I have spent too much time this week reading. There are too many hard stories to read. The American election did not turn out as anyone expected, and fear and anger are filling the public sphere. I have tried to write about fear and about anger. About hope and love and trust. But none of the words I wrote felt like my own, just as the American situation is not my own, and yet we are all caught up together in these days of change. It feels like the longing of Advent has started early this year – a thought which brought me, humbled, to Isaiah.
The room was dark when I woke up, the street below the window quiet. I’d been jolted awake, pulled from sleep like a stubborn tooth, and now I lie still, listening. My wife is sleeping and the children, too. So, what then? The students, perhaps. But their room is beyond the courtyard and they are a quite lot, anyway. Maybe there had been a cart in the street. A man setting out early on his way to the market. Or a woman fetching water in the night. Or maybe just a cat. The window is still black and dawn feels a long way off, but there is nothing to be done. Awake is awake and all I could do now was listen.
Listening is my work and it happens everywhere, at every time of day. The Voice is never far away no matter how hidden the Face might be. Sometimes, the Voice is loud, vibrant, clear and ringing and I shake as I sing out Its anger. Woe! and No One! and softer now On That Day. There are also times when it is quiet and the listening is harder. I have wondered if it gets harder with each king I serve. Ahaz is my third and these listening days are difficult indeed. We sit together and he offers me grapes, split figs, ripe cheese. He sits with a flaccid, pious face and says he is all ears. I do not know who the performance is meant for. It can’t be me because if it were, he’d surely be listening with me. But he doesn’t. He won’t. He is obstinate. My words are fluid in my mouth, too yielding like the cheese. I have no strength when I tell him that he should ask for a sign, that the Lord instructs him to ask. He smiles and says no, he will not test the Lord. He is testing me, I am sure of that, but to him I will not listen. Only to the Lord.
In the dark morning, my ears are alert and I can’t stay in bed. I am no good at keeping still. My wife shifts beside me, turns and settles again and I did not want to wake her. The children will be up soon enough. I ease to standing and wrap another layer around my shoulders. When I climb to the roof, I can see the faint beginnings of the day, a hint of lightening grey lying across the sky far away to the east. The city is still hidden, the towers, the palace, the Temple, too, all only smudged shapes or sleeping things against a not-yet waking sky. Ahaz would be sleeping, too, and let him, I thought, pushing him from my mind. Below, the streets must still be dark. Anyone walking there would need to walk slowly, feeling their way.
I settle to sit and the rug beneath me is cool and rough. I try to still my mind. I do not begin with prayer, or not with words, at least. I breathe and wait and listen.
I am glad to be alone. There aren’t many hours in the day when I can sit unobserved. The students are great observers and I am so rarely left alone. They watch me eat, and play with the children. They watch me pray, watch me read, watch me listen. Perhaps they are learning something, though some days I wonder. They ask such strange questions. How do I do it? Where do I look for words? How do I know what symbols to use? How do I convince my wife to give my sons such names? Yesterday, I found myself talking at length about signs. I said the work was all signs and songs, and they all nodded solemnly and I felt silly. I shouldn’t try to sum things up like that. The work isn’t like that. It isn’t straightforward. I thought then about singing a little, perhaps the new one with the vineyard and the tower. It is a good song and much easier to sing quietly than the ones I sing to Ahaz about idols and ruin and stench. But it did not seem like an afternoon for song so I told them instead how the work comes to me in pieces. Just piece by piece like a child’s toy. Like the notched logs my sons play with. You set piece on piece on piece until you see that, without planning, you have built a tower. Things fit together. If you listen, you begin to see how.
A sudden sound, a jump and a scuttle and a cat appears beside me in the greying morning, just here on the edge of roof. Seeing him, I know that he wasn’t the one who woke me. Something else then. But not a foot in the street, nor the creak of a bucket’s handle. The shadow of a song perhaps. Yes, I think so. A strong one. Sitting very still on the cold roof, I begin to see its outlines like the shape of a window in the night, the edge of the morning sky over the city, a door.
The people who walk in darkness.
A great light.
a light has dawned.
The song comes slowly, slow as the night, but it comes.