No Ordinary Sundays

Before you lies my strength and my weakness; preserve the one, heal the other. Before you lies my knowledge and my ignorance; where you have opened to me, receive me as I come in; where you have shut to me, open to me as I knock. Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you refashion me entirely.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity

We do not call these Sundays ordinary:
transfigured by revelation, by mystery,
they stand apart.

By these days we set
our calendars, and, in the old days, we said,
In Hilary term, or, Before Trinity.

Order is set by extraordinary.
Order in all things,
and yet, in all ordinary things –

some unexceptional people gathered,
music played, some prayers prayed,
some words spoken, some soon forgotten –

extraordinary creeps in, is always the silent witness.
What Augustine knew, we often forget:
community right at Godhead’s heart,

found, reflected, in our meagre parts,
a knowledge too rich for understanding,
coming, and standing,

where we stand. O hold us now;
for nothing else
makes sense unless You remake us.

Uncovered Gems #5: The Danish Psalmist

In the Danish Golden Age of literature and philosophy, there were three significant names that still stand out today: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard and N.F.S. Grundtvig. The non-Danish world has very much heard of the first two but the third is as unknown as it is unpronounceable.

And perhaps understandably so. He is of much greater importance at home than overseas. Grundtvig (pronounced Groont-vi) had a significant impact on Danish nationalism and education, and his role in the Danish Lutheran church was profound. But outside Denmark he doesn’t seem so have had much impact. Nor is he particularly the kind of figure to easily win fans a century and a half after his death. With his formidable muttonchops, Lutheran clerical ruff and an almost permanently austere look on his face, Grundtvig does not exactly appear to be one to welcome 21st-century popularity. My first encounter with him was when ultra-right party leader Svend Åge Saltum quoted him in Danish political drama Borgen. Yet there is much more to Nicolaj Frederik Severin than austerity and Danish nationalism. Basically, imagine English church life without John Newton or the Wesleys and that would be the Danish church without Grundtvig. And the comparison’s a fair one, at least when it comes to his hymns, because it turns out that one way in which Grundtvig is kept alive and well is in Danish worship.

My first proper encounter with the 19th-century poet, pastor, philosopher and translator was in the music of Danish band Kloster who set a whole bunch of his hymns to some gorgeous, otherworldly tunes on their album Ni Salmer og en Aftensang (Nine Psalms and an Evening Song). The track that first arrested me was the magically tender “Urolige Hjerte“, with its gently thrumming guitars and the opening words:

Restless heart, what ails you?
Why are you in pain?
Is there anything you need?
Is He not your father who has your everything?
And aren’t all my thoughts and hairs numbered by Him?
And isn’t He the very best friend I could choose?

Urolige hjerte!
Hvad fejler dig dog?
Hvi gør du dig smerte,
du ej har behov?
Er han ej min Fader, som råder for alt?
Er ej mine tanker og hovedhår talt,
og har ej den bedste til ven mig udvalgt?

Sadly, lack of interest in Grundtvig’s poetry means that almost none of it is available easily in English – a little ironic for a man who translated one of the most significant English poems, Beowulf, back into the language that inspired it. There is one substantial collection of his poems in English but it’s expensive and not easily available. So, if I want to listen to his songs – which I do – and want to understand them too, then I have to try translating them myself.

It’s a wonderful experience, reverse-engineering a Grundtvig poem into English. Translating poetry is hard in any situation, harder still when your grasp of the source language requires a fair bit of Google Translate to get anywhere beyond, “The polar bear is drinking beer” and all those other useful phases Duolingo teaches. But, slow-going and humbling as it is, I feel closer to Grundtvig’s work for doing it. I have to marvel at the tautness of his metaphors, the subtlety of his rhymes – so hard to replicate in English, when we don’t have one word that could mean both bleed or fade that also rhymes with “regions” or “areas”. And I am struck by the deft way he melds Biblical text with the immediacy of everyday life. Take the hymn that I’m crawling through at the moment, “En Liden Stund” (“A Little While”). The hymn takes its title, and the first line of each stanza, from Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 16:16 – “A little while and you will see me no longer…” But Grundtvig takes Jesus’ words and first looks at something that is beautiful and impermanent, a reminder of how our lives look next to eternity. There’s no translation that can fully capture what he says with the first lines, at least not without losing the rhyme:

A little while
in roses’ grove,
we only blush and fade…

En liden stund
I rosens lund
Vi rødmer kun og blegne…

For a man who looks most likely to either preach brimstone or thump the bar to ask where his Carlsberg is, there’s remarkable tenderness and pastoral heart in Grundtvig’s words, not to mention a sense of pure beauty. Like most nineteenth-century poets there’s some inverted sentences worked to fit in rhymes that sound sometimes cumbersome to our ears today. But his love for God and God’s people is fresh and alive. Not surprisingly; much as Kierkegaard laid into him in his final polemic days (Grundtvig, wisely, had less to say about Kierkegaard), they wanted the same thing: to see the dry bones of the state church animated with living faith. Fittingly, Grundtvig loved to sing about new life in Christ, whether symbolised in Christmas or Easter or the day of the Resurrection. So here is a lovely translation by S.A.J. Bradley of one of his poems on this theme:

1. Ring out, O bells, oh ring out while the world yet lies darkling;
shimmer, O stars, like the light in the angel-eyes sparkling.
Peace comes to earth,
peace from God through his Word’s birth:
Glory to God in the highest!

