Lent, Lenz, Spring

Crocus biflorus photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Crocus biflorus
photo by Reginald Hulhoven from Wikimedia Commons

Christians are now observing the season of Lent, a time of fasting and penitence, reflection and contemplation. But the church season’s development in the Northern hemisphere also draws on the powerful pulls of body and earth, of humankind’s connection to the natural world, which, like our bodies, is a creation and temple of God.

The word itself, “Lent,” derives from the Germanic root “lang,” meaning “long,” which also forms the basis of the present-day German “Lenz” (“Spring”). According to the 1964 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, “Lent” (and, one assumes, the German “Lenz”) takes its meaning from the lengthening of days in the spring.

Historically, Lent began as a time of preparation for new converts to the Christian faith before their baptism at Easter, and I imagine that over the centuries many pre-Christian traditions and practices associated with the seasonal transition became part of religious tradition as well. In earlier societies, this seasonal transition was a time to use up winter stores before they went bad (hence, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, a time for one last big winter feast).  A time to fast because those winter stores, even those that keep, are running low.

A good time to clear out larders and cupboards, making room for the coming abundance of spring. A good time to clear out and examine old habits, tossing out those which haven’t served us well, making room for the abundance of life promised by Christ’s incarnation in human form and loving sacrifice. Spring’s rebirth reminds us that spiritual rebirth is possible, too, something that isn’t always easy to believe in the season of cold and “winter’s discontent.”

The earthly season reminds us that scarcity (those dwindling stores of winter food) can coexist with hope, symbolized by the lengthening of days. (Ancients did not have to deal with the less welcome intrusion of Daylight Savings Time!)

The Germans actually have two words for spring, and both are used in one of my favorite pieces of music, “Der Trunkene im Frühling” (“The Drunken Man in Spring”), the fifth movement from Mahler’s great song cycle Das Lied von die Erde (The Song of the Earth). Especially lovely is Mahler’s setting of the line “Der Lenz ist da!” (“Spring is here!”).

I located a performance on YouTube, sung by tenor Fritz Wunderlich. The English translation follows the German text, and you can see that this celebration of spring is as far removed as possible from the somber beginnings of Lent! I’m certainly not advocating celebrating spring’s arrival by getting drunk, but this is a wonderful piece of music, and you can also take the “drunkenness” metaphorically, as the exuberance of becoming bedazzled by the beauty of nature and the miraculous nature of the season:

Wenn nur ein Traum das Leben ist,
Warum denn Müh’ und Plag’!?
Ich trinke, bis ich nicht mehr kann,
Den ganzen, lieben Tag!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr trinken kann,
Weil Kehl’ und Seele voll,
So tauml’ ich bis zu meiner Tür
Und schlafe wundervoll!

Was hör’ ich beim Erwachen? Horch!
Ein Vogel singt im Baum.
Ich frag’ ihn, ob schon Frühling sei,
Mir ist als wie im Traum.

Der Vogel zwitschert: Ja!
Der Lenz ist da, sei kommen über Nacht!
Aus tiefstem Schauen lauscht’ ich auf,
Der Vogel singt und lacht!

Ich fülle mir den Becher neu
Und leer’ ihn bis zum Grund
Und singe, bis der Mond erglänzt
Am schwarzen Firmament!

Und wenn ich nicht mehr singen kann,
So schlaf’ ich wieder ein.
Was geht mich denn der Frühling an!?
Laßt mich betrunken sein!

If life is but a dream,
why work and worry?
I drink until I no more can,
the whole, blessed day!

And if I can drink no more
as throat and soul are full,
then I stagger to my door
and sleep wonderfully!

What do I hear on waking? Hark!
A bird sings in the tree.
I ask him if it’s spring already;
to me it’s as if I’m in a dream.

The bird chirps Yes!
The spring is here, it came overnight!
From deep wonderment I listen;
the bird sings and laughs!

I fill my cup anew
and drink it to the bottom
and sing until the moon shines
in the black firmament!

And if I can not sing,
then I fall asleep again.
What to me is spring?
Let me be drunk!

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Frost Forest on my Window

Frost_on_windowFrost forest
On my window
Snowflake trees on
Icy slopes

(fleeting, passing)

Soon will sun
Melt
My frost forest
Spring is on her way
***

Writing, editing, and winter ailments have kept me from the blog,
BUT
After multiple revisions, my latest novel is ready for show time.
A big editing job is finally done.
My energy level is up.
I’m ready for Spring!

