Preached on Sunday, 04.11.2018
By Dr. Glenda White
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
So begins one of the greatest Christian poems in the English language. It deals with the huge themes of our faith – sin and its consequences; repentance; forgiveness; love; mercy and mission – and they don’t come much more momentous than that.
It was written, as you all know, by young Sam Coleridge. I say young – he was 25/26 when he wrote it. He was supposed to be writing some lyrical ballads for a book he was publishing with Wordsworth but ‘The Ancient Mariner’ popped up instead and changed the course of English Literature!
Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary – a chocolate-box village of stone cottages with roses round the door, a village green and a magnificent parish church where his father was the vicar. Sam was the tenth child – I always wonder if, with ten children, his parents ran out of names, since at his baptism he was named after his Godfather- a man called Samuel Taylor – and Samuel Taylor Coleridge he’s been ever since!
He had an idyllic childhood until his father unexpectedly died when Coleridge was eight. Almost overnight, the family lost their home and income and went from genteel to shabby genteel. Of course, the older sons helped out and it was decided that young Sam should go to Christ’s Hospital – a charity school in London. At first he hated it, but the school came to recognise his way-ward genius and he eventually did well. He didn’t do quite so well at Cambridge where he ran away to join the army and his brother only got him out of that by claiming he was mad!
I’ve always had a soft spot for Coleridge. In the first place, he was a prodigious walker – he and William and Dorothy Wordsworth thought nothing of walking 20 miles, coming home for tea and then going out for a walk! He was much-admired preacher – he would walk eight miles, take the morning service and then walk eight miles back! I’ve just drawn up the preaching rota for the next six months and I haven’t dared suggest that! And he was a great radical and a political activist – constantly arguing against slavery and poverty and for equality and democracy in his poems, lectures and articles for the newspapers
He did the wrong things for the right reasons. When he and his friends decided to turn their back on England and set up a pantisocracy in America where all would live together equally, it was decided it would be improper for single men and women to live together. So Coleridge agreed to marry Sara Fricker one of the group. The group never went, of course, but Coleridge still felt he was committed to Sara in what turned out to be a disastrous marriage.
And he suffered terribly from neuralgia down one side of his face. He was probably first given laudanum for the pain at school, but he came to be totally addicted to the opium on which it was based and it was to ruin the second part of his life.
But out of all this pain and blundering about and waste and self-centredness came a great Christian poem.
So what’s it all about? Well it’s about a lusty young man, curly haired, freckled, sun-burned, loose limbed who loved to be out in the fresh air. Actually, I made all that up – we don’t know what he was like but that’s how I think of him! What we do know is that he lived in a port, he needed a job, he wanted cash in his pocket and naturally enough he signs on to go to sea. At first, he loves it. He likes being with the other young men, he soon makes friends, he enjoys the exercise, and at the end of the voyage he would have money enough to spend. What’s more, he begins to see sights he could hardly have imagined. The sailing ship makes for the Antarctic and soon they are traversing the great ice fields. He’d never seen anything like it!
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around.
And then one day, a great albatross came swooping down low over the ship. Of course, like the seagulls following the Rothesay boat, it came for the fish churned up in the wake. Then it began to make friends with the men. It swooped and soared, they fed it bits of food it had never tasted before, they laughed and joked with it and before long, when work was done, they looked forward to the coming of the albatross.
Then without any warning, and with no discussion with the other sailors, one day our young man took his bow and arrow and shot and killed the albatross. Why? He didn’t want to eat it! He didn’t want to wear it! It wasn’t doing him any harm – quite the contrary! And he wasn’t a bad lad, certainly not an evil one. He was just a blokey sort of bloke. But he was careless, insensitive; he was thoughtless – he just didn’t think about the consequences. And he had the bow and arrow – he had where-withal to execute power.
But what had he done?
I love the new translation of the Genesis story – not that mankind has dominion over the earth – but that mankind has responsibility for the earth. And our young man has abdicated all responsibility. Towards the end of the poem are the famous lines which all of us know – maybe we had it on the wall of our bedroom, or as a bookmark, or we learned it in Sunday school – you’ll see a copy of the well-known illustration by Margaret Tarrant on the back page of your booklet.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Long before we knew about climate change, long before Al Gore and the “convenient truth”; long before we realised we were running out of renewables; long before we found plastic at the bottom of the sea, Coleridge looks at the ravages caused by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution – tin mining, coal mining, mills, factories and mass production, – and he warns that we destroy the earth at our peril. As we saw in Roger’s play last week – Mother Earth is in dire straits; and as we were warned at harvest, if the bees go, so do we. Coleridge warned us 200 years ago!
But it was more than that. With all due respect to the Rothesay seagulls, this was an albatross – magnificent, powerful, resplendent, blameless. An albatross has a wing span of up to eleven feet. It can live for up to 50 years. It rides the ocean winds and glides for hours without rest or even a flap of its wings. Why would our young man want to destroy it? What is the impulse to deface, to vandalise, to despoil, to desecrate?
