You can be awestruck by seeing the galaxies, infinite space. You can be awestruck, infinitely delighted, by a newly hatched damselfly. This one I only saw because I was on my knees, preparing to pull up stinging nettles to protect my workmates; how much do we miss day by day?
The Office begins with words from Psalm 51: Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall declare thy praise, but we could equally pray that all our senses be opened to perceive and declare the infinite love of God
From Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations.
The Infinity of God is our enjoyment,
because it is the region and extent of His dominion.
Barely as it comprehends infinite space, it is infinitely delightful;
because it is the room and the place of our treasures,
the repository of joys,
and the dwelling place,
yea the seat and throne, and Kingdom of our souls.
Till we know the universal beauty of God’s Kingdom,
and that all objects in the omnipresence are the treasures of the soul,
to enquire into the sufficiency and extent of its powers is impertinent.
But when we know this,
nothing is more expedient than to consider whether a soul be able to enjoy them.
Which if it be, its powers must extend as far as its objects.
For no object without the sphere of its power,
can be enjoyed by it.
It cannot be so much as perceived, much less enjoyed.
'All objects in the omnipresence are the treasures of the soul': that is a policy statement for Christian life on earth. Omnipresence is God's presence; Traherne once again comes close to Saint Francis here. I read him this way: nothing outside the range of the soul can be enjoyed by the soul, indeed if it is outside the range of the soul, then the soul will be unaware of it.
But if we reflect, or meditate, as Traherne encouraged us yesterday, we will become aware of more and more connections in creation, and aware that our part in Creation is both infinitesimal and infinite, insignificant and important, passing and eternal.
To be acquainted with celestial things
is not only to know them,
but by frequent meditation to be familiar with them.
The effects of which are admirable.
For by this those things that at first seemed uncertain become evident,
those things which seemed remote become near,
those things which appeared like shady clouds become solid realities:
finally, those things which seemed impertinent to us and of little concernment,
appear to be our own, according to the strictest rules of propriety
and of infinite moment.
I felt like adding, ‘Come Holy Spirit’, to this meditation by Thomas Traherne. He seems to be writing about the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These are given to us at Baptism and Confirmation, and reinforced by frequent meditation – or as we at Agnellus’ Mirror would say, frequent reflection.
‘Impertinent’ here seems not to mean ‘cheeky’ but ‘irrelevant’; ‘little concernment’ is more like ‘nothing to do with me’. But the things and people that seem that way are connected to us; they are our brothers and sisters as Saint Francis would remind us. And of infinite moment – ‘moment’ meaning both ‘momentum’ and ‘importance’.
Bishop Claude Rault, Bishop Emeritus of the Sahara, shared this prayer by an early Muslim mystic, Rabi’a al Adawiyya, (717-801). It is a prayer that anyone could make their own. Bishop Claude has devoted his life to being present in dialogue and neighbourliness with the Muslims of Algeria, and to the study of Islam.
Oh my God,
if it is through fear of hell fire that I adore You,
then burn me in hell fire.
And if it is through hope of Paradise that I adore You,
then chase me out of Paradise.
But if I adore You simply for Yourself,
Do not deprive me of Your eternal beauty.
Oh my God,
all my desire in this world is to remember You
and all my desire for the world to come
is to encounter You.
That is how it is for me
but You: do whatever You will.
+ Claude Rault, Jesus, l’Homme de la Rencontre, Marseille, Publications Chemins de Dialogue, 2020, p31.
John of Fiesole joined the Order of Friars Preacher, or Dominicans, but his vocation lay with the walls of churches rather than their pulpits; he is better known to us as Fra Angelico. Here are the thoughts of E.V. Lucas in the early years of last century, who visited, studied and enjoyed Angelico’s work in Florence and elsewhere.
As to Fra Angelico’s character, let Vasari+ tell us. “He would often say that whosoever practised art needed a quiet life and freedom from care, and he who occupies himself with the things of Christ ought always to be with Christ. . . . Some say that Fra Giovanni never took up his brush without first making a prayer. . . . He never made a crucifix when the tears did not course down his cheeks.”
The one curious thing—to me—about Fra Angelico is that he has not been canonised.* If ever a son of the Church toiled for her honour and for the happiness of mankind it was he… His pictures will be found not only in Florence and Italy but in the chief galleries of the world; for he was very assiduous. We have an excellent example at the National Gallery.
In looking at his pictures, three things in particular strike the mind: the skill with which he composed them; his mastery of light; and—and here he is unique—the pleasure he must have had in painting them. All seem to have been play; he enjoyed the toil exactly as a child enjoys the labour of building a house with toy bricks. Nor, one feels, could he be depressed. Even in his Crucifixions there is a certain underlying happiness, due to his knowledge that the Crucified was to rise again and ascend to Heaven and enjoy eternal felicity. Knowing this (as he did know it) how could he be wholly cast down?
