“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis (poem)

Kandinsky, Wassily_Three Sounds
Vasily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Three Sounds, 1926. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 23 1/2 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

the silent stars descend to us
come angel seraph sheep pear-tree

o holy o cold
dawn come in snow

offspring of day
light is lily above us

glory birds, calling birds
sun, the fields shining

the day, the earth, skies
peace, contemplation and music

hosanna, no, holly stand
suddenly tree displayed

the yonder star our comfort
bring time again

joy, excelsis a-leaping
world and hope embrace

lullay image and sing sing
a happy new begin

“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis appears in the chapbook The Twelve Poems of Christmas, vol. 3, ed. Carol Ann Duffy (Candlestick Press, 2011), and in Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany by Janet Morley (SPCK, 2013). Used by permission of Harry Gilonis.

A ghazal is a traditional Arabic verse-form originating in seventh-century Arabia and spreading in the medieval era into Africa, Spain, Persia, South Asia, and Turkey, where it has continued to develop. It is made up of five to fifteen self-contained couplets connected loosely by mood or theme, however allusive. The poet Agha Shahid Ali compares each ghazal couplet to “a stone from a necklace” that should continue to “shine in that vivid isolation.”

Harry Gilonis’s “seasonal ghazal” doesn’t adhere to all the principles of the classic form (which involve rhyme and refrain), but it does give us autonomous couplets of roughly equal length that unfold without linearity, and these all center on the twinned seasons of Advent and Christmastide. Gilonis composed the poem using a cut-up technique, in which he printed out pages’ worth of sacred and secular English carol texts, excised words or short phrases that stood out to him, and rearranged those excised fragments into varying combinations, creating a medley of seasonal keywords that strikes a new chord.

By separating the words from their original syntactic contexts and collaging them together in new ways, he defamiliarizes and thus revivifies them. Traditional elements of the Christmas story are playfully refreshed.

The poem captures the magic and wonder of the season and a hint of its yearning and lament. For example, the exultant excelsis, Latin for “highest,” from the angels’ song to the shepherds is followed one stanza later by lullay, an archaic word used to soothe children to sleep and voiced in the “Coventry Carol” by mothers of ancient Bethlehem who lullaby into eternal rest their infant sons who are about to be slain by Herod. Elevated choral anthems contrasted with deep, mournful groans. Christmastide is full of “light” and “glory,” but there’s also “cold.”

The line “world and hope embrace” is particularly compelling—a picture of hope throwing its arms around a weary and skeptical world, and the world hugging back.

Because of the poem’s fragmentary nature, the grammatical mood of some of the verbs can’t be definitively discerned, but I read the following, in addition to the Hebrew-derived “hosanna” (“save us, please!”), as imperatives addressed to God: “descend,” “come,” “bring,” and the final word, open and expansive, “begin”—a curtailment of the noun “beginning.”

Jesus’s birth was a new and universal beginning. Can you hear echoes of Isaiah?: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19a NIV). Many Christians see in this Hebrew Bible passage the promise of a messianic kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’s birth but not yet brought to completion. The speaker of “seasonal ghazal” seems to recognize the salvation project that’s in motion but longs for “the day” of the Lord, “the earth, skies” reunited. “Begin,” he beckons. Bring in the new era.

What word combinations in this poem stick out to you? What meaning(s) do you see?

25 Poems for Christmas

Hawkins, William L._Nativity Scene
William L. Hawkins (American, 1895–1990), Nativity Scene, 1987. Oil on canvas, 48 × 48 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey.

1. “Remembering that it happened once” by Wendell Berry: For the last forty-plus years, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry has been writing what he calls “Sabbath poems,” which emerge from his spiritual practice of walking outdoors on Sundays without any to-do’s. “I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays,” he says, “and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration.” This Sabbath poem from 1986 explores how the sacred permeates the mundane and how Christ is, in a sense, always being born. For an SATB choral setting by Doug Brandt, see here.

Source: A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998); compiled in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2014)

2. “BC:AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe: Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009), CBE, FRSL, was an English poet who is well loved by both critics and the general public. She was also a practicing Quaker. Each year she wrote a new Christmas poem to send to friends, of which “BC:AD” is the best known. It considers Jesus’s birth as the pivotal point in history, dividing time into epochs, into “before” and “after.” At this nativity, kairos invaded chronos—and we’re still singing about it millennia later.

