A Tide in the Affairs of Men
Watching the scenes of convulsion from North Africa today it would not seem inappropriate if the lunchtime news headlines were to begin with the words Psalm 46. “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall.” But we would need a clear reason for hope to be able to say “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” In the Psalmist’s language the world’s empires are like great mountains, the most solid and permanent features of our landscapes. And then one day people wake up and overnight the seemingly everlasting mountain has collapsed into the sea, its very foundations undermined by the roaring waves of political or social or religious chaos. It’s not surprising that the Bible speaks of people’s hearts failing them for fear.
In Ireland, we seem to have awakened to our own convulsions and found that the former certainties of our Irish social landscape, its most prominent features by which we set our compass, both religious and secular, have fallen like the Psalmist’s great mountains into chaotic seas. We had hoped for so much more, sowing much but reaping little. Some have lost life savings, others, despairing of life itself, have not been able to find any doorway of hope. Thousands of Irish men and women have caught the tide receding from our shores in hopes of a higher financial tide elsewhere, and we all feel the loss. Some of you are listening today.
Did we all miss some obvious moment, fail to grasp some day of opportunity? Or could it be that this is now, paradoxically, just such a day when a new fortune may be found? To borrow from Yeats, Surely some revelation is at hand.
In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar Brutus is speaking to Cassius about how the freedom we all have to make choices interacts with the forces of life over which we have no control. There are moments of unique opportunity, like a high tide, when we must make our critical move if our venture is to succeed. Brutus says,
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of our life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
Thousands of Irish men and women have caught the tide receding from our shores in hopes of a higher financial tide elsewhere, and we all feel the loss.
If we in Ireland were to think of our national life in such terms, we might be forgiven for thinking that the tide is now a very long way out. Yet this may, ironically, be just the moment of opportunity and hope we need, indeed, quite the reverse of what we had thought. It was at just such a low tide moment, such a low ebb in the affairs of his people, that the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, seeing the world from a different and unshakeable mountain, began a great movement of hope with, not with violent revolution, but with the greater vision of Psalm 46, “There is a river, the streams whereof ;make glad the city of God.’ Oh that we had such prophetic Irish voices now, “There is a river… therefore we will not fear.” And our response might be, in time of trouble, ‘Take me to the River.”
All of us will, I’m sure, have heard of C S Lewis’s magical land of Narnia in which our world may be revealed to the discerning reader in its truer forms. Few may know, however, that the inspiration for that revelatory and magical landscape was the beautiful mountains on either side of Ireland’s Carlingford Lough, the Cooley peninsula in Co Louth and the hills above Rostrevor in Co. Down.
There is a prophetic word for us, now, in an enchanted moment in Lewis’s Narnia story The Silver Chair. Jill has been making her way through a dense wood, and, dying of thirst, emerges into a clearing with a flowing stream as bright as glass. But she is frozen to the spot, because there beside the stream is a huge lion. Her thirst is so bad now that she wouldn’t mind being eaten by the lion if only she could get even one fresh draught of water. And then the Lion says, “If you’re thirsty you may drink.” She asks the lion to go away while she drinks, but she might as well have been asking a mountain to be thrown into the sea, and this was the one mountain that doesn’t move and will still be there when all the other mountains have gone. So she decides that since she doesn’t want to get too near the lion she’ll look for another stream. And then the lion says, “There is no other stream.” Although it was the worst thing she ever had to do, she scooped up the refreshing water, and she found herself between the Lion’s paws looking straight at his face.
Paul read to us of some Samaritan “Jill” that met Jesus at a well. He said, I know all about you, your hopes, your disappointments, your broken relationships, your religious opinions about where you should worship, what you’re really hoping for and thirsting for. I have water to give you, which, if you drink of it you will never thirst again. And she said to him, in effect, Take me to that river.
On another day Jesus turned up at one of the great religious festivals. It was the place to go, a religious festival to be sure, but it could just as easily have been one of our great music concerts at Slane Castle or Croke Park. And Jesus stood up in the middle and shouted at the top of his voice about how to get to the river, “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink.” And then the surprise, if anyone came to him the river would flow from his or her innermost being.
It’s painful, but perhaps not entirely a bad thing that the chaotic tide has swept away some of the old features we were so sure of. With the old tide so far out now we in Ireland can hear the prophetic voice again, “There is a river.” The only river in which our deepest thirst is truly quenched begins at the throne of the One who created us for relationship with himself, beyond our wildest dreams and hopes. There is a river, and it gets wider and deeper the more we commit to its healing streams. For the rest of us still not out of the woods, I’m sure a voice will soon fall on our ears “Come over here beside me” and we too will look fully into his face. We’ll know that time has come when thousands respond and say, “I’m dying of thirst. Take me to the river.”