“Breath” by Luci Shaw

Murillo, Bartolome Esteban_The Infant Christ asleep on the cross
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617–1682), The infant Christ asleep on the cross, ca. 1660–65. Oil on canvas, 24 4/5 × 34 3/5 in. (63 × 88 cm). Prado Museum, Madrid.

When, in the cavern darkness, Jesus
opened his small, bleating mouth (even before
his eyes widened to the supple world his
lungs had sighed into being), did he intuit
how hungrily the lungs gasp? Did he begin, then,
to love the way air sighs as it brushes in and out
through the portals of tissue to sustain
the tiny heart’s iambic beating? And how,
fueled by air, the dazzling blood tramps
the crossroads of the brain like donkey tracks,
corpuscles skittering to the earlobes and toenails?

Bottle of the breath of God, speaking in stories,
shouting across wild, obedient water, his voice
was stoppered only by inquisition, unfaith
and anguish. Did he know that he would,
in the end, leak all his blood, heave a final
groan and throw his breath,
oxygen for the world, back to its Source
before the next dark cave?

“Breath” by Luci Shaw appears in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Eerdmans, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

“Highway Song for Valentine’s Day” by Luci Shaw

This year the lunar calendar has given us a unique confluence of holidays on today’s date: Valentine’s Day, and the first day of Lent. Journalists are really playing up their antithetical nature . . . but maybe the two observances aren’t entirely at odds. After all, Lent is about reconnecting and deepening our intimacy with Love himself.

In the following poem Luci Shaw reflects on how human love, despite bold attestations to the contrary, is often ephemeral, whereas God is a “longer Lover” whose vow to love and to cherish is truly eternal, and is evidenced by daily tokens.

Via dell'Amore, Cinque Terre

“Highway Song for Valentine’s Day” by Luci Shaw

“Kim, I love you — Danny”
roadside graffito

On overhead and underpass,
beside the road, beyond the grass,

in aerosol or paint or chalk
the stones cry out, the billboards talk.

On rock and wall and bridge and tree,
boldly engraved for all to see,

hearts and initials intertwine
their passionate, short-lived valentine.

I’m listening for a longer Lover
whose declaration lasts forever:

from field and flower, through wind and breath,
in straw and star, by birth and death,

his urgent language of desire
flickers in dew and frost and fire.

This earliest spring that I have seen
shows me that tender love in green,

and on my windshield, clear and plain,
my Dearest signs his name in rain.

“Highway Song for Valentine’s Day” is published in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation by Luci Shaw (Eerdmans, 2006) and is used here by permission of the publisher. Reproduction of the poem without express permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company is a violation of copyright.

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Unlike in her other poems, Shaw uses here a simple, singsongy meter (iambic tetrameter) that evokes the standard Valentine’s Day fare. Hinging the poem at stanza five, she spends the first half musing on the myriad ways in which young couples broadcast their love, and the second half recounting, by contrast, God’s declarations through nature, through miracle, through beauty. With a love both passionate and tender, he romances us. A soft wind, a starry night, the green of spring—these are his love letters.

This poem urges us to open ourselves to this divine wooing. While we’re busy longing and searching for some perfect love, we may be missing the tokens of God’s affection lavished on us right now.

Today, these words or something like them will be spoken by pastors all over the world:

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
Repent and believe the Good News: God longs for you to be whole.

And this scripture read: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is . . . abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).

We can still celebrate romantic love with our partner—which itself can be a gift and a blessing—but with our foreheads marked with ash, we ought to realize that this love is not ultimate. It is a shadow of a greater, fuller love offered to us from on high, by One who spared no expense in proving it, to the point of giving up his own life. “Greater love has no one than this” (John 15:13a).

And this Lover sends us valentines all year round.

So the next time you’re driving down the highway, caught in a rain shower, remember that you are beloved of God, and that he will never stop reaching out to you, beckoning you into a deeper relationship with him.

Via dell'Amore, Cinque Terre

About the photos: In Cinque Terre, Italy, young couples wanting to declare their eternal love write their names on padlocks and attach them to wire mesh and cables along the Via dell’Amore (Lovers’ Lane). I took these photos in 2009.

Roundup: Mavis Staples documentary, baptizing the imagination, how medieval manuscripts were made, Nubian Christian art, and Twain’s war prayer

Mavis!: The HBO documentary Mavis! profiles gospel and soul music legend Mavis Staples, from her rise to stardom as part of the Staples Singers, whose Uncloudy Day was the first gospel album to sell one million copies, and her involvement in the civil rights movement, to her still active career as a solo artist. “I’ll stop singin’ when I have nothin’ left to say,” she says. “And that ain’t gonna happen!” Watch the trailer below.

Luci Shaw on art and Christian spirituality: In this 1998 article from Direction journal, the oh-so-quotable poet Luci Shaw writes about imagination, mystery, receptivity, sacramentality, the similarities between art and faith, and her muse, the Holy Spirit. Concludes with her poem “Ghostly,” which explores the Spirit’s different manifestations.

Making medieval manuscripts: Through narrated demonstrations, this video by the Getty Museum shows how paper, pens, ink, paint, book covers, and bindings were made during the Middle Ages—laborious processes! It also shows how the illuminators (visual artists) worked with the scribes (calligrapher-copyists), jobs typically filled by two separate people.

Christianity on the Middle Nile: The two largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were actually in modern-day Sudan, writes curator Julie Anderson in a British Museum blog post from 2014: the Makuria and the Alwa kingdoms. Many wall paintings and other objects have been excavated from Faras Cathedral and its adjoining tombs, such as the pottery lamp (with the inscription “Great is the name of God”) and sandstone frieze fragment in the British Museum’s collection. (The paintings are divided between the Sudan National Museum and the National Museum of Warsaw, as it was a Polish team that rescued them from flooding by Lake Nasser.)

Faras Cathedral frieze fragment
Seventh-century sandstone frieze fragment from the former Faras Cathedral in Nubia. Collection of the British Museum.
Fiery Furnace fresco from Faras Cathedral
Fresco from the former Faras Cathedral in Nubia depicting the three youths in the fiery furnace. Collection of the National Museum of Sudan.

“The War Prayer” by Mark Twain: In his day Twain was radically opposed to American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines and frustrated by the so-called patriotism that made his fellow countrymen so uncritically supportive of it. The stranger’s speech in Twain’s short story “The War Prayer,” set during a church service, exposes the ridiculousness of some of the prayers that go up during wartime even today.