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A Summer Day
BY MARY OLIVER
 
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
 
(1992)


This week, we’re reading a poem by the renowned American poet Mary Oliver.

Chances are you’ve heard the last couple of lines of this Mary Oliver poem before: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” They’re probably Oliver’s most quoted lines, and they get a lot of use around this time of year – graduation time. They are an enthusiastic reminder that life is precious, and we only have one apiece—so make it count. But, I think when we hear those lines in the context of the poem, they mean something quite different from the sentiments on greeting cards for high school and college graduations.
 
The poem begins with a series of questions. “Who made the world? / Who made the swan, and the black bear? / Who made the grasshopper?” The poet does not go on to answer those questions, but instead seems to get distracted—“This grasshopper, I mean.” She marvels at a grasshopper, who has hopped into her hand to eat the sugar she is holding. The poet is still and observant, noticing every detail. She watches how the grasshopper’s jaws move back and forth instead of up and down, and studies the “enormous and complicated eyes.” She looks at how the grasshopper washes her face. Notice the surprising word choices that come from direct observation of the natural world: the grasshopper has “pale forearms” and wings that “snap” open, and her motion is described as floating, not flying or jumping.  This is a specific grasshopper, not just a generic one!
 
After the grasshopper “floats” away, the poem makes another shift. The poet does not return to the questions she asked at the beginning of the poem—“who made the grasshopper.” She doesn’t need to, since she knows the answer: she knows that God made everything. We can follow her thought process as she she turns suddenly—but not surprisingly—to the subject of prayer. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down / into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, / how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, / which is what I have been doing all day.” She says she doesn’t know what a prayer is, but obviously, she knows how to pray. She knows “how to fall down / into the grass”—how to be in the world—and “how to kneel down in the grass”—how to be reverent in the world. She knows “how to be idle and blessed.” She knows that simply to “pay attention” to all God has created is to pray.
 
At the end of the poem, she comes back to questions. “Tell me, what else should I have done? / Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
 
The questions at the beginning of the poem pointed towards God; the questions at the end point towards the poet—and the reader. Should she be doing something else with her time? But the answer is clearly no. Everything dies, “and too soon.” We have only this life, this moment, to look around us. So when the poet asks, at the end of the poem, “what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life,” she is not asking about where you’re going to college or your career choices! Quite the reverse. Oliver is suggesting that if we can just learn to be in the world, to marvel at the transient beauty of created things, to be “idle and blessed,” that would be enough. Good advice for a lifetime – or at least for a summer day.
 
 
 
 



 

Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)
BY LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI
 
Constantly risking absurdity
                                             and death
            whenever he performs
                                        above the heads
                                                            of his audience
   the poet like an acrobat
                                 climbs on rime
                                          to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
             paces his way
                               to the other side of day
    performing entrechats
                               and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
                               and all without mistaking
                     any thing
                               for what it may not be
 
       For he's the super realist
                                     who must perforce perceive
                   taut truth
                                 before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
                                  toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
                                     with gravity
                                                to start her death-defying leap
 
      And he
             a little charleychaplin man
                                           who may or may not catch
               her fair eternal form
                                     spreadeagled in the empty air
                  of existence


 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.
 
This week, we’re reading a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Scott Webster will read “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Scott.
 
Obviously, this poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti is not a religious poem. But it’s one of my favorite poems about poetry, and since we’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on poems, it seems like a good fit for our series.
 
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in 1919. He was famous as a poet, a publisher of poetry, and a bookseller—he was the cofounder of the famous City Lights bookshop in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti is often considered one of the “Beat” poets, though he always insisted he was not a Beat himself. Nevertheless, as the publisher of Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among others, he was certainly part of the movement. Ferlinghetti died earlier this year at the age of 101.
 
In this poem from Ferlinghetti’s most famous collection, Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti is writing about the art of poetry itself. The poem is an extended metaphor, comparing the poet to a circus performer. It’s a surprising move, a mix of popular culture with high art—which is exactly his point. Ferlinghetti’s mantra was that “art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals,” and that “truth is not the secret of a few.”
 
That being said, this is quite a sophisticated poem. “Constantly risking absurdity / and death / whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience / the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making.” Just as the acrobat takes risks every time he steps on the high wire, so does the poet. I love the juxtaposition of “absurdity / and death.” If the acrobat makes a mistake, he might look very silly – or he might die. For Ferlinghetti, the stakes are high for the poet as well – “absurdity / and death.”
 
Ferlinghetti cleverly uses poetic wordplay, as he describes the poet climbing “on rime,” “balancing on eyebeams / above a sea of faces,” performing “sleight-of-foot tricks / and other high theatrics.” In poetry, there is art, performance, and play. And, as Ferlinghetti suggests here, there is also an element of deception—“sleight-of-foot tricks.” (“Foot,” of course, is a poetic term, used in counting the stressed and unstressed syllables of a poem.) Poetry is, in a way, a magic trick—a game.
 
But it is a serious game. As Ferlinghetti says, the poet dances on the high wire, but “all without mistaking / any thing / for what it may not be.” The poet may play “tricks,” but never loses sight of things as they really are. The acrobat may seem to be playing around, improvising, but, of course, every move is choreographed. In the same way, the poet is “the super realist / who must perforce perceive / taut truth / before the taking of each stance or step.” We think of poets as dreamy types, but Ferlinghetti rejects that idea. The poet is the “realist,” and everything he does comes from his clear-sighted recognition of “taut truth.”
 
But there’s more. “Taut truth” is the sure way “toward that still higher perch / where Beauty stands and waits / with gravity / to start her death-defying leap.” This acrobatic performance is not a solo act; the poet’s task is to catch Beauty.
 
Ferlinghetti’s poem ends, quite literally, in mid-air, with the poet reaching out to catch the “fair eternal form” of Beauty, which he “may or may not” do. The end of the poem brings us back to the opening line: “Constantly risking absurdity.” We see the poet, an absurd figure, “a little charleychaplin man,” and we’re unsure whether he will catch Beauty, or land in absurdity.
 
It seems as though Beauty also risks absurdity, in a way – we see her “spreadeagled in the empty air / of existence,” obviously trusting and hoping that the poet will catch her—meeting him halfway.
 
To be a poet, to write a poem, is to take a risk—the risk of falling flat, the risk of absurdity. But Ferlinghetti’s poem also captures the immense possibility of poetry. As we’ve seen with so many of the poems we’ve looked at in this series, when the poet makes that connection and catches Beauty, we get a glimpse of something eternal—something we would otherwise have missed—and the results are amazing.


 

 

 

Like the Samaritan Woman by the Well
By Sister Claudia Hae-In Lee (1945 - )
Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé
 
Lord, won’t you come and quietly speak
as if asking me for one cup of water first
like you did the Samaritan woman who came
to draw water out of Jacob’s Well?
You know that I’m a sinner
I lack courage—
 
Speak quickly, please,
I want to hear directly from you today
who I am
and who you are
and what our encounter means.
 
I keep drawing water for you
from the well of daily life
in my small shabby bucket
but won’t you show me a way
to draw water without any bucket at all?
 
From the moment you took your place beside me,
deep pure well of water that you are,
every day has been a new festival for me.
My long stagnant sorrow and thirst
like drops of water in my jar
Have risen up to dance, all smiling now.
 
The happiness of meeting you is such
I may forget for a moment how sinful I am;
I hope you will forgive me?
Lord, the happiness of loving you
can really not be kept hidden.
 
Grant me now to go running farther
like that Samaritan woman beside the well
who left her pitcher and ran to the village.
To bring many others to you
and also
to tell about the living water—
 

This week, we’re reading “Like the Samaritan Woman by the Well,” a poem of Sister Claudia Hae-in Lee of Korea.
 
Sister Claudia was born in South Korea in 1945. She joined the Olivetan Benedictine Sisters of Busan in 1964, after her graduation from high school. She holds a degree in English from St. Louis University in the Philippines and published her first collection of poems in 1976, at the age of 31.  Since that time, she has taught and held various leadership positions in her congregation. She has also lectured widely, including in the United States. In 2008, she had a serious bout with cancer. She has said:
 
"After fighting cancer, I started using more words like happiness and enjoyment which I didn't use often before. I realized that pain can become an opportunity for blessing.” In 2015, a news report circulated that she had died, and her “last poem” was widely shared. Reports of her death were greatly exaggerated. Lee said, “I could forgive the fake news, but I can’t go easy on the fake poem.”
 
Sister Claudia is still alive today, a beloved and best-selling poet in Korea.
 
In the poem that Jackie read, Sister Claudia reflects on the Gospel story of the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well.
 
In that familiar story, which we hear every year during Lent, Jesus encounters a woman who has come to draw water from a well. She is not just any woman!  She is a Samaritan—the archenemies of the Jewish people—and she has a checkered past. But Jesus enters into conversation with her, and gradually the conversation deepens, as Jesus leads her from the water of the well, to himself, the living water. By the end of the passage, the woman has run home to tell others about Jesus, the source of living water.
 
Lee’s poem begins with a prayer for a similar encounter. “Lord, won’t you come and quietly speak / as if asking me for one cup of water first / like you did the Samaritan woman who came / to draw water out of Jacob’s Well?”
 
She identifies closely with the Samaritan woman. “You know that I’m a sinner / I lack courage.” She longs for a meaningful dialogue with Jesus, like the woman at the well had. In that encounter, the woman not only learned who Jesus was; Jesus also revealed to her who she really was. “I want to hear directly from you today / who I am / and who you are / and what our encounter means.” It’s a wonderfully simple prayer, isn’t it, for a relationship with Jesus. She wants something deeper and more meaningful than she has now:  “I keep drawing water for you / from the well of daily life / in my small shabby bucket.” She longs for the living water: for a relationship that is not rote or mechanical, but that springs up naturally.
 
In the second part of the poem, we get a glimpse of what that deeper relationship looks like. “From the moment you took your place beside me, / deep pure well of water that you are, / every day has been a new festival for me.” Sorrow and thirst “have risen up to dance.” This encounter is so joyful that “I may forget for a moment how sinful I am; / I hope you will forgive me.” When she encounters Jesus, it’s all about Jesus, and the joy of this encounter overwhelms everything else—she forgets her own sinfulness, her own checkered past, and simply wants to share the encounter with others. The poem ends with a prayer that she might “go running… To bring many others to you / and also / to tell about the living water.”
 
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a story about becoming a disciple. A chance encounter leads to dialogue, which leads to relationship. But relationship with Jesus is never exclusive, for ourselves alone. Relationship with Jesus send the Samaritan woman running, as she tells the people of her village: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” Relationship with Jesus leads to discipleship, prompting us to share the joy we have found, and inviting others to meet Jesus. This encounter with Jesus, this journey to discipleship, is about coming to know Jesus, and in the process, discovering who we really are.
 

 




A General Communion (1921)
Alice Meynell
 
I saw the throng, so deeply separate,
⁠Fed at one only board—
The devout people, moved, intent, elate,
⁠And the devoted Lord.
 
Oh struck apart! not side from human side,
⁠But soul from human soul,
As each asunder absorbed the multiplied,
⁠The ever unparted whole.
 
I saw this people as a field of flowers,
⁠Each grown at such a price
The sum of unimaginable powers
⁠Did no more than suffice.
 
A thousand single central daisies they,
⁠A thousand of the one;
For each, the entire monopoly of day;
⁠For each, the whole of the devoted sun.
 
This week, we’re reading Alice Meynell’s “A General Communion.”

Alice Christiana Gertrude Thompson was born in 1847 in London, and spent much of her childhood here and there in Europe. Her family was well-connected—her father was a good friend of Charles Dickens. At the age of 21, while recovering from an illness, she converted to Catholicism. Eventually, her whole family followed her into the Church.
 
Alice married Wilfrid Meynell, another Catholic convert, in 1877, and together they edited Merry England, a widely-read Catholic magazine, and had eight children. Alice Meynell published several collections of poetry, and advocated for various social causes, including improving slum conditions, preventing cruelty to animals, and, most notably, advancing the cause of women’s suffrage. When a priest in Liverpool preached against votes for women, arguing that it could bring “a revolution of the first magnitude,” Meynell responded: “I say, most gravely, the vaster the magnitude of the revolution, the better.”
 
Alice Meynell was considered for the post of Poet Laureate, but like every other woman poet up until 2009, she was passed over. She died in 1922 at the age of 75.
 
In the poem Scott read, Meynell writes about “A General Communion.” A “general communion” is simply when the entire congregation comes forward to receive Holy Communion. It’s what we witness every Sunday, but at the time Meynell was writing, a “general communion” would have been a relatively rare and striking sight. Most of the time, just some of the congregation would go forward to receive communion—most often after Mass had concluded. A general communion was usually associated with a special feast day or a parish mission.
 
As the poet watches the people move to the altar to receive communion, she calls them a “throng,” a “crowd”—collective nouns—but she emphasizes their distinctness: they are “deeply separate,” “struck apart,” “each asunder.” And yet, in receiving communion, they receive “the ever unparted whole”—Christ’s real presence in the sacrament.  
 
In the last two stanzas, Meynell imagines the people like a great field of flowers—each of them precious, “grown at such a price.” Upon each of these “thousand… daisies” the sun shines:  “For each, the entire monopoly of day; / ⁠For each, the whole of the devoted sun.”
 
Meynell’s poem accurately reflects Catholic teaching about the Eucharist. When the bread is broken and shared, each of us receives just a fragment of the bread; but we do not receive a fragment of Christ. Rather, we receive the whole Christ in Holy Communion: body, blood, soul and divinity. And Christ is as present in one small fragment of a host as he is in the whole loaf: as the Catechism reminds us, “the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ” (CCC, 1377). No matter how many receive communion, all receive the same. To use Meynell’s comparison, it is as though each flower received “the whole of the devoted sun.”
 
Meynell’s poem stops there. But as we prepare to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi this weekend, I think it’s good to be reminded that something more happens when we receive Holy Communion. “Deeply separate” as we are, we are made one in the Eucharist: one with Jesus, truly present in the sacrament, and one with each other as well. When we celebrate the Eucharist together, the “throng,” the “crowd” that Meynell speaks of becomes something more than a crowd—more even than a family. We become “one body, one spirit in Christ” (Roman Missal). As Pope Benedict XVI has written: “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become ‘one body’, completely joined in a single existence…. ‘Worship’ itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn.” (Deus Caritas Est, 14)
 
 



 

Christianity Was Once an Eagle Message
Nils Bolander (1902-1959)
Translated from the Swedish by Martin S. Allwood
 
Christianity was once an eagle message
Sprung from the nest on the highest mountain peak
On diving wings that glittered.
But we chastened its bold feathers,
Competently straightened its cutting beak
And lo!—it was a black bird,
A tame loquacious raven.
 
Christianity was once a lion gospel
Always seeking a warm and living prey,
A young lion of Judah.
But we clipped its sharp, crooked claws,
Stilled its thirst for the blood of the heart
And turned it into a purring cottage cat.
 
Christianity was once a desert sermon,
Mean and sharp as the terrible africus,
Burning as the desert sand.
But we turned it into a garden idyll,
Mignonettes, asters and pious roses,
A romantic mood in Gethsemane.
 
Lord, take care of our pious cowardice!
Give it swift eagle wings and sharp lion’s claws!
Give it scent of wild honey and simoom
And then say with the Baptist’s voice:
This is the victory that conquers the world.
This is Christianity.
 
 
This week, we’re reading a poem by Swedish poet Nils Bolander.
 
Nils Bolander was born in Vasteras, Sweden, in 1902. His family was always involved in church – his father was a cathedral organist! – and Bolander became a minister of the Church of Sweden. He served as a pastor, and in 1958 became the Bishop of Lund. He was a bishop for just one year before he died in 1959. Bolander was known not only for his pastoral work, but for his writing, including poems and hymns.
 
In this poem, Bolander uses images from the Scriptures, and a definite touch of humor, to reflect on modern Christianity. In the first stanza, he writes: “Christianity was once an eagle message / Sprung from the nest on the highest mountain peak.” The eagle is one of the “four living creatures” of the Scriptures, which Christian tradition has associated with the four Gospels. The eagle is the image of St. John: as Venerable Bede wrote, “he is likened to the flying eagle… for indeed the eagle flies higher than all birds and is accustomed to thrust his gaze, more keen than that of all living things, into the rays of the sun.” Bolander evokes the power and the strangeness of the Gospel, sprung from the heights. But what have we done to this eagle? “We chastened its bold feathers, / Competently straightened its cutting beak.” We made it unable to soar—we turned the soaring eagle into “a black bird, / A tame loquacious raven.” The wild power of the Gospel has been domesticated. I love how Bolander says we’ve done this “competently.” We have been very effective at domesticating the Gospel!
 
“Christianity was once a lion gospel,” Bolander writes in the second stanza, “Always seeking a warm and living prey, / A young lion of Judah.” The “lion of Judah” is an image from the book of Genesis, with deep roots in the Jewish tradition; in the Book of Revelation, it is one of many images for Jesus. The lion is also associated with the Gospel of Mark. It is an image of power, strength, dignity—and wildness. This lion is on the hunt, seeking “a warm and living prey.” But, just as we clipped the eagle’s wings, we trimmed the “sharp, crooked claws” of the lion, and “Stilled its thirst for the blood of the heart.” We turned the lion Gospel “into a purring cottage cat.” We made it comfortable – cozy, even.
 
In the third stanza, Bolander evokes the preaching of St. John the Baptist. “Christianity was once a desert sermon, / Mean and sharp” as the desert plants, and “burning as the desert sand.” But this, too, we have tamed. We have managed to turn the desert into “a garden idyll,” with commonplace flowers and “pious roses”—“A romantic mood in Gethsemane.” That line captures the contradiction Bolander sees between Christianity as it really is and Christianity as it is practiced. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was in such agony that he sweated blood; for us, Gethsemane is just a garden, a “romantic mood.”
 
What Bolander laments, all through this poem, is the domestication of Christianity. This is not something that just happens: it’s something we actively do. The Gospel is strong, wild, and uncontainable—an eagle, a lion. But we are afraid to let Christ take us to the heights, to give him our heart’s blood, or to hear the “mean and sharp” words of the desert sermon. That would be asking too much of us. We want something we can hold on to, contain, control.
 
Bolander’s poem ends with a prayer, asking God to “take care of our pious cowardice,” and to give our faith “swift eagle wings and sharp lion’s claws,” the “scent of wild honey,” and the voice of the Baptist. “This,” Bolander exclaims, “This is Christianity”!
 
As a pastor in Europe during World War II, Nils Bolander saw first-hand how Christianity could be domesticated—how it could be neutralized. He saw how many church leaders failed to respond to the crisis of their day, or put up any resistance to the powers-that-be. Are we still doing that today? Is our Christianity a soaring eagle—or a tame raven? A lion—or a cat? This poem calls Christians to take another look at the Gospel, and to let it shock our certainties, and challenge even our pieties.
 

 

 

 

Mysterious Wealth
Ku Sang (1919- )
Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony of Taizé
 
Feeling today like the Prodigal Son
just arrived back in his father’s arms,
I observe the world and all it contains.
 
June’s milky sky glimpsed through a window,
the sunlight dancing over fresh green leaves,
clusters of sparrows that scatter, chirping,
full-blown petunias in pots on verandas,
all strike me as infinitely new,
astonishing and miraculous.
 
My grandson, too, rushing round the living-room
and chattering away for all he’s worth,
my wife, with her glasses on,
embroidering a pillow-case,
and the neighbors, each with their particularities,
coming and going in the lane below,
all are extremely lovable,
most trustworthy, significant.
 
Oh, mysterious, immeasurable wealth!
Not to be compared with storeroom riches!
Truly, all that belongs to my Father in Heaven,
all, all is mine!
 
 
This week, we’re reading a poem by Korean poet Ku Sang.
 
Ku Sang was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1919, and died there in 2005 at the age of 84. He is among Korea’s best-known poets. Ku Sang was born into a deeply Catholic family (his brother became a priest) but Ku himself left the practice of his faith as a young man, finding his way back to his Catholic roots only later in life.
 
Ku wrote poetry from an early age. It has been said that Ku Sang “rejects both an artistic sensibility that lacks spiritual depth and a crude intellect that lacks a historical consciousness.” For Ku, as for so many of the poets we’ve read in this series, poetry is not an escape into a world of fantasy, but a clearer way of looking at the world as it really is. His poems deal with questions of faith, war, and peace, and an array of social justice issues, including care for the environment. It’s no surprise that it was not only Ku’s journalism but his poetry that got him in trouble with Communist authorities after World War II!
 
The poem Scott read, “Mysterious Wealth,” is typical of Ku’s poetry in the directness of the language, and in the way it builds on simple and relatable experiences, to a transcendent conclusion.
 
“I observe the world and all it contains,” the poet says at the beginning of the poem – quite a grand statement, isn’t it? To “observe the world and all it contains” is to see not as human beings see, but as God sees. And what does the poet see in this moment of insight? The “milky sky” of June through the window, sunlight on leaves, sparrows chirping, petunias—pleasant but quite ordinary things on an early summer day. And yet, “all strike me as infinitely new, / astonishing and miraculous.”
 
This transformation of the ordinary extends to the people that inhabit this world with him. He sees them in great detail: “My grandson… rushing round the living room… my wife, with her glasses on, embroidering a pillow-case.” The neighbors “coming and going in the lane below,” are not a homogenous group, but individuals:  “each with their particularities.” Seeing as God sees, the poet recognizes that “all are extremely lovable, / most trustworthy, significant.” This is how God sees us: not as a crowd, but as unique, lovable, and “significant”—every one of us.
 
The last stanza is a burst of joy. “Oh, mysterious, immeasurable wealth! / Not to be compared with storeroom riches! / Truly, all that belongs to my Father in Heaven, / all, all is mine!” The imagery here (and in the poem’s title) comes from the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” This is indeed “mysterious wealth,” found, yet hidden, worth trading everything for. In the last stanza, Ku Sang sounds very much like the person in that parable of Jesus: “Truly, all that belongs to my Father in Heaven, / all, all is mine!”
 
How is it that the poet sees the world in this way? How is it that he is able to look through God’s eyes? I think the answer lies in the first stanza of the poem. “Feeling today like the Prodigal Son / just arrived back in his father’s arms, / I observe the world and all it contains.” The poet sees the beauty in everything—the world and the people around him—because he himself is “in his father’s arms,” like the Prodigal Son. Perspective is everything, and the poet looks at the world from vantage point of a loved, forgiven child, safe in the arms of the father. He looks through the lens of God’s mercy. And through that lens, everything is new, astonishing, miraculous, lovable, trustworthy, significant.
 
Ku Sang’s wonderful poem reminds me of Thomas Merton’s famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky. Standing on an ordinary street corner amid people just going about their day, Merton wrote, “it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”

 



 

Song to the Virgin
St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Translated from the Latin by Barbara Newman
 
 
Never was leaf so green,
for you branched from the spirited
blast of the quest
of the saints.
 
When it came time
for your boughs to blossom
(I salute you!)
your scent was like balsam
distilled in the sun.
 
And your flower made all spices
fragrant
dry though they were:
they burst into verdure.
 
So the skies rained dew on the grass
and the whole earth exulted,
for her womb brought forth wheat,
for the birds of heaven
made their nests in it.
 
Keepers of the feast, rejoice!
The banquet’s ready. And you
sweet maid-child
are a fount of gladness.
 
But Eve?
She despised every joy.
Praise nonetheless,
praise to the highest.
 


 
Hello there.  Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.
 
This week, we’re reading a poem by Hildegard of Bingen—nun, leader, visionary, poet, musician, doctor, preacher, saint, and doctor of the Church. Jackie O’Ryan will read Hildegard’s “Song to the Virgin” (O frondens virga) and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Jackie.
 
St. Hildegard of Bingen was born to a noble German family in 1098. From early childhood, she was extraordinary. She wrote: “When I was three years old, I saw such a light that my soul was shaken by it; yet because I was a child, I could say nothing about it.” As she grew up, she continued to have mystical visions, but she soon realized that no one around her saw what she saw, and began to keep her visions to herself.
 
As a young girl, Hildegard’s education was entrusted to a brilliant Benedictine abbess, Jutta of Spanheim. When she grew up, Hildegard wanted to enter religious life herself, When Jutta died, Hildegard succeeded her as abbess. When she was 42, Hildegard’s life changed. She had had visions from childhood; but this was different: “I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, ‘Tell these wonders and write them as they are taught.” And for the first time, Hildegard began to share her visions with others.
 
As always in such cases, Church authorities hesitated. Hildegard’s bishop submitted some of her writings to Pope Eugene III. He read them and wrote to Hildegard: “We marvel, my daughter, and we marvel beyond what one can believe, that God shows new miracles in our times, as when he pours his Spirit upon you.”
 
In the years that followed, Hildegard corresponded with Popes and Bishops and even challenged the Holy Roman Emperor. She traveled around Germany, and bishops welcomed her to preach in their cathedrals. She combined extraordinary artistic gifts with a scientific mind, and wrote innovative works of theology, poetry, drama, and medicine. She also directed the creation of truly remarkable illuminations of her visions.
 
The poem Jackie read is one of Hildegard’s best-known poems. The poem reflects Hildegard’s close observation of the natural world. Mary is compared to a leaf. “Never was leaf so green, / for you branched from the spirited / blast of the quest / of the saints.” The color green is very significant for Hildegard: in another work, she wrote that the soul is the “green of the body”—the very life within it. Green means life – and the first thing Hildegard says about Mary is that Mary is deeply alive, with a life that comes from the Holy Spirit.
 
Christ is the flower blooms from the living branch that is Mary. Hildegard lovingly speaks of the fragrance of this flower: “like balsam / distilled in the sun.” This flower gives fragrance to all flowers, and restores life to what was dry.
 
