceived and misunderstood sacrifice as we tread a well worn path.
Why must these woody cells with pointed intentions persist? Year after year they’ve remained comfortably under the folds of our skin obstinate towards the desires for forgetfulness.
Scar tissue envelopes their presence, covering over reminders of what once was. Slight pressure applied by a seemingly insignificant force ushers in once more aching pain that consumes the senses, disorientating the best laid plans.
Can one not walk away from the enjoyment of your presence without consequence? Does a thorn ever complete its task; reminding one of the beauty journeyed from? ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is a wretched truth.
To behold home once more as the memories insist upon being true is an impossibility brought by the metamorphosis of time. Returning overlays the deepest of memories overtop unknown changes, conjuring up moments of confusion and feelings of foreign.
And yet we yearn again for a moment with the fragrance, presence and place, if only for fleeting and hurried relief from the ache. All the while knowing that the time will come when we must pull away, left with another thorn in the flesh.
The poem found above has been something in the works for over the past three months and is most likely a guttural reaction to the strong lockdown Melbourne has had to endure. Being an expat for over fifteen years, I and others like myself have often struggled with the strange heart reaction of homesickness that ebbs and flows with the passage of time and events. Recently, I’ve been wondering about Paul’s thorn and whether it could have been something as often overlooked as homesickness. We like to assume that Paul’s thorn was persecution or perhaps some bodily ailment as that is perhaps a more holy possibility. But what if it was something as simple as his longing for home? Perhaps he was wrestling with the pulls to go home and the calling to go elsewhere, working within the broader church family? Maybe it is a bit arrogant to presume that someone called by God for such an important task as Paul’s could share something in common with me? I don’t know for sure but I like to wonder.
What I do know is that many of us expats are struggling with the affliction of homesickness in the current Australian climate due to being told that visiting home is not an option. The latest news from the Prime Minister is that the Australian borders most likely won’t reopen to many SARS COV2 infected countries until 2022. That seems like forever away and is hard to accept when our family had plans for a visit in the next eight months. I have found in my experience that many whose roots have never shifted from their homeland do not understand the difficulties around homesickness or the lingering pain that home imbeds within the hearts of those who uproot. This is something I try to shed light on in Paul’s Thorn Illuminated.
This poem intentionally does not end in hope. There are moments when answers should not be hurried and instead we need to acknowledge that the emotions of the present conflict are real and difficult. After a time, we can move on from that recognition of pain towards the hope that God provides in God’s Word. For the expat, that hope is found in our eternal citizenship and home. Texts like Psalm 68.5–6a (‘Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home’) and Philippians 3.20 (‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’) remind us that God understands the need for home and belonging. God cares for the lonely by providing a home. God reminds us that God is making one for us where we are the citizens. In our eternal home, there will be no ‘rings of steel’, curfews, or border restrictions. Presently, we may feel the physical pain and loneliness of earthly separation, but we can find comfort in knowing that even now God is thinking of our need for belonging and rootedness by providing us with church family when our biological families are beyond reach and the promise of an eternal home to come.
MEGAN FISHER SERVES AS A MANAGER IN THE MCKINNON REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, HOMESCHOOLS FOUR OF THEIR FIVE CHILDREN, AND TEACHES ENGLISH AND CITIZENSHIP CLASSES FOR WOMEN IN THE MELBOURNE AFGHAN COMMUNITY. SOMETIMES SHE IS SUCCESSFUL AT FINDING JUST ENOUGH SILENCE TO CREATE THE ART THAT IS RUMBLING AROUND IN HER HEAD. SHE LIVES AND WORKS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.