The Joy of Contrasts

I have been thinking about contrasts of late. The contrast between life pre COVID-19 and now, the contrast between schooling online and schooling onsite; even the unusual contrasts in the recent Perth Summer weather. In this context of extremes, two poems by William Blake, the eighteenth century British Romantic poet and artist, spring to mind. ‘The Lamb’ and ‘Tyger’ come from a substantial poetic work Blake called Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. ‘The Lamb’ represents innocence, and the ‘Tyger’ experience – two extremes which, for Blake, represent a major contrast in the different states of the human mind.

The first poem asks the lamb: ‘who made thee; dost thou know who made thee?’ and goes on to answer that question. ‘It is one called by thy name, another one called a Lamb, who is meek and who is mild and who became a little child.’ The poem refers to God, and specifically to Jesus – the Lamb of God. So, Blake finds it easy to reconcile the idea of a lamb with the Maker of the universe.

A tiger presents a huge contrast. The first and last verses of the poem are the same. ‘Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?’ Blake, of course, believes that God is as responsible for the tiger as for the lamb, but clearly notes the challenge in the idea. The second last stanza of the poem says:

              When the stars threw down their spears,

              and watered heaven with their tears,

              did he smile his work to see?

              did he who made the lamb make thee?

A quote from Blake answers the question in the poem. Did the maker of the gentle lamb make the fearful tiger? Blake said ‘Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.’ For Blake, all the contrasts in the world are held together under God. In his view, God is the loving first cause of everything that is, and the one who transforms all things for good.

The ancient prophet Isaiah had a vision similar in many ways to that of Blake. Isaiah looked forward to the arrival of one from the line of David, the line of the Israelite kings who honoured God, who would bear the Spirit of God and bring righteousness and justice. Christians understand this person to be Jesus. The Christian tradition sees the ultimate outcome of the work of Christ demonstrated in the famous vision of Isaiah, when the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, the calf and the lion, all live in harmony. The key point of the vision is not remotely sentimental. It is no less than an end to harm and destruction based on complete and full knowledge of God. For both Isaiah and Blake, the contrasts can converge under God to be transformed into something perfect and gracious.

It occurs to me, particularly in Anglican Schools, that we could be forgiven for sometimes thinking the plan is to turn out only one end of the contrast spectrum. Have you ever felt that your school sets its sights on creating a flock of sheep? Tidy shorn sheep in matching coats who intend to spend their lives grazing quietly on an appropriate hillside? I certainly have! How much more creative and interesting it is to contemplate instead how the tigers and other wild animals in our school communities (the ones who don’t wear their coats and bleat gently) can and do find their voice and their place in the world, and especially in the Kingdom of God?

I distinctly recall a Q&A type show on the ABC that featured a panel including Germaine Greer and Julie Bishop. Two women more different in outlook possibly hard to find. As the panel conversation unfolded, there was Julie Bishop asking Germaine Greer about her ‘inner animal,’ and Germaine Greer insisting that she could forget about the ‘inner’ bit – we are all just animals. On this basis, could it be the case that our schools are more zoos than flocks of sheep? Which is no bad thing at all, if we follow the lead of Blake and Isaiah and contemplate God as Zookeeper, rather than merely a herder of sheep. When we understand God this way, whatever our inner or exterior animal may be, on whatever end of the spectrum of contrast we care to place ourselves, we can be assured that God not only made us, but is in the business of transformation – of us and of all things.

So, as this term and year unfolds at your school, whether your long-term plan is to spend your time grazing peacefully on a green hillside with your identical friends, or you intend to prowl around looking for a non-vegetarian meal, I hope that you will have the time to find within yourself and in the many contrasts of the world, a robust sense of the goodness of God.

In more famous words of Blake – I hope you will this year:

              …see a World in a Grain of Sand

              and a heaven in a Wild flower,

              hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

              and eternity in an Hour.

Eleanor O'Donnell Written by:

Eleanor was ordained priest in Tasmania in 2002 and took up her first school chaplaincy position at St Michael’s Collegiate School in Hobart in 2005. From there she went to Melbourne Grammar School as Wadhurst Chaplain for four years. She was the Senior Chaplain at both Geelong Grammar and Ballarat Grammar before taking up her current position at Hale School in Perth WA in January 2019. Eleanor maintains that the essential element in the role of any School Chaplain is to teach, to tell, and to live out the Christian story in such a manner that it becomes a shared value and a common language for every member of a school community.

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