More from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's reflections on Mary.
Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary
Earth-sounds and motions, opens on Thy soul
High dreams on fire with God;
High songs that make the pathways where they roll
More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new
Of Thine eternal Nature's old abode.
Suffer this mother's kiss,
Best thing that earthly is,
To glide the music and the glory through,
Nor narrow in Thy dream the broad upliftings
Of any seraph wing.Thus noiseless, thus.
Sleep, sleep my dreaming One!
The slumber of His lips meseems to run
Through my lips to mine heart, to all its shiftings
Of sensual life, bringing contrariousness
In a great calm. I feel I could lie down
As Moses did, and die,* —and then live most.
I am 'ware of you, heavenly Presences,
That stand with your peculiar light unlost,
Each forehead with a high thought for a crown,
Unsunned i' the sunshine! I am 'ware. Ye throw
No shade against the wall! How motionless
Ye round me with your living statuary,
While through your whiteness, in and outwardly,
Continual thoughts of God appear to go,
Like light's soul in itself. I bear, I bear
To look upon the dropt lids of your eyes,
Though their external shining testifies
To that beatitude within which were
Enough to blast an eagle at his sun:
I fall not on my sad clay face before ye,—I look on His. I know
My spirit which dilateth with the woe
Of His mortality,
May well contain your glory.
Yea, drop your lids more low.
Ye are but fellow-worshippers with me!
Sleep, sleep, my worshipped One!
Was Elizabeth’s pregnancy planned? The idea of an old couple, an old childless couple, planning a pregnancy sounds crazy, but of course it was not their idea, Someone Else had planned it, they had to make His plan their own.
Zachary’s mutism was perhaps a gift, not a punishment; time to reflect, writing the essentials on a clay tablet, time for patience. Did he need nine months of patience after all those years of waiting, of prayer, of resignation? Perhaps he did. This time he had the promise visibly being fulfilled in Elizabeth’s swelling womb; she herself was filled with joyful acceptance and sang when her cousin appeared, complete with her own unlooked-for but now expected little one.
Zachary it was who had the task of telling everyone the name of his son: his loss of speech seems to have led his neighbours to believe he had lost his mind as well. John was certainly a gift for his parents, but also a gift for the people of Israel. But caring for his parents in old age? No: the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel. (Luke 2.80)
God used Angels to take the Good News of John and Jesus to their parents, parents who were together and who loved and supported each other. But sometimes pregnancy can seem like a disaster, not a gift. I’d like to share these words of Susannah Black which are from the transcript of a discussion with Paul Mommsen and Zito Madu at The PloughCast. Ms Black is exploring some of what being pro-life means, and trying to get away from the discussion being focused on the right of the mother versus the right of the unborn.
Tap on the link for the full transcript.
One of the transformations of ways that I’ve gone about being pro-life has been to move from a discussion of the right to life, away from that and away from a rights-based discussion to just like, “What is the good here? Is there a good in the existence of human beings? Is there a good in a human baby however and wherever, whether or not that baby was planned and is that a good that we can do our best to make room for?”
It’s not about whether or not abortion should be legal, it’s about what it means to be a woman who has a body that can carry children, what it means to find yourself pregnant, what it means to find something happening in your life that you did not plan, and what it means to honor that gift even if it’s a really difficult gift to honor.
I guess one of the things that I am committed to as a pro-life person, is doing my best to, as a woman and as a friend and politically as well, making it easier for women to experience, even unexpected pregnancies as something that they can say yes to, and as something that they can experience as gifts.
From God’s presence with Samuel Johnson in a dreadful storm to his presence in a ‘dreadful place’. Jacob called it Beth-el, the House-of-God, after the dream of the ladder, or staircase, between Heaven and Earth. William Blake has shown Jacob with arms outstretched, feet crossed, head to one side, reminiscent of the Crucified One, his descendant. So the Cross, our daily cross, is the Gate of Heaven, as shown in the weather vane of the former Holy Cross Church in Canterbury (now the Guildhall). Certainly the hill of Calvary was a dreadful place, but the opening of the Tomb completed its work and opened the Gate of Heaven.
