Tragedy, Christianity, and Holy Saturday: Looking toward Easter

The term ‘Christian tragedy’ has often been described as a paradox, in part because the Christian system of belief insists on the persistence of hope. A Christian framework ascribes meaning to suffering: in his epistle, James writes:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. [1]

Suffering begins to inhere in a broader purpose rather than in the interminable knot of stasis or in the perpetuity of physical anguish. If the promise of a living hope, one that is revitalised each day, invigorates the narrative sensibility of the believer, and the figure of Jesus Christ symbolises a conquering of the forces of death, it is difficult to hold to the apathetic determinism that has coloured many tragic narratives.

One way to carve out dimensions of the tragic within the Christian worldview may be expressed in the perceived absence, or silence, of God. If Good Friday represents the death of Christ for the salvation of all mankind, and Easter Sunday represents the resurrection that seals the new life that believers have in Christ, it is in the agonising experience of the Saturday between where the locus of tragedy remains. One must cling to the assurance that ‘all things work together for good’, [2] that Christ will return, and that justice will be restored, despite the immediacy of suffering or persecution. It is in the faltering of this promise where tragedy emerges, particularly for the believing subject who must suffer emotional, psychological, and physical violence.

Shūsaku Endō and Danai Gurira explore the psychological and physical anguish of religious persecution in their respective works Silence (1966) and The Convert (2012). The site of interior contest is found in 17th-century Japan and 19th-century Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), in wars raging between Christian piety and indigenous belief, foreign influence and tribal obligation. Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues rails against a God who does not intervene in the slaughter of Japanese Christians; Catholic priest Chilford must witness his protégé Jekesai succumb to violence as she witnesses the Christian British kill her fellow Shona.

Endō’s novel and Gurira’s play variously question the indigenisation of Christianity, of the possibility of integrating local belief systems and languages under a Christian framework, but also the notion that a benevolent God demands the martyrdom of His followers. There can be no glory in the sacrifices that Endō and Gurira depict, not least when God seems distant, absent, and insistently apophatic – the assurance of a benevolent divinity evaporates in the midst of unceasing anguish.

Central to the tragedy of Silence is the campaign of extermination waged by the Tokugawa Shogunate upon Japan’s Christian population. Noting the unquestioning obedience of his subjects to foreign priests, Emperor Hideyoshi issued an edict of expulsion in 1587. In it, he declares that Christianity is ‘longing to disseminate an evil law, to overthrow true doctrine, so that they may change the government of the country, and obtain possession of the land’. [3] Recognising that the killing of Christians was not serving its purpose, the Shogunate developed modes of torture to force martyrs to apostatise. This reckoning with Japan’s persecution of Christians was central to Endō’s ambivalence toward his Catholicism. He writes:

There were many times when I felt I wanted to get rid of my Catholicism, but I was finally unable to do so. […] Still, there was always that feeling in my heart that it was something borrowed, and I began to wonder what my real self was like. This I think is the ‘mud swamp’ Japanese in me. [4]

This lack of a coterminous Japanese Christian identity beleaguered Endō, traced to the violence wrought upon those who first sought to propagate the faith. After witnessing the martyrdoms of Mokichi and Ichizo, Rodrigues is brought to meet Ferreira, his former mentor and subsequent Christian apostate. Ferreira inveighs against the possibility of Christianity taking root in Japan, declaring,

This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp. […] In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider’s web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.’ [5]

There can be no Christian hope if the Japanese can have no conception of the Christian God, twisted beyond recognition, unable to reconcile with the strictures of a fundamentally distinct episteme. The substance of Christian doctrine is hollowed in Ferreira’s conception, God expressed only in the ‘exterior form’ of liturgy, an allegation that the Japanese form of Christian belief abides ritual and nothing else.

This irreconcilability is taken as justification for the violence that Rodrigues must bear witness to.  Japanese converts are beheaded, immolated, and drowned by rising tides in his presence. In his letters, he writes:

the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent. [6]

The silence of God is what tars the violence against the Japanese Christians with senselessness, one in which there can be no assurance of glorious deliverance. The Christian God is not understood to be retributive, but this intensifies the psychic fissures of Japan’s persecuted church, of the struggle to find meaning amidst the campaign of annihilation they face.

As with Ferreira, the seeming silence of God erodes Rodrigues’ faith. His reverence is put under strain when he is forced to a position of apostasy. Trapped in a cage, Rodrigues is forced to bear witness to Christians whose bodies are subject to the same physical torture that Ferreira experienced:

Behind their ears a small incision has been made; the blood drips slowly through this incision and through the nose and mouth. I know it well, because I have experienced that same suffering in my own body. Prayer does nothing to alleviate suffering.

So long as Rodrigues does not recant his faith, they will continue to be tortured. The Shogunate’s shrewd assessment of Christian ethics has enabled them to craft a form of torture that problematises its imperatives. The meaning of suffering is displaced onto Rodrigues, who must weigh the costs of his own personal tragedy – apostasy – against the atrocity he faces. The novel reaches its climax as Rodrigues can bear this burden no more:

He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample ! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie
[7]. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew. [8]

The connection Endō draws between Rodrigues and Saint Peter is damning. Peter, infamously, disavowed Christ thrice after promising he would not, a prophecy signified by the sound of a rooster crowing. Such a parallel illustrates the pressures that turned Rodrigues into that which he feared most – a traitor, an apostate, a hypocrite.

The tragedy of Rodrigues lies in the irreconcilability of the conflict he faces, a Christian paradox in its own right. Which is to be privileged: the outward declaration of faith in Christ, or the imperative toward laying down one’s life for one’s neighbor? The meaning of suffering is manipulated to enact the greatest amount of pain upon Rodrigues as a priest. The greatest irony, then, is that the moment of Rodrigues’ apostasy is when God breaks his silence. Somehow, providential sovereignty reasserts itself at the point where it seems most likely to disappear.

