Spring busts out in the Berkshires, but “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

 

T. S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but it was another poet that better described our Berkshires today.

After recent rains the season’s first really hot day brought out the early buds, as well as lawn rakers and walkers out taking the air after a long winter indoors.

The Forsythia bloomed since yesterday, and the branches are full of the delicate gold that a week from now will be the green leaves of spring.

Our great New England poet Robert Frost described such days in his poem:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost
(October 1923, The Yale Review)

(Photo:  R. L. Floyd)

The Resurrection is not a metaphor: “Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike”

 

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a college professor, was driving by a local Lutheran Church and saw in big letters on their sign, THE RESURRECTION IS NOT A METAPHOR!

Those who read this blog know my love for the work of John Updike, one of our best Twentieth Century Christian novelists. His poetry is pretty good, too.  Here’s his take on the wise Lutherans’ signboard.


Seven Stanzas at Easter
by John Updike

 

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body.

If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the

amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

each soft spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the

eleven apostles;

it was as his flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of

enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a thing painted in the faded credulity

of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier mache,

not stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will

eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the

dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

Let us not make it less monstrous,

for in our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,

we are embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

– John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” in Telephone Poles and Other Poems (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 72–3.
(Photo by David Macy:  Easter, yesterday, North Haven, Maine)

Good Friday: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble!”

 

“Sometimes it causes me to tremble” is a line from the refrain of the well-known spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The trembling comes upon the witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, and like many hymns and spirituals puts the singer or hearer in the role of a witness to the event.

This is a particularly modern approach, an existential one we might say, where the “religious affections,” to use Jonathan Edwards’ term, are profoundly moved by contemplating Jesus on the cross.

But there is another parallel tradition as ancient as the New Testament that sees in the death of Jesus not merely a profoundly agonizing event which moves the witnesses, then and now, but also as an event that changes the whole world, even the natural world.

In theology talk we would call the Cross of Jesus a “cosmic and eschatological” event, meaning that its implications were both universal in scope and ultimate in time.

We see some of this imagery already in, for example, the Gospel of Mark, our earliest Gospel, where he describes the earth darkening at the hour of the crucifixion, and the veil of the temple being torn in two. (Mark 15:33 and 38)

Matthew’s account says even more of this kind of thing: “The earth shook and the rocks were split.” (Matt. 57: 21b)  Luke adds that “the sun’s light failed.” (Luke 23:45)

P. T. Forsyth once got at the cosmic implications of the Cross by saying that the very atomic structure of the universe was changed by this event. Whether he meant this as science or as a metaphor, either way it points to the vast repercussions of the moment when “They crucified my Lord.”

Earlier generations were more able to see in such an event, not the merely personal and individual, where our time seems to want to safely relegate all religious phenomena, but the cosmic.

Here’s an example of such a cosmic view from Frances Quarles, a Seventeenth Century poet, which refers to a trembling that shook not just the believer, but the earth itself.  He doesn’t ignore the personal. On the contrary, he asks, if these senseless things can tremble so, “Shall I not melt one poor drop to see my Saviour die?”

The Earth Did Tremble
“The earth did tremble: and heaven’s closed eye was loathe to see the Lord of Glory die.
The skies were clad in mourning, and the spheres forgot their harmony;
The clouds dropped tears.
The ambitious dead arose to give him room; and ev’ry grave did gape to be his tomb.
The affrighted heav’n sent down elegious thunder;
The world’s foundation loosed, to lose their founder;
The impatient temple rent her veil in two,
To teach our hearts what our sad hearts should do:
Shall senseless things do this, and shall I not melt one poor drop to see my Savior die?
Drill forth my tears and trickle one by one till you have pierced this heart of mine, this stone.”
Frances Quarles, 1592-1644

“The Stones Would Cry Out!” Palm Sunday Ruminations on the Cradle and the Cross

 

At which end of Jesus’ life should we look for the reason we call him “Lord and Savior?” My friends in the Mercersburg Society put heavy stress on the Incarnation.  Others, such as P. T. Forsyth, insist that we only can understand the Incarnation backwards in time, from the perspective of Christ’s death and resurrection. (See, for example, on this point, a great quote from Forsyth here.)

From my teacher and friend Gabriel Fackre, one of the early and still best narrative theologians, I have learned to be careful not to take any episode of the story to represent the whole.

But I must confess I do agree here with Forsyth, though he has sometimes been criticized as being so focused on the cross that he neglects other parts of Jesus’ life and work.

So what is the relationship between the cradle and the cross?  If one were to only read Marks’s Gospel, the answer is simple, since he has no infancy narratives at all and begins with Jesus’s adutlt ministry.

But for many of us, this is the year of Luke in our lectionaries, and it is well to remember that of all the Evangelists, it is Luke who includes the most infancy material: “the Annunciation,” “the Visitation,”  shepherds and heavenly choirs, etc.  It is no accident we all read Luke at our services on Christmas Eve.  If we read Mark, we’d get home much earlier.

I heard somewhere, I can’t recall where, that “the wood of the cradle is the same wood as the wood of the cross.”  There is much theological truth in that.

