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: The Bright Field

The Bright Field
R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.



Exodus 3:1-10 (NIV)

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”


Photo: Jackson Jorvan, 2017.


R. S. Thomas, a preeminent poet of the 20th-century, served as an Anglican priest in Wales. Thomas’ works have been a source of great solace to me if anything because his work displays an uncompromising willingness to articulate what it feels to be abandoned by God, or as a friend has described it, the sensation of God having just left a room you’ve entered. Thomas’s poem ‘Sea-Watching’ articulates this well: ‘There were days, / so beautiful the emptiness / it might have filled, / its absence was its presence’.

More than any other poet I know, Thomas grapples with the question of doubt that arises from this perception of absence, a similar sense of anguished yearning expressed by St. John of the Cross in his writing on the Dark Night of the Soul. It is of particular comfort given that Thomas is a priest, deeply ensconced in the work of making piety comprehensible to his parish every Sabbath, and yet that he wrestles as candidly as he does with God in his observations of prayer, landscape, and his flock. Compounding Thomas’s sense of anguish is the puncturing of any romanticism he may have carried with him to his rural congregation in Wales, the realisation that there is nothing inherently praiseworthy about desolation or inherently wise about shepherds, as was detailed in his poem ‘Welsh Landscape’. Thomas also experienced a linguistic estrangement from his Welsh identity, having only learned to speak it late in life. One detects these disgruntlements expressed in his poetry time and again.

In the light of this, his poem ‘The Bright Field’ holds a kind of epiphanic power, a moment where the presence of God is so unequivocal that it breaks through to the weary believer. The speaker begins with the forgetting of beauty, the sun breaking through ‘to illuminate a small field / for a while’, and the eventual realisation that it is ‘the / pearl of great price’, that which ‘I must give all that I have / to possess it.’ The metaphorical language Thomas employs is biblical, the glimpse of beauty a reflection of one’s salvation in Christ. It is the remembrance of this effulgent beauty that drives the speaker to articulate that ‘Life is not hurrying / on to a receding future, nor hankering after / an imagined past’, the thousand little anxieties that consign us to worrying about the passage of time.

It is at the poem’s apex that Thomas invokes Moses, ‘turning aside’ to ‘the miracle of the lit bush’. It is the climactic, irreversible, unassailable declaration of presence that Moses encounters in Exodus, the ‘flames of fire from within a bush’ where God calls him to deliver his people from slavery. This ‘strange sight’ is one that sanctifies all that is around it, as God commands Moses to remove his sandals at holy ground, ready to be anointed for the task of bringing the Israelites to a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. Moses’ appointment as deliverer places him in the continuum of servants who came before him – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And so it is with Thomas that the presence and instruction of God make themselves so clear, so unavoidable, that he cannot help but embrace ‘a brightness / that seemed as transitory as your youth’, one that itself embodies ‘the eternity that awaits you’.

Thomas’s poem is one to be read slowly. Just as Thomas’ speaker is suddenly made aware of the presence of God, what may be done out of our present yearnings and strivings to seek His face? And how can the memory of such encounters with God grant us strength and comfort when He suddenly feels silent, absent, or far away?


© 1975 R. S. Thomas