Today is perhaps the hardest day of the Christmas season, the day that remembers the story found in Matthew 2 of Herod ordering the murder of all boys under the age of 2. While this is not an aspect of the Christmas story that is often told, it finds a home in an old and melancholy song, the Coventry Carol (beautifully rendered here by the sublime Anúna). The carol, part of a medieval mystery play once regularly performed in Coventry, gives voice to three mothers who are mourning the children they will lose. Today’s poem considers these women and the promise that Jesus the Messiah would be acquainted with our griefs. It’s a story I would rather pass over, with my son only eleven weeks old as I write, but God does not pass over our deepest griefs, so I want to use this story to remind me of the fact that He hears and knows and is present in all that we cannot understand.
Come, little child,
born to die,
born to bear our griefs and die,
born to dwell with us who die,
weep with mothers now.
come dwell with us within our mess,
come hold our scars and cry our tears.
Weep with us all now.
Come, light in dark,
keep vigil now with broken hearts.
Hold all our tears within your scars
and hold us as we shake.
A friend of mine recently said that he had tried to read Kierkegaard but hadn’t made it. “I need the children’s book version,” he said. Probably not an unusual experience. While I’m not sure I’m the one to provide the children’s book, I thought I could do the next best thing: to try to put a few key ideas of Kierkegaard’s into haiku. Because what else are school holidays for?
So here are my first few offerings.
Kierkegaard Haiku I-III
In the moment, pause.
Life’s a reality, but
The crowd will deceive.
Choice: the potential to do
Wrong, or to find God.
You must stand alone
Before His face and be known.
If you find them worth publishing, you have my permission to do so – as a sort of ‘White Book’ concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.
(Dag Hammarskjöld, in a letter to Leif Belfrage)*
And so they sat together, the poet
without “a single word of Swedish” at hand,
and the translator, to find together –
to trace – the private markings of the public soul,
the one to give the language, the other the heart,
the rhythm, that “unexpressed dialogue”
without which language dies.
And what did they find, as
layers fell and layers grew?
A planned self-defence? The last
word to silence posthumous debate?
No, the heart’s x-ray more like it;
a confession; a line drawn around
the self’s ever-moving hand.
He knew no Swedish, but Auden at least
knew that movement well: the soul’s
duplex structure; the twin-tangle of light and dark
that makes the mess called Man.
The redemption too; he knew that as well.
The call, the answer: the Whitsunday “Yes”.
This too is in the soul’s true language,
spoken best in the gap between
thought and speech, seen best when glimpsed
eyes squinted open to light,
half-closed to self, half-
forgetting all we thought we knew.
the soul is seen translating,
atom-swift. Catch it
as it propels to break new ground.
* Before his death, UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld left his journals to his friend and fellow diplomat Leif Belfrage. Poet W.H. Auden worked with Swedish writer and translator Leif Sjöberg to translate this diary into English. It was published under the English name “Markings”.
This is what must first be given to the painting, a harmonious warmth, an abyss into which the eye sinks, a voiceless germination…
How often is he shown with those horns of light,
as though his head were itself full
of the brightest luminescence and
two cracks, two holes
had formed inside his skull to let
escape all that light, kept
invisibly, impossibly, inside.
Yet for Rembrandt see
how darkness grabs the eye much more
than all the plainness of that face,
how even those two tablets seem
as black as all the dark to which
we’re told that he drew near, while all
of Israel stood just far enough
away to not be safe.
And when El Greco takes
the striking forms of Sinai as
his text, the darkness is
in every shadow-line beneath
the redness of the clouds, around
those rocky pillars, rising from
the chalky, sketchy ground.
Not darkness, but light, shone forth
from those two tablets when
the light-horned Moses brought them down.
Yet light like that we must squint to see.
When fear declares that only man
is safe, that we can’t bear to hear
the voice that struck the tablets’ side:
O let us step, like Moses, to
that darkness without human horns
where only in that absence
of human sight can all Your light
be ever fully seen.
and I nodded,
not knowing at all what she meant, for I
was not, nor have ever been, Catholic.
How then, I wondered, was my reading taste catholic?
The word, at the time, meant Mary and popes,
not expansive, far-reaching, inclusive. Now I
give my old teacher’s words new meaning:
yes, catholic in reading, in writing, because
bodies matter, and ritual
and beauty are core;
bread and wine, and brokenness,
should inhabit the fibre of the Christian page.
Faith is not, should never be, prose.
So Mauriac and Merton, Marion and Nouwen
shall show me the way to paint Christ
in rich praise.
If it would still be meaningful to say, There are an infinite number of universes – if their profound otherness did not embarrass even the language of Being itself…if something we could discern and recognise as intelligent life were to occur in certain of these other realities, might we not learn that our notions of intelligence were, so to speak, parochial?
(Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind)
You might think it would humble us to know
at the end of all our knowing that, for all
this knowing, we are immeasurably small.
You might think the sheer expanse, the sheer scope
of all that we name Universe might blow
our very sense of union. That we call
"known" what keeps evading scientific thrall
(after all our knowing) only goes to show
that, while we think we can admire stars,
they do not give a damn. We are in truth
the dots beneath their microscope.
What are we
that we are mindful of ourselves? By far
better than knowing is to be known,
beneath an ancient love we cannot see.
Once the marriage was destroyed* did the one
take comfort in the other’s halitosis?
And did the other, foul in breath, seek scum
to prove that folly persists in churches
and in the minds of worshippers? If words
are crude and language imprecise, then actions
like his speak loudest: a moral compass
cast aside with mathematical pride.
In this they agreed, though not on the sanctions:
that mankind was tending towards its own turd.
What then? Desecrate a marriage bed?
Render a language unreadable? Abide
in the peace of logic or of Logos?
Or turn to grace’s silent arms instead?
* Bertrand Russell was one of the most famous atheists of the 20th century and T.S. Eliot one of the century’s most famous converts. Russell contributed to the breakdown of Eliot’s marriage by having an affair with his wife.