As we move closer to the time of remembering Jesus’ death, this week’s poem comes from Ukrainian-born poet Anna Akhmatova, whose poem sequence “Requiem” explores the grief that she and others witnessed of the height of Stalinist rule. One striking image that Akhmatova returns to continually throughout the sequence is that of a mother mourning for the imminent death of her son. This reaches its climax in the poem “The Crucifixion”, the second last in the sequence, where the grieving mother clearly takes the form of Mary weeping beside the Cross. Akhmatova’s poem, along with the emotional intensity of Rogier van der Weyden’s painting and the searing pain in Loud Harp’s song “Weeping Mary”, perfectly captures for me how the Cross gives consolation by making space for our grief to be brought to Jesus. He knows our pain; He entered it at the Cross. The poem, art and music this week seem to me to be an invitation to join at Jesus’ side with all our weeping and anguish and to find comfort there.
I’ve wanted for a long time to write a series of reflections on the poetry of Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs. That will have to wait for another time, but this week’s poem comes from a sequence of hers called “In the Habitations of Death”, where imagery of death, dust, longing and encountering God coalesce. Sachs battled the long-term effects of trauma for much of her life and did not to my knowledge find the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus. But there’s much power and vividness in how she describes the meeting point between human helplessness and the work of God. This particular poem, with its allusions to God digging into the dust to make Adam and then digging into Adam to make Eve, is especially evocative for me.
The artwork of German artist Anselm Kiefer has had similar imaginative power over me for many years, and his piece entitled Aschenblume (Ash Flowers) is also a poignant work for Lent and our reflections on God working in the midst of our dust. Likewise, Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose work moves regularly between dissonance and purity, captures well the reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent: the weeping Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb. Let’s remember how Jesus meets us in our weeping and our dust and find mercy in Him.
This week’s poem comes from the largely forgotten African American poet James Weldon Johnson whose book “God’s Trombones” takes as its task to preserve the language and cadence of the African American preaching tradition. The collection begins in a prayer for mercy and then moves through Biblical history to arrive at the final judgement, a moment either of vindication for the faithful and oppressed and of judgement for the faithless and proud. You can see how Johnson’s own experiences of racial oppression have weathered these poems. But there is also something universal in the way that they present all of humanity being acutely in need of mercy, and the call they bring to the God of mercy to vindicate all who persistently, doggedly trust in Him. The poems are powerfully accompanied by the stark images created by Aaron Douglas, and for me the perfect musical setting of them is this piece by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, said to be based on a melody written by a slave after he was flogged. As you read these words and hear the music, may you join Johnson in his prayer for mercy, but may we also cry out for those whose pain at this moment is greater than you or I may ever know.
This week I lost NBN connection and was locked out of my Google account while trying to buy an eBook of Ilya Kaminsky’s “Dancing in Odessa”. Today I found myself in the impossible position of trying to convey to an Optus consultant why it was no use telling me to download the Optus app to help fix my problem because I’m locked out of my Google account, all the while trying to keep my sick children entertained with “Play School” running off my phone data. And this mini technological apocalypse, irritating though it was, occurred while Kyiv is bombed and Ukrainians flee for their lives all across Europe.
In the privileged West our lives are constantly lived in the shadow of someone else’s disaster. Sometimes that disaster arrives in our own homes – the COVID-19 pandemic is by no means over, and who knows what the current Ukrainian-Russian conflict means for the rest of the world. But in my life it has mostly taken place from a distance. Mostly I sit in comfort while others live daily through disasters I could never imagine.
I am not to blame for these disasters yet I am complicit in the sin that has broken this world. And I am responsible for the ungrateful way that I hoard my own treasures and safety while others have nothing. Today’s poem, “We Lived Happily Through the War” by Ukraine-born now American-resident Ilya Kaminsky, captures some of this tension perfectly and, like much of Kaminsky’s work, articulates this in the form of a cry to God for mercy. I have also been listening to the music of Ukrainian artist Endless Melancholy whose “Forgive” seems a perfect accompaniment to Kaminsky’s words and the need we all have for forgiveness in these troubling times. Kazimir Malevich’s “Sensation of an imprisoned man” also complements the longing felt on the other side, by those disconnected from the beauties and freedoms enjoyed by many in this world. In all of these pieces we might hear the Lenten cry, “Lord have mercy.”
