Friday, February 26, 2010

Ashes: IV

Nothing much to report today, apart from the cold that is making the rounds in my apartment. However, as I got the stomach flu, I am exempt––at least that's what I keep telling the Lord in our ongoing conversations.

(Speaking of which, that reminds me of a part in the book Cryptonomicon in which Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier/prisoner recuperating in a Catholic hospital in the Philippines, begins to have discussion-arguments with the crucifix on his wall. The Lord always wins, remaining silent. Finally, going stir-crazy, Dengo tries to figure out what "INRI"––the superscript above the cross––is supposed to mean. One of the possibilities he considers is strangely reminiscent of a story once told me by a cleric, who shall remain anonymous: "Initiate Nail Removal Immediately" was Goto's guess.)

Drat. That wasn't particularly Lenten, was it? Well, let's make reparation thus:

The music is really too glorious to fit the season, but the text is suitably humble (from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith):
Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter in te
Deus Israel
qui irasceris
et propitius eris
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis
Domine Deus
Creator coeli et terrae
respice humilitatem nostram
Or, in English:
I have never put my hope in any other but in you,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man.
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness.
Composed by (who else?) Thomas Tallis, this motet, Spem in alium, is set for eight five-part choirs, singing simultaneously. How a composer can juggle 40 independent lines of music without disaster is beyond me... far, far beyond me.

Part four (of six) of our Eliot series follows:


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos*

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

*The words, "Sovegna vos," come from a fragment of Dante's Purgatorio. Interestingly, they were originally intended to serve as a portion of the epigraph for Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock––though, ultimately, he chose a different quote. The fragment,
'sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor'.
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina.
reads, in Eliot's own translation:
'be mindful in due time of my pain'.
Then dived he back into that fire which refines them.
Thus, in Ash Wednesday, the words are a call to remembrance: "Be mindful [of me/us?]..." For more information regarding the influence of Dante on this text, see this article.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ashes: III

With compliments to Fr. Peter, and apropos of living in BYU's unmarried housing––a hotbed of celibacy!––let's begin today with a brief reading from the monastic rule par excellence, St. Benedict's:

The life of a monk [or Mormon missionary!] ought always to be a Lenten observance. However, since such virtue is that of few, we advise that during these days of Lent he guard his life with all purity and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times. This will then be worthily done, if we restrain ourselves from all vices. Let us devote ourselves to tearful prayers, to reading and compunction of heart, and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God "with the joy of the Holy Ghost" (1 Thes 1:6), of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure; namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to sing during a session of General Conference (a good but grueling experience––I don't know where the MoTab Choir members get their stamina). My favorite song from that set was a scriptural paraphrase of a Book of Mormon text, set (by the incomparable Ronald Staheli) to an arrangement of Sibelius' beautiful Finlandia. Below you can view a video of this performance:

The scriptural passage from which the text was derived was, of course, the Psalm of Nephi.* (See here to read it in its entirety). It strikes me that this is an especially appropriate text for Lent. This Psalm possesses a dual nature, painted with penitence and gilded with praise. Consider, for instance, this passage:

...[M]y heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.

And now compare with the central line of the entire psalm:

Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.

Trust has delivered Nephi from his sins, triumphant only within the triumph of Christ. Nephi recites a litany of his blessings, which––considering his sins––would only serve to deepen his self-condemnation, were it not for the Atonement. This is God's alchemy (what C.S. Lewis called the "deep magic" in his Narnian Chronicles), which not only purifies us, but turns our dross to gold! The following line is especially telling:

He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh.

This is a fascinating image, reminiscent of John Donne's famous words:
"Batter my heart, three person'd God... [B]end / Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new... [F]or I / Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free..." It also calls to mind Pope Benedict's statement: "...[We must] strive toward truth with our whole heart, mind and will... It is then we see clearly. It is then that we are truly children of God living in His Majesty’s unfathomable reality of fiery love."

In our Lenten gardening we sow the seeds of Easter, and though the work is demanding and necessarily somber, it is suffused with quiet, expectant joy: Winter fades––Spring Himself is on the way!

