Poems for Lent: Luci Shaw

Continuing the series on Lenten poems, here is “Royalty” by Luci Shaw (fitting for the week of Palm Sunday).

He was a plain man
and learned no latin.

Having left all gold behind
he dealt out peace
to all us wild men
and the weather

He ate fish, bread,
country wine and God’s will

Dust sandalled his feet

He wore purple only once
and that was an irony

(A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation, edited by Luci Shaw [1984], 91)


Poems for Lent: Ephrem the Syrian

ephrem-the-syrianEphrem the Syrian (d. 373) was a theologian and poet of the ancient Syrian Church. He wrote Bible commentaries, sermons, and hymns, but it is for his poetry that he is most widely known – his contemporaries called him “the harp of the Spirit”. Some poems were verse homilies and probably recited, but the majority were composed in stanzas and meant for singing in communal worship. For Ephrem, the poetic form was ideal because it suited his understanding of the Christian mystery: God takes flesh to himself and offers it for us to consume as Bread and wine. The Christian life is enveloped in mystery, and Ephrem’s poetic hymns are meant to guide Christians into an encounter with the mystery of grace and participate in it through worship.

This is from Ephrem’s poem “On the Resurrection (1)”

1. The Lamb has come for us from the House of David,
the Priest and Pontiff from Abraham;
He became for us both Lamb and Pontiff,
giving His body for sacrifice, His blood for sprinkling.Blessed is His perfecting!

Refrain: Blessed is Your rising up!

2. The Shepherd of all flew down
in search of Adam, the sheep that had strayed;
on His shoulders He carried him, taking him up:
he was an offering for the Lord of the flock.
Blessed is His descent!

3. He sprinkled dew and life-giving rain
on Mary, the thirsty earth.
Like a seed of wheat He fell again to Sheol
to spring up as a sheaf, as the new Bread.
Blessed is His offering! […]

16. His birth gives us purification,
His baptism gives us forgiveness,
His death is life to us,
His ascension is our exaltation.
How we should thank Him! […]

22. Whom have we, Lord, like you –
the Great One who became small, the Wakeful who slept,
the Pure One who was baptized, the Living One who died,
the King who bore disgrace to ensure honor for all!
Blessed is Your honor!

(Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, translated by Sabastian P. Brock and George A. Kiraz [2006], 81-83, 91, 95)

Poems for Lent: Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory of NazianzusI have lately been reading the poems of Gregory of Nazianzus and Ephrem the Syrian, both 4th century theologians. As I was pondering one this morning the thought struck me how fitting it is for Lent. This is from Gregory the Theologian’s “On the Son” (De Filio):

First of all we shall sing the Son… [1]
He didn’t shave off any bit of Godhead, and still he saved me, [60]
stooping as a doctor over my foul-smelling passions.
He was a man, but God. David’s offspring, but Adam’s
Maker. A bearer of flesh, but, even so, beyond all body.
From a mother, but she a virgin. Comprehensible, but immeasurable.
And a manger received him, while a star led [65]
the Magi, who so came bearing gifts, and fell on bended knee.
As a man he entered the arena, but he prevailed, as indomitable,
over the tempter in three bouts. Food was set before him,
but he fed thousands, and changed water into wine.
He got baptized, but he washed sins clean, but he was proclaimed [70]
by the Spirit, in a voice of thunder, to be the Son of the One Uncaused.
As a man he took rest, and as God he put to rest the sea.
His knees were wearied, but he bolstered the strength and knees of the lame.
He prayed, but who was it who heart the petitions of the feeble?
He was the sacrifice, but the high priest: making an offering, but himself God. [75]
He dedicated his blood to God, and cleansed the entire world.
And a cross carried him up, while the bolts nailed fast sin.
But what’s it for me to say these things? He had company with the dead,
but he rose from the dead, and the dead, the bygone, he raised up:
there’s a mortal’s poverty, here the incorporeal’s wealth. [80]
Don’t you dishonor, then, his divinity on account of his human things,
but, for the divine’s sake, hold in renown the earthly form
into which, thoughtful towards you, he formed himself, the
incorruptible Son.
(translated by Peter Gilbert, On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus [2001])

Whose sparkling light access denies

Having submitted final grades my first semester teaching is complete. I had known it would be intense, but wow, what a blur! With that behind me I will fill the next couple weeks wearing out my knees playing with my kids, devouring a stack of fiction next to the bed, and swimming around in a good deal of poetry (ahhhh).

From George Herbert as I laid by the fireplace last evening:  “Ungratefulness”.

Lord, with what bounty and rare clemency

Hast though redeemed us from the grave!

If thou has let us run,

Gladly had man adored the sun,

And though his god most brave;

Where now we shall be better gods than he.

Thou hast but two rare cabinets full of treasure,

The Trinity, and Incarnation:

Thou has unlocked them both,

And made them jewels to betroth

The work of thy creation

Unto thyself in everlasting pleasure.

The statelier cabinet is the Trinity,

Whose sparkling light access denies:

Therefore thou dost not show

This fully to us, till death blow

The dust into our eyes.

For by that powder thou wilt make us see.

But all thy sweets are packed up in the other;

Thy mercies thither flock and flow:

That as the first affrights,

This may allure us with delights;

Because this box we know;

For we have all of us just such another.

But man is close, reserved, and dark to thee:

When thou demandest but a heart,

He cavils instantly.

In his poor cabinet of bone

Sins have their box apart,

Defrauding thee, who gavest two for one.

New poetry from Rowan Williams: Headwaters

A new collection of poetry from Archbishop Rowan Williams has just been released, Headwaters. This is my first exposure to Williams’ poetry and I have to say, it is elegant, challenging, and rewards with some rereading. Like his theological writings you have to spend some time getting a feel for his cadence and use of language. Altogether there are forty-five selections including some translations of the Russian poet Inna Lisnianskaya and a couple translations of Gwenallt Jones from the Welsh.

In one of my favorites, “Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro”, Williams watches the ‘black eyes fixed half open’ of Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (pictured at right) and waits, ‘paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring’.

Today it is time. Warm enough, finally,
to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,
the shoulders sag. Here is the world again, well-known,
the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar
winter everyone prefers. So the black eyes
fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where
their flood can be decanted, look
for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like
from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.

“Dappled things” & Doctrines of Creation

In a letter to Robert Bridges dated October 25, 1879, Gerard Manley Hopkins penned hopkins-1.jpg“Pied Beauty”:

Glory to God for the dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings; Landscape plotted and pierced – fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.

Wrapped up in his idiosyncratic vocabulary and unique sense for rhythm and pacing, Hopkins captures something one rarely finds in doctrines of creation: note of dappled things. In his own way, Hopkins reminds us that the triune God “father[ed] forth” the diversity and difference in creation, the “couple-colour as a brindled cow” and the “finches wings.” Continue reading