As an Anglican myself, I have to say that our literary exports don’t get much better than Christina Rossetti. Granted, she’s in formidable company, alongside George Herbert, John Donne, William Cowper, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot and R.S. Thomas (why did you need to have the middle initial S in order to be a successful 20th-century Anglican poet?). Yet Rossetti is special for a bunch of reasons. She stands to this day as one of the most important female writers of her day – no small claim when you think of some of the writers she shared an era with – and has a remarkable balance of spiritual richness and honest as well as transcendental exploration of life that makes her successful not just as a writer of faith but also as a poet. She endured much in her life and produced poetry of only increasing beauty through that life, growing both in honesty and grace as a writer. It’s fitting, therefore, that she has a day in the Church of England calendar in her memory. It isn’t celebrated in the Anglican Church of Australia, but I can’t let a minor feast day for a beloved writer go by without writing something to honour it. So here is a poem in memory of an amazing woman, Anglican and poet.
The Language of Flowers
There it was,
in your garden, amidst
bleeding cyclamen, besides
burdened burdock and a trampled
patch of furze and hyacinth.
Ivy was torn
where you cut through the garden;
juniper drooped and lilac sank.
Yet, then you spied the valley lily
growing where it should not grow,
and a shock of eglantine.
Soft, you thought:
“I planted cyclamen to say, I must wait. I gathered
burdock with its spines to say, This is done. So go away.
I am done with artifice;
clematis I will rip from soil.
With dogwood, I am durable.
I cannot plant much else.”
Yet there it stood,
unplanted, unthought. When you went
to pluck a thorn to pierce
a puffed-up dream, you found instead
in varied purple-yellow-white
the heartsease for your sleep, and found
a day-bloom burst from night.
You had ripped
your palace down. There was no place
to lay your head but grass and weed.
Yet on that bed of purple light,
you dropped to rest your heart.
Well, today is the last day of Advent, and so it is time for me to wrap up my Advent story for the year. If you’ve been following the story so far, you can read the last instalment below. But, if you’re new to this year’s story you can read the rest of it, plus my two previous Advent Stories, “The Gift” and “Pageant”, in this free downloadable PDF of the three stories, together for the first time. I hope the stories can be a blessing to you and to anyone else you choose to share them with. Have a blessed Christmas, celebrating the goodness of God in coming to live as one of us.
When the police officer visited him in his hospital room and showed him a photo that he did not recognise – seemingly of the man the police suspected – she said, “I didn’t think he was your man.” And then she had spoken to his parents, who stood at the foot of the bed. “He’s already confessed,” she said. “And there’s not a chance that he was the man your son saw.”
And, while the explanation helped – that the man at 12 Burden Street had been killed by his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who knew the house well and had no need of directions from a thirteen-year-old in the street – and while the panic had subsided and the ghost-court had gone into recess, it had all only been replaced by a new flurry of unfamiliar action: group therapy sessions, individual therapy sessions, silent and unsteady walks around the hospital grounds, rooms filled with pamphlets and booklets with names like, Understanding OCD and The Way Out of Obsessions and Compulsions. Sometimes, when his parents thought he was asleep, he saw them reading the material together, stony-faced, whispering concerns to one another. But when he was awake they would tauten out their voices, as though stretching tired muscles, and say unnatural things like, “How are you going, big fella?” or, “Can we get you anything, honey?”, calling him names they never normally called him and adopting faces that said, Everything’s okay, which they had never felt the need to say before for never having feared that it wasn’t.
And then there had been Laura’s visit, with a bunch of flowers and a card from his class, her dad awkwardly in tow behind her. She had perched next to him at the end of the couch in his room and together they had tried to find words to say and found none, finding only a silence that was, for that moment, the most comforting thing anyone had said. And then she had leant over to hug him and he had felt her breath in his ear and smelt her shampoo and when she left his heart could not stop pounding and he had no idea where to begin thinking.
