Chains in George Herbert’s “Sin’s Round”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Thursday After The Fifth Sunday Of Lent

circle-limit-with-butterflies

Circle Limit with Butterflies, M.C. Escher, Woodcut, 1950

Sin’s Round

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am,
That my offences course it in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busy flame,
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their draughts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.

My words take fire fro m my inflamed thoughts,
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill.
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults,
And by their breathing ventilate the ill.
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions:
My hands do join to finish the inventions.

My hands do join to finish the inventions:
And so my sins ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissensions.
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply
New thoughts of sinning:
wherefore, to my shame,
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am.

James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is famous for being unreadable, being 628 pages of puns attempting to represent the dreams of a disturbed Irishman. It also is famous for being the source of the word “quark” which is considered an elementary particle and the stuff of which matter is made of; in the original context it was a pun on “quart”. It is also well known for being a book that is circular, and presents circular action all the way through it. One could pick it up at any point and that will be pretty much as good a place to start as any. The circularity of the text is signified by the fact that the first and last words are the same: riverrun (and yes, it is also the stronghold of House Tully in Game of Thrones, as well as a film festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a consulting firm in Belgium).

Joyce was not original in this circular construction, as today’s poem shows. Picking up on the theme of a ring from the last line in yesterday’s poem “Hope“, the ring here is not the token of a contract but a cycle of offenses. The offenses are manifested in thoughts, words, and actions. He does not enumerate them, but they are described as lewd and ill; perhaps Herbert thought that any human being probably already had a good idea of what sinful behaviour looked like. Thoughts and intentions were “like a busy flame” and thewords that proceed are “like the Sicilian hill”, Mount Etna.

mount-etna

Mount Etna on Sicily, Europe’s most active volcano.

The cycle here takes the form of the last line of each stanza being the first line of the next.  According to Ann Pasternak Slater, this is called a carmina catenata, which means a “song-chain”. As the last line of the third stanza is identical to the first line of the first stanza, it creates a circle, or a round. A round, of course, is a type of song that is repeated, and if sung by different voices starting a few beats off, it becomes a canon. It is also a kind of dance. Pasternak Slater also states that a “cockatrice” is to be identified with a basilisk, which kills just by looking at its prey. She refers us to Isaiah 14:29:

for from the root of the snake will come forth an adder,
and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.

John Donne used the form of carmina catena in La Corona, a series of seven interlinked sonnets sent to, of all people, George Herbert’s mother, who was a friend of the poet when Herbert was a teenager; presumably they were well known to the younger man.

The modern mind is probably not so grieved by sin as the early 17th century was. The Reformation and Reformation arrived in a time of a deep sense of how far humanity was from the glory of God. A friend of mine likes to joke that there is so much consciousness of sin in the Book of Common Prayer that at the end of a service of Holy Communion one is still not clear if one has been forgiven; this even after having sung the Kyrie Eleison, made a confession and received an absolution, having heard the Comfortable Words, having heard how Jesus overcame sin by his death on the cross in the Prayer of Consecration, having said the Prayer of Humble Access, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and made the Thanksgiving after Communion. “Sin’s Round” reflects this mindset. Strict Calvinists believe that righteousness is only imputed to the Christian soul, and no work of sanctification actually takes place – one is always a miserable sinner, just a redeemed and not a damned one. No Christian is any better than any other – they are all worthy of damnation, but by God’s grace some of them are predestined are not heading to hell. Catholics would allow room for the transformation of the soul, but penitence and confession for sin were a regular part of a holy life. Herbert’s not a Calvinist or a Catholic, but in his pentitential thinking he is not far from either of them.

heavy-duty-chains-500x500

I have to confess that I do not dwell on my sins much. Perhaps I am so convicted of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit that I have to believe that God’s efforts with me are not entirely without worth. As an old, liberated slave is supposed to have said, “Thank God Almighty I am free! I ain’t what I oughta be, but I ain’t what I used to be. Thank God Almighty!” That’s what I feel like. So I know that I am not perfect, and that there is work to be done. I have done some pretty horrible things in the past, and where possible I have sought to make amends, except when to have done so would harm others. Now I look back on it and I do not worry about it, but instead focus on what I can do now to serve others and make myself a worthwhile vessel of God’s witness and grace. I spend time on my knees, but I also get up and try to convey the gospel of Christ in word and deed. I confess, again, that I still make mistakes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15.10).

