Enemy of Apathy (John L Bell & Graham Maule)

This article first appeared in the May 2014 issue of our parish magazine.

A very long time ago, when I was doing my A levels, there was a notice on the wall of the VIth form common room that said, “Apathy Rules OK”. It dangled from one drawing pin, as no one could be bothered finding another to replace the one that had clearly fallen out.

The Holy Spirit has no time for such listless inaction. She is a paradox of swift decisiveness, gentle nurturing, and unpredictability. We never know when she will touch our lives, nor in what way. “She”? Yes, because in Hebrew, “Spirit” is referred to in the feminine pronoun.

The words of this hymn (in the “purple book” at St Margaret’s and St George’s) form a powerfully potent poem:

  • She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters,
  • Hovering on the chaos of the world’s first day;
  • She sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
  • Waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.
  • She wings over earth, resting where she wishes,
  • Lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies;
  • She nests in the womb, welcoming each wonder,
  • Nourishing potential hidden to our eyes.
  • She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
  • Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
  • She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
  • Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.
  • For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
  • Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
  • She is the key opening the scriptures,
  • Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.

Just reading it gives me spine-tingles. The Pentecost message is clearly there in verse three, the Holy Trinity in verse four, and expectancy in verse one. Consider verse two though: “she…welcom(es) each wonder, nourishing potential hidden to our eyes”. There is promise in those lines. Each of us has gifts that we may be utterly unaware of. When the time is right, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and we see the richness of our blessings. It is then up to us to choose whether to share our gifts generously with each other, and whether to offer them back to God in thanks and celebration. So it was for me. My inner musician lay dormant for a good 20 years before being awakened at St Margaret’s!

I find it impossible to “just” read this as a poem. For me it is inextricably linked to the haunting melody that swoops and soars, just like a bird riding thermals and choosing where to rest next. Sung in unison, the voices blend together as one to mimic the unity of the Holy Trinity – each independently beautiful, each with its own timbre and resonance, and collectively contributing so much more than the sum of the individuals.

Click here is a deceptively simple version of Bell’s Enemy of Apathy, sung by a solo soprano with guitar accompaniment. Following the advice attributed to St Francis to ‘preach the gospel at all times, using words if you must’, try listening with your eyes closed. If the text is still a distraction, try listening to The Lark Ascending (Elgar). Again, listen with your eyes closed, and allow your spirit to soar, bird-like, with the music.

Carol P

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