The story behind the word Eternity is a
fascinating one. To see it written in fireworks during the Opening
Ceremony of the Olympic Games has given Christians a wonderful opportunity
to talk to people about where they will spend Eternity.
"Inside the largest bell at the old Sydney
Post Office on Martin Place is a word written in yellow
chalk. It appeared in about 1963. The 'i' has almost vanished,
but the word 'Eternity' can still be seen." Sydney Morning Herald,
The word Eternity, always written in copperplate
handwriting with a flourish on the 'E', and underlined by the
tail of the 'y', has fascinated Sydney-siders for almost seventy
It was, for over a decade, a mystery debated
in the leading papers and their letters columns. It is memorialised
in the architecture of Sydney Square. It was the subject of a
1994 documentary, and crops up every now as an inspiration for
exhibitions and art works.
There are two sides to the story. It is,
on one hand, the story of Arthur Stace, a man who was a petty
criminal, a bum, a metho' drinker between the First World War
and the great depression. This is, of course, quite a uniquely
Australian profile for a hero. This is a country that invariably
favours underdogs; one, which, against all history, romanticises
its bush ranging, convict past; one which (often) applauds its
non-conformists, and one, which likes a drink. Perhaps that is
part of the mystique of Eternity -- the anti-hero. Perhaps also,
it was his dedication to the task.
Arthur Stace wrote that word, in that elegant
copperplate, in chalk and in crayon, for thirty-seven years,
on the sidewalks of Sydney -- over half a million times. No one knew
who he was, and he preferred it that way. The mystery grew: the
word had evident spiritual overtones -- it was called a one word
sermon -- who was writing it, and why? But no one knew, for years
and years. Perhaps this mystery, so long sustained, instilled
the fascination. Perhaps also, it was the suggestive power of
the word itself.
Because Eternity is also is the story of
one pure thought: the human fascination with that simple word,
and what it calls to mind. Time without end? Another World? Perfection?
God's Country? What did Eternity mean to Arthur Stace? What motivated
him to write it half a million times across a city on the end
of the world? Why did it fire their imagination, then and now?
Arthur Stace, 1884-1967.
Arthur was born in 1884, in Balmain, just
west of central Sydney. His mother and father, his two brothers
and two sisters were alcoholics; his sisters, brothel operators,
living in constant friction with the law. He grew up in poverty,
looking after himself and stealing as needed. At twelve he was
made a ward of the state, but received no great education. At
fourteen he found his first job, in a coalmine, and at fifteen
he was in jail for the first of many visits. Already he was well
on the way to alcoholism himself.
In his twenties he lived in Surry Hills
in Sydney's inner south, running liquor between pubs and brothels,
connected with gambling and housebreaking, until the start of
World War One. He served in France, returning partially blinded
in one eye, and suffering the effects of poison gas. From then
until the middle of the Great Depression he slid further down
into alcoholism, until he was drinking methylated spirits at
sixpence a bottle, and living on handouts.
On August 6th, 1930, he attended a meeting
for men at "Barneys", as St Barnabas' Church on Broadway
is generally known. Most were there, for the food, but there
was a message first.
Noticing six tidily dressed people near
the front (in marked contrast to the bulk of those attending),
he asked the man sitting next to him, a well-known criminal:
"Who are they?" "I'd reckon they'd be Christians",
he replied. Stace said: "Well look at them and look at us.
I'm having a go at what they have got," -- and he slipped
down on his knees and prayed.
Hardly a remarkable event, on the surface
of it, but he found that he was subsequently able to give up
drinking, and said, "As I got back my self respect, people
were more decent to me." -- And so he was also able to find
Some months later in the Burton Street
Baptist Church in Darlinghurst, of which he was later a member
for many years, he heard a noted "give-'em-Hell" preacher,
the Rev. John Ridley speak, or rather shout: "I wish I could
shout ETERNITY through all the streets of Sydney!"
Stace, recalling the day, said: "He
repeated himself and kept shouting 'ETERNITY, ETERNITY' and his
words were ringing through my brain as I left the church. Suddenly
I began crying and I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write
"ETERNITY". I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and
I bent down there and wrote it."
Stace, whose limited education had left
him barely able to write his own name legibly (as more than one
reporter confirmed), found that he could write Eternity, however,
quite elegantly, two foot wide on the pavement.
A Brief History of
He would get up in the early hours of the
morning, and leave his home in Pyrmont at 5:00 or 5:30am, after
praying an hour or so. He would go where he believed God had
directed him that particular day, and write every hundred metres
or so on the pavement (sidewalk), as it seemed most visible.
Eternity. And he'd be home by ten that morning.
He went all over: Wynyard, Glebe, Paddington,
Randwick, Central Station; A very slight figure, 5'3", grey-haired.
He experimented with variations at times, but in the end he finished
as he had begun -- Eternity. Others claimed responsibility for
the messages, for they were the object of a prolonged and public
curiosity, the subject of columnist's review and speculation,
but he did not come forward. He saw his mission as evangelistic,
but he didn't want the publicity for himself; it was a thing
between him and God.