The way the poem leaps from image to image is typical of Hildegard’s poetry. We move from a “close up” on a flower to a broad view of the whole earth, soaking up the dew, and bringing forth life from its womb: wheat that gives life and shelter to the birds. The wheat calls to mind the Eucharist, an allusion that becomes explicit in the next lines of the poem: “Keepers of the feast, rejoice! / The banquet’s ready.” All of this, the poet reminds us, came through Mary: “you / sweet maid-child / are a fount of gladness.” Hildegard’s vision is less about being caught up into heaven, and more about recognizing God’s sanctifying presence here.
 
At the end of the poem, Hildegard contrasts Mary and Eve. “But Eve? / She despised every joy. / Praise nonetheless, / praise to the highest.” While this comparison is conventional, and dates back to the early Church Fathers, in this poem it highlights Hildegard’s unabashedly and unapologetically feminine viewpoint. Mary and Eve reflect opposite poles—not just yes and no, grace and sin, but joy and joylessness.
 
This poem is wonderfully captured in a window in the Cathedral sacristy. The work of Hans Gottfried von Stockhausen, the window was inspired by this poem, which is written in German in the border of the window. The imagery reflects the joyful fruitfulness of Mary, and the sweet fragrance of Christ.
 
Of course, there’s one more dimension to this poem, and that is Hildegard’s extraordinary music. We’ll conclude with the first stanza of the poem, in Hildegard’s own setting. St. Hildegard, pray for us!

 

 



 

Lines Written in Early Spring
BY William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
 
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.
 
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
 
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
 
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
 
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
 
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

 
This week, we’re reading William Wordsworth’s poem, “Lines Written in Early Spring.” 

The setting of this poem is quintessentially Romantic: a poet is sitting outside in springtime, surrounded by flora and fauna, filled with poetic thoughts. It is also quintessentially Romantic in the tension we sense between the speaker and the natural world. The speaker is deeply aware of the life all around him, a life which flows through him as well; but at the same time, he is conscious of a painful disconnect between humanity and the natural world.
 
Wordsworth famously wrote, “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This poem is about just that kind of spontaneous overflow of feeling, which for Wordsworth is the very source of poetry. Sitting in a grove on a day in early spring, listening to “a thousand blended notes”—the song of birds, the sounds of the wood around him—the poet is in a “sweet mood,” full of “pleasant thoughts”—and that very sweetness and pleasure leads to “sad thoughts” and painful reflection. “To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul that through me ran; / And much it grieved my heart to think / What man has made of man.” The poet feels deeply connected with the beauty and life around him; he senses that in some sense, he was made for this connection with the created world. But that very connection leads to sadness at “what man has made of man.”
 
In the next three stanzas, the poet looks around him, and what he sees, everywhere he looks, is joy. On the ground, he sees periwinkle growing through tufts of primrose, and says, “’tis my faith that every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes.” That is quite a statement, isn’t it? The flowers do not just open in the spring air; they enjoy it. He looks at the birds hopping around him, and senses “a thrill of pleasure” in every motion they make. They are not just hunting for worms or twigs; they are having fun. They are enjoying their lives! Looking up at the leaves opening on every twig in this spring season, the poet says he cannot help but think “there was pleasure there” as well.
 
Flowers, birds, trees—Wordsworth does not speak of them as unthinking things, objects to be looked at or used. They are beings that take pleasure in their very existence, in doing what they are made for – blooming, growing, living.
 
In the last stanza, Wordsworth comes back to humanity and the lament with which the poem started. “If this belief from heaven be sent,” he asks, “If such be Nature’s holy plan, / Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?”
 
What has man made of man? Wordsworth does not answer that question directly. But I think what the poet laments—what leads to that note of sadness in the midst of all the joy around him—is that we human beings seem to have lost that sheer joy in existence which is all around us. Moments of connection with the natural world are precious but they are rare. And, as Wordsworth reiterates, this is something we have done to ourselves. It’s what “man has made of man”—and it goes against our own deepest nature, and against nature’s “holy plan” for us.
 
For me, Wordsworth’s poem, and his sense of the profound importance of even the smallest creatures around him, calls to mind Pope Francis in Laudato Si’. The Holy Father writes: “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” (12) “We are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings.” (220)
 
I don’t know if Pope Francis reads Wordsworth, but I think he would find a lot to agree with in this particular poem!

 



 

Mezzo Cammin
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
 
Half of my life is gone, and I have let
   The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
   The aspiration of my youth, to build
   Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
   Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
   But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
   Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
   Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
   A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
   And hear above me on the autumnal blast
   The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.
 
This week, we’re reading a sonnet by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve always found this sonnet by Longfellow to be haunting, both because of the story behind it and because of what it expresses. For me, it’s one of the poems that made me love poems!
 
To start with the title. “Mezzo Cammin” is Italian for “middle of the journey.” It comes from the first line of Dante’s Divine Comedy. “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (Longfellow’s translation). “Mezzo cammin” means “midway upon the journey,” “halfway there.” But “Mezzo cammin” is not a place. When the action of Divine Comedy takes place, Dante is 35 years old, halfway through his life, according to the Bible: as Psalm 90 says, “our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong.” Thus, “Mezzo cammin” refers to the midpoint of life. And the midpoint of life—halfway through—can be a difficult time: as Dante describes it, “I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway was lost.”
 
Longfellow wrote “Mezzo Cammin” in 1842, when he himself was 35 years old. For Longfellow, as for Dante, 35 was a time when “the straightforward pathway was lost.” His early years had been bright and promising. He was born to a distinguished family in Portland, Maine; he studied at Bowdoin College, where he showed great promise. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a poet. He wrote: “I most eagerly aspire after future eminence in literature, my whole soul burns most ardently after it.” Unlike many poets, he met with little resistance; his dreams and his gifts were encouraged. After graduation, he traveled through Europe, learning languages and absorbing cultures. He married a childhood friend, Mary Storer Potter. He was offered a professorship at Harvard. Everything was looking up for Longfellow. But then Mary suffered a miscarriage, and died at the age of 22. Longfellow was consumed with grief.
 
This is the context for this sonnet. Reflecting on his life to this point, and looking to the future, Longfellow has a strong sense of failure. “Half of my life is gone, and I have let / The years slip from me and have not fulfilled / The aspiration of my youth, to build / Some tower of song with lofty parapet.” He is getting older, and his dream of writing a great poem has not been achieved. Longfellow knows that this is not his fault. The things that prevent so many others from accomplishing the dreams of their youth—laziness, the pursuit of pleasure, “restless passions”—are not what have gotten in his way, but rather, “sorrow, and a care that almost killed.” The death of his young wife, and his grief, have stopped him in his tracks.
 
Longfellow knows his life not over, and that he may yet accomplish what he has dreamed of doing. But the poem ends with a memento mori, a reminder of death. “Halfway up the hill,” he looks back upon the past, which lies below him like “a city in the twilight dim and vast,” filled with wonderful “sounds and sights.” But even as he looks behind, he can hear above him “the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.” It’s such a vivid image, and it’s especially striking because of the way Longfellow adds extra syllables to that last line. The poem is in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line) but that last line has 13 syllables. The breakdown of the meter echoes and emphasizes the thunderous sound of that “cataract” which is Death. Here, at the midpoint of life, he can hear that sound more clearly than ever before.
 
This poem was not published until after Longfellow’s death in 1882—by which time he had, of course, built many “towers of song with lofty parapet”—and experienced yet more loss and sorrow. I think reading “Mezzo Cammin” is an invitation to take stock of our lives and how we are spending our time—and how we are doing on our vocation in life. It invites us to our own memento mori moment, to keep in mind that death waits at the end of the journey for every one of us. Thinking about death in this way should not make us gloomy or despairing, but rather spur us on to live the lives we are meant to live. As we read in the book of Sirach, “Remember your last days and set enmity aside; / remember death and decay, and cease from sin!” (Sirach 28:6).




 

spring song
BY LUCILLE CLIFTON (1936-2010)
 
the green of Jesus
is breaking the ground
and the sweet
smell of delicious Jesus
is opening the house and
the dance of Jesus music
has hold of the air and
the world is turning
in the body of Jesus and
the future is possible
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week. This week, we’re reading “Spring Song” by Lucille Clifton. Jackie O’Ryan will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Jackie, and thank you to Eric Evans for the beautiful video that accompanied Jackie’s reading.
 
Lucille Clifton was born in 1936 and died in 2010.  She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and attended Howard University and later SUNY Fredonia. Her poetry was discovered by the great Langston Hughes in the late 1960s, and included in his famous 1970 anthology, The Poetry of the Negro. Clifton was widely recognized during her lifetime: she was the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, won the Ruth Lilly Award, the National Book Award, and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her poetry is known for its depth and brevity. Peggy Rosenthal has written of Clifton’s work: “The first thing that strikes us about Lucille Clifton’s poetry is what is missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines. We see a poetry so pared down that its spaces take on substance, become a shaping presence as much as the words themselves.” In the words of another critic, Clifton writes “physically small poems with enormous and profound inner worlds.” Her poetry is known for its “moral quality,” its “looming humaneness” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lucille-clifton).
 
All of that is certainly true of “spring song.” This poem is just 45 words long, but it evokes a world. It’s spring and Clifton uses language that appeals to different senses: “green… breaking the ground”; a “sweet / smell,”; music that “has hold of the air”—sights, smells, sounds. Spring is an immersive experience! But these sensory experiences are more than merely physical. The name of Jesus leaps out at us again and again: four times in ten short lines. “the green of Jesus / is breaking the ground,” “the sweet / smell of delicious Jesus / is opening the house and / the dance of Jesus music / has hold of the air.” Where we anticipate hearing about new shoots pushing through the earth, or the smell of flowers or the music of songbirds, we get Jesus… Jesus… Jesus. The poem ends, “the world is turning / in the body of Jesus and / the future is possible.” Jesus is everywhere.
 
With remarkable brevity, this poem captures the hope of spring—which, for Christians (at least those living in the northern hemisphere!) is inextricably tied with the hope of Easter. As a medieval hymn has it, “Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the winter arising! Every good gift of the year now with its Savior returns.” Spring is more than a season: it is a reminder, a metaphor, a sign of the rising of Jesus. And the Resurrection of Jesus is not just an event, but a pervading, living reality, which fills everything, keeps the world turning, and, as Clifton says, makes the future possible.
 
Short poem, short commentary!  I want to let Lucille Clifton have the last word. Here, she shares some wonderful insights in video reflections she did for the Academy of American Poets.
 
Watch the videos here:
 
Lucille Clifton: What is poetry?
https://youtu.be/qfYCRZ9LVh4
 
Lucille Clifton: Where ideas come from
https://youtu.be/50cQSk_sF4Q
 
Hear Lucille Clifton read “Spring Song”
https://youtu.be/WoG29TbMW9A
 



 

“I got me flowers” from Easter
George Herbert (set by Ralph Vaughan Williams)
 
I got me flowers to strew thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought'st thy sweets along with thee.
 
The Sunne arising in the East.
Though he give light, and th'East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.
 
Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.
 
This week, we’re doing something a little different!  I’m collaborating with Cathedral musician David Hoffman. This Friday evening, as part of our weekly musical prayer series, David will be singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, settings of five poems by George Herbert. So, David will sing Herbert’s poem “I got me flowers” (Easter), and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
At the time he wrote these settings of Herbert’s poems, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a self-described atheist. It will be no surprise to those who listen to his settings of religious verse that later in life, he came to describe himself as a “cheerful agnostic.” His settings capture the meditative quality and the sheer beauty of Herbert’s language, and like the poems themselves, his settings have a depth to them that reward close listening. In his setting of “Easter,” for example, he plays with Gregorian modalities—and you can hear echoes of Gregorian chant throughout the Five Mystical Songs.
 
Herbert’s poem, too, has many layers. Herbert is playing with a familiar trope of Baroque poetry: the morning poem. What usually happens in this kind of poem is that the speaker urges the lover to awake, and to come and enjoy the spring flowers, because time is wasting and life is short. (A famous example of this is “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick, Herbert’s contemporary and, like Herbert, a priest of the Church of England. It includes the famous line, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”)
 
Herbert turns that trope on its head in this poem. “I got me flowers to strew thy way; / I got me boughs off many a tree: / But thou wast up by break of day, / And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.” The speaker does not need to urge the beloved to wake up and come forth; his beloved has anticipated him, both in arising early—“by break of day”—and in bringing “sweets.”
 
We know who this lover is, of course:  this is Easter morning, and it is Christ who was “up by break of day,” Christ who needs no spring flowers, since he has come with “sweets”—with the perfume of his rising from the dead. “The Sunne arising in the East, / Though he give light, and th’East perfume; / If they should offer to contest / With thy arising, they presume.” The sun and the perfumes of spring cannot hope to compete with this rising of Christ!
 
The third stanza speaks of time. In the poem by Robert Herrick I mentioned earlier, time is a key concept. “Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying…. The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, / The higher he’s a-getting, / The sooner will his race be run, / And nearer he’s to setting.”  Time passes; life is short. Seize the day. But here again, Herbert turns the familiar idea upside down. This day is not short, nor is time flying. This day is eternal. “Can there be any day but this, / Though many sunnes to shine endeavor? / We count three hundred, but we misse: / There is but one, and that one ever.” There is no other day but this Easter day; and this day will never end.
 
As with all Herbert’s poems, the language is simple, but profound and many-layered. “Easter” is a love poem to Christ on the morning of his Resurrection: a spring day with flowers that never fade, a sun that never sets, a love that never dies, and a life that never ends.

 

 

 


Victimae Paschali Laudes
Traditional chant, c. 1000
 
Christians, to the paschal victim
offer your thankful praises --
a lamb the sheep redeemeth;
Christ, who only is sinless,
reconcileth sinners to the Father.
Death and life have contended
in that combat stupendous;
the prince of life, who died, reigns immortal.
 
Speak, Mary, declaring
what thou sawest, wayfaring.
"The tomb of Christ, who is living,
the glory of Jesus' resurrection;
bright angels attesting,
the shroud and napkin resting.
Christ my hope is arisen;
to Galilee he goes before you."
 
Christ indeed from death is risen,
our new life obtaining.
Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!
Amen.
 
 
This week, we’re going to explore a poem which is part of the liturgy:  the Easter Sequence, “Christians, to the Paschal Victim.” Two of our Cathedral cantors will sing this medieval poem for us, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
The liturgy is full of poetry. We pray and sing poems from the book of Psalms, as well as the hymns and canticles which are scattered through both the Old and New Testaments. The liturgy also includes non-Scriptural poems, like the beautiful chant we just heard, “Christians to the Paschal Victim.” This poem was composed around the 11th century, probably by a German priest named Wipo who was chaplain to the Holy Roman Emperor. It has entered into the Easter liturgy, and is sung before the Alleluia at every Mass on Easter Sunday and during the Easter Octave. At one time, the liturgy includes many such poems (called “sequences”); today, we have just a few. That this one survives is a testament to the beauty and depth both of the language and of the traditional chant.
 
There is an inherent drama in the text, with its questioning of St. Mary Magdalene, and Mary’s response; indeed, in the Middle Ages, this sequence was sometimes performed dramatically, and even incorporated into mystery plays about the Resurrection of Jesus.
 
There is so much we could say about this fascinating poem, but I want to highlight two of the themes that stand out.
 
In the first section of the poem, we get some truly dramatic imagery: “Death and life have contended / In that combat stupendous. / The Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal.” The poem is alluding to the harrowing of hell. This ancient doctrine, which is held in many but not all parts of the Christian family, says that on Holy Saturday, while his body rested in the tomb, Jesus was anything but passive! He descended to the dead, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, to save the just who had died before his coming, including the patriarchs and prophets. In traditional icons of this scene, we see Jesus, holding Adam and Eve by the hand, leading them out of the realm of the dead. There are broken chains and shackles at his feet. The harrowing of hell is, in a sense, a jailbreak! Jesus has come to the realm of the dead, where he has overcome the power of death, and led the just into freedom. The poem emphasizes the strength and power of Jesus, the “victor King” who has won the “combat stupendous.”
 
The second section turns to a new subject, Mary Magdalene, and a new melody. “Speak, Mary,” the poem says, and tell us what you saw on the way. And Mary replies: “The tomb of Christ, who is living, / the glory of Jesus' resurrection; / bright angels attesting, / the shroud and napkin resting.” Mary testifies to what she has seen—the empty tomb, the burial cloths lying there, the angels; but that is not all. Mary also declares her faith, and passes along the message Jesus entrusted to her: “Christ my hope is arisen; / to Galilee he goes before you.” Mary is called the “Apostle to the Apostles” not because she was the first to see the risen Christ, but because she was sent to the apostles with a message, a message which got them moving to Galilee. In a sense, Mary’s mission is the same as Jesus’ mission. Jesus broke open the gates of hell, and shattered the chains of death, and he sends Mary to open the locked upper room where the apostles are sheltering in fear, and call them forth to a whole new life—a new world.
 
The Easter Sequence wonderfully expresses the joy and freedom that Jesus’ Resurrection brings, and it ends by drawing us into the story: “Christ indeed from death is risen, / our new life obtaining. / Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!” Jesus continues to share his victory over death and fear—with all of us.  Happy Easter!


 

Emily Dickinson
“One Crucifixion” (553)
 
One Crucifixion is recorded – only –
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics—
Or History—
 
One Calvary—exhibited to Stranger—
As many be
As persons – or Peninsulas –
Gethsemane –
 
Is but a Province – in the Being’s Centre –
Judea –
For Journey – or Crusade’s Achieving –
Too near –
 
Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness –
And yet –
There’s newer – nearer Crucifixion
Than That –
 
(1862)
 
 
In this Holy Week edition, we’re reading Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson is probably the most famous recluse in American literature—who knows, maybe in world literature!  For most of her life, she never left the boundaries of her family home and garden. And yet her diction—her word choices—would suggest just the opposite. Dickinson’s poems are full of distance and space. She loves to use words and images from geography, like circumference, firmament, peninsula, globe; and from astronomy - universe, worlds, stars. Her poems are full of the names of places she never visited but clearly spent time imagining: Tunis, Haworth, Turkey, Geneva, Gibraltar, and dozens of others.
 
In this poem, Dickinson reflects on the crucifixion and on places associated with the life and death of Jesus. The 19th-century Protestant world in which Dickinson lived had a great fascination with the Holy Land. While they found Catholic ideas of touching relics and making pilgrimages quite suspect, they had a deep desire to discover the historical Jesus—where he lived, what he saw, heard, and felt. The paintings of Biblical landscapes and scenes by Holman Hunt, and Lew Wallace’s famous novel Ben-Hur, both of which shared an obsession with depicting the world of Jesus in accurate detail, are two examples of this movement. Dickinson herself would surely have encountered people who had made the journey to the Holy Land in an effort to ‘bring the Bible to life.’
 
But, as always, Dickinson has a unique perspective. “One Crucifixion is recorded – only –  / How many be / Is not affirmed of Mathematics— / Or History.” We only speak of one Crucifixion, that of Jesus. But there were many others, not counted by “mathematics” or recorded in “history.”
 
Dickinson extends this reflection in the second stanza. Just one Calvary is “exhibited to Stranger.” There is one place that is shown to pious visitors to Jerusalem—but there are more Calvarys than that. In fact, she says, there are as many Calvarys as there are “persons” or “peninsulas.” The place of crucifixion is everyone, and everywhere. And Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus prayed in agony before his arrest, is not simply a geographical place. “Gethsemane - / Is but a Province – in the Being’s Centre.” To find Gethsemane, we need to look not without but within. Judea, the land where Jesus lived, is “too near” for a journey, too close at hand for a crusade.
 
Dickinson began her poem with the “One Crucifixion,” that of Jesus, and she comes back to that idea in the last stanza. “Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness.” The saving death of Jesus on the cross, once for all, has “Compound Witness”—it overflows in grace for all of humanity. But, Dickinson writes, “There’s newer – nearer Crucifixion / Than That –.” Every person carries their own cross, their own suffering and pain, their own Calvary.
 
Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the words of Jesus when he spoke of his approaching passion to his disciples: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) .To participate in the life of Jesus, to have a share in his saving work, does not mean we will be spared the cross. Quite the reverse. Jesus promises that each of us will carry their own cross. For Dickinson, the whole life of Jesus—from Judea to Gethsemane to Calvary—is not far away, but within us—in our suffering.
 
I think this poem is an appropriate one to reflect on as we enter into the Triduum. Holy Week is not a “virtual pilgrimage” to the Holy Land, a sort of poor substitute for going to Jerusalem. In Holy Week, the mysteries we celebrate are not far away or in the past, but, in the words of Dickinson, “new” and “near.” On Holy Thursday, as at every Mass, we do what Jesus did—take bread and break it—but we know by faith that this is not a dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper. Jesus is as present to us, here and now, as he was to his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem long ago. On Good Friday, when we venerate the cross, the liturgy does not say, “Behold an image of the crucifixion,” but “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.” We stand not before a cross, but before the cross, because the Paschal Mystery of Christ is not bound by time or space. And at the Easter Vigil, the Church says again and again, “this is the night.” Jesus rose, yes; but Jesus is risen.
 
In Holy Week, the Church confidently asserts that Jerusalem is not a far-away place. It is, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “a Province / In the Being’s Centre.”

 

 


March 23, 2021--our fiftieth episode!
 
The Coming
R. S. Thomas
 
And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour.  The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
               On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky.  Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs.  The son watched
Them.  Let me go there, he said.
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week. This is our 50th episode!  Thank you for joining Scott, Jackie and me during this past year. I hope you’ve enjoyed the poems and commentaries as much as we’ve enjoyed preparing them for you.
 
This week, we’re reading a poem by R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and Anglican priest. This poem is called “The Coming,” and the “Coming” referred to is Christ’s coming. I had planned to do this poem in Advent, which is, of course, the liturgical season that is all about the coming of Christ. But the more I read this poem, the more I realized that it’s really an Easter poem.
 
“And God.” The first words of the poem take us immediately into the language of the Bible, and to the account of creation in the book of Genesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, those words “And God” are repeated again and again in the first chapter of Genesis – 28 times in 31 verses!  Thomas did not start the poem this way by accident. In choosing to begin “and God,” Thomas situates his poem in the world of the Bible, and specifically in the Creation account, when God has rolled up his sleeves, so to speak, to summon the world out of chaos, and put everything in order: earth, sky, water, human beings.
 
God is not alone in this realm. The Son is with him. In the Christian worldview, Jesus is no latecomer. As we read in the Gospel of John, “he was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be” (John 1:2-3). Christian art frequently shows creation in this way – Jesus is front and center; through him, creation happens.
 
In Thomas’s poem, the Father and the Son contemplate the “small globe” of the earth. The dense imagery creates complex vision of our world. We get the basic elements from the Genesis account of creation – water, dry land, light, darkness are all mentioned. But Thomas uses quite unsettling images. This world is “scorched,” “fierce,” “burned,” “crusted”—a harsh landscape. But at the same time, this world is rich in color; it has a beauty about it, as we see in the description of a river: “a bright / Serpent, a river / Uncoiled itself, radiant / With slime.” The word “Serpent” immediately tells us that this is a fallen world, suggesting the serpent of Genesis. The phrase “radiant / With slime” says it all – ugliness and beauty, seemingly inseparable.
 
In the second part of the poem, we glimpse the human family. “On a bare / Hill a bare tree saddened / The sky. Looking into this harsh, yet beautiful landscape, the Father and the Son see a bare tree on a bare hillside. Isn’t that a great line—“a bare tree saddened / The sky.” The bareness of the tree saddens the landscape, and yet there are people there, many of them, who reach out “thin arms” to that tree, “as though waiting / For a vanished April / To return to its crossed / Boughs.”
 
But this is not just a tree in a landscape. Remember where we started—“And God….” This is the world of the Bible, and the tree on the hillside evokes the cross. Thomas writes: “The son watched / Them. Let me go there, he said.” Watching the people reach out to the bare tree, the Son wants to go there, to that small globe in the hand of the Father. While Thomas avoids emotional or sentimental language, we sense that it is compassion that causes the Father to show this world to the Son, and compassion that sends the Son to that bare tree, to bring life to its dead branches, to herald the return of April.
 
I think this is the perfect poem to reflect on as we prepare for Holy Week. On Good Friday, the whole Church does what the people in this poem are doing: hold out our arms to the crossed branches of a tree. And with Easter, the “vanished April” does indeed return. The Church venerates the cross because it is not a dead tree, but the source of life. In the words of the liturgy of Good Friday, “We adore your Cross, O Lord, we praise and glorify your holy Resurrection, for behold, because of the wood of a tree joy has come to the whole world.”
 



 

A Better Resurrection
By Christina Rossetti (1830-94)
 
I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb'd too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm'd with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
 
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
 
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish'd thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
(1857)
 
 
We have met Victorian poet Christina Rossetti several times in this series. I think Rossetti and Ruth Burrows, whose poem “I made a garden for God” we read a couple of weeks ago, might have some interesting conversations! Both of them are people of deep faith and conviction, whose spirituality is neither simple nor untroubled. They are both poets who write of spiritual darkness and separation, rather than rapturous union.
 
Rossetti’s poems are not all gloomy. The same year that she wrote this poem, she wrote “A Birthday,” one of her most famous poems, in which she says, “My heart is like a singing bird… My heart is like an apple tree… My heart is like a rainbow shell.” But here she says, “my heart within me like a stone.” Rossetti’s spiritual poetry is seldom bright or joy-filled. Perhaps that’s because for her, poetry was a form of prayer, and she turned to God in prayer most especially when she felt distant from God. This is just my speculation, of course, but I think it’s borne out in “A Better Resurrection.”
 
Each of the three stanzas of the poem follows the same pattern. The speaker describes her life in a wide array of images, and concludes with a petition to Jesus. In the first stanza, she writes that she has “no wit, no words, no tears”: her intellectual and emotional faculties are numbed. This numbness does not come from indifference, but from isolation and grief: “Look right, look left, I dwell alone”; her eyes are “dimm’d with grief.” The language is full of Scriptural allusions: “I lift mine eyes” comes from Psalm 121, which is a prayer of confidence in time of need: “I lift my eyes to the mountains; from where shall come my help? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” The echo of the Psalm is joined with the familiar phrase “everlasting hills,” which comes from Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis, which is a prayer for abundance of life. The stanza ends with a direct address to Jesus, a prayer - “O Jesus, quicken me.” Bring me to life.
 
