At the gate of the year

Since I was a child, hardly a new year has begun when I don’t think of my grandfather Howard Fullerton and a little poem we discovered after his death. Let me tell you the story of that poem.

In the dark, uncertain days of late 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, England’s King George VI wanted to encourage his nation in his Christmas message, so in his radio broadcast he read from a poem, “God Knows,” by a little-known American teacher at the London School of Economics, Minnie Louise Haskins. The poem began:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall ge to you better than light and safer than a known way!”

The poem caught the imagination of the British in their first Christmas of the war, and the BBC was flooded with questions about the poem’s origin. The words were read again in 2002 at the funeral of King George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and they’re engraved at the entrance of the chapel where both are now interred.

It was roughly twenty years after King George’s Christmas broadcast when I became acquainted with the poem. A hand-written copy of it was found in my grandfather’s wallet after his death. I’m not sure anyone ever heard him speak of it, but he found enough meaning in those words to keep them always close, and they must have encouraged him many times when the future seemed uncertain and unpredictable.

I recall those words whenever I have my own little talk with the one who stands at the gate of every new year. Maybe some of you know the poem and have found meaning in its words as you have begun a new year or some new phase of your life. As I grow older I remember those words with less need to see into the unknown and with more confidence in the God who will lead me along the way I cannot see.

We need such confidence today, when uncertainty seems the only sure thing. Maybe you don’t need headlines to remind you how fragile and uncertain life is; your own experience may be reminder enough. Now more than ever you may need to put your hand into the hand of the divine presence “that shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

As we stand at the gate of a new year, on the threshold of a new season in life, able to see neither the road before us nor where it will lead, remember that our present circumstances do not predict the future that is in God’s hands. As Haskins wrote in her poem, “In all the dizzy strife of things / Both high and low, / God hideth his intention.”

We don’t need to be in control of our future. God asks only for our trust in God’s promise and our confidence in God’s providence, for our radical dependence on the Source of life that is beyond all control and that controls all. As Thomas Merton wrote, “If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him” – the presence that is “better than light and safer than a known way.”

So at the beginning of this new year, let’s yield ourselves with confidence to God’s will and commit ourselves to following the journey of faith of Minnie Louise Haskins:

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night.
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.

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