And Pa, too, always Pa, with books that he had “found somewhere” (the endless supply of books that man had! how did they all fit in his caravan, 0r in the handful of boxes in the attic?). Pa, with old jokes and hand-me-down stories. Pa, with, “Well, you’ve got your two front teeth, so what else do you want for Christmas this year?” And his dad saying, “You’ll be home by Christmas, the doctors reckon.” And his mum saying, “Greg, they’re not sure.” And Pa saying, “Well, we’ll just have to throw a party for you wherever you are.”
And then silence, a breather in the afternoon when they left him alone, no flurry of action, no therapists, no doctors. And then he would take out the treasury of stories that Pa had given him that night, and he would look again, again, at the strange, bewitching words of the Christina Rossetti poem Pa had found for him to read:
The end of all things is at hand. We all Stand in the balance trembling as we stand; Or if not trembling, tottering to a fall. The end of all things is at hand.
O hearts of men, covet the unending land! O hearts of men, covet the musical, Sweet, never-ending waters of that strand!
While Earth shows poor, a slippery rolling ball, And Hell looms vast, a gulf unplumbed, unspanned
And Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small, The end of all things is at hand.
The end of all things? he would wonder. Or only the end of the ghosts, of the fear, of hospital rooms and this newly-named, old familiar thing they called OCD? Hell looms vast, he read. He knew that well. But Heaven flings wide its gates to great and small. Great and small. Which was he? The vacuum was great, and he was small.
The silence always passed before he could complete the thought. Soon there was a parent, or a concerned aunt, or cousin, or a therapist or nurse coming to check something or give some reassuring thought, and the poem would have to wait, expectant somewhere hovering around his bed. He knew he would return to it soon, as soon as he had the chance, and that it promised an answer if only he could listen, and promised something more comforting than sleep, if only he could grasp it beneath the sheets and hold it to him as he lay.
“What do you want for Christmas?” the nurses always asked. Everyone asked that, as though Christmas presents alone could remedy all ills. Every year before this one he had had a wish-list that he’d subtly present to his parents, mostly books. This year, he had no thoughts, except one; and silently each time he would say that same thought, deep in his mind, where only something truly silent and reverberating could be heard. “No ghosts,” he would say, half-statement, half-request. “No more ghosts, please, this year.”
Dinner had passed with congratulations all round for his sister’s success at her license test and corrections from his grandfather over his reports of the ridiculous song that had been inflicted on Philip in music class that afternoon.
“That was ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’!” Pa had said. “Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst. The greatest English poet of her century, and one of the greatest English composers too. Strangled cat indeed. Ppphhhh!”
He never quite knew how Pa managed to make that sound, really just a blowing of air through pursed lips, into something so affectionate and admonitory at the same time, but it had had its desired effect. Philip already contemplated changing his listening diary in the morning to reflect a growing understanding of the song’s value. But then dinner had ended, he had been asked if he had any homework, to which he had replied in the negative, and the conclusion had been that he was therefore in the perfect position to do the washing up. Unable to suddenly acquire homework without raising suspicions, Philip had slunk off to the kitchen in reluctant obedience and had begun the laborious task, finding as he got underway that the act of splashing dish suds around in the sink was quite restful and restorative. Only, when he had finished and his shirt was covered in water, Sarah said, “Did you wet yourself, Phil?” and his dad found several plates that still had food-scraps left on them, and the job, when he returned to complete it, seemed much less pleasurable the second time around.
So, when Philip was finally released from the responsibility, he retreated quickly to his room, where the book he had borrowed that morning from the library was waiting for him. It was entitled Tales of Mystery and Imagination and had a particularly gruesome picture of a man skulking around a four-poster bed with a bloodied heart in his hands. He felt fairly sure that his parents wouldn’t want him reading it, which was why he had placed the book under his pillow as soon as he’d come home, and why he decided to read it now with the added precaution of hiding under the covers. The caption on the back cover told him that the cover painting was called “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and, finding a story in the book by that name – and finding that it was relatively short – he started the book there.