 

Posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Herbert’s Dialogue With “Hope”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Wednesday Of The Fifth Sunday Of Lent

greenwich-the-kensington-gold-mechanical-double-hunter-pocket-watch-p3541-42324_image

Hope.

I gave to Hope a watch of mine: but he
An anchor gave to me.
Then an old prayer-book I did present:
And he an optic sent.
With that I have a vial full of tears:
But he a few green ears.
Ah Loiterer! I’ll no more, no more I’ll bring:
I did expect a ring.

I cannot improve on what Ann Pasternak Slater wrote in the “Introduction” to the Everyman edition of The Complete English Works, so here it is:

Pasternak Slater
According to the Letter to Hebrews, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11.1). The poet is impatient, showing a personified Hope a watch, a prayer book, and a vial of tears, representing time gone by waiting for the fulfillment of promised things, the work of prayer, and the tears of suffering (or perhaps repentance). Hope offers . . . hope, in the form of an anchor, a telescope, and sheaves of wheat, as if to say: “Don’t move, look further, the harvest is coming!” The poet expects a ring – a token of a contract, but as Pasternak Slater says, it is not Hope’s to give. Hope can only encourage more patience.

telescope-3d-model-max

I suspect that many of us today have a dialogue with Hope. We become invested in people and things, and we want particular outcomes. North Americans are not renowned for their patience, and we expect prompt service that prizes efficiency over leisure. We prize mobility and the acknowledgment of achievements, whereas other cultures celebrate being fixed in a place, and consider that what one does is simply the responsibility of being part of the family or community, and deserves no extra praise. “You showed up to work on time – that’s amazing!” is what many of us would like to hear, whereas showing up to work on time is really just a minimal and ordinary expectation.

There was a time I focused on achievements. Now I focus on relationships, which are less achievements than ongoing processes. I find that the hope I have in things unseen, my faith, is not necessarily in accord with what the media tells me. If I listen to others around me I am in great danger from any number of things, from Brexit to the weather, from people trying to steal my money to missing out on the latest binge-worthy television show. So much of this is outside my scope of control, although I can certainly try to influence it – and if I do influence it, it will be because of the power of relationships, not because of any single thing I might do. Ultimately my hope is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus, and the belief that in him God is making all things new. I see signs of this all around me, sometimes large, sometimes very small – but they are there.

Posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Business Of A Life: George Herbert’s “Business”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Tuesday After The Fifth Sunday Of Lent

thomas-stearns-eliot-5-728

This is what you find when you search in “Google Image” for “trochaic tetrameter catalectic”. You discover that although T. S. Eliot did not write “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in any regular meter, one can certainly analyse it.

The interest in this next poem, as Ann Pasternak Slater notes, begins with the meter, “a remorselessly regular trochaic tetrameter catalectic” (and, yes, I have to look that up, too).

  • A troche is the opposite of an iamb. Where an iamb has the emphasis on the second of two syllables, a troche has it on the first. Two syllables are usually called a foot, and in combinations they are feet.
  • A tetrameter is made up of four feet, or eight syllables.
  • A catalectic drops a syllable at the beginning at the end.

Thus, Business is a poem of four feet, but drops the syllable at the end, so where one might expect eight syllables there are only seven, and the stress is on the first of each syllable in the foot. This creates a sense of movement – of busy-ness. Even I, who have a poor sense of meter and stress, can see this.

