Today's poem is a tough one. Paul Mariani's Solar Ice has three stages. The first represents the journey to God through the beauty of the world. The second represents the revelation of that same God in the mystery of the Holy Communion. The third represents the narrator's rejection of both in favour of a personal hell. It has no clear happy ending, and seems to be more of a confession, and that is where its power lay. Besides being such a wonderful use of the imagery of the icy cold of winter and the thaw of spring to represent the human heart, I'll offer just a few thoughts about what I think Mariani is doing...
The first stanza... Last night at our Catholic Basics/Catechism group, we read these words by S Augustine, which illustrate Mariani's description of how the mind and soul of Man is drawn toward God through Beauty:
The second stanza... Mariani brings out a theme we have explored in our Friday study group, looking at Rowan Williams God With Us. The Crucifixion of Christ is the centre-point of history, around which everything else turns and derives its meaning. It is TS Eliot's "still point of the turning world" where "the dance is." Every celebration of the Holy Communion becomes an extension of this "still point," which Mariani represents in the priest lifting the Host over his head. The Host of bread, joined sacramentally with the death of Christ on the cross, becomes "a small white sun around which everything seemed to coalesce, cohere & choir." But "the thought of some old insult likewise reared its head" stops the "thaw" that has begun.
The final stanza... the circle of the Host diminishes from a Sun to a tiny "o." When the self turns in upon itself, in bitterness, the warmth of Divine Grace ceases to be something the narrator can experience, but it remains a "jagged O at the center of my world." But perhaps the light in the final stanza is the fact that the narrator recognises this as a self-imposed "hell, or some lovely ether foretaste of it." He realises that in giving way to the bitterness in his heart he is left with "darkness everywhere, & ice & ice & ice & more ice on the way, and this sweet abyss between myself & You." There is no shallow piety here, he acknowledges that there is a sweetness felt by our bitterness - but its consequence is an abyss.
by Paul Mariani
The sudden shock of what you really are.
Early March. The tentative return of afternoons.
Saturday, and Mass again. The four.
All about swelling buds on beech & ash
& maples. Crocuses & snowdrops
trilling. Four months impacted ice at last
receding from the north side of the house,
and bobbing robins back & soon, soon, red-
winged blackbirds strutting on the lawn.
Soon too the sweet familiar groundswell
of peepers in the marshes. Reasons
enough to melt the frozen heart.
Father lifted the host above his head & prayed:
a small white sun around which everything
seemed to coalesce, cohere & choir. But
as I raised my head, the thought
of some old insult likewise reared
its head, and in that instant the arctic
hatred flared, shutting out my world
& spring, along with, yes, my lovely wife & sons,
a no & no & yet another no, until I caught
myself refuse the proffered gift of Love.
At once the host diminished to a tiny o:
an empty cipher, like some solar disc
imploding on itself. Only my precious
hate remained, the self-salt taste
of some old wound rubbed raw again,
a jagged O at the center of my world.
Ah, so this is it, I whistled through my teeth.
So this is hell, or some lovely ether
foretaste of it, alone at ninety north,
with darkness everywhere, & ice & ice
& ice & more ice on the way, and this
sweet abyss between myself & You
Today's poem builds on some previous themes, but takes us in a different direction. Many thanks to John Turner for suggesting The Second Coming by Yeats. It took the literary world by storm in 1919, and it might shake a few readers today.
The Second Coming is a prophetic poem, and Yeats himself in 1936 wrote to a friend, regarding the rapid changes in European culture, that this poem "written some 16 or 17 years ago, foretold what is happening." It is about that strange theme introduced in the New Testament in vague and mysterious ways, what S Paul called mysterium iniquitatis, "the mystery of iniquity." The Apostolic writers called it by different names: the Antichrist, or the Man of Lawlessness, the Beast. I am almost certain that Yeats had this passage of Scripture in mind when he composed this poem:
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed... (2 Thessalonians 2)
It is a strange passage, and it has intrigued readers ever since. The image, at least as Yeats interprets it, seems to be that there is some form of evil that will emerge in history, and it will appear as a Saviour of some kind, but is really demonic (the "beast slouches... toward Bethlehem to be born"). Remember that he is writing this poem whilst Europe is rebuilding itself after the Great War. More than just rebuilding, he sees that Europe is rebuilding itself in a very different way, and in a new direction. In this poem he is saying... "Yes, we are building something, but what is it? And are we sure this is what we should be building?" He wants to scare his readers, and he succeeds.