Source: Christmas Poems (London: Enitharmon, 2002)

3. “Making the House Ready for the Lord” by Mary Oliver: For many of us who succumb to cultural pressures, December is a time of rushing around, making sure the house is decorated like a magazine, the Christmas cards sent out, the cookies baked to perfection, the gifts individually selected and bought and wrapped. But in all this flurry of activity, are we missing “the better part” (Luke 10:42)? The speaker of this poem, Martha-like, is busy making preparations for Jesus, who’s coming to visit, but as she’s cleaning, outdoor critters keep popping in. At first she bemoans their presence—they’re not on the guest list!—but eventually she comes to accept, even welcome, them, surrendering her fussy desire for orderliness to a charitable embrace of whatever is. And on another level, this poem is about how all of creation longs for Christ (Rom. 8:19–22); the animals, too, want to see him, want to join the party.

Source: Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006)

4. [It’s all so messy] by Kelly Belmonte: A haiku for Advent.

Source: https://allninemuses.wordpress.com/

5. “Second Advent” by Anya Krugovoy Silver: Memorializing a friend (Ishiuan Hargrove) who died of metastatic brain tumors, “Second Advent” unsettlingly combines stark hospital-room and anatomical language with language that is soft, gentle, lyrical. Recounting one of Ishiuan’s several neurosurgeries, the poet remarks how her head was nimbed by surgical lights and then swaddled in gauze. The title refers to Ishiuan’s waking up on the second Sunday of Advent, but also to the hope of Christ’s second coming, when pain, disease, and sorrow will be done away with. Anya Silver was herself a cancer patient, an experience she wrote much about in her four volumes of poetry, before dying of breast cancer in 2018.

Source: Second Bloom (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017)

6. “The Nativity” by Henry Vaughan: “Peace!” rang the angels’ song the night of Christ’s birth—and yet what irony, that he who came to bring peace was himself no beneficiary of it in this life, being born among animals in a borrowed stable, then made a refugee, then later disbelieved, betrayed, mocked, tortured, and crucified. The darkness that bred such unwelcome of the Son of God still persists—violence, ignorance. Referencing the Genesis 1 creation narrative as well as the journey of the magi, the poem ends with an invocation for God’s light to manifest once again, leading us to Christ.

Source: Thalia Redivina: The Pass-Times and Diversions of a Countrey-Muse (London: Robert Pawlet, 1678). Public Domain.

7. [little tree] by E. E. Cummings: One of E. E. Cummings’s earliest published poems (it came out in the January 1920 issue of The Dial), “little tree” was intended to appear as one of five “chansons innocentes” in Cummings’s first book of verse, Tulips and Chimneys, but his editor, Thomas Seltzer, cut it (along with sixty-five others!). In it a young child consoles a recently felled evergreen tree—enlisted for the holiday festivities—with promises of glory and love. Though it runs the danger of being read as twee, Cummings remained fond of the poem and even had it printed and sent it as his family Christmas card in 1960, two years before he died.

Source: XLI Poems (New York: The Dial Press, 1925); compiled in E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904–1962 (New York: Liveright, 2016). Public Domain.

8. “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” by Mark Doty: The speaker of this poem is unexpectedly transported by a local community choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. He marvels at how these ordinary, flawed neighbors of his can produce such beauty with their collective voices. The last line is probably a reference to the accompagnato and air sung by the bass toward the end of the oratorio, taken from 1 Corinthians 15:51–54—about how we will all be changed in a moment at the last trump, and the corruptible will put on incorruption.

Source: Sweet Machine (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998); compiled in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008)

9. “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen: The anonymous scribes and illuminators of the Book of Kells spent countless hours copying and beautifying God’s word amid Viking raids. In this ekphrastic poem, Jean Janzen reflects on the Gospel-book’s five whimsically painted folios of Luke’s genealogy of Christ, commenting on the continual inbreaking of God into our world and the “wild safety” of God’s love.

Source: What the Body Knows (Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2015)

10. “Confession” by Leila Chatti: The Tunisian American poet Leila Chatti was raised by a Muslim father and a Roman Catholic mother, and both religious traditions have shaped her faith and her writing. Islam and Christianity hold many sacred figures in common, including Mary (Maryam), whose conception and delivery of Jesus (Isa) are narrated in the Quran 19:16–34. Chatti confesses to being more compelled by the Islamic characterization of Mary as grunting and sweating in the pangs of labor (in contrast to Catholic teaching, which says her birthing experience was effortless, her contractions painless, though the Bible itself doesn’t specify). Chatti finds comfort in picturing Mary not as someone exempt from the effects of the fall and set apart on a pedestal of supreme virtue, but as one who suffered the same physical and emotional toll as other childbearing women—and who probably did have the occasional selfish thought, which, in moments of intensity and vulnerability, she deigned to vocalize!