Business

Canst be idle? canst thou play,
Foolish soul who sinn’d today?

Rivers run, and springs each one
Know their home, and get them gone:
Have you tears, or have thou none?

If, poor soul, thou hast no tears,
Would thou hadst no faults or fears!
Who hath these, those ill forbears.

Winds still work: it is their plot,
Be the season cold, or hot:
Hast thou sighs, or hast thou not?

If thou hast no sighs or groans,
Would thou hadst no flesh and bones!
Lesser pains scape greater ones.

But if yet thou idle be,
Foolish soul, Who di’d for thee?

Who did leave his Father’s throne,
To assume thy flesh and bone;
Had he life, or had He none?

If He had not liv’d for thee,
Thou hadst died most wretchedly;
And two deaths had been thy fee.

He so far your good did plot,
That his own self he forgot.
Did he die, or did he not?

If he had not died for thee,
Thou hadst liv’d in misery.
Two lives worse than ten deaths be.

And hath any space of breath
‘Twixt his sins and Saviour’s death?

He that looseth gold, though dross,
Tells to all he meets, his cross:
He that sins, has he no loss?

He that finds a silver vein,
Thinks on it, and thinks again:
Brings your Saviour’s death no gain?

Who in heart not ever kneels,
Neither sin nor Saviour feels.

Ann Pasternak Slater also points out that the first couple announces the theme for the following four triplets, namely, sin. The second couplet does the same for the next four triplets, only for the theme of the death of Jesus. The final two couplets, with the two triplets in between, recapitulate the two themes.

Veins and Hydrothermal Deposits (1)

A gold vein.

The business described here is not a commercial enterprise, but the response of the human soul to sin and death of Jesus, “Who di’d for thee”. The soul that does not take up this work is thus idle or playing. In the first four triplets the work is to weep, and to sigh and groan, which is compared to the waters of rivers and springs and winds. In the second four triplets the two deaths are the normal physical death and the eternal death mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and the two lives are the present life of misery in this world and the coming life and the eternal life in damnation. Human souls ignores Jesus Christ to their peril. The final two triplets contrast 1) the one who loses some gold and tells everyone about it, but does not reflect of the loss caused by sin, and 2) the one who finds silver and can think of nothing more, and yet does not think about the incomparably more important gain acquired in Jesus. The couplets remind us that nothing separates passing from sin to salvation, and that all that is required is humility. Whether one agrees with the sentiments expressed, the poem is artfully made and the form follows the function Herbert wishes it to perform.

90_humbleleadership_700px_thumb

“Humility” and “servant leadership” are big topics in the secular business world. Did they learn it from the Church? Have management gurus been reading George Herbert?

I personally don’t get terribly moved by any fear of eternal damnation, because I was raised with an understanding of God that was always loving, quick to forgive, and, indeed, acting in love and a reckless generosity before I was even aware I might need to repent. Just in case you are wondering, yes, I have repented, and I am conscious of how far I fall short of the glory of God, but I do not dwell on my sins. I know that my relationship with God is not dependent upon anything that I do or do not do, but on the faith of Jesus Christ which, by the Holy Spirit, is growing within me, so that whatever is accomplished in the death and resurrection is at work within me – and you, dear reader, and everybody else. I seek to live in cooperation with that Spirit, and that requires the same humility that Herbert directs us to, a humility that makes us teachable. We try to be aware of how we are at any moment, and not getting lost in the unchangeable past, of disengaging by thinking about the future. If we are wrong, we promptly admit it. This is not easy. I feel that it is only now, in my fifties, that I can claim any aptitude in this type of mindfulness. It is the work of a lifetime, it is my “business”.

 

Posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Is This George Herbert’s Worst Poem? “The British Church”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Monday After The Fifth Sunday Of Lent

06

An  Anglican priest in choir habit, with a black cassock and a full white surplice. I dress like this when officiating at Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer. I also wear a black scarf or tippet, and an academic hood.