In the second stanza, the dense Scriptural allusions continue. The voice of the speaker sounds a bit like the speaker of Ecclesiastes: “truly my life is void and brief / And tedious in the barren dusk” the poet writes, and in Ecclesiastes we read: “All things are wearisome, too wearisome for words…. All is vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:8; 2:17). But, like the speaker of Ecclesiastes, this speaker is not without hope. “My life is like a frozen thing, / No bud nor greenness can I see: / Yet rise it shall – the sap of Spring; / O Jesus, rise in me.” Where the first stanza ends with a prayer for life, the second stanza ends with a confident expression that she will rise again. This prayer is more intimate: “O Jesus, rise in me.” It’s a prayer not just for the restoration of her life, but for Jesus to live in her.
 
The last stanza again draws on Scriptural images. In Ecclesiastes, life is described as a “golden bowl” that is broken; Isaiah speaks of God as a potter, who can form and reform us as a potter forms clay. Furnaces, hot enough to melt gold, are mentioned many times in the Bible, often in terms of the purification and testing of God’s people. The speaker describes her life as a broken bowl. She prays that Jesus will “cast in the fire the perish’d thing” and remake it into “a royal cup for Him, my King.”
 
For me, the last line of the poem comes as a surprise: “O Jesus, drink of me.” The speaker says that her broken bowl cannot hold even a drop of water or cordial—to quench her thirst, to warm her in the cold. I expect her to conclude by asking, like the Samaritan woman, for living water, springing up within her. Instead, she asks to be made into a royal cup, for Jesus to drink of.
 
This poem, which powerfully expresses the speaker’s sense of isolation, of dryness, of uselessness, also expresses her longing for a deeper union with Jesus. She not only asks Jesus to live in her, but even to drink of her: she wants this sharing of life to go both ways – she wants to give life as well as receive it.
 
When she writes of spiritual difficulties, Rossetti does so by leaning on the Bible. The more distance she feels from God, the more intensely she prays for union. And that’s why I think that ultimately, “A Better Resurrection” is a very hopeful poem.
 



 

Sonnet 19: When I consider how my light is spent
BY JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)
 
When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”
 

John Milton was born in 1608 and died in 1674. He lived through a time of incredible political and religious upheaval. He was born during the reign of King James I, served in the government of Oliver Cromwell, and witnessed the fall of the commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II.
 
Milton had a special gift for languages, and wrote skillfully in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, and Hebrew, not to mention English. As a young man, he traveled extensively in Europe, and even met Galileo, whose fortitude under house-arrest made a great impression on him.
 
Milton’s life was also full of suffering. He was widowed twice, and none of his three marriages was particularly happy. Two of his children died in infancy. And just as he set out on an illustrious career in politics and literature, Milton’s eyesight began to fail. By 1652, in his mid-forties, he was completely blind.
 
In the marvelous sonnet Scott read, we get some insight into how Milton thought about his own blindness and his vocation, and the frustration he experienced as he struggled to move forward. “When I consider how my light is spent / Ere half my days in this dark world and wide.” He is just entering middle age – he is only halfway through his life, and already his “light is spent,” used up. It’s interesting that he speaks of the world itself as “dark” and “wide”; it is as though the darkness is not in him, but around him; the world itself has fallen dark. Inside, he is on fire to do and to accomplish, to use “that one Talent, which is death to hide.”
 
Milton alludes here to the parable of the talents, and feels convicted by it. In this parable, the landowner who gives one of his servants ten talents, another five, and another one, and then goes on a journey. While two of the servants invest their talents and make a profit, the third buries the master’s money and does nothing at all with it. Milton identifies himself with that least of the three servants. In his blindness, how is he to invest his “one talent”?  What will happen when he presents an accounting to his Maker? Will there be wailing and grinding of teeth for him, as for the servant in the parable? He asks the agonizing question: “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” How will he fulfill his mission now that he is blind? What is God asking of him?
 
The poet turns for hope to a different parable – that of the workers in the vineyard. Some start first thing in the morning and work the whole day; others start at noon, others in midafternoon, and some are hired when there is just an hour left in which to work. “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied”? And the answer, of course, is no. And then another voice, that of “Patience,” responds to his fears. “God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts.” Rather, those “who best/ Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Patience offers a vision of God’s “kingly” state. Thousands come and go in his service, crossing “Land and Ocean without rest.” God’s kingdom is happening, even though the poet himself feels powerless and useless.
 
The most surprising line of the poem comes at the end: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This famous line is Milton’s wonderful reading of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. We typically think of that parable as a story about fairness. Why do those who worked only one hour get the same pay as those who worked the whole day? But Milton sees it differently. He notices a detail in the parable that is easy to overlook. The eleventh hour workers didn’t just show up at the eleventh hour to ask for work. They have been waiting in the marketplace all day long, and no one has hired them. That waiting is itself a form of service. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
 
At the end of the poem, the poet still doesn’t know the answer to the “why me” question. But he is no longer asking it. He recognizes that God’s vision is broader and longer than his own. In God’s time, not his own, he will be called to work in the vineyard, to invest “that one Talent” God has given him. In the meantime, waiting and bearing the yoke God has given him is its own form of service.




 

I made a garden for God
Ruth Burrows
 
I made a garden for God.
No, do not misunderstand me
It was not on some lovely estate or even in a pretty suburb.
I made a garden for God
in the slum of my heart
a sunless space between grimy walls
the reek of cabbage water in the air
refuse strewn on the cracked asphalt….
the ground of my garden!
This was where I laboured
night and day
over the long years
in dismal smog and cold…..
there was nothing to show for my toil.
Like a child I could have pretended:
my slum transformed…..
an oasis of flowers and graceful trees
how pleasant to work in such a garden!
I could have lost heart
and neglected my garden
to do something else for God.
But I was making a garden for God
not for myself
for his delight not mine
and so I worked on in the slum of my heart.
Was he concerned with my garden?
Did he see my labour and tears?
I never saw him looking
never felt him there
Yet I knew (though it felt as if I did not know)
that he was there with me
waiting……
He has come into his garden
Is it beautiful at last?
Are there flowers and perfumes?
I do not know
the garden is not mine but his—
God asked only for my little space
to be prepared and given.
This is ‘garden’ for him
and my joy is full.
 
 

I had never heard of Ruth Burrows until Father Steve Sundborg mentioned her in a homily a few weeks ago. Ruth Burrows is the pen name of Rachel Gregory, an English Carmelite nun who is now approaching her 98th birthday. Her story might seem a simple one. As a teenager, she experienced a call to religious life, and at age 18, she turned down a place at Oxford and entered a Carmelite monastery instead. The end! Of course, that is not how the story goes! She has written, “If one measures experience merely by such things as the number of countries one has visited, jobs one has held down and so on, then my experience is nil. But if it is measured by penetration into life, into human nature, then mine is great.” Sister Rachel became the prioress of her Carmel, and helped guide her community through the reform and renewal of the Second Vatican Council. She published her first book in 1975, at the age of 52, and many more books have followed.
 
Sister Rachel did not find the religious life easy. As Michelle Jones has written, “Rachel yearned for ‘inside’ prayer, for union with the living God,” but she “experienced herself to be a living contradiction and a failure.” Her experience in prayer was “total nothingness.” Eventually, she realized that “this raw nothingness is the very place where Jesus dwelt and uttered his self-emptying ‘Yes’ to the Father’s outpoured love. While conventional wisdom would tell her somehow to get a grip, the secret was rather to abide empty-handed in Jesus, in him surrendering her poverty to God in trust.” (Ruth Burrows: Essential Writings, edited by Michelle Jones)
 
I think that provides some context for some of the surprises of this poem of Ruth Burrows, “I made a garden for God.” In some ways, this poem is utterly conventional. The image of the spiritual life as a garden which we tend and maintain is not a new one. It would certainly have been familiar to Sister Rachel in her years of formation as a Carmelite. St. Therese frequently uses similar imagery – famously comparing herself to a “little flower,” hence her familiar nickname! But Sister Rachel immediately takes the image in a surprising direction. “Do not misunderstand me,” she says. “It was not on some lovely estate or even in a pretty suburb. / I made a garden for God / in the slum of my heart.” It is not that she chooses the slum over the estate or the suburb; the slum is all she has. And so, in this “sunless space between grimy walls,” smelly and dirty as it is, she “labored / night and day / over the long years.” The result? There are no results: “there was nothing to show for my toil.” What could grow there, without light, without sun, without grass? But she refuses to pretend, like a child. She refuses to give up and do something else. She simply keeps on.
 
“Was he concerned with my garden? / Did he see my labour and tears?” she asks. “I never saw him looking / never felt him there.” The garden is for God, but she has no idea if God is there or if he cares about the garden or the labor she is expending on it. But in a curious way, this not knowing is a way of knowing. “Yet I knew (though it felt as if I did not know) / that he was there with me / waiting.”
 
She feels that God is absent; but she knows that God is present. And this is all the satisfaction we are going to get. At the end of the poem, she says, “he has come into his garden.” But what God finds, we do not know. Has she been able to grow beautiful flowers? Has the smell of “cabbage water” been replaced with “perfumes”? Even at the end, she relinquishes any sort of satisfaction. “God asked only for my little space / to be prepared and given. / This is my ‘garden’ for him / and my joy is full.”
 
It is in her own spiritual emptiness, in her lack of spiritual satisfaction, if you will, that Ruth Burrows finds her greatest insight into the mystery of Christian life. In her own poverty, she recognized all human weakness and poverty, and our need for a Savior. She discovers the secret of coming before God with empty hands.
 
As we continue through this season of Lent, I think Ruth Burrows is a good companion. In Lent, we commit ourselves to prayer, fasting, and works of mercy . But Lent is really like preparing that garden in the slum of the heart. We carry out our Lenten practices not because we think our efforts will be self-improving or somehow worthy of God, but simply because God asks them of us, and God is there. Ruth Burrows invites us to a spirituality that lets go of the need to see results, whether here or hereafter.
 
Read an interview with Ruth Burrows here:
https://www.eden.co.uk/blog/where-i-can-best-give-myself-wholly-to-god-p1760
 
 

 

 

The Collar
BY GEORGE HERBERT
 
I struck the board, and cried, "No more;
                         I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
          Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
          Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
    Before my tears did drown it.
      Is the year only lost to me?
          Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
                  All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
            And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
             Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
          And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
          Away! take heed;
          I will abroad.
Call in thy death's-head there; tie up thy fears;
          He that forbears
         To suit and serve his need
          Deserves his load."
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
          At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
          And I replied My Lord.


This poem by George Herbert is not an easy one for modern readers, but I think it is the perfect poem for the beginning of Lent. It’s called “The Collar,” meaning “yoke.”  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:30).
 
The speaker of this poem finds the yoke, the collar, anything but easy. He pounds the table and says, “no more; / I will abroad.” He’s done. He’s getting out of town. Why “sigh and pine,” when he could be free—in Herbert’s wonderful phrase, “free as the road.” He could go anywhere; why stay here, to fret over his sins?  This life of faith is just too difficult. It seems to be bearing no fruit. “Have I no harvest but a thorn?” he asks, a reference to Christ’s crown of thorns. Why should he not taste “cordial fruit”? Why should he not enjoy the fruits of this earth—“corn” or wheat; “bays” of success; “flowers,” and “garlands.”
 
The poet answers himself. “Not so, my heart… there is fruit / And thou hast hands.” He urges himself to go for it, to stop worrying about “what is fit and not,” and instead to seek “double pleasures.” Leave behind the “cage” of conscience, which is but a “rope of sands,” after all, made up of “petty thoughts.” Stop worrying about the future, he says to himself, “tie up thy fears” and “call in thy death’s head”—don’t contemplate your mortality any longer. Enjoy.
 
The last four lines of the poem bring a total reversal. “as I raved and grew more fierce and wild / At every word, / Methought I heard one calling, Child! / And I replied My Lord.” At that word, “child,” the speaker’s “fierce and wild” ravings cease: his resolution to reject “the collar” of Christ, his desire to escape and be “free as the road,” simply vanish, and he recognizes and acknowledges the one who speaks to him: “My Lord.”
 
In “The Collar,” the speaker asks seven questions. But when God speaks to him at the end, it is not to answer any of them. God does not explain how following Christ or bearing his yoke, his collar, will be worth it in the end. He does not offer any substitute for the fruits, the flowers, and the garlands, the good things of life, which so appeal to the speaker. In fact, God provides no answers or explanations at all. All the speaker gets is that simple word, “child.”  In other words, God offers relationship, not answers.
 
I think this is the perfect poem for Lent. Lent begins with ashes, which are such a potent image of our mortality. The ashes on our heads remind us, in the words from the Roman Missal, that “we are but ashes / and shall return to dust.” This acknowledgment of our mortality is always linked with repentance and conversion of life. Remembering that we are dust, we remember also that we are more than dust: in the words of Pope Francis, “we are dust loved by God…. We are a dust that is precious, destined for eternal life. We are the dust of the earth, upon which God has poured out his heaven, the dust that contains his dreams. We are God’s hope, his treasure and his glory.”
 
Lent is about repentance and conversion—it is a season for turning back towards God, not because we are afraid of God, but because we hear God calling, “child.” It’s about renewing our faith, not in a “what,” but in a “who.” God is calling us, not to answer every one of our questions, but to invite us into relationship.
 


 

 

Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
 
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
 
William Wordsworth (England, 1770-1850)
 
 
This is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, but in some ways, it’s a pretty surprising theme for a Romantic poet. The Romantic movement in English poetry, of which Wordsworth is of course one of the most significant figures, is characterized by its appreciation of the natural world. The sonnet we read last week is a good example of that – walking by the sea in the evening, Wordsworth is overwhelmed with the beauty of it all—it is a religious experience, a glimpse of God. For the Romantics, nature has that power.
 
If the beauty of the natural world is a pathway to God, what happens in the city? For the Romantics and their successors, the city is often suspect. As Wordsworth’s friend and fellow Romantic Coleridge lamented, “I was reared / In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim, / And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.” For the Romantics, to be deprived of nature is to be deprived of a way of connecting to God—because nature is seen as God’s very language.
 
That’s why this poem is surprising. “Earth has not anything to show more fair,” the poem begins. “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty.” But this poem is not about a mountain or a river or an ocean view. It’s a poem about the city of London!  Standing on Westminster Bridge in the morning, the poet is stunned by the beauty of the scene, “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples.”
 
It’s not just the skyline that the poet finds so beautiful, though he certainly glimpses beauty there. Rather, what Wordsworth notices is the interplay between the natural world and the city. London is wearing “the beauty of the morning” “like a garment.” From his vantage point, he can see the great buildings and institutions in relationship with the world, “open unto the fields, and to the sky.” The morning sun shines on the city, and Wordsworth writes, “Never did sun more beautifully steep / In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill.” That’s quite a statement for a Romantic, isn’t it! There is as much beauty here as when the sun rises on a natural landscape, and the sense of calm is just as profound. And this experience, like the experience of beauty in the natural world, has a religious dimension. “Dear God,” the poet exclaims, “the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
 
The poet is awake to the beauty of the city. But there’s a certain tension in this poem at the same time. The poet sees the city in the early morning, in a rare moment of stillness and silence. There are no chimneys belching smoke, which is why everything appears all “bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” There are no people about—they are all asleep, and the “mighty heart” of the city is, for the moment, still. In this poem, the poet of nature embraces the city—but not quite. This is the city, but its beating heart– commerce, the arts, worship, all the activity of the people who inhabit it—is “lying still.” When the city wakes up, when things start moving, we get the sense that its beauty might be harder to see.
 
Much of the Bible is centered on a city: Jerusalem dominates both the Old and New Testaments. In the Scriptures, Jerusalem is a microcosm of the world: we glimpse its cruelty and violence, its corruption and lack of faith, its indifference to human need. But Jerusalem is also God’s city, a vision and promise of the world as it should be: the place where God lives in the midst of his people. In the Book of Revelation, “the new Jerusalem,” the holy city (21:3), is the destiny of humankind.
 
Does it surprise you that heaven is described as a city? In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis writes, “it is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city. We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares…. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice” (71).
 
May we look at our cities with the “contemplative gaze” Pope Francis writes about, and become more aware of God, who is already dwelling in the midst of the people who live in them.


 


It is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free
William Wordsworth
 
It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o'er the Sea;
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder—everlastingly.
Dear child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year;
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.
 
 
William Wordsworth was a household name in his own lifetime, and I think it’s safe to say that he is still a household name: he makes a cameo in Taylor Swift’s song “The Lakes” on her album “Folklore”! This sonnet is one of Wordsworth’s most anthologized poems. A sonnet is by definition a short poem—just fourteen lines—but in the hands of Wordsworth, a few lines inspired by a walk with his daughter Caroline on the seashore at Calais become a profound reflection on nature, on childhood, and on God.
 
In the first eight lines, Wordsworth describes an evening scene, and the sun setting over the sea. His description of the natural world is imbued with religious language. The evening is described as “the holy time,” and the quiet of the atmosphere is compared to “a Nun / Breathless with adoration.” Wordsworth was not Catholic, but he uses a Catholic image suggesting purity and the presence of God. The quiet and peace around him are not the quiet and peace of nothing happening. They are the quiet and peace of prayer, even of ecstatic prayer, the soul at one with God.
 
Wordsworth walks by the sea, and here, too, his description is full of religious echoes.  “The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the Sea,” he says, evoking the creation account in Genesis, which describes the spirit of God moving over the waters. When Wordsworth says “Listen! The mighty Being is awake,” we are not entirely sure whether he is directing us to listen to the sound of the sea, or to the voice of God. I think that ambiguity is intentional: for Wordsworth, the beauty of the natural world is a path to God.
 
In the second part of the sonnet, we recognize that Wordsworth is sharing this moment with someone else—a child. While Wordsworth is so moved by what he sees, she “appear[s] untouched by solemn thought.” For her, it’s just a walk by the sea with someone who loves her.
 
But just because the child does not respond in the same way the poet does, does not mean that her nature is “less divine.” Far from it. “Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year,” Wordsworth says, alluding to the story of Lazarus and Dives from the Gospel of Luke. In that parable, Jesus says that when the poor man Lazarus dies, he is carried away by angels to “the bosom of Abraham.” It’s such a unique and wonderful image of heaven, suggesting protection and safety. This child, Wordsworth’s daughter, is in heaven, in a way that the poet, for all his “solemn thought,” is not.
 
At the end of the poem, Wordsworth evokes another Scripture story: the account of the prophetic call of Samuel. The boy Samuel serves in the Temple of God under Eli. It is a time when “the word of the Lord was scarce and vision infrequent” (I Sam 3:1). The boy Samuel sleeps in the temple itself, in the very shadow of the ark of the covenant. But when God calls him, the boy does not know God’s voice. God is with him – but he doesn’t realize it.
 
The girl in Wordsworth’s poem worships “at the Temple’s inner shrine, / God being with thee when we know it not.” Like Samuel, she is in the very presence of God without realizing it. The poet becomes aware of the presence of God through the beauty of the natural world. He is in the outer temple, as it were, glimpsing God through the veil of exterior things. The child is already in the “inner shrine.”
 
This is one of the dominant themes of Wordsworth’s poetry—with age, his relationship with creation—and the Creator—has become more complicated, and he longs for the unselfconsciousness of childhood. But he knows that experience brings its own gifts—especially the gift of reflection. As he says in another poem, “to me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
 
 




The Aunt
Daniel Berrigan, SJ
 
With eyes a dying candle
with voice telling the years awry
my aunt at her high window
counts the seasons by —
bird wedges or air of snow
or red leaves of a leaning sky.
Eighty-one years have whittled her hands
white coals have whitened her sweet mouth:
Christ has fountained in her eyes
and crumpled her face to drought:
flood and drought, He entered once —
in and never out.
It was all gardens then: young winds
tugging her trees of cloud.
At night His quiet lay on the quiet
all day no bird was loud:
under His word, His word, her body
consented and bowed.
And what is love, or what love does
looks from a knot of face
where marching fires could but leave
ruin and gentleness in place:
snatched her away, and left her Self:
Christ to regard us, Face to face.
 

Daniel Berrigan was born in 1921 in Minnesota, and grew up in Syracuse, New York. One of six boys, he entered the Jesuits straight out of high school, in 1939, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1952. He taught theology and Scripture, and was highly regarded as a poet as well. Berrigan was also a prominent activist. He gained fame, and notoriety, from his outspoken protests against the Vietnam War, alongside his brother, Phillip Berrigan. The brothers’ peace work was rooted in their Christian faith and in the Gospel, but they got a lot of pushback for their approach—especially when they led the “Catonsville Nine,” a group of Catholics who seized draft files and burned them in the parking lot with homemade napalm. Berrigan later said of the incident, “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”
 
Throughout his long life, Berrigan never stopped protesting, teaching, writing, and preaching. He ministered to AIDS patients, protested nuclear armament, and spoke out against abortion and the death penalty. He saw all these issues as interconnected. He once said, “I see an 'interlocking directorate' of death that binds the whole culture… an unspoken agreement that we will solve our problems by killing people in various ways; a declaration that certain people are expendable, outside the pale. A decent society should no more have an abortion clinic than The Pentagon." Berrigan was a polarizing and prophetic figure. He died in 2016 at the age of 94.
 
In the poem Jackie just read, we get a different side of Berrigan. In this poem, “The Aunt,” Berrigan gently and reverently describes an old woman, his aunt. She is fading away. Everything speaks of diminishment—her “eyes a dying candle,” her hands “whittled” away, her mouth faded, her face crumpled. Her mind, too, is going, as she tells “the years awry,” losing track of time. She seems to be the shell of what she once was—as he says at the end of the poem, the “marching fires” of life have gone through her, and now nothing is left but “ruin and gentleness.”
 
But there is more to this story. It is not just time that has wasted this woman – it is Christ. “Christ has fountained in her eyes / and crumpled her face to drought,” Berrigan writes. He describes his aunt in the prime of life, when she gave herself for Christ: “It was all gardens then: young winds… At night His quiet lay on the quiet…. Under His word, His word, her body / consented and bowed.” She invited Christ into her life, and Christ is still there—he came “in,” Berrigan writes, but “never out.” Thus now, when every part of her is wasted and diminished, one thing is not—that presence of Christ in her. “What is love, or what love does / looks from a knot of face,” Berrigan writes. When he looks at his aunt, love looks back—Christ looks back. The aunt he knew is gone, in a way, and now all that is left is the Christ whom she loved throughout her life: “Christ to regard us, Face to face.”
 
I thought this lovely poem was an appropriate one for this week. February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, forty days after his birth, they encounter Simeon and Anna. These two elderly people have been awaiting the Messiah all their lives, and when Jesus comes, they are ready: they recognize him. Their lives have immense value as they are among the first to give witness to Christ.
 
“The Aunt” is a tender poem, especially coming from one of the “Catonsville Nine”! But there is no contradiction here. Berrigan’s poetry and his activism were both rooted in the same place, his faith in Christ, and in his deep reverence for human life—at every stage.

 

 

 

The Windows
BY GEORGE HERBERT
 
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
 
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
 
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.

This has been a great week for poetry, hasn’t it? Amanda Gorman’s electrifying reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” was one of the highlights of the inauguration events last week. It was the perfect meeting of poet and poem with the moment—and surprised a lot of people by bringing to a massive audience the power and impact of this great art form!
 
Digression over—on to the Poem of the Week. This week, we’re reading George Herbert’s poem “The Windows.”
 
George Herbert wrote a book of poems called The Temple, in which he explored spiritual themes through poems on different parts of the church building. There are poems about the church porch, the lock and key, the floor, and the altar – a poem which is actually shaped like an altar!  And there’s the poem we just heard about the church windows.
 
Herbert uses the image of stained glass to reflect on the preaching of the word of God. “How can man preach thy eternal word?” he asks. He is “a brittle, crazy glass.” “Crazy” here is used in the 17th-century sense of the word, meaning “full of cracks.” Human beings are both breakable and broken, and yet, here in the Temple, God gives this fragile thing a “glorious place”: God takes this glass and makes it a window, with the light of grace.
 
Stained glass only comes to life when the light shines through it. It is the same with preaching, Herbert says: when the preacher’s own life is holy—that is, when it reflects the life of God—the result is “light and glory,” and the listener is won over, not to the preacher, but to God. But when there is a disconnect between the preacher’s life and what he says, it is like stained glass that no light comes through – “waterish, bleak, and thin.”
 
The last stanza makes Herbert’s point plainly. In preaching, “doctrine and life” must “combine and mingle,” as inseparable as the color and light that bring a stained-glass window to life. Words alone do nothing—they ring in the ear but do not touch the conscience. Herbert insists that preachers must “walk the talk”!
 
In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis makes a very similar point about those who preach the Gospel. He writes: “We are not asked to be flawless, but to keep growing and wanting to grow as we advance along the path of the Gospel… if [the preacher] does not take time to hear God’s word with an open heart, if he does not allow it to touch his life, to challenge him, to impel him, and if he does not devote time to pray with that word, then he will indeed be a false prophet, a fraud, a shallow impostor.”
 
Most of us are not called to preach the Gospel from the ambo during Mass. But that doesn’t mean we are off the hook!  By our baptism, we are a “royal priesthood,” and thus every disciple of Christ is called to proclaim the Gospel, most especially by letting it become incarnate in our lives. Every Christian can give witness; and every Christian can give scandal, too, when there is a disconnect between God’s teaching and the way we live our lives. As Pope Francis writes, “The Lord wants to make use of us as living, free and creative beings who let his word enter their own hearts before then passing it on to others. Christ’s message must truly penetrate and possess us, not just intellectually but in our entire being.”