And when Jacob was come to a certain place, and would rest in it after sunset, he took of the stones that lay there, and putting under his head, slept in the same place.And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending by it; And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed.And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and IN THEE and thy seed all the tribes of the earth SHALL BE BLESSED. And I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I shall have accomplished all that I have said.
And when Jacob awaked out of sleep, he said: Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And trembling he said: How terrible is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven.
And Jacob, arising in the morning, took the stone, which he had laid under his head, and set it up for a title, pouring oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of the city Bethel, which before was called Luza. And he made a vow, saying: If God shall be with me, and shall keep me in the way by which I walk, and shall give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, And I shall return prosperously to my father’s house: the Lord shall be my God: And this stone, which I have set up for a title, shall be called the house of God: and of all things that thou shalt give to me, I will offer tithes to thee.
Robert Southwell was a Jesuit missioner to England in the time of Elizabeth I; he was imprisoned, tortured, condemned and hung drawn and quartered. Paul VI canonised him as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.
Despite his religion, his poetry was respected in his lifetime. Much of it was overtly religious like this exploration of Mary’s feelings at Calvary. My apologies for presenting a less than sunny post today, England’s Mother’s Day, but there are mothers who will be forgotten this year, mothers who have lost children: let’s spare a thought and prayer for them. And give our own mothers a good day.
A sword will pierce your heart.
What mist hath dimm’d that glorious face? What seas of grief my sun doth toss? The golden rays of heavenly grace Lies now eclipsèd on the cross.
Jesus, my love, my Son, my God, Behold Thy mother wash’d in tears: Thy bloody wounds be made a rod To chasten these my later years.
You cruel Jews, come work your ire Upon this worthless flesh of mine, And kindle not eternal fire By wounding Him who is divine.
Thou messenger that didst impart His first descent into my womb, Come help me now to cleave my heart, That there I may my Son entomb.
You angels, all that present were To show His birth with harmony, Why are you not now ready here, To make a mourning symphony?
The cause I know you wail alone, And shed your tears in secrecy, Lest I should movèd be to moan, By force of heavy company.
But wail, my soul, thy comfort dies, My woful womb, lament thy fruit; My heart give tears unto mine eyes, Let sorrow string my heavy lute.
Sheila Billingsley understands that the sweetness we need at Christmas is more than soft-centred chocolates or saccharine carols in the Supermarket. Those bring very little joy. But the joy of Christmas is paradoxical …
When Christmas seems like Calvary
And stars concealed by cloud,
With stable dark
And manger cold, we seek our childhood's needs
Of sweetness and angels' song.
So quiet the night ...
Rest in the care,
The wondrous care, of a new-born scrap - to be ...
to be our Joy.
Today’s post is an extract from a longer article from the Hermit of Saint Bruno. Worth reading in full, I’m sure much in there will resonate with you, especially if we cannot sing together this Christmastide!
Carthusian monks spend a lot of time singing in choir and cell. They gather to sing the Mass in the morning, then to sing the Office of Vespers at the end of the day, and at night for the long Office of Readings and Lauds. It is the common activity that takes the most time in the life of the monks.
Not only is Gregorian chant inseparable from the liturgy – it is not an ornament – but it is considered an essential spiritual instrument. The Statutes specify it thus:
“Let us observe this manner of chanting, singing in the sight of the most Holy Trinity and the holy angels, penetrated with fear of God and aflame with a deep desire. May the songs we sing raise our minds to the contemplation of eternal realities, and our voices blend into one cry of jubilation before God our Creator.” (Statutes book VI, §52:25)
The Statutes state precisely that singing can elevate the spirit to contemplation of God, that is, to the highest one can expect here below.
To round off this reflection, may I send you back three years to this video from the Poor Clares of Lilongwe, singing and dancing their prayers.