Let all Creation Praise

While searching for a link to explain the Blessing of Animals a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a delightful site: http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/home. Let All Creation Praise is an ecumenical Christian group—that is, one that welcomes all denominations—which is focused on raising awareness of environmental issues and the role of Creation in worship. As “praise” goes hand in hand with “thanksgiving,” it seems an appropriate topic for the week before Thanksgiving is celebrated here in the U.S. When I was working full time, Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. We live too far from family to mess with travel, so it was basically a very long weekend with to do nothing but eat and rest up (and read!). Like bears preparing to hibernate.

The idea that Creation praises God is not some new “radical” notion in Christianity or Judaism. The Hebrew Psalms contain several examples:

forestPsalm 65:13 “The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing.” (King James version) Here we see a sensitivity to nature and to the earth, that even something as lowly as dirt and grass is a fellow creature to be honored and respected; that the earth itself is capable of expressing joy. Both Psalm 96 and a verse in the history recounted in Chronicles talk about trees “singing for joy.” Likewise, the book of the prophet Isaiah speaks of trees “clapping their hands” (Isaiah 55:12 )–one of my favorite passages.

st francisSaint Francis is, of course, the most famous exemplar of Christian love for creation. His Canticle of the Sun expresses the notion that all facets of creation are the brothers of humankind. Legend has it that he preached to the birds and saved (and “reformed”) a wolf whom villagers were about to kill.

William Blake‘s poetry is steeped in both religious spirituality and the natural world. A century later, Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote poetry that expresses deep love and reverence for all creation within a religious context, most notably in “God’s Grandeur.”

In the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, quite possibly the most influential Christian of modern times, wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy of the joy and refreshment he found in the natural world. More recently, farmer-poet Wendell Berry‘s novels, essays, and poetry show a Christian worldview where nature and the fruits of the earth are central to the spiritual and moral life.

To return to the group that prompted these musings, on its website “Let All Creation Praise” states: “We seek to serve the whole church by providing resources for Christian worship that promotes love of and care for God’s creation.” The organization “offers resources for congregations to celebrate God’s love for creation, to worship God with creation so as to reconcile and restore our human relationship with the rest of nature, and to foster love and care for God’s whole creation. We also provide resources to celebrate a “season of creation” or “creation time” in the church year.” In a world where human greed threatens to overtax the climate and natural resources of our fragile globe, it is heartening to see this kind of endeavor. Reverence for the earth should not be seen as competition for the reverence of God, but as its natural consequence.

Two Autumn Poems

Goldenrod big- 1024px-Field-of-goldenrod-flowers
Autumn Poem of Innocence

Goldenrod laughs in the wind
Tosses back its yellow hair

Flame-colored maple
Leaves dancing in the wind
Swirl and bow and swirl again

Cloudless blue sky
Bright autumn sun

Cheery pumpkins grace our doorsteps
Cornears unfurl colorful seeds

 

Photo by Nicole Gordine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Nicole Gordine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by BirdPhotos.com, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by BirdPhotos.com, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Autumn Poem of Experience

Soon bright pumpkins squirrels will ravage
Corn kernels scatter
Bare cobs leave
Broken rinds
Remains of furry ones’ feast.
(Squirrels disdain to do their dishes)

Rain squalls pound goldenrods’ hair
Branches hurl
Trees uproot.

Will the Monarch grace us?
Or is its beauty vanished,
Vanquished,
Bleared, smeared by human greed?

Yet the seasons cycle on
Dead leaves go to the compost bin
Life begins anew

Monarch Butterfly- BBGMonarchButterflyWings

I want to thank fellow blogger Jeff (StuffJeffReads) for keeping William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in the forefront of my mind this past year. Once I realized the dichotomy of innocence/experience was the perfect way to organize the two initial images—the goldenrod and the Monarch butterfly—the rest of the poetic diptych soon fell into place. “Bleared, smeared” obviously echoes Gerard Manley Hopkin’s line in “God’s Grandeur,” just as “Will the Monarch grace us?” echoes T.S. Eliot’s “Will the sunflower turn to us,” in “Burnt Norton.”

Late Summer Poem

iStock_000005311669SmallCool August morning
Open window to sunlight and air
Of Edenic purity

Play of sunlight across telephone wires
Wingèd insects golden flash, disappear
Webbed spiderwork glistens, disappears
Athena’s handmaiden, busy at her loom,
Weaves across telephone wires,
Golden in sunlight,
Vanishes beneath

Flash of bird shadow
Shower of droplets, last night’s rain,
Shimmer of cicada song
Flash, shower, shimmer, vanish, disappear

Maple wing seeds carpet the street
Golden coins of summer’s last spending.

composed August 24, 2014

This poem was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite bloggers, Elouise (http://tellingthetruth1993.wordpress.com/). I wanted to keep the impressions of this morning, but writing them in prose felt like “work” and I needed a day off. Then I thought of Elouise’s lovely nature poetry and realized that was how I wanted to capture these moments. Who knows, maybe I’ll do it again.

