Poetry, Prayer, and Praise

Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.

Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.

It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.

When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.

What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.

It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.

From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess

Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.

Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.

You may say:

Hey. Prose hymns aren’t poetry.

They aren’t verse.

But can prose not also be poetic?

Be that as it may, Christians began celebrating the blessed Light of salvation in hymns and poems fairly early on (see, ‘O Gladsome Light‘ — second century, maybe?). Latin was a bit slower than Greek in this as in other respects, but in the fourth century, Latin Christian poetry takes off with such people as Ambrose of Milan and Prudentius with his Psychomachia, and there has been no looking back since. (If you want to read some Christian Latin poetry, I recommend One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas.)

Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.

And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.

And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.

In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–

God breaks through.

And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.

Maybe you could be one of them, too.

Saint of the Week: St. Hilda (or Hild)

Last week, my wife and I visited Durham Cathedral, where they have a commemoration to St. Hilda — as well as the bodies of St. Cuthbert (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here) and a commemoration to St. Aidan of Lindisfarne (saint of the week here). Since Hilda was also abbess of Caedmon’s convent (recent saint of the week here), it seemed more than high time to post about her as Saint of the Week.

Here is a re-post of what I originally wrote on this Northumbrian saint four and a half years ago:

Today’s feature is St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, one of the many good English saints. Here’s the prayer from the Prayer Book for any saint:

O ALMIGHTY God, who willest to be glorifled in thy Saints, and didst raise up thy servant Hilda to shine as a light in the world: Shine, we pray thee, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth thy praises, who hast called us out of darkness into thy marvellous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I would reprint all of the Venerable Bede about her, but that would take too long. It is worth reading, and the story of Caedmon is part of hers, as he was a brother at her monastery. You can find it in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book IV.23-24; my translation of the Caedmon bits here.

Here is her entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Abbess, born 614; died 680. Practically speaking, all our knowledge of St. Hilda is derived from the pages of Bede. She was the daughter of Hereric, the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, and she seems like her great-uncle to have become a Christian through the preaching of St. Paulinus about the year 627, when she was thirteen years old.

Moved by the example of her sister Hereswith, who, after marrying Ethelhere of East Anglia, became a nun at Chelles in Gaul, Hilda also journeyed to East Anglia, intending to follow her sister abroad. But St. Aidan recalled her to her own country, and after leading a monastic life for a while on the north bank of the Wear and afterwards at Hartlepool, where she ruled a double monastery of monks and nuns with great success, Hilda eventually undertook to set in order a monastery at Streaneshalch, a place to which the Danes a century or two later gave the name of Whitby.

Under the rule of St. Hilda the monastery at Whitby became very famous. The Sacred Scriptures were specially studied there, and no less than five of the inmates became bishops, St. John, Bishop of Hexham, and still more St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, rendering untold service to the Anglo-Saxon Church at this critical period of the struggle with paganism. Here, in 664, was held the important synod at which King Oswy, convinced by the arguments of St. Wilfrid, decided the observance of Easter and other moot points. St. Hilda herself later on seems to have sided with Theodore against Wilfrid. The fame of St. Hilda’s wisdom was so great that from far and near monks and even royal personages came to consult her.

Seven years before her death the saint was stricken down with a grievous fever which never left her till she breathed her last, but, in spite of this, she neglected none of her duties to God or to her subjects. She passed away most peacefully after receiving the Holy Viaticum, and the tolling of the monastery bell was heard miraculously at Hackness thirteen miles away, where also a devout nun named Begu saw the soul of St. Hilda borne to heaven by angels.

With St. Hilda is intimately connected the story of Caedmon, the sacred bard. When he was brought before St. Hilda she admitted him to take monastic vows in her monastery, where he most piously died.

The most notable part of the example of St. Hilda is her perseverance through her sickness and trial. To quote Bede:

When she had governed this monastery many years, it pleased Him Who has made such merciful provision for our salvation, to give her holy soul the trial of a long infirmity of the flesh, to the end that, according to the Apostle’s example, her virtue might be made perfect in weakness. Struck down with a fever, she suffered from a burning heat, and was afflicted with the same trouble for six years continually; during all which time she never failed either to return thanks to her Maker, or publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge; for taught by her own experience she admonished all men to serve the Lord dutifully, when health of body is granted to them, and always to return thanks faithfully to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity. (from CCEL)

We should all take courage from the example of this saint and realise that we can do things for God, make an impact, and rest in His grace, sure in the knowledge that our afflictions are temporal and we can still serve Him. St. Hilda’s “life was an example of the works of light, not only blessed to herself, but to many who desired to live aright.” (Bede again.)

