St John’s Kirk, Perth

1 – The Garden

A boy in a garden.  It is morning, a still summer dewfall.
He puts his hand in the stream that flows through the garden,
His hand lingers in the stream like a strange fish.
He looks into the water – 
His head is there, the black curls and the dark eyes and the sweet red curves of the mouth.
The boy says, “A man does not keep beauty and youth long.”
Among the lilies and the roses a bee blunders, about its gathering of treasure.
The boy says, “If a bee can gather in such sweetness, in its brief time, how much more should a man;
but mostly the strivings of men end in the dust,
And the dust of vanity lies heavier on the mouths of the rich
and the famous than on the lips of poor men – 
No, it is easier for a poor man to sing and to dance” …
There is one tree in the garden heavy with apples.
It is noon,
The boy stands in the shadow of the apple-tree, sheltered from the sun.
His mother calls from the door,
Come inside, John.
Come inside now, and wash your hands, put on a white coat.
Visitors are coming, Mary and her boy Yesu your cousin.
You haven’t seen him for a long time.
Bring in a jar of water.
It’s a long road.  They’ll need to wash the dust from their feet” …
Then a sudden wind moves in the garden,
The wind shakes the tree,
Five red apples fall from the tree, in the wind that is here and gone in an instant.
The boy John takes the empty pitcher from Elizabeth’s hands.

2 – The Desert

The sun rose over the desert.
The crystals of ice
Were dew on the desert stones soon, flashings of light.
And the locusts said,
“We have devoured in our day the good harvests,
Let us offer ourselves to this solitary man in the desert.”
And the wild bees said,
“Let us give the sweetness we have hoarded under the stones
To this man who walks alone in the wild places.”
And the roots said,
“There is little nourishment in our berries
But this wanderer
Does not want to sit at the banquets of King Herod,
when the golden cup goes round and the musicians strike on the instruments.”
And the wild boar and the goat said,
“This man could be wearing silk coats
But he is content with our skins.”
Far on the river was singing,
with many voices of the hithering-thithering water and the still deep pools and the sudden cataract.
And the stones sang
“He is coming now, John.  The maker of all things is coming
To wash clean
What the malice and greed and cruelty of men have made filthy.
Listen, John,
His feet are on the road, coming towards the river.
Even the stones can hear the delicate thunder of his coming.
And to show that all men must cleanse themselves,
He, the Man, will also offer himself to be washed in the holy river”.

3 – The Dance

“The whole of creation is a dance”, said John.
“See how the sun and the moon and stars dance in their courses.
The young lambs
Dance on the hillside – look, there –
And the waters dance.
The new leaves dance on the tree that was winter sticks
And the birds go dancing from branch to twig.
See how the children
Dance in the street, throwing stones in the numbered squares of dust.
Men and women dance,
Though it seems hard labour to them,
casting nets and yoking the plough-ox and taking buckets of water from the well.
We are caught in the cauls of time,
We cannot see the dance for the sweat and the pain and the blood
Yet the slow feet of ploughman and baker of fish and the mourner
Are gathered in the marvellous dance of creation” …
So John said, going among the spears
From the river of purification to the palace of the king,
And down to the dungeon, among the roots of the stone rose that was the palace,
Where rat and spider flourish
And the mildew that feeds on dank lightless stone.
And there they chained his feet
So that John in all the world might not be a dancer.
And still the Baptist sang
“The dance will never end; even in the dungeon of the king
The snail goes here and there, making her slow silver dance,
And Grimface who brings me a candle and crust and cup of water –
The warder – he is a dancer too”.

*     *     *

That night, in the great hall of the lighted palace
The girl Salome began her black dance

4 – A Light in the North

He was not the light but was sent to bear witness of the Light

Therefore we honour St. John
With the crown of the year – midsummer – the Solstice of Light.
Then, in the countries of the north,
the places most afflicted with darkness and cold 
(the ice crown)
On St. John’s Day
Fire answered fire from hilltop to hilltop
And the young men leapt through the flames
And in the brief twilight between sunset and dawn
The children danced the dance of the sun
And the farmers traversed their glimmering fields and barns and byres with torches
That all might fare well towards harvest, both beasts and the green barley …
He was not the light but was sent to bear witness of the Light,
The Glory behind the light,
Creator of the stars and moon and the sun of midsummer,
The glittering fish-scale, the bronze ear of barley,
The ice crystal,
The tree white with frost and the tree laden with leaves and apples and laughter
And the men and women and children whose mouths shine with praise in the holy places.
Therefore in Scotland, seven hundred and fifty years ago,
Men thought to honour St. John the Baptist with a new kirk.

5 – The Kirk in Perth

Here is a town, in the very heart of Scotland,
Near the place where the Kings of Scotland are crowned,
Here we will build a church
To honour St. John the Baptist whose voice crying in the wilderness
Announced the imminence of The Word
That cancels forever all lies, all loudness of vanity,
all distortions by mouth and pen uttered, from the beginning to the end of time.
The hewers of stone
Opened quarries in the hills round the city
And the masons of Perth
Squared the stones into huge blocks,
Taking care with the corner-stone and the great root-stone of foundation,
And the architect stood at the centre of the site with his scroll and plan
Consulting often with master mason and bishop
As the wall grew slowly, course upon course.
And he that had skill in the moulding of arch and window
Arrived, with his workers, on horseback
And the master of the pillars came, with his plumbline and compass.
And they sent for the man who had skill in the making of glass, a great rose window.
The tree at the east of the kirk
Stood stark in winter, glittering and tinkling with ice
And budded in April, branching choirs of birdsong,
And wore, at midsummer, the long green coat.
The townsfolk of Perth
Paused, in their comings and goings at market place and the street of the tradesman
To see the stone ship rising into the sun.
Through many centuries it must voyage, that ship, set east
To greet the rising sun
And the Light beyond light, the Glory of God.
It must endure, in the heaven-voyage,
Tempest and the perils of reef and sandbank,
And seasons when the wind of the spirit is mute, and the kirk is becalmed.
May St. John stand forever at the helm and steer his faithful people
Into the unknown: for the light is upon the waters always,
And the earth-bound kirk
Voyages on the ocean of purification – the sea dance – to the Golden City.

© George Mackay Brown

April 1991