Source: Deluge (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020) | https://www.leilachatti.com/

11. “Two Carols” by Evelyn Underhill: An English Anglo-Catholic writer and mystic, Evelyn Underhill meditates in this double poem on how Christ set foot on the long, hard road we travel to be a balm for our wounds and those of the earth. The epigraph to part 1 is from the Latin Vulgate of Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth.” What follows are several Catholic titles for Mary: rose without thorn, queen, generatrix. The epigraph to part 2 is a quotation of Romans 8:22: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” The refrain, Dominus tecum!, translates to “The Lord is with you!,” words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and, by virtue of the Incarnation, to all humanity. The other Latin phrases translate to “He who is in the heavens,” “A King is born,” and “Let the kingdom come!” Adveniat regnum!

Source: Immanence: A Book of Verses (London: J. M. Dent, 1912). Public Domain.

12. “The Christmas Babe” by Fr. John Banister Tabb: Written by a Catholic priest from Virginia, this simple quatrain marvels at the paradox of God’s simultaneous largeness and smallness.

Source: Poems (London: John Lane, 1894). Public Domain.

13. “Snowflakes” by Jennifer Grotz: When the world is viewed through a sacramental lens, we recognize God in commonplace wonders like falling snow, and such things can be a sort of wordless prayer that we offer back to God through our enjoyment of them.

Source: Window Left Open (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016) | https://www.jennifergrotz.com/

14. [The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman] by Emily Dickinson: In these two compact stanzas, Dickinson reflects on how kind Jesus was (an understatement!) to have made the far journey to Bethlehem, “a rugged billion Miles” from heaven, especially in the cold month of December, all “for little Fellowmen.” She refers to him as “docile”—obedient, submissive—harking to Philippians 2, to his bowing to the eternal will of the Father, submitting to human limitations, suffering, and death for the life of the world.

Source: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1976)

15. [Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest] (Holy Sonnet No. 15) by John Donne: A self-address to the soul, this poem by the English poet-priest John Donne, first published in 1633, two years after this death, celebrates the Triune God’s salvific workings: we’re adopted by the Father, redeemed by the Son, indwelt and regenerated by the Spirit. The closing couplet, referencing the imago Dei, packs a wallop: “’Twas much, that man was made like God before, / But, that God should be made like man, much more.”

Source: Poems (London: M.F. [Miles Fletcher], 1633). Public Domain.

16. “The Little Towns of Bethlehem” by John Terpstra: All over Canada, Christ is being reborn this Christmas, in the sense that the Story has taken root, is retold, and continues to have impact. The speaker imagines the Christ child “wrapped in cast-off flannel” in a boxcar stopped on the tracks in Esther, Alberta, or feeding at his mother’s breast in a broken-down car on the shoulder of a road in Englehart, Ontario—actual sights that one might encounter today. Localizing the Story can help us to see it afresh, and to see the sacred humanity of families experiencing homelessness or other hardships.

Source: Two or Three Guitars (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2006) | http://johnterpstra.com/

17. “Song of the Shepherds” by Richard Bauckham: Richard Bauckham, FRSE, FBA, is best known as a biblical scholar—he’s one of today’s tops, in fact—but he also writes poetry! (I featured one of his poems last year.) In this poem, the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides recall an ancient tale about the stars singing at the creation of the universe, which they thought merely a poetic embellishment, until they experienced something of the like for themselves: “a song of solar glory” eclipsing the lesser lights and exorcising the dark, creating the world anew. Unforgettable.

Source: Tumbling into Light: Collected Poems (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2022) | https://richardbauckham.co.uk/

18. “Those Magi” by Kathleen O’Toole: What exactly were the magi seeking? What compelled them to leave their treasure behind in that cattle shed? Whence their strength to defy Herod? Besides musing on these questions, the poem also contains a passing metaphor that I found striking and new: cow breath as incense.

Source: Christian Century, January 18, 2019 | https://kathleenotoolepoetry.com/

19. “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes: Tradition names one of the wise men who visited the Christ child “Balthazar” and says he’s from Africa. Langston Hughes, a preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, exults that there was “one dark like me—part of His Nativity.” This poem is included in Hughes’s musical play Black Nativity and is one of six Nativity poems by Hughes that make up a children’s book illustrated by Ashley Bryan.

Source: Crisis (Dec. 1958), p. 615; compiled in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994)

20. “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993” by Jane Kenyon: I couldn’t find the particular church mosaic program that Kenyon is writing about, but here’s my interpretation. Set inside a Serbian Orthodox church during the Bosnian War, this poem imagines a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator hovering in the dome, lamenting the violence that goes on beneath. Under the gaze of the I AM is another mosaic, portraying Jesus’s birth, but also, in a way, Mary’s, as she herself is being reborn in Christ, her mind increasingly shaped in accordance to his. Nativity icons often show Mary framed by a red blanket that she’s reclining on at the mouth of a cave, which Kenyon reads as embryonic.