Saint of the Week: Caedmon

Tomorrow, Saturday 11 February, is the commemoration of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk by the name of Caedmon. He made his claim to fame by being a poet in the monastery of St.  Hilda (a post about whom will soon be reblogged here). As we learn from the Venerable Bede (Saint of the Week here), Caedmon had no natural poetic ability but, rather, a supernatural ability:

He himself learned the art of singing, instructed ‘not by men nor through man’ (Gal 1:1), but he freely received the gift of singing from divine aid. The he could never put anything frivolous or needless in his poems, but only those things which pertained to religion were fitting for his religious tongue.

Since, indeed, he remained in the secular way of life up to the time of a more advanced age, at which time he had learned no songs. And so, sometimes at banquets because it was decreed for the sake of delight that everyone ought to sing in turm, when he saw the cithara draw near, he rose up from the middle of the dinner, left, and went home.

At a certain time when he had done this, leaving the house of the banquet, he went out to the stable of the livestock since their guardianship had been delegated to him that night. There he gave his limbs to sleep at a suitable hour. Someone came to him through a dream, greeting him and calling him by name, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’

But he responded, ‘I don’t know how to sing; for I withdrew hither, leaving the banquet for that reason, since I could not sing.’

The one with him answered and said, ‘But, come, you can sing for me.’

‘What,’ he said, ‘ought I to sing?’

And the person said, ‘Sing of the beginning of the creatures.’

When this answer was accepted, immediately he began to sing verses in praise of the creator God which he had never heard, whose sense was:

Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom,
the power of the Creator and his intent,

the deeds of the Father of glory:
how he, since he is the eternal God,
has been the author of all miracles
who in the first for the sons of men
created the sky like the top of a roof
,
and then the almighty preserver of human race
created the earth.

This is the sense, but not the precise order of the words, which he sang whilst asleep; for songs, although composed extremely well, cannot be translated from one language to another word-for-word without damage to their beauty and worthiness. And then, rising from sleep, he remembered all the things which he had sung whilst asleep and soon he joined many words of a song worthy of God into the same measure. (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum 4.22.1-2 [SC 490, pub. 2005] or 4.24 [all previous edd], my trans.)

Caedmon is promptly sent to St. Hilda where, in front of ‘many learned men’, he sings the song. They test him by preaching a lengthy sermon which he is committed to put to verse. He succeeds, and Hilda convinces him to leave the secular life and join the monastery at Whitby. So he does.

Caedmon spent the rest of his life composing verse based upon the Scriptures and the salvation story as well as songs written to stir people up to shun vice and love virtue. He submitted himself to the discipline of the monastery’s rule and was harsh towards those who tried to live by their own rule.

Aware of his own impending death of a prolonged weakness, he moved into the house of the sick at the monastery and shared a few laughs with the men there. Then he received the Eucharist for the last time, made sure he and his monastic brothers were at peace, laid his head on his pillow, and died.

You can read my translation of the whole of Bede’s account of Caedmon’s life here. One of the things that is notable about Caedmon is the fact that he seems to have had an entirely oral/aural skill. Bede, throughout the account, refers to the things that Caedmon has heard being turned into songs. Caedmon was a Christian scop, an Anglo-Saxon poet who used the techniques of traditional oral poetry to compose songs about Christian themes.

We see here the fostering of the arts by St. Hilda; this is a recurring theme throughout the Middle Ages. The monasteries were in favour of the arts and of putting them to use of God’s glory. A reminder for us all.

And, since Bede laments the futility of translating verse, here is Caedmon’s hymn in Anglo-Saxon (found here):

Nu scilun herga hefenricæs uard
metudæs mehti and his modgithanc uerc
uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuæs eci
dryctin or astelidæ he ærist scop aeldu
barnum hefen to hrofæ halig sceppend tha
middingard moncynnæs uard eci dryctin
æfter tiadæ firum foldu frea allmehtig.

Further Explorations (in anti-alphabetical order)

Cavill, Paul. Anglo-Saxon Christianity. A readable introduction to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon lands in the Early Middle Ages.

Bradley, S.A.J. trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman’s Library. A selection of a very broad swath of Anglo-Saxon verse translated into modern English.

Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Oxford World’s Classics. Word on the street is that this is the recommended translation of Bede.