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them.
He was compelled from the start. The phrases – short, sharp, almost staccato – and the odd, frantic punctuation arrested him somehow, as though he himself were in the mind of the narrator. He had no idea what he was reading, yet he had to continue.
Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth…
A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.
I slept, but my heart was awake. A sound! My beloved is knocking…
(Song of Solomon 5:2a)
The world sleeps, but still some wise men gaze out
unto the beckoning sky, and some
still wake to hear the door pounding, night humm-
ing in active grace of years. No doubt,
the gentleness of the stars will not shout,
yet the song of the angels ever thrums,
always beauty, until mortals must come
to the end of ourselves, our hearts, our mouths…
Lie awake, lie empty. You long because
that which you long for cannot be grasped:
not now, not while this perishable stuff
can only defer your hopes, caught in chaff.
Lie awake, lie longing. Dwell in the pause
between the now and not yet. Never lapse.
But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
Magnify, soul. Let mind expand; let heart
Take in what cannot be contained. Discern,
Yet know the limits of your thoughts. Return
Again, again, to faith. Take humble part
In grandest story. This is just the start
Of nations in upheaval; kingdoms burn
Beneath this unexpected cosmic turn.
Take heart. Take faith, though angels will depart.
What will this mean when Joseph hears the news?
Or when the labour pains make all this seem
Confused, a blur, too far-fetched for a dream?
Remember Sarah, Hannah. Look back on
The stories of this mystery-grace, beacons
Of the secret glory now contained in you.
In preparing to lead the service at my church this Sunday – looking at Revelation 10-11:14 – I’ve found myself reading some of Christina Rossetti’s devotional commentary on Revelation, Face of the Deep. If you’re looking for a systematic unpacking of a complex book, probably don’t go to Rossetti, but if you want to read some beautiful prayers, poems and reflections by a deep woman of faith, then it’s well worth a read. Here, as a taster, is a fusion of some of her best prayers, modernised slightly to be more easily read today.
I’ve also just discovered this gem of an album from the great folks at Cardiphonia, a collection of songs based around Charles Wesley’s hymns for the Great Litany. It’s not quite the obvious fit for reading Rossetti, but I’m finding it a comforting and inspiring listen.
Litany from Revelation 10-11
Adapted from Christina Rossetti, Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse
You who were poor until your baptism was accomplished:
Pity us, accomplish your will in us.
You who finished the work your father gave you to do:
Pity us, finish your work by us and in us.
You who said, “It is finished,” in the ending of your agony:
Pity us, bring us to a good end.
Yes, Lord most pitiful, pity us. Amen.
O merciful Lord Jesus, grant that now your rebuke might enlighten and enkindle us, so it will not consume us.
You who once made yourself as a man in whose mouth was no reproof, rebuke us, but with justice, not in your anger, or you would bring us to nothing.
You who became a reproof among your enemies and neighbours, save us from the reproof of the one that could consume us.
You who know our reproof, our shame and our dishonour, deliver us from our enemies, who are all in your sight.
O Christ, the saint of saints, who called us to be saints: in the day of destruction, save us. Christ our refuge, do not exclude us. Our redeemer, do not despise us. Our safety, do not deny us. Our Saviour, do not destroy us. Our brother, do not reject us. Our friend, do not forsake us. Our all in all, do not fail us. Amen.
Some years ago, the greatest comfort I found in the Bible was in the book of Ecclesiastes. This may sound strange to some people: it is hardly most people’s first choice for scriptural encouragement, with its repeated catch-cry variously translated as “everything is meaningless”, “everything is vapour”, or “everything is vanity”. Yet I remember nights when all I could read to help me sleep was this book, sometimes considered either the most depressing or most existential work in the Bible. If you look for the closest thing that scripture has to twentieth century philosophy, you will find it in the book of Ecclesiastes: curious, perhaps, but what is likely to be comforting in this?