 

 

Pilgrim’s Problem
C. S. Lewis
 
By now I should be entering on the supreme stage
Of the whole walk, reserved for the late afternoon.
The heat was to be over now; the anxious mountains,
The airless valleys and the sun-baked rocks, behind me.
 
Now, or soon now, if all is well, come the majestic
Rivers of foamless charity that glide beneath
Forests of contemplation. In the grassy clearings
Humility with liquid eyes and damp, cool nose
Should come, half-tame, to eat bread from my hermit hand.
If storms arose, then in my tower of fortitude--
It ought to have been in sight by this—I would take refuge;
But I expected rather a pale mackerel sky,
Feather-like, perhaps shaking from a lower cloud
Light drops of silver temperance, and clover earth
Sending up mists of chastity, a country smell,
Till earnest stars blaze out in the established sky
Rigid with justice; the streams audible; my rest secure.
 
I can see nothing like all this. Was the map wrong?
Maps can be wrong. But the experienced walker knows
That the other explanation is more often true.
 

 
C. S. Lewis, Clive Staples Lewis, is best known for his prose works but he wrote a fair amount of poetry as well. Born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898, Lewis was a reader and writer from an early age. Raised in a Christian household, “Jack” (as he was always called) began to consider himself an atheist in his teenage years.
 
Always a brilliant student, Lewis received a scholarship to University College, Oxford, in 1916, on the eve of World War I. He entered the army and experienced trench warfare on the front line at the Somme Valley. He was injured in friendly fire and had a long physical and mental recovery. After the war he resumed his studies at Oxford, where, after gaining First Class honors in Latin and Greek, Philosophy and Ancient History, and English, he remained as a tutor.
 
Lewis’ rediscovery of his Christian faith was nurtured by reading—especially the works of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton—and by conversations with believing friends, like J. R. R. Tolkien. He famously wrote of his conversion, “You must picture me alone in [my] room… night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me…. I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
 
C. S. Lewis became one of the most famous and prolific of Christian apologists. He died on November 22, 1963.
 
Lewis loved the natural world, and he loved to “ramble,” taking long walks – twenty miles, sometimes—in the countryside. In this poem, he describes the spiritual journey as a ramble, and at times playfully evokes the language of a guidebook. This ramble doesn’t go according to plan. It is late afternoon, and he has been walking a while already. Lewis writes: “By now I should be entering on the supreme stage / Of the whole walk.” The difficult part of the day—the heat, the mountains, the rocks—was supposed to be over by now, and nothing before him but beautiful views and easy walking.
 
This far into his spiritual journey, Lewis expected to have arrived at the Christian virtues: “majestic / Rivers of foamless charity,” “Forests of contemplation,” “towers of fortitude,” “Light drops of silver temperance,” and “mists of chastity.” But that hasn’t happened. “I can see nothing like all this,” he writes. “Was the map wrong? / Maps can be wrong.” The conclusion of the poem is tongue in cheek. “The experienced walker knows / That the other explanation is more often true.” The map wasn’t wrong – the rambler was.
 
“Pilgrim’s Problem” makes the point that the journey doesn’t get easier. In the spiritual life, most of us do not make steady, continual progress. We do advance, but we do not leave difficulties and temptation behind. If we think we will get to a place where the virtues come effortlessly, we are fooling ourselves—we are misreading “the map,” which did not promise consolations—just the cross.
 
Lewis’s poem made me think of medieval labyrinths, like the one at Chartres Cathedral in France. When we walk the labyrinth, we do not go straight to the center. Rather, we follow a circuitous path, which takes us very close to the center from time to time, but then moves away from it again. On the spiritual journey, there are moments where we feel very close to God, but there are also moments where the end seems far away, or where we lose sight of the goal altogether. We can give in to discouragement, and blame the map—or acknowledge, as the speaker in Lewis’s poem does, that “the other explanation is more often true”—and adjust our expectations.
 





 

From For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
W. H. Auden
 
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
 
 
 
W. H. Auden – Wystan Hugh Auden – was born in 1907 in York, England, and died in Vienna, Austria in 1973. His family were part of England’s established minor gentry—both grandfathers were high Church clergymen, and he was brought up in a milieu of Anglicanism, private school, and Oxford. Auden began writing poetry as a teenager, but his career was never straightforward. He taught and lectured, and wrote essays, screenplays, libretti for operas, and journalism. Auden moved to the United States in 1939. Auden lived for a year in Brooklyn with a number of other artists and writers, including the composer Benjamin Britten and the novelist Carson McCullers. He also rediscovered his Christian faith through an encounter with the English writer Charles Williams, and through his study of thinkers like Kierkegaard and Niebuhr. The death of Auden’s mother, and the unfaithfulness of his partner, to whom Auden considered himself married, are in the background of For the Time Being, his most explicitly Christian work, in which he explores the basic idea of what difference the Incarnation makes in how we view the world.
 
Auden intended For the Time Being as the libretto of an oratorio to be composed by his friend Benjamin Britten. Britten only ended up setting a couple of short lyrics—it is said that when Britten saw how long For The Time Being was, he was quite angry!
 
The passage Jackie just read is from close to the end of the oratorio. Auden wonderfully captures the disconnect, which most of us have experienced by now, of putting Christmas away. “That is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes - / Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.” The holly and the mistletoe are tossed out, the children go back to school, and all our Christmas feasts have left us with cold leftovers and not much appetite. We have one more failed effort “to love all of our relatives” to put behind us.
 
We are putting away Christmas decorations and Christmas activities; but Auden goes on to suggest that, too often, that is what we do to Christmas itself—to Christ himself. “Once again / As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed / To do more than entertain it as an agreeable / Possibility, once again we have sent him away.” We have seen an “actual Vision,” the reality of Christ, and enjoyed the “agreeable / Possibility” of it, but we keep it at a distance. And thus, “here we all are, / Back in the moderate Aristotelian city / Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen.” The commonplace and the tangible dominate our reality again: the city, the chores, the schedules.
 
But even so, something has happened to us. As we return to this world of Aristotle, Euclid, and Newton—this world that can be measured and explained—it is not the same, or we are not the same. The kitchen table seems to have shrunk; the streets are narrower and the office more “depressing.” The world seems smaller because we have glimpsed something larger. The vision of Christmas has spoiled us: “To those who have seen / The Child, however dimly, however incredulously, / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”
 
For Auden, the Incarnation changes everything. It makes us restless. What do we do with this sense of disillusionment with the world as it is—with “the Time Being”?
 
As Auden writes at the end of his oratorio, this restlessness is also our mission: “There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, / Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem / From insignificance.” As we continue to do what needs to be done, our real task is much larger: to redeem the present from insignificance—to bring the mystery of the Incarnation to bear upon every aspect and every day of our lives.
 

 



 

In the Bleak Midwinter
Christina Rossetti
 
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
 
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
 
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
 
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
 
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
 


 
Through the musical settings of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, Rossetti’s poem has become a standard at Christmas, including Christmas here at St. James.
 
In this Poem of the Week series, we’ve read two other poems by Christina Rossetti—“Good Friday” and “Up-Hill.” Rossetti was one of the finest poets of the Victorian era, and when Tennyson died, her name was suggested for Poet Laureate—but England wasn’t ready for a female poet laureate at that time! Her poetry is richly varied, and her work includes long narrative poems like “Goblin Market,” lyrics on both secular and religious subjects, and even nursery rhymes. Rossetti could write splendidly about joy and love. But she could also write about darkness. As someone who struggled with depression all her life, she knew dark days, and in poetry she gave voice to that darkness and struggled to reconcile it with her faith.
 
“In the bleak midwinter” is full of vivid contrasts. In the first stanza, we get an evocative description of winter (clearly, an English winter, not a Palestinian one!). It is “the bleak midwinter,” and everything is frozen and hard – “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.” This winter is deep and seems to have gone on forever—Rossetti masterfully creates that sense of winter’s duration in the line “snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,” which adds layer upon layer to this winter.
 
In the second stanza, God enters into this coldness and hardness. Rossetti describes both the first and second comings of Christ in the poem. Heaven and earth are too small to hold him, and both will “flee away” when he comes again; but at this moment in time, “in the bleak midwinter,” Christ enters in.
 
Rossetti evokes the simplicity, the poverty of the Christmas stable, again, through powerful contrasts. “Cherubim worship [him] night and day,” but here, Christ has only a “breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay.” Angels fall down in worship before him, but he accepts the homage of animals. There may have been archangels gathered around, but here in the stable, his mother’s kiss is enough.
 
Again and again, Rossetti contrasts the power and glory of heaven with the simplicity and poverty of earth. For me, Rossetti’s poem recalls the early Christian hymn in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Christ Jesus… though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7). This self-emptying love of Christ is seen in the Incarnation, and reaches its fullest expression on the cross.
 
I think that passage from Philippians also sheds light on the last stanza of the poem: “What can I give him, poor as I am?” The poem began with such a barren image of the bleak midwinter – a frozen earth, “water like a stone.” And at the end, the speaker is similarly barren. She has no role to play here – she is neither a shepherd nor a wise man – and she has no gift to give: nothing except her heart—her love, her self.  I am reminded of St. Therese’s words of self-offering: “At the close of life's evening I shall appear before you with empty hands.”
 
Christmas is so associated with joy and hope and light and peace that it can seem like there is no room for sadness or darkness. But in this poem, Christina Rossetti makes room. Christ comes not just into the sunshine and happiness, but into the “bleak midwinter” of our world. In his self-emptying love, Christ gives meaning to our emptiness.
 




The Burning Babe
Robert Southwell, SJ
 
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorchèd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilèd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
      So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
      With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
      And straight I callèd unto mind that it was Christmas day.
 
 
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.  This week, I’ve chosen a poem by Robert Southwell, “The Burning Babe.” Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Scott.
 
Robert Southwell is a fascinating figure. He was born in 1561 into an English Catholic family, and lived his entire life under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when it was illegal to practice the Catholic faith, and priests were not allowed to enter England on pain of death. Nevertheless, at the age of 15, Southwell headed to Europe to study for the priesthood in Douai, France and later in Rome. He entered the Jesuits and was ordained at 23. After a few years in Europe, he asked for the difficult and dangerous assignment of serving as a clandestine missionary in his native land. His return to England was watched by spies, and over the next few years he wrote and ministered in secret, moving from safe house to safe house, often using a pseudonym.
 
Queen Elizabeth’s priest-hunters caught up with Southwell at Uxendon Hall in Harrow in 1592. He was arrested and spent the next three years in the Tower of London, where the notorious Richard Topcliffe tortured him repeatedly. In 1595, he was brought to trial and sentenced to death by hanging at Tyburn. As he died, he repeated the words of Jesus on the cross: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Southwell was beatified in 1929, and canonized in 1970.
 
Southwell lived in a great age of poets – he was a contemporary of Shakespeare (to whom he may have been related), Mary Sidney, and John Donne—and poetry was an important part of his ministry. His poems, which were very Catholic, were widely read and shared. “The Burning Babe” is one of his best-known lyrics.
 
This poem is written in long lines of 14 syllables, and it has a simple quality, almost a sing-song rhythm, like a folk song. But the imagery is anything but simple. Southwell’s poem is built around a conceit, which is a literary term for an elaborate, and often strange, comparison. The beginning of the poem gives us a vivid contrast between dark and light, cold and heat. “As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow, / Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow.” The warmth and light come from a “pretty Babe all burning bright.” This infant weeps so copiously that the speaker is surprised the flames are not extinguished. The child does not weep from the pain of the flames; rather, he weeps because “none approach to warm their hearts.”
 
In a way that’s very typical of the poetry of his time, Southwell brings great meaning to every aspect of the comparison. Every detail means something. The child is the furnace. “Love is the fire.” Justice adds the fuel. Mercy “blows the coals,” making the fire even hotter. The smoke is “sighs,” the ashes “shames and scorns.” And the metal worked on in this furnace is human souls.
 
The comparison is not Southwell’s invention. The prophet Malachi uses the image of the Messiah as a blacksmith: “Who can endure the day of his coming?... He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, refining them like gold or silver” (Malachi 3:3). In Southwell’s image, Christ is not the blacksmith, but the crucible itself; and the bath in which this metal will be tempered is his blood.
 
At the end of Southwell’s poem, the sudden vision vanishes, and the speaker realizes: “straight I callèd unto mind that it was Christmas day.” It’s such a strange image, isn’t it, and perhaps it may not seem very “Christmassy.” We are accustomed to cozy images on Christmas, aren’t we—light and warmth, for sure, but not fire. And yet, Christmas and Good Friday are not very far apart. In the familiar words of the carol, “I wonder as I wander / Out under the sky, / How Jesus the Savior / Did come for to die.” Southwell, a martyr himself who saw many friends martyred, understood that reality. Jesus is born so that he can redeem us on the cross, and in some sense, the beginning of his life is the beginning of his passion.
 
Jesus shares our life, so that we can share in his; he is born so that we can come to new life in him. In the liturgy of Christmas Day, the Church prays: “Grant…  that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” It’s a prayer for transformation—the transformation the “burning babe” came to work in each of us.
 

 



In Too Much Light
Jessica Powers
 
The Magi had one only star to follow,
a single sanctuary lamp hung low,
gold ornament in the astonished air.
I am confounded in this latter day;
I find stars everywhere.
 
Rumor locates the presence of a night
out past the loss of perishable sun
where, round midnight, I shall come to see
that all the stars are one.
 
I long for this night of the onement of stars
when days of scattered shining are my lot
and my confusion. Yet faith even here
burns her throat dry, cries: on this very spot
of mornings, see, there is not any place
where the sought Word is not.
Under and over, in and out, this morn
flawlessly, purely, wakes the newly born.
Behold, all places which have light in them
truly are Bethlehem.
 
(1964)
 
This past week, the Bethlehem star has been making headlines. Again! That’s because we have the opportunity to witness conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which means that they appear, from our perspective on planet earth, to come very together in the sky. It’s a phenomenon that happens about every twenty years, but there hasn’t been a visible alignment of the two planets this close since March 4, 1226! This phenomenon is known as the “Christmas Star,” because it has been speculated for centuries that the “star” that guided the Magi might have been a similar conjunction of two planets.
 
In this lovely Christmas poem, Jessica Powers plays on the idea of the “great conjunction”—in her words “the onement of stars.” She sets up her problem at the beginning of the poem – the Magi who followed the star to the infant Christ “had one only star to follow.” I love the comparison of the Christmas star to “a single sanctuary lamp hung low”—this image emphasizes how easy to spot the star was, and also what it marked—the presence of Christ. It was like a “gold ornament in the astonished air.” It was easier for the Magi, Powers suggests – they knew exactly what to look for. But now it is more difficult. “I am confounded in this latter day; / I find stars everywhere.”
 
The speaker believes that she will have equal clarity one day – it’s rumored, she says, that one day we “shall come to see / that all the stars are one,” but this won’t happy until “midnight” –in other words, not until eternity, “past the loss of perishable sun.” We have to wait for this “great conjunction” of stars.
 
What is Powers talking about here when she talks about stars? That image of the “sanctuary lamp” in the first stanza gives us the clue. She is talking about the presence of Christ. The Magi, following a single star, found Christ himself. She ‘finds stars everywhere”—she finds Christ, but she doesn’t find him in one place. “I long for this night of the onement of stars / when days of scattered shining are my lot / and my confusion.” There are glimmers of Christ’s presence everywhere—but the light is “scattered” and at times confusing.
 
The end of the poem provides some resolution to this dilemma of hers, this being “In too much light.” Faith is saying – yelling, even—“burning her throat dry” to proclaim what this “scattered shining” means. It means that in even this place of “mornings,” where the night sky with its Christmas star is no longer visible, “there is not any place / where the sought Word is not.” The Christ she is looking for is everywhere—in every place she looks. “All places which have light in them / truly are Bethlehem.” No longer is Christ is born in just one place. Everywhere there is light—everywhere there is love, hope, truth, service, faith, reconciliation—Christ is born.
 
So if you missed the “onement of stars,” and didn’t see the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn on the horizon this week, never fear. As Pope Francis has written, “The Lord… comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours” (Laudato Si).
 
Have a blessed and merry Christmas.
 

 

 

 

At the round earth’s imagined corners
John Donne
 
At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.


 
This week, we’re reading a poem about the end of the world – John Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagined corners.”
 
We’ve met John Donne before in this series. Donne was a remarkable figure. He started out as a Catholic and ended up an Anglican; he went from ambitious man of the world to priest. This poem, one of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” is a really spectacular example of Donne’s metaphysical poetry. “Metaphysical” refers something beyond the natural world. In terms of poetry, we use the word to describe poets like Donne, where the physical and the spiritual are never far apart, and where there is a penchant for intricate and sometimes downright strange imagery. In one of his most famous poems, Donne uses the image of a flea to talk about love! Whenever we encounter a poem by Donne, we know we’re going to get some pretty amazing imagery.
 
This sonnet begins with a bang. “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels.” Donne draws on the Scriptures here: in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes about what the end of the world will be like: “the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (I Thess 4:16).
 
The angels blow their trumpets, and the dead are raised. Donne describes this raising of the dead in a truly epic way. The souls of the dead fly back to their earthly dwelling places: “arise, arise / From death, you numberless infinities / Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go.” These are dead of all times, all places, and all causes. They died in “the flood,” in the time of Noah. They died from natural causes – “age” and “agues” and “dearth,” or famine. And many died unnatural deaths: killed in wars, by tyrants, lost to suicide, the death penalty, and accidents. And Donne does not forget those who will still be alive at the time of the Last Judgment—“you whose eyes / Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.” The vision is vast, wide-ranging, all-inclusive.
 
In the sestet, the last six lines of the poem, all this drama and action and movement ceases suddenly and dramatically. “But let them wait, Lord.” The speaker asks God to hold off on the end of time, for a moment. Why? Because he has sins to repent of. “'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace / When we are there,” he says. This is the time of repentance, and this is the place of repentance.
 
In the passage from I Thessalonians that inspired Donne’s poem, St. Paul describes how “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17). Earth will be left behind. Donne’s speaker began the poem calling on the angels to blow their trumpets and the dead to rise. But he knows he is not ready for the air yet, because once that trumpet sounds, it will be too late for repentance.
 
The poem that began with epic imagery of the cosmos ends with a quiet spotlight on one repentant sinner on earth. “Here on this lowly ground / Teach me how to repent.” All he needs to do is repent his sins, and Christ will do the rest. To repent is “as good,” Donne writes, “As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.”
 
“Teach me how to repent.” We often bristle when we hear that word, repent. Our culture prefers to talk about “choices” rather than “sins.” But we Christians know that sin is real, and that it can do damage to ourselves and those around us. The sinful choices we make can tear the fabric of family and of society. All of us are sinners, called to repentance. And when, like the speaker of Donne’s poem, we dare to look honestly at our own lives and to recognize our sinfulness—to repent—Jesus pours out mercy and forgiveness. And then we can look to his coming not with dread and fear, but with hope.
 

 



 

Advent
Jessica Powers
 
I live my Advent in the womb of Mary.
And on one night when a great star swings free
from its high mooring and walks down the sky
to be the dot above the Christus i,
I shall be born of her by blessed grace.
I wait in Mary-darkness, faith’s walled place,
with hope’s expectance of nativity.
 
I knew for long she carried me and fed me,
guarded and loved me, though I could not see.
But only now, with inward jubilee,
I come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge:
someone is hidden in this dark with me.
 
(1948)
 
 
We started this Poem of the Week series with Jessica Powers. Jessica Powers—Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit—was a poet both before and after she became a Carmelite nun. Many of her poems use imagery from the Church’s rich mystical tradition, and this poem, “Advent,” is no exception.
 
“I live my Advent in the womb of Mary.” It’s such a surprising line. Advent is, when you think about it, a pregnant season. In Advent, we wait for the second coming, which is sometimes likened to a birth: “all creation is groaning in labor pains, even until now,” said St. Paul (Romans 8:22). And we wait for Christmas, our celebration of Christ’s first coming. If Christmas is about Christ’s birth into the world, then Advent is about Mary’s pregnancy. “I live my Advent in the womb of Mary.” The poet imagines herself in Mary’s womb. Here, in darkness, yet with “hope’s expectance of nativity,” she waits to be brought to birth.  I love this poem’s description of the Christmas star, swinging “free / from its high mooring,” walking “down the sky / to be the dot above the Christus i.”
 
In the second part of this poem, the sense of mystery deepens. “I knew for long she carried me and fed me, / guarded and loved me, though I could not see. / But only now, with inward jubilee, / I come upon earth’s most amazing knowledge: / someone is hidden in this dark with me.” In this place—the speaker is “carried” and “fed,” “guarded and loved,” but in the darkness. And yet, not alone in the dark. Who is hidden in this dark with her? Christ, of course—her brother, even her twin!
 
“I live my Advent in the womb of Mary.” This poem is not really about the liturgical season of Advent. Rather, Advent here is a metaphor for the life of faith: a life of waiting, in darkness, yet conscious, in moments of “inward jubilee,” that we are not alone: that Christ is with us. The poem reflects the Church’s teaching about Mary. The Church calls her Mother of God, because God became incarnate in her womb. She is also Mother of the Church and Mother of believers.
 
The Church has always raised Mary high, not simply because she gave birth to Jesus, but rather, because she is the model of Christian discipleship. Mary was not a passive vessel. She did not merely consent, but actively cooperated with God’s plan, and continues to play an active role in the life of believers, just as she did at the wedding feast at Cana—“do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). As Pope Francis has written, “She is the handmaid of the Father who sings his praises. She is the friend who is ever concerned that wine not be lacking in our lives. She is the woman whose heart was pierced by a sword and who understands all our pain. As mother of all, she is a sign of hope for peoples suffering the birth pangs of justice…. As a true mother, she walks at our side, she shares our struggles and she constantly surrounds us with God’s love” (Joy of the Gospel, 286).
 
Mary always points us towards Christ. Incarnate once in her womb, he continues to make himself present, in the sacramental life of the Church, and in the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters in need. In this way, Mary constantly reminds us of “earth’s most amazing knowledge: someone is hidden in this dark with” us.

 

 

 

 

Kneeling
R. S. Thomas
 
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
                        Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.


 
We met Welsh poet Ronald Stuart Thomas earlier in this series. A priest of the Church of England, Thomas wrote many poems on spiritual themes, especially on the challenges of prayer.
 
In this short poem, Thomas evokes a peaceful moment, “kneeling before an altar / Of wood in a stone church / in summer.” The speaker seems to be alone in the empty church, and yet the moment has great import, great drama. He is “waiting for the God / To speak.” As Thomas describes the scene, we get the sense that everything is waiting for God to speak: the air is “a staircase / For silence”: the image gives us a sense of anticipation, as well as the potential for connection, like Jacob’s ladder, reaching from earth to heaven. The sun surrounds the speaker with light, spotlighting him like an performer on a stage, “as though I acted / A great role.” And then there’s the audience: a “close throng / of spirits waiting” with him, for whatever God will say: for the “message.”
 
After all this, the poem takes a surprising turn. “Prompt me, God; / But not yet.” Words of prayer are on the tip of his tongue, but he holds back. “When I speak, / Though it be you who speak / Through me, something is lost.” Even if God inspires what he is going to say, “something is lost.” That “something” is this pregnant silence, in the company with the “spirits,” the sun, the air, the church itself, all waiting together in a silence that is filled with God, even though God is silent. In the last line of the poem, Thomas says: “The meaning is in the waiting.” The revelation he awaits has already come, in the silent waiting itself.
 
Though the poem is set in the summer, I think this is the right poem for this time of year. This past Sunday, we began the season of Advent. The word “Advent” means “coming” and this season is all about waiting for Christ’s coming. Our Advent waiting is multi-layered. We wait and watch for the second coming, the day of Christ’s return, and the Church dares to await that day with joy and hope: we pray that Christ “may he find us watchful in prayer / and exultant in his praise” (Roman Missal). And there is another kind of waiting in Advent: we wait in anticipation of the celebration of Christ’s first coming at Christmas. Advent traditions like the Advent wreath, with its gradually increasing number of lit candles, and the Advent calendar, with its doors and windows for each day leading up to Christmas, are visual emblems of this joyful waiting. In our Advent waiting, past and future merge:  in the same moment, we look to our beginning and to our end.
 
In a lovely book on R. S. Thomas entitled Frequencies of God, Carys Walsh writes of this poem: “There is no anxiety in this waiting; nor is it something to be endured or suffered. There is simply the understanding that waiting upon God is fundamental to knowing God… Thomas opens up the paradoxical possibility that God might be revealed while we are waiting for God to be revealed.”
 
Have a blessed Advent!



 

Vespers
BY LOUISE GLÜCK
 
From Wild Iris (1992)
 
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.
 
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.  This week, I’ve chosen a poem by Louise Glück. You may have heard her name recently—she is the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature. Jackie O’Ryan will read Glück’s poem “Vespers,” and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Louise Glück is an American poet, born in 1943 in New York City to a Jewish parents of Russian and Hungarian descent. She wanted to be a writer from a very young age, and even in her early teens was sending poems and even books of poems off to publishers. As a teenager, she struggled with anorexia, and her illness and eventual cure was a significant turning point in her life. She credits her years in psychoanalysis not only with treating her disease, but with teaching her how to think.
 
Glück published her first book of poems in 1968, and many other books have followed. Glück has also spoken of years of crippling writer’s block. One critic has written: Glück’s “basic concerns” are “betrayal, mortality, love and the sense of loss that accompanies it… She is at heart the poet of a fallen world” (Don Bogen). Her language is “staunchly straightforward, remarkably close to the diction of ordinary speech….. [but with] a weight that is far from colloquial” (Dana Goodyear).
 