2. Christmas is come as a solstice to hearts that were fearful!
Christmas and Child, son of God, where the angels sing cheerful,
all is God’s gift,
bidding us our hearts uplift:
Glory to God in the highest!

3. Children of earth clap your hands and come dancing and singing,
raise up your voices till earth’s furthest corners are ringing.
Born is the Child
of the Father’s mercy mild:
Glory to God in the highest!

Uncovered Gems #4: François Mauriac

The list of Nobel laureates for Literature contains more French men than it does of any other demographic. That should not put you off reading Mauriac. But you may have trouble locating his work. His most famous novel, Thérèse Desqueyroux, is possibly the only one you’ll find in a bookshop today, due to the recent film adaptation starring Audrey Tatou. And it’s a good place to start with Mauriac. 

Better than good. Aside from the beauty of the writing and its complex vision of sin and grace, it’s an important novel for understanding him as an author. The character of Thérèse also features in a number of novels and stories, and even has a cameo in That Which Was Lost, so she clearly meant a lot to him.  

But there’s more to Mauriac than one novel, and you’ll need to go further afield to find out. It’s a strange fact that most Nobel laureates are not readily available in bookshops. But the internet was invented for solving issues like these. The majority of Mauriac’s novels are free downloads if you are willing to read facsimiles of old editions. And you should be, because not many Christian writes have tackled human sin and divine grace quite so skillfully as Mauriac. He’s sometimes called the French Graham Greene. There’s some truth to the comparison but I don’t think Mauriac liked the crime thriller quite like Greene did, and I find more living faith and less guilt in Mauriac. The closest thing I’ve found in English to his writing is Brideshead Revisited. Both show people living in complete disregard for God and discovering Him in completely unexpected ways nonetheless.

Some writers of faith get reprinted and sold at Christian bookshops, even when faith is not their main subject. Chesterton and Austen have both had fairly secular novels get the Christian marketing treatment. Not Mauriac, and I can see why. His faith is more overt than Austen’s but will make us more uncomfortable. (Perhaps Austen would too if we read her properly.) He doesn’t shy away from broken and messy realities, and even had to write a book called God and Mammon responding to André Gide (another French man who won the Nobel) who saw more kinship between himself and Mauriac than Mauriac was happy to accept. His work is gritty in a way that can’t sit next to Christian romance novels, but it should. Our shelves, and our faith, would be richer for it.

For me, the best thing he’s written is Viper’s Tangle, the story of a wealthy man dying with the knowledge that his whole family cares only about securing his wealth on his death. The viper’s tangle of the title is the complex rhizome of bitterness and resentment that has grown in his heart and mind all his adult life. I read it at the same time as Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illyich and the two have much in common. Both made me wonder why we don’t have more Christian writers who can dramatise the movements of grace like that. Sadly, in our attempts to keep Christian literature clean, we’ve kept the power of grace out. Christian fiction does not need to be an allegory of the gospel to paint the gospel in all the rich colours of God’s creation. If more of our writes today took the time to uncover Mauriac, we might produce more novels that could help untangle the vipers in our own hearts.

Uncovered Gems #3: “The Singer” by Calvin Miller

“How did you manage to make them cherish all this nothingness?” he asked the World Hater.

“I simply make them feel embarrassed to admit that they are incomplete. A man would rather close his eyes than see himself as your Father-Spirit does. I teach them to exalt their emptiness and thus preserve the dignity of man.”

“They need the dignity of God “

“You tell them that. I sell a cheaper product.”

When Dr Calvin Miller – pastor, author, poet and evangelist – died in 2012, Ed Stetzer said of him in Christianity Today that “Dr. Miller knew the importance of story as well [as evangelism]. A wonderful wordsmith, he would use the element of story in such a way that cold facts and dry doctrine came to life in ways rarely seen”. Poet Luci Shaw, one of the only really talented evangelical poets I’ve come across, said in his lifetime that “Calvin Miller sees with a single eye”, producing literature “full of light”. 

His prose poem The Singer may be a little too much of its time (the 1970s) to earn many readers easily today, yet, stumbling on it in the painfully small Literature section of my theological college’s library, I can see the qualities that Stetzer and Shaw praised.

An extended metaphor on the incarnation and mission of Jesus, The Singer boasts some of the most remarkably pithy lines and phrases that I’ve encountered in 20th-century creative religious writing outside Lewis. The Singer, tasked with singing of God’s good creation and calling a broken world to healing, regularly encounters the World Hater, Satan, whose counterfeit song recalls the two songs of Tolkien’s creation narrative in The Silmarillion. As the two figures of the Hater and the Singer travel to teach their different songs, not all are drawn into the purity and healing of the Singer’s eternal song. Even his mother warns against his singing the final verse “against the wall” of the Great Walled City of the Ancient King:

She cried.