Pappa Essiedu and Letitia Wright as Chilford and Ester, The Convert. All photos © Marc Brenner

Gurira’s dramatisation of the encounter between Christianity and a non-Christian episteme is just as fraught as Endō’s, albeit exacerbated by the violence of British colonialism. The native Rhodesians regard Christianity as a symbol of betrayal, seeing converts as abandoning their heritage and mimicking European habits to acquire their discursive and economic power. This is captured in the epithet ‘Bafu, a lover to the white man.’ [9] The eponymous Convert is Ester, formerly Jekesai, who flees to Catholic priest Chilford’s home under the auspices of her aunt Mai Tamba who works as his housekeeper.

Chilford is presented as the ideal colonised subject when he ostentatiously defends his decision to ‘civilise’ Ester by steeping her in ‘the most potent margination of biblical and academic studies’. [10] The tropes of African barbarism and paganism are fully imbibed by Chilford, for whom Catholicism, the English language, and European thought represent a pathway out. Ester’s adoption of Christianity is swift, as she sees the Christian God as delivering her from a forced marriage to a distant uncle. Yet, her mimicry earns her the scorn of her cousin Tamba, who laments:

You are a muzeuru of the first and the foremost. The daughter of many lines of vazezuru, but you want to sit in this BAFU idiot’s home acting rike you ara a white [11]

The irreconcilability herein is between their Shona lineage and Ester’s adoption of the Christian faith. If Endō was haunted by the impossibility of Christianity thriving in the mud swamp of Japan, Gurira is haunted by the epistemic and cultural violence of exchanging one belief system for another. Tamba persists in his hatred for the British:

Now we do what they say because we need these monies they bring to GIVE BEK TO THEM in the hut tex to live in a smar hut and they ara riving in the BIIIIG houses they mek US build. Then they say – ‘Oh – here is this God who is coming from they sky to mek you crean from a sin – you love on him end be heppy. […] (Picks up Bible and throws it to the ground.) It is the poison of the white man. It kill the spirit of your forefather inside you. [12]

Tamba’s creolised monologue alludes to the fundamental transformation wrought upon Zimbabwe by the imposition of British economic systems, one driven by an obsession with material extraction and accumulation. Tamba notes the injustices of taxation, of which the benefits are not equitably distributed amongst the indigenous. This spirit of capitalism that has infested Rhodesia is what he conflates with Christianity, as he identifies the hypocrisy of the colonialists who claim to abide by its tenets.

Ester, Tamba, and Mai Tamba © Young Vic

This hypocrisy is what breaks Ester’s faith in the God of the British, resulting in an eruption of violence. Like Rodrigues, she cannot help but question the presence of a God who allows for senseless atrocity to take place. She returns to Chilford after attempting to advocate on Tamba’s behalf during a trial for his murder of a British national. Abandoning the name Ester and reclaiming the name Jekesai, she confesses:

The whites don’t do what their book it is saying. I thought they would be like Jesus, show his love, love their enemy, I thought – (Beat.) I wanted to not care and spill their blood like they were not caring and spilling mine. They killed him like a chicken, Master. A chicken. (Beat.)


I knew how to cut quick, how to life the knife just like so and drop it heavy. I just lift the knife like I do with the chicken and drop it through Mrs. Coltern she her neck. [13]


(Dawn begins to break.) Master, can you be absolving me?’ [14]

Jekesai’s monologue comes at the play’s conclusion, at the height of her disillusionment toward the benevolence of British rule and its supposed Christian scaffolding. Her belief in British piety is torn asunder by the merciless murder of Tamba, dehumanised like ‘a chicken’. The words of Ester’s father lead her to succumb to the tribalistic pressures of the blood feud, as she claims the life of a British national in exchange. The visceral violence she enacts on her kindly benefactors is couched in the similar lexis of animal slaughter, as if to enact the same dehumanisation upon ‘the whites’.

Herein the tension is between two compelling systems of belief, of the impossibility of acceding to Christian mercy when it seems absent in those who enact violence. Yet, Jekesai is firmly convinced of her Christianity, declaring:

I am already making my peace on this one. This I was doing for my blood, but I am knowing there is a price I must be paying. […] Don’t be fearing for me Master, the Lord he is with me. [15]

Jekesai is able to reconcile these imperatives in a way that Rodrigues cannot. For her, revenge is a satisfactory resolution to the silence of God amidst atrocity. If we are to take a Hegelian formulation of tragedy, it is out of these two clashing paradigms that something new is born, that the Geist of history proceeds. In Gurira’s formulation, it is the promise of a fully Shona Christianity. The play concludes with a composition by Jekesai:

I am making this song as I was walking just now. It is to the Lord my God in the tongue of my ancestors. You, Father Ndlovu, you can be singing it in you your new church. (Starts to sing.)

Makanaka baba, makanaka,


Ndinotenda, ndinotenda Jesu, ndinotenda.

[God you are good. I thank you Jesus][16]

The tragedy of Christianity is entwined with the physical and epistemic violence wrought upon Rhodesia: the oppositions of native and coloniser, indigenous belief and Christianity, a reified past and an obscured future. The promise of a Zimbabwean Christianity is enmeshed in a struggle for a new self-definition in the aftermath of British colonialism. As Gurira has written elsewhere, ‘The clash of voice, dream, God and song is destined to be mighty, bloody and age-long.’ [17]

If the Christian framework offers a way of ascribing meaning to suffering, a Christian tragedy functions in such a way that it hollows it of the possibility of this meaning. Endō’s God seems cruelly distant from the suffering of His church in Japan. It is in this silence that Endō’s tragedy unfolds as Rodrigues is forced to apostasise. For Gurira, God is Himself the site of contest – He surely cannot be the God that Jekesai worships if the British are willing to commit egregious violence in His name. Yet, the God that she knows is never distant, but with her even in the midst of her retaliatory murders, even in the enactment of tribal custom.