From “A Wanderer in Florence” by E. V. Lucas, 1912.
Mrs Turnstone likes to remind us that this is the day of the year that the Sun first appears in Greenland. It is also her birthday. While our son is happily settled in London, she feels she has lived there for as long as she ever wants to, but she’ll visit the town, take Abel to an exhibition, or meet up with friends.
After Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who left London to elope with Robert, here is Mary Webb who moved to London to foster her career as a writer. The move brought her little joy, for she was a deep-rooted Shropshire Lass. So here is a melancholic poem from her pen, but one that looks to the ‘stately sun’, symbol of undisdainful death as well as of new life. One of the symptoms of the hyperthyroid Graves’ disease that she endured was swelling of the face which made her feel ‘unlovely’, and aware of ‘slights and lies and unkindnesses’ that more robust souls would have shrugged off.
Despitethe melancholy, the blackbird, who is now in good voice, transports Mary to the Shropshire Hills, landing there in Spring, aware in her whole being of Shropshire under the rain and sun. Her kinder life, will it be in heaven only, or also in the golden air of the Welsh borders? I like to think it was experienced on this earth as a gentle preparation for life eternal.
Sing on, dear bird! Bring the old rapturous pain, In this great town, where I no welcome find. Show me the murmuring forest in your mind, And April's fragile cups, brimful of rain. O sing me far away, that I may hear The voice of grass, and, weeping, may be blind To slights and lies and friends that prove unkind. Sing till my soul dissolves into a tear, Glimmering within a chaliced daffodil. So, when the stately sun with burning breath Absorbs my being, I'll dream that he is Death, Great Death, the undisdainful. By his will No more unlovely, haunting all things fair, I'll seek some kinder life in the golden air.
In her long poem, The Soul’s Travelling, Elizabeth Barrett Browning is by the sea as well, though not at Broadstairswhere we were yesterday. In a previous stanza she described a hollow where she could hear, but not see, the ocean ebbing and flowing across the beach. Broadstairs is a bit more open than that, but in the next bay after the pier I used to snatch a few minutes of silence in a hollow at the foot of the cliff. The curlews and other sea birds were calling right through winter, but the silence was still all around.
Except that sound, the place is full
Of silences, which when you cull
By any word, it thrills you so
That presently you let them grow
To meditation's fullest length
Across your soul with a soul's strength:
And as they touch your soul, they borrow
Both of its grandeur and its sorrow,
That deathly odour which the clay
Leaves on its deathlessness alwày.
from The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Volume II.
Another beach for silence in the sounds of the sea is Aberdaron in West Wales – follow the tag to read more posts about it. The church is at the top of the beach and the sea’s singing accentuates the message embroidered on this seat runner. You don’t need external silence to be still; the Lord is on your side wherever you are, you vessel of clay, holding his treasure! (2 Corinthians 4:7)
The present moment terminates our sight;
Clouds thick as those on doomsday, drown the next;
We penetrate, we prophesy in vain.
Time is dealt out by particles; and each,
Ere mingled with the streaming sands of life,
By fate’s inviolable oath is sworn
Deep silence, “where eternity begins.”
By nature’s law, what may be, may be now;
There’s no prerogative in human hours.
In human hearts what bolder thought can rise,
Than man’s presumption on to-morrow’s dawn!
Where is to-morrow? In another world.
From Night Thoughts by Edward Young.
Tomorrow is in another world. One man who saw the dawn of the new world was Simeon, who met the Holy Family in Jerusalem’s Temple.
He had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when his parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said:
Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; because my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.
It was never going to be all sweetness and sleigh-bells, but there were those who were given a broader vision, including:
Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was far advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day.Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord; and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel.
As latter-day gentiles, let us pray that our eyes and hearts may see and recognise Jesus in the child next door and the cold infant in Syria or Belarus, as well as in our own family members.
Jesus was not the King that people thought they were looking for. The Gospel reading for today makes that clear: we hear Dismas, the repentant thief, accept Jesus’ paradoxical claim, beseeching, ‘Remember me when you come into your Kingdom’, and being told, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 29:35-43).
But 33 years before that, it was hardly a typical royal arrival in Bethlehem.
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.
This is a verse from Richard Crashaw’s ‘In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord.’ He was an Anglican priest and academic, living from 1613-1649. He was ejected from Cambridge in 1643 by Oliver Cromwell, who famously did not approve of Christmas. Crashaw became a Catholic in exile, and died a canon of Loreto, Italy in August 1649.