It wasn't until 1956 that the puzzle was
solved. Stace was the cleaner, and a prayer leader at the Burton
Street Baptist Church, where the Rev. Lisle M. Thompson was the
minister. Lisle one day saw Arthur writing Eternity on the pavement
(sidewalk), not knowing he was being seen.
He asked him: "Are you Mr. Eternity?"
Arthur replied, "Guilty, your honour." When, on the
21 June 1956, the Sunday Telegraph published an interview with
Arthur Stace, it was all out in the open. Arthur, though, continued
as he always had, leaving his now slightly less enigmatic message
all over the city just as before. He died of a stroke on July
30, 1967, in a nursing home, aged 83, and left his body to Sydney
University, so that the proceeds could be given to charity.
But "his word", as one paper
referred to it last week, Eternity, persisted in the public mind.
Vigorous exchanges in the papers and in Sydney Council Meetings
surrounded suggestions that a statue of him kneeling on the ground,
writing, be erected in Railway Square, or that 'Eternity' plaques,
on the pavements (sidewalks) of the inner city, be commissioned
in his memory.
Two years after he died, the Sydney poet
Douglas Stewart published the following lines about the graffiti
"That shy mysterious poet Arthur Stace
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, it banged him like a bell
Dulcet from heaven sounding,
sombre from hell."
When the Architect Ridley Smith unveiled
Sydney Square, The Sydney Morning Herald in Column 8 said, on
the 13 July 1977: "In letters almost 21cm (8in) high is
the famous copperplate message ETERNITY. The one word sermon
gleams in wrought aluminium. There's no undue prominence. No
garish presentation. Merely the simple ETERNITY on pebbles as
Arthur Stace would have wanted it."
Smith, the paper suggested, had heard Stace
preach on the corner of George and Bathurst streets, as he often
did, many years before, and the inspiration stayed with him.
[In a much more bizarre coincidence, Smith had in fact been named
after the noted evangelist, John Ridley, in the first place.]
In 1994, a well-received documentary was
shot, interviewing those who had known Arthur Stace, and featuring
dark, atmospheric scenes of a man, by night, combing the streets
of Sydney, writing Eternity on the pavements.
And when the State Library of New South
Wales recently hosted an exhibition of the lives of Sydney's
most notable eccentrics, his name was prominent in the introduction,
as perhaps the best public symbol of a group to which he was
not, in the end, admitted. Because eccentrics are lighter than
life. You take them or leave them, you find them amusing, diverting,
escapist. But that is not how we respond to Stace's Eternity
and so, intuitively, we exclude him from their company. Not because
of any superiority to that group, but precisely for the opposite
reason: eccentrics are often gifted and astonishing people, but
really, he was not - He was a normal man, one who pretended nothing
more, who'd had a hard life, but who was driven along by a calling,
and whose impact was just the normal and the natural impact of
a sublime idea.
From Here To...
And finally, there at the very end of Sydney's
half-hour fireworks spectacular, on the New Year's eve of the
new millennium, just as we all had reconciled ourselves to the
inevitable let-down of it ending, there emerged, out of the dissipating
clouds of smoke and light, the word again, and hung there for
hours out of time -- Eternity. Crowds of partygoers on the foreshore,
many of whom knew nothing of the term's significance, cheered
spontaneously. It was the word for the moment.
Ignatius Jones produced the celebrations
in Sydney. He said he had chosen to honour Stace's legacy as
a fitting way to mark a new era:
"It's incredibly Sydney. It symbolized
for me the madness, mystery and magic of the city. On the one
hand there's the meaning of the word in its temporal sense \endash
and on this night of fellowship and good cheer, it shouldn't
just be about one night. The word says that this celebration
should be eternal in human life.
"But it also says a lot about Sydney
that Arthur Stace, who grew up in a brothel, came back from war
shell-shocked and became an habitual criminal and an alcoholic,
should be able to reinvent himself and try to bring joy and meaning
into people's lives.
"This is a quintessentially Sydney
message and one we want to spread."
The same Ignatius Jones was responsible for the word
appearing during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics.
It's interesting to briefly speculate what
Arthur Stace might have thought of that. He would, we may suppose,
have been delighted to have seen 'his word' again, globally televised,
in fifty foot high letters on the most visible structure of the
city that he spent so many years, well, defacing. But what more
would he have thought, knowing why he wrote it so widely and
often? The Lonely Planet Travel Guide, noting our fine collection
of harbours here in Sydney, comments -- most amusingly in this
present context -- that:
"You would have to die and go to heaven
to find a better setting for a city."
For Stace, of course, this was precisely
the issue. For him, Eternity went well beyond being "able
to reinvent himself and try to bring joy and meaning into people's
lives." He knew that he couldn't reinvent himself -- not
on his own -- once, after yet another court appearance, he begged
the Sergeant of Regent Street Police Station to lock him up to
help him get dried out.
His thoughts on the affair, would surely
have included a message that comes out of Eternity, that offers
hope both for Eternity and for this life. He would call this
a gospel, and say that he found it effective -- and well worth
thirty-seven years of his life. He'd call it a bargain. The best
he ever had.