O Sing to Me of Heaven: Requiem for a Friend

Stephen D. O’Leary at Point Reyes National Seashore, June 13, 2011 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

My friend Stephen D. O’Leary departed this life on January 24, 2020, just days after we sang together at the California Shape Note Singing Convention. Although he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had just begun chemo, he was feeling pretty good that weekend. He said afterward, “I plan to keep singing until I die (which I hope will not be anytime soon), and even after.” Two days later, way too soon, he was gone. Today I preached this homily at his requiem, where many of his shape note friends gathered to sing his spirit home. 

In early January, on Twelfth Night, Stephen shared on Facebook an article which had caught his attention, about the possibility of robot priests––speaking machines which could offer blessings, prayers and comfortable words on demand. And of course Stephen had questions: Would a robot priest, he asked, require that God be “unable to distinguish between the bot’s prayer and the prayer of an actual human person, or . . . only that the person being prayed for by the bot must believe that the bot is an actual conscious being…?” Thankfully, no such questions are at issue in this liturgy!  Fr. Gagan and I are not battery-operated.

But such questions were so Stephen. His passionate and curious mind was always wondering about things in the most interesting and unique way. How we will miss his questions––and so much besides.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a line expressing in nine words the uniqueness we all possess: What I do is me: for that I came. Stephen did Stephen as well as he could, and each of us has our own stories about why he came, and what difference he made in our lives.

A few hours before he died, he posted a poem by George Eliot about the “choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” The “choir invisible” is the poet’s name for those departed souls whose lingering influence has made us better, and even now may still “Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, / Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, / Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d, / And in diffusion ever more intense!”

“To make [such] undying music in the world” was the holy work to which Stephen aspired, even when his road was rough and steep.  We mourn his absence, lament the sudden withdrawal from the visible world of such a remarkable and dear companion. As we sing at the end of every shape note convention, just before we go our separate ways:

Your comp’ny’s sweet, your union dear
Your words delightful to my ear
Yet when I see that we must part
You draw like cords around my heart

But the absence of a loved one in bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. Although death changes the relationship, it does not end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Stephen is no longer in one particular place. He is now in every place or occasion where we remember him. He is present whenever we think of him, or speak of him, or tell the stories that bring him back. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to hear his unmistakable voice whenever we hit those high notes in shape note hymns like Stratfield or Villulia.

At the tomb of Jesus, the angel of resurrection told the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Wendell Berry has said something similar about all the departed, who now are “hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.”

Resurrection faith tells us that a person’s continuing presence is not purely the product of our own subjectivity. Though we see Stephen no longer, he continues to exist as more than just memory or feeling or imagination. As he was when he was created, so he remains: a beloved child of God, but now embraced and glorified within a larger wholeness from which none of us will ever be separated. This wholeness, which has many names, is the Love Supreme which binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

But knowing that death is not the end does not make the burden of loss any lighter. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” This is the only time Jesus is criticized by his friends, so bitter is their grief. Lord, if you had only come sooner, you could have delayed his fate, his mortality, for a little while longer. You could have cured him. Why did he have to die now?

Well, Jesus doesn’t like death any more than Mary and Martha do. When he approaches the tomb of his friend, he is, the gospel tells us, “greatly disturbed.” In Greek these words carry a connotation of anger, so we might say that Jesus was just as mad at death as everyone else was that day.

And so, we are told, the One who would be revealed as the Lord of life rebukes death in the most dramatic way. He peers into the darkness of the cave tomb and cries, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus does come forth, into the light, a living man, inhaling the freshness of a spring morning.

But his resuscitation is only a temporary stay. Lazarus will die again, sooner or later. And shortly after this miracle, Jesus himself will die, sharing the fate of every mortal so that God might transform that fate into something glorious. As we sing in The Sacred Harp (#163 on the bottom): Thence he arose, ascended high, to show our feet the way.

The raising of Lazarus may not have been a true resurrection into life eternal, but it was a vivid foretaste of the human future, when everyone who has fallen asleep in death will hear the voice of the divine Friend who knows us by heart, calling us each by name on that “great rising day.”

