Eternity glimpsed in a railway station wall

From: T. Rhondda-Williams' The Working Faith of a Liberal Theologian (London: Williams & Norgate,1914, pp. 107-110):


There are many people, and they are not the least worthy among us, who never feel any living intense realization of the presence of God with them in life. They may be serious people, in the best sense, scrupulous in the last degree in matters of personal character, enthusiastic in uplifting social service, responsive to high calls of duty, tender also and compassionate and helpful, yet they are without the vivid, intense sense of His presence. [. . .] John Masefield’s poem on the “Everlasting Mercy” pictures a similar case, and we know that such pictures do correspond to facts. Saul Kane was a fighter, a drunkard, and many other things that were bad. He is described in his debauched revels and wild orgies, and it is in a filthy drinking-place, with rude, rough companions, he finds himself one night, when a Quaker lady, who wrought for the souls of those degraded men, came in. Kane insulted her, and was curious to see how she would take the insult.


“Saul Kane,” she said, “when next you drink, 
Do me the gentleness to think
That every drop of drink accursed
Makes Christ within you die of thirst;
That every dirty word you say,
Is one more flint upon His way,
Another thorn about His head,
Another mock by where He tread,
Another nail, another cross,
All that you are is that Christ’s loss.”


The appeal made is to a Christ in the man, and the plea is that the actual man was a loss to the Christ in his own soul. Emerson says: “What we call man, the eating, drinking, planting, counting man, does not, as we know him, represent himself, but misrepresents himself. Him we do not respect, but the soul whose organ he is, would he but let it appear, through his action, would make our knees to bend. When it breathes through his intellect it is genius ; when it breathes through his will it is virtue ; when it flows through his affection it is love. . . . All reform aims in some one particular to let the soul have its way through us; in other words, to engage us to obey.” What Emerson here calls the “soul” the Quaker lady calls “Christ.” The appeal to Saul Kane went home, and led to the great change known as conversion. This is how he describes the result:


I did not think, I did not strive, 
The deep peace burnt my me alive; 
The bolted door had broken in, I knew that I had done with sin;
I knew that Christ had given me birth, 
To brother all the souls on earth, 
And every bird, and every beast,
Should share the crumbs broke at the feast.
Oh, glory of the lighted mind,
How dead I’ve been, how dumb, how blind ! The station brook, to my new eyes, Was babbling out of Paradise;  
the waters rushing from the rain 
Were singing “Christ has risen again.” 
I thought all earthly creatures knelt 
From rapture of the joy I felt.
The narrow station wall’s brick ledge, 
The wild hop withering in the hedge, 
The lights in huntsman’s upper story, 
Were parts of an Eternal glory :
Were God’s Eternal garden flowers—
I stood in bliss at this for hours.


***

At first sight it perhaps seems the oddest of things to claim to see eternity in a station wall but when I first read Masefield’s words from “The Everlasting Mercy” (1911) I was utterly captivated by his use of the ledge of a railway station wall to point to God’s Eternal glory!

Odd it may be but to me, because this image is intimately connected with a very personal childhood memory, I instantly got Masefield's point. My grandparents lived in North Walsham in Norfolk and when we used to visit them my father, a great lover of steam engines, would use the opportunity to take us all on a visit to the North Norfolk Railway in Sheringham. I remember one gloriously early hot summer day peering over a hot brick wall at Weybourne (one of the stations on the line) and breathing in the smell of a stationary steam-engine and then glorying in the visceral experience of its departure. Then, in the silence that followed the train's departure, I remember becoming intensely aware of the heat and the smell of the brick wall itself, the moss and other tiny plants, and the thousands of tiny red spiders that were running about over its surface. I also remember distinctly the song of skylarks slowly and sweetly emerging as the train departed (rather like the violins appear out of the cacophony at the end of the third movement of Charles Ives' 'Three Places in New England'). The only way to describe this feeling is to say that I sensed an intimate interconnectedness with the whole and, recalling the theologian who is the wellspring of liberal Christian theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, experienced a direct unmediated intuition of the universe - unmediated, that is, through any particular extant religion, its officials (i.e. priests etc.) or its language. How long this 'moment' actually lasted I do not know (it could not have been more than a minute or so) but I can enter it still.

Yet for all the comfort and beauty brought to the human soul by such ecstatic memories it should not be forgotten that they are very easy to misuse. In a recent book “Revisioning Transpersonal Theory – A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality” (New York, SUNY Press 2002 p. 15) the transpersonal psychologist Jorge N. Ferrer writes:

'The two greatest challenges faced today by many spiritual seekers are arguably the danger of narcissism and the failure to integrate spiritual experiences into their everyday life. An inadequate assimilation of spiritual energies often leads to subtle forms of self-absorption and inflation, as well as to an increased, and often insatiable, thirst for spiritual experiences.'

We need to heed Ferrar's point because after such experiences it is oh so tempting and easy to disappear into a narcissistic enjoyment of them that fails to relate to and transfigure the quotidian realities of life. We may - many do - spend the rest of our lives trying to recreate the vision and/or experience instead of living out its lessons. As Rhondda-Williams wisely notes in a passage immediately following the one cited above:

'A great inflow of Divine power may bring such to man such peace and light and joy as Saul Kane felt, and indeed be to him the true beginning of a new life. But it is only the beginning, the battle is not over. Dull days will follow, times of gloom will come, the brick ledge will be a brick ledge once more, nor will the wild hop always look like one of God’s eternal flowers, nor the station brook always a babble of Paradise; Saul Kane may yet be heard to ask: “Where is the blessedness I knew/When first I saw the Lord?" In any case there is a long course of discipline in front of him before the intellect, the senses, and the will are subdued to the obedience of Christ' (p. 112).

Liberal religion has been very good at affirming the value of an individual's peak experiences because it has learnt the value of being open to unmediated experiences of God or the Divine - they are expressions of human freedom and of the uniqueness of each individual life. But what it has been appallingly bad at is creating life-long disciplined practices which then help us as individuals to weave these peak experiences not only into our personal, private daily lives but also into our shared, community lives.

It is only when this is being done that, as individuals and as communities, we can begin to survive and even flourish in the dull and gloomy days that inevitably come to us all.

This is why I continue so highly to value following the Christian story year after year because it helps us in symbolic form constantly to be weaving together the ups, the peak experiences of life (expressed in words such as 'transfiguration' and of 'unity' with God) with life's many downs (expressed in words such as the 'trial' and the 'crucifixion').

Seen from a certain perspective the Christian narrative is not a story which, to be appreciated, must be imposed upon us, crushing and diminishing our own individual stories, but rather a model of how to lead integrated, whole lives; see thus it need not be understood solely as a religion but also as a practical discipline of developing wholeness in ourselves.

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