Saturday, January 19, 2008

From the archives

Alexander Schmemann on the cross and Christian joy:

Part 1.

Part 2.
Dame Edith Sitwell on Dylan Thomas
[Her introduction to a selection of his poems in her anthology The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry. Always an enthusiast for the things she loved, Dame Edith dispenses lavish but sometimes justified praise.]

"Even in religious fervor," said Whitman in his Notebooks, "there is always a touch of animal heat." Both religious fervor and animal heat were in the poetry of Dylan Thomas, to a high degree. His poetry was the "pure fire compressed into holy forms" of which one of Porphyry's Oracles spoke.

His was a language "fanned by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow" (Whitman, Notebooks). He strips from words their old, used, dulled sleepiness, and gives them a refreshed and awakened meaning, a new percussion.

His voice resembles no other voice; the spirit is that of the beginning of created things: there is here no case of a separate imagination, of invention. From the depths of Being, from the roots of the world, a voice speaks.

Boehme said, "The sap in the tree denoteth pure Deity." So it was with Dylan Thomas. He loved and praised "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" and the

animals thick as thieves
On God's rough tumbling ground.

(He saw the world as God's rough tumbling ground, as a ground for joy and the holy wars of the Spirit.)

With him, all is prayer and praise. Poetry to him is prayer. "When we pray," said the Curé d'Ars, "we should open our heart to God, like a fish when it sees the wave coming." "I am so placed and submerged in his great love, that I seem as though in the sea entirely under water, and can on no side touch, see, or feel anything but water." So said Saint Catherine of Genoa. So might have said Dylan Thomas.

His earliest poems are of great strangeness. From the obscure beauty of those early poems, he went to the miraculous concentration of such lines as "A grief ago" and to the poignance of "In the white giant's thigh."

In William James' Principles of Psychology he quotes Condillac as saying that "the first time we see light, we are it rather than see it." In my Poet's Notebook I have a quotation about a painter who paints a tree, becoming a tree. This condensation of essence, this power of "becoming a tree" is one of the powers that make Dylan Thomas a great poet. His poems, at first sight, may appear strange. But if we heard a tree speak to us in its own voice, would not that voice seem strange? His is always the voice of Nature. In the exquisite exactness of the lines --

my ruffled ring dove ...
Coo rooing the woods' praise,
Who moons her blue notes from her nest
Down to the curlew herd ...

-- you see the misty softness of the sweet dove's feathers, you hear the misty softness of her cooing.

Though he felt, I think, and perhaps dreaded the conquering hand of Time, and knew that he must die young, he defied, always, death and the world's dust:

A cock-on-a-dunghill
Crowing to Lazarus the morning is vanity
Dust be your saviour under the conjured soil.

His pity for the outcast, his love for those who have received no mercy from life, are great:

I see the tigron in tears
In the androgynous dark,
His striped and noon maned tribe striding to holocaust,
The she mules bear their minotaurs.

In that great poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, with its dark, magnificent, proud movement, we see Death in its reality -- as a return to the beginning of things, as a robing, as a sacred investiture in those who have been our friends since the beginning of Time.

Bird, beast, and flower have their part in the making of mankind. The water drop is holy, the wheat ear a place of prayer. The "fathering and all-humbling darkness" itself is a begetting force. Even grief, even tears, are a begetting. "The stations of the breath" are the stations of the Cross.
André Louf, Cistercian abbot
Via the January 2002 Magnificat, meditation for Friday the 25th

In fact it is much 'cheaper' to live as a hardened sinner or a hardened righteous person than as a sinner-in-process-of-conversion. And yet, it is this internal reversal at which grace is always aiming, day in and day out. For it is God who comes to touch us in countless ways to teach us conversion. We can only hold ourselves in readiness to be disturbed and emotionally moved by God. For a great deal has to happen that lies outside the reach of our good will and our natural generosity. Reversal means, not merely that we will be inwardly wounded, but that we must be shaken to our very foundations. It means perhaps that we will be broken, that something inside us will collapse -- something like a concrete bunker on which we had worked perhaps for years with exemplary care but which at a given moment began to function solely as a defense system against our deepest self, against others, with the risk that in the end it would protect us even against God's grace.