In the last decade of his life, Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) turned to a paraphrasing a number of Biblical psalms in a work known in English by the title “Psalms of David”. Many of his paraphrases take these ancient songs and prayers and apply them to the griefs being experienced by his people under Czarist persecution. These words have a particular poignancy and immediacy today. While Shevchenko may have been too quick to equate his people with Israel and the Czars with their enemies, these prayers are powerful reminders that God sees all our tears and hears the agonies of our hearts – and that He is working in the world for justice, however it may seem now. In this season of Lent, moving towards the Cross while Ukraine is once again in pain, it might be time to rediscover Shevchenko, but also the extraordinary linocuts that artist Soroka Bohdan produced in 1989 to accompany the Psalms of David. The image for Psalm 12, today’s poem, is especially powerful, pointing all who cry out for mercy and justice to gather around the Cross where mercy is fulfilled and the justice of God wins out over sin and oppression. Although unrelated to the psalm, the hauntingly beautiful sounds of Ensemble Drevo, singing a Ukrainian folk song about Mary standing by the Cross, seemed to me to perfectly fit the heart of both the image and Shevchenko’s poem.
Image: Linocut by Soroka Bohdan, 1989 (archive-uu.com)
Text: Psalm 12 from “Psalms of David” by Taras Shevchenko, The Complete Kobzar: The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko, trans. Peter Fedynsky
This Lent, the world worn down by two years of pandemic, war unfolding in Ukraine and hearts anxious and troubled, I am turning to the poems of others to reflect on what it means to cry out for mercy in this time. Today’s poem is from young Ukrainian poet Les Beley, and it is accompanied by a stunning Ukrainian Orthodox chant of the Kyrie Eleison prayer – Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy. Wherever we find ashes in ourselves and our world, may we kneel and cry out to the God of all mercy, for us and for our world. And, as the music finishes with its final chord unresolved, may we stretch out our arms for these forty days of Lent, trusting in the Resurrection but longing, day by day, for it to be a reality.
Burning Coals Les Beley (b. 1987, Uzhhorod, Ukraine) in this city people no longer cast shadows same with coals: they only have shadows until they get into the fire and begin to smoulder coals are not afraid to burn the soil underneath them rain can’t harm them wind can’t fan them into flames purple pieces of coal smoulder longer carmine ones presume that they shine brighter (hoping in vain to warm themselves in advance) purple ones believe they will never burn up until moment they turn into grey ashes From The Frontier: 28 Contemporary Ukrainian Poets, ed. and trans. Anatoly Kuryavitsky, 2017
We keep finding hearts-
tiny golden plastic ones left
over from Epiphany craft,
not adhesive yet
clinging wherever they are scattered
like stars on the floorboards,
the craft table, the living room
to welcome our guests.
Nothing scatters so readily
yet sticks so fervently, as though
some symbiosis depended upon
their placement on wood
and I must spend
constant delicate moments prising
these hearts from the floor, keeping
the sweeping from the drain, ensuring
they never hurt, never choke,
are not lost in the scattering.
2021 has been many things, most of them not what we expected or hoped for twelve months ago. But one positive thing that happened to me this year was that, in an effort to cut back the control of Amazon’s algorithm on my life, I got rid of Goodreads and started to keep my own list of what I was reading. As I did so, I found myself paying more attention to the dynamics of my own reading – to the genres that were getting the most of my time, and the diversity of writers I was reading. The list-keeping became something of a personal challenge to make it as diverse as I could. Initially I intended to just post the whole list here without comment at the end of the year, but it got so long that I decided instead to post some highlights here: 5 novels, 5 books of poetry, and 5 non-fiction reads. For the parents out there, there’s a whole other list of the best read-alouds that I discovered with my kids – maybe that can be a post for another day. But here in no particular order are 15 books I appreciated this year.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer: Magical realist historical fiction should become its own genre after this searing epic of slavery and abolition. Heart-breaking, inspirational and beautiful all at once.
- Jon McGregor, Lean Fall Stand: A masterpiece of language, about the power of language. It begins as a wry thriller set in Antarctica and turns into a powerful meditation on language loss and what it means to care for someone who has to relearn how to be a person.
- Fanny Howe, Indivisible: I became curious about reading this book after Christian Wiman listed Howe (also a poet) as one of the only three novelists he considered worth bothering with. Howe is not an easy read – I also read another novel of hers, and a lot of her poetry this year, without understanding much of it – but this was the book that won me, after perplexing me for a long long time. It is, at its heart, a story of both motherly love and the love of God. It is not for the faint-hearted but it has one of the most satisfying endings of any book I have read this year.
- Marilynne Robinson, Jack: The finale in the Gilead series, Jack is perhaps the weakest of the four (Home is my personal favourite) but no word from Robinson is ever wasted, and the story of the wayward son that has haunted the other novels until now is a tender and moving story, filled with a powerful sense of the word that concludes the story: grace.
- Rachel Cusk, Kudos: I discovered Cusk this year via her latest, the Booker long-listed Second Place, and while that book was ultimately was flawed it left me with a taste for more. This one is the final in her inventive Outline trilogy. The concept – a series of monologues from people interacting with a moderately successful novelist at literary festivals – might sound boring, but the result is slow-burning and powerful, with an intriguing but evocative conclusion.
