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.

The poetic mode of St Columba

St ColumbaA few weeks ago I posted to commemorate the poet-theologian St Ephraim the Syrian; St Ephraim shares his feast, 9 June (as celebrated in the West), with St Columba, as it turns out. St Columba was my first Saint of the Week when I was still on top of that — I even revisited him. In that first post, I discussed St Columba the missionary; in the second, St Columba the wonderworker (Columba Thaumaturgus?).

We must not forget St Columba the poet, a mode I highlighted in the first of those posts when I quoted from his hymn, ‘Adiutor Laborantium’. That poem is a plea from ‘a little man / trembling and most wretched, / rowing through the infinite storm / of this age’, that Christ might save him and bring to paradise, to the unending hymn (trans. Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Markus, Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery).

Another poem attributed to St Columba (‘persuasively if not certainly ascribed’ p. xiii) is included in P. G. Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, vol. 18), ‘Altus Prosator’. ‘Altus Prosator’ is a hymn in honour of the Most Holy Trinity:

It is not three gods we proclaim,
but one God only we affirm,
by faith’s integrity, in three
person’s exceeding glorious. (1.9-12)

Columba goes on to extol the glorious works of God in creation, starting with ‘the good angels … / and archangels, and further ranks / of principalities and thrones / and powers and virtues’ (2.1-4), then telling of Lucifer and his rebellion before singing of God’s creation of the world. Here is a sample stanza:

Formed he the stars, put in their place
as lamps to light the firmament;
the angels joined in eulogy,
for his wondrous creation of
that boundless mass, praising the Lord,
the craftsman of the heavens above,
in proclamation that wins praise,
with utterance meet that knows no change,
and sang in noble harmony,
discharging thanks unto the Lord,
doing this out of love and will,
not from the gift that nature prompts. (Stanza 6)

Here we see angels doing as they are meant — praising God. Satan, on the other hand, seduces ‘our firstborn parents, both of them’ (7.2), and suffers a second fall. Up to Stanza 8, this is like a small, early mediaeval Paradise Lost.

Now, Columba moves on to the fierce power and potential violence of God’s created world, exemplified by the Deluge. But, although the world could be deluged at any time, God keeps creation regulated. I imagine that a life lived in the Western Isles of Scotland makes one think of the power and ferocity of rain and wind.

This is a hymnic poem, of course:

Mighty powers of our great God
make the earth’s globe suspended stand,
its circle poised in the abyss
by God’s support beneath, and by
the almighty one’s strong right hand (12.1-5)

If this is ‘Celtic’ ‘panentheism’, it is much more like the ‘panentheism’ of Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, where the acknowledgement of God being everywhere in creation is not a limitation of God but simply the recognition of His transcendent yet immanent Self; that is, God is not in creation in a nature-god sort of way. He is everywhere, Almighty, sustaining all things by His power. We can find Him anywhere, with or without ‘Thin Places’.

Take heed Stanza 14 — St Columba believed in a round earth!!

Columba’s praise of God speaks of the salvation history in the Old Testament next, reminding us of the coming Day of Judgement, ‘a day of sadness and of grief’:

So trembling shall we take our stand
before the dais of the Lord,
and we shall render and account
of all desires that we held dear (18.1-3)

Christ descends with the Cross as his standard, and human and angelic voices will join with the four beasts of Revelation in hymns, ‘the Trinity is praised by all / in threefold chorus without end.’ (22.11-12)

There is no mention, however, of the saving grace wrought on the Cross. I am too Protestant for some of this, I fear:

we shall be his comrades there,
drawn up in all our diverse ranks
of dignities, according to
enduring merits of rewards,
and shall abide in glory there
eternally, for ever and ever. (23.7-12)

Christ is King. There is Tree of Life imagery earlier. He judges the world. But where is the Crucifixion? The fear of Hell and hope of Heaven, yes. But we move straight from Moses to the Day of Judgement.

Nonetheless, there is so much of value in this Irish, this ‘Celtic’, poem of the Early Middle Ages, written in Latin by a missionary abbot on an isle in the Hebrides. I wonder if life in the Hebrides makes one more acutely aware of the Day of Judgement? There is sound theology, beautiful imagery, and a good amount of secular learning — knowledge (scientia) of the natural — created — world is a fitting place to extol the Creator.

