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I got to hear my favorite modern poet read from his work tonight, and I realized how nicely this reading bookended my academic career:  I first heard (and heard of) Richard Wilbur during my undergraduate days at Sewanee, when we studied his poetry in a contemporary poetry class taught by my adviser, Wyatt Prunty (also an accomplished poet).  And then sometime that year Wilbur was invited to Sewanee, which is where I first heard him read in person.  Since then I have cherished his poetry (as well as his hymn, “A Stable Lamp is Lighted” which is in the Episcopal Hymnal).  What I love about his poetry is that it not only is amazing, beautiful, profound, brilliant, moving, and skilled– like the work of many of my favorite contemporary poets– but it is also, unlike many of those others– deeply optimistic.  Whereas some of the finest modern poetry can at best be called beautiful but bleak (I am thinking, for example, of something like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” which I love), Wilbur’s work is hopeful, with a deep and abiding sense of God’s grace and providence.  I don’t know much about Wilbur’s life of faith, but I know for certain he is a believer; his poetry radiates love for this world, and peaceful trust in it.  It’s not all Pollyanna and daisies– it can be somber and dark, true to life– but it’s just got this current of hope, a sense of divine order, running throughout it.  Someone once said of him that he has a “sacramental perspective” on the world.

What a gift Wilbur’s poetry has been to me since my undergraduate days, and how thankful I am to have heard him here at the end of my schooling, having just completed my PhD in English literature.  Poetry like Wilbur’s is why I do what I do, why I love to read, study, discuss, and teach poetry, why I could do it from dawn until dusk.   It also makes ME hopeful, that such a spirit can radiate in such a talent, that a man with an unabashed sense of God’s goodness can be a success in this world (he’s won the Pulitzer Prize twice and was U.S. Poet Laureate).  I asked him, during the Q &A tonight, how he hopes his poetry will be remembered, or what he’d like people to take from his work, Wilbur said that he hopes that his poems — as they are records of something that has touched him, has opened up his world or reorganized it — might do the same for someone else.  That he wants to be “in conversation” with others.  Speaking about metaphor– as the greatest poetic gift, the ability to say– and make true– that “this is that” (not that something is “like” something else but that it is “that” itself), Wilbur said that metaphor acknowledges the interrelatedness of all things.  Great poetry like his does that, it opens your perception up, changes your understanding of the world, connects things in such a way that you wonder that they weren’t always connected thus.   (Isn’t God’s creation in many ways one big metaphor?)  Looking back on my days at Sewanee, the path to where I stand right now seems so natural, so “of course,” and yet so mysteriously beautiful.  I’m so eternally grateful for the perspective and widsom Richard Wilbur’s poetry continues to give all who read his work.

Here is a poem from his forthcoming collection:

PSALM

Give thanks for all things 

On the plucked lute, and likewise 

The harp of ten strings. 

Have the lifted horn 

Greatly blare, and pronounce it 

Good to have been born. 

Lend the breath of life 

To the stops of the sweet flute 

On capering fife, 

And tell the deep drum 

To make, at the right juncture, 

Pandemonium. 

Then, in grave relief, 

Praise too our sorrows on the 

Cello of shared grief.

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The other morning on the way into town I realized I’d forgotten to bring with me an overdue library book, so I dashed back home to retrieve it.  When I approached the front door, I noticed something different about the cherry blossom-branch wreath that I’d recently hung on it to celebrate spring:  there were two gray mourning doves nestled together cozily in the bottom curve of the wreath itself.  They looked so natural there, like the sort of decoration one might add to a wreath to make it homier.  I hated to disturb them by coming any closer but they’d already seen me and both fluttered away instantly.  But it was one of the most magical things I’d seen in a long time, like some sort of benevolent sign.  I mean, I hadn’t been gone that long, I’d just come through that door, probably in a flurry of bags and toddler and dog and lunchboxes and loveys.  And I’d been, as is my wont, obsessively worrying about what this summer and fall will bring, as my doctoral funding comes to an end and we add another member to our family– how was I to make enough money to pay our bills (and my student loans) for the next year?  how will my marriage bear up under the strain of even tighter finances, another baby,  less time for romance and rest?  But those two doves, snuggled together in my wreath, seemed like the mark of God’s presence, a subtle blessing of hearth and home. 

I was reminded somehow of one my favorite “love” poems, one I read as a toast to my sister and her husband-to-be at their wedding rehearsal dinner.  I was reminded in particular of the lines:  “whatsoever love elects to bless/ Brims to a sweet excess/That can without depletion overflow”– I felt like those little birds were the outward and visible sign of the unending abundance I enjoy, a sweet reminder that love does indeed conquer all, that we not only have enough,  we have “sweet excess” both in our marriage and in our day-to-day lives, that God not only will provide, but will bless.  I wish you, as I wished Les and Beas at their marriage, the same plenty of love and sweetness in your life.

