In No Strange Land – by Francis Thompson (Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay )
O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
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 rumour of thee there?
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
’Tis ye, ’tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
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!
I was just 21 years old and a very intimidated, Amish student at Faith Builders Summer Term in 2011 when I first was introduced to this poem. I chose most of my summer term classes to build my teaching skills, but in addition to that I audited a course that turned out to be my favorite. It was called Poetry Appreciation, taught by a man called Jonas Sauder, who with his long beard and quiet unassuming way of speaking seemed a very safe person for this scared country girl. Jonas Sauder seemed to be a legend at Faith Builders. My friend Betty Yoder said that most people’s brains are either a mile deep and an inch wide, or an inch deep and a mile wide, but that Jonas Sauder’s brain was a mile deep and a mile wide.
I was mostly self-taught in what I knew of poetry. We had studied a little in grade school, and I had never attended high school. I had borrowed books on poetry at the library, and mostly just read poetry for the beauty of it, without analyzing it too deeply. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the class. If an intellectual like this was going to teach us poetry, then I was sure to flounder. But the class turned out to be exactly like it’s name, “Poetry Appreciation.” Jonas had a way of presenting the poetry that made it seem unthreatening, tangible and real. And appreciatable. If that could be a word.
It was a small class, but I can remember only about 3 names of the students. One of them was my friend Jen Miller, and there was a Titus who looked exactly like what I imagined some melancholy 18th century poet might look like, and a Jewel who read poetry with a voice that was poetry itself.
I looked forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays because I could go to this class. It seemed like a safe haven for me, a very homesick Kansas farm girl.
Then one day we read the poem, “In No Strange Land,” by Francis Thompson (who also wrote another favorite poem that I fell in love with at the age of 15, “The Hound of Heaven”). At first, the entire poem went over my head. I had no idea what it meant. Then, as we started looking at it closer, I grew to love it.
The entire poem is a paradox. In simple language, you might say, “The entire poem means that God and his angels are closer than what we realize.” Fish, in seeking the ocean, do not need to fly. Eagles, seeking air, do not need to come down to earth. So why do we constantly look for God in far away places instead of close to ourselves? If God could walk on the water in homely Galilee, what would stop him from bringing your lost cat back, or fixing your bad visa situation?
For me, the poem reminded me then that God was just as close in Intimidating Mennonite Educational Culture as he was in the in the barn where I scribbled down poetry on scrap paper while milking cows.
It reminds me of the verse in Acts 17 where Paul is talking with the Atheniens. He says, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:26-28 KJV).
“Though he be not far from every one of us.” Perhaps there is more holiness in our everyday lives than we realized.