“The Waterfall” by Henry Vaughan

Senju, Hiroshi_Waterfall
Hiroshi Senju (Japanese, 1958–), Waterfall, 2016. Acrylic and fluorescent pigments on Japanese mulberry paper, 51 × 64 in. Photo courtesy of Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
                  Here flowing fall,
                  And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stayed
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid,
                  The common pass
                  Where, clear as glass,
                  All must descend
                  Not to an end,
But quick’ned by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

      Dear stream! dear bank! where often I
      Have sat, and pleased my pensive eye;
      Why, since each drop of thy quick store
      Runs thither, whence it flowed before,
      Should poor souls fear a shade or night,
      Who came, sure, from a sea of light?
      Or, since those drops are all sent back
      So sure to Thee, that none doth lack,
      Why should frail flesh doubt any more
      That what God takes He’ll not restore?

      O useful element and clear!
      My sacred wash and cleanser here;
      My first consigner unto those
      Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes!
      What sublime truths and wholesome themes
      Lodge in thy mystical, deep streams!
      Such as dull man can never find
      Unless that Spirit lead his mind,
      Which first upon thy face did move,
      And hatched all with his quick’ning love.
      As this loud brook’s incessant fall
      In streaming rings restagnates all,
      Which reach by course the bank, and then
      Are no more seen: just so pass men.
      O my invisible estate,
      My glorious liberty, still late!
      Thou art the channel my soul seeks,
      Not this with cataracts and creeks.

 

In “The Waterfall” by Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), a stream’s sudden surge and plummet over a precipice followed by a calm, continued flow is a picture of the soul’s passage into eternity—the continuation of life after death.

The speaker addresses the stream and its retinue of waters, who “murmur” and “chide”—that is, make incessant noise (in the word’s archaic sense). The waters move with increasing momentum toward the brink and hesitate just before but then take the plunge. Briefly brought under, in their “deep and rocky grave” they are “quickened,” made alive once more, as they rise back up to the surface and course smoothly onward, no longer in a state of agitation. After a momentary crash, serenity.

Vaughan represents this action visually with an alternation of groups of long lines and short lines, which give the impression of water tumbling over ledges of rock. The lines then steady out into a uniform column, signifying the water’s becoming sedate.

“Why,” the speaker wonders, “since each drop of thy quick store / Runs thither, whence it flowed before, / Should poor souls fear a shade or night, / Who came, sure, from a sea of light?” Death is benevolent, merely a drop-off along the route and then reconstitution to the whole. Just as the stream that has fallen returns to the vast ocean from whence (via the cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation) it came, so, too, does the soul return to God, its origin.

In the final stanza the speaker muses on water as sacrament—baptism, he says, is our “first consigner unto those / Fountains of life, where the Lamb goes” (see Rev. 7:17; cf. Isa. 49:10). In other words, our baptism gives us over to God, to the New Eden. If baptism is our first consigner, then death is our final consigner, bringing us at last to the One to whom we belong.

The profound mystical truth hidden in something as natural as a waterfall is discerned only by those whom the Spirit reveals it to—that same Spirit who hovered over the waters at Creation (Gen. 1:2) “[a]nd hatched all with his quick’ning love.”

I write this in memory of my husband Eric’s grandfather, who died Sunday. I’m consoled by the image of him as a water droplet whose plunge does not mean a cessation of being but rather a flowing into God, into “glorious liberty.” When water plunges down, it sends ripples toward the bank, Vaughan writes, but then settles into stillness and is imperceptibly carried away to a destination out of view. So Grandpa Jones is now on “a longer course more bright and brave,” flowing toward “a sea of light.”

C’mon! (Artful Devotion)

Resurrection of the Dead (stained glass)
The angel Gabriel awakes the dead on Resurrection Day in this medieval stained glass tondo from the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Photo: Spencer Means.

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

—Hebrews 9:27–28

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SONG: “Get Happy” | Words by Ted Koehler, 1930 | Music by Harold Arlen, 1930 | Performed by the Puppini Sisters, on Hollywood (2011)

See also the Judy Garland version from Summer Stock (1950), below, which the American Film Institute ranked #61 in its survey of top tunes in American cinema.

