“In No Strange Land” by Francis Thompson

“The Kingdom of God is within you.”

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 rumor 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-splendored 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!

When Francis Thompson wrote this poem in the 1880s, he was a homeless opium addict.  He slept every night on the streets of London—on the bank of the River Thames, or at Charing Cross junction. And yet despite all his suffering, he was still able to see and rejoice in the beauty of God. 

In the poem, Thompson suggests that just as it would be foolish for a fish to ask, “Where is the sea?”, or a bird to doubt the air, so are our demands for divine revelation foolish, when the evidence for God’s existence is all around us. But we’ve shut our minds to it, clamped them tight; in our chase for meaning, we soar right past the divine presence on Earth, oblivious and “benumbed.” If only we would come down from our lofty questioning and look within ourselves, and directly out at what surrounds us, we would see God. Angel wings (“pinions”) are beating not just in the vast expanse of universe above us, but right outside our door.

In the first three stanzas, Thompson speaks in the first person plural (“we,” “our”), in a soft and inclusive way, but in the last three stanzas, he becomes more pointed, breaking out into second person singular to address you, the reader, directly: it’s you who’s willfully ignoring the divine activity that’s taking place right in front of you.

If you’re having trouble seeing, cry! Cry out to God. He will respond by illuminating “the traffic of Jacob’s ladder”—that is, the persistent work of God in your life, in all three glorious persons: the sustaining hand of the Father, the mediation of the Son, and the wooing of the Spirit. Once you get a glimpse of this “many-splendored” God, grab a hold and cling on tightly, even if his hem is all that you can grasp.

Jacob's Ladder by William Blake

William Blake, “Jacob’s Ladder,” c. 1800. Watercolor. British Museum.

Genesis 28:10-17 records a vision that Jacob had while he was in frantic flight from his brother, Esau: He saw a stairway reaching from Earth to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending it. Above it stood God himself, who promised to bless Jacob, and to never leave him.  Jacob’s reaction upon waking from this dream was to exclaim, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. . . . How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

If only we lived with this same realization, that Emmanuel, God with us, is alive and active on our behalf! For the invisible, intangible, unknowable world was made visible, tangible, and knowable in the person of Christ. And we grasp and encounter him not with our intellect or reason, but with our love.

Salvador Dali, “Jesus Walks on the Sea” (Iesus super mare ambulans), 1963-69. Lithograph, from The Biblia Sacra.

In John 1:51, Jesus says that he is that ladder from Genesis; he is the means by which heaven comes down to us and by which we can go to heaven. (“Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”) This ladder rolls down to meet you right where you’re at—whether you’re on the run, like Jacob, or trying to beat an addiction and find work, like Thompson.

In every life situation, in every locale, Christ’s power is on display. “Lo!” writes Thompson, “behold it!” Jesus walked on the waters of Galilee, and he’s walking on the River Thames. Here in Boston, he’s walking on the Charles. Heaven and Earth are continuously interacting. God, give us eyes to see it, and hearts that thrill to praise you for it. 

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7 Responses to “In No Strange Land” by Francis Thompson

  1. Pingback: ‘O filigree petal!’ | The Jesus Question

  2. Michael says:

    What are the wheeling systems? Can you explain the origin of this phrase?

    • I’d say that “wheeling systems” refers to rotating galaxies. In other words, Thompson is saying that we need not look for God “out there,” because his presence dwells with us here on Earth.

  3. Pingback: Cake and Conversation: A month of listening in east London | The Centre for Theology & Community

  4. TJ says:

    Revisited betimes.
    Thank you.

    Re: ‘wheeling systems’
    ? Ezekiel’s wheel in the middle of a wheel ?
    ? The wheels of God –
    ~’Though the wheels of God turn slowly
    They grind exceeding fine … ‘

  5. terraspiritus says:

    Reblogged this on Terra Spiritus and commented:
    Seems appropriate at this time

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