Some of us were at Angels Gate in San Pedro for the California Shape Note Convention, when Stephen, only a few days before his death, led us in singing “Farewell Anthem.”

My friends, I am going on a long and tedious journey,
Never to return, never to return. . .
Fare you well,
Fare you well, my friends,
And God grant we may meet together in that world above. . .

Stephen was not being literal––he did not expect to leave us so soon––but I imagine him smiling now to know he was bound for  glory with a song on his lips, and that so many who love him have gathered here today to join in that song with sweet accord.

I once heard a shape note singer tell about her mother’s death out in Sand Mountain, Alabama. A lot of singers were standing round her bed, keeping vigil with the old songs. But there came a moment when her mother began to sing a tune that none of them recognized. They couldn’t quite place it. And then they realized she wasn’t singing the melody. She was singing the treble part. She was singing harmony with voices from the other side, which only she could hear. The choir invisible.

Oh, sing to me of heav’n,
When I am called to die,
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high. . .

 

Then to my ravished ear
Let one sweet song begin,
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav’n.

 

Stephen O’Leary (right) and David Olson lead “Farewell Anthem” at the 2020 California Shape Note Convention.

Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace: George Herbert’s “Denial”

Gianlorenzo Bernini, St. Jerome (Siena Cathedral, 1661-1663). The saint holds the crucifix like a violin.

“Negative grace” . . . is experienced as a game of “take-away,” in which God strips us, removing things that are barriers to a naked confrontation. God takes away distraction after distraction, until our time and space take on the harsh contours of the desert.”

–– W. Paul Jones [i]

Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. God can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. God consoles you and torments you at the same time. God heals you only to wound you again. God may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [ii]

 

Although “Lent” comes from a word for springtime, the season of fresh and abundant growth, its dominant metaphor is the desert, with its connotations of aridity and spareness. The spiritual journey back to the garden must go by way of the desert. Distractions, distortions and comfortable illusions must be stripped away to make room for a grace beyond our own cramped imaginings. As W. Paul Jones puts it, the desert is “a game of take-away.”

As every saint will tell you, the spiritual life is not always satisfaction. Sometimes it is deprivation, a “negative grace” that draws us (or forces us) out of our settled and static states into the disorienting vastness of divine imagination. No longer sheltered by the old complacencies, we experience a lack, an absence, a desolation, which nothing familiar can fill or assuage. In retrospect, we understand this as a necessary passage into a reality richer and deeper than our old “self,” but whenever we are in the midst of the Cloud of Unknowing or lost in the Land of Unlikeness, we are subject to the anguish of abandonment. My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?

George Herbert, whose feast day (February 27) follows Ash Wednesday this year, was a seventeenth-century poet-priest who wrote elegant and moving verse about the motions of the soul and the life of faith. Although honest about his own shortcomings and inner struggles, he was consistently conversant with the God of grace, and his poems were usually grounded in a sense of reliable­­––if sometimes challenging––reciprocity with his Maker and Redeemer.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart as joys in love. (“The Call”)

But even “the holy Mr. Herbert,” as his parishioners called him, spent time in the desert of divine absence and spiritual desolation.  “Denial” is one of his unhappiest poems, lamenting a God who is not only hidden, but unresponsive, seemingly deaf to Herbert’s prayers: “O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue / To cry to thee, / And then not hear it crying!”

The brokenness of the meter matches the poet’s broken heart. As Herbert biographer John Drury notes, “iambs (short-longs) jostle discordantly with trochees (long-shorts). The lines of each verse are, apart from the two minimally two-feet lines, unequal in length (four, two, five, three, two feet). There is near-chaos.” [iii]

In all but the last stanza, the concluding line is dispiriting: “disorder. . . alarms . . . no hearing . . . no hearing . . . discontented.” And each stanza’s ending fails to rhyme with any other line, intensifying the sense of disconnection and alienation from a larger whole. Only the poem’s final line is granted the mending grace of rhyme.