Is this George Herbert’s worst poem?

  • Ann Pasternak Slater calls it “one of Herbert’s least interesting poems.”
  • John Drury calls it “not one of his great pieces.”
  • Herbert misnames it – a “British Church” would have to include all of Great Britain, but it is talking only about the Church of England, which did not include the Calvinist Church of Scotland.

Whether it is a good poem or not, it is a good statement about his approach to the via media which Anglican tradition supposedly drives between Catholicism and Calvinism.

The British Church

I joy, dear mother, when I view
Thy perfect lineaments, and hue
Both sweet and bright.
Beauty in thee takes up her place,
And dates her letters from thy face,
When she doth write.

A fine aspect in fit array,
Neither too mean nor yet too gay,
Shows who is best.
Outlandish looks may not compare,
For all they either painted are,
Or else undress’d.

She on the hills which wantonly
Allureth all, in hope to be
By her preferr’d,
Hath kiss’d so long her painted shrines,
That ev’n her face by kissing shines,
For her reward.

She in the valley is so shy
Of dressing, that her hair doth lie
About her ears;
While she avoids her neighbour’s pride,
She wholly goes on th’ other side,
And nothing wears.

But, dearest mother, what those miss,
The mean, thy praise and glory is
And long may be.
Blessed be God, whose love it was
To double-moat thee with his grace,
And none but thee.

 

crlburke.570

The American Cardinal Raymond Burke. These are not Anglican vestments.

The poet plays with the idea of “Church: as a woman. In Greek εκκλησια is feminine in gender, and is often called “the Bride of Christ” and “Mother Church” (given that it is also called “the Body of Christ” this raises issues of gender-blurring and identity, but that can be ignored right now – it’s a metaphor!). Herbert describes three Churches:

  • The “British Church” (sic) is the Church of England, addressed as “dear mother” and perfect, sweet, bright, and beautiful. In Herbert’s time the year began not on January 1 but on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, or commonly known as “Lady Day”. Thus, in dating letters, the year begins on the day in which the Lady is remembered.
  • The Roman Catholic Church is described as “wanton” and “painted” (i.e. heavily made up), up on the hills (of Rome, presumably, but also bringing to mind the idol worshippers so often condemned by the Hebrew prophets).
  • The Calvinist Church of Geneva is “mean” and so strict about avoiding pride that her hair is either tied tight around the ears or cut severely, and is basically “undress’d”.
johncalvin_full

A model of John Calvin in his “Geneva gown.” Calvin was never ordained as such, but trained and worked as a lawyer in France. When he took up theology he continued to wear his old habit, and this became the model for the Geneva Gown – a plain black robe, rooted in the academic robes of university students and professors.

Herbert celebrates “the mean”, the middle way of the Church of England. Some of this may be due to the theological approach of Richard Hooker (1554-1600). Hooker opposed Puritanism, which advocated a theology that was essentially Calvinist; he also attacked Catholicism, suggesting that it had been corrupted over time. While he did not use the term via media later Anglican authors felt that he enunciated the themes associated with that, balancing tradition and scripture by the use of reason.

Would Herbert have been a Brexiteer? Perhaps. His reference to a “double-moat” — 1) the grace of God, which meant that is was separated from the extremes of Catholicism and Calvinism, and 2) the actual physical moat of being an island — suggests that he had no great love for the Continent.

Part of the reason I am an Anglican is because the denomination that began in the Church of England combines some of the best of the two other traditions. When I was in my early twenties I was attracted to the Puritan’s heirs, evangelicalism, because of their great love and reverence for scripture, and their evident passion for proclaiming the gospel. At the same time I was attracted to Catholicism, with its deep understanding of spirituality and investment in critical learning at universities and colleges. In the end I could not become an evangelical of any stripe because I felt that their approach to scripture was lacking in any historical or critical analysis, and thus it picked and chose  the passages in scripture that it felt were relevant and ignored the rest; ironically, they did not trust scripture to speak for itself, but bound it in 16th century theology. Likewise I could not become a Catholic because of the totalizing nature of the magisterium and the patriarchy and hypocrisy I saw in the hierarchy. So I stayed an Anglican, a tradition that was rooted in tradition but critical of it and always reforming itself. I do not have the soppy sentimentalism about the church which Herbert displays, but I find myself aligned with what he calls “the mean”.

Posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels | Tagged , | Leave a comment

God Has A Plan to Deal With Poverty And We’re Not Following It

A Sermon preached on The Fifth Sunday of Lent
(The Beginning of Passiontide in the Church of England)
at the Anglican Church of
St. Thomas the Apostle,
Kefalas, Crete, Greece, Part of the Diocese in Europe. 11:00 am April 7, 2019

The readings for the day may be found at: The Lectionary Page

tumblr_inline_o41egvIk871qkqzlv_400You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Is this an excuse not to do anything about poverty?

The answer is No, and I will get to that in a minute. But let’s talk about what poverty looks like in 2019.

Poverty is relative. According to one study, in Greece about 20 percent live in conditions of poverty and social exclusion, with another 15 percent of the population being in danger of poverty. Poverty in this study is treated as 60% of the median income in the country, and obviously it will look different for a single person in the countryside than for a family of four in Athens. Another study, using a different standard, puts poverty at about 15% or 1.6 million people.

We see it here in Apokoronas. We see it back home on the streets of the cities from which we come. We have become inured to it, sometimes giving money to people on streets, sometimes contributing to charities that work with the impoverished, and often expecting the government to do something.

Then there is another type of extreme poverty, a type not seen much in Europe and North America. It was defined by the United Nations in 1995 as “a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.” In practice it is consumption based: living on less than €1.90 a day.

20130601_LDP002_0

Some of you may remember the Millennium Goals of 2000, which were endorsed by the United Nations. A number of them was about extreme poverty. The good news is that we reached the millennium goal of halving extreme poverty by half five years ahead. By 2010 in China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Vietnam some 715 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty, as compared to 1990. The challenge is that there are still some 700 million in extreme poverty, and lifting them out of it will be harder than the first half.

But will the poor be with us always? In today’s gospel reading Judas uses the poor as an excuse to make money for himself. He wants control of the resource that was used to signify the coming death and burial of Jesus. Jesus replies, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” It is right and good to honour Jesus, who serves all humanity in his life, death, and resurrection. How do we respond to the poverty around us, in the light Christ’s incarnation?

Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice based in New York argues, convincingly, that the disciples and the biblically minded would have heard in Jesus’s words a reference to Deuteronomy 15, where God’s plan to address poverty is laid out. Deuteronomy 15.11 has God saying,

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’

This is a general encouragement towards generosity, but this is only Part B or God’s plan in Deuteronomy. Plan A, a much more radical approach beyond charity, is referred to earlier – it is a seven-year jubilee, in which debts are all forgiven. God states,

There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.

indexSo, fundamentally, it is a sharing of resources which God gives us. There is enough in the land, and no one should be in need. However, because of debts and unforeseen circumstances, resources may accumulate with some and not with others. So people are required to forgive debts after seven years. This is also paralleled by the 50 year Jubilee, after a week’s week of years (i.e 7 X 7), in which alienated land returns to those who originally owned it.

Today, in 2019, we are more economically savvy than the people of 3400 years ago. The instructions in Deiteronomy 15 are a pretty blunt instrument, but they come from a time when there were no banks, no economists, no statisticians, developers, and social workers studying poverty. In theory we should do better, and in many ways we do, but we err if we think we are better ethically. The world’s wealth is still incredibly concentrated, many of the middle class are experiencing a stagnation in income growth, and it seems that education is becoming ever more expensive. For me the question arises,

  • what do we need to do to create contexts in which the poor can create wealth and benefit from it;
  • what do we need to do to create situations in which people can develop the capacity to live themselves out of poverty,
  • and what do we need to do to distribute the wealth of the world?