I didn't go to church today;
the sun was shining so,
And drifting motes dropped like God's grace
through golden light below.
The rich grass preached and and rose like Christ,
the trees were up-flung hymns––
Great, open-throated orisons
of leaf and waving limb.
The zephyr-Spirit blew me where
it listed, and I went,
Becoming––for a moment––an
apostle, freshly sent.
Hear a homily of sunlight
making Truth a bell to ring:
There is Life from dark earth bursting!
Come, my Jesus,
Thou true Spring!

Poor fare, I know––I'm no poet. Let's leave it to the professionals. Another installment (three of six) of Eliot's Ash Wednesday follows:


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the fig’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute,
stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

*For those interested:

  • Here you can find a paper by the poet describing how he adapted the text (contains complete lyrics for the song).
  • Here is a form-critical analysis of Nephi's Psalm.
  • Another analysis.
  • Yet another analysis.
  • Brief thoughts on possible temple imagery in the psalm.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ashes: Interlude

For those who would like further information about the poem Ash Wednesday, and some guidance in interpreting it (including the four installments still to come), please see the following resources:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ashes: II

The next installment (two of six) of Eliot's Ash Wednesday.

(By way of friendly advice, don't worry if some of this seems pretty opaque; Eliot is challenging at the best of times, and this is difficult stuff even for him. There are some analyses online––which I will find and link to at a later date––but sometimes poems like this one defy analysis, and have to be intuited rather than interpreted.)


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ashes: Interlude

It is with great regret that I announce that my Lenten fast has been hijacked by a pagan deity. At approximately 5:00 PM, I made violent and abundant offering to Commodus, the porcelain goddess. Services began again at 9:00, and now we have had a kind of Vigils at 1:00 AM. It has been surprisingly regular, and might even be a benefit to observing the Divine Office if it weren't for the fact that it is so damned distracting to pray: "Glory be to the––BLLLEEECHERRRGurbleurble." (Though to be fair, one is always sure to make a profound inclination!) On the bright side, pagan worship is something of an improvement for me, as I am usually rendered completely atheist upon vomiting––it can take days to work my way back even to Pantheism.

I suppose I'll say "hi" again at 5:00, though I am somewhat worried by the fact that there are no fluids left. We've just gone clean out of bile, and so I suppose we'll have to move on to CSF and lymph, if we don't just jump straight to eyeballs and kidneys. It has been a real experience; have you ever puked so hard your joints hurt?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes: I

First, the photographic evidence: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. I did attend Mass this morning, and it was lovely. LDS missionary experience stood me in good stead, as the liturgy was bilingual, so I could follow along without a hitch really. (Well, not including the Spanish responses. I reverted to the English ones I'm used to.)

The homily was interesting (and brief, as he had to give it in two languages, one after the other), drawing on a passage from Mark:

So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.

Thus the Lenten season bears fruit as God works in us, though often we know not how. Our job then becomes one of clearing ground and weeding and watering. Ascesis and penitence are mainly a matter of getting out of God's way, making a place for him to work.

When it came to the imposition of the ashes, they used the formula from the NT: Repent (vertical mark) and believe the Gospel (horizontal).

The parish is in a transitional situation. They built the school first, and are now in the process of raising funds for the church proper, so Mass takes place in the gym area; there are no kneelers, just the vinyl floor over cement slab. This, combined with the short space between the rows of chairs, made kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer an interesting experience, but by golly you were focused!

The only disappointment was the Sanctus. Nobody knew the setting they were using, including the priest and the cantor––the congregation didn't stand a chance. It was in Spanish, so it wasn't in the little booklets, and it didn't sound like it was one the Spanish-speakers had ever heard before. (Again, mission experience came to the rescue: there has never been a disaster in religious music so spectacular as one abortive Zone Conference musical number in which I participated. It was pretty much an a capella invocation of the First Horseman of the Apocalypse––Pestilence himself rode with us that morning. I was hoping the earth could just swallow us all up afterward. Honestly, the mere memory induces literal nausea. The unfortunate Sanctus is no big deal at all.)

Anyway, there will be more meditation forthcoming, but for now a little poetic thought (part one of six):

Ash Wednesday
T.S. Eliot


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Valentines of Valentine's

Though the martyr St. Valentinus was removed from the general calendar in 1969 due, in part, to a paucity of historical information about him, I thought we might bring him up anyway in an attempt to divert some of the flood of treacle soon to unfold.

