A bridge of angels

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In no foreign country

O invisible world, we see you,
O intangible world, we touch you,
O unknowable world, we know you,
Elusive, we’re grabbing you!

Does the fish fly away to find the ocean,
The eagle dives for air —
That we ask the moving stars
If they have rumors about you there?

Not where wheel systems darken,
And our numb conception flies away! —
The drift of the pinions, would we hear,
Beating at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their old places; —
Just turn one stone and start a wing!
It’s you, it’s your foreign faces,
It lacks the thing of many splendours.

But (when you’re so sad you can’t be sadder)
Weep, – and over your so painful loss
Jacob’s ladder traffic will shine
Located between Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yes, in the night, my soul, my daughter,
To cry; — clinging to the Sky by the hems;
And behold, Christ walking on the water
Not Gennesaret, but the Thames!

Francois Thompson (1859-1907)

FRANCIS THOMPSON’s father was a doctor in Preston turned Roman Catholic. Francis was a shy but studious child in his Catholic school. Although not physically strong, he became an ardent cricket fan throughout his life.

Encouraged by his father, Francis studied medicine at what is now the University of Manchester for six years, but he had no real interest in medicine and fled to live in poverty in London, making odd jobs, including selling matches. He took opium for his health and became addicted, roughing it with other homeless people in the Charing Cross area. He contemplated suicide but was saved by a vision of Thomas Chatterton, the 18th century poet who committed suicide at a young age. Eventually he was given a home by a prostitute, whom he called his savior.

In 1888, after three years on the street, he sent some of his poems to the Meynells, a married couple who were publishers and recognized their quality. In all, he published three volumes of poems, which were very well received. His most famous poem is “The Hound of Heaven”, in which God is seen as pursuing us with “deliberate speed, majestic instance”. Thompson died in 1907 of tuberculosis.

In the wonderful poem above, the opening verses describe our dwelling in the enveloping presence of God as fish dwell in the ocean, eagles in the air, and stars in the sky. We don’t have to search through space to find God; it “knocks at our own clay-shuttered doors” (perhaps Thompson is referring to the creation story in Genesis 2, when mankind is described as being made of clay).

Heaven is all around us, “Angels keep their old places”; it is only our remoteness that makes us miss this thing of many splendours. However, when all our human resources are exhausted and we turn to God in desperate need, we find Jacob’s Ladder, with angels ascending and descending, and see Christ walking on the Thames, not just in Charing Cross, but wherever we are.

Behind this verse is the famous story of Jacob’s dream, in which he saw a ladder between heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending. When he woke up, he said God was there (see Genesis 28:10-22).

This is a picture that is echoed in John 1:51, where Nathaniel, an uncunning Israelite, is told that he will see angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man, Jesus himself. He is the one in whom we see the glory of God. He is the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity are united, never to be separated. We discover it in our need. Our needs are angels, as a friend once told me. They open us to God and let him pass.

But (when you’re so sad you can’t be sadder)
Weep, – and over your so painful loss
Jacob’s ladder traffic will shine
Launched between Ciel and . . .

wherever we are.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

Hearing God in Poetry: Fifty Poems for Lent and Easter by Richard Harries is published by SPCK at £9.99 (Church Times Bookstore €9.99); 978-0-281-08629-0.


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