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.


Bryce said...

Did you ellipse out, "Nor ever chaste / Except thou ravish me" from the Donne poem, or is that a different poem?

Latter-Day Guy said...

Yup, it's the same one. I trimmed it so as not to scare the children. ;) While the tendency to blend eroticism and adoration is firmly within the tradition of Semitic devotional poetry––Songs of Solomon is a very mild example; some Islamic poetry is quite x-rated––I am enough of a prude to find Holy Sonnet XVIII a little shocking, for example.

Bryce said...

Cool. It makes me happy to know even a snippet of a poem you quoted. Where do you find all this devotional poetry? Is there a collection you could recommend to me, or do you just read gobs of it?

Also, my verification word is "convo," which reminds me of the therapist on "Stranger than Fiction."

Latter-Day Guy said...

I just find it in bits and snatches really. Donne is, I think, my favorite, but Hopkins is also extraordinary. One that I have really grown to love recently is Auden's "For the Time Being"––a really fascinating bit of work. I'll send you a copy.