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“The Day of Judgment” by Henry Vaughan

O day of life, of light, of love!
The only day dealt from above!
A day so fresh, so bright, so brave,
’Twill show us each forgotten grave,
And make the dead, like flowers, arise
Youthful and fair to see new skies.
All other days, compared to thee,
Are but Light’s weak minority;
They are but veils, and cypress drawn
Like clouds, before thy glorious dawn.
O come! arise! shine! do not stay,
Dearly loved day!
The fields are long since white, and I
With earnest groans for freedom cry;
My fellow-creatures too say “Come!”
And stones, though speechless, are not dumb.
When shall we hear that glorious voice
Of life and joys?
That voice, which to each secret bed
Of my Lord’s dead,
Shall bring true day, and make dust see
The way to immortality?
When shall those first white pilgrims rise,
Whose holy, happy histories
—Because they sleep so long—some men
Count but the blots of a vain pen?
Dear Lord! make haste!
Sin every day commits more waste;
And Thy old enemy, which knows
His time is short, more raging grows.
Nor moan I only—though profuse—
Thy creature’s bondage and abuse;
But what is highest sin and shame,
The vile despite done to Thy name;
The forgeries, which impious wit
And power force on Holy Writ,
With all detestable designs,
That may dishonor those pure lines.
O God! though mercy be in Thee
The greatest attribute we see,
And the most needful for our sins,
Yet, when Thy mercy nothing wins
But mere disdain, let not man say
“Thy arm doth sleep,” but write this day
Thy judging one: descend, descend!
Make all things new, and without end!

(Related post: “Get Ready (Artful Devotion)”)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 27, cycle B, click here.

Joyful Lent (Artful Devotion)

Genesis 9:13 by Sawai Chinnawong
Sawai Chinnawong (Thai, 1959–), Genesis 9:13, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 27 × 27 in.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

—Genesis 9:8–17

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MUSIC: Keyboard Sonata in C Major (K. 159, L. 104) by Domenico Scarlatti | Arranged for banjo by Béla Fleck and for mandolin by Edgar Meyer | Performed by Béla Fleck and Chris Thile on Perpetual Motion (2001)

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This art and music may seem inappropriately light and bright for the first Sunday of Lent, a season that’s stereotypically thought of as gloomy and self-deprecating. But the Old Testament reading the Revised Commentary Lectionary assigns to this day is God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood, a passage filled with great hope.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Lent does not mean forty days of beating yourself up. It literally means “springtime,” and it’s a time of renewal in preparation for Easter. Self-examination is a major component, yes, but so is grabbing hold of the divine promise—of God’s wondrous love and mercy.

In my church’s liturgy (and this is common across denominations), the confession of sin is always followed by words of assurance—a verse of scripture, spoken by the pastor, that reminds us of the pardon we receive through Christ. We are not left in the darkness of our failures; we are brought into the light, and given power to live as children of the light. Repentance is a joyous thing! That’s why the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, a Second Vatican Council document, refers to Lent as the “joyful season.” It’s joyful because God’s mercy is amazing.

After forty days on a dark boat, and then some, Noah, his family, and a whole bunch of animals come out to a renewed earth, and to a promise painted across the sky in bright colors that never again will all God’s creation be destroyed. Similarly, during Lent we choose to enter a period of darkness, taking stock of our sin. It can seem like a rocking journey, but it’s really a period of regeneration, and when we arrive at Easter we receive, as confirmation of the new life that’s possible, the resurrected Christ. He’s there for us all along—we need not wait till Lent’s over to enter his forgiveness and to rise with him. But we also don’t want to skip over the necessary steps of first acknowledging the depth of our sin, and confessing it with a contrite heart.

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Excerpt from “The Agreement” by Henry Vaughan, from Silex Scintillans:

But while Time runs, and after it
Eternity, which never ends,
Quite through them both, still infinite,
Thy covenant by Christ extends;
No sins of frailty, nor of youth,
Can foil His merits, and Thy truth.

And this I hourly find, for Thou
Dost still renew, and purge and heal:
Thy care and love, which jointly flow,
New cordials, new cathartics deal.
But were I once cast off by Thee,
I know—my God!—this would not be.

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Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I have a poem planned for publication here at Art & Theology. But I also wrote a short visual meditation for the Anglican Church in North America, which you can find at the bottom of their Lent website, https://giftoflent.org/. It’s on Ted Prescott’s mixed-media artwork All My Sins, which incorporates paper ash, the residue left over from the artist’s burning of a list of his personal sins.

All My Sins by Ted Prescott
Theodore Prescott (American, 1944–), All My Sins, 1996. Cherry, lead, hand-blown glass, paper ash, and silicon, 36.5 × 24.5 × 5 in.

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday of Lent, cycle B, click here.