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)

A (pre-schism) western hymn for Orthodox Pentecost

It’s not cheeky if it’s pre-schism, right? 😉 The following hymn, ‘Now Christ had mounted to the stars’ (Iam Christus astra ascenderat) comes from ‘New Hymnal’, which is a Carolingian replacement of the ‘Old Hymnal’. These hymnals originated from the incorporation of hymns at the canonical hours being incorporated into the Benedictine office.

The New Hymnal took the Old Hymnal’s place everywhere during the course of the 800s and 900s, save in Milan. Walsh & Husch argue that it originated in France. Its first appearance in England is in Durham in the mid-900s. The Pentecost hymn I have chosen was divided into three sections for Terce, Sext, and Nones. The translation is that of Walsh & Husch, 100 Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, number 56 (pp. 185-187).

Now Christ had mounted to the stars,
returning to his former home,
the Holy Spirit to bestow
as promised by the Father’s gift.

That solemn day was dawning now
to which the globe had circled round
seven times its mystic number seven,
denoting now the blessed time.

On all, when that third hour had come,
the world in sudden thunder broke,
according to the apostles’ prayers
announcing God’s arrival here.

So downward from the Father’s light
the beauteous, fostering fire descends,
to fill the hearts that trust in Christ
with the burning impact of the word.

Men’s hearts are full, and feel the joy
as holy light is breathed on them;
their diverse voices harmonize
and tell of God’s glorious deeds.

From every race is gathered there
the Greek, Latin, barbarian,
and to the astonishment of all
they speak in universal tongues.

The unbelieving crowd of Jews
being then possessed by lunacy
together shout: “Christ’s fosterlings
are belching, reeling with new wine!”

But Peter, wielding signs and powers,
confronts them, teaching them the truth,
that they are faithfless, telling lies,
with Joel his witness giving proof.

I enjoy this poetic retelling of Pentecost, especially with its emphasis on the missional empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s Apostles. Growing up in the charismatic segment of Anglicanism, the emphasis I have often heard has been that of the spiritual gifts bestowed on them. This hymn certainly acknowledges the supernatural power of the Spirit upon the Apostles — ‘Peter, wielding signs and powers’ — but also, and importantly, upon the missional aspect of these gifts.

The Apostles were not given charismata of the Holy Spirit solely that they could walk closer with the Most Holy Trinity (although I do not doubt that such was the effect; Christ calls Him the Comforter in John, after all) but also so that they could bring many, of every tribe, tongue, and nation, into the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church.

I am also struck by the Carolingian love of … puzzles, of significances hidden in what we would consider insignificant details. Pentecost is fifty days after Easter. That, to the modern mind, is a matter of simple, straightforward mathematical fact. But to the Carolingians, mathematics was part of the mind of the God who ordered and sustained the universe. Pentecost is very nearly 7 times 7 days away from Easter — the perfect number squared. The mystical significance is that God does all things in his kairos, at the fullness of time.

I hope that you, too, enjoy this hymn! And a Happy Pentecost to my Eastern Orthodox friends!

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.