WEDDING TOAST

St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding feast,
The water-pots poured wine in such amount
That by his sober count
There were a hundred gallons at the least.

It made no earthly sense, unless to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims to a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true;
That this world’s fullness is not made but found.
Life hungers to abound
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

Now, if your loves will lend an ear to mine,
I toast you both, good son and dear new daughter.
May you not lack for water,
And may that water smack of Cana’s wine.

~Richard Wilbur

(I’m also reminded, just now, of the words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury that Beas told me about; this man was asked, in seminary, to discuss the miracle at Cana, and while his classmates scribbled away for an hour, he said only this– if I am remembering Beas’s account correctly– “The water recognized its Creator, and blushed.” 

Very cool.  Thanks, Beas, for blessing MY life so much already.)

Happy Easter!

When did she get so grown up??

 

…and Happy Springtime!  This time of year, the world– in blossom and bud, blue sky glories and cool breeze abandon– can’t help but reflect the vivifying power of Christ’s resurrection and our own perpetual renewal.  Start fresh!  Alleluia!

GOOD FRIDAY 1613:  RIDING WESTWARD

LET man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th’ intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl’d by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul’s form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul’s, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg’d and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God’s partner here, and furnish’d thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom’d us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They’re present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look’st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang’st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.

~John Donne

A couple weeks back, I volunteered to write and read aloud a meditation for the Stations of the Cross Good Friday service at my church, a service I’ve always loved.  Well, today I received an email requesting the meditation itself, though I’d never gotten a confirmation that I was indeed on the  list and that the Station I’d requested was the one I’d been assigned.  This was in the middle of working on my dissertation final draft, which is due next Friday.   Needless to say I was a bit freaked!  Luckily, it’s supposed to be 200 words maximum, so it’s not like I had to scramble together 200 pages (like I’m doing now for my dissertation!). 

I’d requested Station 13, when Jesus is taken down from the cross and placed in Mary’s arms; I thought, way back a couple of weeks ago, that in the interim I might have some great maternal inspiration with which to write about Mary, mother of God.  Er, not so much.  But as I thought about the station more, I was reminded of one of my favorite sermons of my own mother, a Christmas sermon about Mary offering her baby son to the world to hold, even those who are most intimidated or afraid of such an idea:  “Here, you can hold him.”  So I went from there, trying to figure out how Mary’s actions were fulfilled in that final act of having her son returned once more to her arms.  As a mother now I cannot imagine being asked to give up my child to death, but I can identify with that bittersweetness of letting go, perhaps the ultimate sacrifice one can make.  (Thanks, Mommy, for your inspiration and sacrifices; thanks, too, to my brilliant, eloquent husband for the opening sentence!)

STATION 13:  JESUS IS PLACED IN THE ARMS OF HIS MOTHER

Jesus had lain in Mary’s arms long before:  in a stable, under a star.  Even then Mary knew, though the child lay in her arms at the moment, that He was not hers, that He could not stay forever, either as a baby in her arms or as her son on this earth.  Mary, whose name means “bittersweet,” must have known truly that sadness mixed with joy, that longing for things to remain the same along with the knowledge that they never can.  It must have been a bittersweet moment indeed, when she offered her baby son to the trembling, humble arms of the poor shepherds, or the powerful, richly-clothed ones of the Magi.  In that moment, Mary gave up her son to the world, holding his fragile body out to all people, as if to say, “Here, you can hold him if you like.”  And on this Good Friday, as Jesus’s body is taken down from the cross, the world returns Mary’s son to her arms again, and in this last bittersweet moment Mary bears Christ once more, and for all.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.

~Robert Frost

Two passages from The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead’s Organic God that really touched me:

“We are so afraid of losing our abilities, our skills, our possessions.   But to God all of that is nothing but trappings.  To God, we are a heart, a soul, a being that is naked and beautiful, like a lily of the field.” (pg 8 )

Wow–what if I lived as if I truly believed that, or more importantly, as if that was truly all that mattered to me.  What if I insisted, in the face of the world’s opposing and contradictory messages and in the face of my own insecurity, my own longing for affirmation, approval, for an identity that would look good to the world–w hat if I rested and rejoiced in the fact that I AM a beautiful soul, a lovely heart that God loves and with whom God is pleased?