The despair of the Holy Saturday between the death and resurrection of Christ finds itself elongated, just as Christians anticipate the eventual return of Christ, who will bring an end to all pain and suffering. What Endō and Gurira testify to is the possibility of a Christian tragedy that inheres in its framework, destined to play out in this long period of waiting, eager for the release that arrives with the hope of Easter Sunday.


R. S. Thomas

Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.



Primary Works

Endō, Shusaku, Silence, trans. by William Johnston (United States: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969)

Gurira, Danai, The Convert, (United Kingdom: Oberon Books Ltd, 2017)

Thomas, R. S., ‘Pietà’ in Selected Poems (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 59

Secondary Works

Boxer, C. R., The Christian Century in Japan (United States: University of California Press, 1951)

ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011)

Mathy, Francis, ‘Shusaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist’, Thought, Winter 1967


[1] ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011), James 1:2-8.

[2] ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. by Crossway (United States: Crossway, 2011), Romans 8:28.

[3] C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan (United States: University of California Press, 1951), p. 318.

[4] Francis Mathy, ‘Shusaku Endō: Japanese Catholic Novelist’, Thought, Winter 1967.

[5] Shusaku Endō, Silence, trans. by William Johnston (United States: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 225, 228.

[6] Endō, Silence, pp. 84-85.

[7] Japanese flat image of a Christian symbol, usually the crucifixion, designed to be stepped on. Suspected Christians were required to step on the representation to prove that they were not believers.

[8] Endō, Silence, p. 259.

[9] Danai Gurira, The Convert, (United Kingdom: Oberon Books Ltd, 2017), p. 39.

[10] Gurira, The Convert, p. 8.

[11] Gurira, The Convert, p. 39.

[12] Gurira, The Convert, p. 39.

[13] Ester works as the maid of the Colterns in the play.

[14] Gurira, The Convert, pp. 84-85.

[15] Gurira, The Convert, p. 86.

[16] Gurira, The Convert, pp. 86-87.

[17] Gurira, The Convert.

Poems for Englings: An Anthology

Photo: Nadi Lindsay (2019)


and that will be heaven
at last      the first unclouded

to stand like the sunflower
turned full face to the sun
– Evangeline Paterson

This collection of poems is the fruit of many conversations, dinners, and events held by The CICCU Englings between 2017 and 2020. The CICCU Englings are a group of English students at the University of Cambridge who gather under the auspices of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU). The group’s name takes its reference from The Inklings, a literary discussion group at the University of Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s that counted such luminaries as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in its membership. 

The Englings gather for meals, each time bringing along poems, excerpts of literature, and Scripture for discussion, prepared in response to particular pressures each of us face over the course of the academic term. The space this opens up is intimate, allowing each of us to discuss intellectual tensions and difficulties we face in supervisions, in the works we read, or in the argumentative positions we encounter. 

As Christians, we were often a small group within the English Faculty. Being in The Englings gave us the opportunity to examine the generative, symbiotic relations between our faith and our academic work. Alongside fixtures such as R. S. Thomas, John Donne, Christian Wiman, Shūsaku Endō, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Mary Oliver, and Julian of Norwich, we looked to scholars and clergy such as Rowan Williams and Malcolm Guite for guidance.

These conversations often served as the starting point for various events, allowing us to home in on specific, recurring themes. It was questions of doubt, restlessness, and ambiguity that came up most often. This served as the departure point from which we envisioned spaces where people could be invited to think and ponder, to read and reflect, to have the opportunity to encounter Christ on their own terms. 

In the years where I was a member of the group, we organised two such evangelistic events: Resurrection Poetry at The Round Church in Lent 2018, and waiting // poetry, art, music at Pembroke College Chapel in Lent 2019. These events featured poetry printed on posters that were placed at eye level at different parts of the venues. Some poems had brief commentaries and question prompts, with pens and paper available for attendees to write down their thoughts and responses. This space to read was accompanied by poetry readings, Scripture readings, as well as musical performances. 

As providence would have it, Malcolm Guite attended waiting in 2019 and revealed that he had accepted Christ as a Pembroke student in the 1970s, often praying in Pembroke Chapel itself. Later on, as an outgrowth of my interest in the poetry of R. S. Thomas, one nourished by my time with The Englings, Rowan Williams was assigned to me as my dissertation supervisor in 2020. Generous and attentive, I brought the wisdom he shared with me to subsequent Engling gatherings. 

From 2017 to 2019, Madeleine Kelly and I served as the group’s representatives and spearheaded these events, assisted and supported ably by our mentor Imogen Phillips and The Englings. In many respects, this has shaped this collection, with each section a reflection of some of the poems featured in events and discussions over the course of several years. Some poems and songs by Englings themselves are included in this collection, in particular contributions by Cecily Fasham, Matt Lewis, Jacob Henstridge, Maddy Constant, Leonard Yip, and me. 

The vision for an event in Lent 2020 centered on the themes of despair and hope but did not come to fruition; what remains are some of the poems we shared, especially as the pandemic entrenched physical distance between all of us. 

These poems are not all necessarily ‘Christian’ in their subject matter or audience, but each bore a particular resonance at the points in time at which we read them. We hope that you will read them in this spirit of openness and allow them to bring you into a place of introspection. They have proven nourishing, edifying, and bracing for us, and we hope they prove the same for you. 

