Tag Archives: Poetry

An Ethos of Pastoral Care – Gerard Manley Hopkins

In a class on pastoral care yesterday, we read and discussed Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “In the Valley of the Elwy.” Hopkins was a Jesuit priest in nineteenth-century England seized with a deep sense of missionary vocation, and, after his early death, regarded as an outstanding poet. Porter and Porter note that Hopkins later confessed that this poem was “not about the Elwy at all, but about the Watsons of Shooter’s Hill.”

The linking of two separate things—a place he loved and a home that had been hospitable—gives the poem a universality that is intentional, rather than it being a record of a single unique time and place (Porter & Porter, ‘Over the Bent World’: Poems and Images from Gerard Manley Hopkins, 78).

I used the poem not so much to highlight Hopkins’ missionary concern, but to help us reflect on the ethos of pastoral care. The poem has the form of a classical sonnet, and so we used the first stanza to explore Hopkins’ experience as a way into thinking about what pastoral care might look like, and the second stanza to reflect on the fundamental impulse or ethos of pastoral care.

I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.

“I remember a house…” Here Hopkins experienced a welcoming hospitality, filled with warmth and nurturing shelter, a safe and comforting place where fragile new shoots might take root and grow, or new life burst forth under the ‘mothering wing.’ The good air of the place made as it were a ‘hood’ for the people under which he too could find a place, though in fact he recognised that he deserved none of their kindness.

The Welsh countryside, lovely in every respect, is the recipient of this same ‘air’ which, in fact, builds the world of Wales. Yet…

And here Hopkins slips in a different note: “Only the inmate does not correspond.” The class discussed whether the term ‘inmate’ should be read generally as inhabitant, or whether it might carry the sense it does today of one confined, perhaps imprisoned. We did not really reach a conclusion. Perhaps Hopkins was using it in a similar way as we do today with a hint that humanity generally is confined with sickness, imprisoned in all kinds of fears and vice. The class also discussed whether Hopkins was here referring to himself or to the people of Wales more generally. He lived in Wales for three years and was gripped with a concern for the spiritual well-being of the country he loved. Perhaps the more general sense is best.

The people of this ‘cordial air’ are somehow out of step with the beauty and goodness of the natural order, and of the One who is over all. And so in the final three verses Hopkins prays, to a God with ‘considerate scales,’ and pleads with this ‘lover of souls’ to “Complete thy creature dear – O where it fails.” It is a prayer for restoration, for rebuilding from this God who is not merely a mighty master, but a ‘father and fond.’ He prays that the father might with a mothering wing shelter and nurture these wayward souls, perhaps in hope that they too might be a world built in the beauty and goodness intended for them.

There is much to consider here with respect to pastoral care: the welcome and warmth, the nurturing shelter, the primacy of divine love with scales tipped toward considerateness, the place of prayer, the ideals of beauty and goodness, of corresponding to the creational order, and probably more besides. It is a beautiful poem celebrating the beauty of God and the beauty of his creation, and not least, the beauty of all the ‘souls’ – the real people needy and broken – that he loves.

David Ford Lectures

David FordThis week I have had opportunity to attend two events with Professor David Ford from Cambridge. The first was a seminar for faculty and HDR students from the various theological institutions around Perth. The theme of the seminar was a theological hermeneutic for reading the gospel of John. Professor Ford has been writing a theological commentary on John—for many years now—and brought a wealth of reflection on John’s gospel to the seminar. The second event was a public lecture at Murdoch University on “Healthily Plural Civilisation,” the third in a series of lectures on the theme Religion, Violence, and a Vision for Twenty-First Century Civilisation.

The public lecture began with a reading of the epigraph of celebrated Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail’s forthcoming The Five Quintets. The poem, apparently, rehearses the history of modern western culture through engagements with luminaries in the fields of the arts, economics, politics, the sciences, and philosophy and theology, posing a vision for the humane continuation of the civilisation. It sounds like an extraordinary achievement.

Ford exposited the eight stanzas of the epigraph to distil a series of mottos or “headlines” toward a vision of peaceful and flourishing civilisation in the twenty-first century, with a particular appeal to the religions and the universities, the two locations of his life’s work. The eight mottos are

  • Inspirational wisdom
  • Imaginative creativity
  • Generous economics
  • Covenantal politics
  • Wise sciences
  • Deep reasonings
  • Peaceful intensities
  • Celebratory delight

I especially appreciated Ford’s implied exhortation to take daring risks for the sake of building peace-filled relationships and communities, and his insight that genuine formation occurs through intentional practices of face-to-face intensive conversations with colleagues and peers, and across generations.