‘Altus Prosator’ is an abecedarius; each stanza begins with a different letter of the Latin alphabet, from A-Z in 23 stanzas (lacking from our viewpoint: J, U, W). It is rhythmic, written in heavy trochees: ‘Altus Prosator, vetustus’. Out on the edge of the world, we can see the united world of Latin culture, visible here in this sixth-century Irish poet and the beauty and theology of his verse.

Maundy Thursday: ‘Pange, Lingua’ by St Thomas Aquinas

Tell, my tongue, the sacrament
of glorious body and precious blood
poured out by the king of nations,
by the fruit of a noble womb;
by which means he paid the ransom
to redeem the world from sin.

To us given, for us begotten
from the virgin Mary’s womb,
and in the world’s confines abiding,
having scattered the world’s seed,
he his term of dwelling with us
closed with wondrous ordering.

On the night of the last supper,
with his brothers he reclined,
and observed the law in fullness
with foods by the law ordained;
as food he to his band twelvefold
gave himself with his own hands.

Word-made-flesh transforms the true bread
by the word into his flesh;
wine is changed into the Christ’s blood;
and, if sense fails to discern,
faith alone is found sufficient
to strengthen devoted hearts.

We this sacrament of greatness
will revere on bended knee,
and the observance of the ancients
yield to a new form of rite.
Let faith make its own addition
to our senses’ failing powers.

To the Father and Son likewise
praise and exultation,
faith, honor, and power also
be, and benediction.
To the one from both proceeding
equal be laudation.

-St Thomas Aquinas (1264), trans. P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns #98

Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)
Fresco of the Last Supper, Chiesa San Lorenzo, Milan (16th c., my photo)

Tuesday of Holy Week: Venantius Fortunatus, ‘Vexilla Regis’

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)
A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

The standards of the king advance,
the mystery of the cross shines forth,
whereby the founder of our flesh
in flesh upon a gibbet hung.

Here, his body pierced by nails,
and stretching forth his hands, his feet,
for the redemption of the world
as victim was he sacrificed.

Upon this gibbet, wounded sore,
pierced by the grim point of the lance,
that he might cleanse us of our sins
he dripped with water and with blood.

Thus were the prophecies fulfilled
that David sang in truthful strain,
proclaiming to the world at large
that God did reign from on the tree.

O beautiful and shining tree,
adorned with purple of the king,
selected, as its trunk deserved,
to touch so close such sacred limbs!

O blessed tree, upon whose arms
were hung the ransom of the world!
It weighed his body in its scales,
and bore away the prey of hell.

From your bark fragrance you diffuse;
sweeter than nectar is your taste;
rejoicing in your fecund fruit,
that splendid triumph you applaud.

All hail, O alter; victim, hail,
for sake of his passion’s great fame,
by which our Life endured his death,
and by his death restored our life.

-Venantius Fortunatus (d. ca 600), trans. P G Walsh with Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns, 101-103

Monday of Holy Week: A Hymn of St Ambrose

Iam surgit hora tertia

Now dawns the third hour of the day,
the hour when Christ mounted the cros;
let our minds harbor no proud thought,
but foster eagerness for prayer.

He who takes Christ into his heart
controls his thoughts all free of blame;
by constant prayers deserves to win
the Holy Spirit’s presence there.

This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.

From that time on our blessed days
began, through merit of Christ’s grace;
through all the world the truth of faith
has filled the churches everywhere.

He on high from his triumph’s peak
addressed his mother with these words:
“O mother, here behold your son”;
to John: “Behold your mother here,”

Thus teaching that her bridal pact
concealed this mystery profound:
the virgin’s sacred birth would not
impair the mother’s chastity.

Jesus, by heavenly miracles,
provided proof that this was so.
The impious mob withheld belief;
he who belived will sure be saved.

We do believe the birth of God,
sprung from the sacred virgin’s womb;
he bore the sins of all the world,
and now sits at his Father’s right.

-St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), trans. P G Walsh with Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns, pp. 9-11

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
Mid-14th c. French ivory diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

What ever happened to ‘Read the Fathers’??

