Tag Archives: despair

1 May: The fools that we were.

wild plum blossom

The First of May

by A. E. Housman

 The orchards half the way
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.

 The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.
 
Between the trees in flower
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now's the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.
 
Ay, yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.


From Last Poems by A. E. Housman.

It is as well to acknowledge the other side of the coin. Not everyone accepts the Christian or any other religious view of life. Housman was an atheist, and here seems close to despair: the sumless tale of sorrow is all unrolled in vain. Sorrow is beyond calculation: May fair at Ludlow repeats May fair at Ludlow, repeats May fair at Ludlow; and the sons of men learn sense only when it is too late. The poet was writing in the years after the Great War, and like many of his lyrics The First of May alludes to the futility of war and the price of war in human suffering.

No skating over these questions of human sinfulness and apparent divine indifference!

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31 March. Spy Wednesday: what was Judas thinking?

Jesus abused under arrest. Strasbourg.

Well, what was Judas thinking when he went to the authorities for his pieces of silver? He will not have told himself that betraying Jesus was the worst thing he could do, so that’s just what he would do; no, he must have convinced himself that it was the best possible course of action in the circumstances.

Was he trying to force his Master’s hand, engineering a scene such as had happened in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, when Jesus passed through the crowd that was trying to stone him? (Luke 4:16-30) That seems unlikely as Luke says he was looking for a time when the crowd was not present in order to hand Jesus over. (22.6) Was he hoping that Jesus would then and there abandon his peaceful mission, instead establishing the Kingdom of Israel in a brilliant coup d’etat? Or did he see himself as clear-sighted, holding out no hope for Project Jesus, so he would cut his losses and take the money and run.

His suicide suggests that he was not that clear-sighted and cynical. I do not think he expected events to work out as they did; his self image may have been of a Mr Fix-it, forcing change on Jesus. Perhaps he expected the 11 and other disciples to rally round, overpowering or recruiting the posse sent to arrest Jesus and rampaging triumphant into the city. If he thought Jesus would enter into his Kingdom by military or mob force he was profoundly mistaken about him; but so were the other disciples, every one in their own way. But they clung together and did not hang themselves.

And then what? Clearly Jesus meant more to him than the money, the blood money that could not go into the treasury. (Matthew 27:3-8) His suicide speaks of hope abandoned – as we read yesterday, those who have something to hope for survive. Judas surely felt unable to return to the community of the disciples after what he’d done. Peter wept bitterly, but still stuck around. The reality of his prophetic words – you have the message of eternal life – did not sink in until Sunday morning. Too late to save Judas.

But never too late for his Lord and Friend to save Judas. That’s clearly what the artist of Strasbourg Cathedral felt, when he carved the Lamb of God rescuing Judas from his noose at the very gate of Hell.

Hope springs eternal.

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26 March: lightly locked, Gates VIII.

“The gates of heaven are lightly locked,
We do not guard our gold,
Men may uproot where worlds begin,
Or read the name of the nameless sin;
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told.

“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet 
And the sea rises higher. 

“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

Even as she spoke she was not,
Nor any word said he, 
He only heard, still as he stood
Under the old night’s nodding hood,
The sea-folk breaking down the wood
Like a high tide from sea.

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24 March: Alfred at Heaven’s gate; Gates VII.

Alfred-jewel-ashmolean.jpg (1536×2048)
The Alfred Jewel by Mkooiman, CC BY-SA 4.0

In this extract from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, King Alfred (r 871-899) is facing defeat at the hands of pagan Vikings and the loss of his Kingdom of Wessex, England. He prayed and received a vision of Mary, mother of Jesus, ‘Our Lady’. Two more extracts follow as part of our Gates series.

          Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
          Like the child's book to read,
          Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
          He looked; and there Our Lady was,
          She stood and stroked the tall live grass
          As a man strokes his steed.

          Her face was like an open word
          When brave men speak and choose,
          The very colours of her coat
          Were better than good news.

          She spoke not, nor turned not,
          Nor any sign she cast,
          Only she stood up straight and free,
          Between the flowers in Athelney,
          And the river running past.

          One dim ancestral jewel hung
          On his ruined armour grey,
          He rent and cast it at her feet:
          Where, after centuries, with slow feet,
          Men came from hall and school and street
          And found it where it lay.

          "Mother of God," the wanderer said,
          "I am but a common king,
          Nor will I ask what saints may ask,
          To see a secret thing.

          "The gates of heaven are fearful gates
          Worse than the gates of hell;
          Not I would break the splendours barred
          Or seek to know the thing they guard,
          Which is too good to tell.

          "But for this earth most pitiful,
          This little land I know,
          If that which is for ever is,
          Or if our hearts shall break with bliss,
          Seeing the stranger go?

          "When our last bow is broken, Queen,
          And our last javelin cast,
          Under some sad, green evening sky,
          Holding a ruined cross on high,
          Under warm westland grass to lie,
          Shall we come home at last?"