“Worry is nothing but a spinning of the wheels of the mind.  It is an unproductive, unflattering waste of energy.  Worrying is useless.  I think that worrying for me is a way of trying to remain in control, of putting the brakes on my life. . .  Worrying does not add time to life, but rather robs us of it.  When we worry, we are not fully awake.  When we recognize that our thoughts are repeating themselves, when we go over and over the same problems, the same confusion or pain, we erase our presence from the moment.  And we lose that moment, for it will never return.” (pg 12)

That is and has been SO true in my life.  There are YEARS in which I have very few vivid memories, times when my worrying and my obsessive-compulsive disorder absolutely overwhelmed my daily life.  I was so NOT present in the moment that I can’t even remember what went on.  My body was there but my mind was turned inward, racing thoughts, trying to control my life by worrying it to pieces.  And I still struggle with that, because worry is an insidious thing– I will have been doing it for hours, days, weeks before I even realize I am doing it!  What worry has taught me, though, is that NOTHING is guaranteed except this present moment, and it too is fleeting.  For that reason I need to hold very lightly and loosely to the things I want and need, the things I feel the drive to worry over and protect– because what will happen will happen whether I worry about it or not.  And what will not happen, what is not God’s will, will NOT happen no matter how much I try to control it.

My goal today is to live fully and completely in this moment, letting all other fears and desires and needs and insecurities flow right on past.  To rest in the knowledge that I am NOT in charge, but that I am taken care of.  Even in regard to things I don’t understand or can’t make sense of, in the larger picture, the picture God sees, all manner of things shall be well and, as St Teresa of Lisieux put it, “Everything is grace.”

The story of Caedmon (7th – 8th centuries AD) and his hymn are related in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

In this abbess’s monastery was a certain brother particularly glorified and honoured with a divine gift, in that he fittingly was accustomed to make songs, which pertained to religion and virtue, so that whatever thus he he learned of divine letters from scholars, those things he after a moderate space of time he brought forth, in poetic language adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration and well-made in the English language. And by his poem-songs the spirits of many men were kindled to distain of the world and to service of a heavenly life. And likewise, many others after him among the English people endeavoured to compose pious songs, but none however in like manner to him could do so because he had learned not at all from men nor through man that he songcraft learned, but he was divinely aided and through God’s gift received the art of poetry. And he therefore he never could make any sort of lying or idle songs, but just those alone which pertained to piety, and those which were fitting for his pious tongue to sing. The man was established in worldly life until the time when he was of advanced age, and he had never learned any songs. And consequently, often at a drinking gathering, when there was deemed to be occasion of joy, that they all must in turn sing with a harp, when he saw the harp nearing him, he then arose for shame from that feast and went home to his house. Then he did this on a certain occasion, that he left the banquet-hall and he was going out to the animal stables, which herd had been assigned to him that night. When he there at a suitable time set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name: ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’ Then he answered and said: ‘I do not know how to sing and for that reason I went out from this feast and went hither, because I did not know how to sing at all.’ Again he said, he who was speaking with him: ‘Nevertheless, you must sing.’ Then he said: ‘What must I sing?’ Said he: ‘Sing to me of the first Creation.’ When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard, whose order is this:

Nu we sculon herigean     heofonrices weard,  
Now we must praise     the Protector of the heavenly kingdom,
meotodes meahte     ond his modgeþanc,   the might of the Measurer     and His mind’s purpose,
weorc wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra gehwæs,   the work of the Father of Glory,     as He for each of the wonders,
ece drihten,     or onstealde.   the eternal Lord,      established a beginning.
He ærest sceop      eorðan bearnum   He shaped first    for the sons of the Earth
heofon to hrofe,     halig scyppend;   heaven as a roof,     the Holy Maker;
þa middangeard     moncynnes weard,   then the Middle-World,     mankind’s Guardian,
ece drihten,     æfter teode   the eternal Lord,      made afterwards,
firum foldan,     frea ælmihtig.   solid ground for men,     the almighty Lord.

 

(from:  http://www.heorot.dk/bede-caedmon.html#bede-oe)

Clink on the link below to hear Caedmon’s hymn (the version in the West Saxon dialect) read aloud.  (It’s fun to listen to it being read while looking at the West Saxon transcription!)  It is beautiful (and you can hear where Tolkien, a scholar of Old and Middle English, got his ideas for the languages and names in his books)!

http://ia361301.us.archive.org/10/items/caedmon_librivox/caedmon_ks_64kb.mp3

You can see from this that English as we know it today would not exist, had not Latin and then French invaded.

HOLY SONNETS.