Well, first of all, it needs to be said that I was not the first to be comforted by it. Throughout history, believers struggling with what is now termed “existential depression” – a sense of weight, of languor, of despair, over the nature, structure and meaning of life – have strangely found comfort in Ecclesiastes. Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, a devout Christian who still struggled with melancholy and sickness for much of her life, turned to the book in a number of poems, including the sonnet “The One Certainty”, “A Testimony” – written from the perspective of Ecclesiastes’ unnamed “Teacher” – and even wrote a book on the subject, entitled Ecclesiastes, or, The Preacher. Rossetti seems to testify to what I too found two years ago: that it is comforting to see melancholy, disquiet, existential depression reflected in scripture. It makes us feel less alone, less like the Bible is a theoretical work that knows nothing of our sorrows.
Rossetti’s journeys into Ecclesiastes are among some of her bleakest, since she refuses the kind of comforting answer that we might feel forced to impose upon the book. Yet the bleakness of Ecclesiastes, and of Rossetti’s poems, is one which forces us to look elsewhere. If it is ultimately disquieting, it is because we still live in the “evil under the sun”. We witness the same cycles over and over again; we feel the weight and weariness of our flesh; we see others prospering from that for which they did not labour; we are never satisfied:
The earth is fattened with our dead;
She swallows more and doth not cease:
Therefore her wine and oil increase
And her sheaves are not numberèd;
Therefore her plants are green, and all
Her pleasant trees lusty and tall.
Therefore the maidens cease to sing,
And the young men are very sad;
Therefore the sowing is not glad,
And mournful is the harvesting.
Of high and low, of great and small,
Vanity is the lot of all.
A King dwelt in Jerusalem;
He was the wisest man on earth;
He had all riches from his birth,
And pleasures till he tired of them;
Then, having tested all things, he
Witnessed that all are vanity. (Rossetti, “A Testimony”)
Where, then, do we go with this disquiet?
Ecclesiastes itself provides a number of answers, though sometimes we have to look carefully for them. The first comes in what is perhaps the most famous and most often-quoted passage from the book – the third chapter, with its memorable poem about the seasons of life, famously set to music by the Byrds. Within this series of declarations of what different seasons life affords, there is the statement that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance”. Note, these seasons, though contrasting, are given equal weight. They are, seemingly, as important as one another, as much a part of life. Indeed, while we may struggle with some of the contents of the chapter – a “time to kill”, for instance – we must recognise that there is manifold complexity to the fabric of life which we, not being God, fail often to understand. Wisdom literature, with its emphasis upon “the fear of the Lord”, contends that the best place to start is to acknowledge our inability to understand what only God can truly hold together. Therefore, we can strangely take comfort in seasons, because all seasons are ordained by God and have their purpose – “and God will call the past to account”.
The second answer comes two chapters later, when the Teacher, having just criticised those who labour for their own advancement, turns to God’s majesty and our weakness before Him:
Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
The answer, then, to the weight of existential depression? Mourn. Recognise your own lack of understanding and stand trusting before God. Recognise the seasons, and their value. Let this be a season of mourning, and rejoice that God ordains other seasons.
In the end, this is not, perhaps, an answer. Those wrestling with the apparent meaninglessness of life may not necessarily be comforted immediately to know that there is not a clear answer to the problem. Yet it is indeed comforting to know that God holds together what we cannot possibly understand.
The book of Ecclesiastes, for me, is comforting for a similar reason to why I find the Psalms comforting. It reveals life’s complexity, its many pleats and colours, in a way which ardent declarations of faith, however well-intentioned, cannot always do. And, revealing that complexity, it tells me to stand trusting before God. If this is a time for mourning, then mourn. But trust that God sees more than I see, and trust that He will call all things to account.
It takes weariness with life to write a book like Ecclesiastes. And it also takes a deep, abiding knowledge of our Creator, which can only come from acknowledging life’s pain, mourning it with Him and, in the end, standing in awe before Him.
Rossetti, C.G. Goblin Market and Other Poems. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rossetti/christina/goblin_market/contents.html