This should not be read as a chauvinist or xenophobic text: two of Alfred's generals were Mark, a Roman still living in Wessex, and the Welshman Colan. And Alfred defeats the Danish invaders, but also converts them to Christianity and comes to a peace settlement with them. But that is in the future that he cannot see. Part of Mary's answer runs:
          "I tell you naught for your comfort,
          Yea, naught for your desire,
          Save that the sky grows darker yet
          And the sea rises higher."

Suffering, despair, fear are the gate to 'home at last'. 

                                                                      Read more about the Alfred Jewel, mentioned in the 4th verse here.


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3 November: What immortal grief hath touched thee …

gatewoods (800x482)
Another lyric of Sappho, translated by Bret Carman. 
Is your heart filled with disillusion at all things human – vanity of vanity, says the preacher (Ecclesiastes 1.2); the Bible, the Word of God, explores the same feelings of ultimate dissatisfaction with things fleeting and desired, as Sappho. But the Lord God is not fettered, as the Olympians were. His love leads, but also seeks out the lost sheep. As Sappho wants to believe, there is a place of safety, where every tear will be wiped away.
Let us pray that those in the depths of disillusion may find freedom in God’s love, and that we may be a light on their path, and be wise beyond words in our dealings with them.
Soul of sorrow, why this weeping?
What immortal grief hath touched thee
With the poignancy of sadness,—
  Testament of tears?
Have the high gods deigned to show thee
Destiny, and disillusion
Fills thy heart at all things human,
  Fleeting and desired?
Nay, the gods themselves are fettered
By one law which links together
Truth and nobleness and beauty,
  Man and stars and sea.
And they only shall find freedom
Who with courage rise and follow
Where love leads beyond all peril,
  Wise beyond all words.
samaritans cards 2019
(from “Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics” by Bliss Carman)

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16 July: Hope and happiness by Samuel Johnson

Dr Johnson suggests a concise theology of hope – as opposed to ‘improper expectation’. As for that lottery ticket, that requires the common course of things to be changed!

Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged, must end in disappointment. If it be asked, what is the improper expectation which it is dangerous to indulge, experience will quickly answer, that it is such expectation as is dictated not by reason, but by desire; expectation raised, not by the common occurrences of life, but by the wants of the expectant; an expectation that requires the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.

It is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded; for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are less dreadful than its extinction.’ The Idler, No. 58.

Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765″ by James Boswell.

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31 May, Pentecost: The Dove Descending

somers.town. pentecost

“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

margatebeachbw (800x596)

T.S. Eliot famously could connect nothing with nothing, sitting where we are now, looking across Margate sands. But he also had an insight into Something breaking through the shell of nothingness.

No easy comfort here, but a person can choose to be consumed by the fire – of love.

Pentecost today, the Spirit descends as dove and fire in this window from St Aloysius’ Somers Town, London.

From Eliot’s Four Quartets.

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27 May: Time is short

dover17.NDW.closed.and.muddy.
It is heroic to hug one’s sorrow and determine not to be consoled.
But a fresh face peeps across my door and raises its eyes to my eyes.
I cannot but wipe away my tears and change the tune of my song.
For time is short.

from “The Gardener” by Rabindranath Tagore
Surely hugging one’s sorrow and refusing consolation is to be the hero in one’s own tuppence-coloured soap opera? After a catastrophic event in life it is surely normal and good to take time to recuperate, but live on we must, commending all things to their Creator. Maybe the poet is writing in the person of a young teenager, a star-crossed lover? He follows the philosophy, not of Romeo and Juliet, but of Clementine’s admirer: How I missed her, how I missed my Clementine, but I kissed her pretty sister and forgot my Clementine. Time is short. Let’s not succumb to worrying about the virus or its effects. let’s rather be here, full of hope for whoever needs to hear a change of tune.

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22 May: The mind has mountains.

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins

So let’s be a little more serious about the sorrow we looked at yesterday. Sorrow and depression are real. Hopkins bids us take comfort, even if we are tossed about by a whirlwind of spinning emotions and thoughts. We know our sorrow will at least have an end in death: life death does end. But does this mean that death brings an end to a frightful life, or that life puts an end to death? I would suggest both arguments hold true. And each day dies with sleep, ‘and another succeeds it’ is the subtext of that word ‘each’. We always have another chance to open our eyes and say with another of Wales’ poets, WH Davies:

Good morning Life, and all things glad and beautiful.

It may feel all wrong at this moment to be uttering such a prayer, but that does not mean that it is actually wrong to make an act of hope.

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30 April: Spring is the last true thing

Easter

There was rapture of spring in the morning
When we told our love in the wood,
For you were the spring in my heart, dear lad.
And I vowed that my life was good.
But there's winter of war in the evening,
And lowering clouds overhead,
There's wailing of wind in the chimney nook,
And I vow that my life lies dead.
For the sun may shine on the meadow lands
And the dog rose bloom in the lanes,
But I've only weeds in my garden, lad,
Wild weeds that are rank with the rains.
One solace there is for me, sweet but faint,
As it floats on the wind of the years,
A whisper that spring is the last true thing
And that triumph is born of tears.
It comes from a garden of other days,
And an echoing voice that cries,
Behold I am alive for evermore, And in Me shall the dead arise.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy
(Woodbine Willie).

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