Merton’s “O Sweet Irrational Worship” set to Music

A few weeks ago, when I was writing the post on Thomas Merton’s poem “O Sweet Irrational Worship,” I came upon the following link: http://www.overgrownpath.com/2008/12/sweet-irrational-worship.html

o sweet irrational albumIt describes Merton’s meeting with composer John Jacob Niles, who had already set many of Merton’s poems to music, and goes on to review a then-new recording of Niles’ Merton song cycles sung by baritone Chad Runyon. A quick search of the Internet shows the recording is still available. I couldn’t find any audio excerpts of this particular song, but the singer’s website includes samples of several others on the album. Baritone happens to be my favorite category of voice, and any composer sensitive to the nuances of Merton’s poetry is one worth checking out: I intend to order it soon. I was also happy to stumble upon the Overgrown Path blog, which looks to be a thoughtful collection written by a kindred spirit.

Celebrate Earth Day with Thomas Merton

Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton wrote many poems over the too-brief span of his fifty-three years, but my favorites are those dealing with nature. A few months ago, I blogged about “Night Flowering Cactus,” which I think is his masterpiece in the genre, and today, in honor of Earth Day, I’d like to look at a more spring-like gem, “O Sweet Irrational Worship.” Here is the beginning:

“Wind and a bobwhite
And the afternoon sun.

By ceasing to question the sun
I have become light,

Bird and wind.

My leaves sing.

I am earth, earth

All these lighted things
Grow from my heart.”

The entire poem can be found here.

The poem begins very simply, reflecting perhaps Merton’s interest in the radical stripping away of the extraneous, which he found in Zen Buddhism as well as in certain mystical paths of Western Christianity such as that of Saint John of the Cross (known for his meditations on “the dark night of the soul”).

In the line “By ceasing to question the sun,” I believe Merton is describing a path to mystical contemplation in which we let go of the rational, analytical part of our mind and simply experience the present: the sun, the wind, the bobwhite (not a generic “bird” but a specific creature). If you go still long enough and just let yourself experience these elements of nature, you may perhaps enter into a mystical union with them as Merton did in the encounter he depicts in this poem: becoming  the light, the bird, the wind.

In the next line, Merton moves beyond this to a more universal identification with the natural world. His “leaves sing” as if he were a tree, and then he moves on to a yet greater epiphany: “I am earth, earth. All these lighted things grow from my heart.” By identifying so completely with the natural world to the extent that he experiences a kind of mystical oneness with it, Merton then perceives the interconnectedness of it all, of all the “lighted” things: things that share in the universal condition of being lit by the sun, things that also share in the universal light of the love and creativity of God.

And then more than this, a connection that shares not merely the same experiences, but one that has gone beyond this to take on a sense of responsibility, of a deep inward tie so that for a mystical moment, all creation seems to grow from his heart. And in fact, perhaps it does, just as in Roman Catholic theology the blood and body of Christ transmute into the wine and bread that Christians take in the mystery of Eucharist.

I fancy that more conservative Christians would frown on the poem as veering towards pantheism, nature-worship, but that is to ignore the deep, worshipful response that nature inspires in so many people, across so many eons and cultures. As I mentioned last week, it was C.S. Lewis, certainly no “liberal” (and certainly no “conservative,” either, but a “mere” Christian), who wrote of the deep joy that nature inspired in him, and of how it pointed the way to his certainty that a transcendent element exists.

Reverence for the earth is urgently needed, now more than ever, when we humans are on the verge of destroying the beautiful world that people of religion believe was made by God, not merely, I would argue, for its utilitarian value, but for its beauty, its joy, and for the opportunity to share fellowship with other living creatures that are so different from ourselves such as Merton’s bobwhite and pine tree.

After celebrating this tree, “a tall, spare pine / [that] Stands like the initial of my first / Name when I had one,” and two ecstatic stanzas that are each followed by the “I am earth, earth” refrain, the poem concludes as simply as it began:

“Out of my grass heart
Rises the bobwhite.

Out of my nameless weeds,
His foolish worship.”

In this final image, the bobwhite, Merton, and the earth itself are inextricably linked, so that Merton’s heart becomes the earth, an emptying of a self that now has no name. The poet’s heart is the humble, lowly matter of grass and weeds, the setting and habitat for the bobwhite, who is now linked with Merton the monk in an act of thanksgiving for life, the act of “foolish” worship, worship of the One in whom both poet and bird live, move, and have their being.

photo by Matt Tillett

photo by Matt Tillett

Thomas Merton’s “Night-Flowering Cactus”

Photos by German botanist, BotBin, from the Botanical Gardens in Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons

Photos by German botanist, BotBin, from the Botanical Gardens in Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons

This post was partly inspired by one of my favorite blogs, StuffJeffReads, where Jeff focuses on poetry just as much as prose, often examining individual poems. Following last week’s post on Thomas Merton, I decided to focus on my favorite from his vast output of poetry, “Night-Flowering Cactus” (published in Merton’s poetry collection Emblems of a Season of Fury, c1963).