Ford, I think, practises what he preaches. He regularly participates in inter-religious groups reading one another’s sacred texts and engaging in dialogue with them. Thus he reads Christian scriptures with Jews and Muslims, and presumably, Jewish and Islamic scriptures with the same groups. In a social context he tells of spending a week in a US prison with inmates gaoled for life, exploring Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It seems he has drunk deeply in the wells of the Christian scriptures and tradition and has found a means of expressing that tradition in faithful and joy-filled life in and for the world.

I reproduce here the first and eighth of the stanzas from O’Siadhail’s epigraph:

Be with me Madam Jazz I urge you now
Riff in me so I can conjure how
You breathe in us more than we dare allow…

In all our imperfections we advance
Trusting in creation’s free-willed chance;
Sweet Madam Jazz in you we are the dance.

Social Justice and Christian Faithfulness

alysia-harris2Our new little small group read “Justice is more than a political issue now—it’s a spiritual one.” Alysia Harris is an award-winning poet whose poems “come from a love for the world and from a desire to see it transformed” (from her web-page). She is also an educator, scholar, and activist. Until now, I had not heard of her, but some of the lines of poetry on her homepage are extraordinary:

Obese as the night sky is, its greed does not outweigh the first mouthful of dawn.

We ain’t no Medusas here but each one of us got a stare that could cut glass.

I like much of what Alysia has said, including her (very radical) commitment to reconciliation, and to acting locally and relationally, her recognition that the state is not our liberation, and her conviction that social justice must “be done” through a theological lens.

I would have liked to see more about the church, the community of Jesus, as the place where those commitments are to be realised – if we are to “turn again to” and follow the way of Jesus. And I cannot help but wonder if making Christian faith a subset of “my identity” will ultimately subvert the gospel – if “I” rather than Christ remains the centre of my identity and agency (see, e.g. Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21; 3:20).

There are important issues here, including the slippery relation between Christian faithfulness and progressive politics. (See my recent post on Relevance or Resilience).

“Mystery”

table-fellowshipSeveral years I gave my Introduction to Theology class an assignment on the Lord’s Supper. They were to explore biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives and conclude with their own hopefully-now-informed view. One student wrote a fine paper on the topic and then appended to her essay a poem she had written while reflecting on the material she was studying. I was delighted with Nicki Bowles’ poem. I hope you enjoy it as I did.

Mystery

Bread of the earth
I smell you and see your substance
I reach out my hand and touch you
I break you, smell you, taste you…

I close my eyes
You are before me
I see your broken body
And the light as it fades from your eyes
I smell fear, and blood
I hear jeers and cries of pain
I reach out my hand and touch you
Your bowed head, your mangled hands
You are there, broken, and I take you in

I turn and see you — there, again!
You sit at a table
A feast laid out before you
I smell incense, the aroma of food
I see the light dance in your eyes
And your dear face smiling
I reach out my hand and touch you
Your energy pulses through me
You are here, alive, and I am with you

The bread
The sacrifice
The life
All so real
I take them in
And I am changed…

© 2012 Nicola Bowles

Mosaic of the Nativity – An Advent Poem

Mosaic of the Nativity

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995)

An Advent Poem

Advent-1

About a month or so ago, I preached at Bentley Baptist Church, and at the end of the service the pastor, Aaron, announced that the following week was the beginning of Advent. He asked the congregation, if they could remember, to wear green for that service, and that they would mark Advent with different colours each week, presumably one practice amongst a collection of practices that would help the congregation attune themselves to the coming of Christ, celebrated at Christmas. Something is lost, I think, when churches do not practice Advent. We rush, unthinking, toward Christmas and it becomes simply another secular holiday on the calendar.

I miss it.