So once again I turn to a poet to express deep truths that may elude the prose of the theologians.

Richard Wilbur (1921-) is one of my favorite poets (I have many), and although I have never met him, is my Berkshire County neighbor and a sometimes worshipper at the congregation where I now mostly worship.

A two time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and former Laureate, Wilbur has made a startling but brilliant connection between Christ’s Incarnation and Cross in his poem A Christmas Hymn.

It is often sung to one of several musical settings at Christmas, but the refrain is right from Luke’s Palm Sunday story, and the concluding verse reminds us of the reason for Christ’s vocation that led to Good Friday.  Such a good reminder to keep the whole arc of the story in view when looking at the any of the parts:

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

(A Christmas Hymnby Richard Wilbur, New and Collected Poems, 1988, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.)

The Preacher’s Burden: “Sunday’s Hour” by Arnold Kenseth

 

Arnold Kenseth wrote some wonderful poetry, but he never lost touch with the challenges of having to stand up on your hind legs each Sunday morning and try to make words become the Word for the people.  Here he names the impossibility of such a task, a task he and all preachers must nonetheless take up each week, because that is what God has called us to do. This is one of my favorites of his:

 

 

 

SUNDAY’S HOUR


Comes Sunday’s hour, and speech hangs itself
On God’s red tree. Preacher, word-monger, I
Defy the interdict, naming dark Yahweh, taking Him
And His fire in vain. O havoc, cry havoc! Sigh
His deep blue breath into phrases and praises. 
Still, it is impossible. He will not dwell half 
Or anywhere in my capture. Yet I must draw home 
The net, try to catch somehow His graces.

For it is by grace we live, and all the people
Must be told. So I could wish my body more 
Contained Him, that my walks more shaped, here 
And there, His amble. How ill beneath a steeple 
I incarnate! Despite me, then, come now, 
Let His enlightening strike us row by row.

(Arnold Kenseth, From Seasons and Sceneries, Windhover Press, 2002.  Photo by Wilson Poole

A Poem for Late Winter and Lent by Arnold Kenseth

 

My friend the late Arnold Kenseth was a Congregational minister and a first-rate New England poet with an eye for God’s presence in the world all around him.

It’s late winter here in the Berkshires (he lived about forty miles from here in S. Amherst).  I matched up his poem with a photo I shot yesterday of a still frozen lake while snowshoeing on the Taconic Crest Trail on the Massachusetts/ New York border.

I thought Arnold’s poem has a Lenten ring to it.

A COLLECT FOR COMPASSION

There in the rudest tree
Where winter grips and rocks
The black indefinite cold,
Comes the small chickadee,
And like my soul, pipes
Anxious prayer, implores
An opening of doors,
Some crust and surety.
My hand, give him his bread!
May whirlwind God pause
From His storms and come
To me with Cup and Crumb.
Arnold Kenseth (The Ritual Year, 1993)

(Photo: R. L. Floyd,  Frozen Lake,  March 8, 2010)

“On the Death of Karl Barth” by Jack Clemo

 

December 10, 1968 was a day of loss for the church of Jesus Christ, as two of her intellectual giants, Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, died within hours of each other.

On this eve of the forty-first anniversary of their deaths I offer this poem by the late British writer and poet Jack Clemo (1916-1994). Clemo, who was from Cornwall, became deaf as a young man and blind around the age of forty. His poem is entitled:

 “On the Death of Karl Barth”

He ascended from a lonely crag in winter,
His thunder fading in the Alpine dusk;
And a blizzard was back on the Church,
A convenient cloak, sprinkling harlot and husk—
Back again, after all his labour
To clear the passes, give us access
Once more to the old prophetic tongues,
Peak-heats in which man, time, progress
Are lost in reconciliation
With outcast and angered Deity.

He has not gone silenced in defeat;
The suffocating swirl of heresy
Confirms the law he taught us; we keep the glow,
Knowing the season, the rhythm, the consummation.
Truth predicts the eclipse of truth,
And in that eclipse it condemns man,
Whose self-love with its useful schools of thought,
Its pious camouflage of a God within,
Is always the cause of the shadow, the fall, the burial,
The smug rub of hands
Amid a reek of research.

The cyclic, well-meant smothering
Of the accursed footprints inside man’s frontier;
The militant revival,
Within time and as an unchanged creed,
Of the eternal form and substance of the Word:
This has marked Western history,
Its life’s chief need and counter need,
From the hour God’s feet shook Jordan.

We touched His crag of paradox
Through our tempestuous leader, now dead,
Who plowed from Safenwil to show us greatness
In a God lonely, exiled, homeless in our sphere,
Since his footfall breeds guilt, stirs dread
Of a love fire-tongued, cleaving our sin,
Retrieving the soul from racial evolution,
Giving it grace to mortify,
In deeps or shallow, all projections of the divine.

