“Our life does not consist in making up beautiful phrases but in performing beautiful deeds.”
Nighttime cradles you in my arms
but I am uncradled,
and what strength I have to cradle with
is finite and growing finer yet,
my widow’s mite at the temple gate,
libation pouring out.
Daytime is an offering too,
a departure yet a giving,
an act of will to defeat the Will,
a living sacrifice that draws
fire and taunts the futile Baals.
Yet I am drawn to Baal.
At night again, while summoning sleep
into your limbs that want to climb,
I climb Mount Carmel again and seek
the fusion of my breath with His.
My memories of self from freer days
are rocked to stillness yet they climb.
This tangled prayer I bundle up
and sacrifice it whole.
2017 is almost over, and today we have two choral pieces to conclude our year with, one early, one modern, both settings of one of the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, Isaiah 61:10-62:4. The first is the delightfully joyous “Gaudens Gaudebo in Domino” by the 16th century German composer Philip Dulchius. The text comes from the opening to the song, “I will rejoice greatly in the Lord”, which Mary echoes in her Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel. A modern reimagining of this text is the late Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt’s beautiful “I will greatly rejoice”, similarly jubilant but with simpler harmony. Both settings, looking not only to our own salvation but the saving of all nations, are wonderful calls to praise and prayer at the end of 2017.
Rejoice in your new clothes,
for the old is done.
The saving one has clothed you with joy
and in the bright raiment of His saving day.
Look to the east, to the west, where the sun
is rising and setting and setting the way,
where the hope of the new is calling, and calling,
where the world is enwrapping in light.
Rejoice in your new clothes;
rejoice greatly now in renewing delight.
For the old is done, the new bright as son,
bright as bridegroom and bride,
bright as the new spring in their eyes,
bright as wedding dance of old foes,
bright as the diadem in your thinning hair,
bright though the year be dimming.
The story of Simeon has given the church one of its oldest hymns, called the “Nunc Dimittis”, after the first two Latin words of the song: “Now dismiss…” There have been many musical versions of Simeon’s song, but today’s poem takes as its inspiration a modern setting by the living Swiss composer Carl Rütti. Rütti’s setting, full of dissonance and peace at the same time, perfectly captures the tension of the story, a moment of jubilation, fulfilment of age-old longing and pure relief and release. The same mood is captured for me in the painting by Rembrandt, who tackled the story of Simeon at the start and end of his career. This is the second of his versions, left unfinished at his death. Is it fitting that he never finished it? Rembrandt caught many of the most poignant moments of Scripture in a manner both raw and sublime. I personally love the second version much more than the first, though the latter is polished where the former is rough. Yet the roughness fits the theme perfectly: Simeon’s praying hands stretched out with the infant Jesus balanced over them, his eyes barely open, his mouth open just enough to say this final prayer. I’ve tried to capture some of this in today’s poem.
After the silence, a cascade
of wonder, of sound, of light.
Before the darkness, a sight
of promise, of presence, of peace.
And in this aching and drooping of arms,
an answer, a dimming, an eternal day.
Now dismiss. I hold the day;
I hold the way that holds me into night.
There are many lurkingplaces in the mind and many nooks… The old man is covered up in a thousand wrappings.
(Lancelot Andrewes, Preces Privatae)
Open the door. Let sun expose dust,
moth-eaten wool and mould around cornices.
Years of grime collect on window frames;
you forgot that the sideboard had an underneath.
And there too is the memory chest:
that also needs dusting;
and the bed of your childhood could use some air.
Let in September. True, comes in fits and starts;
opened windows welcome rain as easily as sun.
Yet nothing transfigures when the blinds are all shut
and nothing stifles dying like life.
The fact that a work of such unperturbed objectivity and such deep, radiating peace could grow from a life which, far from being untroubled, consumed itself in strife, gives us an insight into the special quality of the man.
(Josef Pieper, The Silence of St Thomas)
The branch is not the root system.
When you see the grandness of the oak,
the stateur of the pine, the fir, do you
also know the deep
tangling that grows beneath?
And rhizomes too
defy our linear longings
to simply be a trunk, a branch.
They entwine, enfold, arise in grace, out of abyss,
Aquinas, it is said, was never
led by spirit but by thought.
“He contemplates…with pen in hand”*,
as though the pen were like a fence-post
constraining the grace of higher thought.
When, twenty-three, I took graceless aim
at shots fired over tea against my faith,
my sparring partner only said,
You know what you remind me of?
The scholastic period. The scholastics, man.
An insult? Perhaps. I did not speak
of the nights I’d spent in faithless fear.
All I am, and was, is straw. Yet pen
takes roots beneath the page,
and rhizomes grow within the nib.
Only grace that minds can ever take wings;
grace that pens can gather thought.
All grace that straw can speak.
*Adrienne von Speyr, The Book of All Saints