Jonathan Chan
Singapore, February 2021 

Poems for Englings: An Anthology [PDF]


i. Resurrection
‘i am a little church’, e. e. cummings … 7
‘The Dead Woman’, Pablo Neruda … 8
‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’, John Donne … 9
‘Anything Can Happen’, Seamus Heaney … 10
‘Food for Risen Bodies’, Michael Symmons Roberts … 11
‘Resurrection’, R. S. Thomas … 12
‘Descending Theology: The Resurrection’, Mary Karr … 13
‘The Black Christ’, Arthur Shearly Cripps … 14
‘Even Such Is Time (Verses Written The Night Before His Death)’, Sir Walter Raleigh … 15
‘A Hymn to God the Father’, John Donne …16
‘In a Green Night’, Derek Walcott … 17
‘Sympathy’, Paul Laurence Dunbar … 18
‘And that will be Heaven’, Evangeline Paterson … 19
‘pembroke chapel’, Jonathan Chan … 20
‘Blandeur’, Kay Ryan … 21
‘Design’, Robert Frost … 22
‘Wild Geese’, Mary Oliver … 23 
‘The Bright Field’, R. S. Thomas … 24

ii. Waiting
‘My Bright Abyss’, Christian Wiman … 26
‘Waiting’, R. S. Thomas … 27
‘Postscript’, Seamus Heaney … 28
‘Homecoming’, Gwyneth Lewis … 29 
‘Late Ripeness’, Czesław Miłosz … 30
‘Golgotha’, John Heath-Stubbs … 31
‘Gethsemane’, Rowan Williams … 32
‘Into The Light’ (excerpt), Meir of Norwich … 33
‘Lachrimae Amantis’, Geoffrey Hill … 34
‘waiting’, Jonathan Chan … 35
‘patience’, Jonathan Chan … 36
‘I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day’, Gerard Manley Hopkins … 37
Psalm 130 (NIV) … 38
‘In A Country Church’, R. S. Thomas … 39
‘Skewed Space’, Cecily Fasham … 40
‘How I Talk to God’, Kelly Belmonte … 42
‘Every Riven Thing’, Christian Wiman … 43
Habakkuk 3:16-19 (NIV) … 44
‘September Rain: A Song’, Matt Lewis … 45
‘Love’s as Warm as Tears’, C. S. Lewis … 46
‘Beannacht/Blessing’, John O’Donohue … 47

iii. Despair / Hope
‘Love (III)’, George Herbert … 49
‘Maundy Thursday’, Malcolm Guite … 50
‘Pietà’, R. S. Thomas … 51
‘Liberty’, Matt Lewis … 52
‘Hope’, Matt Lewis … 53
‘Babel’, Jacob Henstridge … 55
‘Candlelight’, Cecily Fasham … 57
‘the problem of rain’, Cecily Fasham … 58
‘I Am’, Maddy Constant … 60
‘The Age of Second Chances’, Leonard Yip … 61
‘As John to Patmos’, Derek Walcott … 62
‘A Song of Hope’, Oodgeroo Noonuccal … 63
‘Kindness’, Naomi Shihab Nye … 64
‘Metamorphosis’, Jenny Xie … 65
‘As imperceptibly as Grief’, Emily Dickinson … 66
‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’, Emily Dickinson … 67
‘De Profundis’, Christina Rossetti … 68
‘Misgivings’, Herman Melville … 69
‘Lockdown’, Simon Armitage … 70
‘lament’, Jonathan Chan … 72
‘Prayer’, Carol Ann Duffy … 73
‘Adrift’, Mark Nepo … 74
‘hold’, Jonathan Chan … 75
‘The Instinct of Hope’, John Clare … 76
‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, Gerard Manley Hopkins … 77

On forgiveness

Composite image from Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007)

During a pivotal scene in Lee Chang-dong’s film Secret Sunshine (2007), the newly converted Christian Lee Shin-ae is brought face to face with the killer of her child, Park Do-seop. She arrives with an entourage of supporters from her church and an armful of flowers, ready to accord him forgiveness for his egregious act of cruelty. It is a set-up established with all the rectitude of religious sincerity. As Shin-ae enters the room, face separated from his by a glass panel, she begins to remark of her newfound peace, one that has inhered in the comfort of her faith.

As she looks up, expecting a grovelling plea for mercy, she instead finds Do-seop, clad in his inmate’s overalls, awash with serenity. He, too, has found Christ; he, too, has experienced the beauty of being forgiven. The unflappability of his peacefulness punctures the act of her forgiveness altogether – it sets in motion her subsequent disavowal of Christianity and spiral into self-harm, grief and anger mingling in the theological contradictions and hypocrisy that permit such a smooth glossing over of wrongdoing. Repentance has taken place behind the clatter of bars, and the forgiveness of God takes precedent over the forgiveness of a hurt party.

Intuitively, I felt compelled to dispute the film’s misprision, or at least that was what it struck me to be. The act of forgiveness begins not from divine restitution, but from a genuine recognition of the hurt inflicted upon another person. There can be no heft to Christian mercy and charity if forgiveness has not been sought from an aggrieved party; to suggest otherwise would be a contravention of the principle of loving others as oneself. Forgiveness is not obtained through the quick cheapening of grace, it is necessarily pursued with a genuine recognition of hurt, an inward reckoning with the depth of pain caused to the recipient of harm. It is as Christ himself mentions:

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. [1]

Repentance and initiative are the preconditions to forgiveness. Perhaps that was what unsettled me most about Do-seop in Secret Sunshine, that an inner peace could have been so easily obtained without a sense of obligation to Shin-ae, having processed the panic, anguish, and imitable horror of finding her beloved son abducted and murdered. A forgiveness that is pre-emptively conferred onto oneself is no forgiveness at all.

It is a great cliché of our present age that we dwell in the indignation of grievance. Our primary avenues of social interaction online foment and thrive on reduction and simplification, drawing our eyes to that which maximises the intensity of our emotional responses. It is an eyeball economy that keeps the commercial logic of social media afloat, the monetisation of anger and disgust to sustain platforms and groups and campaigns. The doomscroll is as much an outrage-scroll; endorphins flare up when one is confronted by the endless litany of indignities that one can invest their energies in. The futility of bearing a thousand cuts, not least when the accountability that forgiveness demands evaporates under the guise of anonymity or incorporeal distance.