If you’ve been putting up with me long enough, you will recall that last November on this blog I was gung-ho about an exciting new initiative called ‘Read the Fathers‘. This initiative is still ongoing (follow the link!), and hopefully will continue for another six years.  And last year, starting with Advent 1, I was into this. Sometimes ‘Read the Fathers’ passages would be discussed on this blog. Sometimes I would turn up there as a blogger as well.

And then, suddenly.

I wasn’t doing it anymore.

Somewhere during Clement of Alexandria (whose feast is tomorrow; saint of the week here) I started having trouble getting through the readings. And then I went to Germany, where my access to English books that I could take home with me was curtailed for a while as I awaited my student card — as well as books not on open shelving at the University of Tübingen. And I dislike extensive online reading.

And since I’m always reading something ancient or mediaeval anyway, I stopped.

Since April, I have read the Fathers. I’ve read much of St Augustine’s City of God. I’ve read the poems and letters of Sidonius Apollinaris, the History of the Vandal Persecution by Victor of Vita, the Creedal Homilies of Quodvultdeus, the Chronicle of Hydatius, the Chronicle of Victor of Tonnena, and On Repentance by Victor of Cartenna. Besides these fifth-century works (all from North Africa save Sidonius [Gaul] and Hydatius [Spain]), I read One Hundred Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, ed. and trans. by P G Walsh and Christopher J Husch. I also read the early mediaeval letters of St Boniface (saint of the week here) and the late mediaeval Imitation of Christ by St Thomas a Kempis — not mentioning the various secular and pagan works from the ancient and mediaeval worlds that I also read.

But today I rejoin the ‘Read the Fathers’ bandwagon! I don’t know how long it will take me to fall off the bandwagon, but I’m trying. Today is a good day to join — we read Pontius’ Life and Passion of Cyprian. If today doesn’t work for you, try tomorrow when we begin Cyprian’s letters. And the great thing about letters is how easily you could jump in any day from here until we finish Cyprian’s letters on Christmas Adam (23 Dec).

Happy reading!

Christmas Day 11: ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’ by St Ambrose

Amongst the many delights of Christmas gifts this year, such as the 6-DVD box set for Avengers Assemble and a toy pirate and Hobbitus Ille, I received two volumes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library from my uncle — Miracle Tales from Byzantium, ed. and trans. Alice-Mary Talbot and Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (including ‘Miracles of Saint Thekla’, ‘Anonymous Miracles of the Pege’, and ‘Miracles of Gregory Palamas’) and One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas, ed. and trans. Peter G. Walsh with Christopher Husch.

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is an exciting venture, like unto the Loeb Classical Library, original language with an English facing-page translation. Its scope is medieval literature, Latin, Greek, vernacular. I already own the series’ Rule of St Benedict, and if I knew Old English, I would go for The Beowulf Manuscript — including not only Beowulf but the other texts therein.

And so, here on the penultimate day of Christmas, I present to you One Hundred Latin Hymns, Hymn 5, ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’. Although not cited as being by Ambrose when quoted by Augustine, fifth-century sources tell us that this hymn is by the Bishop of Milan. Walsh affirms the likelihood of Ambrose establishing 25 December the feast of the Nativity in Milan, a practice already occurring in Rome at the time:

Give ear, O king of Israel,
seated above the Cherubim,
appear before Ephraim’s face,
stir up thy mightiness, and come.

Redeemer of the Gentiles, come;
show forth the birth from virgin’s womb;
let every age show wonderment;
such birth is fitting for our God.

Not issuing from husband’s seed,
but from the Spirit’s mystic breath,
God’s Word was fashioned into flesh,
and thrived as fruit of Mary’s womb.

The virgin’s womb begins to swell;
her maidenhead remains intact:
the banner of her virtues gleam;
God in his temple lives and stirs.

From his chamber let him come forth,
the royal court of chastity,
as giant of his twin natures
eager to hasten on his way.

First from the Father he set forth,
then to his Father he returns;
he sallies to the realms below,
then journeys back to God’s abode.

You are the eternal Father’s peer;
gird on your trophy of the flesh,
and strengthen with your constant power
the frailties of our bodies’ frame.

Your manger now is all aglow,
the night breathes forth a light unknown;
a light that never night may shroud,
and that shall gleam with constant faith.

For more on Ambrose the hymn-writer, see my posts here and here.