I think that assessment of Glück’s language is helpful in approaching this poem, “Vespers.” The poet describes something so ordinary—her struggle to grow tomato plants—and yet the stakes are high. The poem begins:
 
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
  
Clearly, the poem is addressed to God, and the speaker is giving an accounting. I am reminded of the parable in Matthew: “a man who was going on a journey called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one—to each according to his ability. Then he went away” (Mt. 25:14-15). Like the servants in the parable, the speaker knows she has to do something with what God has given her.
 
Note the formal, distant language—“return on investment,” “report,” “assignment,” “principally,” all words which we would expect to see in business correspondence—not in an address to God. This gives a lightness, even a humor, to the subject: “I must report / failure in my assignment, principally / regarding the tomato plants.” But after this light beginning, the poem goes deeper. The speaker confesses her failure, but also points out to God all the circumstances beyond her control which played their part. If God wants her to grow tomato plants, why did he make it so hard? Why not provide her with dry days and warm nights, the weeks of summer others enjoy? 
 
The emotional distance of the beginning of the poem breaks down, and now we hear how deeply the speaker feels this failure. She was so aware of the beauty and promise of these plants, their “first shoots / like wings, tearing the soil,” and the disease that struck them was painful, even heart-breaking. And this heartbreak is a uniquely human experience: “I doubt / you have a heart, in our understanding of / that term.”  For God lives in eternity, and thus, Glück says in an interesting phrase, God is “immune to foreshadowing.”
 
So what are these tomato plants foreshadowing?  By the end of the poem, we know that this is not just about tomato plants: it’s about things dying before their time, the fear of failing in our responsibility towards the gifts and the living things entrusted to our care. “you may not know / how much terror we bear,” the speaker observes, to see that first diseased leaf, to see leaves falling from the trees before their time, “in August, in early darkness.” The poem ends “I am responsible / for these vines.” To be unable to protect, to bring to fruition, what we are responsible for—this is what is heart-breaking, terrifying. The title of the poem, “Vespers,” reinforces the prayer-dimension of this address to God, and also reminds us of evening, the coming of darkness.
 
This poem is a great example of Glück’s work—deceptively simple language, powerful impact. As one critic has observed, “No one writes about emotionally charged subjects with such sparse, cold, and nuanced language” (Jeffrey McDaniel). The poem is a prayer, and a difficult one. Glück prays here like Job, and asks questions the way Job does: “I would speak with the Almighty; I want to argue with God” (Job 13:3).




 

Spring and Fall
BY GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS
 
to a young child
 
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
 
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.
 
This week, we’re back in the company of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Scott Webster will read Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall,” and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Scott.
 
I thought this poem was the perfect choice for this time of year, when the leaves are falling from the trees, and we are feeling winter in the air.
 
Hopkins addresses “Spring and Fall” “to a young child,” a girl named Margaret. We don’t know if Margaret was a real person – it doesn’t really matter. We do know that she is a child, and that as the poem begins she is weeping because the leaves are falling.
 
In this poem, Hopkins’ wonderfully distinctive voice and language are on display. “Margaret, are you grieving / over Goldengrove unleaving?”  The natural world is never generic in Hopkins’ poetry. A few weeks ago, we read Hopkins’ poem “Binsey Poplars,” and we talked about “inscape,” Hopkins’ word for the unique and unrepeatable individuality of everything—not just people, but animals, trees and even landscapes. In this poem, the woods are given a name, “Goldengrove.” It’s a coinage of Hopkins, one of several in this poem, and it could describe any beautiful forest in the fall. But “Goldengrove” is capitalized, giving it the individuality of a name. Clearly, these woods have an “inscape,” to which the child is responding.
 
Hopkins marvels that a child like Margaret can be sad because of the “unleaving” of the trees. He asks, “leaves like the things of man, you / with your fresh thoughts care for, can you?” How is it she can care so much for the natural world, he wonders, at her young age?  And yet, he knows that “as the heart grows older / It will come to such sights colder.” Most adults never “spare a sigh” to grieve, “though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” Isn’t this a fantastic description of the world at this time of year – “worlds of wanwood,” countless leaves, lying “leafmeal”—still another coinage, but we know exactly what Hopkins is talking about.
 
In the second half of the poem, Hopkins does not answer Margaret’s question, “why.” Instead, he answers his own question of why the child cares, why she weeps at the falling of the leaves. “Now no matter, child, the name: / Sorrow’s springs are the same. / Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed / What heart heard of, ghost guessed.” Margaret’s sorrow, Hopkins muses, comes from the source of all sorrow. It is not something Margaret could express aloud or articulate to herself. But the heart and the “ghost,” the spirit within her, know the answer: “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.” Margaret weeps for Margaret: the falling of the leaves is the annual reminder that she will also die one day.  Margaret is the spring; but autumn will come. Most of the poem is quite intricate in its diction, especially with the playful coinages so typical of Hopkins. But that last line is simple and direct: “It is Margaret you mourn for.” The straightforward language intensifies the impact of the realization that she, too, will die.
 
Gerard Manley Hopkins was far from the first to compare the falling of the leaves to the passing away of generations. In fact, one critic has written: “The simile is quite likely the oldest readily identifiable poetic artifice in European literature.” Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton—all of these poets used the image of leaves in the fall to suggest the numberless dead. In the Iliad, we read:
 
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.   (II. 6.146-49)
 
In this short poem, Hopkins takes a classic, even a hackneyed image, and breathes new life into it. Viewing the change in seasons through the eyes of a child, Hopkins does not see a generic forest shedding its leaves, but a unique and wonderful place—“Goldengrove unleaving.” And it is not merely faceless generations that come and go; it is an individual, Margaret, who, without fully understanding it, feels and knows that what happens to the leaves will one day happen to her—to each of us. This is the destiny we have in common with all who have ever lived, and yet it still has power to shake us:  “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
 





Dawn Revisited
By Rita Dove
 
Read the poem here:
 
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51663/dawn-revisited
 
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week.
 
This week, I’ve chosen a poem by Rita Dove, entitled “Dawn Revisited.” Jackie O’Ryan will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Jackie.
 
Rita Dove is an American poet born in 1952. As a child growing up in Akron, Ohio, Dove’s parents encouraged her to read early and widely. She was a brilliant student—a Presidential Scholar, a National Merit Scholar, and later a Fulbright Scholar. She earned her MFA at the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In 1993, she became the United States Poet Laureate, not only the first African American but the youngest person ever named to that post. She transformed the office of Poet Laureate, traveling the country and using her position to promote the arts. Dove is best known as a poet, but she has written in other forms as well, including a novel, short stories, plays, essays, and lyrics. Dove has said: “There’s no reason to subscribe authors to particular genres. I’m a writer, and I write in the form that most suits what I want to say.” She has received many accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize, and teaches at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
 
“Dawn Revisited” was written in 1999 and appeared in Dove’s collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks. It’s a wonderful meditation on past and present—on history and renewal. “Imagine you wake up / with a second chance,” the poem begins. In this second chance, some things stay the same—looking out the window, “the blue jay / hawks his pretty wares / and the oak still stands.” But, the poet says, “if you don’t look back / the future never happens.” This new dawn is not an erasure of the past, of history, because without the past, there is no future.
 
Dove captures the freshness of a new day. Familiar things take on wonderful depth and newness. “How good to rise in sunlight, / in the prodigal smell of biscuits - / eggs and sausage on the grill.” The smell of biscuits in the morning is not just good—it’s “prodigal,” suggesting a reckless generosity. These homey details are juxtaposed with more conventionally poetic images: “The whole sky is yours / to write on, blown open / to a blank page.”  For a writer, what better image of fresh possibility than that? In this “second chance,” the familiar and the unknown are both present.
 
I find the end of the poem surprising. “Come on, / shake a leg! You'll never know / who's down there, frying those eggs, / if you don't get up and see.” When we wake to the smell of breakfast cooking, we usually have a pretty good idea of who’s cooking it!  But the poet says “you’ll never know / who’s down there… if you don’t get up and see.”  The poem invites us to be open to the surprise of the world around us, including—perhaps especially—the most familiar things and people. The renewal this dawn brings extends to our relationships, too.
 
Dove’s poem is called “Dawn Revisited.” In the Scriptures, dawn is a very significant image. In Isaiah, dawn is associated with works of justice: God says that when we care for the naked, the homeless, and the hungry, our light shall “break forth like the dawn.” In the New Testament, dawn is specifically associated with the coming of Christ: Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophecies that “in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” Christ, who was “in the beginning with God,” is also as new as the dawn. In the familiar words of St. Augustine, Christ is “ever ancient, ever new.”
 
To live in Christ, ever ancient, ever new, is to be invited to renewal—not just once, but again and again. As Pope Francis has written, “with a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew” (Joy of the Gospel, 3). This renewal is not about forgetting our history. The believer, Pope Francis has said, is “one who remembers” (Joy of the Gospel, 13). We need memory, because, as Dove says, “if you don’t look back, / the future never happens.”
 
St. Paul invites us, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). It’s not unlike the invitation we get in this poem by Rita Dove: “The whole sky is yours / to write on, blown open / to a blank page. Come on, / shake a leg!”

 



 

From In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
 
XXXII
 
Her eyes are homes of silent prayer,
      Nor other thought her mind admits
      But, he was dead, and there he sits,
And he that brought him back is there.
 
Then one deep love doth supersede
      All other, when her ardent gaze
      Roves from the living brother's face,
And rests upon the Life indeed.
 
All subtle thought, all curious fears,
      Borne down by gladness so complete,
      She bows, she bathes the Saviour's feet
With costly spikenard and with tears.
 
Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers,
      Whose loves in higher love endure;
      What souls possess themselves so pure,
Or is there blessedness like theirs?
 
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week. On November 2, the Church keeps the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed—All Souls. To mark this day of remembrance of the dead, I’ve chosen a poem from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, one of the most celebrated elegies in English. In this poem from In Memoriam, Tennyson imagines the thoughts of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, after Jesus raises her brother from the dead. Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Scott.
 
Alfred Tennyson was born in Somersby, in Lincolnshire, England, in 1809. A poet from a young age, he first won acclaim while a student at Cambridge, where he was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for an early poem. It was also at Cambridge that Tennyson met Arthur Henry Hallam, another aspiring poet, who became his closest friend. Everything was going well for Tennyson: in 1830, he published a well-reviewed collection of poems; and in 1831, his friend Hallam became engaged to Tennyson’s sister Emilia. But then it all fell apart: his 1833 collection, which included “The Lady of Shalott,” was panned by the press; and on September 13, while on holiday in Austria with his family, Hallam died very suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was just 22 years old. As one of Hallam’s friends wrote, his death came as “a loud and terrible stroke from the reality of things upon the faery building of our youth.” Tennyson sank into grief and depression. He published nothing for ten years, though he continued to write—especially the lyrics which eventually became In Memoriam A. H. H. (the initials of Arthur Henry Hallam).
 
In Memoriam consists of 133 cantos or shorter poems in which the poet reflects on his loss and seeks some sort of resolution. There are moments of deep faith and also expressions of doubt. All the poems are written in the same meter and rhyme scheme, which has come to be known as the In Memoriam stanza. Tennyson did not invent it, but it is an appropriate choice—the ABBA rhyme scheme forces us to wait for resolution, reflecting the circuitous process of grief.
 
In this section of the poem, Tennyson meditates on the miracle of Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead. In the Gospel of John, the story of the raising of Lazarus is followed by the anointing at Bethany, when Jesus, with his disciples, is having supper with Lazarus and his sisters in their home. During this gathering, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with costly perfume.
 
Tennyson beautifully imagines the scene from Mary’s perspective. “Her eyes are homes of silent prayer” as she looks from her brother, who was dead and now lives, to Jesus, the one who brought him back. Without saying anything, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with “spikenard and with tears.” “One deep love doth supersede / All other,” Tennyson says: she loves her brother, but she loves Christ more—or rather, her love for her brother leads her to Christ. The poem ends by marveling at this faith. “Thrice blest whose lives are faithful prayers,” he says—people like Mary, who pray without words, who go straight to the heart of things, “whose loves in higher love endure”—whose human loves find their origin and their fulfillment in love of Christ. “What souls possess themselves so pure,” Tennyson asks at the end of this short poem, “Or is there blessedness like theirs?”
 
It’s a wonderful meditation on the Scripture story. I think the way Tennyson concludes this lyric is also significant:  it ends with a question mark. Tennyson wishes for faith like Mary’s, but he always has more questions than answers. Through the poems of In Memoriam, we see the process of Tennyson’s grief, as he moves from the first raw stages of grief to peace and hope. We also see the way this grief shatters his faith, and puts it back together again. Grief forces him to reckon with death, to acknowledge his doubts, and ultimately to return to God, with a faith that is less sure of itself, perhaps, but deeper and more authentic than before.
 
As he writes in another poem:
 
I falter where I firmly trod,
      And falling with my weight of cares
      Upon the great world's altar-stairs
That slope thro' darkness up to God,
 
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
      And gather dust and chaff, and call
      To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
 

 

 



Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621)
 
Psalm 70
 
Lord, hie thee me to save;
      Lord, now to help me haste:
Shame let them surely have
      And of confusion taste,
            That hold my soul in chase.
                  Let them be forcèd back,
                  And no disgraces lack,
            That joy in my disgrace.
 
Back forcèd let them be
      And for a fair reward
Their own foul ruin see
      Who laugh and laugh out hard
            When I most inly moan.
                  But mirth and joy renew
                  In them thy paths ensue
            And love thy help alone.
 
Make them with gladness sing:
      To God be ever praise.
And fail not me to bring,
      My downcast state to raise.
            Thy speedy aid and stay
                  In thee my succour grows:
            From thee my freedom flows:
                  Lord, make no long delay.
 

Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.
 
This week, I’ve chosen a Psalm – which is, of course, the poetry anthology that is part of the Bible!  Jackie O’Ryan will read Mary Sidney Herbert’s translation of Psalm 70, which dates to the end of the 16th century, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Jackie.
 
This poem is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there’s its author. Mary Sidney was born in 1561. Upon her marriage at the age of 16, she became the Countess of Pembroke and one of the wealthiest and most influential women of her time. With her wealth and status, Mary Sidney had access to education which was extremely rare for women of her time. She was exceptionally well read, and fluent in French, Italian, and Latin. Her poetry was circulated widely among her friends.

Mary’s older brother was the poet Sir Philip Sidney. When Philip died at the young age of 31, Mary (just 25 years old at the time) became his literary executor and completed his unfinished translation of the book of Psalms. She not only edited her brother’s work on the first 43 psalms, but translated the remaining 107 psalms herself. It is an extraordinary achievement. Every one of the psalms is in a unique meter and rhyme scheme, some of which had never been attempted in English before. The translation had a significant impact on English poetry. John Donne called it “the highest matter in the noblest form,” and said of the Sidneys: “they tell us why, and teach us how to sing.”

And then there’s the Psalm itself.  The Book of Psalms is an anthology, a hymnal, if you will—a collection of prayers and hymns which were used in worship at various times during the year. The Psalms include a huge range of moods, from festive joy to lament. There are prayers of repentance, prayers of trust and confidence in God, and prayers of praise.

Psalm 70 is a lament. It begins with an urgent prayer for help:  “Lord, hie thee me to save” – “now to help me haste.” (In parentheses, these lines have a significant place in the liturgy—they are used at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Hours – “O God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.”) What might surprise us is where the Psalm goes from there. The Psalmist asks God to punish enemies – “Let them be forced back / And no disgraces lack, / That joy in my disgrace”; “For a fair reward / Their own foul ruin see / Who laugh and laugh out hard / When I most inly moan.” The Psalmist asks that those who mock and pursue him be punished with shame, disgrace, and ruin.

Typical of the laments in the Book of Psalms, the text doesn’t stay in this place of imprecation, but moves in a new direction, as the psalmist asks God’s blessing on those who trust in God: “mirth and joy renew / In them thy paths ensue”; “make them with gladness sing.” The Psalm ends with an expression of hope and a renewal of the speaker’s plea for help. “Fail not… / My downcast state to raise… Lord, make no long delay.”
 
It’s easy for us to get distracted by the imprecations in Psalm 70 and other psalms of lament—wait, we’re not supposed to be asking God to punish our enemies, are we?! I think the more important thing to recognize here is the honesty of this prayer. The Psalmist doesn’t hold back, but brings everything to God—including feelings of resentment, abandonment, and betrayal. When we pray, whether on our own or as a community, I think we sometimes feel like we need to be on our best behavior, burying our resentments, our anger, our frustration, or our fear. The Psalms teach us a different way to pray: they urge us simply to be ourselves with God, and to say what’s on our mind and heart. They also remind us to keep coming back to the foundation of our prayer, trust in God, and God’s time: “In thee my succour grows: / From thee my freedom flows: / Lord, make no long delay.”
 
 
Read a contemporary Catholic translation of Psalm 70 from the Revised Grail Edition.
https://www.giamusic.com/sacred_music/RGP/psalmDisplay.cfm?psalm_id=282
 
Read the King James version of Psalm 70, and explore many other translations:
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+70&version=NIV
 
 
 



Malachi Black, "Entering Saint Patrick’s Cathedral" (2020)
 
Read the poem here:  https://poets.org/poem/entering-saint-patricks-cathedral
 
Explore more poems by Malachi Black here: http://www.malachiblack.com/
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week.
 
This week, I’ve chosen “Entering Saint Patrick’s Cathedral” by Malachi Black, a brand-new poem which appeared earlier this year. Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Scott.
 
Malachi Black is a young poet. Born in Boston, he now teaches at the University of San Diego, a Catholic university, and themes of faith are woven through a number of his poems.
 
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is the Cathedral church of the Archdiocese of New York. Of course, it’s much more than that. In many ways, it’s an icon for the Catholic Church in the United States. It’s welcomed Popes and countless visitors—not only Catholics but people of all faiths. It’s also an icon of the Church in this country in its setting—it’s not set among fields or in the middle of a park. It’s in the heart of midtown Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers, cultural landmarks like Rockefeller Center, and Fifth Avenue shops like Louis Vuitton, Sak’s, Cartier, and even Victoria’s Secret. Amid the comings and goings, the buying and selling, of one of New York’s busiest streets, St. Patrick’s is a reminder of the presence and of the beauty and importance of faith amid all the other aspects of life that demand our attention.
 
In his poem, Malachi Black vividly captures two contrasting worlds: the world outside the Cathedral, and the world inside. He steps out of the rain, and as the door slowly closes, the sounds of the city fade and the quiet of the church takes over. The rapid movement of the city—Black mentions cars, bicycles, trucks, and taxis—gives way to stillness. The difference is stark—the door seals out the world “like a coffin lid.”
 
We know from the beginning that the speaker isn’t here as a tourist. He comes in respectfully, carrying his coat, dripping from the rain. He stands there and clears his throat, about to speak. But first he takes a moment to get accustomed to the atmosphere, so different from the haste of the exterior world. We get the sense that the Cathedral is filled—not with people, but with something else. The chill he feels is “dense” with “old Hail Marys,” like whispered by the people in the pews. It’s as if every prayer uttered here has left its mark, become part of the place. Above him, the stained glass windows gather “the dead and martyred” in vivid color, and before him is “the golden holy altar” and the pipes of the organ, both of which are silent now, but which are filled with potential. The altar holds “its silence like a bell,” and the organ, too, is “alive with a vibration tolling / out from the incarnate / source of holy sound.” The altar, on this quiet, rainy day, is like a bell, waiting to ring; and the organ—like those “old Hail Marys”—has left its imprint on the place, and is “alive” even when silent.
 
At the end of the poem, as the ceiling bends above him, “like an ear,” listening, he does not speak. In this place, so filled with presence—of those who have come before, of saints, of God—simply being present to all this is in itself prayer. The poem ends with a simple statement: “My body is my prayer.”
 
I am reminded of some favorite lines from Emily Dickinson on prayer: “awed beyond my errand — / I worshipped — did not ‘pray’ —“ (F525, 1863).
 
Although this poem is about Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, I think it says something about all great cathedrals, and of course, I include our own St. James Cathedral among them! A cathedral, by its nature, stands in the heart of the city, immersed in the world, yet it invites us to glimpse the world that is yet to be, the heavenly city. When we pray here, we are never alone: we are surrounded not only by the images of saints, but by the saints themselves, and those who have gone before us—what the letter to the Hebrews calls “a great cloud of witnesses.”
 
 

 


"Mediterranean Blue"
Naomi Shihab Nye
 
Read this week’s poem here:  https://poets.org/poem/mediterranean-blue
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week. This week, I’ve chosen a poem by a contemporary poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. Jackie O’Ryan will read the poem, then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee father and an American mother. Now based in San Antonio, Texas, she is one of America’s best-known poets, the recipient of countless awards and fellowships. Her poetry highlights the experience of women, of Arab-Americans, of her Mexican American neighbors in San Antonio, of Muslims, and of refugees and immigrants. She has written poetry and prose for children and young adults as well. Nye has also devoted considerable energy to sharing the voices of other poets, editing anthologies that bring poets from around the world to an English-speaking audience.
 
Nye has said: “to counteract negative images conveyed by blazing headlines, writers must steadily transmit simple stories closer to heart and more common to everyday life. Then we will be doing our job.”  This poem, “Mediterranean Blue,” written in 2019, is a perfect example of that approach.
 
Back in 2013, the Italian island of Lampedusa made headlines when a ship carrying more than 500 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea in North Africa, sank just off the coast. 366 people died. The death toll was higher partly because the boat was so overcrowded, partly because those on board did not know how to swim. One survivor said, "I'd never been in a body of water before. I was trying to stay afloat by splashing my hands like a dog."
 
Many of us may not realize that this influx of migrants is ongoing. On one day, September 20 of this year, 26 migrant boats landed at Lampedusa in 24 hours, bringing 263 asylum seekers to Italy. At the island’s intake center for refugees, over a thousand people are crowded into a facility designed for 192.
 
This is some of the context for this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. The words “Mediterranean Blue” evoke a beautiful color—we are used to seeing these words on a paint tube or a crayon, perhaps. But here, our attention is immediately drawn to the sea crossed by refugees like those wrecked off the coast of Lampedusa. The poem is as much about Nye’s own experience as it is about theirs: “If you are a child of a refugee, you do not / sleep easily when they are crossing the sea / on small rafts and you know they can’t swim.” She thinks of her own father, and the deep sorrow that is part of the refugee experience: Though he cast aside everything he knew, “tried to be happy, make a new life,” there was something in him “always paddling home,” clinging to things that reminded him of where he began, as a drowning person holds on to whatever is floating in the water. Leaving home has internal consequences as well as external ones.
 
Only in the second part of the poem does Nye speak directly to the reader about the experience of modern-day refugees. “They are the bravest people on earth right now,” she says; “don’t dare look down on them.” Nye reminds us who these people are—people like us, “each mind a universe,” filled with detail and with memory, and with “love for a humble place” – love for their home. They have let go of all that to risk the sea in which they can’t swim. How could we not “reach out a hand,” if we can?
 
I think part of what makes this poem so compelling is that Nye unapologetically involves herself and her own story in a poem about refugees crossing the Mediterranean today. Looking at them, she sees her own father, and she recognizes the humanity of each of these people, the value of their individual experience, their memory. For me, this poem is a reminder that compassion doesn’t come automatically: it’s something we need to work at and to foster in ourselves, by intentionally recognizing ourselves and our own immigrant histories in the headlines around us.
 
For Nye, this active compassion is an essential part of the poet’s task. I want to let Nye conclude our reflection today – this is part of an interview with the poet from 2015, in which she talks about the poet’s civic responsibility.
 
https://poets.org/text/video-naomi-shihab-nye-poets-civic-responsibility
 
 


 

Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Binsey Poplars, felled 1879"
 
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
  Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
  All felled, felled, are all felled;
    Of a fresh and following folded rank
                Not spared, not one
                That dandled a sandalled
         Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
       
  O if we but knew what we do
         When we delve or hew —
     Hack and rack the growing green!
          Since country is so tender
     To touch, her being só slender,
     That, like this sleek and seeing ball
     But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
                 To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
     Strokes of havoc unselve
           The sweet especial scene,
     Rural scene, a rural scene,
     Sweet especial rural scene.
 
 


 
We have met Gerard Manley Hopkins—poet and Jesuit priest—a couple of times in this series. In his poem “God’s Grandeur,” which we read back in April, we saw the strong ecological bent of Hopkins’ poetry, which comes through in this poem as well. “Binsey Poplars” is a short lyric, an elegy for a grove of aspen trees.
 
In the first part of the poem, Hopkins evokes the distinctive beauty of the aspen tree, a type of poplar tree with fluttering leaves (which appear with some frequency in English poetry!). Hopkins describes them as “airy cages” that “quelled” or “quenched” the “leaping sun,” beautifully evoking the way the sun shines through the trees. The Latin name of these trees, populus tremula, arises from the distinctive movement of the aspen’s leaves, and Hopkins evokes that playful movement in the poem, describing how the trees “dandled a sandalled shadow.”
 
Even as he evokes their beauty, we sense the poet’s shock and sadness. His “aspens dear” are “felled, felled, are all felled”: the repetition of the word suggests the blows of the axe which cut them down. Hopkins laments, “if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew.” Nature, he says, is “tender,” and her “being” is “slender” – nature has the delicacy of an eye, and is as easily harmed or destroyed.
 
Why does Hopkins mourn the loss of these trees so much? Aren’t there still plenty of aspens in England? In a journal entry written about six years before “Binsey Poplars,” Hopkins wrote: “The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”
 
That word “inscape” is one of Hopkins’ coinages. It could be defined as the distinctive inner nature or shape of a thing – its uniqueness. That’s why he laments the Binsey poplars—because even though there are many trees left, there’s nothing quite like those particular trees – “after-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” Just ten or twelve strokes of the axe and the trees are gone. Worse than gone, they are “unselved,” another Hopkins coinage which points to the destruction of their distinctive identity.
 