Source: Otherwise (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996); compiled in Collected Poems (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005)

21. “Breath” by Luci Shaw: This poem reflects on the contraction of the infinite God who breathed the universe into existence into a finite human being needing oxygen, who, as is foreshadowed at his birth, will finally ex-pire (“breathe out” his last) on a cross before entering his “next dark cave,” a prelude to resurrection.

Source: Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) | https://lucishaw.com/

22. “Mary’s Vision” from medieval Ireland: Mary foresees the future suffering of her infant son and dialogues with him about it in this poem translated from Middle Irish by Eleanor Hull (the same woman who, through her translation and versification, gave us the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”!).

Source: The Poem-Book of the Gael (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912). Public Domain.

23. “Joseph at the Nativity” by Tania Runyan: Staring at the “shriveled pod” that Mary just birthed, Joseph grapples with his complicated feelings—doubt, embarrassment, jealousy, helplessness, confusion, pride—and with figuring out what role he should play in the life of this child going forward.

Source: Simple Weight (Lexington, KY: FutureCycle, 2010) | https://taniarunyan.com/

24. “Waiting in Line After Christmas” by Sharron Singleton: (Scroll down to fourth poem) Rather than exchanges of refunded money for unwanted items, Singleton ponders what a mutually life-giving exchange of intangibles might look like.

Source: Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (Hartford, CT: Grayson Books, 2018)

25. “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye: Through the act of forgetting, we must destroy the worthless trivialities of the year, and we must let that which is solid, that which matters—the “stones”—be revealed and remain.

Source: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995)

“Thanksgivings for the Body” by Thomas Traherne (excerpt)

Owunna, Mikael_Lébé and His Articulations
Mikael Owunna (Nigerian American, 1990–), Lébé and His Articulations, from the Infinite Essence series, 2019. Dye sublimation print, 60 × 40 in. (152.4 × 101.6 cm). Edition of 3 + 1AP. [for sale]

                                O Lord!
        Thou hast given me a body,
Wherein the glory of thy power shineth,
Wonderfully composed above the beasts,
Within distinguished into useful parts,
Beautified without with many ornaments.
        Limbs rarely poised,
                And made for heaven:
        Arteries filled
                With celestial spirits:
        Veins, wherein blood floweth,
                Refreshing all my flesh,
                                Like rivers.
        Sinews fraught with the mystery
            Of wonderful strength,
                Stability,
                Feeling.
        O blessed be thy glorious Name!
That thou hast made it
            A treasury of wonders,
                Fit for its several ages;
                    For dissections,
                    For sculptures in brass,
                    For draughts in anatomy,
        For the contemplation of the sages.
                Whole inward parts,
                        Enshrined in thy libraries,
        Are:
                The amazement of the learned,
                The admiration of kings and queens,
                The joy of angels,
                The organs of my soul,
                The wonder of cherubims.
        Those blinder parts of refined earth,
                        Beneath my skin,
            Are full of thy depths,
            For:
                        Many thousand uses,
                        Hidden operations,
                        Unsearchable offices.
        But for the diviner treasures wherewith thou hast endowed
            My brains,
            My heart,
            My tongue,
            Mine eyes,
            Mine ears,
            My hands,
O what praises are due unto thee,
        Who has made me
                    A living inhabitant
                            Of the great world,
                    And the centre of it!
        A sphere of sense,
                            And a mine of riches,
Which when bodies are dissected fly away.
        The spacious room
                    Which thou has hidden in mine eye;
        The chambers for sounds
                    Which thou has prepar’d in mine ear;
        The receptacles for smells
                    Concealed in my nose;
        The feeling of my hands;
                    The taste of my tongue.
        But above all, O Lord, the glory of speech,
whereby thy servant is enabled with praise to
celebrate thee.
                                    For
        All the beauties in heaven and earth,
        The melody of sounds,
        The sweet odours
                            Of thy dwelling-place.
        The delectable pleasures that gratify my sense,
                            That gratify the feeling of mankind.
        The light of history,
                            Admitted by the ear.
        The light of heaven,
                            Brought in by the eye.
        The volubility and liberty
                            Of my hands and members.
        Fitted by thee for all operations,
                            Which the fancy can imagine,
                            Or soul desire:
        From the framing of a needle’s eye,
                            To the building of a tower;
        From the squaring of trees,
                            To the polishing of kings’ crowns.
        For all the mysteries, engines, instruments, wherewith the world is filled, which we are able to frame and use to thy glory.
        For all the trades, variety of operations, cities, temples, streets, bridges, mariner’s compass, admirable pictures, sculpture, writing, printing, songs and music, wherewith the world is beautified and adorned.
        Much more for the regent Life,
            And power of perception,
                Which rules within.
        That secret depth of fathomless consideration
            That receives the information
                Of all our senses,
That makes our centre equal to the heavens,
    And comprehendeth in itself the magnitude of the world;
        The involved mysteries
                            Of our common sense;
        The inaccessible secret
                            Of perceptive fancy;
        The repository and treasury
                            Of things that are past;
        The presentation of things to come;
            Thy Name be glorified
                For evermore.
    For all the art which thou hast hidden
            In this little piece
                Of red clay,
    For the workmanship of thy hand,
        Who didst thyself form man
            Of the dust of the ground,
        And breathe into his nostrils
            The breath of life.
    For the high exaltation whereby thou hast glorified every body,
                Especially mine,
        As thou didst thy servant
                Adam’s in Eden.
    Thy works themselves speaking to me the same thing that was said unto him in the beginning,
                WE ARE ALL THINE.

This poem excerpt is from A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation of the Mercies of God, in Several Most Devout and Sublime Thanksgivings for the Same by Thomas Traherne, published posthumously in 1699. It is in the public domain.

Thomas Traherne (1636/37–1674) was a country priest from England whose devotional writings, both prose and verse, are remarkable for their spiritual intensity. He wrote rapturously about the goodness, love, and mercy of God and the glories of God’s creation. He is sometimes classed as a Metaphysical poet, though his poems read more like Walt Whitman, with their long catalogs and ebullient joy. Traherne is most celebrated for his Centuries of Meditations, a collection of theological reflections that wasn’t published until 1908.

“Field Preaching” by Phoebe Cary (poem)

Greenwood, Phil_Blossom
Phil Greenwood (Welsh, 1943–), Blossom, 2003. Etching and aquatint, 67 × 59 cm. Edition of 150.

I have been out today in field and wood,
Listening to praises sweet and counsel good
Such as a little child had understood,
              That, in its tender youth,
Discerns the simple eloquence of truth.

The modest blossoms, crowding round my way,
Though they had nothing great or grand to say,
Gave out their fragrance to the wind all day;
              Because his loving breath,
With soft persistence, won them back from death.

And the right royal lily, putting on
Her robes, more rich than those of Solomon,
Opened her gorgeous missal in the sun,
              And thanked him soft and low,
Whose gracious, liberal hand had clothed her so.

When wearied, on the meadow-grass I sank,
So narrow was the rill from which I drank,
An infant might have stepped from bank to bank;
              And the tall rushes near,
Lapping together, hid its waters clear.

Yet to the ocean joyously it went,
And, rippling in the fulness of content,
Watered the pretty flowers that o’er it leant;
              For all the banks were spread
With delicate flowers that on its bounty fed.

The stately maize, a fair and goodly sight,
With serried spear-points bristling sharp and bright,
Shook out his yellow tresses, for delight,
              To all their tawny length,
Like Samson, glorying in his lusty strength.

And every little bird upon the tree,
Ruffling his plumage bright, for ecstasy,
Sang in the wild insanity of glee;
              And seemed, in the same lays,
Calling his mate and uttering songs of praise.

The golden grasshopper did chirp and sing;
The plain bee, busy with her housekeeping,
Kept humming cheerfully upon the wing,
              As if she understood
That, with contentment, labor was a good.

I saw each creature, in his own best place,
To the Creator lift a smiling face,
Praising continually his wondrous grace;
              As if the best of all
Life’s countless blessings was to live at all!

So with a book of sermons, plain and true,
Hid in my heart, where I might turn them through,
I went home softly, through the falling dew,
              Still listening, rapt and calm,
To Nature giving out her evening psalm.

This poem was originally published in Poems of Faith, Hope, and Love by Phoebe Cary (Hurd and Houghton, 1867) and is in the public domain.

Phoebe Cary (1824–1871) was an American poet whose verse focuses on themes of religion, nature, and feminism. She grew up on a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, the sixth of nine children. She was particularly close with her older sister Alice, also a writer, with whom she copublished a volume of poetry in 1849 before going on to publish books of her own. Buoyed by the recognition they received from such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier, in 1850 the two sisters moved to New York City together, where they contributed regularly to national periodicals and hosted a weekly Sunday evening salon attended by East Coast literati. Phoebe was active in the early days of the women’s rights movement, serving as an assistant editor for The Revolution, Susan B. Anthony’s suffrage newspaper. She died of hepatitis at age forty-six, just six months after Alice.

“I cannot dance, O Lord” by Mechthild de Magdeburg

Abramishvili, Merab_Dancer
Merab Abramishvili (Georgian, 1957–2006), Dancer, 2006. Tempera on plywood, 76 × 52 cm.

I cannot dance, O Lord, 
Unless You lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing—

Then I will leap into Love—
And from Love into Knowledge,
And from Knowledge into the Harvest,
That sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.

