His body doubled
under the pack
that sprawls untidily
on his old back,
the cold wet dead-beat
plods up the track.
The cook peers out:
oh, curse that old lag—
with his clumsy swag
made of a dirty old
Bring him in, cook,
from the cold level sleet:
put silk on his body,
slippers on his feet;
give him fire
and bread and meat.
Let the fruit be plucked
and the cake be iced,
the bed be snug
and the wine be spiced
for the old cove’s night-cap—
for this is Christ.
R. A. K. Mason (1905–1971) was one of New Zealand’s preeminent poets. Written around 1932, his poem “On the Swag” was inspired by Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus says that our treatment of the poor redounds to him. That is, if we ignore the cries of the poor or even directly reject them, we are effectually ignoring or rejecting Christ—but if we welcome the poor into our homes and lives and endeavor to meet their needs, it is as if we welcome Christ himself.
In New Zealand and Australia, “swag” refers to a pack of personal belongings, and to “go on the swag” is an informal expression meaning to become a wandering foot-traveler, lacking a permanent residence and steady work. So in the poem a homeless man, hunched over in exhaustion and with his meager bag of possessions in tow, is passing down a neighborhood lane. A house cook sees him through the window and in vexation complains about what an eyesore he is, stinking up the streets and making the city look bad. She has seen him in these quarters before and wishes him good riddance.
But in the next two stanzas a more compassionate voice intervenes—probably the master or mistress of the house, or otherwise an intrusive narrator. This voice orders the cook to bring the man inside and to lavish him with the finest foods and dress, and then to make up a warm bed for the “old cove.” (“Cove” is an old-fashioned British word meaning “fellow.”) The last line tells us what impels this loving and urgent hospitality: “this is Christ.”
Whenever you encounter an outstretched hand or a dejected face, how might seeing it as the hand or face of Christ impact your response?
Copyright credit: “On the Swag” by R. A. K. Mason was originally published in 1932 in Kiwi: The Magazine of the Auckland University College and more recently has appeared in R. A. K. Mason: Collected Poems (Victoria University Press, 2014). It is reproduced here by permission of Hocken Library Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, Dunedin, the holder of Mason’s papers.
After nudges from several readers, I’ve decided to join Instagram! Follow me @art_and_theology. I’m still trying to settle on how I’d like to use the platform, but in the meantime, I’ve been sharing photos I’ve taken on visits to art museums and spaces that house sacred art. (And in case you don’t already know, Art & Theology is also on Facebook and Twitter.)
DANCE: “Sign of the Times,” choreographed by Travis Wall: Premiering August 19, 2019, on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance (season 16, episode 11), this contemporary dance piece is choreographer Travis Wall’s response to the gun violence epidemic in America. It’s a communal lament through movement, really—an expression of fear, sadness, pain, anger, frustration, and defiance. It is performed by this season’s “top ten”: Benjamin Castro, Gino Cosculluela, Eddie Hoyt, Madison Jordan, Anna Linstruth, Bailey Muñoz, Sophie Pittman, Mariah Russell, Ezra Sosa, and Stephanie Sosa.
FEATURED POET: Marjorie Maddox: The latest installment of Abbey of the Arts’ Featured Poet series is, as usual, wonderful! I’ve read some of Maddox’s poems in magazines and anthologies but haven’t yet gotten my hands on one of her collections. This feature has incentivized me to request a copy of Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation through my local library.
“The work of poetry,” Maddox writes, is “empathy and epiphany. The process of writing and reading allows us to better understand this world and the next. Poetry connects the local and universal, the mundane and the miraculous. It gives us those ears to hear and eyes to see that we might, then, head back into the turning world sustained, nourished, and willing to learn more. And will this not lead us to the Sacred? Yes, I say. Yes.”
ESSAY: “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality” by Robert Cording: I really enjoyed this essay from Image journal about the importance of attending to the world. “Attention is simply a loving look at what is,” writes Cording, a poet and birdwatcher. He discusses seeing not as a physiological act but as perceiving the fullness that exists in each moment. “Seeing is impossible without love or reverence,” he says. Along the way he engages with Marie Howe, Aristotle, Emerson and Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Heidegger, Hopkins, Czesław Miłosz, and Marilynne Robinson. He also walks us through three poems: Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Wallace Stevens’s “Man on the Dump,” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Pitchfork.” So much goodness here!
EXHIBITION: Abraham: Out of One, Many, curated by Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler of Caravan: Caravan is an international nonprofit that uses the arts to build sustainable peace around the world. “Our peacebuilding work is based on the belief that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, and facilitate friendship between diverse peoples, cultures and faiths.”
Caravan’s current exhibition is built around Abraham, a key ancestral figure shared by the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Caravan commissioned three Middle Eastern artists, one from each of these faith traditions, to each create five paintings on these subjects: Living as a Pilgrim, Welcoming the Stranger, Sacrificial Love, The Compassionate, and A Friend of God. The exhibition of resulting works opened May 3 at St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome. From there it has traveled to Paris and Edinburgh and, starting September 8, will be in the States, touring through 2021 with stops in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, DC, Chicago, and more (see schedule). There’s an excellent digital catalog available, which contains full-color reproductions and descriptions of all fifteen paintings.
MUSICAL: In the Green by Grace McLean:Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 produces shows by new playwrights, directors, and designers, and for this summer, they commissioned a musical about the twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. (It finished its run on August 4, so I’m late in publicizing it—sorry!) A Benedictine nun and later abbess, Hildegard was also a composer, poet, dramatist, theologian, botanist, and healer—a true polymath. In the Green focuses on her relationship with her mentor, Jutta, just six years her senior.
Here’s Grace McLean, the show’s lyricist, composer, playwright, and player of Jutta, performing “Eve” (which uses looping technology!), followed by a short conversation between her and one of the other cast members. [HT: Still Life]