That collapse is only just the beginning, even though a hopeful one. We must be on our guard not to try to build up again what grace has broken down. This is something we have to learn, for there is always a strong temptation to put scaffolding up around that crumbling façade and to tidy it up. We must learn to acquiesce in the collapse and to sit down amid the rubble without bitterness or self-reproach -- also without reproaching God -- but with hopeful resignation, full of surrender, confident as a child who dreams that his father will fix things again, that he knows how to rebuild them, in a very different way now but much better than before.
"hot celery!"

-- my cousin's 2-year-old son, on being given asparagus
Why I like George Will

Introducing Clinton at a rally, Johnson called Obama a "guy who says, 'I want to be a reasonable, likable Sidney Poitier in 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' " For the uninitiated, that is how you call someone an Uncle Tom in an age that has not read "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

The whole thing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) on the Lord's Prayer
from Living Prayer (Templegate, 1966), pp. 30-32

[...] at the demarcation line between the trials of fire and the beguilement of old habits, stands this absolute condition which God never relaxes: as you forgive, the measure which you use will be used for you; and as you forgive, you will be forgiven; what you do not forgive will be held against you. It is not that God does not want to forgive, but if we come unforgiving, we check the mystery of love, we refuse it and there is no place for us in the kingdom. We cannot go farther if we are not forgiven, and we cannot be forgiven as long as we have not forgiven everyone of those who have wronged us. This is quite sharp and real and precise and no one has any right to imagine that he is in the kingdom of God, that he belongs to it, if there is still unforgiveness in his heart. To forgive one's enemies is the first, the most elementary characteristic of a christian; failing this, we are not yet christian at all, but are still wandering in the scorching desert of Sinai.

But to forgive is something extremely difficult to achieve. To grant forgiveness at a moment of softening of the heart, in an emotional crisis is comparatively easy; not to take it back is something that hardly anyone knows how to do. What we call forgiveness is often putting the other one on probation, nothing more; and lucky are the forgiven people if it is only probation and not remand. We wait impatiently for evidence of repentance, we want to be sure that the penitent is not the same any more, but this situation can last a lifetime and our attitude is exactly the contrary of everything which the gospel teaches, and indeed commands us, to do. So the law of forgiveness is not a little brook on the boundary between slavery and freedom: it has breadth and depth, it is the Red Sea. The Jews did not get over it by their own effort in man-made boats, the Red Sea was cut open by the power of God; God had to lead them across. But to be led by God one must commune with this quality of God which is the ability to forgive. God remembers, in the sense that, once we have done wrong, he will for ever, until we change, take into account that we are weak and frail; but he will never remember in terms of accusation or condemnation; it will never be brought up against us. The Lord will yoke himself together with us, into our lives, and he will have more weight to carry, he will have a heavier cross, a new ascent to Calvary which we are unwilling or incapable of undertaking.

[...] But to be able to say 'Forgive as I forgive' is [...] one of the greatest problems of life. Thus, if you are not prepared to leave behind you every resentment that you have against those who were your overlords or slavedrivers, you cannot cross. If you are capable of forgiving, that is of leaving behind in the land of slavery, all your slavish mentality, all your greed and grasping and bitterness, you can cross. After that you are in the scorching wilderness, because it will take time for a free man to be made out of a slave.

All that we possessed as slaves in the land of Egypt we are deprived of -- no roof, no shelter, no food, nothing but the wilderness and God. Earth is no longer capable of feeding us; we can no longer rely on natural food, so we pray 'give us day by day our daily bread'. God gives it even when we go astray, because if he did not we should die before we could reach the border of the promised land. Keep us alive, O God, give us time to err, to repent, to take the right course.
by David Gascoyne (1916-2001)

Slow are the years of light : And more immense
Than the imagination. And the years return
Until the Unity is filled. And heavy are
The lengths of Time with the slow weight of tears.
Since thou didst weep, on a remote hill-side
Beneath the olive-trees, fires of unnumbered stars
Have burnt the years away, until we see them now :
Since Thou didst weep, as many tears
Have flowed like hourglass sand.
Thy tears were all.
And when our secret face
Is blind because of the mysterious
Surging of tears wrung by our most profound
Presentiment of evil in man's fate, our cruellest wounds
Become Thy stigmata. They are Thy tears which fall.
Thomas Traherne (1637-74)
from the Centuries of Meditation

The Cross is the Abyss of Wonders, the Centre of Desires, the Schole of Virtues, the Hous of Wisdom, the Throne of Lov, the Theatre of Joys and the Place of Sorrows; It is the Root of Happiness and the Gate of Heaven.