There I will stay with You, whirling.

from The Flowing Light of the Godhead I.44, trans. Jane Hirshfield, in Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (HarperCollins, 1994)

Mechthild de Magdeburg (ca. 1207–ca. 1297) was a medieval Christian mystic from a wealthy German family. In 1230 she entered a local house of the Beguines, independent communities of laywomen devoted to leading a life of good works, poverty, chastity, and spiritual practice; and around 1272 she joined the Cistercian convent at Helfta, where she lived until her death. Her seven-volume book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of the Godhead), written in Middle Low German over the course of three decades, is a compendium of visions, prayers, and dialogues that centers on her experience of God as lover. Her feast day is November 19.

Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953) is an American poet, essayist, and translator whose nine collections of poetry have won multiple awards. Her work encompasses a large range of influences, drawing from the sciences as well as the world’s literary, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual traditions. She lives in California.

Addendum, 9/5/22: Composer Thomas Keesecker has just alerted me to a choral setting he wrote of this passage, “Unless You Lead Me, Love.” Lovely!

Roundup: “Incarnation and Imagination” lecture, Planet Drum, and more

PODCAST EPISODE: “Incarnation and Imagination (with Malcolm Guite),” Imagination Redeemed: On March 28, 2015, the Anglican poet-priest Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, England, gave a talk in Colorado Springs for the Anselm Society, an ecumenical Christian organization whose mission is a renaissance of the Christian imagination. They have just released it on their podcast.

Guite discusses how the job of the arts is to link earth and heaven, heaven and earth; where a poem or other work of art stays on only one of those planes, it typically fails. He unpacks Theseus’s monologue from Act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, focusing on these six lines: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Shakespeare, Guite says, is riffing on the prologue to John’s Gospel.

The Logos . . . is bodied forth perfectly and beautifully in the living, walking poem of Jesus Christ, in whom everything eternal is made particular, and who invites everybody to come towards him . . . because he is a habitation with open doors. So of course in John’s Gospel he says, ‘I am the door’! . . . Open up, walk in! (48:51)

And one more quote from Guite!

The church . . . is founded by one who is himself artistically embodied meaning—meaning made visible, meaning made beautiful, meaning made habitable and hospitable and welcoming in the touch of the body and in the physical event, which is then transfigured, because it is also a meaningful event, because earth and heaven meet. (55:34)

It’s a brilliant and inspiring talk, and it integrates other poetic verse besides Shakespeare’s.

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MUSIC:

>> “More Love, More Power” by Paul Livingstone and Benny Prasad: This sitar-guitar duet is performed by Paul Livingstone (a multi-instrumentalist and composer of “ragajazz chamber music” who was one of the few American disciples of the late Ravi Shankar) and gospel musician Benny Prasad [previously]. The performance took place June 11 at Chai 3:16, a four-hundred-seat café and community space that Prasad founded in Bengaluru to reach out to college students. (Chai is Hebrew for “life,” and “3:16” refers to the famous verse in the Gospel of John about God’s love.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

>> “King Clave” by Planet Drum: In 1991 Mickey Hart (best known as a drummer of the Grateful Dead) and Zakir Hussain (a classical tabla virtuoso from Mumbai) formed the Grammy-winning global percussion ensemble Planet Drum, bringing together the world’s greatest rhythm masters into a one-of-a-kind improvisational supergroup. Prompted by ongoing international strife, Planet Drum reconvened over the past two years to record their third album, In the Groove, which released August 5. It features six unique compositions led by Hart, Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju of Nigeria, and Giovanni Hidalgo of Puerto Rico.  

The centerpiece of the album is “King Clave” (the clave is a rhythmic pattern), created in partnership with Playing for Change and with funding from the United Nations Population Fund. The four core musicians mentioned above are joined by other percussionists and dancers from around the world. The music video uses the “Alternate Version” of the performance, released separately as a single.

Learn more about the Planet Drum project in this six-minute video:

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STILL LIFE EDITION: “The History of the Peace Symbol” by Michael Wright: Did you know that the peace symbol that spread worldwide during the 1960s was designed by a Christian from the UK? (Christian pacifism was one of the underappreciated drivers of the nuclear disarmament and antiwar movements.) Learn more about the symbol’s history and art historical and nautical influences in the August 15, 2022, edition of Michael Wright’s weekly letter on art and spirit, Still Life. Also included is the poem “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai, and four weblinks of interest, such as an article on how the patristic tradition agrees with cognitive neuroscience, and a video of FKA Twigs performing in a church!

Holtam, Gerald_Peace
Sketch of nuclear disarmament symbol by Gerald Holtom, created for the first Aldermaston March in 1958. © Commonweal Collection, University of Bradford, England.

