A Shadowed Path

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Oxford Smith

27 March 2018

Dawn on the Otago Peninsula. We awoke to the clarion call of a cockerel, heralding the blessing of a golden Autumn day. Jonathan Livingston Seagull shared wisdom in the sky. White feathered kotuku-ngutupapa or Royal Spoonbills, swept the low tide line of the harbour for breakfast. In the court of heaven on earth, four Royal Albatross or toroa, glided through the air, with what Herman Melville in Moby Dick, described as vast archangel wings.

William Wales, a tutor to the English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the astronomer on HMS Resolution, voyaged with Captain James Cook to the land of ice, the southernmost continent we now call, Antarctica. Inspired by hearing stories of the sea and a fabled land, Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an epic tale about an albatross and the sailor who kills it with a crossbow.

The poem is replete with imagery, allegory, superstition, and allusion. The punishment for what the sailor has done is to wear the dead bird around his neck and the rest of his life becomes one of penance as he wanders the earth, telling his salutary tale. He learns wisdom along the way, that God's creation is a beautiful gift, to be cherished.

On Palm Sunday, we attended Choral Eucharist in St. Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin and sang, Ride on! Ride on in majesty! Sacrificial theology excepting, one line stood out for me,

     Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
     The wingèd squadrons of the sky look down with sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching sacrifice.

I imagined that an albatross with vast archangel wings might be amongst the sorrowing company of heaven.

In the mystery of this week we call Holy, with its darkening shadows of pain and fear, abandonment, uncertainty, betrayal, and death, might we somehow contemplate in the stories, something of the novelist, Jeanette Winterson's words, the nearness of the wound to the gift?[i]

- Mary gently caressing the feet of Jesus with her long hair and extravagantly scented perfume, preparing him for what lies ahead.
- Jesus, with intimacy, humility, and oneness, washing the dust from the feet of his disciples.
- The mystery of the memory and substance of Jesus’ presence, as he and his friends share food and wine.
- John, the disciple, whom Jesus especially loved, placing his head on Jesus’ breast in closeness, affection and love, hearing the heartbeat of God.
- Veronica, tenderly wiping the blood and sweat from Jesus' face with her veil, his likeness forever imprinted on her heart.
- Simon of Cyrene, forced to carry the cross through the narrow streets of Jerusalem when Jesus could no longer bear the weight of it. His life changed forever.
- Jesus' mother Mary, the other faithful women, and John, accompanying Jesus every step of the way, hearing his loving words of familial care and loyalty. 
- In his dying moments, self-giving love and grace shared with a thief, crucified beside him.

Then the night of deepest loneliness. A total absence of his spirit and his life.

At dawn, wounds become places where the light enters us. Grace takes us to the cherishing of life and the nurturing of love. The images and the echo of words we thought we had lost or left behind create a sanctuary of memory in our hearts.

His eyes sparkle again. He tells stories by the sea. He blesses us with Love.

©Hilary Oxford Smith
Image Around the Shag Rocks, Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, Keith Shackleton, 1979. Nature in Art, Gloucester, UK. 


[i] Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeannette Winterson, 230pp, Grove Press.