John Ballard (1934–1953)


The Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone born of the Spirit …

(John 3, 8)

My dream was a glimpse of the world beyond sense,
All beauty and wisdom are messages thence.

(John Masefield, Right Royal)

A few miles from the little town where I lived as a child, there was a boy called John. Born in the 30s, he had grown up through the war years. And then tragedy struck – he developed poliomyelitis, that disease which caused so much havoc until scientists led by Enders discovered the vaccine which would put an end to it by the late 50s. I can still remember my mother taking me to vaccination and hearing the story of how only a few years before a neighbour’s child had been paralysed and then had died from ‘polio’.

John was such a child. Aged 17, he had to lie in a plaster ‘boat’ when not having physiotherapy. Many young people in such a situation would have felt angry and frustrated, their minds darkened by bitter thoughts. Not so John. As his illness progressed he was gradually illumined by grace and he saw the whole world as it really is, transfigured by the love of God and filled with the signs of His presence to comfort man and recall him to his eternal destinies. Those last years John must have lain awake for long hours at night. He had seen the inner meaning of things, hidden to the healthy, and he wrote several poems. This one is entitled God’s Love:

The little lanes that wind and twist
Were made by God above.
He our little world has kissed,
To help us find His love.

He made the tiny snowdrops white
That peep up from the snow:
Such comforts gave us in our plight
That we His love might know.

The apple-blossom overhead,
Bluebells ’neath our feet
That we the right path may tread,
And so His love may keep.

The cowslips in the meadows green,
A sky of bluest blue,
Weeping willows by the stream,
Prove that His love is true.

The golden leaves fall to the ground
And drop amongst the heather;
Their thread of life had been unwound,
But His love lasts for ever.

The birds, the trees, the clouds, the sky,
The sheep and fishes too,
Are yours to have until you die –
Given by His love to you.

This was written in June 1951. I can imagine him in that hospital, where a few years later my grandmother was to pass away, God rest her. As the seasons passed, he would look out of the window and see or recall first the snowdrops, then the apple-trees with their ‘blossom overhead’, followed by the cowslips and then the golden leaves, knowing that his own ‘thread of life’ would soon be unwound, but knowing also that all the beauty that he saw was ‘his to have’ until he died and that beyond death God’s love ‘lasts for ever’. Later these words would be set to music and be sung as a hymn to the Creator by thousands of local children who had never known their author.

In the spring of 1953, John caught a cold, and died, mourned by his friends at Black Notley Hospital, to whom he had endeared himself: his thread of life was unwound, but his memory lasts for ever.

July 1994

(Chapter 72 from Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition)