No Longer at Ease in the Old Dispensations

As we come to the transition between one year and the next, I can’t think of a better poem to share than T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. Here it is:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kiking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Waning Days of Advent

Here is what seems to me a perfect poem as we enter the final days before Christmas, Denise Levertov’s Primary Wonder.

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.

And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

John of the Cross and the Mystery of Love

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of one of its great mystics, St. John of the Cross. John was friend and confidant to another of the great mystics of the Church, Teresa of Avala and, like Teresa and many other mystics, expressed his experience of God in poetry.

One of John’s poems is a beautiful one for us as in this latter part of Advent. It is titled Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

This love of which John speaks is the love into which we are invited by our God. What an invitation!

Love Bade Me Welcome

Flipping through a book of poetry earlier today I came across a poem of George Herbert’s I have always loved.  In some collections is it titled simply Love.  It is a good reminder of God’s constant invitation.
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.

Everything Points to God

I love the poetry of Hafiz.  Here is one for your reflection this morning (with thanks to Inward/Outward).  It is titled Everything Points to God.

Forget every idea of right and wrong

Any classroom ever taught you

Because an empty heart, a tormented mind,
Unkindness, jealousy and fear
Are always the testimony
You have been completely fooled!

Turn your back on those
Who would imprison your wondrous spirit
With deceit and lies.

Come, join the honest company
Of the King’s beggars—
Those gamblers, scoundrels and divine clowns
And those astonishing fair courtesans
Who need Divine Love every night.

Come, join the courageous
Who have no choice
But to bet their entire world
That indeed,
Indeed, God is Real.

I will lead you into the Circle
Of the Beloved’s cunning thieves,
Those playful royal rogues—
The ones you can trust for true guidance—
Who can aid you
In this Blessed Calamity of life.

Lover,
Look at the Perfect One
At the Circle’s Center:

He Spins and Whirls like a Golden Compass,
Beyond all that is Rational,

To show this dear world

That Everything,
Everything in Existence
Does point to God.

If we lose track of the reality that everything points to God, we miss one of, if not the, most fundamental point of all. Sacramentality, writ large.

O God, I Am Thine!

Earlier this week was the seventieth anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Nazi Germany.  Although Bonhoeffer is someone whose writings I have found enormously beneficial and someone whose faith and courage I greatly admire, I was not aware of this poem of his until I saw it on my friend Neil Willard’s blog.

Bonhoeffer wrote this poem while imprisoned.  It is titled, Who am I?  Its ending provides the only answer we need to have to that question.

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

Neil’s post also has a clip from a film about Bonhoeffer I showed to my Heroes and Heroism seminar students this past January: Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace.  Take a look at the clip if you have a chance.

Joy and Hope: Poetry of the Easter Season

I have spoken to different groups about the use of poetry in prayer.   Poetry seeks an emotional or sensual response rather than an intellectual.  Because it operates more at the level of our affect than our intellect, it can help us attain a heart-felt, affective knowledge of God’s presence and love.

I came across yesterday a site that collected a number of poems for prayer during the Easter season.  here is one of them, The Death of Death by Scott Cairns.

Put fear aside. Now
that He has entered
into death on our behalf,
all who live
no longer die
as men once died.

That ephemeral occasion
has met its utter end.
As seeds cast to the earth, we
will not perish,
but like those seeds
shall rise again—the shroud
of death itself having been
burst to tatters
by love’s immensity.

You can find the whole collection, along with some wonderful suggestions for praying with poetry, here.

The Resurrection Process

On this Easter Monday, it is good to reflect on this poem written by Brazilian theologian and writer Leonardo Boff.  It is titled The Resurrection Process.

He penetrates the entire cosmos,
pervades the whole world,
and makes his presence felt in every human being.
The resurrection is a process that began with Jesus
and that will go on until it embraces all creation.
Wherever an authentically human life is growing in the world,
wherever justice is triumphing over the instincts of domination,
wherever grace is winning out over the power of sin,
wherever human beings are creating more
fraternal mediations in the social life together,
wherever love is getting the better of selfish interests,
and wherever hope is resisting the lure of cynicism or despair,
there the process of resurrection
is being turned into a reality.

At Her Consent The Mystery Was Wrought

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation.  At Mass today we hear Luke’s account of the Annunciation.  Here is St. John’s of the Cross’ poetic description in his poem The Incarnation.

Then he called
and sent him to
the virgin Mary,
at whose consent
the mystery was wrought,
in whom the Trinity
clothed the Word with flesh.
and though Three work this,
it is wrought in the One;
and the Word lived incarnate
in the womb of Mary.
And he who had only a Father
now had a Mother too,
but she was not like others
who conceive by man.
From her own flesh
he received his flesh,
so he is called
Son of God and of man.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Wait With Me

I’ve twice recently recommended Mary Oliver’s poem Gethsemane to others and so was prompted to share it here.  It is a wonderful poem anytime, but seems particularly worth a read during this season of Lent.

Here it is:

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.