Of all the Things in Heaven and Earth it is the most Peculiar. It is the most Exalted of all Objects. It is an Ensign lifted up for all Nations, to it shall the Gentiles seek, His Rest shall be Glorious : the Dispersed of Judah shall be gathered together to it, from the four Corners of the Earth. If Lov be the Weight of the Soul, and its Object the Centre. All Eys and Hearts may convert and turn unto this Object : cleave unto this Centre, and by it enter into Rest. There we might see all Nations Assembled with their Eys and Hearts upon it. There we may see Gods Goodness Wisdom and Power : yea his Mercy and Anger displayed. There we may see Mans Sin and infinit value. His Hope and Fear, his Misery and Happiness. There we might see the Rock of Ages, and the Joys of Heaven. There we may see a Man Loving all the World, and a GOD Dying for Mankind There we may see all Types and Ceremonies, figures and Prophesies. And all Kingdoms Adoring a Malefactor : An Innocent Malefactor, yet the Greatest in the World. There we may see the most Distant Things in Eternity united : all Mysteries at once couched together and Explained. The only reason why this Glorious Object is so Publickly Admired by Churches and Kingdoms, and so little thought of by Pa[r]ticular men, is becaus it is truly the most Glorious. It is the Root of Comforts, and the Fountain of Joys. It is the only Supreme and Soveraign Spectacle in all Worlds. It is a Well of Life beneath in which we may see the face of Heaven abov : and the only Mirror, wherin all things appear in their Proper Colors. that is, sprinkled in the Blood of our Lord and Savior.

The Cross of Christ is the Jacobs ladder by which we Ascend into the Highest Heavens. There we see Joyfull Patriarchs, Expecting saints, and Prophets Ministering, Apostles Publishing and Doctors Teaching. All Nations concentering, and Angels Praising. That Cross is a Tree set on fire with invisible flame, that Illuminateth all the World. The Flame is Lov. The Lov in His Bosom who died on it. In the light of which we see how to possess all the Things in Heaven and Earth after His Similitud. For He that Suffered on it, was the Son of GOD as you are : tho he seemed a Mortal Man. He had Acquaintance and Relations as you hav, but He was a Lover of Men and Angels. Was He not the Son of GOD and Heir of the Whole World? To this poor bleeding Naked Man did all the Corn and Wine and Oyl, and Gold and Silver in the World, minister in an Invisible Maner, even as he was exposed Lying and Dying on the Cross.
it was a liking for goodness which had nothing to do with any attempt to be good myself. ... It was a matter of taste: I felt the 'charm' of goodness as a man feels the charm of a woman he has no intention of marrying.

-- C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy, quoted by Joseph Pearce, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (Ignatius, 2003), p. 20
winter-hardy foliage

-- phrase from somewhere in Rilke's Duino Elegies

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Books I almost bought

from the basement (used-book section) of Harvard Book Store:

-- The Life of Dylan Thomas by Constantine FitzGibbon. About $2. Never read it before.

-- and a book by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press) about C S Lewis and the Catholic Church. Don't remember the title exactly.

Update, 1/18 : Exact title of the Pearce book, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church. Went back to HBS and snatched it up, along with the FitzGibbon bio of Dylan Thomas. Might tackle Pearce first.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Messianic wibble watch

Another Brit is on to him.

Via Andrew Sullivan, who has fallen for the wibble, hook, line & sinker.

My own perfidy

by José García Villa (1908-97)

My most. My most. O my lost!
O my bright, my ineradicable ghost.
At whose bright coast God seeks
Shelter and is lost is lost. O
Coast of Brightness. O cause of
Grief. O rose of purest grief.
O thou in my breast so stark and
Holy-bright. O thou melancholy
Light. Me. Me. My own perfidy.
O my most my most. O the bright
The beautiful, the terrible Accost.

From A Book of the Winter, ed. Dame Edith Sitwell (Vanguard, 1951), p. 41.