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn

Could but thy soul, O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

(15th Century, from the frontispiece,
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)

Preaching the Atonement: Learning from John Donne

John DonneWilt thou love God, as he thee? then digest,
My Soul, this wholesome meditation.
How God the Spirit, by Angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy breast.
the Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’r begonne)
Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,
Coheir to his glory, and Sabbath’s endless rest;
And, as a robbed man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again:
the Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom he had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
’Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

In last week’s class we were discussing theories of atonement and finished by looking at this classic sonnet (taken from McGrath’s The Christian Theology Reader 3rd edition, 368). After an extended discussion around patristic and medieval approaches, this was refreshing. Colin Gunton complains that Gregory of Nyssa moved from metaphor to mythology by treating the biblical idea of ransom in terms of speculation, God deceiving the devil, capturing him on the hook of Christ’s divinity hidden beneath his humanity (The Actuality of Atonement, 63).

Anselm’s satisfaction theory may well have been a very relevant explanation of the atonement in a feudal context, but it still loses something essential in terms of the gospel. Anselm’s feudal god is too aloof, too touchy, too offended, too demanding. It is true we have profaned God’s honour, but the gospel shows God taking that shame upon himself in order to restore fellowship with his people.

Many expositions of the atonement fixate on mechanics, trying to identify precisely how the atonement works, failing to recognise that the plurality of metaphors in the New Testament serve to illuminate the atonement precisely as they protect its mystery. It is here that Donne’s poem was refreshing. Donne celebrates the mystery and wonder of the atonement, situates it within the overarching story of the love of God, appeals to biblical metaphors, especially the idea of redemption, but steers clear of treating atonement in terms of mechanics. Thus some sense of transaction remains, but Donne does not allow detailed explanation and speculation to overshadow the wonder of divine grace.

This is a good model, I think, for preaching the atonement.

Two (Unrequited?) Love Poems

Erin Martine Sessions

Photo: Rebecca Ding Photography (http://www.rebeccading.com.au/)

One of the people I met at the recent Evangelical History Association Conference was Erin Martine Sessions (Erin’s website, still under development, can be found here: www.erinmartinesessions.com). Erin works at Morling College in Sydney where she is also doing doctoral studies in the Song of Solomon. Her Masters is in English literature, and I found she has a poem in Australian Love Poems (Inkerman & Blunt, 2013, 2014).

These two poems, including Erin’s, come from a section entitled, “We outgrow love like other things.”

Israel
(Erin Martine Sessions, p. 268)

You’ve got someone else in mind
as we walk on ruined temple walls.
This city was built with the stones under our feet
and I am built with parts of you.

As we walk on ruined temple walls
our tongues reclaim the language of Genesis
and I am created with parts of you.
We are raising our own religion

As our tongues reclaim the language of Genesis.
We trace the etymology of maps
to orient our own religion.
And I try not to notice your fingers.

We trace the etymology of maps
to resurrect antiquarian words
and you try not to notice
as I reflect the freckles in your eyes.

I breathe the air from your lungs
and exhale our favourite words:
“I am built with parts of you.”

But you’ve got someone else in mind.

*****

australian-love-poems-2013-edited-by-mark-tredinnick

Bittersweet
(Melinda Smith, p. 272)

#micropoem #divorce
your mistress/tells her friends/

about your enormous/
bank account/
I tell mine/about your tiny/
heart

A Latin Poem & Natural Theology

the-name-of-the-roseI came across this in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (15):

“My good Adso,” my master said, “during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. Alanus de Insulis said that
      omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum
and he was thinking of the endless array of symbols with which God, through His creatures speaks to us of the eternal life. But the universe is even more talkative than Alanus thought, and it speaks not only of the ultimate things (which it does always in an obscure fashion) but also of closer things, and then it speaks quite clearly.”

This little Latin poem is half of the first stanza of a longer medieval work. The whole stanza is:
      Omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum:
      nostrae vitae, nostrae mortis,
      nostri status, nostrae sortis
      fidele signaculum,

which translates roughly as:

     All the world’s creatures
     As a book and a picture
     Are to us as a mirror;
     in it our life, our death,
     our present condition and our passing
     are faithfully signified.

The poem derives from twelfth century Christian theologian and neo-Platonist philosopher Alain de Lille, and makes the simple point that observation of the natural world can inform understanding of our own life. But it does so only up to a point. This poem is like the book of Ecclesiastes: it can see the reality and inevitability of death, but cannot see resurrection. This is the limitation of all forms of natural theology: it requires the revelation given in Jesus and attested in Scripture if it is to speak the truth of our existence. Umberto Eco rightly suggests that God indeed speaks to us through created things of the eternal life, but only obscurely.

See Psalm 19.