Matthew 25 – the Parable of the Judgment when the resurrected are divided like sheep and goats – concludes “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” If we wish to honour Jesus, our anointing will be to care for the least of these – the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the unclothed, and the sick. If we want, as Paul says, “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection”, we will discipline ourselves to be involved in this kind of work.

41rp+WWskpL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_

In this 1999 book Indian economist Amartya Sen first talked about the “capabilities approach to development” which emphasises not the transfer of resources, but the development of human capital as the chief means of addressing poverty.

We are called not to isolation or passive complacency, but to be part of the transformation of God’s world. We cannot just sit at the foot of the cross forever, resting in Jesus’s sacrifice. Our faith must get off its knees and move to find Jesus in every human being, especially those in need. From Isaiah we hear “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Let us see this new thing in Christ, let us perceive it. May we say with the psalmist,

The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are glad indeed.
Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy

Posted in Lent, Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Entropy: George Herbert’s “Decay”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Saturday After The Fourth Sunday Of Lent

b8250944712de970e45fc4ae3c24e8ea_large

Decay

Sweet were the days, when thou didst lodge with Lot,
Struggle with Jacob, sit with Gideon,
Advise with Abraham, when thy power could not
Encounter Moses’ strong complaints and moan:
The words were then, Let me alone.

One might have sought and found thee presently
At some fair oak, or bush, or cave, or well:
Is my God this way? No, they would reply:
He is to Sinai gone, as we heard tell:
List, ye may hear great Aaron’s bell.

But now thou dost thy self immure and close
In some one corner of a feeble heart:
Where yet both Sin and Satan, thy old foes,
Do pinch and straiten thee, and use much art
To gain thy thirds and little part.

I see the world grows old, when as the heat
Of thy great love, once spread, as in an urn
Doth closet up it self, and still retreat,
Cold Sin still forcing it, till it return,
And calling Justice, all things burn.

In the early seventeenth century people did not believe in progress. Rather, they adhered to a classical understanding of humanity’s decline through the “Ages of Man“. According to Hesiod, the Golden Age has long passed, and we have moved through silver, bronze, the heroic age of the Iliad and Odyssey, to the present Iron Age. As Gregory Nagy of Harvard translates it:

now is the time of the Iron Generation.
What will now happen is that men will not even have a day or night
free from toil and suffering.
They will be worn down, and the gods will give harsh cares.
Still, despite all this, even they will have some good mixed in with the bad. (176-179)

This classical understanding was conflated by Christians with the ancient Jewish understanding of the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden. The Jews believed that even though Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, they still knew who God was and worshiped the Lord. Over time, however, humanity turned from the Creator and worshiped the creation, in the form of bulls and other idols. Being divorced from a knowledge of God, they fell into depravity. The first eleven chapters of Genesis is one fall after another – Eden, the murder of Abel, another murder by Lamech, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. It is all a set up for the call of Abraham, which then goes through three generations to Jacob and his sons in Egypt, thus setting up the Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, which covers the next four books of the Torah.

The presence of God among human beings changes over time. Whereas Adam and Eve would speak to God face to face, Jacob, Abraham and Moses do not. Abraham is visited by angels, and in both Hebrew מַלְאָךְ and and Greek ἄγγελος simply means “messenger”. Jacob struggles through a night with “a man” at Peniel, but does not recognise him until afterwards. Herbert takes the messengers that came to Lot to be that mediated presence of God. Moses is told that he cannot see the face of God and live – but he is permitted to see God’s backside.