The poem ends with a series of repetitive phrases—“the sweet especial scene / Rural scene, a rural scene, / Sweet especial rural scene.” That repetition has a musical quality, almost like a song fading away. The words are simple, but they highlight, once again, the reality that something unique, something “especial,” has vanished in the destruction of this row of aspen trees.
 
I chose this poem at this time because Hopkins so beautifully captures the real sadness we experience when we witness the destruction of the natural world. A few weeks ago, the row of elm trees along Marion Street, planted about the time of the Cathedral’s dedication, was cut down. The trees had to be removed because of Dutch elm disease, but knowing that did not make it much easier to see them taken away. On a much larger scale, we have all experienced a sense of loss at the destruction caused by the wildfires across the west coast—millions of acres destroyed; trees and animals gone; countless “inscapes,” as Hopkins would call them, lost to us.
 
Hopkins looked at the world with an artist’s keen awareness of the beauty around him. In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis says that this faculty of seeing the beautiful in nature is not tangential to the ecological movement – it is key to protecting the earth and its creatures. Pope Francis writes: “By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change,” he says, we all need to learn to see the world with a poet’s eyes.



 



Emily Dickinson, “These are the days when birds come back” (130) c. 1859
 
These are the days when Birds come back —
A very few — a Bird or two —
To take a backward look.
 
These are the days when skies resume
The old — old sophistries of June —
A blue and gold mistake.
 
Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee —
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.
 
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear —
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
 
Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze —
Permit a child to join.
 
Thy sacred emblems to partake —
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!
 
 
For these days of late summer and early fall, I’ve chosen a favorite poem by Emily Dickinson, “These are the days the when birds come back.” Jackie O’Ryan will read the poem, then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Jackie.
 
Emily Dickinson never went far from home. Indeed, for most of her life, she never left her house and garden. That being said, it wasn’t just any garden. From a very young age, Dickinson learned to love gardening. As an adult, she maintained an extensive garden, and even had a conservatory for rarer plants indoors. She also kept an herbarium, a common hobby at the time—an album in which she collected pressings of more than 400 different plants, each labeled with its Latin name. When she was a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson was pretty miserable—except when she was studying botany!
 
Dickinson’s niece, Martha Bianchi, left a description of Dickinson’s garden. “There were long beds filling the main garden, where one walked between a succession of daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths in spring—through the mid-summer richness—up to the hardy chrysanthemums that smelled of Thanksgiving, savory and chill, when only the marigolds... were left to rival them in pungency.”
 
All of this found its way into Dickinson’s poetry, which is full of close observation of the natural world. She saw more in her small corner of New England than most of us see in a lifetime!  She describes a hummingbird as “a resonance of emerald.” Bees are “black, with Gilt Surcingles – Buccaneers of Buzz.” A snake is “a narrow fellow.” A frog is the hoarse “Orator of April.” Dickinson’s descriptions of nature are as accurate and carefully observed as they are idiosyncratic.
 
In this early poem, written when she was about 29, Dickinson captures the feeling of the transition between the seasons, when fall has arrived but summer is not quite gone. The birds are there—but just “a Bird or two.” The skies are still “blue and gold,” but this is not really summer—this is “sophistry,” a “mistake,” a “cheat.” The bees are not fooled by this “fraud.” And yet, the poet is willing to be deceived and to believe it is still summer, until the falling of the leaves, and the flying of seeds through the air, and the change in the atmosphere put the question beyond any doubt--summer is over.
 
In the last two stanzas, the diction changes. Instead of language of deception and fraud, Dickinson describes this in-between time in much more elevated terms: “Sacrament,” “sacred,” “consecrated,” “immortal.” She begs to join in this “communion,” to be herself a partaker of the “bread” and “wine” of these last of the summer days.
 
This poem shows us Dickinson’s careful attention to the natural world. She speaks of nature in a way that is both playful and reverent. Nature is like a sacrament—a means by which God’s grace comes to us.
 
Dickinson was a contemporary of the Transcendentalists—people like Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and others. But Dickinson was never really a Transcendentalist—for her, nature was never interchangeable with God; nature was rather a gift of God, a sign of God’s reality and presence. And in that belief, Dickinson, always a non-conformist, is actually quite Catholic! In his encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis has written: “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things” (233).


 
August Prayer
Abbot Jeremy Driscoll, OSB


The monks chant their prayer in the hot church
but their heart is not in it.
Only their vows bring them and keep them
at the hot and useless task.
 
Gone are the sweet first good days
when prayer and singing came easy
Gone as well many brothers
who used to stand here singing
              the feasts with them.
 
They know there are ways to beat this heat
and that Americans everywhere are finding them
but they beat instead the tones of psalms
              and, by beating,
              fall through the layers of heat
              and the layers of prayer
 
              And are standing there now
              only with their sound
              and their sweat
 
everything taken from them
except the way that this day in August has been.

(1989; first published in The Night of St. John, reprinted in Some Other Morning, Story Line Press, 1992)


 
Hello there! Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week. For this week, I’ve chosen a poem by a living poet – Jeremy Driscoll, who is the Abbot of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. Scott Webster will read the poem “August Prayer” and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Scott.
 
Jeremy Driscoll is a monk, priest, theologian, liturgist, scholar, and now Abbot at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. He’s also a poet. This poem, “August Prayer,” was published in 1989.
 
The motto of the Benedictines is “ora et labora,” “prayer and work,” which is reflected in the “horarium” or daily schedule of the monks, which follows a fixed rhythm of just that – times for prayer and times for work.  At Mount Angel, the monks gather for prayer in the church six times each day, in addition to time set aside for quiet reflection and lectio divina at other times during the day. In addition to daily Mass, the monks chant the Liturgy of the Hours.
 
In his Rule, St. Benedict wrote that “nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God”—his way of referring to the shared worship of the community. Driscoll’s poem captures how difficult this work can be at times—the weariness, the discouragement, the boredom that can set in. The monks are in the church chanting, Driscoll says, “but their heart is not in it. / Only their vows bring them and keep them / at the hot and useless task.” They remember the “sweet first good days” when this way of life felt easy and pleasant; and they remember those who have gone away.
 
The “heat” in this poem is not that of an August day in Mount Angel—which can get very hot indeed!  The “heat” stands for all the circumstances, internal and external, that make it hard to live the religious life in our times. Our culture extends all kinds of promises for happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. Driscoll evokes the language of advertising: “there are ways to beat this heat / and… Americans everywhere are finding them.” But the monks, weary though they are, decline these offers. “They beat instead the tones of psalms.” And eventually, persevering in the “Work of God,” they get somewhere. Not to a vision of the heavens, but to a place where “everything [is] taken from them / except the way that this August day has been.” They are left with nothing, nothing but the present moment—and that in itself is transcendent.
 
I think this is an appropriate poem as our local Church observes a Year of the Eucharist. Participating in the liturgy is not always “sweet” and easy. The rhythms of the Mass are so different from anything else we do during the week; the culture in which we live has many ways of hinting to us that liturgy, and worship itself, is useless or irrelevant. We are surrounded by voices telling us that there are better ways to “beat the heat,” to use Driscoll’s phrase. And there are challenges from within us as well: weariness, impatience, or just busy-ness can make it hard to continue to put in the effort to participate in the liturgy.  In those times, we need to do like Driscoll’s monks: pray anyway, letting our vows—our baptismal promises—“bring” us and “keep” us, not because of what we can get out of it, but because it is who we are.
 
“August Prayer” was published in a collection called The Night of St. John. St. John of the Cross described the spiritual life as a journey in the dark, an ascent of Mount Carmel. He described this journey in these words: “nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. And on the mountain, nothing.” “August Prayer” reflects this deep reality of the spiritual life: that even in prayer, we need to let go of our desire for results, for completion, our desire to feel something. There will be moments of exhilaration, moments where we feel close to God, and such moments are gift, but they are not the goal. All we can do is continue at the “hot and useless task,” knowing that it is not our work, but the “Work of God.”
 


 

The Servant-Girl at Emmaus
(A Painting by Vélasquez)
 
Denise Levertov
 
She listens, listens, holding her breath.
Surely that voice
is his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?
 
Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?
 
Surely that face—?
 
The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?
 
Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching
the wine jug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,
 
swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.
 
 


 
The Emmaus story in the Gospel of Luke is one of the most familiar, and one of the most mysterious, of the Resurrection narratives. Two of Jesus’ disciples—we don’t know their names—are on their way out of Jerusalem, headed for the village of Emmaus. Along the way, they meet a stranger, and fall into conversation. Of course, all the talk is about the news - about Jesus, who has just been crucified. The two disciples talk about the destruction of their hopes that he was the Messiah, but the stranger responds to the news differently. He points them to the Scriptures and explains how all of this was foretold to them—this is the only way the Messiah’s destiny could unfold. Only when the three pause at an inn for the night, and the stranger breaks bread with them, do they recognize Jesus – and he immediately vanishes. And they hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others what has happened.
 
It’s a colorful story, and has been a favorite for artists. There’s the journey and the conversation with the stranger… and that moment of recognition, when the stranger breaks bread and gives thanks, and the two disciples realize who he is.
 
“The Servant-Girl at Emmaus” by 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velazquez, also depicts the moment of recognition—but from quite a different perspective. At first glance, the painting is of a servant girl working in a kitchen, perhaps about to fill that pitcher she is touching. In the foreground we see a wonderful still-life, where the artist showcases his ability to capture many different textures – silver, earthenware, enamel, linen, wood, weaving. We may need to take a second look before we notice the Emmaus story unfolding in the upper left, where Jesus is about to break the bread. Only then do we start to notice other details rich in meaning: a dove that looks like it is about to break free, and a white napkin or rag, suggesting the burial cloth left behind in the empty tomb.
 
The center of the painting, of course, is the girl. From her attentive expression, we know she is listening to what is happening in the room beyond—and we know that she knows something!
 
Denise Levertov’s poem imagines the girl’s thoughts during this moment of suspense. In her telling of the story, Jesus is no stranger to this young woman. She has encountered him before. “Surely that voice is his—the one who had looked at her, once, across the crowd, as no one ever had looked? Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?” She recognizes his voice because she has spent time listening to his teaching. She recognizes his hands—“hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well”—because she has witnessed Jesus at work. The disciples will come to recognize Jesus when he breaks the bread, but this young woman—who has brought the bread to the table—already knows who he is. Velazquez’s painting beautifully captures a moment of stillness and recognition. Levertov’s poem lets us see what happens next, when the girl “swings round and sees / the light around him / and is sure.”
 
There is a theme that runs through the Resurrection narratives, and indeed, through the Gospels: Jesus chooses women, often women who are outsiders,
to be his witnesses. They are the first to recognize him as the Risen Lord, the first to tell the apostles the good news. And that sends a clear message to every Christian:  we need to listen to each other, especially the voices of those we might consider to be “outsiders.” Because when we really listen to the witness of others, we aren’t just learning about them; we are glimpsing God in them. Both the painting of Velasquez, and the poem of Levertov, invite us to recognition: to see Christ in the breaking of the bread, and in each other.
 
 



 

Caedmon
 
Denise Levertov
 
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
hunch myself
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I'd wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I'd see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.
 
 
Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week.
 
This week, we’re reading Denise Levertov’s “Caedmon,” in which she takes on the voice of Caedmon, who is honored as the first known poet to write in the English language.  Scott Webster will read the poem, then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Scott.
 
It is thanks to St. Bede the Venerable, the 7th and 8th-century English monk and historian, that we know Caedmon’s story. Caedmon was a herdsman, entrusted with the care of animals at the abbey presided over by St Hilda in Whitby. Under her leadership, the arts flourished, and Bede describes evenings when the harp would go round the room, with each person singing and playing to the best of their ability.
 
I think many of us can identify with Caedmon, who, when he saw his turn coming, would slip quietly away and go back to his place among the animals. But one night, he had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and asked him to sing about God’s creation. And Caedmon did. When he woke from this dream, he remembered what he had sung. Not only that, he found the gift persisted, and he was able to compose verse on all kinds of sacred subjects. At Hilda’s invitation, he became a monk of the abbey, and the author of many poems.
 
Levertov tells Caedmon’s story in the first person. Talk, he says, is a dance, something the others do gracefully, but he is just a clodhopper, getting in the way. He seems to be more at home among the animals—“dumb,” that is, silent, “among body sounds,” not voices. But he is not quite comfortable there, either. He is “at home and lonely,” “both in good measure.” He is drawn both to the lighted hall and to the dark stable. Caedmon sleeps among the animals, but I think we can sense that Caedmon is already a poet - he can see by the light of a rush bits of chaff from the hay, floating in the breath of the animals like motes of gold.
 
Into this peaceful scene comes an angel—a fiery vision, with feathers of flame, a forest of torches and sparks. But nothing is on fire—except Caedmon himself. The fire touches his mouth, scorches his tongue, and Caedmon joins the dance.
 
Levertov uses here an image right out of scripture. In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, we hear of the prophet’s call. In a vision, an angel takes a burning coal from the altar of God, and touches the prophet’s mouth with it. It is a purifying fire, but also suggests the urgency of his mission. He will speak God’s words, in his own voice. The poet’s call is like the prophet’s call, a collaboration between God and the individual. And like other prophets—Jonah, for example—Caedmon runs from his call, a reluctant prophet, until at last, with some prompting from God!, he lets himself be “pulled… into the ring of the dance.” Caedmon’s story is a story of vocation—where our gifts and abilities meet God’s mission.
 
To conclude our reflection, let us listen to the poem traditionally called “Caedmon’s hymn”—considered the oldest poetry in the English language, and the only poetry of Caedmon that survives. This translation from Old English is the work of Elaine Treharne of Stanford University.
 
Now we ought to praise the Guardian of the heavenly kingdom,
The might of the Creator and his conception,
The work of the glorious Father, as he of each of the wonders,
Eternal Lord, established the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, holy Creator;
Then the middle-earth, the Guardian of mankind,
The eternal Lord, afterwards made
The earth for men, the Lord almighty.

 

 



 

Variation on a Theme by Rilke
(The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 4)
 
Denise Levertov
 
All these images (said the old monk,
closing the book) these inspired depictions,
are true. Yes—not one—Giotto’s,
Van Eyck’s, Rembrandt’s, Rouault’s,
how many others’—
not one is a fancy, a willed fiction,
each of them shows us exactly
the manifold countenance
of the Holy One, Blessed be He.
The seraph buttress flying
to support a cathedral’s external walls,
the shadowy ribs of the vaulted sanctuary:
aren’t both—and equally—
the form of a holy place?—whose windows’ ruby
and celestial sapphire can be seen
only from inside, but then
only when light enters from without?
From the divine twilight, neither dark nor day,
blossoms the morning. Each, at work in his art,
perceived his neighbor. Thus the Infinite
plays, and in grace
gives us clues to His mystery.
 
Corinna Laughlin's commentary
 
We met Denise Levertov earlier in this series, when we read her wonderful poem “Annunciation.” Levertov was a 20th-century master, born in England in 1923, who died in Seattle in 1997. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to read three poems by Levertov for this series. These are all poems in which she responds to other works of art—both poems and the visual arts—in interesting ways.
 
In this poem, Levertov reacts to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke—in fact, she is responding to Rilke’s poem “You, Neighbor God” we read last week.  As you’ll recall, Rilke’s poem, spoken in the voice of an old monk, questioned the images we make of the divine, which can stand like a wall between us and God—getting in our way when we try to connect with God. In this poem, Levertov responds to that concept.
 
As Levertov’s poem begins, the “old monk” closes a book, perhaps a book of images of Christ, and roundly declares—contradicting Rilke’s old monk!—that “all these images… these inspired depictions, are true.” Even more, “each of them shows us exactly / the manifold countenance / of the Holy One.” Far from distracting us or deflecting our attention from God, Levertov’s speaker says, these “true” images reveal to us “the manifold countenance” of God. God has one face, but it is “manifold”—so these contrasting images can all be said to be true. Giotto – Van Eyck – Rembrandt – Rouault – artists with such different visions, such different ways of seeing the world – all had something in common: they all depicted the true, though “manifold” image of God.
 
In the second part of the poem, Levertov distances herself still further from Rilke. She uses an extended metaphor here—the image of a cathedral. She speaks of the flying buttresses, the exterior supports which are such a prominent feature in some of the great Gothic cathedrals, and the ribs of the sanctuary—in other words, the exterior and the interior of the building—and she asks, aren’t both of these, equally, intrinsic to “the form of a holy place”? Without one or the other, the building cannot stand.
 
Where Rilke described a wall of framed images, Levertov describes stained glass windows. The flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral developed to allow for ever-larger stained glass windows. You could even say they are at the service of the windows! Stained glass doesn’t look like much from the outside—it has to be viewed from within. And yet, the windows require light from the outside, in order to be seen. The light does not “glance off the frames like glare,” as Rilke described. Instead, it shines through, and brings the windows to life.
 
The stained glass windows of a great cathedral demand an interchange between outside and inside which, for Levertov, suggests the interchange between earth and heaven, human and God. Art is a way to glimpse God, and in fact a way to play a holy game with God: “Thus the Infinite plays, and in grace gives us clues to his Mystery.”
 
In 1999, Pope St. John Paul II wrote a letter to artists which resonates with Levertov’s response to Rilke and her faith in the power of art.
 
“Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of humanity and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning…. In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God…. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.”

 

 

 

 

You, neighbor God
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
 
From The Book of Hours, written 1899-1903, published 1905
Translated by Babette Deutsch (1941)
 
You, neighbor God, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with loud knocking, I do so
only because I seldom hear you breathe;
and I know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
to reach it to you, groping in the dark.
Always I hearken. Give but a small sign.
I am quite near.
 
Between us there is but a narrow wall,
and by sheer chance; for it would take
merely a call from your lips or from mine
to break it down,
and that without a sound.
 
The wall is builded of your images.
 
They stand before you hiding you like names.
And when the light within me blazes high
that in my inmost soul I know you by,
the radiance is squandered on their frames.
 
And then my senses, which too soon grow lame,
exiled from you, must go their homeless ways.
 
 
Corinna Laughlin commentary

Rainer Maria Rilke was born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke in 1875 in Prague, in what was then known as Bohemia. He was a citizen of Europe, who traveled widely and lived in Germany, France, and Switzerland, and who wrote in both German and French. A significant figure in European literature of the 20th century, Rilke associated with some of the major artists of his time, including Rodin—as a young man Rilke served as a secretary to the great sculptor. Rilke was drafted into service in World War I, a traumatic experience for him. He died of leukemia at the young age of 51.
 
Rilke was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother, and though he did not practice his faith as an adult, faith in God was at the heart of his life and art. “You, neighbor God” is an early poem from Rilke’s first book, called The Book of Hours. These poems were inspired by Rilke’s extensive travels in Russia, and the poet takes on the persona of an old monk in several of the poems, including the one we just heard.
 
The first part of the poem is quite playful. It’s easy to picture the scene – as he knocks on the wall to check if an elderly neighbor needs anything—" I know: you are alone. And should you need a drink, no one is there to reach it to you.” Notice how the roles are reversed: here is the speaker offering to help God if God should need help in the night! But the tone shifts, as the speaker pleads for some indication of God’s presence. “Always I hearken. Give but a small sign. I am quite near.” God and the speaker are so close together, but there is a separation – one which, surprisingly, either of them could break through. “it would take merely a call from your lips or mine to break it down.”
 
The turning point of the poem is the line: “The wall is builded of your images.” The thin separation between the speaker and God is made of his images of God. Rilke is perhaps thinking here of the iconostasis which is often the most prominent feature in Orthodox churches. The images get in the way, Rilke says, hiding God – and when the internal light by which he knows God shines within him, that light is “squandered on the frames” of these images instead of illuminating God himself. The human senses are “exiled” from God, “homeless.”
 
As Catholics, we are firm believers in images. We surround ourselves with statues and images of saints, and even of God. Our use of images is firmly grounded in the theology of the Incarnation – as St. Paul said, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
 
But the images we make can be limiting, and, yes, get in the way, like Rilke’s wall. I think of recent debates about images of Jesus, who, though he was, obviously, a person of color, is most often depicted with European features and skin color. If these are the only images of Christ we can imagine, they can distort our understanding of who Jesus is.
 
Images of the divine are an essential part of how we pray and worship as Catholics. But perhaps Rilke’s poem can invite us to think about the images of God we depend on. Are they helping us pray—or do they sometimes get in the way? The Bible invites us to think of God not in one way, but in many ways. Creator, Light, Rock, Stronghold, Husband, Mother, Rescuer, Father.  All these images reveal something of God to us—but of course, none of them says it all.

 

 



“My own heart let me more have pity on”
Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889)
 
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.
 
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.
 
We met Gerard Manley Hopkins earlier in this series, when we read his wonderful poem “God’s Grandeur.” Today we read another Hopkins sonnet. Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a tremendously gifted man. An extraordinary and innovative poet, a brilliant classical scholar, a gifted musician, a talented artist, a faithful and conscientious priest—Hopkins was all of these things. And yet, through much of his life, he was tormented by a sense of failure and inadequacy. His poems were seldom understood, much less published; several of his assignments as a Jesuit were in inner-city parishes where he felt exiled from the natural world he so loved, or in schools where his humbling inadequacies as a teacher were always on display.
 
“If I could but get on, if I could but produce work, I should not mind its being buried, silenced, and going no further,” he wrote to his friend, the poet Robert Bridges, “but it kills me to be time’s eunuch and never to beget. After all, I do not despair, things might change, anything may be; only there is no great appearance of it…”
 
In 1884, Hopkins was assigned as professor at University College, Dublin, which was not the great academic institution it is now. It was a poor, struggling college, and Hopkins was overwhelmed with a sense of isolation and failure and entered what we would recognize now as a deep depression. “My spirits were so crushed,” he wrote, “that madness seemed to be making approaches—and nobody was to blame, except myself partly for not managing myself better and contriving a change” (to Robert Bridges, 1 September 1885).
 
Out of this experience of darkness came a series of remarkable poems, which Robert Bridges called “the terrible sonnets” because of their content. Of these poems, Hopkins himself wrote that they came after long silence “like inspirations unbidden and against my will.” In these sonnets, Hopkins addresses himself directly to God with great honesty, with language that resembles some of the psalms and the prophets. He writes of his sense of uselessness, of impotence, and of difficulty in praying—in one poem, he describes prayer as being like undelivered letters to a loved one far away.
 
We don’t know the exact order of the terrible sonnets, or sonnets of desolation, as they are sometimes called, but the poem we just heard is usually placed towards the end of the sequence, because it expresses a glimmer of hope.
 
In this poem, Hopkins addresses himself, entreating himself to be kinder to himself. The first lines give a vivid picture of his helplessness and mental anguish. He begs that he might “not live this tormented mind / With this tormented mind tormenting yet.” The repetition in those lines—“tormented mind, tormented mind, tormenting yet”—vividly suggests the endless cycle of negative thoughts. This state of mind is like a prison – Hopkins gives an unforgettable image of “groping round my comfortless.”
 
In the second part of the sonnet, Hopkins addresses himself as “Soul, self,” and then shifts the tone—“poor Jackself.” “Soul, self,” are grand, impersonal terms; “poor Jackself” is humbler, more human, more conscious of weakness. Hopkins is doing here just what he begged for at the beginning of the poem: having pity on himself in his humanity. “Call off thoughts awhile,” he says, and leave room for comfort, for joy, and for whatever God has in mind: “God knows when to God knows what.” The poem ends with a remarkable image of God smiling. God’s smile is “not wrung”—we can’t force it. It comes unexpectedly, like sky appearing “betweenpie” mountains, shedding light on “a lovely mile.” At the end of the poem, nothing has changed—but hope has entered in.
 
In this poem, and in the other terrible sonnets, Hopkins acknowledges the darkness he is experiencing, but he does so with the tools and the language that his faith gives him. He never stops wrestling with God. As one commentator has said, “Like Jesus’ cry on the cross, Hopkins’s sonnets of desolation are addressed to God and are themselves consolations.”

 

 

 

George Herbert, “Love (III)” from St. James Cathedral, Seattle on Vimeo.

 

Love (III)
George Herbert
 
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
 
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
 
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.
 
Last week, we read Herbert’s poem on the Holy Scriptures, which prompted reflection on the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. With today’s poem by Herbert, “Love,” we’ll reflect on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
 
This poem, like all of Herbert’s work, is rich in Scriptural allusion and full of evocative imagery. Herbert sets up an almost romantic scene, as the speaker is invited in for a meal by Love, but draws back, before being urged to come in and eat. Think of the Song of Songs, the great love poem of the Bible, which describes a similar encounter between love and the lover at the gate, coming close and then moving away. Of course, meals have great resonance in the New Testament. Think of the miraculous feedings and the Last Supper accounts. Think of some of the parables of the Second Coming: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them” (Luke 12:37).
 
Herbert imagines what that moment would be like, when Love—which is, of course, another name for God—becomes the servant, waiting at table. And he finds it very uncomfortable. The speaker of the poem hangs back in the doorway, “guilty of dust and sin.” It’s an odd phrase, “guilty of dust.” Herbert is alluding to original sin—the propensity to sin that is part of our human condition. This awareness of sin pulls him back as soon as he is invited into the divine presence. It’s a pattern in the Scriptures, whenever someone encounters God. Think of the prophet Isaiah, or St. Peter after the miraculous catch—“depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
 
The speaker inches forward, then draws back. At the same time, there is a wonderful intimacy in the language used – “ah, my dear,” he says to Love, “I cannot look on thee.” This is not the meeting of strangers, but of intimate friends. Love does not brush away the speaker’s concerns, or say that there has been no sin or wrongdoing; instead, Love reminds the speaker simply that God is God: “who made the eyes but I?” Sinful though we are, we were made for this – our eyes were made to look at God.
 
