Aristotle once said that the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor, an eye for resemblances.(1) The prophet Isaiah had an eye for a God so near to his people that he saw the heavens being torn open and God stepping down to be among us. “O that you would rend the heavens and come down! That the mountains would quake at your presence.”(2) This commanding metaphor gave Isaiah an eye for the resemblances of God all around him, and sparked every word of the prophet who spoke so that the world too would see more.
I have a friend who refers to people like Isaiah, those with a vision for God and God’s resemblances throughout the world, as “eyes of the kingdom.” There are times when these visionaries surprise us as much as the resemblances of the God they call us to see. A homeless man in nineteenth century London was one such visionary, lamenting the ease with which we often miss the very thing in front of us:
The angels keep their ancient places—
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.(3)
The poem is titled “In No Strange Land” and was written by a man whose life oscillated between brilliant writer and homeless addict. Francis Thompson lived on the streets of England, slaking his opium addiction in London’s Charing Cross and sleeping on the banks of the River Thames. But he continued to scribble poetry on whatever paper he could find, often mailing his work to the local newspaper. “In No Strange Land” is one of the poems Thompson mailed from the streets of homelessness.
The tone of the poem is not unlike the prayer of Isaiah 64. Thompson begins with the great reality and oft unrecognized hope that is before us:
O world invisible, we view thee,
Intangible, we touch thee,
Unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee.
His words are reminiscent of the gift Isaiah reminds us is ours: that we are able to recount the gracious deeds of God, to see the hand of the Potter in dark times of history, to call him Father even now in the midst of blindness from sin or sadness, disappointment or distraction. The rhetorical question that follows Thompson’s praise of the unnoticed inquires of our often short-sighted vision and demanding questions to God:
Does the fish soar to find the ocean?
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?
Thompson wonders why we insist upon interrogating a distant God, when God may just be standing beside us, having climbed down his great ladder. The poem brings to mind the crux of Isaiah’s vision and metaphor—namely, that there is a God whose throne is before us, though our tendency is to miss it all together. As commentator John Watts notes,
“[Our] failure…to see God’s vision, to hear God’s voice, and to rise above human goals of pride, striving, and independence adds a tragic dimension to the vision [of Isaiah]. To the bitter end a large proportion of the people cling to their version of the past as the only acceptable pattern for their present and their future. They demand that God conform to their concept of what his plans ought to be and thus preclude themselves from participation in God’s new creation.”(4)
Both Thompson and Isaiah use the power of image and metaphor to bid us to look again and again, and learn to live as eyes of the kingdom. While it is true that God sometimes comes down and unmistakably transforms time and place, other times we fail to see the sacred in our midst simply because we do not want to see anything subtle. We pass over what God has extended, whether a sign of grace, a moment of transcendence, or a richer lifetime of seeing his presence. And we ironically miss the images of God all around us within a world that is made in God’s image. As the unlikely poet laments:
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry—clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!
Thompson invites us to see the scandal of the particular in the story of God and the stories of our own lives. There is indeed a certain traffic about Jacob’s ancient ladder, but it may well be pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross, New York City, or Hong Kong. Christ may well come walking on the water, though perhaps not from the direction of Gennesareth, but Thames.
Like the vision of the prophet Isaiah, life itself can remind us of the coming of a deliverer, the drawing near of God to humankind, the arrival of the human Son of God, our rescuer, into our very midst. A voice is indeed crying out of the wilderness: Who will have ears to hear it, eyes to see it? Francis Thompson’s “In No Strange Land” is a call to see the strange particulars of Christ’s story, but to also see him in the faces and stories before us, perhaps even in the unlikely story of a homeless man sleeping on the banks of the river Thames.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Quoted in Leland Ryken, Ed., The Christian Imagination(Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2002), 403.
(2) Isaiah 64:1.
(3) Francis Thompson, “In No Strange Land,” The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems (Wellesley, MA: Branden Books, 2000), 78.
(4) Watts, John D. W.: Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002 (Word Biblical Commentary 24), xxix.