Whereas in the past God’s presence might be found at the Oaks of Mamre, or Mount Sinai, now God resides in “some one corner of a feeble heart”. It is beseiged by Sin and Satan, wanting the widow’s thirds (and more). The world has grown cold, and the warm love of God is sealed up as ashes in a funerary urn (another classical image, as Christians did not cremate the dead until the last century). But the time will come when Justice will return, and “all things burn”.

LIB-NFB-434_E_2

I grew up with a belief in progress.

  • The land of my birth, Canada, was a growing country, and the future seemed to hold only good things.We were getting super highways!
  • My parents generation, in the post-war era, enjoyed a growth in distributed prosperity never seen before, and that has seemingly carried on into mine own.
  • We landed on the moon, we developed computers and colour television.
  • Women were achieving equality, and racism was condemned.
  • The colonies were freed, the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall fell.
  • Extreme poverty was actually being reduced.
  • According to Stephen Pinker, we are living in the most peaceful era of our species.

119157

And yet, it doesn’t feel like a time of progress.

  • While GDP has gone up over the past 30 years, it has been so unequally distributed in North America and Europe that many feel left behind.
  • The Arab Spring collapsed in Egypt. Libya fell into civil war.The world was unable to contain the violence in Syria, resulting in two-thirds of Syrian becoming homeless, a flood of millions of refugees, and a corresponding rise of racism in Europe as they sought safety.
  • My children’s generation are confronted by a society that demands ever-more expensive education just to get a foot in the job market.The poor are suffering from austerity measures instituted after the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, while those responsible have never been held account.
  • Politics is now so polarized by media that there is little consensus on what to do with the crises facing us.
  • The United States and the United Kingdom both seem to be run by amateurs who pay no attention to facts, figures, or science, and even in Canada the federal government appears to be unable to function in any kind of uncompromised manner.
  • Strongmen rule in Russia, Venezuela, Brazil, and the Philippines.
  • Oh, and in a hundred years New York City and London will be under water.

One approach to this is to withdraw and remain faithful in the face of all this decay. The scope of my control is very limited, and one person cannot solve these problems. One can just wait for the Apocalypse, when Christ will appear and all that is sinful will be destroyed, leaving only that which is good, to be remade into a New Heaven and a New Earth. My own approach is more active. I believe that the End Time is now – and has been since the Day of the Resurrection, one Easter Sunday mornings some 1989 years ago. Christians are called to live the Resurrected life now – not just to wait. The heat of love which raised Christ from the dead is available to us now, through the Holy Spirit. We are living in both a time of decay and resurrection, a period of sin and grace. So we help refugees, we are politically active, we continue to oppose racism, and we work to challenge climate change. It may well not be enough, and there may be disasters ahead, but it is better than doing nothing.

 

 

Posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Procession to Death: George Herbert’s “Mortification”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Friday After The Fourth Sunday Of Lent

President John F. Kennedy

The funeral procession of John F. Kennedy crosses the Potomac River on Memorial Bridge, on the way to Arlington Cemetery, November 25, 1963.

Mortification.

How soon doth man decay !
When clothes are taken from a chest of sweets
To swaddle infants, whose young breath
Scarce knows the way ;
Those clouts are little winding sheets,
Which do consign and send them unto death.

When boys go first to bed,
They step into their voluntary graves ;
Sleep binds them fast; only their breath
Makes them not dead.
Successive nights, like rolling waves,
Convey them quickly, who are bound for death.

When youth is frank and free,
And calls for music, while his veins do swell,
All day exchanging mirth and breath
In company ;
That music summons to the knell,
Which shall befriend him at the hour of death.

When man grows staid and wise,
Getting a house and home, where he may move
Within the circle of his breath,
Schooling his eyes ;
That dumb enclosure maketh love
Unto the coffin, that attends his death.

When age grows low and weak,
Marking his grave, and thawing ev’ry year,
Till all do melt, and drown his breath
When he would speak ;
A chair or litter shows the bier,
Which shall convey him to the house of death.