In the last stanza, the speaker continues to hang back. “Let my shame / Go where it doth deserve.” Even that is no argument, Love says, because Love has already borne “the blame.” The cross has taken away everything that would prevent us from approaching God. The speaker is running out of excuses! “My dear, then I will serve,” he says: you sit down—let me serve you. It’s Peter’s response to Jesus’ washing of the feet. But that is not what Love has in mind. “You must sit down and taste my meat.” Love is going to do the serving here. It is for love to give, for us to receive. At last, in the final, and shortest line of the poem, the speaker gives in: “so I did sit and eat.” The sinner lets go and Love prevails.  I am reminded of the words of the great 13th century mystic St. Catherine of Siena: “By this light I shall come to know that you, eternal Trinity, are table and food and waiter for us.”
 
As I mentioned last week, we have begun a Year of the Eucharist in this local Church, the Archdiocese of Seattle. For me, Herbert’s “Love” is the perfect meditation on this central mystery of our faith. If you think of the pattern of the Mass, it is not unlike this poem. We have come to the table at God’s invitation, but again and again we pause and acknowledge our sinfulness. “Lord, have mercy.” “Forgive us our trespasses.” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” We do not do this to beat ourselves up or prove anything. We do this because this awareness of our own sinfulness is the natural human response to being in the presence of God!  Throughout the Mass, Love is leading us to the table, where all we can do is receive the free gift of the God of love. There is no earning this gift. As Archbishop Etienne said in his homily at the beginning of this special year of the Eucharist, “we can be deceived in thinking that the Eucharist is what we do. It’s what God does. It’s the work of God upon us. It’s the work of God for our redemption.” (Read or listen to that homily here: http://www.nwcatholic.org/news/local/year-of-the-eucharist-begins-in-archdiocese-of-seattle.html) All we need to do—all we really can do—is what the speaker of Herbert’s poem does: respond to the invitation, and let God work in us.




 

George Herbert
The Holy Scriptures II
 
OH that I knew how all thy lights combine,
             And the configurations of their glorie!
             Seeing not onely how each verse doth shine,
But all the constellations of the storie.
 
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
             Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie:
             Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christians destinie:
 
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
             And comments on thee: for in ev’ry thing
             Thy words do finde me out, & parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.
 
             Starres are poore books, & oftentimes do misse:
             This book of starres lights to eternall blisse.
 
 
We met George Herbert earlier in this series, when we read his poem “Easter Wings.” Herbert was many things—a well-born and well-connected man of the world, and a country parson. His contemporaries marveled at his faith. One biographer wrote that Herbert “never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, but with this addition, ‘My Master,’” and that when it came to the Bible, he would say “That he would not part with one leaf thereof for the whole world.” He called the Bible “the book of books,” “the storehouse and magazine of life and comfort.”
 
In this sonnet about the Holy Scriptures, Herbert gives us an insight into how he himself read the Bible. Anyone who has been scanning the skies looking for Comet Neowise will appreciate Herbert’s metaphor at the beginning of the poem. “Oh, that I knew how all thy lights combine, / And the configurations of their glory!” The verses of the Scriptures are likened to stars, which are beautiful in themselves, but which also relate to each other in wonderful ways—forming “constellations.” The Scriptures mean more in relation to each other: just as different herbs, mixed together, become a healing medicine, a powerful “potion,” so different verses, combined, “make up some Christian’s destiny”—in other words, reading the Scriptures makes sense of our lives. And our lives make sense of the Scriptures: “such are thy secrets, which my life makes good, / And comments on thee…. Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring.”
 
The right way to read the Scriptures, Herbert suggests, is with open eyes and imagination, letting the Scriptures speak to one another—since one passage can shed light on another. But we also need to let the Scriptures read us, since we can only understand our own lives, our “destiny,” in light of the Scriptures. “Stars are poor books,” Herbert concludes, but the Bible, “this book of stars,” shows the way to “eternal bliss.”
 
I thought this poem was especially appropriate as we have begun a Year of the Eucharist in this local Church, the Archdiocese of Seattle. Every time we gather around the altar to celebrate the Eucharist, we first gather around the ambo—the table of the word of God.  And when the Scriptures are proclaimed, something happens. As it says in the introduction to the Roman Missal, “God speaks to his people, opening up to them the mystery of redemption and salvation, and offering spiritual nourishment; and Christ himself is present through his word in the midst of the faithful.”
 
The Liturgy of the Word at Mass is not a review of salvation history. It is a conversation. We are invited to a way of reading, praying, and reflecting on Scripture that is not unlike what Herbert describes in his poem. The readings from the Old and New Testaments speak to each other and shed light on each other—and they speak to us and shed light on our lives, too. As Archbishop Etienne wrote in “The Work of Redemption,” his Pastoral Letter for this Year of the Eucharist, “When we allow ourselves to listen, really listen, to what the Scriptures are saying to us in our own lives and to the reality we are living in, extraordinary things can happen. When we honestly reflect on our lives and the challenges we face as a society in light of the Scriptures, we open ourselves up to God’s transforming power.”
 
One of Herbert’s first biographers wrote, “Next God the Word, he loved the Word of God.” May the same be said of each of us!






St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890)
The Pillar of Cloud (“Lead, Kindly Light”)
 
Lead, Kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
 
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
 
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
 
(Written at sea, 1833)
 
John Henry Newman was born in London in 1801 into an upper middle class family with strong Protestant roots: his mother was from a family of French Huguenot refugees. He dated his spiritual awakening to the age of fifteen, when he felt an “inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet).”
 
For Newman, the way to God was always through books. His autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua – the “apology for his life”—is as much about what Newman read as what he did. He writes in intricate detail of the thinkers and ideas that fascinated and shaped him.
 
Newman was ordained an Anglican priest in 1825 and became a curate in Oxford, where he was also a fellow at Oriel College. His specialty was Patristics—the study of the Fathers of the early Church—and what he read slowly led him towards the Roman Catholic Church.
 
For Newman, becoming Catholic was not a quick or easy decision. He knew that if he became a Catholic it would cost him friends as well as his livelihood, since he would not be able to function as a member of the Anglican clergy nor retain his Oxford fellowship. But for Newman, simply setting aside difficult questions was never an option. Newman wrote, “The one question was, what was I to do? I had to make up my mind for myself, and others could not help me. I determined to be guided, not by my imagination, but by my reason.” Newman wrote in a diary in 1829, “I am now in my rooms in Oriel College, slowly advancing and led on by God's hand blindly, not knowing whither He is taking me.”
 
It was during this time of uncertainty and exploration—two steps forward, one step back—which lasted more than ten years—that Newman wrote the poem we just heard, which he entitled “The Pillar of Cloud,” but which is known more familiarly as “Lead, Kindly Light.”
 
In the book of Exodus, the pillar of cloud leads the Israelite people in their wanderings through the desert. It is the very presence of God in their midst, both showing the way and protecting them in their wanderings. In this poem, Newman invokes God as the “kindly light,” the one thing shining in the midst of the darkness. There is no view of the “distant scene,” nor is the path clear—there is just enough light to take one step at a time.
 
Newman acknowledges how difficult this is, this taking one step at a time. “I loved to choose and see my path,” he says. But that sense that he could direct his own course was an illusion, rooted in “pride.” Now, he says, “Lead thou me on.”  He has to yield his own will and trust in God’s guidance, trust that the God who has blessed him in the past will be with him in the future. The poem ends with a glimpse of the end of this journey – “with the morn, those angel faces smile, / Which I have loved long since and lost awhile.” The sense of loneliness, darkness, and uncertainty we feel in the first two stanzas ends with a wonderful sense of recognition and light.
 
In 1845, Newman entered the Catholic Church. He became an Oratorian priest, and was named a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. He made many contributions to theology, which have had an enormous impact, especially at the time of the Second Vatican Council—hence Newman is sometimes called “the absent Council Father.” Newman’s concept of the “development of doctrine” is one of those contributions—he argued that Church doctrine, while unchanging, does get developed and refined through the ages as human reason engages with divine revelation.
 
It’s no surprise that the same man who wrote “Lead, kindly Light” would argue that the Church’s understanding, too, can advance step by step, in pursuit of the “Kindly Light” that is the living presence of God in our midst. As Newman said in a homily, “Let us beg and pray Him day by day to reveal Himself to our souls more fully, to quicken our senses, to give us sight and hearing, taste and touch of the world to come; so to work within us, that we may sincerely say, 'Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and after that receive me with glory."
 

 

 

 

 

The Kingdom of God
By Francis Thompson (1859-1907)
 
“In no strange land”
 
O WORLD invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
 
Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air—
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumour of thee there?
 
Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars!—
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.
 
The angels keep their ancient places;—
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
 
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry;—and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
 
Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry,—clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
 

Commentary by Corinna Laughlin
 
Francis Thompson was a remarkable figure by any measure. Born in 1859, he was compared to Keats and Shakespeare in his lifetime, and although his reputation declined after his death, many of his poems, in particular his masterpiece, “The Hound of Heaven,” have never gone out of print.
 
Thompson was raised in a devoutly Catholic family. His family hoped he would be a priest, and he was sent to a minor seminary, but he was awkward and shy and was deemed unsuitable. He was sent to study medicine, a subject for which he had no vocation and little interest. He was too timid to tell his family that he wanted to be a writer—all they wanted to talk about was “cricket” and “wars,” he later said—and things began to go downhill for Thompson. After an illness, Thompson became addicted to opium. Things got so bad that Thompson ended up on the streets. He was homeless in London for three years and could only be reached by general delivery to the “Post Office, Charing Cross, London.”
 
It was poetry that eventually pulled him back from the brink. All this time, Thompson had continued to write. He submitted some poems to a Catholic editor, Wilfrid Meynell, which were published. When Meynell met the author, and realized that he was totally destitute, he and his wife Alice helped Thompson get off the streets and (at least for a time) overcome his addiction.
 
Thanks to the Meynell’s intervention and support, Thompson became a writer—though never a prolific one. He wrote essays and reviews for various journals, and he continued to write poetry as well, eventually publishing three books.  At the same time, he was never what you might call “normal.” He would suddenly get up from the table and disappear at mealtimes, and a friend wrote that “No money... could keep him in a decent suit of clothes for long. ...He passed at once into a picturesque nondescript garb that was all his own and made him resemble some weird pedlar or packman.”
 
In spite of all the darkness Thompson had experienced in his life, and his repeated bouts with depression, his faith was ultimately full of hope.  “I do firmly believe that none are lost who have not wilfully closed their eyes to the known light: that such as fall with constant striving, battling with their temperament, or through ill-training circumstance which shuts them from true light, &c.; that all these shall taste of God's justice, which for them is better than man's mercy.”
 
Thompson died of tuberculosis on November 13, 1907 at the age of 48.
 
The poem we’re reading today, “The Kingdom of God,” was one of Thompson’s last poems, not published until after his death. The poem begins with a series of paradoxical assertions – we see the invisible, we touch the intangible, we know the unknowable, we take hold of the “inapprehensible.” We have access to the world of the spirit. It is not far away--we do not need to look to the stars to find God. In fact, we need not go elsewhere to seek God any more than the fish needs to search for the water or the eagle the air. In other words, God comes to us in our own element—God is our element. 
 
The divine is close—if we were listening, we could hear the wings of angels beating at our “clay-shuttered doors.” But with our “estranged faces”—not looking for God—we don’t see “the many-splendored thing.”
 
Nevertheless, God is everywhere, accessible to all who call upon him. At the end of the poem, Thompson alludes to his own experiences on the streets of London. In the depths of sadness, he says, “cry,” and there will be Jacob’s ladder, linking heaven and Charing Cross. Ask for help, and Christ will walk on the water, not far away on the Sea of Galilee, but nearby: on the Thames.
 
In this poem, Thompson’s very Catholic imagination is at work. As Catholics, we firmly believe that we can touch the invisible through the tangible—anointed with oil, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit; bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Thompson reminds us that the divine presence is everywhere. The poem reflects the words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” The kingdom of God unfolds in our own circumstances, in our own place and time. We just need the eyes to recognize it.
 






Song Silence
 
By Madeleva Wolff, CSC
 
Yes, I shall take this quiet house and keep it
With kindled hearth and candle-lighted board,
In singing silence garnish it and sweep it
                For Christ, my Lord.
 
My heart is filled with little songs to sing Him—
I dream them into words with careful art—
But this I think a better gift to bring Him,
                Nearer his heart.
 
The foxes have their holes, the wise, the clever;
The birds have each a safe and secret nest;
But He, my lover, walks the world with never
A place to rest.
 
I found Him once upon a straw bed lying;
(Once on His mother’s heart He laid His head)
He had a bramble pillow for His dying,
A stone when dead.
 
I think to leave off singing for this reason,
Taking instead my Lord God’s house to keep,
Where He may find a home in every season
                To wake, to sleep.
 
Do you not think that in this holy sweetness
Of silence shared with God a whole life long
Both he and I shall find divine completeness
Of perfect song?
 
 
Sister Madeleva Wolff was a renowned educator and administrator, a poet, and a scholar who in her lifetime rubbed elbows with Edith Wharton, G. K. Chesterton, Helen Hayes, Thomas Merton, and many other luminaries. She was also a religious, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross for more than fifty years. She is a figure who deserves to be better known!
 
Eva Wolff was born in Cumberland, Wisconsin in 1887. She had a fairly conventional childhood—except for her exceptional intellect. Her gifts were so obvious that her older brother dropped out of college so the family could afford to send Eva to St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana.
 
Eva had been planning to study mathematics, but she soon switched to medieval literature, and discovered a love for poetry—both studying it and writing it. It took everyone by surprise, including Eva herself, when she decided to join the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She entered the novitiate in 1908, when she was nineteen years old. In religious life, she was given the name Madeleva, and soon embarked on a distinguished career of study and teaching. Sister Madeleva was among the first women religious to receive a Masters degree from Notre Dame; she went on to complete a doctoral degree at Berkeley. Later, she did post-doctoral study at Oxford with the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. All this time, she was a full-time teacher and administrator, eventually being appointed President of her own alma mater, St. Mary’s College, where her innovative leadership gained the college nationwide acclaim. She developed the first graduate study program in theology for women religious and laypeople in the country, and was instrumental in the Sister Formation movement, which advocated thorough and high-level education for women religious. She was a force to be reckoned with: “Moderation is a colorless, insipid thing,” she wrote. “I know its practice to be well-nigh impossible. To live less would not be living.”
 
Throughout her busy life, Madeleva wrote poetry, publishing a number of books, some of which were considered controversial for the passionate language she used in writing about God. Given the busy life of a sister, time was hard to come by; Madeleva came to be grateful for her chronic insomnia which gave her time to compose. “I love words because I love the Word,” she would say. “I know of no discipline more merciless, more demanding, than the writing of good verse—even if it doesn’t reach the levels of great poetry.” Madeleva died in 1962 at the age of 77.
 
Knowing a little of Madeleva’s story, I think we get a better sense of both the sweetness and the underlying tension of this poem, “Song Silence.” It’s a poem about poetry—and about renunciation. “My heart is filled with little songs to Him-- / I dream them into words with careful art,” she says in the second stanza. But, she wonders, would it not be a better gift to prepare “a quiet house” for the one who was laid in a manger as an infant, who had no place to lay his head as an adult. “I think to leave off singing,” she says, and dedicate herself instead to this quiet work of contemplation, which she compares to the traditional domestic (and typically feminine) task of housekeeping. In the last stanza, she asks a question: “Do you not think that in this holy sweetness / Of silence shared with God,” she and God both will find “perfect song”?
 
There is a sweetness in the poem, and an intimacy with God, whom she calls “my lover.” But there is also a certain tension here, one that many women felt at the time Madeleva was writing, in the 1940s and 1950s. She loves to “sing,” to write poetry, but wouldn’t silence be better, after all? Wouldn’t her life be better spent in contemplation, rather than in words—in keeping house, rather than singing? Madeleva tells herself that she will dedicate herself to this sweet domestic housekeeping for God. And yet, though the poem begins with a decisive “yes” it ends with a question mark. Renouncing poetry is something she is contemplating—but not doing, at least, not yet.
 
I think this poem illuminates what Madeleva’s biographer Gail Porter Mandell sees as a keynote in Madeleva’s approach to life—what Madeleva herself referred to as the “relaxed grasp.” Madeleva held on to what mattered—but, in keeping with her vow of poverty, she held even precious things like poetry with a certain lightness, a “relaxed grasp,” a “holy indifference,” always preparing herself to let them go if God willed it. For Madeleva, this “relaxed grasp” was true freedom. In speaking of her own vocation, she wrote: “Only when one has given not only all his actual self, but all his potential self, is he free.”

Read more about Madeleva here.

 

 

Light Shining out of Darkness
BY WILLIAM COWPER
 
1
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
 
2
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sov'reign will.
 
3
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
 
4
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
 
5
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev'ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.
 
6
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
 
 
Cowper’s poem is so well-known as a hymn text that it can be easy to dismiss. It’s a poem about God’s Providence, which guides everything that happens to us, and about God’s designs, which are far beyond our ability to understand, but always for our good. “Behind a frowning Providence / he hides a smiling face” has entered the language and become a cliché. To be honest, it can all sound a bit pat. But this poem is the fruit of Cowper’s painful experience in a lifetime of intense suffering and religious struggle.
 
William Cowper was born in 1731 into a quite distinguished family—his mother was a Donne, related to John Donne, and his father was connected to the Earl Cowper, the lord chancellor of England. His life was marked by early tragedy—his mother died when he was just six years old, and he then went to boarding school, where he was systematically bullied. These two experiences are thought to have contributed to Cowper’s many, serious, and extended bouts with mental illness. The first of these came in 1763, when Cowper was 32 years old. He had been nominated for a significant post in the House of Lords, which would require a public examination. The thought of this examination before the entire House of Lords brought on a psychotic episode. Cowper became convinced that he was damned and attempted suicide.
 
Cowper spent many months in an asylum and during his recovery, he had a profound conversion experience in which he felt in a profound way God’s mercy for him and for all sinners. He was one of the “fearful saints” he talks about in the poem. Cowper became a parishioner of John Newton—the famous slave trader turned minister--who invited him to contribute hymns to a new hymnal he was preparing. Newton wrote “Amazing Grace”; Cowper wrote “O for a closer walk with God” and the poem we just heard, among others.
 
Cowper continued to struggle with mental illness after his conversion. All his life, he considered himself an outsider, both socially and spiritually: a “stricken deer, that left the herd / Long since,” as he wrote in one of his poems.
 
Knowing a little of Cowper’s story, “Light Shining Out of Darkness” takes on new meaning. The darkness of which Cowper speaks was something he knew from experience; the fear he mentions, he felt; the hope he expresses, was what he longed for.
 
The first stanza of the poem draws on Biblical language. “He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” The language recalls the psalms, especially Psalm 104: “You make the clouds your chariot, traveling on the wings of the wind.” The imagery also evokes the story of Christ, walking on the water and stilling the storm. This language speaks of the power of God, but also reminds us of the desperation of the Apostles in the boat, crying out for the Lord’s help. 
 
In the stanzas that follow, Cowper uses a series of images and comparisons to highlight the hidden quality of God’s Providence. It is like treasure hidden in a mine; like storms of rain pent in a dark cloud; like a smile concealed by a frown; like a sweet flower hidden within a bitter bud. God is present, but hidden.
 
I think the key word of this poem is found in this first stanza: “mysterious.” God’s ways are not clear or even intelligible to us most of the time. Providence—that sense of God’s guiding hand in history and in our own lives—is also mystery.
 
Cowper offers no key to understanding God’s provident care. Rather, he insists that only God can do that: “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.” Only God can reveal to us how his Providence is governing our lives, and our world. God’s ways are a profound mystery--but our faith tells us there is always mercy and there is always hope.


Christina Rossetti, “Up-Hill”
 
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
   Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
   From morn to night, my friend.
 
But is there for the night a resting-place?
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
   You cannot miss that inn.
 
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
   Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
   They will not keep you standing at that door.
 
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
   Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
   Yea, beds for all who come.

Every Christian lives their faith in their own way. For some, faith is tranquil; for others, stormy. Rossetti was definitely one of the latter. Her faith story brings to mind St. Paul’s words to the Philippians, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)
 
Faith did not come easy to Rossetti. She was hyper-conscious of her own flaws and exerted a rigid control over herself even with close friends. A biographer has written that her self-control was so extreme that she “retreated behind a mask of excessive and sometimes offensive politeness,” in an effort to offset what she saw as her besetting flaws of pride and anger.
 
This poem, written in 1858 when Rossetti was 28 years old, takes the form of a dialogue, questions and answers, between two voices. We don’t really know who either the questioner or the respondent is. But we soon recognize that much lies beneath the surface.
 
The first questions are simple, almost childlike. Is it all uphill? And how long will it take? We are reminded of the proverbial child’s question, “are we there yet?” The answers to these questions are affirmative. Yes – this journey is uphill all the way, and it’s not short: it will last from morning until night – a lifetime.
 
The questioner goes on to other questions about the end of the journey. How is one to know the place? What if you get lost? And the answers come, reassuringly. There will be a place to stay – “a roof for when the slow dark hours begin.” And there is no getting lost – “you cannot miss that inn.” Others have done this before, and there will be no waiting: there is room for all, “beds for all who come.”
 
This poem is full of hope. To every question, there is a reassuring “yes.” And yet, I find the poem quite challenging as well. The responses are certainly hopeful, but they are also vague and sometimes even a bit ominous. When the questioner asks, “shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak,” the response comes: “Of labour you shall find the sum.” Whose labor is being referred to here? It sounds like the “sum” of comfort will depend on the labor of the individual.
 
In this poem, the uphill journey is, of course, a metaphor for life itself, with all its challenges; and the inn where we rest at the end of the day can be read in a variety of ways. On one level, it speaks of heaven—“in my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” The inn can also be read as the grave that awaits us all, the “roof” under which we shelter during the “slow dark hours.”
 
At another level, we can read “Up Hill” as a poem about anything that is really worth doing. Think of all the uphill journeys in our lives – and in our society. As Rossetti’s poem makes clear, these journeys will take everything we have. The answers to our questions will not come clear and absolute. Little signs of hope are all we are going to get.
 
In 1865, Rossetti wrote another poem, which is a companion to “Up Hill.” Entitled “Amor Mundi,” or “Love of the World,” it also features two speakers in a dialogue. One invites the other on a journey, this time, a downhill journey: “The downhill path is easy, come with me an it please ye, / We shall escape the uphill by never turning back.” At the end of that poem, we realize where that this downhill path is “hell’s own track.” And the consequences are bleak: “too late for cost-counting: This downhill path is easy, but there’s no turning back.” If it’s easy, Rossetti says, be suspicious of it: everything worth doing is difficult.


 

 

Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud by JOHN DONNE

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

John Donne was born in 1572 into a staunchly Catholic family. His uncle was a Jesuit priest, Jasper Heywood, who spent his life in exile. While a student at Cambridge, Donne refused to take the oath of supremacy acknowledging the authority of England’s monarch over matters of religion, and was denied his degree as a result. He studied law, traveled widely, and even joined the fight against the Spanish Armada. He had a chequered life story, and is as well known for his remarkable love poems as he is for his sacred poetry and his sermons! He eventually joined the Church of England, and in 1615 became a priest, serving as the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was a renowned preacher. He preached his most famous sermon, “Death’s Duel” before the court of King Charles I in February, 1631, just a few weeks before his own death.
 
Death was a constant in Donne’s life. He and his wife, Anne, had twelve children—two of them were stillborn, and another three died before the age of ten. Anne died just five days after giving birth to their last child. In 1623, Donne had a near-fatal illness about which he wrote in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which include the famous passage, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 
 
All of these experiences shaped Donne’s attitudes, and his later works are deeply religious—and sometimes quite dark. In “Death’s Duel,” his famous “last” sermon, Donne writes that we are doomed from our very birth: “This deliverance, from the death of the womb, is an entrance, a delivering over to another death, the manifold deaths of this world; we have a winding-sheet in our mother’s womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
 
In the Renaissance convention, death is a fearsome opponent, who pursues us and inevitably triumphs. But in this famous sonnet, “Death be not proud,” Donne approaches death in a very different way. Addressing death directly, Donne mocks death’s power. “Death, be not proud,” he says. “Some have called thee mighty and dreadful, but thou art not so.” No, death in this poem is not strong, but weak. Donne builds his case as the sonnet unfolds. Rest and sleep are common images for death and these are pleasant things; then death must be, too. The best among us die young, and what do they find but “rest of their bones, and soules delivery.” Both good things.
 
In the second half of the sonnet, Donne hammers home his point. Death is a slave to so many powers--fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, poison, war, and sickness, all of which control death’s power.  So what reason does death have to be proud?  Death is not in charge.
 
Donne’s final stroke is at the end of the poem. The real reason death can’t win—is that we can’t die. After the sleep of death, “we wake eternally.” Donne is evoking St. Paul in I Corinthians, and the fundamental Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. “If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead.” As Christians, the Resurrection isn’t something that happened once to Jesus – the Resurrection is our destiny too. “Just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ… For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
 
This sonnet wonderfully and dramatically reaffirms this basic Christian belief. Because Christ is risen, death has no dominion over him—or over us. Because Christ is risen, we will rise. The liturgy says this so well in the Easter Sequence: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous. The prince of life who died, reigns immortal.”
 

 



 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
 
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
 
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
 
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

William Blake

Corinna Laughlin's commentary

William Blake has been called the greatest artist England ever produced. He was an extraordinary figure—a genius in the visual arts as well as one of England’s greatest poets. Born in 1757, he had a vision of God at the age of four, and saw a tree full of angels. These early spiritual experiences shaped him for life. He was profoundly Christian, but also deeply eccentric, to the point that he was considered mad by many of his contemporaries.
 
Blake was a craftsman, an engraver by trade. At night, he worked on his own projects, in which image and text are married as they never had been before. Blake never achieved much commercial success. His works are not only utterly unconventional; they can also be quite cryptic. And he was extremely opinionated, which probably did not help: “To generalize is to be an idiot,” is one of his famous statements. Only long after his death, well into the twentieth century, did Blake come into his own as one of the great Romantic voices. “And did those feet,” which we just heard, has become an unofficial anthem of England, and was even heard at the royal wedding of Kate and William.
 
