Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Advent Poetry: Watching & Waiting


I’ve been stomping through Oxford wearing my warmest scarves and listening to Handel’s Messiah. I highly recommend this combination in whatever place you find yourself. The air finally has that chill that is both sting and exhilaration. We had three weeks of startlingly balmy days – high blue skies, gemmed leaves lingering, and air that just felt… kind. Now it feels sharp and suspicious. The days draw down to darkness right about 4:30 and the urge of body and soul is to seek warm, candlelit corners, to fend of the shadows with music and a woollen blanket.

I find myself tired as well, weary after what feels like several years of nonstop work. My body and soul need it, but I find it hard to rest, as if I’ve lost the skill in these last months of needing to just work straight through. As I make myself sit in the hush of my afternoon living room with the shadows already gathering, as I resist the impulse to work, to seek distraction, as I assent to the almost unwelcome hush of my own need, I find myself really heartened by the reading of Advent poetry and the aching beauty of the Messiah’s music. Advent is so much about learning to assent to the fact that there is a great waiting quiet we must acknowledge. Whether it’s our own limitations or weariness or the need for redemption that we, in a broken world, still wrestle with even amidst the knowledge of Christ’s love, the liturgies and poems of Advent help us to acknowledge the fact that we do wait. Which, impatient, hungering soul that I am is the very thing I don’t prefer to do.

Though Advent proper is still a month away, I’m turning my thoughts in that direction because I’m leading a weekly poetry group at Wycliffe. I’ve been part of this Advent reading group every year and it has been such a place of nourishment and friendship. We read aloud a couple of Advent poems each week, sit in quiet as long as we like, and then explore the thoughts that rise in each of us as we savor the woven words. Having found such strength myself in the reading of Advent poetry this week, I thought I’d share the poems we discover here over the next month. Perhaps you can glean, even a little early, some of the wonder and sharpened insight that we are gathering as well.

And I love the thought of friends sharing words across the world.

We’re following a different theme each week as we progress through the journey of advent. This week was our opening, where we looked at poems that evoke the haunting cry of Isaiah, ‘those who have walked in darkness’ before they have seen the great light. (I used the delightfully titled Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany collection to find this week’s selections.)We looked at poems that evoke the themes of watching and waiting. I have loved what we explored this week because as I read the headlines that sometimes feel relentless in their exposure of what is worst in the human heart and in the world, it helps me to remember that we live in the tension of the now and not yet, the kingdom come in our hearts in a world that still aches and cries for redemption.

That’s what I think R.S. Thomas’ poem, ‘The Absence’ describes:

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come. 
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

It can seem a hopeless poem at a first glance, but it is, as one person in my group observed, actually profoundly hopeful. There is this taut sense of expectation thrumming through each line, a poem written not to a generalised power but to a someone so personal their presence still seems to reverberate in the absence we feel, someone who will not ignore the ’emptiness of our whole being’. It reminds me richly of how Alfred Delp described Advent, as a time in which we recognise that ‘Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come.’

And that’s where the watching comes in. We talked a lot yesterday about the way that learning to sit in the quiet of waiting teaches us to see afresh. We become more aware of the love that lurks in the ordinary, the evidence of redemption on its way glinting up in moments of kindness, of beauty, of rest. That’s what Sylvia Plath, in her wry, wondering poem ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’ describes as those ‘spasmodic tricks of radiance’ that we term ‘miracles’:

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain-
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honour
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant

Of whatever angel any choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.

This is such a poem of the everyday. As one person said yesterday, you don’t feel any intimidation or awe of the poet in sitting down with these words. The imagery and the lingo is familiar, a black rook (or crow), a sopping grey day, the grey light of a weekday morning falling over the kitchen table. Plath is wry and humorous (oh how I identify with her line about wanting some ‘backtalk’ from the sky), skeptical, and yet can recognize the ‘flare’ of a ‘celestial burning’ in what seems the inconsequential moment of an ordinary day.

Crucially, that sight allows ‘a brief respite from fear’. Plath struggled with depression throughout her life and never embraced faith, but in these moments, she recognised something that communicated permanence, love, that took what we think of as ‘inconsequential’ – whether ourselves in our frailty or the all-too-destructable world – and gave it ‘largesse, honour, even love’.

The trick, the great fight, is to believe the love that actually cries out to us in those moments of sight. To believe that the goodness glimpsed in those miniature, instant ‘miracles’ is a powerful witness to a ‘light and high beauty’ that endures ‘beyond the touch of any darkness’ (as Sam Gamgee realized when he looked out of Mordor to see a star shine) and comes to us in a Person in whom there is ‘no darkness at all’.

Those who walk in darkness have seen a great light.