- Louise Glück, Winter Recipes From the Collective: I have read most of Glück’s poetry since her 2020 Nobel win, and it’s hard to pick a favourite but this – her latest – was probably the highlight of the ones I read this year. The poems are longer but more spare. After nearly a decade since her last collection, the brevity of this work is one of its greatest strengths. It all feels powerfully wintry and sparse, like language stripped back to its barest bones, exhausted with itself yet remaining vibrant all the same.
- Rita Dove, Mother Love: I first encountered this book through an excerpt, “The Bistro Styx”, that I read in a poetry course in my final year of Literature at Uni. The poems in this collection, many of them sonnets, are mostly variations on the story of Persephone and Demeter. Dove is tender and gutsy at the same time. I love everything I’ve read by her, but this was the most memorable.
- Barbara Kingsolver, How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons): I’ve never read Kingsolver’s novels but my wife gave me this recent collection of her poetry and it won me over instantly. Her voice is wise, wry and compassionate. The first sequence – a series of instructional poems that seem filled both with disappointment and hope – was especially powerful.
- Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things: I have enjoyed Berry’s poetry since first discovering it ten or so years ago, but had never read a full book of his. This collection, spanning much of his career, is an excellent introduction to the work of this wise, slow and thoughtful Kentucky farmer, perfect for a lockdown year. Berry has a powerful and measured voice, like he has learnt from hard experience what most needs to be said.
- Thom Satterlee, Burning Wyclif: It’s very difficult to describe this book in a way that does justice to it. It was honestly one of the best books of poetry I’ve ever read, but any description can only hope to sound a little odd. Sometimes comically drawing on scholastic philosophy, sometimes evoking a variety of voices from the time or liturgical or scholastic structures, Satterlee tells the story of John Wyclif’s early years as a student through to his heresy trial, death, posthumous burning and ultimately looking to his impact on the world of today. It is thought-provoking, innovative, unexpectedly funny and tragic. Religious poetry doesn’t reach these kinds of heights very often.
- Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: I was first given this book as a birthday present about ten years ago and couldn’t bring myself to read it at the time. I have since read a number of books of Wiman’s poetry and a book of his essays, so it seemed odd that I was still afraid of approaching this. I’m glad I finally came around to it – it was just what 2021 called for. Wiman, who wrote this book over several years while being treated for a rare form of blood cancer, manages to write of God and faith with a searing honesty that, while often focusing more on what cannot be said of God than what can, gave me an increased determination this year to believe through it all. Wiman, at his best, gives us a language and a space to understand the place of darkness and uncertainty in the life of faith.
- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking: I only discovered Didion this year, just before she died. Death is very much at the forefront of this memoir, which begins on the night her husband dies and recounts her year of grieving for him while also watching their adopted daughter fight for her life. Quintana, their daughter, would go on to die soon after this book finished, and it’s the inevitability of death and the human attempt to live in the face of death that drives this book. Didion was a sometimes Episcopalian, and her struggle with God also drives this work. A devastating and beautiful memoir.
- Carys Walsh, Frequencies of God: Journeying Through Advent With R.S. Thomas: Another highlight of my poetry reading this year was the Welsh priest and poet R.S. Thomas. I read three books of his poetry this year, and concluded the year with this beautiful Advent devotional, which takes one of Thomas’s poems for each day followed by an Advent reflection. Walsh’s devotions are sensitive to the riches of Thomas’s poetry while also theologically profound in themselves. Wonderful on its own terms as spiritual reading, it is also an excellent introduction to Thomas’s work for the uninitiated.
- Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves: This has been on my reading list for a long time and I have read portions from time to time but this year I finally committed the time and mental energy to finishing it. Kristeva is no easy read and makes no pretence of being accessible. But she is compelling, and these reflections on otherness and the difficulties of encountering the other in society and in ourselves remain poignant. My next book of poetry, slowly in the works, owes quite a debt to this book.
- Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, Correspondences: I have never been one for reading the letters or journals of other writers, but this one caught my eye after I first read Celan’s Breathturn and a collection of Sachs’ poetry. Sachs and Celan were two of the most inventive European poets of the last century and were both Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and its aftermath. I knew nothing of their friendship before reading this book, especially the ways in which Celan’s letters were able to help light Sachs through some profound psychological darkness. The letters are a testament to the collective grief and trauma of a people and the power of poetry and friendship in the face of unspeakable pain. Not easy to get your hands on but well worth the read if you can.
In years to come, I’ll no doubt see much of this year reflected on what I chose to read. How did your reading reflect the year that you had, I wonder? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
And love and blessings to you all in the year ahead.
