Eternity on the Sidewalk

By Steve Beard

When we are born we bear the seeds of blight;
Around us life & death are torn apart;
Yet a great ring of pure and endless light;
Dazzles the darkness in my heart.

staceSometimes poets drive me nuts. Despite my best efforts, poetry is not my first language. Nevertheless, my heart melts when the poetic swerve makes a complex matter sound wistfully sensible. The stanza above is from the late Madeleine L’Engle, the poet and storyteller behind A Wrinkle in Time, and it helps even a left-brainer like me to conceptualize the theological complexities of the human heart and our journey.

As I grow older, the more I love the image of eternity as a great ring of endless light. Perhaps it is because I am acquainted too well with the darkness and pettiness in my heart. L’Engle’s words conjure up the imagery of someone shouting “Hello!” into a dark cavern where the words are given the freedom to echo on and on.

Everlasting to everlasting is a mighty long time. That is a terrifying prospect to some, and sweet relief to others. Somehow foreverness seems to be etched into our DNA. “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing,” mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal observed almost 350 years ago. Is that what gives such lasting import to words such as Hope, Mercy, Grace, Love, and Resurrection?

I was reminded of all this the other evening while watching a documentary on a remarkably interesting Australian nicknamed Mr. Eternity. His story first came across my radar screen 14 years ago while CNN was reporting on how all the major cities around the globe celebrated the Millennium. Australia’s grand finale featured the word Eternity lit up in the midst of smoke and fireworks across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Nine months later, this peculiar one-word millennium message appeared once again during the opening night festivities of the Olympics on television. This time, Eternity was featured in lights over Sydney.

It turns out that both spectacular events memorialized the late Arthur Stace, who had written Eternity in chalk as a form of elegant graffiti on the sidewalks, streets, and buildings of Sydney. It was reported that this pavement poet wrote the word more than 500,000 times over a period of 37 years.

Born in 1884, Stace was raised in a brothel by alcoholic parents. He grew up to become an uneducated, petty criminal hooked on liquor. At the age of 45, he attended a “Meeting for Needy Men” at St. Barnabas’ Church in Sydney on August 6, 1930, in order to get something to eat. He noticed a half-dozen nicely dressed people in the front of the crowd and asked the man sitting next to him, “Who are they?”

“I’d reckon they’d be Christians,” the man replied.

“Well look at them and look at us,” Stace responded. “I’m having a go at what they have got.” He went outside, knelt below a large fig tree and cried, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Miraculously, the stranglehold of booze was broken over him and Stace was finally able to keep a job. A few months later, he heard a noted “give ‘em hell” preacher named John Ridley. During his sermon, Ridley shouted: “Eternity! Eternity! I wish I could shout Eternity through all the streets of Sydney.”

Those words reverberated through Stace. “Suddenly I began crying and I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write, ‘Eternity,’” he testified. “I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and I bent down and wrote it. The funny thing is that before I wrote it I could hardly write my own name. I had no school and I couldn’t have spelled ‘eternity’ for a hundred quid. But it came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it, and I still can’t.”

According to the profiles of Stace, he arose early in the morning throughout his life and, after praying for an hour or so, would leave his home before 5:30 a.m. and return by 10:00 a.m., after having written Eternity in various locations around Sydney.

For many years it was an unsolved Australian mystery regarding who was writing the word all over the place. It was not until 1956 that Stace was discovered by his pastor while he was scribbling the word on the sidewalk. “Are you Mr. Eternity?” the pastor asked. “Guilty your honor,” Stace replied. The identity of “Mr. Eternity” was made public on June 21, 1956, when the Sunday Telegraph published an interview with Stace.

He died 11 years later at the age of 83. A few years after his death, Australian poet Douglas Stewart remembered Stace in the following verse:

“That shy mysterious poet Arthur Stace
Whose work was just one single mighty word
Walked in the utmost depths of time and space
And there his word was spoken and he heard
ETERNITY, ETERNITY, it banged him like a bell
Dulcet from heaven sounding, sombre from hell.”

That is a fitting tribute to a man who captured the imagination of a nation with a singular, weighty message. As The Age editorialized: “Without asking for reward or recognition, he achieved what many artists long to do: the expression of his singular obsession is to be taken out of the shadows and placed before the public in blazing lights.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes said it well, “He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11). The Arthur Staces of this world have been sent to remind us of the unfathomable joy that we may discover in the presence of a merciful God – and how we might begin that journey from this side of eternity.

Madeline L’Engle once wrote that “poets are born knowing the language of angels.” In this case, perhaps, Arthur Stace learned the dialect of the divine when he reached in his pocket and took hold of his first piece of chalk.

Steve Beard is the creator and creative director of Thunderstruck.

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