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
A few people asked about what the "potentially dangerous strand of piety in Christianity" was that I was referring to in yesterday's commentary. I thought I'd add another poem in a similar vein to make it clearer.
As Christians we long to be with Christ. That said, we are here in Earth until he takes us to be with him. So why not actively seek death? That's the danger. It may seem strange to us, but it is a precipice the edge of which many have danced. S Ignatius of Antioch was one of the first. That American in the news a few months back might be a recent example.
"De Profundis” is the title of today's poem. It literally means "from the depths," and Christina Rossetti is obviously referring to Psalm 130: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD." She writes about her longing for the joy and beauty of heaven, and she recognises that it is a reality she must wait for. What is interesting is how she describes this mode of waiting: in hope. In her description we see something that lies behind the virtue of hope. The energy of hope is desire enlivened by Faith.
Hope is one of the theological virtues, which might seem strange. We tend to think of "hope" in the way that greek philosophy did, as a synonym of "wish." This is how Aristotle defined it, as a neutral sort of anticipation fuelled by personal desire: "I sure hope it doesn't rain tomorrow." I sense this at every funeral. When I speak about the "hope of the resurrection," I know that most people interpret this as "we really wish that it will happen!" But that isn't what the Church means by the word, and to think of it as a "wish" is to rob the word of all its power.
Christianity transfigured the idea of hope when it contemplated the reality of Christ's resurrection. It was no longer Aristotle's neutral anticipation, fuelled by personal desire. Enlivened by Faith, Hope becomes a confident fixing of our desire upon the vision of our final goal, which has already been revealed in the resurrection of Christ. For Christians, hope is still animated by desire, but it is enlivened by the revelation of what Christ has accomplished for us. The Catechism puts it this way:
"The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men's activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity."
By Christina Rossetti
Oh why is heaven built so far, Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.
I would not care to reach the moon,
One round monotonous of change;
Yet even she repeats her tune
Beyond my range.
I never watch the scatter'd fire
Of stars, or sun's far-trailing train,
But all my heart is one desire,
And all in vain:
For I am bound with fleshly bands,
Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;
I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,
And catch at hope.
Henry King was Bishop of Chichester from 1642 to 1669. He married Anne Berkeley in 1616, the same year he was ordained. He was 24 and she was 16. They had 7 children, only two of whom survived infancy. In 1624 Anne died, only 24 years old. King was devastated and he wrote today's poem in memory of Anne.
So why a poetic eulogy on the second day of Passiontide? I think there are several themes that jumped out at me when I read it (thanks to Daniel Masters who suggested it). Early in Lent we reflected on the link between romantic eros and Caritas, and this is another great example. Simply on the level of a love poem this is a beautiful work, but the way his eros points onward and upward through death is spectacular. There are also some sub-themes, not untypical of the metaphysical poets.
There has always been a potentially dangerous strand of piety in Christianity -- the desire to follow Christ in death so that we can be with him in the New Life. S Thomas expressed it during Christ's lifetime, perhaps with the zeal of a neophyte: "Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” (John 11.16) S Paul came close to articulating it with perfect maturity: "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you." (Phil 1.23,24) And S Ignatius of Antioch (only one generation from the Apostles) danced at the dangerous edge of the idea in his journey to Rome, hoping and praying that he would be martyred so that he could be with Christ:
"May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray that they may be found eager to rush upon me... and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me... only let me attain to Jesus Christ." (Epistle to the Romans)
As we journey with Christ to, and through, his passion, there is the love which longs to journey with him through death - just to be with him. Perhaps it is a love which can be expressed best through the words of a lover to his beloved. As much as we long to be with him, we must be patient.
The Exequy (excerpt)
By Henry King
Sleep on, my Love, in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good-night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy tomb.
Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.
Each minute is a short degree
And every hour a step towards thee....
'Tis true—with shame and grief I yield--
Thou, like the van, first took'st the field;
And gotten hast the victory
In thus adventuring to die
Before me, whose more years might crave
A just precedence in the grave.
But hark! my pulse, like a soft drum,
Beats my approach, tells thee I come;
And slow howe'er my marches be
I shall at last sit down by thee.
The thought of this bids me go on
And wait my dissolution
With hope and comfort. Dear—forgive
The crime—I am content to live
Divided, with but half a heart,
Till we shall meet and never part.
This morning we have, in our Gospel, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The religious leaders have presented her to Christ, asking what should be done. The law demands that she be stoned to death. His response was forgiveness:
He looked up and said, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus ‘go away, and do not sin any more.’