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VIDEO LECTURE: “Symbolism and Sacramentality in Art: Medieval and Postmodern Representations of the Little Garden of Paradise” (Religion and Art Talks) by Tina Beattie: Dr. Tina Beattie is a professor emerita of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton whose research is at the intersections of art, gender, and theology. In this talk she explores the sacramental imagination of the medieval world through a Late Gothic painting from the Rhineland known as The Little Garden of Paradise. (You can zoom in in tremendous detail on the Städel Museum’s website.) It shows Mary reading in an enclosed garden in the company of saints, her little boy Jesus playing a psaltery at her feet. “Christ retunes the cosmos,” Beattie says. “The harmonies of creation were disrupted by sin. But all of creation is brought back into harmony through the Incarnation.”

Symbolism and allegory abound in medieval religious paintings, encoding profound meanings that can be discerned if we would but take the time to look and to meditate and to understand the world from which these images arose. “The visual image can say things that the theological text can’t,” Beattie asserts. “It can play with the doctrinal truth in ways that allow other meanings to emerge discreetly.”

Though many interpretations of hortus conclusus imagery focus on Mary’s virginity, and indeed that was a primary aspect motivating the creatives who developed such imagery, Beattie draws out themes of new creation and discusses the garden as the human soul.

The Little Garden of Paradise
The Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhine, ca. 1410–20. Mixed media on oak, 26.3 × 33.4 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

The Little Garden of Paradise (detail, dragon)
A small, slain dragon lies belly-up beside a man in greaves and chain mail, probably Saint George.

The other artworks she glosses are:

The last half hour of the video features audience engagement.

“O Christ, Thou Art Within Me Like a Sea” by Edith Lovejoy Pierce (poem)

Parlar, May_Salt IV
May Parlar (Turkish, 1981–), Salt IV, 2018. From the photograph series Once I Fell in Time.

O Christ, thou art within me like a sea,
Filling me as a slowly rising tide.
No rock or stone or sandbar may abide
Safe from thy coming and undrowned in thee.

Thou dost not break me by the might of storm,
But with a calm upsurging from the deep
Thou shuttest me in thy eternal keep
Where is no ebb, for fullness is thy norm.

And never is thy flood of life withdrawn;
Thou holdest me till I am all thy own.
This gradual overcoming is foreknown.
Thou art within me like a sea at dawn.

This poem appears in Therefore Choose Life by Edith Lovejoy Pierce (Harper and Brothers, 1947).

Edith Lovejoy Pierce (1904–1983) was a Christian poet and pacifist. Born in Oxford, England, she married an American in 1929 and moved to the US the same year, settling in Evanston, Illinois. In her writing she drew inspiration from the Bible, Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance, music, history, and mysticism, among other sources.

Roundup: West African praise medley, reading poetry and fiction, and more

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: August 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Most months I compile thirty songs and other musical selections into a nonthematic playlist as a way to share good music, mostly from the Christian tradition but otherwise Christian-adjacent. This month’s list includes a traditional Black gospel song performed by Chris Rodrigues and professional spoon player Abby Roach (featured here); a Zulu song from South Africa about holding on to Jesus (bambelela = “hold on”); a song in the voice of Christ Our Mother by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, from her album Gospel Oak; a portion of Barbados-born Judy Bailey’s Caribbean-style setting of the Anglican liturgy; a brass arrangement of a Golden Gate Quartet classic; Palestrina’s beautiful multivoiced setting of a Latin hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux; a future-looking song of celebration by country artist Naomi Judd, who passed away in April; a condensation of “In Christ Alone” by Texas soul artist Micah Edwards; and more.

The two videos below are from the list: a medley of the Twi praise chorus “Ayeyi Wura” (King of Our Praise) from Ghana and “Most High God” from Nigeria, led by Eric Lige at the 2018 Urbana missions conference, and a new arrangement by Marcus & Marketo of “I’ve Got a River of Life,” a song that I have fond memories of singing in children’s church as a kid (with hand motions!) (you can hear a more standard rendition here). The first line is derived from Jesus’s saying in John 7:38 (“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”), and the refrain “Spring up, O well!” comes from Numbers 21:17, where the Israelites praise God for providing them water in the desert.

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Reading books is a key way that I grow intellectually and spiritually, and books are often where I find content to highlight on the blog, be it poems, visual art, people, or ideas. Because I’m not affiliated with an academic institution, I don’t have easy access to a lot of the books I need for my research, and I rely heavily on my personal library (as well as the Marina interlibrary loan system). If you’d like to support the work of Art & Theology, buying me a book from my wish list is a great way to do that! I’ll consider it a birthday gift, as my birthday is Saturday. 😊

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ESSAYS:

>> “Poetry’s Mad Instead” by Abram Van Engen, Reformed Journal: “I believe that poetry has a particular place in the church. I think it responds directly to the call and the invitation of God to ‘sing a new song,’” says Abram Van Engen, chair and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and cohost of the podcast Poetry for All. “And in the singing of poetry, the faithful can begin to understand and experience and engage God’s world afresh.” He adds, “Poets often invite us to practice thinking and noticing at a different pace. It is only at a slower speed of processing that we can begin to observe what we have too often missed or ignored.”