I have taken to putting down my phone and reducing the hours I spend flicking through Instagram and Facebook. Thank God I logged off of Twitter years ago. Christ says in His Sermon on the Mount, ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’. [2] There is only so much lividity that can be swallowed each day, only so much battering that a mind and conscience can take, only so much patience one can exercise toward the forbearance of extraneous, depersonalised conflict.

The knot of unresolved conflict, and the bitterness of a grudge it results in, often draws me back to the thickened conceptions of static anguish in tragedy. I think of Sophocles’ Antigone: the irrepressible groans for her inability to bury her brother Polynices, attempting, as Judith Butler opines, to grieve ungrievable life. [3] The interminable knot that Antigone encounters is a clash between the duty she owes to her family and the legal obligations of the polis, or the city-state. Polynices’ crimes against the polis, his attempt to usurp power, rubs up against Antigone’s sisterly obligations. It drives King Creon, incumbent ruler, to forbid an honourable burial. Antigone sacrifices the honour of motherhood, raising children, or a wedding ceremony to starve in the outskirts of the city, yielding an additional dimension of pathos to her fate. Antigone is unable to realise a Greek ideal of femininity as she laments:

Unwept, unloved, unmarried
I am led away in sorrow
to the path that awaits me,
no longer allowed to see
that sacred eye of flame;
tearless is my doom, lamented
by none of my friends. [4]

If forgiveness is to be regarded as a sacred ideal, it necessarily demands a way of forging a synthesis between seemingly irresolvable desires and ethical systems. The swapping of an ancient Greek ethical paradigm for a Christian one is subversive, as an aggrieved party must lay aside the irreducibility of a given position in a spirit of compromise. Of course, this may detract from the governing impulses of Christian martyrdom, a question that is far more eschatological and existential, but it nevertheless draws to mind that forgiveness thrives in averted pride and intentional peacemaking.

I also think of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1942), [5] a play that has continued to haunt my imagination ever since I first read it when I was eighteen. Perhaps it was its unabashed proximity to O’Neill’s own family that made its dialogue leap searingly off the page: every spat, every quibble, every comment that cut through bone and marrow. There was an untidiness to the overlapping web of grievances and unresolved conflicts that made me shudder: Tyrone’s disapproval of Jamie’s sloth, Jamie’s anger toward Tyrone for foregoing medical treatment for Edmund’s tuberculosis, Mary’s resentment of Edmund because of how his birth led to her morphine addiction, Edmund’s stammering, fog-like thinking drawing him away from the incessant chatter of his household, Mary’s desire to seek out the unlived life she gave to be Tyrone’s bride.

On and on and on the family, fueled by drugs and alcohol, exchange barbs so pointed that one can only imagine the piercing of flesh onstage. It always made me wonder what the threshold at which forgiveness and anger find their end was, if there can be said to be one at all. It brought to mind the arguments and disputes I’ve been privy to in my own home, the needless sparks that can set off an escalation in jibes, the voices rattling off of the walls amidst tears and wailing, the developing impulse to defuse, rather than goad.

If one is to learn how to forgive, one must also learn how to apologise: to make clear an admission of wrong, to affirm the hurt suffered by an aggrieved party, to seek the forgiveness of another. It is only at this point of contrition that an ease of conscience can drive one to seek God. The restitution of divine relationship can only be made after the restitution of an earthly relationship; we come to God in the same spirit with which we come to those made in His image. It portends an end to interminable cycles of conflict and hatred: the blindness that Gandhi warns of if we keep going for each other’s eyes, the foe that Blake warns will be killed if we keep nurturing our poisoned apples, or, as Heaney once wrote, the suffering that no poem or play or song can ever fully address.

It is the war within our internal factions that we must learn to resolve before we can begin to address the ones we have caused among others. Forgiveness provides the foundation for the long, enduring work of tackling tribalism and the crawling practice of demonisation, the reminder of the histories we have of societies rending themselves apart, and its ensuing bitter stains of blood. It is knowing that even if our flesh is torn, our faces are spit at, and our mettle is broken, that there is a divinity that furnishes the ability to forgive, to say, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

It is only at the place of resolution and stillness that fortitude yields its face, as does the prospect of communality, solidarity, and hope. Forgiveness is no panacea, but it is where petty grievance faces its end.


Michael Longley (1998)

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’



“In your anger do not sin:
Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry,
and do not give the devil a foothold.”
— Ephesians 4:26-27 (NIV)

again, we must sting and be stung,
silence unsettled as breathless air.
anger swallowed by the fading sun,

daybreak wipes the slate of bitterness clean.

your mother swallows her own acrid pills, washed
by a burgundy swirl. your father retreats into an
electronic cacophony, vanishing jewels and
carcinogenic vapour. the pallor of neon desk lights
falls over your brother’s half-done worksheets and
half-played rap videos. your brother’s incantatory pacing
behind closed doors tapers off. 

somehow, there is space
for arms wrapped around teenage reticence, for the days
to be painted in the moments before sleep, for the silence to settle
into quiet forbearance, its own resignation, a balm that rests
burning for its own sake.


[1] Luke 17:3-4, Holy Bible: New International Version.

[2] Matthew 6:34, Holy Bible: New International Version.

[3] Bonnie Honig, ‘Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief: Mourning, Membership, and the Politics of Exception’, Political Theory, 37.1 (2009), pp. 5-43 (p. 7).

[4] Sophocles, Antigone, in The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, trans. by Frank Nisetich, (Modern Library, 2016), 886-872.

[5] Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Great Britain: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1956; repr. 1966),


First published at:

December 2020.

a patch of wild grace: God’s Grandeur

God’s Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.



Psalm 148:8-14 (NIV)

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
    for his name alone is exalted;
    his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
And he has raised up for his people a horn,
    the praise of all his faithful servants,
    of Israel, the people close to his heart.


Photo: Edward Eyer, 2017.


Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet and priest of the Victorian era, widely regarded to be one of its most preeminent, especially for his radical and anachronistic style. Upon entering the Jesuit novitiate in 1868 at the age of 24, he burned most of his poems as a display of piety, though, thankfully, he did not stop writing poetry thereafter.

Many of his poems were published posthumously, establishing him as a particularly innovative manipulator of prosody. ‘God’s Grandeur’ is a marvellous example of his ‘sprung rhythm’, an ebullient rhythm that is meant to mimic human speech. Much of it takes reference from alliterative medieval verse and English folk songs. The orality of Hopkins’ poems complements the jubilation of his subject matter well: Hopkins uses a blend of visual and tactile images to draw on the ubiquity of God’s presence, ‘[flaming] out’ like ‘shining from shook foil,’ ‘[gathering] to greatness’ like ‘the ooze of oil’.

The poem’s turn to the incessantness of human conflict continues on in his playful prosody, replete with assonance, alliteration, and rhyme, before setting up a diametric contrast with the fact that ‘nature is never spent’, the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’. The sunrise, to Hopkins, ‘springs’, and the Holy Spirit, envisioned as a dove, ‘broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.’

Hopkins was a proponent of the notion that the book of Nature and book of Revelation (the Bible) are to be read alongside one another, an explicit recovery of the divine presence of God in His creation. As a hymn of creation, ‘God’s Grandeur’ is a response to Psalm 148, a procession of praise from the earth and the ocean depths, the lightning and hail, the mountains and hills, all the way to His animals and His people. Where Hopkins transforms this Psalm is in his effusive manipulation of prosody, one that results in the joyous burst of elation when read aloud.

In thinking of the totality of God’s creation, and as created things, how can we remember what it is to praise the Lord?


© Gerard Manley Hopkins

a patch of wild grace: Introduction

Photo: Anete Lusina, 2020

These commentaries on pairings of poetry and Scripture were written with the intention of inspiring thought, reflection, and a deepening sense of communion with God. Some of the poets featured are Christians and others are not. My hope is that each poem, aided by an accompanying scriptural counterpart and my own observations, will shed light on the complexity and texture of Christian belief.

Jonathan Chan
Singapore, November 2020.


a patch of wild grace: The Peace of Wild Things

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry (b. 1934)

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.



Matthew 6:26-34 (ESV)

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,  yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.


Photo: Maksim Romashkin, 2020


Wendell Berry, a writer from Kentucky in the United States, is known for his life in farming, his activism against environmental degradation, and his deep and abiding love for the natural world. Much of this stems from the ethos of environmental stewardship, one that arises fundamentally from the meditative space accorded by reflecting on the things of this earth.

‘The Peace of Wild Things’ is a poem I return to in moments of stress or anxiety, for in his verse Berry paraphrases much of what I believe Jesus illustrates in his Sermon of the Mount. Just as He reminds us that our Father feeds the ‘birds of the air’, so does Berry remind us that ‘wild things’ do not ‘tax their lives with forethought / of grief’. Berry once opined that no places are unsacred, but that there are only places that are sacred or desecrated.

In ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, Berry presents a narrative of what it means to retreat from the things of this world, the pattern of anxiety over the things beyond our control, and to remember that God’s providence is revealed in His care for the natural world, the fluency of the natural world in accordance with the Father’s will.

What is making you anxious today? What are the material concerns that threaten to flood your mind? And what helps us to return to the embrace of the Father, knowing that our task is to seek His kingdom first and His righteousness, knowing that He will give us enough for each day?   


© 1985 Wendell Berry

a patch of wild grace: O Holy Night

O Holy Night
Marjorie Stelmach (b. 1948)

Ephesians 4:31 – Let all bitterness and wrath       
and anger…be put away from you

In the easement,
stripped trees daven apathetically
under a skull-cap sky. 
Oh, Child,
are you sure? This world?
This bleak winter?
These unconscionable times?

The last of the day’s feeble sun
steeps the holly,
staining its berries a rich
as bright and slick
as a seasoned trickster, then
slips off the edge of the earth,

leaving to us this night,
first among too many nights
we’ve marked                      
and mean,
every year, to find holy.
It’s getting old, this act.
Or maybe it’s me. Lately,

I’m all lapse and misstep.
And yet, love’s tiny fist seeks out
my heart with the old entreaty,
and yearly
I somehow let in love enough
to try again: to call our people
decent, our planet worthy.



Luke 2:1-7 (NIV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.


Ephesians 4:31-32 (NIV)

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.


Photo: Burkay Canatar, 2020.


Marjorie Stelmach is an American poet who has served as a high school English teacher for over 30 years. She previously served as director of a writing scholars programme at Washington University and as a visiting poet at the University of Missouri. Her poems have been awarded the Chad Walsh Prize and the Marianne Moore Prize and have been anthologised in various collections of Christian poetry. Amidst the season of Advent, I thought it apt to take a look at her poem ‘O Holy Night’, itself prefaced by a verse from Ephesians 4: ‘Let all bitterness and wrath / and anger… be put away from you.’

Stelmach’s poem opens with a vivid depiction of winter, ‘stripped trees daven apathetically’, making unenthused prayers, under a ‘skull-cap sky’. Stelmach weaves visual and tactile imagery to give a sense of winter’s barrenness and the protections needed to withstand it. Her poem continues in lines of rhetorical questioning: ‘Oh, Child, are you sure? This world? […] These unconscionable times?’ There is a universality embedded in this particularity, for the question of present evil is one that is unlikely to dissolve in any epoch of human existence. I was reminded of Robert Southwell’s poem ‘The Burning Babe’, itself expressing a similar ambivalence to the notion that a child would be born, condemned to suffer for an often-ungrateful world.