Here is another posting by Eddie Gilmore of London’s Irish Chaplaincy. I’ve just shared a paragraph from the middle, but the whole article, and the links he provides, are worth your perusal. Eddie writes as a musician, so his thoughts on angels and other intelligent beings’ singing are most interesting.
We are told that angels sang at the birth of Christ. Who were those celestial beings that sang at an event that was never going to be on the front page of the Bethlehem Gazette? Whoever they were, I’ll bet they laid down a good tune, with some sublime harmonies and with no one angel hogging the limelight. And what about their unusual audience that starry night? Shepherds, who were outcasts in their community because staying out in the fields at all hours meant that they were unable to observe the normal rituals of the Jewish faith, and who might as well have been a bit tipsy, since they were known to have a little toddy to keep themselves warm. And then those three mysterious characters who had followed a star and who arrived with gifts that the mother of a newly-born wouldn’t exactly find that practical!
I have to say, though, I thought the wise men’s gifts had their uses. Gold would have got the Family to Egypt and bought new tools for Joseph. Frankincense might have sweetened the air of the stable, myrrh helped look after Baby Jesus’ skin, especially in the nappy area. At least, so I used to tell the children!
Another poem from Father Andrew. We won’t be able to press through the church doors this year, but still, every soul should be a shrine for God’s Eternal Son. We can all light a candle upon the altar that is our family dining table.
‘Come along, shepherds,’ the Angels cried, ‘Come along, every one! For great things happen on earth to-night, And you shall see a wondrous sight – In bed of straw, on napkin white, Come down to earth from heaven’s height God’s own Eternal Son.’
‘Come along, comrades,’ the Shepherds cried, And quick those men did run, And in they pressed through the humble door, And low they knelt on the stable floor, Where Mary and Joseph, as poor as poor, In rich contentment did adore God’s own Eternal Son.
‘Come along, Christians,’ the bells ring out, ‘Ding-a-dong, come along, come along!’ For round the Altar tapers shine, Where waits our Saviour, yours and mine, Veiled ‘neath the mystic Bread and Wine, And every soul should be a shrine For God’s Eternal Son.
Saint Francis was one day thinking on his death and of the state of his Order when his life was done, and saying: “O Lord God, what will become of Thy poor little family after my death, the which of Thy goodness Thou hast entrusted to me a sinner? who will pray to Thee for them? and other such words. There appeared unto him an Angel sent by God, and comforted him, saying : “I tell thee in the name of God, that the profession of the Order will never fail until the Day of Judgment, and there will be no sinner so great as not to find mercy with God, if with his whole heart he love thine Order, and none shall live long, that of malice persecutes thy Order. Moreover no very wicked person within thy Order, that does not amend his life, will be able to remain long in the Order.
Wherefore grieve not thyself, if in thine Order thou see certain that be not good brothers and do not observe the Rule as they ought, and think not that thereby this order will decline; for always a many shall be found therein that will perfectly observe the Gospel life of Christ and the purity of the Rule; and all such, immediately after the death of the body; and all such shall go into life eternal without passing through Purgatory; some will observe it but not perfectly, and these before they go to Paradise will be in Purgatory, but the time of their purification shall be left by God to thee. But of him that observes not the Rule at all, take no heed, saith God, for of such He Himself taketh no heed.”
And said these words, the Angel was away, and Saint Francis comforted and consoled.
This window explicitly links the Ascension to Pentecost, ten days later. And there seems to be a female presence in the shape of Mary and another woman in each scene, which is as it should be, despite the Lectionary airbrushing the women out of the Pentecost day reading from Acts.
But today is Ascension Day – Why are you looking up into the sky? What do you expect to see?
Or we could put the Angel’s question another way: if you are looking for Jesus where do you expect to find him? Among the clouds; really? Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it for me. It began with mutual support as the disciples continued to come to grips with all that had happened.
Here and now we can pray for the Spirit to fill our hearts with love, and give us eyes to see Jesus in our neighbours, family, friends.