Man, ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnity,
And drest his hearse, while he has breath
As yet to spare.
Yet Lord, instruct us so to die
That all these dyings may be life in death.

I just presided over a funeral for a seventy-one year old man, my first such service here in Crete. As a priest in the Diocese in Europe, the part of the Church of England that is outside the British Isles, I used the resources of Common Worship, although I confess that for the prayers I did mostly use those on pages of the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada. One of the prayers I did use from Common Worship was this one:

We have but a short time to live.
Like a flower we blossom and then wither;
like a shadow we flee and never stay.
In the midst of life we are in death;
to whom can we turn for help,
but to you, Lord, who are justly angered by our sins?
Yet, Lord God most holy, Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us from the bitter pain of eternal death.
Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts;
hear our prayer, O God most mighty;
spare us, most worthy judge eternal;
at our last hour let us not fall from you,
O holy and merciful Saviour.

This is a modern adaptation of a well known prayer from The Book of Common PPrayer, which is itself a poetic translation from a 14th century Latin chant:

Media vita in morte sumus

From the Wikipedia article “Media vita in morte sumus

Herbert seems to echo this prayer in the last line of the poem: “That all these dyings may be life in death.” The first five  stanzas are a reflection on the presence of death in life in five stages of life, and the sixth and final stanza sums up the meaning that all life is a formal procession whose destination is death. The five stages of life are similar to that of Shakespeare’s seven from As You Like It. It is not clear if Herbert would have been familiar with the monologue, but the theme was common enough.

Mortification is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary,

In religious use: the action of mortifying the body, its appetites, etc.; the subjection or bringing under control of one’s appetites and passions by the practice of austere living, esp. by the self-infliction or voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort.

The reminders of death that Herbert notes are potential means of mortification. Thus,

  • In infancy the perfumed swaddling cloths (a.k.a. “clouts”) are like burial cloths;
  • For boys the sheets of a bed and their sleeping resembles, again, burial cloths and the immobility of a dead body;
  • The music of youth is a reminder of the death-knell that tolls out the years of life of the deceased;
  • The walls of a home and garden resemble the coffin which will enclose him; and
  • the chair or litter on which an old man is carried is likened to the bier that carries the corpse.

As Arnold Stein notes in his extensive study of the poem in George Herbert’s Lyrics (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, pp. 156-170) the theme of breath is introduced in the third line of first stanza, it rhymes with death in the sixth line, and these two words repeat in this pattern throughout the poem. Breath is the opposite of death. Herbert’s use of “breath” in the third line is extremely clever, because the reader is not given the opportunity to breath, but must read on to the fourth line in order to complete the sense of the sentence.

aboutootgd-e1394315232564-650x305

The Dance of Death, Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia

We are, in much of North America and Europe, a death denying society. Certainly we extol youth as a precondition for beauty, and we fight the circumstances of age with hair dyes, make-up, form-shifting clothes, rejuvenating exercise, miracle anti-aging foods, and plastic surgery. Whereas here in Greece funerals are community events, in most of the western world it is a private thing, becoming public only when the person is rich or famous. In much of the United States when someone dies their heirs can just go online and arrange for someone to pick up a dead body and take it away for cremation. Two weeks later a FedEx box arrives at one’s home with the ashes. Movements such as The Order of the Good Death, as well as Death Cafés are working to call all of this denial into question, supplementing what traditional religions have always done.

The Christian Church begins Lent by reminding people of their mortality by placing ashes on their foreheads. We complete Lent and pass to Easter, after remembering the death and burial of Jesus of Nazareth on the previous two days. On the third day we remember Jesus’s resurrection, and recall John’s words that what he is we shall become. But to get there, short of the Last Trumpet and Christ’s appearing, we must live and we must die. I am both living and dying, breathing and pausing between breath. We process through life, but all around us are reminders of our death. And again the question comes back to us – who do we live this gift of life?

 

 

Posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels | Tagged , , | Leave a comment