Like you I was brought up on Paul’s letter to the Philippians ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. So why do we fill our heads, and our children’s heads, with gratuitous cruelty, and pornography and materialism and covetousness? You’ve probably sat through the trailers at the cinema – with a 12 or 12A classification – but they’re nearly all fantasy violence. Men and women, animals and imaginary creatures from science fiction – all at war with each other, all bent on destruction. When did we allow words like ‘honest’ and ‘pure’ and ‘lovely’ become so naff and uncool?
And it’s no coincidence that when our young man finally stares into the beauty of the ocean realisation dawns and repentance comes. He’s sitting on the sail mast, all alone, even God seems to have left him, staring at the sea creatures all around him and he’s suddenly aware of the beauty that surrounds him:
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire. O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
But it was more than that. The albatross was a friend, it came to play with the sailors, they sampled different things to eat, it showed them it’s tricks. They taught it their tricks. They fooled about together, they joked and teased and knocked the chips off each other’s shoulders. They went to places they’d never been before and tried out ideas and did things just to please the other. They were friends. And it flew low over the ship in friendship – until our young man killed both it and the love it inspired.
‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God’ writes John the Evangelist at Ephesus.
We don’t realise how important friendships are until a careless word, an email with the wrong tone, the failure to pick up the phone, just generally being too busy, and our friendships are bruised, damaged. Relationships with our neighbours, our communities, in our church, at work, and most of all within our families, can be delicate, and they need to be nurtured. We don’t mean it – but failure to thrive in our relationships with others can lead to dysfunctional families, bewildered children, loneliness, mental ill-health.
And broken relationships need to be put right not killed off. No doubt, like me, towards the evening, you ponder over the day’s events and wish this or that hadn’t been said or done – and it is one of the great rewards of trying to follow the guidance of Jesus that we try to put our mistakes right – we clarify what we really meant, we say we’re sorry, we make it up. And if someone has hurt us, we ponder whether it’s any big deal – is it worth losing a friendship – and we start afresh the next day. Paradoxically, its these ordinary, perhaps modest relationships which are so essential for our well-being and make for a rich, satisfying, rewarding life. And by the end of the poem at last the young man begins to understand what he has lost:
O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
‘Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—
To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!
But it was more than that. At first, the young man is unaware of the consequences of what he has done, the ship sails on and the other sailors think he was right to have shot the albatross. But gradually when the sailors realise that the wind has dropped and the sails hang loose and the ship is scarcely moving – then they blame it all on the death of the albatross. And they take its body and hang it round the young man’s neck like a great cross.
There are consequences of sin – and there is a price to pay.
For the young man has drifted away from God. It is God who made the bounteous earth and gave us responsibility for it. It is God who is majestic and powerful and glorious. And it is God whose love underpins our relationships with each other.
And as the young man drifts away from God, the wind drops. We all know what the wind is. It’s a metaphor, an image, a figure of speech for God. It was the wind which parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from Egypt. It was the wind which caused the waters to subside around the Ark. And when the Holy Spirt comes at Pentecost it’s like the sound of a rushing wind.
And now the wind stops completely. The result is nothing less than catastrophic. The ship is becalmed:
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
They are making no progress, their food runs out – and what is worse – the water runs out.
Water, water all around
And not a drop to drink.
And one by one, our young man watches his friends, his ship-mates, die of starvation and thirst – even his nephew – his brother’s son. Their bodies shrink, they lie like skeletons and their tongues blacken. And watching them he has nightmares of the supernatural, his imagination plays tricks on him, his fear and guilt and loneliness overwhelm him.
And then he sees a ship on the horizon. Salvation! He can’t call out because his mouth is dry, his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. So he bites his arm and whets his tongue with the blood. And the ship hears him, and changes course but as it draws near he sees two spectres playing with dice. He’s desperate – I’m dying and you play games. But the spectres call out – oh we’re not here to save you – we’re dicing for your soul.
And the young man finally understands what he has done – he is in danger of losing the very essence of what he is and what he could be. And he’s so, so sorry. And in that moment he’s forgiven!
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
And the wind begins to blow!
But soon there breathed a wind on me,
It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring—
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.
He has found God again. And God surrounds him with mercy and love! The sails fill up, and the ship bowls along and soon he begins to recognise the sights and sounds of home:
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
Like the prodigal son, home is where he belongs. And when he finally reaches the shore he runs to the watching priest and begs to be reassured that he’s forgiven. Tell me your tale’, says the priest. And are you truly sorry? Then God forgives you – go your way in God’s mercy.
But that’s not the end of the story – if it was there would be no poem – and no point. The point is that the young man is left with a burning passion to tell others of his experiences – his stupid but terrible mistake, his realisation and acceptance of his sin; and his overwhelming insight that God never left him and loves him still.
And he knows he hasn’t had a lot of practice in public speaking. And he knows that not many people think as he does. And he knows that people look at him strangely and find his behaviour odd.
But he is on a mission.
The ship is sailing towards disaster and someone must warn others, in God’s name, to change their ways. Which is why
It was an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.