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go anywhere, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untun’d, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rhyme.

“But no hearing,” occurring twice at the poem’s center, poses deep crisis for a person of prayer. Yet faith teaches us to bear divine silence patiently. Silence does not always mean absence or indifference. It can, sometimes, be a profounder form of speech. But the fifth stanza adds the image of being unseen to the one of being unheard: “my soul lay out of sight, / Untun’d, unstrung.”

Herbert loved music. It is said that when he was near death, he suddenly rose from his bed and called for one of his instruments, so that he might play and sing for his God. According to Izaak Walton’s account, as he tuned the instrument he prayed, “My God, my God! My music shall find thee. And ev’ry string shall have his attribute to sing.”

So Herbert’s image of the soul as an instrument untuned and forgotten, like the abandoned harps hung on willow trees by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:2), conveys a sense of utter forlornness. “What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see / Thy full-ey’d love!” wrote Herbert in “The Glance.” Such a gaze shall “look us out of pain.” But in “Denial,” God’s “sweet and gracious eye” no longer rests upon him. It no longer sees him at all, as if he doesn’t exist.

Or so it seems to the disconsolate soul. And yet Herbert continues to speak as if God is still there, as if his prayer might still be heard. “O cheer and tune my heartless breast,” he cries, using his favorite musical image for the restoration of the soul’s lost consonance, when “thy favors . . . and my mind may chime” (like bells in harmony) and so “mend my [broken] rhyme.”

That final word puts an end to the discordant lack of rhymed endings in the previous stanzas. Just as the poem’s broken meter signifies the disorder in Herbert’s soul, so this restoration of missing rhyme anticipates the grace of a mended life. Furthermore, the double meaning of the last word (“rhyme” was sometimes spelled “rime,” which also means frost) suggests an additional connotation of renewal:  the heart’s long winter will soon be mended by the coming of spring.

 

 

 

[i] W. Paul Jones, A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000), 96.

[ii] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982, p. 45), cited in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 1997), 31.

[iii] John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 331.

“Thus times do shift”: A Poem for Candlemas

Augustina Woodgate, National Times (2016/2019) at the Whitney Biennial 2019.

February already! How the year hurries on. I tear January from my calendar with a sigh. The new year’s fresh supply of months is being consumed at an alarming rate. A few weeks ago there seemed time enough for everything, but now . . .

Candlemas (February 2) is the last of the Nativity celebrations. You can read more about its meaning and customs in last year’s post, Consumed by Love. For me it is a day to remember the preciousness of the time we are given. Like the people’s candles traditionally blessed in the Candlemas rite, the days to come are made to be used up. As I wrote last year, “a candle is a temporal thing, fulfilling its function of radiance and warmth at the cost of its own vanishing.”

For Robert Herrick, 17th-century poet and priest, our temporal condition was a recurring theme. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is his best-known line, but his poem for Candlemas Eve is my favorite. The changing of seasonal decorations in houses and churches is an emblem of the human condition: Thus times do shift . . . new things succeed, as former things grow old.

       DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
           Down with the misletoe ;
       Instead of holly, now up-raise
           The greener box (for show).

       The holly hitherto did sway ;
           Let box now domineer
       Until the dancing Easter day,
           Or Easter’s eve appear.

       Then youthful box which now hath grace
           Your houses to renew ;
       Grown old, surrender must his place
           Unto the crisped yew.

       When yew is out, then birch comes in,
           And many flowers beside ;
       Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
           To honour Whitsuntide.

       Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
           With cooler oaken boughs,
       Come in for comely ornaments
           To re-adorn the house.
Thus times do shift ; each thing his turn does hold ;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

Herrick’s poem was set to a Basque melody by Edgar Pittman (1865-1943). Here is a lovely version of it by English folksinger Kate Rusby.

Mr. Schiff Goes to Washington

Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) appeals to the Senate in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939).

Last night Adam Schiff delivered one of the most electrifying and critical speeches in American history. Standing before the United States Senate, he spoke the truth that can no longer be ignored: Donald Trump is not merely corrupt, ignorant, and malicious. He is dangerous.  

