Tales from the South

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Oxford Smith

22 May 2019

May. Bluebells, honeysuckles, and lilacs for some, mists, mellow fruitfulness and southerly gales for others. Dove-grey skies bloom with nuggets of pinky blue and gold. Everything is bursting with a last beauty, a grand finale. Each leaf a flower.

Easter is past. A bewildering resurrection is interwoven with grief. Christ companioned the ones who loved him and mourned his loss. He walked alongside them, shared breakfast on the beach, and bore witness that grief does not have the last word. Is not the end of the story.

“Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.”[i]

The terror and tragedy of the Christchurch mosque shootings by a white supremacist gunman has shaken us to the core of our being. Way beyond our imagining. We are on the map now. We have our slogans too: They Are Us, This Is Not Us, We Are One.

Words like these can bind us together. The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka by Islamic extremists and the myriads of other violent acts, past, present, and future, perpetrated by whoever, in the name of whatever, are intended to divide us.

Social cohesion, mutual respect, partnership, honest dialogue, and our companioning of one another has to be continually worked on and lived out as we seek the common good. I have been drawn to some words in a book written by a colleague and friend, John Philip Newell.

He was walking along the bank of the Wabash River, near New Harmony in Indiana USA when a wild storm blew in. Huddling under the archway of a sculpture called The Angel of Compassion,

“It was dark, and I could not remember exactly what the sculpture’s words of inscription were, but my memory was, “Every Human Being is the Beloved of the Nameless Eternal One…I began to repeat over and over a simple prayer in my heart. “May I know that I am beloved. May I know that I am beloved. May I know that I am beloved.”

My mind took me to haunted places within myself, where I doubt that I am beloved—places in my body and mind and soul. I remembered times in my life when I had been ugly and false in my actions. I thought of how little I was doing for the transformation of the world, of how little of myself I was giving away for the sake of others.

After a while, the storm abated…I was only fifty yards from the archway when the rains came again. They drove me back to the angel of compassion for a second time. So…I prayed, but this time the words were, “May she know that she is beloved. May she know that she is beloved.”

I named within myself people whom I love. I thought of my sister, who had experienced betrayal and the collapse of her marriage. I longed for her to know that she was beautiful in her mind and body and soul. That she was beloved. I thought of my friend struggling through chemotherapy and seeking the strength to look death in the face. "May he know that he is beloved. May he know that he is beloved."

Again the storm dropped…a third time the rains came and drove me back to the angel…for a third time I prayed…”May we know that we are beloved. May we know that we are beloved”.

My thoughts turned to…places of deep wrong and abuse in our cities and among us as nations, where we forget that the other is beloved. My heart was aware of children who doubt that they are loved because of the neglect they suffer. I thought of creatures and entire species who are struggling because of our failure to love the earth. If together we are to be well, we must know ourselves to be bearers of compassion, inclining to one another and to the earth with presence.”[ii]

Eastertide called us and the two terriers to seek sanctuary in The Catlins, an almost forgotten place and space where birds have story and metaphor woven in their feathers and sea lions, like driftwood, rest on the white sand. It is a landscape of foaming seas, rocky coastlines, and waterfalls, Jurassic and podocarp forests and beneath the sea, forests of bladder kelp grow up to 15 metres tall.

Macrocarpa trees planted at Slope Point by Jeremiah O’Brien of County Limerick intertwine and curl into one another after well over a century of withstanding the fierce winds from Antarctica. Afflicted and storm-tossed, their roots rest in infinity. I imagine that they have long thoughts, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, and I wonder if anything could be more holy, more exemplary than their beauty, their endurance, and their strength.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal…also, on either side of the river, the tree of life…the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”[iii]

Robert Macfarlane, the nature writer, believes that,

…we tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we are in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places…retreated to most often when we are most remote from them…are among the most important landscapes we possess.” [iv]

A tiny fishing village on the far North East coast of Scotland is a place that I bear with me, in absentia. My ancestors settled there after they were forcibly cleared from the Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland in the late 18th century.

After years of absence, I returned there. The physical landscape was as I had always remembered it – wild, cold, and beautiful. All the members of my family who lived there have long since died. I visited the old family homestead. A door which had a fishing boat in sail painted on the glass was still there. Everything else had changed.

My inner landscape, though, of presence and story, of imagination and memory was untouched.   

We all have many losses in life to navigate our way through. They can be deeply painful, fracturing, isolating, bewildering experiences. We need companioning along the way… 

“May you know that absence is full of tender presence
and that nothing is ever lost or forgotten.
May the absences in your life be full of eternal echo
May you sense around you the secret Elsewhere which holds
the presences that have left your life.
May you be generous in your embrace of loss…
May your compassion reach out to the ones we never hear
from and may you have the courage to speak out for the
excluded ones.
May you become the gracious and passionate subject of your own life.
May you not disrespect your mystery through brittle words or false belonging.
May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight
are one and may your longing inhabit its deepest dreams
within the shelter of the Great Belonging.”

©Hilary Oxford Smith
Image Slope Point Trees, Seabird NZ


[i] Oliver, Mary. Thirst, USA: Beacon Press, 2007
[ii] Newell, John Philip. A New Harmony, USA: Jossey-Bass, 2011
[iii] New English Bible. Revelation, Chapter 22, verses 1 and 2
[iv]Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, London and New York: Penguin Hamish Hamilton and Viking, 2012
[v] O’Donohue, John. Eternal Echoes, Celtic Reflections On Our Yearning To Belong, USA: Harper Perennial, 2000