(From The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, Edited by Donald Davie, 1988, p 290-291)

(Portrait of Jack Clemo by Betty Penver)

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet of A Vast Incarnation 2

>

 

Back in October I posted one of my favorite poems by British poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).  Here is another:

The Windover
To Christ our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Arnold Kenseth: A New England Poet of the Sacred

Arnold M. Kenseth, who died in 2003, was a Congregational minister and poet. He wrote in 1989,
 “Among the clergy, I’m known as a poet, and among the poets I’m clergy. But by being in New England, being where there are birds and trees and meadows, there’s a very natural marriage between religion and poetry.”

I met Arnold in 1977, when I was still a pastor in Maine. Martha and I were on vacation in Canada, and were camping at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, which is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. On Sunday we left our tent to find the nearest church and found a United Church of Canada parish in the little fishing village of Alma, right outside the park. The pastor was a Scot and had a bit of a brogue. But the highlight of the morning was when the pastor called up a distinguished looking gentleman from the congregation to give the pastoral prayer.I had never heard anything like this before in my life. The prayer was dignified and reverent and not showy, but the words were so beautifully chosen that I imagined the man must be a poet, as indeed it turned out he was. At coffee hour we approached him and introduced ourselves. It was Arnold. We discovered that we were both pastors in the United Church of Christ in the United States. He served the South Congregational Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, the pretty little town near the University of Massachusetts, where he also taught poetry. I asked Arnold where I could get a copy of some of his prayers and poems, and he told me about Sabbaths, Sacraments and Seasons, published by Pilgrim Press in 1969.

As soon as I got back to Bangor I ordered a copy and it has been a treasured resource ever since. On the back page was some information about the author. It indicated that Arnold had graduated from Bates College. My father graduated from Bates as well, so I asked him if he knew Arnold. Sure enough, they were both in the class of 1937.

Five years later I left Maine to accept a call to be the Pastor of The First Church of Christ in Pittsfield in Western Massachusetts. It wasn’t too long before I attended an event in Amherst, and there was Arnold. I reminded him of our meeting in Alma, and told him how much I loved his prayers and poems. I also mentioned my Dad, and Arnold remembered him warmly (my Dad died shortly after that.) That meeting was the beginning of a friendship with Arnold that involved lunches and long phone conversations and exchanges of letters. He would from time to time send me copies of new poems and books. After he retired I had him come to Pittsfield and preach for me several times.

He told me how he had become a minister. After graduating from Bates with a degree in English, he went to Harvard University as curator of the Harvard College Library Poetry Room. There, he cared for the Edwin Arlington Robinson collection and the Amy Lowell collection. He wanted to write about the relationship between poetry and religion.

It was there that he met the Reverend Samuel H. Miller, another minister once known for his lovely and moving prayers. Miller later became dean of Harvard Divinity School. It was Miller who got Arnold interested in the ministry, and he enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School and received a bachelor’s of sacred theology in 1944. He received his master’s degree in English in 1950, also from Harvard.

He was friends with many of the poets of his generation, including Robert Frost. I have always heard intimations of Gerard Manley Hopkins in Arnold’s poems, but his influences were wide and deep. For his 50th Bates College Reunion, he wrote, “I rejoice in Van Gogh, Henry Adams, Dostoyevski, Chopin, J.S. Bach, Saint Francis, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Isaiah, the Gospel of Luke, and Mother Teresa – the light bearers.”

He served as Pastor of the South Congregational Church for 40 years, and was a model for me of a gracious long pastorate. I was privileged to have a visit with Arnold just days before his death, and he was still lucid and gentle and full of hope. If you don’t know this man’s writings I highly recommend them to you. Here’s a sample:

On Easter the great tower of me falls.
I had built it well; my mind had planned it
After being schooled; my will had special wit
To dig me deep foundations, solid walls,
Blocks of moral toughness, windows to see
The enemy, the friend; large rooms, I thought
For light; and storey upon storey me
I raised, and famously my fame I sought.
So driven to prove the world with my estate.
I had not heard Christ on Good Friday die,
His body crooked, broke, and all friends fled.
I had not wept his cause in my carouse.
But now bold bells scatter against the sky,
And Christ is shattering my death, my pride;
As walls, blocks, windows, rooms, my silly penthouse
Spill into the dust I am, my narrow fate.
At last set free from virtue, knowledge, strife,

I mourn, then praise my God, and enter life.

(“Easter” by Arnold Kenseth)

The Ritual Year, Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993)

A George Herbert Poem about PRAYER

The Welsh Metaphysical poet George Herbert (3 April 1593 –-1 March 1633) is one of my favorite poets who deals with religious themes, my other favorites being Isaac Watts, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Herbert was a well-educated man who became an accomplished poet and noted orator. He served in parliament for two years, but in his late thirties gave up secular life to take holy orders in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his short life as the rector of a small parish, Fugglestone ST Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, in Wiltshire near Salisbury.

He was known as a faithful pastor to his flock, unfailing in his care of the sick, to whom he brought the sacrament, and to the poor, to whom he provided food and clothing. He himself was in poor health and died of tuberculosis just three years after his ordination. Here is one of his poems about prayer:

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an hour,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well dress,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

(Herbert, George. The Poetical Works of George Herbert. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1857. 61-62.)