The Third Who Walks Always Beside You

Wildens, “Landscape with Christ and His Disciples on the Road to Emmaus”

Spiritual Sunday

Today I share a powerful poetic meditation by former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams about the two disciples who unknowingly encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus (last week’s Gospel reading). Williams makes use of the elusive quality of Jesus’s presence, how at first the disciples don’t recognize him and then, once they do, he vanishes. “Emmaus” veers between images of the tangible and intangible, interpreting the story as a metaphorical expression of how Jesus enters our lives.

Here’s Luke’s account of the encounter (24:13-35):

Now on that same day two of Jesus’ disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

As he does in other poems, Williams strives to capture the way that Jesus can be a solid or physical-like presence in our lives without actually being physical. In the first stanza, the speaker sees something different about his friend’s face and senses that something has changed in the space between them. The sun (or “the Son”) should allow us to see clearly, but everything else is evanescent, including the shadow, the hot air shaking with a voice, and the “rising white dust” in which “feet tread a shape.”  There is a “flat sound, stamped between voice/and ears, dancing in the gaps, and dodging/ where words and feet do not fall”:

First the sun, then the shadow,
so that I screw my eyes to see
my friend’s face, and its lines seem
different, and the voice shakes in the hot air.
Out of the rising white dust, feet
tread a shape, and, out of step,
another flat sound, stamped between voice
and ears, dancing in the gaps, and dodging
where words and feet do not fall.

After picking up on this absent presence, the speaker shows us the two friends trying to absorb what is happening. They sense a new rhythm to which they are being asked to walk and a new meaning in their conversation. In Luke, Jesus is there explaining to them the meaning of the resurrection, and Jesus has entered into this modern day conversation as well. The two hear something that “is not each other.” The silence between them is filled up as that which was vague and amorphous begins to take shape. Normal conversation has been disrupted:

When our eyes meet, I see bewilderment
(like mine); we cannot learn
this rhythm we are asked to walk,
and what we hear is not each other.
Between us is filled up, the silence
is filled up, lines of our hands
and faces pushed into shape
by the solid stranger, and the static
breaks up our waves like dropped stones.

In the third and final stanza, Williams says we must carry this absent presence with us. Once again we have images of solidity: shifting now to the three sitting down to supper, Williams observes that Jesus is tangibly present in the way that he is present every time we celebrate the Eucharistic feast (“a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous/grey bread.” Although the world may be turning cold and grey (or black), Jesus has released our voices so that they “shine with water.”

So it is necessary to carry him with us,
cupped between hands and profiles,
so that the table is filled up, and as
the food is set and the first wine splashes,
a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous
grey bread. Now it is cold, even indoors;
and the light falls sharply on our bones;
the rain breathes out hard, dust blackens,
and our released voices shine with water.

The hard rain has been transformed into living water.

I’m fairly certain that Williams here is dialoguing with poetry’s most famous use of the Emmaus Road episode, which is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Eliot too focuses on the elusive presence of Jesus:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

In an earlier post on the passage, I wrote,

By choosing to focus on the lack of recognition rather than on the later discovery, Eliot is pointing out the spiritual blindness of our age. “But who is that on the other side of you?” he asks, signaling ignorance. And yet we the readers may feel that the poet is a prophetic voice and that revelation is at hand. After all, in the stanzas that follow, there is a promise of rain, bringing the hope of life to the Waste Land.

Williams would agree.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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