At bedtime tonight two of my boys started playing with their bright green IKEA tunnel, climbing into it to lie down and pretend to sleep, as though it were a cocoon. Watching them I caught myself thinking, “Yes! That’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to build myself a cocoon and lie in it, until -” But until what, I’m not so sure.
This week, the season the church calls “Ordinary Time” comes to an end and, somehow, on Sunday Advent begins. For many people around me it seems like Christmas has been called early. The library in my school, where my office is, put up a tree and a Nativity scene. I know many who have put up their trees at home. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t feel ready for Christmas, not yet. After two years of lockdowns and pandemic fears, I don’t know how easy I will find it to slip into celebratory mode. We did that last year, I sometimes feel like saying, and look where it got us? I know that I, like the rest of society, will need to adjust to life as it is sometime, including the ongoing reality of COVID and the need to keep going with life all the same, but right now I simply feel too tired. Hence the desire for a cocoon.
But as I reflected tonight on my sons’ cocoon antics, I realised another thing: that I and others feel like sleeping and hiding because, like caterpillars, we are growing, and growing is tiring work. These last two years have stretched us beyond our wildest imaginings, and the stretching isn’t over. We’ll have to learn how to love across growing social divides, how to balance individual freedoms with public good. We will have to learn whole new ways of being in this world that we never would have imagined two years ago. To do all this growing and to stay moving all the while is unfathomably tiring.
There is more though. Whether we know it or not, we ache because we are longing for more than this life can hold hope to offer. Advent is all about this longing: longing for the saviour, longing for the light, longing for the life to come in which we will no longer be thwarted by death, longing to no longer feel naked, to be dressed in clothes that will never spoil. The apostle Paul put it this way:
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.2 Corinthians 5:1-4
When Christmas comes, we can celebrate that this Life has come to live amongst us. At Easter we can celebrate that this Life has swallowed up death. But we still live in the “meanwhile”, and we still groan. If we always groan, it means we do not know that promises have been kept, will be kept and one day will be fulfilled. But if we never groan we are not longing for the true Life that is yet to swallow up our mortal imperfections. Advent teaches us how to groan with gratitude. And for that I am glad we have Advent.
One day we will emerge from our cocoons, never too look back. But I am grateful that my God in His kindness knows that we are weak, that sometimes we need cocoons, sometimes need to groan. He also knows we need celebration, and teaches us the right way to celebrate too. And Advent fixes our eyes on the right focus of our celebration.
So, as this season of long, slow ordinary Wednesdays comes to a close, I will not climb into my cocoon, but I will thank God all the same that He knows and understands my frailty. And then I will wait with Him to see frailty swallowed up in eternal Life.
The gap between Easter and Advent has seemed especially long this year. Perhaps this is because of the discipline I’ve undertaken of writing a weekly reflection throughout all of Ordinary Time, perhaps the slow drag of lockdown. But this year I have felt every week of Ordinary Time as though it should be over and Christmas here. Now that Advent is just around the corner and the shops are selling Christmas decorations and food, the feeling is only partly lifting. It will hardly be an ordinary Christmas anyway, will it? Besides, are we ready? Christmas often catches me by surprise. This year I am not even sure I feel like it could happen.
But, after a year of watching my garden, I am starting to see fruit on the trees. The apple trees we bought last year are fruiting, and the peach and plum trees that the aphids destroyed last year are full of small green and yellow promises. Even the feijoa is giving us its dazzling fireworks display to reassure us that, come autumn, it will have something for us. Things, it seems, could be bearing fruit in spite of it all.
So what then of the fruit in my own life? I do not look as eagerly or faithfully for my own fruit as I do my garden’s fruit, but I still find myself looking where fruit should be and finding little. Why is that? Perhaps because I am lacking in faithfulness, perhaps because I simply need to wait longer – or perhaps because I am looking for the wrong fruit.
All too often when I look for fruit in my life I look for signs of success, for achievements. I look at the twelve years I spent completing a Bible College diploma and wonder what I’ve “got to show for it”. I look at the likes my writing receives. I look, in other words, for the kind of fruit that sprouts easily, fades quickly and means very little. The real fruit I should be looking for – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self control – cannot be so easily quantified and rarely dazzles, rarely hits the love heart emoji in my life. But it’s the true fruit, the fruit I should be cultivating and looking for above all else.
Such fruit rarely grows quickly. It grows in the slow soil of the soul, nurtured by waiting, loss, humility, pain, and above all by the Spirit of Jesus who made himself nothing that we might have everything. I do not know what fruit this season of life has been growing in me, and I may not know for a long time. But I will never know if I keep looking for the wrong kind of fruit, and may well never grow that fruit if I do not seek it above all others.
And so, before this season ends, I need to stop and take an inventory of my soul’s garden. What fruit am I looking for? What fruit do I expect to see?