In this essay, Van Engen walks readers through the sonnet “Praise in Summer” by Richard Wilbur, which is what he begins with whenever he teaches poetry at church. He teaches you some of the poet’s tools so that you can feel more confident in approaching poems on your own.

>> “In Defense of Fiction: Christian Love for Great Literature” by Leland Ryken: An excellent article, by a professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College and author of The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and more. “With so many valuable nonfiction books available to Christians, many wonder if reading fiction is worth the time. Others view fiction as a form of escapism, a flight from reality and the world of responsibility. But rightly understood, reading fiction clarifies rather than obscures reality. The subject of literature is life, and the best writers offer a portrait of human experience that awakens us to the real world. Fiction tells the truth in ways nonfiction never could, even as it delights our aesthetic sensibilities in the process. Reading fiction may be a form of recreation, but it is the kind that expands the soul and prepares us to reenter reality.”

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VISUAL MEDITATION: On Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Jacek Malczewski, by William Collen: William Collen introduced me to this unusual painting on the subject of Christ’s meeting with the woman at the well from John 4—a subject the artist painted several times (e.g., here, here, and here). Whereas Christ is traditionally shown pontificating to the woman with an air of formality, here there is an appealing casualness to their interaction, and the woman dominates the composition.

Malczewski, Jacek_Christ and the Samaritan Woman
Jacek Malczewski (Polish, 1854–1929), Christ and the Samaritan Woman, 1912. Oil on plywood, 92 × 72.5 cm. Borys Voznytskyi Lviv National Art Gallery, Ukraine.

Collen is an art writer and researcher from Omaha, Nebraska, who is a Christian and who blogs at Ruins. I’ve enjoyed following his posts, which include “The proper response to an art of sorrow”; “Dikla Laor’s photographs of the women of the Bible”; how household chores are approached differently by Koons, Picasso, Degas, and Vermeer; “Good art / bad art / non-art”; and “Artists and agency: assumptions and limits.” He writes in a conversational manner that’s really refreshing.

Emily Dickinson on heaven

I’ve been working my way through Emily Dickinson’s complete poems and falling in love with her all over again.

Dickinson wrote a lot about death, eternity, immortality, the afterlife. Most people are familiar with “This World is not Conclusion,” “Because I could not stop for Death –,” and “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –,” to name a few—all mainstays of middle school English curricula in the US. Below I’ve selected three of her lesser-known poems about heaven, which she describes as: Being truly known. Full sight. Day. The quenching of a deep thirst that nothing on earth can satisfy. Permanence.

I’ve reproduced them as they appear in Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016). Dickinson did not title her poems, so scholars refer to them by their first line.

Hong, Seonna_World Without End
Seonna Hong (American, 1973–), World Without End, 2015. Acrylic and oil pastel on canvas, 48 × 60 in. (121.9 × 152.4 cm). [artist’s website]

At last – to be identified –
At last – the Lamps upon your side –
The rest of life – to see –

Past Midnight – past the Morning Star –
Past Sunrise – Ah, what leagues there were –
Between Our feet – and Day!

Late 1862 (revised from the 1860 version)

We thirst at first – ’tis Nature’s Act –
And later – when we die –
A little Water supplicate –
Of fingers going by –

It intimates the finer want –
Whose adequate supply
Is that Great Water in the West –
Termed Immortality –

Second half of 1863

It is an honorable Thought
And makes One lift One’s Hat
As One met sudden Gentlefolk
Upon a daily Street

That We’ve immortal Place
Though Pyramids decay
And Kingdoms, like the Orchard
Flit Russetly away

Late 1865

“Miracles” by Walt Whitman

Potthast, Edward_Beach Scene, Coney Island
Edward Henry Potthast (American, 1857–1927), Beach Scene, Coney Island, 1915–18. Oil on wood panel, 11 7/8 × 16 in. (30.2 × 40.6 cm). Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. [object record]

Why! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love—or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds—or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down—or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best—mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans—or to the soirée—or to the opera,
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,
Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring—yet each distinct, and in its place.
  
To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.
  
To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships, with men in them,	 
What stranger miracles are there?

“Miracles” by Walt Whitman was originally published in the second edition of Leaves of Grass (Fowler & Wells, 1856). It is in the public domain.