XIV.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
~John Donne

Here’s what I am working with in the chapter I’m writing right now.  First, Richard Crashaw’s (17th-century English metaphysical poet, contemporary of John Donne’s) weird poem to St Teresa of Avila (16th-century Spanish mystic); second, the famous sculpture of her by Bernini in Rome; third, an excerpt from St Teresa’s writings on which Bernini’s sculpture and Crashaw’s poem are based.  All very weird stuff– the long tradition of mystics describing their experiences of divine rapture in erotic terms, and the metaphysicals playing off this tradition.  I’m of course looking at the veil in Crashaw’s poem, but it’s just so bizarre!  Imagine if someone wrote this kind of thing today…

The Flaming Heart

Vpon the book and Picture of the seraphicall saint Teresa, (as she is vsvally expressed with a Seraphim biside her)

WELL meaning readers! you that come as freinds

 
And catch the pretious name this peice pretends;  
Make not too much hast to’ admire  
That fair-cheek’t fallacy of fire.  
That is a Seraphim, they say         5
And this the great Teresia.  
Readers, be rul’d by me; and make  
Here a well-plac’t and wise mistake.  
You must transpose the picture quite,  
And spell it wrong to read it right;        10
Read Him for her, and her for him;  
And call the Saint the Seraphim.  
  Painter, what didst thou understand  
To put her dart into his hand!  
See, even the yeares and size of him        15
Showes this the mother Seraphim.  
This is the mistresse flame; and duteous he  
Her happy fire-works, here, comes down to see.  
O most poor-spirited of men!  
Had thy cold Pencil kist her Pen        20
Thou couldst not so unkindly err  
To show us This faint shade for Her.  
Why man, this speakes pure mortall frame;  
And mockes with female Frost love’s manly flame.  
One would suspect thou meant’st to print        25
Some weak, inferiour, woman saint.  
But had thy pale-fac’t purple took  
Fire from the burning cheeks of that bright Booke  
Thou wouldst on her have heap’t up all  
That could be found Seraphicall;        30
What e’re this youth of fire weares fair,  
Rosy fingers, radiant hair,  
Glowing cheek, and glistering wings,  
All those fair and flagrant things,  
But before all, that fiery Dart        35
Had fill’d the Hand of this great Heart.  
  Doe then as equall right requires,  
Since His the blushes be, and her’s the fires,  
Resume and rectify thy rude design;  
Undresse thy Seraphim into Mine.        40
Redeem this injury of thy art;  
Give Him the vail, give her the dart.  
  Give Him the vail; that he may cover  
The Red cheeks of a rivall’d lover.  
Asham’d that our world, now, can show        45
Nests of new Seraphims here below.  
  Give her the Dart for it is she  
(Fair youth) shootes both thy shaft and Thee  
Say, all ye wise and well-peirc’t hearts  
That live and dy amidst her darts,        50
What is’t your tastfull spirits doe prove  
In that rare life of Her, and love?  
Say and bear wittnes. Sends she not  
A Seraphim at every shott?  
What magazins of immortall Armes there shine!        55
Heavn’s great artillery in each love-spun line.  
Give then the dart to her who gives the flame;  
Give him the veil, who gives the shame.  
  But if it be the frequent fate  
Of worst faults to be fortunate;        60
If all’s præscription; and proud wrong  
Hearkens not to an humble song;  
For all the gallantry of him,  
Give me the suffring Seraphim.  
His be the bravery of all those Bright things.        65
The glowing cheekes, the glistering wings;  
The Rosy hand, the radiant Dart;  
Leave Her alone The Flaming Heart.  
  Leave her that; and thou shalt leave her  
Not one loose shaft but love’s whole quiver.        70
For in love’s feild was never found  
A nobler weapon then a Wound.  
Love’s passives are his activ’st part.  
The wounded is the wounding heart.  
O Heart! the æquall poise of love’s both parts        75
Bigge alike with wound and darts.  
Live in these conquering leaves; live all the same;  
And walk through all tongues one triumphant Flame.  
Live here, great Heart; and love and dy and kill;  
And bleed and wound; and yeild and conquer still.        80
Let this immortall life wherere it comes  
Walk in a crowd of loves and Martyrdomes  
Let mystick Deaths wait on’t; and wise soules be  
The love-slain wittnesses of this life of thee.  
O sweet incendiary! shew here thy art,        85
Upon this carcasse of a hard, cold, hart,  
Let all thy scatter’d shafts of light, that play  
Among the leaves of thy larg Books of day,  
Combin’d against this Brest at once break in  
And take away from me my self and sin,        90
This gratious Robbery shall thy bounty be;  
And my best fortunes such fair spoiles of me.  
O thou undanted daughter of desires!  
By all thy dowr of Lights and Fires;  
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;        95
By all thy lives and deaths of love;  
By thy larg draughts of intellectuall day,  
And by thy thirsts of love more large then they;  
By all thy brim-fill’d Bowles of feirce desire  
By thy last Morning’s draught of liquid fire;       100
By the full kingdome of that finall kisse  
That seiz’d thy parting Soul, and seal’d thee his;  
By all the heav’ns thou hast in him  
(Fair sister of the Seraphim!)  
By all of Him we have in Thee;       105
Leave nothing of my Self in me.  
Let me so read thy life, that I  
Unto all life of mine may dy.  

 

 

St Teresa:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. . . He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire:  they must be those whom we call Cherubim. . .  I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire.  He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.  The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.  The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.  The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one.  It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.