The centrepiece of Isaiah 6 is a question and an answer. God asks, ‘Whom shall I send?’ and Isaiah answers with a phrase that comes up repeatedly in the biblical story, harking back to the words of Abraham, of Jacob, and of Samuel: ‘Here I am’ (hineni) (v.8).
This phrase captures a particular spiritual attitude of availability and receptivity to the command of God, countering the attitude of Adam and Eve who hid from God’s presence. How does one capture the spiritual attitude expressed in this phrase—what the French spiritual masters called disponibilité—in visual form?
Rowan LeCompte’s depiction of Isaiah represents the attitude well. His image of the prophet in the right-hand of the two central lancets of this stained glass window is strange and unsettling. Isaiah’s diagonal ascent of some gentle steps is interrupted by a far starker vertical summons as the cherub descends with its burning coal. Isaiah’s response is to fling his head dramatically backwards. This is a man in the process of realigning himself; opening himself to being reconfigured.
The thin verticality of LeCompte’s Isaiah, as well as of the window itself, and its location on the clerestory level of the cathedral, has an anagogical (upward-moving) effect, reminding us that the self-offering attitude of ‘Here I am’ involves a willingness to be drawn upward, expanded, unmade, and remade, by the voice of the Lord. Isaiah’s elongated body, stretched beyond normal human proportions, serves as an image of what the prophet must undergo if he is to speak the words of the Lord to Israel in the crisis of its judgement and exile. Not only his words, but his very being, will have to be stretched.
But we may not forget that prior to Isaiah saying ‘Here I am’, he first said, ‘Woe is me!’ (v.5). LeCompte manages to represent not only Isaiah’s disponibilité but also his fear and trembling at the vision of God in the way he poses Isaiah’s arms and hands. One hand seems self-protectively raised above his head to shield himself from the brilliance of God’s glory, even as the other is inquisitively and receptively open to both the seraph and to his vocation.
Isaiah’s self-offering is inseparable from his humble realization that he is a ‘man of unclean lips’ (v.5) in need of purification from the seraph’s burning coal.
6 In the year that King Uzziʹah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven. 8And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” 9And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
‘Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.’
10Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without men,
and the land is utterly desolate,
12and the Lord removes men far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.