It's appropriate that we enter into Passiontide today with a story about forgiveness. The coming two weeks are the story of how that forgiveness was secured: the Blood of our Saviour. As S Thomas Aquinas put it so simply: "This Blood, that but one drop of, has the power to win all the world forgiveness of its world of sin."
This is one those works of Donne that grasps the depth of our sin, and the heights of Divine Mercy. This wouldn't be a bad prayer to use daily leading up to the Paschal solemnities. Let it root itself in your heart and mind.
A Hymn to God the Father
By John Donne
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
An auricular delight for you today. Part of the genius of poetry is that it connects the beauty of ideas with the beauty of sound. In the late 19th century Gerard Manley Hopkins was famous for his wild experimentation with language in his poetry. At about the same time he wrote his celebrated "God's Grandeur," he wrote many equally daring sonnets. The Windhover, today's poem, has been called "the most startlingly experimental of this gorgeous tranche of sonnets." Justin's beautiful and restrained reading is a treat to listen to.
The poem is dedicated to "Christ our Lord," and beneath the surface of the words it points particularly to his Passion. Hopkins was heavily influenced by the Spiritual Exercises of S Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Before entering the religious life, S Ignatius was an army soldier. The founding document of the Jesuits reads: "Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross in our Society." Critics and devotees alike have called the Jesuits "God's Marines."
Christ is envisioned as a bird swooping down from heaven. Poet Carol Rumens explains it better than I can:
"Christ's Passion is central to the poem, the core from which everything else spirals and to which everything returns. The plunge of the windhover onto its prey suggests not simply the Fall of man and nature, but the descent of a redemptive Christ into the abyss of human misery and cruelty. References to equestrian and military valour (the dauphin, the chevalier) evoke the Soldier Christ, a figure to be found in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola which Hopkins devotedly practised."
By Gerard Manley Hopkins
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
William Wordsworth, about 20 years after he composed today's poem, recalled the day of its composition:
"Actually composed while I was sitting by the side of the brook that runs down from the Comb, in which stands the village of Alford, through the grounds of Alfoxden. It was a chosen resort of mine. The brook fell down a sloping rock so as to make a waterfall considerable for that country, and, across the pool below, had fallen a tree, an ash if I rightly remember, from which rose perpendicularly boughs in search of light intercepted by the deep shade above."
You get the picture. He is in a beautiful wood in Somerset. He has that moment of epiphany we have all experienced when we are overwhelmed by the beauty and harmony of the natural world. In a word, everything seems perfect in this little world of Earth. But then the epiphany changes to what Klaus Conrad coined as an apophany: Everything seems perfect, just as it should be, but somehow Man doesn't fit well into the harmony of things. The phenomenon of Man brings "sad thoughts to the mind." Is Wordsworth's description too romantic? Very likely. Is Tennyson's later vision of ‘Nature Red in Tooth and Claw’ closer to the truth? Probably. But even given the inherent violence of the natural world, "survival of the fittest" and all that, there is a harmony to it that seems close to perfection. But then there is Man.
It is interesting that Wordsworth doesn't site any examples of how the world of Man breaks up the harmony of things, the "thousand blended notes," which is perhaps why the poem transcends his own time. He concludes with the deeply Christian idea that in the face of the beauty and harmony of things, should not our response to the reality of Man be one of repentance and contrition? "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?"
Lines Written in Early Spring
By William Wordsworth
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?
I mentioned yesterday that the "millennial" generation has grown up without "the language and imagination of Faith." Our poem today addresses this phenomenon head-on. What the "millennials" are experiencing is, of course, nothing new -- it's the product of centuries of change within western civilisation (which is now global civilisation). Even in the 1880s Edwin Arlington Robinson could write about the emptiness of secularism.
This poem, Credo, is a brilliant weaving together of the despair the poet feels about the loss of meaning in modern life, and the struggle of faith. There seems to be no hope at all in the sonnet until the last two lines. In a brilliant way, though, Robinson drops little phrases throughout the poem which seem to point particularly to the nativity of Christ: "Star" (line 1), "shrouded heavens" (2), "imperial music" (6), "angel fingers" (7), "the far-sent message of the years" (13), and "the coming glory of the Light" (14). All of these images refer to the Gospel account of the Shepherds and the Magi (themselves travellers and pilgrims) who attend the Christ child at his birth. The "star" guided the Wise Men and "imperial music" played by "fair and angel fingers" led the Shepherds to Christ, in accordance with the "far-sent message of the years."
