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The Peace Thou Gives:

Important landmark in Sri Lankan Christian devotional poetry

Poets around the world may embrace various themes that inspire them to write poetry. Themes such as love, separation, loneliness, death, nature and nostalgia are some of the common themes that poets have dwelled but religion or the bliss of faith have also inspired poets throughout history. A case in point is American born T. S Eliot who has captured many themes from Christianity in his work.

Eliot not only focused on individual lives of the post-industrial world but also presented a post-Christian world despair of humans and redemption diagnosing post-industrial civilisation and its impact on mankind. Some of the best representation of this Elitian diagnosis could be read in his verses including "The Hollow Men" (1925), where Eliot's narrators are discovered with a sense of hopelessness but, ironically, with an extraordinary lyrical beauty on the threshold of Hell.

In Sri Lankan poetic scenario, the concept of religion has inspired many ancient to medieval writers. For example, Buddhist Pli Jataka contains 550 birth-stories of Buddha's journey prior to the enlightenment. Each Jataka story opens with a preamble or previous tale which relates a particular quality in the Buddha's previous lives that led him to tell a particular birth-story.

Compared to Pali and Sinhala version of Jataka tales, either Christianity or Catholicism hasn't offered us a similar Sri Lankan literary legacy. However, some modern English poets are now coming out with themes relating to Christianity and producing poetry dealing with diverse subjects embracing political and social elements in the context of spirituality, particularly issues and plights of vulnerable people in a changing milieu. One such poet is Lynn Ockersz whose first anthology of poetry entitled "Flame and Sparks" deals with his muse inspired by God and spirituality.

Lynn Ockersz's second collection of poetry 'The Peace Thou Gives' represents not only in Lynn's personal saga of discovery but also in the annals of Sri Lankan Christian devotional poetry in English that merits our closer attention.

A significant facet of Lynn's poetry is that they are not products that could be classified as Victorian devotional poetry but truly indigenous in essence with the imprints of socio-political and topical elements represented poetically.

Ockersz's work that appear in 'The Peace Thou Gives' are neither mere inspirational poetry, nor reports of events to shadow poetry with socio-political messages. They are, in a way, spontaneous responses of emotions of a sensitive human being which themselves have turned into poetry.

Ockersz has vividly captured the stark reality of abject poverty along with mechanisms of manipulated reality manufactured by Harry Potter stories in the context of war. It is the grand show run to the whims and fancies of 'the big powers'. It is the poor man's cocktail.

The Poor Man's Cocktail

Harry Potter mesmeric lore thrown into

War casualty tolls and cricket scores,

Political gossip and superstar shows;

These are the spicy parts of the concoction heady

The sprit-starved of this land

To their parched lips lustily carry,

In a daily dumb show,

Wherein the strings are pulled

By the Big Powers

Or wily Ole Nicky.

Here, the poet has captured the 'grand show' that is going on, in the context of war. It is the 'Big Powers' which control the 'show' and thanks to them, poor forget their woes as subjects of war casualties who merges into 'cricket scores' and what is thrown on top of them is the 'Harry Potter mesmeric lore'.

The poem titled, 'Political gossip and superstar shows' would only add spice to the confusion and the concoction would be a good feed for the 'The spirit-starved of the land'. It is obvious that Lynn's devotional poetry is not in the same mould as the Victorian devotional poetry which extols the virtues of God.

In a way, the poem titled 'The Poor Man's Cocktail' is a social satire. The poet says in no uncertain terms that the 'Cocktail' is for the 'Poor', those who are not only living in abject poverty when it comes education but also in inner spirit. At the end of the day, they have become puppets whose lives are controlled by the 'Big Powers' and not by 'wily Ole Nicky'.

In my opinion, this poem is a well-thought out reaction of a sensitive poet to the meaningless acts goings on in a society oblivious to the reality.

The poet's reaction to the conflict is manifested in the poem "As the Gun Smoke settles..." The poet describes the fragile nature of peace and that though the terrorism is over, still the dark powers may have survived.

As the Gun Smoke Settles...

This 'peace of the graveyard' grates on the ear,

It is not the Peace of Love Thou holds so dear

But an eerie stillness born of fear,

Welling in hearts by worldly

Might brought to heel

Unheeding the word of Love

That the blessedness brings,

This tear-shaped isle lies impoverished and still,

In the satanic grip of 'Principalities and Power',

Which only the way the Cross can bring to grief

The 'Peace' is not the one made by God but one made by the worldly power or 'Principalities and Power'. It is the 'peace of the graveyard'. The everlasting peace is not the one brought about by power but the one brought about by God or 'Peace of Love Thou holds so dear'. In essence, what the poet says is that the true peace can only be brought about by the love of God.