Schiff began by stating the obvious:

“Do we really have any doubt about the facts here? Does anybody really question whether the President is capable of what he’s charged with? No one is really making the argument, “Donald Trump would never do such a thing,” because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did. . . We all know what we’re dealing here with this President, but does he really need to be removed?”

Then, after outlining the present and future dangers of the President’s corrupt and reckless behavior, Schiff reminded the Senate, and every citizen, what is at stake––the survival of our country and the ideals on which it was founded. 

“Well, let me tell you something, if right doesn’t matter, . . . it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is. Doesn’t matter how well written the Oath of Impartiality is. If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost. If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost.”

Watch the whole speech (the link is below). If our country survives this crisis, Schiff’s warning will be remembered as one of the monumental texts of American history, powerfully crafted and crucially significant. The United States began with the declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Whether Schiff’s declaration––“If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost”­­––proves to be our wake-up call, or our epitaph, remains to be seen. 

How I wish Frank Capra were directing the impeachment hearings as a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The idealist’s stirring rhetoric would bring the conflict to a decisive crisis point. The Boy Rangers would lead mass protests in the streets of America, crying “This is what democracy looks like!” And Moscow Mitch, taking the role of Claude Rains, would weep and wail his repentance on the Senate floor. 

I’ve been reading Tristan Gooley’s The Nature Instinct: Relearning Our Lost Intuition for the Inner Workings of the Natural World. It’s a guide for cultivating our “sixth sense” as we live and move in nature. When we are tuned in to the cues of our environment, we don’t need to slowly ponder and reflect about what’s going on around us. We can react instinctively and immediately. And when we are threatened by danger, a speedy reaction is essential for our survival.

“Sitting around a fire in the Amazon jungle, the sound of bird alarm calls in the trees sets a tribal group thinking slowly and consciously about its meaning. But the survivors of a jaguar attack didn’t ponder the meaning a second time; they got out of there.” (Gooley, 25)

The signals of alarm are all around us. Danger! Danger! Citizens, we can’t remain where we are. It’s time to move!

On the Brink of War: “Choose life.”

Matteo di Giovanni, The Slaughter of the Innocents (detail, floor panel, Siena cathedral, 1481)

A madman has brought us to the brink of war. No one can predict where we go from here. If we’re lucky, the U.S. and Iran will both back off and stand down. If we’re not, hello Armageddon. But the fact that a psychologically unstable and dangerously impulsive ignoramus is steering us toward disaster, while Congress and public seem powerless or unwilling to relieve him of his command, should both terrify and sicken us. The “shining city on a hill” has become a rogue state: cruel, murderous, and––if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a war with Iran––clearly insane. 

Politicians and pundits are debating the reasons and guessing the consequences, but who is talking about the madness of a president who commits murder during his golf vacation? Who is calling out the evil of a president who would invite apocalypse to evade impeachment? Pretending not to notice these things is a form of enabling, if not its own kind of madness. 

People say Soleimani deserved death for taking so many lives. Do we really want to go down that road? If the death toll from the administration’s dismantling of health care and environmental protections should produce more fatalities than those caused by the Iranian general, what then would Trump deserve? 

We must say no to murder, and no to war. State-sponsored assassination is both repugnant and counterproductive. And military violence has become virtually obsolete as an instrument of national policy, as we have seen over the last three decades of endless and fruitless conflict. Will we never learn?

Twenty-nine years ago this month, I preached against Desert Storm, four days after we began to assault Iraq with the terrifying technology of “shock and awe.” It was not a popular sermon––over 80% of Americans took the opposite view.

I cited a declaration of the Anglican conference of bishops in 1978: “War as a matter of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The use of modern technology of war is the most striking example of corporate sin and the prostitution of God’s gifts.” But in 1991 our country was in love with our sophisticated weapons, and people were intoxicated by the smell of victory. 

