“What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen

Maybe it’s the ocean’s rhythmic tug
that helps me sleep, my body’s own
surge remembering its deepest pulse.

Think of those Celtic monks who
scaled the slippery rocks carrying
vellum and inks while the sea broke

and battered beneath them. High
in a crevice, a hidden stone hut
with cot and candle. The scribe

dips and swirls his quill to preserve
the story—Luke’s genealogy,
name after name, letters shaped

like birds in every color, a flight
of messengers released into history.
Each word unfurls the promise,

like Gabriel kneeling. The body
knows that wings, like waves,
can break through walls and enter,

that the secret of the story
is love, that even as we sleep,
its tides carry us in a wild safety.

The poem “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen is from her collection What the Body Knows (DreamSeeker Books / Cascadia Publishing House, 2015) and is used here by permission of the publisher.

The pages from the early ninth-century Book of Kells (IE TCD MS 58, fols. 200r, 200v, 201r, 201v, 202r) are sourced from the Digital Collections of the Library of Trinity College Dublin. They illuminate Luke 3:23–38 in the Latin Vulgate: Et ipse Iesus erat incipiens quasi annorum triginta ut putabatur filius Ioseph qui fuit Heli qui fuit Matthat qui fuit Levi . . . (“And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi . . .”) Click on the library link to zoom in and explore more, or on the individual images to view at full resolution.

Luke's genealogy (Book of Kells)

Celtic manuscript illumination of Christ in Gethsemane

I wrote today’s visual meditation for ArtWay, on one of the full-page miniatures in the ninth-century Book of Kells from Ireland: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2063&lang=en&action=show.

Christ on the Mount of Olives (Book of Kells)
Christ on the Mount of Olives, from the Book of Kells (fol. 114v), early 9th century.

The framed lunette above Christ’s head contains a Latin inscription of Matthew 26:30: Et hymo dicto exierunt in montem Oliveti (“After a hymn had been said they left for Mount Olivet”). But the artist gives us a very atypical depiction of that scene, one that cross-references the Old Testament story of Israel’s battle against the Amalekites—in particular, the figures Aaron, Moses, and Hur. Click on the link above to learn more.

As I prepared commentary on the painting, meditating on its significance, I thought of Wayne Forte’s Community of Prayer—a beautiful image that, like the one from Kells, invokes an ancient battle story as a metaphor for bearing one another up in prayer.

Community of Prayer by Wayne Forte
Wayne Forte (American, 1950–), Community of Prayer, 2009. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 × 30 in.

(This is a subject Forte has turned to often. See on his website, for example, And the Battle Was Won; Arms of Prayer; Exodus 17:12 MedallionMoses [Sun Radiating]; Moses on a Rock; Moses with Staff; Moses, Aaron, and Hur; Succour; and Until the Sun Set.)