The poem continues with an image of curious metaphysics, how the ‘last of the day’s feeble sun’ stains the holly’s ‘berries a rich / crimson /as bright and slick / as a seasoned trickster.’ The personification of the berries and the holly, recognisable images of Yuletide in the Euro-American world, is unflattering – almost deceitful in its aesthetic appeal. The passage of day to night, described as slipping ‘off the edge of the earth’, intuits a sudden, jarring fold to ‘night’. The speaker’s voice is imbued with a certain cynicism toward nights that ‘we’ve marked / and mean, /every year, to find holy’, an act that is ‘getting old’. The interjections of the spaced lines help to foreground this sense of a stilted procession of thought, not unlike the contemplative poems of Thomas Traherne.

The poem’s return to a kind of hopefulness arrives in its last stanza. From the speaker’s remark that ‘I’m all lapse and misstep’, the poem moves toward addressing the stubbornness of ‘love’s tiny fist’ seeking out ‘my heart with the old entreaty’. The injunction of Christmas is to remember the humility and sacrifice of God taking on flesh and mortal vulnerability, or as the singer Bono describes it:

‘if there is a force of love and logic behind the universe, then how amazing would it be if that incomprehensible power chose to express itself as a child born in shit and straw poverty.’

It is in the utter incomprehensibility of the nativity in which its power resides. It is just enough to stir the speaker’s heart as she remarks, ‘yearly / I somehow let in love enough to try again: to call our people / decent, our planet worthy.’ To consider the marvel, the wonder, and the mystery of the nativity is to be brought back to the immediacy of God’s love. It is expressed in his indwelling in the flesh, a cosmic, transcendent love that chose to make itself immanent and physical.

As we look toward Christmas and the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ, how can we remember what it is to hold to faith, hope, and love in our broken world?


© 2019 Marjorie Stelmach

a patch of wild grace: going home

going home
Jonathan Chan (b. 1996)

i run in the enfolding of sunset. street
lamps burst into electric luminosity, just
as pink seeps through the cracks of cloud
cover. the darkness does not overcome
the light, though it envelops the cradling
of hope. absence yields the breath of
possibility, however long the stretch of
dusk. the streets begin to hollow, craters
filled, drains cleared, and craftsmen ferried
home. my feet carry me into the evening.
each room’s sliver of light goes off: the
aunties’ video chats at the sharp corner
of our staircase, the blue blade beneath my
father’s room, and the rush of my own
vanishing bulbs. away in tuas, shrouded
in the dark by towels draped on metal
frames, brothers pray by the glow of
smartphone screens.
and so do i.



John 1:1-5 (NIV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 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.


Photo: Jonathan Chan, 2020.


I wrote this poem several months ago in Singapore. I was out for a run late in the evening and found myself caught in the moment between day and night as the sun was setting and the sky was painted over in a brilliant swathe of colours: blue, pink, and orange. As I ran my usual route around my neighbourhood, I listened to an interview with Rebecca Solnit on the On Being podcast. Solnit has written widely about reconciliation and grief in the aftermath of disaster, and her conversation with Krista Tippet touched on her experience documenting the fallout of Hurricane Katrina as well as how disasters clarify a sense of attention to the present. She mentioned that it gives people ‘this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection.’ At the time, I had just completed an internship with HealthServe, a non-profit providing casework and medical assistance to migrant workers, and as a consequence was also beginning to pay attention to the migrant brothers in my neighbourhood, ferried in and out by lorries each day to work on new homes.

All of this – the sunset, the podcast, the roadworks that bore the absence of the workers – began to coalesce in a poem when Solnit and Tippet began to speak about her book, Hope in the Dark (2004). In Solnit’s own words, she wrote the book, ‘to rescue darkness from the pejoratives, because it’s also associated with dark-skinned people, and those pejoratives often become racial in ways that I find problematic.’ She elaborated that this hope is where darkness is ‘the future’ and where

‘the present and past are daylight, and the future is night. But in that darkness is a kind of mysterious, erotic, enveloping sense of possibility and communion. Love is made in the dark as often as not. And then to recognize that unknowability as fertile, as rich as the womb rather than the tomb in some sense. And so much for me of hope is, as I was saying, not optimism that everything will be fine, but that we don’t know what will happen.’

There was a particularly biblical bend to her language as she spoke of darkness as the crucible of hope and possibility, an enveloping sensation that stirs new imaginings and yearnings.

I thought of St. John of the Cross and the periods of lament and estrangement from God we are all wont to experience, but also of the simplicity of the beginning of John’s Gospel: that in Christ was life, that this life was the light of all mankind, and that the light has overcome the darkness. It hummed in my mind like a mantra as I thought of the darkness that envelops us as we go home, whether for myself, my family, the domestic helpers who live with us, the migrant workers living in dorms, and how it augurs not despair, but hope, resilience, and possibility.

When we dwell in the darkness and remember who God has been and will be, does it help us to find hope? 


© 2020 Jonathan Chan

a patch of wild grace: Autobiography

Alfian Sa’at (b. 1977)

Like most of us, I can’t remember how
I was separated from my first love.
(Did it die, did I break it, was it stolen
Or did it fly out through the open window?)
I didn’t have radio-tuning parents
Who filled the house with music
Or instilled in me “a love of the cinema”.
I never recalled my mother coming home
From the hairdressers’ with a new hairdo
Or father teaching me fishing, or
Staying up to watch football on TV.
He did once bring a kite home but hung it
On my bedroom wall (he turned it into
A portrait, it wasn’t his fault the wall
Never became more of a sky). Meanwhile
Cousins came for visits wearing braces

And chattering about comics, bicycle scars,
And camping out, ghost stories (don’t tell
That one, tell the one where Daddy used
The torchlight and Mummy screamed and dropped
Her things and laughed like a hyena). We drank
Boiled water in the house, and sometimes
Waking up from a nap I would wander the rooms
To find mother copying cross-stitch designs
From a book or father watching a subtitled
Chinese re-run. So I slept again, dreaming
Of playing toys away from the sunlight
That leaked in between hawk-eyed curtains
Gold-plating afternoon dust to shining pollen.
When I awoke I was twenty, being asked
If I had a happy childhood. Yes, the one
We all have: filled to the brim
With the love of absent things.