The nature of peace that the poet envisions is manifested in the title poem 'The Peace Thou Gives'. It is the eternal peace which is beyond 'all material understanding'.

The Peace Thou Gives

When I ask for relief,

Thou givest grief

When I sob for strength,

Thou leaves me weak,

When I beg for success,

Thou delivers defeat,

When I cry for acceptance,

Thou answers with rejection

Grasps not Thy bountiful ways,

This puny mind of Man,

For the peace thou givest,

Is beyond all material understanding,

But as real as Thy presence eternal"

People often pray for worldly gains and when they do not receive solace for their grievances, humans tend to be impatient. Most of the devotees do not think that it is the will of the God and what more precious than worldly gains is the eternal peace that the God gives. The poet says that the devoted Christians should not alone look for "Grasps not Thy bountiful ways", but look for the real peace which is 'beyond all material understanding' reminding us the message T. S Eliot has represented in his work in a different context.

And pray to God to have mercy upon us

And pray that I may forget

These matters that with myself I too much discuss

Too much explain

Because I do not hope to turn again

Let these words answer

For what is done, not to be done again

May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

(T. S Eliot. Ash Wednesday)

In the poem 'Goodness and Governance', the poet says the real power is 'the power of selfless love'. Political power gained through bullet or 'ballet robbed or hard won' is transient and not eternal. The power which is everlasting is spiritual power.

Goodness and Governance

No, this is not power

As we have come to see it;

Not the power that comes from

The barrel of the smoking gun,

Not the power that comes

From ballets, robbed or hard won,

Nor the power that sits

Uneasily on ruling thrones,

Or rages savagely in polarised parliaments,

All destined to crumble and fall

No, this is the power of virtue,

Of goodness which never fails

Of innocence which disarms

And brings to their feet

In stunned reverence,

Those clothed in regal might,

Like the magic of old

No, this is the power of selfless love,

Which came to birth long ago, in a humble

Stable in Bethlehem "

The underline message of the poem is that this spiritual power which is mightier than any material power 'came to birth long ago' and 'in a humble stable in Bethlehem' with the birth of the Jesus Christ.

The poem 'Thou will Hear 'is a prayer for the God to bring the agents of dark forces into captivity and to reign the righteousness throughout the land.

Thou Will Hear

The hired killer's bloody hand,

The bullying politico's mindless rant,

And the wheeler-dealer's transfixing guile,

Have earned for our Land a wasting blight;

But it is from the Gates of Hades they come,

And if we will but lift our voices in prayers united,

Thou, O Lord, will hear from Heaven,

And bring into captivity,

These tremors from the Kingdom of Darkness.

The poet says that these powers of darkness comes from 'the Gates of Hades' and that if the Christians pray in unison, God will bring them into captivity. Here the poet depicts the realities of a harsh world who firmly believes that at the end of the day, the good will triumph over evil due to divine intervention of the God.

The poet's reference to 'the Gates of Hades' is an important biblical allusion. For instance, Jesus said "...I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matt.16:18b). Jesus had said this in response to Peter's out loud confession that the Jesus is actually the son of the living God. In a primary sense, it means that gates of Hades do not have a victory on believer. It is obvious from many biblical allusions throughout the collection that the poet has encrypted messages of the God in his poetry.

For instance, Ockersz refers in the poem "Be still and Remember' to the baptising of Jesus in the waters of Jordan River by John the Baptist. The poet says that although the cry for peace is 'savagely smothered', the Lord is with the peace lovers and that with 'His rock-steady presence', the God will destroy 'the arrows of persecution'.

Be still and Remember ...

Keep your minds aglow with this memory

Of how Yahweh's glorious power benign

Led the chosen through Jordan's waters deep,

The yonder beckoning Land of Plenty

And gave to them repose and refuge, strong, abiding

Therefore be you of good cheer

As the Island Pearl's

War flames rise sheer

And your Peace-cry

Is savagely smothered

For the Lord your God is at your side

And with His rock-steady presence

Shall the arrows of persecution destroy

In the poem, "The Miscarriage", the poet describes that just is denied to poor because some wants to protect their self-interest before the masses.

The Miscarriage

The world comes crushing down on the powerless,

Because some trembling hands cannot weigh evenly,

And obey the Call of Conscience coming from Eternity,

But would prefer to heed

Hade's cold prompting,

And choose safety of self,

Position and Pelf,

In the mockery of

The world Almighty

'The Peace Thou Gives' offers insightful poetic observations of a sensitive poet who is inspired by God and his belief in spirituality.

Apart from its religious significance as one of the few Sri Lankan Christian devotional poems in English, this collection offers masterly crafted poetry that readers of any faith could enjoy.

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