“Night-Flowering Cactus” is one of the most perfect blends of Christian spirituality and reverence for nature that I have ever encountered. Written in first person from the plant’s point of view, here is a truncated version:

I know my time, which is obscure, silent and brief
For I am present without warning one night only….

When I come I lift my sudden Eucharist
Out of the earth’s unfathomable joy
Clean and total I obey the world’s body
I am intricate and whole, not art but wrought passion
Excellent deep pleasure of essential waters
Holiness of form and mineral mirth:

I am the extreme purity of virginal thirst….

…. He who sees my purity
Dares not speak of it.
When I open once for all my impeccable bell
No one questions my silence:
The all-knowing bird of night flies out of my mouth.

Have you seen it? Then though my mirth has quickly ended
You live forever in its echo:
You will never be the same again.

Night flowering Cactus 2--256px-Echinopsis_eyriesii_HabitusFlowers_BotGardBln0806aThe cactus’s prayer is its flower, which accords with Merton’s understanding that “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Quote from banner on http://merton.org; I’m not sure of the original source.)

Merton’s vocation as a Trappist monk, part of a silent order whose members are hidden away from the world, was the path that allowed him the scope to discover his true self. Like the Trappist monk, the night-flowering cactus blossoms in silence and obscurity, opening its deep white flower in the middle of the night. Like the night-flowering cactus, monks rise in the middle of the night to say prayers.

In liturgical churches—Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Orthodox, Lutheran, and the like—the Eucharist, the celebration of Mass, marks the meeting place of heaven and earth, the ultimate symbol of The Holy. In the Roman Catholic tradition to which Merton belonged, when Christians partake of bread and wine, these earthly elements become “transubstantiated,” that is mystically transformed into the body and blood of Christ. While the Eucharist is not typically celebrated at night, there are certain special exceptions, such as Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or Holy Saturday (the night before Easter), and the first stanza of the poem makes it clear that the night-flowering cactus blooms rarely: “I am present without warning one night only.” In searching for pictures on Wikimedia Commons, I discovered that it is also called in English the “Easter Lily Cactus.” (The botanical name is Echinopsis eyriesii.)

The literal meaning of “Eucharist” from the Greek is “thanksgiving,” and in this sense as well Merton’s Cactus offers its flower as thanks, gratitude, and praise. Anyone who has ever watched a seedling come up from the earth, gradually unfolding itself until it lifts its two leaves to the sky, will recognize the similarity to the actions of the celebrating priest who beginning from a bowed position of prayerful adoration then takes up the Host or Bread (white, like the Cactus’s blossom) and raises it to the heavens.

This stanza of the poem is the most moving to me, expressing Merton’s sense of the holiness of the earth, the “unfathomable joy” that nature in general and the soil in particular possess, the soil which makes possible all life through its “mineral mirth.” Like all nature, the Cactus is “not art but wrought passion”; like all plants, it is wrought from the “deep pleasure of essential waters” into “holiness of form and mineral mirth.” The flower’s essence is to rejoice, to model for us what holiness on earth might look like.

The last stanzas return to the theme of silence, and yet there is a tension between the plant’s silence and the poet’s silent witness, for ultimately the act of poetry has paradoxically managed to express that of which one “dares not speak.” A fitting conundrum, emblematic of Merton’s life.

emblems of a season of fury

 

Christmas Bells

I’ve always loved the sound of bells and I love the Christmas carols that feature them. The first that comes to mind is the setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which is worth quoting in full, as its message of peace remains more relevant than ever:

Christmas bells with red ribbon isolated on white background

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And then there’s Edgar Allan Poe’s superb “Hear the sledges with their bells, silver bells.” Even though the poem ends with funeral bells (it’s Poe, after all!), the first stanza evokes quite a festive mood. The poem also introduced me to a most marvelous bell word: “tinntinnabulation.” Here’s that first stanza:

Hear the sledges with the bells –
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Another favorite of mine is the Ukranian Bell Carol. When I first heard it as a child it seemed so mysterious, so different from the other carols I knew. According to Wikipedia, the melody, composed by Mykola Leontovych , is based on a Ukranian folk chant, which partly accounts for the carol’s mysterious, evocative tone.

Here’s a version I found on youtube. I wish they had given the name of the children’s choir. It’s a lovely rendition:

What are some of your favorite holiday songs or poems featuring bells? It doesn’t have to be Christmas; I’m curious about other traditions, as well.

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