“Leave off the final verse and not upon the wall.”

He kissed her.

“I can’t ignore the Father-Spirit’s call. So I will sing it there, and I will sing it all.”

At times, Miller’s allegory is heavy-handed, as allegory often is. And I wish deeply that evangelical authors could see the value in writing fiction that is not allegory. Yet the merit of Miller’s writing is the way it illuminates more than it retells. Not every detail of his story neatly correlates with a Biblical fact, and much of it is more poetic than doctrinal. But, as Stetzer observed, that’s his strength: seeing the value of story, and bringing back the poetry and power of the story in a way that theology often cannot do.

I for one will be looking for more of what Miller wrote in his rich and grace-driven lifetime.

After Rosemary Dobson

Worn, I long for the simplicity of desert,
for Abba Poemen’s knee to rest my sleeping head.
I call to heart the peace of silent communion,
of neighbour and myself in essential speech.

But mind is Baroque in its impulse.
Chiaroscuro in substance, it curlicues toward ceilings,
rhizomatic and elaborate,
frantic in its downward and upward questing.

The finger outstretched, God to man,
is lost in my musing. Does it reach, nonetheless?
I seize this moment; possibility yawns.
At the foot of the morning’s cave, I listen.

Uncovered gems #1: Eleanor Spence, “Me and Jeshua”

“We’ll have follow-the-leader,” Jacob decided, “and Jeshua can be the leader.”
“No – you do it,” said Jeshua. “I like it better being last.”

(Eleanor Spence, Me and Jeshua, 1984)

Australian author Eleanor Spence has not been completely forgotten. Text Publishing recently reprinted her novel Lillipilly Hill as part of their Australian classics collection, and back in the 90s, she formed a reasonably large part of my primary school English education, with her books The October Child and The Leftovers both being prescribed texts. But her 1984 novel, Me and Jeshua, despite receiving quite a bit of critical acclaim, was last reprinted in 2001 and has all but completely vanished from the cultural memory.

When it came out, it was nominated for Children’s Book of the Year and, surprisingly for a mainstream author, won Christian Book of the Year for 1985. I found it in a collection of free books at the theological college where I study and, having heard of the author but not the book, was intrigued enough to take it home. And it has proven to be one of those forgotten gems that makes rummaging through old tattered books so worthwhile.

The story is written with that just-recognisable form of camouflage that allows familiar stories to become so fresh for the reader. Spence uses literal translations of all place names to make them, at first, hard to identify. Bethlehem, for instance, is called the House of Bread. And the characters of Jacob, Jude, Simon, Miriam, Josef, Elissa, Jona and, most importantly, Jeshua, take a few chapters to become familiar again to us as Jesus and his earthly family. The camouflage is aided by Spence taking the approach of making Jacob (James), Jude and Simon be Jeshua’s (Jesus’) cousins not brothers (a traditional Catholic view that allows Mary to remain a virgin after giving birth to Jesus). But, whatever reservations some readers might have with this take on the story, the rest is utterly plausible. Jude, the narrator, grows up hearing stories of his infamous but beloved aunt Miriam who conceived a child under scandalous circumstances but was married by the decent and generous Josef, and one day they return from a mysterious sojourn in Egypt to live with their family in what readers familiar with the Bible story will know to be Nazareth. Jude, learning who he is himself within his family and culture, is drawn more and more to this mysteriously wise, kind and altogether good cousin of his. Meanwhile, Jeshua must learn why he is so different to everyone else and what his true father wants him to be.

What arrested me so much about this novel was the beauty of the storytelling, influenced in no small part by the powers of Spence’s language and her evocation of place. Palestine is both palpably magical, with figs and fresh loaves you could almost pick off the page and eat, as well as torn apart by violence and poverty. Jude is a perfect narrator: aware enough of himself to be compassionate and imperfect at the same time. And Jeshua just shines: simultaneously an ordinary boy with fears and insecurities and yet good in a way that is never questioned or corrupted and – most remarkably of all – remains utterly credible.

I do not know what Spence’s personal conviction was about Jeshua the real, historical man. But in this remarkable, forgotten gem, she has made him human and glorious in a way that has drawn me anew to who He is.

At the Right Time (Glenroy Lent #8)

...the war he brought back with him is never far away in this suburb.
(Steven Carroll, The Gift of Speed)

Do you remember water from the rock?
How you quarried homes in this ancient soil,
when these broad meadows were the stuff of dreams?
Remember when the men came back
from years and years of wandering,
said, This is it, we’ll build it here,
and none of Egypt’s garlicked meat
could appetise their hearts away?

I was young. I don’t recall,
and was not there for much, or all.
But in the now, with homes all here,
the time is right to know again
what wilderness felt like.