Blake’s poem is at one level very simple. Blake imagines a time when Christ himself, the Lamb of God, walked the “mountains green” and the “clouded hills” of England, now marred by “dark Satanic Mills.” It is a poem of resolve, as the speaker decides to fight with every weapon at his command until England is the new Jerusalem, “green & pleasant” again.
 
In this poem, as with all things Blake, there is more than meets the eye. Blake’s poem is rich in literary allusions.  Blake is drawing on a Grail legend, the stories of King Arthur. As the story goes, when a young boy, Jesus traveled with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea (the figure mentioned in the Gospel as giving his new tomb for Christ to be buried). They came all the way to England, to Glastonbury, to be specific.. After the death and Resurrection of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is said to have returned to England to become the first to preach the Gospel to the English. Blake is playing on that legend. Notice how it’s all in the form of a question—“did those feet,” “was the Lamb,” “did the Countenance.” He knows it’s legend, but that doesn’t take away the amazement of Christ’s presence right in his own world, in his own surroundings. “Was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills” Blake asks.  When Blake wrote this poem (about 1804) the kind of mills we associate with England’s industrial revolution did not yet exist, but they were on their way. For Blake, the mill stands in for any rigid, dehumanizing, and evil influence. In contrast, Christ is associated with the natural world – light and green, and with all that is “pleasant.” The word sounds banal to us, but it is a word that speaks of relationship to humanity.  (Notice the word is used twice in this short poem).
 
Blake is also deeply versed in the Bible, and that comes through here. The poem recalls the language of the prophets. Blake refers to Christ as “the holy Lamb of God,” a title for Jesus especially associated with St. John the Baptist, who pointed out Jesus as “Lamb of God” and who also ended up dead for speaking truth to power. 
 
The third and fourth stanzas of the poem recall Old Testament prophets, particularly Elijah. In the second Book of Kings, Elijah asks Elisha what he wants from him. And Elisha answers that he wants “a double portion of your spirit.” In other words, he wants to be twice the prophet Elijah was! And the prayer is granted. Elijah is taken to heaven in “a fiery chariot and fiery horses,” and young Elisha takes up the prophet’s mantle. Here Blake is playing Elisha—taking up the prophetic task. The last stanza recalls the book of the prophet Nehemiah, and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
 
It seems appropriate to read this poem right after Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to rest on all the disciples in wind and flame. In our Christian tradition, the Spirit dwells within every member of the baptized. We are all called to be prophets. Where are the prophetic voices of our own time? And what are the “dark Satanic mills” in our day that need to be broken so that our own land can be “green and pleasant” once again, revealed as the very dwelling place of the Lamb of God? 

 




Some keep the Sabbath going to Church (236)
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
 
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
 
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
 
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

 

Hello there! Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week.
 
For this week, I have chosen a classic by American poet Emily Dickinson. Jackie O’Ryan will read the poem, then I will be back to offer a brief commentary.
 
Thank you, Jackie!
 
You can see why we need this Emily Dickinson poem right now! Emily Dickinson is one of the greatest American poets; indeed, she is one of the greatest poets in the English language. Born in 1830 in western Massachusetts, her childhood was quite a normal one. Her father was a prominent attorney who even served in the US House of Representatives. He was an imposing figure. Dickinson admitted to a friend that she did not learn to tell time until she was fifteen because she was too intimidated to tell her father she didn’t understand his explanation.
 
As a young woman, Dickinson went off to school—Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, now Mount Holyoke College, in nearby South Hadley. Established in 1837 by Mary Lyon, an extraordinary figure, it was one of the first and best colleges for women in the United States. It was an intensely religious environment, and the school proudly displayed the names of graduates who had gone on to Christian missionary work around the world.
 
During Emily Dickinson’s year at Mt Holyoke, the students would be regularly questioned about whether they were “saved” or not, and categorized as “professors,” “hopers,” and “no hopers.” Emily Dickinson landed among the “no hopers.” The preaching and the emphasis on an emotional conversion experience was constant. This is a sample of one of Mary Lyon’s addresses to the students: “Do you not know that you are now exposed to God’s wrath, that a miserable eternity awaits you?” This religious language was not unusual; in fact, it was typical of New England religious experience at the time.
 
The emphasis on conversion may have been part of the reason she left Mt Holyoke after just one year, still classed among the no-hopers. Back home in Amherst, a religious revival was underway. Over the years, many members of the Dickinson family had conversion experiences and became active members of local congregations, but Dickinson did not. She gradually became a recluse, living in self-imposed isolation from her community and even from much of her family. There were many reasons for this, but her sense of religious isolation surely played its part.
 
So was Dickinson a “no hoper”? I think her poetry gives us the clear answer to that—no! She was nourished by the Bible, and her writing is profoundly imbued with Christian themes. In one poem, she wrote simply, “I know that he exists.” God is ever-present and a number of her poems are addressed directed to Christ.
 
But when it came to church, Dickinson remained profoundly skeptical. That is clearly evident in this short, playful poem. While others go to church, Dickinson stays home and keeps the sabbath in her own way. She has everything she needs—a chorister, a dome, and even a noted clergyman - God.
 
I have always loved this poem, but I have always mentally argued with Dickinson at the same time. What about community? We need each other! We need our shared worship. During this lockdown, however, I have found this poem to take on a whole new meaning. Now, when we cannot gather as community, “keeping the sabbath” in our accustomed way, we can learn from Dickinson other ways to keep the sabbath. In particular, we learn that God speaks to us through the beauty of the natural world, with birds as our choristers, trees for a dome, even a little sexton or sacristan—and of course, God, the most noted clergyman of all, doing the preaching. Most of us hopefully have had a chance to do a little more walking, a little more looking around, and have been able to sense in new ways God’s presence in creation.
 
In the final lines of the poem, Dickinson says, “instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going, all along.” This attitude is so different from the theology she heard from the religious leaders of her day. Heaven is not a reward for the few, bestowed by a judging and reluctant God. Heaven is quite simply being in God’s presence.
 
I am reminded of the words of the French Carmelite mystic, St Elizabeth of the Trinity: “It seems to me that I have found my heaven on earth, because my heaven is you, my God, and you are in my soul.”
 
I think Elizabeth and Emily might have a lot to say to each other!

 

 

 




The Virgin at Noon | Paul Claudel

 
It is noon. I see the church, open. I must go in.
Mother of Jesus Christ, I do not come to pray.
 
I have nothing to offer and nothing to ask.
I come, Mother, only to look at you.
 
To look at you, to weep for happiness, knowing that
I am your son, and that you are there.
 
Just one moment while everything stops.
Noon!
To be with you, Mary, in this place where you are.
 
Not to say anything, but only to sing
Because the heart is too full;
Like the blackbird that pursues its idea
In impromptu couplets like these.
 
Because you are beautiful, because you are immaculate,
The woman at last restored in Grace,
 
The creature in her first dignity
And in her final glory,
Just as she came forth from God in the morning
Of her original splendor.
 
Ineffably intact because you are
the Mother of Jesus Christ,
Who is the Truth carried in your arms, and the only hope
And the only fruit.
 
Because you are the woman,
The Eden of the old forgotten tenderness,
Whose glance finds the heart suddenly
And makes the pent-up tears overflow.
 
Because it is noon,
Because we are in this moment, today,
Because you are there, always,
Simply because you are Mary,
Simply because you exist,
 
Mother of Jesus Christ, thanks be to you!
 
Translation by Corinna Laughlin

Corinna Laughlin's reflection:

Paul Claudel was born in 1868 into a typical bourgeois French household. Though baptized a Catholic, religion was not really part of his life and by his teens he was a non-believer. At the age of 18, he went on a whim to Notre Dame in Paris for Mass on Christmas Day.  As he later wrote, he thought the ceremonies might give him some good material for a few decadent poems. Later that afternoon, he returned for Christmas Vespers. And something happened.
 
“I was towards the front of the crowd, close to the second pillar at the entrance to the choir, to the right on the sacristy side. It was then that the event happened which has dominated my entire life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed, with such strength… that ever since, no books, no reasonings, none of the vicissitudes of a restless life, have been able to shake my faith, nor, truth to tell, even to touch it.” Claudel tried to join the Benedictines, but was turned down. He entered the diplomatic service instead, and served all over the world, including the US, where he made the cover of Time magazine! His prolific writing—poetry, prose, and drama—was deeply imbued with his Catholic faith. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize six times.
 
For Claudel, that transforming moment of conversion was closely associated with Mary. Though he did not know it at the time, he later realized that his conversion had taken place as the choir began to sing Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
 
Claudel wrote, tongue in cheek, “After all, woman, it was you who made the first move…. Everything that has happened since, I can’t help it, you are responsible!”
 
Something of that same loving and playful tone comes through in today’s poem Claudel describes entering a church at Noon, which is of course the hour of the Angelus, a traditional Catholic prayer to Mary. But Claudel says, surprisingly, “I do not come to pray. I have nothing to offer and nothing to ask.” So why is he there? “not to say anything, but only to sing.” He simply wants to be in Mary’s presence, as in the presence of a mother.
 
In the second half of the poem, Claudel meditates on the uniqueness of Mary. Mary is the New Eve, giving us a glimpse of God’s creation in its “first dignity,” before the fall; and she is also God’s creature “in her final glory,” for in Mary’s Assumption, we glimpse the dignity of each human person, destined to share in the Resurrection of the Body.
 
At the end of the poem, Claudel steps back from the grandeur of this theologically rich imagery about Mary, and returns to the simplicity with which he began. He gives thanks, simply because Mary is there—simply because Mary is.




Denise Levertov: “Annunciation” from St. James Cathedral, Seattle on Vimeo.


Denise Levertov, “Annuciation”

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
 
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
         God waited.
 
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

                  ____________________
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
         Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
      when roads of light and storm
      open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

                  ____________________
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
 
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
  only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
 
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                     Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God.
 
 
This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
 
A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

                  ____________________
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
 

Corinna Laughlin's reflection
 
During this month of May, we are exploring poems about Mary. This week, we’ll explore “Annunciation” by 20th century poet Denise Levertov. We have a special guest reader this week, Cathedral parishioner Jackie O’Ryan. Jackie will read the poem, then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.

Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in Essex, England, and died in 1997 in Seattle, Washington. Her mother was Welsh and her father was a Russian Jew, who converted to Christianity and became a minister of the Church of England. It was a very artistic household.   [ QUOTE FROM LEVERTOV ]
 
As a young woman, Levertov moved to the United States and considered herself an American poet. She was always very engaged with justice issues, and served as the poetry editor for the magazine The Nation for a number of years. She wrote about spiritual themes all her life, though it was not until she was teaching at Stanford in the 1980s that she began her own journey from agnostic to Christian. In 1989, she moved to Seattle, where she lived near Seward Park and fell in love with Mount Rainier. The mountain became a symbol of God for her, always present, whether “out” or not.  [QUOTE FROM LEVERTOV]
 
Levertov entered the Catholic Church at St. Edward’s Parish in Seattle in 1990. She died in 1997 at the age of 74, and is buried in Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery.
 
In this poem, Levertov evokes familiar paintings of the Annunciation—“we know the scene,” she says – the room, the book, the lily, the angel. But then she delves into the part of the story we may not focus on. This is not a story about “meek obedience,” she says, but “courage.” God did not require anything of Mary—she was free to accept or to reject. That choice, Levertov says, is “integral to humanness.”
 
In the central part of the poem, Levertov asks whether there are annunciations in everyone’s life—but not everyone responds as Mary did. “Some unwillingly /undertake great destinies, / enact them in sullen pride, / uncomprehending.” Others simply turn away when a difficult path opens in front of them – “in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair / and with relief. Ordinary lives continue.” When we refuse, Levertov says in a wonderful insight, “God does not smite” us. But nevertheless, something is lost. “The gates close, the pathway vanishes.”
 
At the end of the poem, Levertov comes back to that room where the angel is awaiting Mary’s answer. Levertov gives us a unique and very relatable idea of what it meant for Mary to be free from original sin: “she had been a child… like any other child—but unlike others, wept only for pity, laughed in joy, not triumph. Compassion and intelligence fused in her, indivisible.” It was this freedom which allowed Mary to consent to God’s plan, not reluctantly, but with total openness and trust. At the end of the poem, Levertov imagines what happens next, after Mary’s consent, and the light and transformation it brings: “The room filled with its light, / the lily glowed in it, /                                and the iridescent wings. / Consent, /               courage unparalleled, / opened her utterly.”  Mary’s “Yes” to God is not passive: consenting to God’s will is, rather “courage unparalleled.”




William Wordsworth “The Virgin”
 
 
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied.
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven's blue coast;
Thy image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in thee
Of mother's love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!

Corinna Laughlin's reflection

 
May is Mary’s Month, so this month we’ll be reading poems about Mary, from classic and contemporary poets. For this first week of May, I’ve chosen William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The Virgin.”
 
William Wordsworth was born in 1770 and died in 1850. There was a lot of sadness in Wordsworth’s life, starting with the death of his parents – he was orphaned by the age of 13. Three of his five children predeceased him. He found his joy in the glorious landscape of the Lake District, where he spent most of his life. That landscape filled his poetry. Wordsworth, with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, became one of the great English Romantic poets. They were pioneers of a new approach to poetry, characterized by close observation of the natural world, simpler language, and an emphasis on subjectivity—the interior life of the poet.
 
“The Virgin” is a later poem, part of a sequence of 47 sonnets written in 1821 and 1822, when Wordsworth was in his early fifties. The sonnets tell the whole story of the Christian faith in England. Wordsworth was a staunch Anglican—who would, he said, shed his blood for the Church of England.
 
In this sonnet, Wordsworth expresses great sympathy for Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The poem is addressed directly to Mary. Wordsworth uses ideas and images that recall Catholic beliefs about Mary: she is the Immaculate Conception – in the poem’s most famous line, Wordsworth says she is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”—the one person free from original sin. The imagery he uses to highlight Mary’s purity—comparisons to the ocean, daybreak, the moon –all resonate with Catholic prayers about Mary, whom we invoke as “Morning Star” and “Star of the Sea.”
 
All of this makes the turn the poem takes halfway through more shocking:  “Thy Image falls to earth.” Wordsworth is talking here about the English Reformation, what has been called “the stripping of the altars,” when statues of Mary and the saints were destroyed in an effort to purify the faith of English Christianity. While later, images of Mary and the saints, and tabernacles, would return to Anglican worship, at the time Wordsworth is writing, that had not yet become common.
 
At the end of the poem, Wordsworth expresses his gentle sympathy with those who turn to Mary in prayer. His language is quite tentative—“some… not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,” he says—notice the double negative. Wordsworth understands why we Catholics are drawn to Mary, and perhaps wishes that he, too, could turn to her in prayer. For Wordsworth, Mary is the best of both worlds—she combines a “mother’s love” and “maiden’s purity,” high and low, earthly and heavenly—“our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”


Poem of the Week: R. S. Thomas’ “Folk Tale” from St. James Cathedral, Seattle on Vimeo.


R. S. Thomas, “Folktale” (1986)
 
Prayers like gravel
flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
attention. But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
that far casement?
I would
have refrained long since
but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
the movement of a curtain.
 
Corinna Laughlin's commentary:
 
Today, we’re going to explore a poem by 20th century Welsh poet R. S. Thomas. Scott will read Thomas’s short poem “Folk Tale” and then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.
 
R. S. Thomas is probably the most renowned 20th century poet no one has ever heard of. He was born in Wales in 1913 and died there in 2000. Ordained a priest of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1936, he spent much of his life as a priest in small parishes in rural Wales.
 
In 1940, he married Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge, a gifted artist. Her renown as a painter inspired him to “wish to be recognized as a poet.”  His first collection of poems appeared in 1946, and many more followed. In 1996, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Thomas was a bit of a Luddite, and his son Gwydion later recalled sermons in which he railed against refrigerators and other modern appliances. The only modern convenience the family ever owned was a vacuum which they never used because it was too noisy.
 
The primary themes of Thomas’s poetry are the landscape and seascape of Wales, the country people with whom he ministered, and the elusive nature of faith and prayer.
 
In “Folk Tale,” Thomas evokes the familiar story of Rapunzel, who lived in a tower, and let down her hair to admit her mother—and, later, her prince. In Thomas’s poem, God is Rapunzel, hidden from view. Unlike Rapunzel, there are no “visible plaits to let down for the believer to climb up”—so why open the window at all?  “I would have refrained long since,” the poet says, “but that peering once through my locked fingers I thought that I detected the movement of a curtain.” Looking through “locked fingers”—through hands folded in prayer—he sensed movement in that far off window, and this glimpse was enough to keep him tossing gravel at the window, to keep him praying.
 
In this poem, Thomas playfully evokes the hard work that prayer is sometimes, and how elusive God can seem. Only by recalling that “movement of a curtain,” that sense of God’s presence, do we keep going, keep tossing gravel at the window, like Rapunzel’s prince, and longing for union.






God’s Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
 
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
 
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Corinna Laughlin's commentary:

On April 22, we observe the 50th annual Earth Day. So this week, our poem is one with a strong ecological theme:  Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” Scott Webster will read the poem, then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.
 
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844. In 1866, as an Oxford undergraduate, he was received into the Catholic Church by now St. John Henry Newman. This was a momentous decision, as Hopkins knew he would face significant opposition from his devoutly Anglican family, and indeed his entry into the Church cost Hopkins friendships and caused estrangements in his family which never fully healed.
 
Hopkins had always loved poetry, but he gave it up when he resolved to become a Jesuit. "By God's grace,” he wrote, “I resolved to give up all beauty until I had His leave for it." For seven years, he wrote almost nothing, until one of his Jesuit superiors asked him to write a poem. This opened the floodgates of his creativity, and Hopkins developed his unique voice and style in extraordinary poems for the rest of his short life—he died at age 44 in 1889.
 
In this sonnet, Hopkins describes the world being as being “charged” with the grandeur of God. The word “charged” can mean “full” or “loaded”; it can also suggest an electric “charge”—Hopkins is playing on both meanings here. It’s characteristic of Hopkins to use a wonderful variety of images to capture his meaning. The world is so full of God that divinity flashes out, like light on a shaken piece of foil; it oozes God, as a crushed olive oozes oil.
 
Why, then, Hopkins asks, do men not “reck his rod”—why do people not recognize God’s power in creation?  Instead, they keep at their destructive work, exploiting creation, making it less divine and more human—the earth has taken on our “smudge,” our smell. At the same time, ironically, we are becoming ever more alienated from nature—we no longer touch it directly, like a foot in a shoe.
 
In the second part of the sonnet, Hopkins gives a glimpse of hope. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This idea of the deep, unique life that all living things have, is one of the hallmarks of Hopkins’ thought. No matter how dark things get, there is the hope of dawn, because God has not abandoned the world—the Holy Ghost broods over the earth like a dove on her nest.
 
Hopkins’ ecological vision resonates with that of another Jesuit—Pope Francis. In “Laudato Si,” his encyclical letter on Care for our common home, Pope Francis writes: “The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God…. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”

 




Easter Wings by George Herbert

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Corinna Laughlin's commentary:

For this Easter week, I’ve chosen a classic—“Easter Wings” by the 17th-century poet George Herbert. Parishioner Scott Webster will read the poem, then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.
 
George Herbert was born in Wales in 1593. He was a superb scholar, and poems by him survive not only in English but in Latin and Greek! He had a brilliant academic career at Cambridge, holding significant posts at a very young age, and then went into Parliament. In 1629, at the age of 36, for a variety of reasons, he changed course. He sought ordination in the Anglican Church, and became rector at the tiny country church of Fugglestone St. Peter in Bemerton, England. It was here that Herbert wrote “Easter Wings,” part of a collection of poems called The Temple. His time as a country parson was brief—he died of tuberculosis in 1633, at the age of 39.
 
Herbert was one of the “metaphysical poets,” along with poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Some of the characteristics of metaphysical poetry are evident in “Easter Wings.” There’s an intricacy to the meter and rhyme, and a strong central image or “conceit”: in this case, wings! Herbert uses images of rising and falling, flying and sinking. When you look at the printed text, you can see that wings isn’t just a dominant image—it’s the shape of the poem itself!
 
Why wings at Easter? In the first stanza, Herbert talks about the creation story – how God gave Adam (and Eve) everything, “though foolishly he lost the same,” becoming “most poor.” But, Herbert says, if we rise with Christ, that first fall will only “further the flight in me.”
 
The second stanza echoes that pattern, speaking this time not of Adam’s fall, but of his own. But, he says, addressing Christ, “if I imp my wing on thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” “Imp” is a term from the art of falconry, and refers to repairing a damaged wing with feathers from a healthy one. In other words, sin is like a broken wing, preventing us from soaring--but through our Easter union with Christ, we can fly with his wings—we can rise.
 
Herbert’s poem is a very clever illustration of the Christian idea of the “felix culpa,” the “happy fault.” This is a phrase from the Easter proclamation, the Exsultet, which Father Ryan sang at the Easter Vigil. “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer.” Had Adam and Eve not eaten the fruit, there would have been no need for Christ’s redeeming action. God turns the fall into a blessing – giving us wings to rise all the way to him. Happy Easter!

 

 




Good Friday by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
 
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
 
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
 
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
 
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

 

Corinna Laughlin commentary: 
 
Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830 and died in 1894.  She was from a remarkably talented family. Her siblings all did remarkable things – her brother Dante Gabriel was a renowned poet and painter; her sister wrote a book on Dante; her brother William a noted critic and editor. Through her brothers, she was closely linked with the PreRaphaelite movement, and she appears as the Virgin Mary in Dante Rossetti’s famous Annunciation, and as St. Elizabeth of Hungary in a painting by James Collinson, to whom she was briefly engaged.
 
Rossetti had a happy childhood, but in her teenage years she experienced the first of several serious bouts with depression, something she would struggle with all her life. Her Christian faith was at the center of her life and of her writing.
 
In her poem “Good Friday,” Rossetti asks herself a question. “Am I a stone,” she asks, that she can stand beneath the cross and yet not weep? She draws on details from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion and notes that everyone reacted to Christ’s suffering—the women wept; Peter wept; the good thief was moved; even the sun and moon “hid their faces in a starless sky” in eclipse. She feels like she’s the only one who can’t seem to feel anything.  Why can’t she feel?
 
Rossetti isn’t just beating herself up here. She’s giving an accurate description of “acedia,” a spiritual torpor or apathy which we all experience sometimes. Rossetti responds in a healthy way to acedia: she acknowledges it and she prays about it. At the end of the poem, she addresses Christ, saying, “Greater than Moses, turn and look once more / And smite a rock.” Just as Moses, at God’s command, struck the rock so that water flowed out for the Israelites to drink, Rossetti prays that Christ will break her open, so that she can feel with him and for him in his Passion.
 
This year, as we celebrate Holy Week under unprecedented circumstances, let’s not beat ourselves up if we find it hard to feel through our distraction, busyness, or anxiety. Instead, let’s pray with Rossetti for the grace to be broken open, to see and to feel with Christ during these Holy Days. Have a blessed Holy Week.




 

Enclosure
Jessica Powers  (1905-1988)
 
Gypsy by nature, how can I endure it—
This small strict space, this meager patch of sky?
What madness once possessed me to procure it?
And deed it to myself until I die?
 
What could the wise Teresa have been thinking
to set these bounds on even my little love?
This walling, barring, minimizing, shrinking—
how could her great Castilian heart approve?
 
And yet I meet the morrow with composure.
Before I made my plaint I found the clue
and learned the secret to outwit enclosure
because of summits and a mountain view.
 
You question, then, the presence of a mountain?
Yet it is here past earth’s extravagant guess—
Mount Carmel with its famed Elian fountain,
and God encountered in its wilderness.
 
Its trails outrun the most adept explorer,
outweigh the gypsy’s most inordinate need.
Its heights cry out to mystic and adorer.
Oh, here are space and distances indeed.
 
(1944)
 
Reflection
 
Hello there! Corinna Laughlin here. I’m the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James. Over the years, parishioner Scott Webster and I have offered many literary evenings at the Cathedral, reading and discussing stories and poetry. Since we can’t do that right now, we’ve decided to offer a poem a week, virtually. Scott will read the poem, and then I’ll offer a short commentary. The first poem I’ve chosen is “Enclosure,” by Jessica Powers, also known as Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, a Carmelite nun who lived from 1905 to 1988. I think her experience of “enclosure” will resonate at this time when so many of us are confined to our homes.  Here’s Scott reading Jessica powers’ “Enclosure.”
 
Thank you, Scott!
 
The poem begins with a question—“gypsy by nature, how can I endure it?” Jessica Powers was a bit of a gypsy. She grew up in an Irish Catholic household in rural Wisconsin but after studies at Marquette, she moved to Chicago and later to New York City at the age of 32. She spent five years in the New York literary scene – writing for the New York Times and publishing poetry. Then, in 1941, she moved back to Wisconsin and entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Mother of God in Milwaukee. Jessica Powers became Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit.
 
Carmelites are cloistered, which means they do not leave the monastery grounds, or “enclosure,” except for essentials, like doctors’ appointments. Visitors are traditionally seen at a distance, through a grille or screen. In these days of sheltering in place and social distancing, we are all getting a taste of Carmelite enclosure! 
 
Jessica Powers wrote “Enclosure” about seven years after her entrance into the monastery. In the first part of the poem, she humorously expresses the frustration that comes with being enclosed—“walling, barring, minimizing, shrinking.” What, she asks, could she have been thinking? What could St. Teresa have been thinking?
 
But in the second part of the poem, Powers answers her own question. How can she endure enclosure? Because God is present. She draws on the rich imagery of Carmelite spirituality—mountains, wilderness, flowing water—to point towards the rich interior landscape which is always accessible, even—or perhaps especially—when we are “enclosed.”

Corinna Laughlin



 

 

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