James 4:1-3 (NIV)

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.


Photo: Ambient Walking, 2020.


Alfian Sa’at is a Malay Singaporean writer who has worked prolifically in drama, poetry, and prose. He has been regarded as Singapore’s most preeminent contemporary writer in the English language operating across all three genres. Often described as Singapore’s enfant terrible for his critical positions toward the government, Alfian’s work is most effective in its capacity to evoke melancholy, tenderness, and the fallout coming from feelings of loss.

His poem ‘Autobiography’ is a powerful example of this: it begins with a simple conceit as the speaker remarks, ‘I can’t remember how / I was separated from my first love’, like ‘most of us’. This sense of a collective separation is drawn out steadily, even if this ‘first love’ is left ambiguous. The speaker ruminates on the absence of ‘radio-tuning parents’ and ‘music’, a ‘love of the cinema’, or his mother having ‘a new hairdo’ or his father ‘teaching me fishing’ or watching ‘football on TV’. These images all point to conspicuous markers of class in Singapore, whether in the form of cultural capital or material goods. The closest the speaker comes to this is a kite his father hangs on ‘My bedroom wall’, turned into ‘A portrait’, hanging listlessly for the speaker’s gaze rather than actually being flown in the sky. A hobby, too, is something that is absent from the speaker’s upbringing.

The stanza that follows folds from depictions of material absence to material presence. A contrast is established between the speaker’s cousins, ‘chattering about comics, bicycle scars, / And camping out’,  and the speaker, drinking ‘Boiled water in the house’, finding his mother ‘copying cross-stitch designs’, or his father ‘watching a subtitled / Chinese re-run’. All this speaks into the sense of a middle-class ordinariness, marked by reminders of thrift and frugality through the reception of publicly-available or second-hand goods. The speaker ‘[dreams] / Of playing toys away from the sunlight’, itself depicted in lavish terms, ‘Gold-plating afternoon dust to shining pollen’, a sudden gloss of beauty that adorns mundanity. And as the poem comes to its conclusion, and the speaker reflects at twenty if he ‘had a happy childhood’, the poem’s main conceit is laid out clearly: his was a childhood we all have, ‘filled to the brim / With the love of absent things.’

Alfian’s poem is powerful in its depiction of the sly mechanisms of envy: how capitalism and materialism steadily cultivate a sense of insecurity for the absence of material and cultural goods. It is something recognisable to many of us, having grown up in a culture saturated with aspirationalism, the invariable reflection of a country obsessed with economic development and survival. In some ways, one wonders if Alfian’s ‘Autobiography’ can be said to be the autobiography of many growing up in Singapore in the 1990s and 2000s.

In coming to terms with some of these powerful cultural forces, I was reminded of James 4, in which James writes: ‘You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.’ The act of guarding our hearts serves as a way of warding off all manner of temptation, for the cultivation of want and desire obscures our ability to recognise that which we have and that which is desired by the Lord. The grip of aspiration and mobility is the promise of meritocracy; its flip side is a feeling of entitlement to certain cultural and material markers, the cultivation of which draws us away from a contentment in Christ.

When we are confronted by our desires for that which we do not have, the ‘love of absent things’, what helps us return to the contentment we have in what God provides?


© 2001 Alfian Sa’at

a patch of wild grace: Homecoming

Gwyneth Lewis (b. 1959)

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won
by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home
to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found
in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.



Psalm 139:1-6 (NIV)

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.


1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NIV)

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.


Photo: Lukas Hartmann, 2018.


Gwyneth Lewis is the former Poet Laureate of Wales, a bilingual writer of Welsh and English, and is known for writing the words that adorn the front of the Wales Millennium Centre. The stained-glass letters of the poem stand at six feet tall and it is rumoured that her poem is, literally speaking, the biggest in the world. Her poetry has been described by scholar Ruth McElroy as having ‘a loving, fluent yet jittery relationship with its language, one that pushes and pulls against the traditional forms she employs’. The dexterity of her writing and expansiveness of her metaphorical imagination is evident in her poem ‘Homecoming’, which is in itself an exercise in teasing out the similarities between seemingly disparate symbols.

The effect of reading ‘Homecoming’ is to feel suddenly attentive to her itemised style of listing, with its opening lines setting up the poem’s conceit: ‘Two rivers deepening into one; less said, more meant’. The intertwining rivers she describes set up a sense of convergence that accompanies the feeling of coming home, before she implores us as readers to see through to the semantics of her imagery. Coming home is like ‘a field of corn adjusting to harvest’, the gentle incidence of violence that bears fruit, ‘a battle won by yielding’, itself an image of mercy and humility, and a quick succession of delights that read like non-sequiturs: ‘an autumn’ (because of the splendour of changing colours?), ‘a wedding’ (because of the delight of communities coming together?) and ‘a logarithm’ (because of its ability to express quantities in tiny scopes?).

Perhaps coming home is summed up best by the speaker describing it as ‘self-evidence earned, a coming home / to something brand new but always known’. The agglomeration of delights that Lewis describes gives way to the simplicity of something that is ‘known’, which reminded me of the sentiments expressed in both 1 Corinthians and the Psalms that to be known by God is to be loved by God and equally, to love God in return. It is a simplicity that portends the possibility of delighting in ‘not doing, but being’ and ‘the power of being nothing, but sane’. And perhaps it is this ephemerality that is the ‘fortune found / in all that’s disposable’: the realisation that the transience of our being and a recognition of it make us at once more acutely aware of the joy that populates our loves and equally, makes us feel as if we have come home.

What makes you feel at home?


© 1995 Gwyneth Lewis