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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

19 May 2017

Our new columnist, Malcolm Guite, is a poet and a priest in the diocese of Ely. He lives in the village of Linton, and works (allegedly part-time) as a chaplain in Cambridge, where he also writes and teaches about literature and theology. He takes pleasure in walking, motor­cycling, singing with his band in various pubs, and being a rector’s husband

I ONCE glimpsed eternity in Huntingdon.

I can be more specific. I was picking litter around the church I used to serve on the Oxmoor Estate. Perhaps because its grounds formed a short-cut between the pub and the chippy, or maybe because it had eaves and a porch under which you could shelter from the rain, a lot of stuff used to get discarded there. Not just the fish-and-chip papers and other dropped or regurgitated takeaways, but sometimes, more sadly, the used needles that were testimony to so much waste and exploitation.

As I was gingerly picking up a piece of newspaper on top of which various unpleasant things had been deposited, I became curious about a word in large print, part of which I could glimpse beneath the detritus. I shifted things slightly so as to be able to read it, and what I read, unexpectedly, and in capital letters, was “ETERNITY”.

I took it as a sign of sorts, a gesture in the direction of hope. I remembered that phrase in Ecclesiastes about how everything flourishes and fails in its time, but God has set eternity in our hearts.

I thought about the good people on that estate, sold and selling cheap, undervalued, dis­­missed to a margin, on an estate labelled “overspill” as though they were no more than the stuff spilled over that newspaper.

I thought about what it might be that was cluttering up and covering over the eternity that God had set in their hearts, about what it might take to reveal it.

KT BRUCEKT BRUCEI thought about how the drugs themselves — the brief highs, the getting out of it, the repeated self-medication — were all in their own way trying to find, but only covering more thoroughly, that deep-buried eternity.

I even began to wonder if I might be called to see through the clutter and read that inner word out for them, or help them find and read it for themselves.

All this might have turned into a glowing little sermon illustration right then and there, had not some more of the detritus fallen away from the paper and revealed the rest of the message: “ETERNITY by Calvin Klein”.

There’s not much you can do when you are recovering from bathos like that, but I finished the job, put away my dustpan and broom, and glanced wryly up at the cross on the church roof.

And it was after that, when the congregation came — almost all of us, in one way or another, the walking wounded — and the bread was broken and shared, it was then that together, without the help of advertising or the wearing of any scents, just ourselves and someone else in that dilapidated place, we glimpsed eternity, just enough of it to make the walk back in to time more bearable.

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