This is what we mean when we talk about "the language and imagination of Faith." Even in the depths of doubt, anxiety and despair (which is the over-arching theme of the poem), the images present in his imagination unwittingly guide him to the final two lines.
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
I cannot find my way: there is no star
In all the shrouded heavens anywhere;
And there is not a whisper in the air
Of any living voice but one so far
That I can hear it only as a bar
Of lost, imperial music, played when fair
And angel fingers wove, and unaware,
Dead leaves to garlands where no roses are.
No, there is not a glimmer, nor a call,
For one that welcomes, welcomes when he fears,
The black and awful chaos of the night;
For through it all--above, beyond it all--
I know the far sent message of the years,
I feel the coming glory of the light.
One of the facets of the Church's prayer that has been largely lost since the hyper-personalisation of "spirituality" is the way in which it functions as the voice of Christ, prior to being the voice of us as individuals. The Church's prayer is firstly Christ himself offering his intercession to the Father. In a secondary sense our Prayer is that of the whole Body of Christ, offering herself to the Father, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit. Only in a tertiary sense do we discover our place, as individual members of that Body.
Yesterday we heard the very personal Compline by Julie Moore. Today we hear a very different voice - it reminds me of a passage we heard at Mattins early in Lent:
Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light--
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? (Amos 5.18-20)
One of the things I've learned about the younger generation, especially since Old Wine started, is how overwhelmed many of them feel at the state of the world. They sense a sort of weight of evil pressing down upon history. In Wordsworth's words (which we will hear over the next day or two), they are overwhelmed by "What man has made of man." Not to mention what man has made of Earth.
Most young people, of course, haven't inherited the language and imagination of Faith to be able to articulate things very clearly, but I think they feel their frustration as a sort of prayer to something. Philip Metres expresses a similar feeling in his version of Compline.
By Philip Metres
That we await a blessed hope, & that we will be struck
With great fear, like a baby taken into the night, that every boot,
Every improvised explosive, Talon & Hornet, Molotov
& rubber-coated bullet, every unexploded cluster bomblet,
Every Kevlar & suicide vest & unpiloted drone raining fire
On wedding parties will be burned as fuel in the dark season.
That we will learn the awful hunger of God, the nerve-fraying
Cry of God, the curdy vomit of God, the soiled swaddle of God,
The constant wakefulness of God, alongside the sweet scalp
Of God, the contented murmur of God, the limb-twitched dream-
Reaching of God. We’re dizzy in every departure, limb-lost.
We cannot sleep in the wake of God, & God will not sleep
The infant dream for long. We lift the blinds, look out into ink
For light. My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight.
The final "hour" of Christian prayer is the office of Compline. The word comes to us from the Old French, complie, to complete or finish. Compline is quite different than the other hours, but perhaps its strangest feature is that it ends with the act of contrition as opposed to beginning with it. Most Christian liturgies begin with a confession of sin, but Compline builds up to it. The final act of prayer in the day is one of contrition and repentance. Christian prayer sees sleep as a "little death" as it brings the day (a little life) to an end; Compline is a sort of "little Viaticum."
Julie Moore, an American poet, suffered an extremely painful break up of her marriage. She thought everything was going brilliantly but came home one day to a message that her husband had left her. In my experience one of the most painful elements in this sort of experience is the way history itself become rewritten in blood and tears. In Moore's words, memories become "hazy specters, prowling the hallways of her heart, their long fingernails raking its walls." All those memories that meant something good, now take on a sinister quality. The time he told me he loved me, did he mean it? That trip to Spain last year that seemed so wonderful, was he already planning to leave? And the "once sure vows, now dead." Moore brings out the depth of the agony and fury that emerges in times of such existential dread, and there are no holds barred.
In this poem, prayer is revealed in one of its driest forms: when all that is left is the words, "just words, and barely sung." The beauty is that the words are still there, even though she doesn't feel them, or perhaps even believe them. The words of our prayers, even as dry formality, become anchors for our minds and hearts in times of doubt and darkness.
by Julie L. Moore
Forgive me my faults, my faults, my grievous faults,
she recites with the Benedictines preparing
for evening’s darkening shroud--
her husband’s figure standing erect
in her memory, his finger pointing at her,
threatening her, his once-sure vows
now dead, their hazy specters
prowling the hallways of her heart,
their long fingernails raking its walls.
While she chants—words, just words,
& barely sung—the Lord’s Prayer
stumbles onto her tongue: forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Not even an hour, nor is it sweet,
this prayer that arrests her,
exorcising the ghosts of promises past,
their furious, furious haunting.