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Portrait of the Artist as a Lone Tree

Simplicity - a message for the church

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Part I.

A message in eight parts for the church of today, wherever it acts, thinks and worships as described in the poem.

When I reached the end of section one, I found more seemed wanting, though I had not anticipated this. At the end of section two, I was intrigued to find the story begged to be extended, but I had no idea how.

At that point my editor (Sarah) rang, and said “Write your autobiography”. Thinking that a ridiculous idea, I had no intention of doing so, until I realised the conclusion to this story was best told as exactly that – a series of selected autobiographical events.

Thus, leaving aside the visitations and considering the other characters as archetypes, this is effectively my autobiography, as far as the church is concerned. If you think it couldn’t happen, it has already happened, to me. And if you think I’m alone in that, I can assure you that I know countless people who have had similar experiences, but are less inclined to write them into poetry.

This is for those who can or will understand the words:

“Come out of her, my people.”

I found a church where no heart sang,
yet silent heads were bowed in prayer;
and coming late inside, I heard
the sound of tightening jaws declare:
“Who comes, who does not know our ways?
For centuries upon this spot
God’s people spoke their righteous words;
such sainted ways he knoweth not.”

I sat, and looked round nervously,
not knowing why they stood or bowed,
and noticed few and frail were there,
but most I saw the missing crowd.
The vast and draughty vanity
of those within meant those without
through charity must mend the walls,
that these may make their peace with doubt.

I wondered how this graven hall
with walls from which the gargoyles grin
had ever been created by
the likes of those that sat within.
What spark of power, what bolt of light
had made this temple rise so high?
What caused the poor, the lame and blind
to flock within these walls, and why?

A man stood by the door, and knocked;
such infamy could not be borne,
and seeing no-one else would rise,
I went to see what caused their scorn.
“My friend,” I said, “it’s plain to see
that you do not perceive the ways
of those who guard this holy place,
and have, for endless count of days.”

“Oh, I was here before,” he smiled,
“when those who built the walls were young.
They scrimped and saved and gave their all
to make a place where songs were sung.”
“But now,” I said, “they boast within
those same great songs are sung today.
And yet, I wonder - is that so?
For no new walls are built this way.”

“The same, yet not the same,” he sighed.
“In the beginning, loud with joy,
the rafters rang to just these words
from throat of crone to smallest boy.
But every word their hearts cried out
has fallen down like dust to dwell,
far from the gladness once beheld,
in ceremony’s empty shell.

The song is not the same when sung
because some other sang it first.
The early singers gladly praised
with words quite new and unrehearsed.
Then those who thought that paradise
had come to live within their heart
made long and complex copious notes
to hold in stone their glorious start.

But words are words, and what they meant
to those who sang them first is lost;
their children all made chains from praise,
and Whitsuntide from Pentecost.
Today, the same old words they sing
have just become another rite
in imitation’s emptiness
of what was once a thing of might.”

I went outside, and closed the door,
lest others’ slumbers I awake.
“It does no good to speak of them,
where they can hear. Their hearts will break;
but surely if they view the walls,
the dripping roof, the woodwormed pews,
at last they’ll choose a true return
to cherished roots. What’s left to lose?”

“They do not know the way,” he said.
“Then let us tell them,” I replied.
“No, no,” he said, “for nor do you,
not even when you’re by his side;
not even when the truth is writ
in pages plain for eyes to see.
The Word declares: he stands and knocks
outside the door. Yes, I am he.”

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