For those who watched Desert Storm on television, it seemed like a video game. The “enemy” were just blips on the screen, bloodless and abstract, vaporized by noisy explosions. In my sermon, I tried to humanize the conflict: 

In Baghdad’s art center, there is a painting of Jesus, gazing at the world around him with an expression of profound sadness and pain. He wears a Palestinian scarf around his neck and he is handcuffed.

If a Christian bomber pilot knew Christ was in Baghdad, would he deliver his payload? Of course, war is not run by the personally motivated decisions of soldiers. War is organized from above. Soldiers just play their assigned part. But they can only function as long as the enemy remains a mere target, rather than a brother or a sister. They must practice indifference to the stories of their victims. Don’t see. Don’t feel.

But you and I cannot let this war be a video game. Instead, let us see and know that it is Christ being crucified in every victim. Let us watch Christ’s hands being pierced; let us hear his cry of anguish. Let us witness the Madonna and Child blown to bits in the air raid. 

As I said, it was not my most popular sermon. 

We pray every day to be delivered from evil. May that be so in our present danger. But if war comes, may we have the courage and the faith to choose Christ over the “powers” of this world, and say no to the violence. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.” Ironically, Desert Storm began on Martin Luther King Day, seeming to mock the way of nonviolence. But faith takes the long view. Violence has no future. 

Today I give you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life.

                         –– Deuteronomy 30:19 

Festo Kivengere, the Ugandan bishop whose people suffered greatly under the unspeakably barbaric rule of Idi Amin, was once asked: “If you were sitting in Idi Amin’s office with a gun in your hand, what would you do?”

“I would give him the gun, “Kivengere replied. “I would tell him, ‘This is your weapon. My weapon is love.’”

Farewell to a Decade. And then?

Raphael, The Agony in the Garden (c. 1504). “Keep a fire burning in your eye, and pay attention to the open sky: you never know what will be coming down” (Jackson Browne, “For a Dancer”).

On New Year’s Eve, 1969, I was twenty-five years old. I had begun the Sixties as a high school sophomore, and was ending it as a freshly-ordained minister in the Episcopal Church. A decade marked by so much historical drama and cultural transformation deserved a memorable farewell, but I found myself stuck at a tedious party with strangers and small talk in a Los Angeles suburb.

I slipped away and drove to the sea, arriving at the edge of the continent an hour before midnight. The big parking lot for Santa Monica’s popular public beach was deserted. I pulled up close to the sand, about a hundred yards from the surf. A “baptismal” immersion at the turning of time was my plan. But first, in the decade’s last hour, I would list in my journal the personal highlights for each of the last ten years: 

Three graduations and one ordination, my first guitar, my first romance, my first grand tour of Europe, an apartment fire consuming my theological library, two mystical experiences, one miracle, and the death of my father. And, a month before decade’s end, rolling over six times at sixty miles an hour in a Volkswagen bus––and walking away unbroken, intensely aware of the gift of futurity. I had been given more time to do whatever I was here to do. It was like being born again into a world glowing with possibility and presence. 

As I was writing these things down, a police car pulled up next to me. A young man parked by himself in an empty lot late at night was an object of suspicion under any circumstances, but the authorities at the time were on the lookout for the Zodiac Killer, who had been terrorizing California with a series of ghastly murders. Could this be the policeman’s lucky night?

He got out of his car and walked over to mine. I rolled down my window. When he asked what I was doing, I told him I was remembering the Sixties in my journal. He wondered if I would let him see what I was writing. It was very first draftish, but I handed it over willingly. My first reader! He scanned the pages, mumbling aloud my poor words along with a few inserted quotes:

“There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief…” (Bob Dylan)

“The world of the past is gone. Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21)

Fortunately, this did not strike him as serial killer material, so he wished me a Happy New Year and bid me goodnight. I walked down the sea in time to make ritual welcome to the 1970s.

The 2010s will depart less dramatically. There will be a backward glance with photos and stories­­––gratitude for the gifts, lament for the losses­­––along with expressions of astonishment at the accelerating speed of our allotted span in these latter days. At midnight we will stand on our porch blowing kazoos and train whistles, banging gongs and beating drums, to drive away the spirits of gloom. Then we’ll return inside to greet the New with dancing and champagne by the Christmas tree.