His name derives from the Latin term valens, or "worthy." We use the related words "value" or "valuable" in English, and our Spanish brothers and sisters frequently use the phrase "vale la pena," meaning, "it's worth it" (literally: it is worth the pain, or effort). His name isn't in the earliest martyrologies, but was added in 496 by Pope Gelasius I (though with the admission that his deeds were "known only to God").

It seems that there were actually at least three different saints of that name, and all of them were martyrs. One a Roman priest, another a bishop, and the third a man martyred in Africa. Apart from their name, the historical sources at least make clear that all of the men were very fond of chocolates. (The foregoing sentence was a shameless lie, but it would be pretty cool, no?)

Here's a bit of one of them anyway:

I'm feeling romantic already.

Finally, in honor of the more popular observances of this coming Sunday, a favorite by W.H. Auden:

The Love Feast

In an upper room at midnight
See us gathered on behalf
Of love according to the gospel
Of the radio-phonograph.

Lou is telling Anne what Molly
Said to Mark behind her back;
Jack likes Jill who worships George
Who has the hots for Jack.

Catechumens make their entrance;
Steep enthusiastic eyes
Flicker after tits and baskets;
Someone vomits; someone cries.

Willy cannot bear his father,
Lilian is afraid of kids;
The Love that rules the sun and stars
Permits what He forbids.

Adrian's pleasure-loving dachshund
In a sinner's lap lies curled;
Drunken absent-minded fingers
Pat a sinless world.

Who is Jenny lying to
In her call, Collect, to Rome?
The Love that made her out of nothing
Tells me to go home.

But that Miss Number in the corner
Playing hard to get....
I am sorry I'm not sorry...
Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet.
There's some interesting theology tucked away in there, should you care to tease it out (not to mention some simply very-clever writing). Apologies to friends and relatives who are offended by "tits." Though, on second thought, most of us have had sufficient experience with them (though we may not remember it) that I don't really feel bad. Happy St. Valentine's Day, all!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Daily Universe: Letter and Response

This was printed in today's edition of the school newspaper:

BYU vs. BYU-Idaho

Brigham Young University-Idaho and Provo are both Church schools, yet they differ nearly as two different worlds. After two years at BYU-Idaho, I transferred to BYU and I have been both pleased and disappointed. The new academic pressure to be successful flourishes within the walls of each building on campus. Yet the “Spirit of Ricks” that enchants and supports the students of BYU-Idaho does not exist here as clearly as in Rexburg. The standards of living are not held to such high regard and practiced with such strictness here at BYU. Though many people strive to do their best in maintaining the Honor Code, I believe the students here at BYU would benefit from working a little harder at raising the bar.

Girls, watch your skirts and clothing. It is essential to the sanity of our young men and to the dignity of womanhood that you are modest. Young men, you are priesthood holders. It has been asked of you to be clean in your appearance. Also, it is time to work together and keep curfew. The contents within the Honor Code have been set up by prophets, therefore, Heavenly Father has asked us to live a little different from the rest of the world. Great blessings and unity thrive at a university that is living a strict honor code together. I believe it is time for BYU to wake up and recommit to keeping the Honor Code. It does not restrict our lives but enriches our lives.

Chelsea Jamison
Spokane, Wash.

My riposte:

The Honor Code is a fine document, but we should be careful not to stray into the realm of fanaticism in its application. Letters like Tuesday's "BYU vs. BYU-Idaho" skirt the line. Suggesting that "the contents [of] the Honor Code have been set up by prophets" is somewhat misleading. It did not come down from the mountain with Moses, scrawled on the back side of the Decalogue. Those interested in the history of the Honor Code (and the many and varied permutations that have occurred over the years) should avail themselves of the free copy of "BYU: A House of Faith" online:>. More to the point, the Honor Code has value only insofar as it helps us to live the gospel. Increased strictness for its own sake is actually counterproductive. Hugh Nibley, one of BYU's most celebrated scholars, wrote: "The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, [etc.] come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich [and] respectable.... [T]he haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearance" (from "Approaching Zion," emphasis mine). If a BYU education has taught me anything, it is the frightening ease with which we swallow camels, while distracted by ultimately irrelevant gnats.

Nicholas Sherwood
Granby, Missouri
To be perfectly honest, I am rather proud of my restraint. I was pretty tempted just to say: "Hell, if you really liked Auschwitz North that much (and the frozen wasteland that surrounds it), I'm sure the reindeer will take you back if you ask nicely."