As the American Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, Henry David Thoreau, known for his outspoken opposition to slavery, wrote nothing about the conflict in his Journal. Rather, he continued to record his curiosity and delight over specimens and experiences of the natural world. A friend asked him how he could ignore “the Leviathan of Slavery” threatening to swallow the country like Jonah. Thoreau replied that refusing to let our attention be consumed by the hypnotic gaze of chaos “is just the most fatal, and indeed the only fatal, weapon you can direct against evil.” [i]

I know people who will spend this evening in prayer and vigil, aware that we are on the verge of an apocalyptic year, when the fate of this country and the fate of the planet are at stake as at no other time in living memory. 2020 promises an immense struggle requiring the best of us, and I am grateful for those who plan to welcome the New Year with their most prayerful attention, keeping their eye on the Light rather than being transfixed by the dark abyss of malevolence. 

I will join the fight on the morrow. But for tonight, by dancing and making merry, I will continue to remember and affirm a future beyond the battle, the new heaven and new earth where the tears are wiped from every eye and God’s beloved people rejoice once more in the light of hope and human flourishing. 

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Thank you, as always, dear reader, for the gift of your attentive reading and generous sharing of what I post here. Time is a precious commodity, and I appreciate your choice of spending some of it with The Religious Imagineer. I wish you a most happy––and redemptive––New Year. 

I began this blog halfway through this decade, and have posted a reflection on time, memory and hope every New Year’s Eve since 2014. You can find those writings at the following links:

The Angel of Possibility (2014)

Tick, Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve (2015)

Foolishness and Hope on the Eve of 2017 (2016)

At the Mercy of the Future (2017)

On New Year’s Eve, My Inner Clown is Full of Hope (2018)


[i] Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 479-80. I commend this book highly. It is a beautifully written, richly informative, and quite moving narrative of one of America’s most remarkable figures. 

Christmas as Poetry

Gerrit van Honthorst, Adoration of the Child (c. 1620).

Christmas is a poetic argument against the prosaic flattening of the world into a place without depth or mystery. For a few days or weeks, it interrupts the social imaginary where God is absent, ignored, or simply unthinkable, inviting us to consider––and adore––the mystery of a world saturated with the divine. 

“This is the irrational season,” says Madeleine L’Engle, “when love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason / there’d have been no room for the child.”

The Feast of the Incarnation not only accepts paradox, it revels in it:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut up in a span!
Summer in winter, day in night!
Heaven in earth, and God in man!
Great little One! whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth. 

–– Richard Crashaw, “In the Holy Nativity of our Lord”  (17th century)

Whether you spend the Twelve Days pondering these things in your heart, or caroling the wonders of everything heard and seen in the stable of new birth, may you be filled with peace, blessing, and endless praise. 

But enough prose. Here is some of my favorite poetry for the “irrational season.” These poems may all be found in Sarah Arthur’s marvelous and indispensable collection, Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. 

Salvation to all that will is nigh; 
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room 
Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb.

–– John Donne, “Annunciation” (17th century)

+

It wasn’t that long ago
that he’d spoken these stars
into being
and this woman’s life
was just a thought in his mind.
He’d smiled down on her birth
and entered her name in her pages
perhaps with an asterisk
denoting plans too sacred to be spoken
but pondered in his heart.
Now, newborn,
in wide-eyed wonder
he gazes up at his creation.
His hand that hurled the world
holds tight his mother’s finger.
Holy light
spills across her face
and she weeps
silently wondering tears
to know she holds the One
who has so long held her. 

–– Joan Rae Mills, “Mary” (21st century)

+

. . . Now
I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
Because eternity
was closeted in time
he is my open door
to forever.
From his imprisonment my freedoms grow,
find wings.
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
slips through death’s mesh,
time’s bars, j
oins hands with heaven,
speaks with stars.

–– Lucy Shaw, “Made Flesh” (20th century)