Sarah of dVerse asks us to choose a poem we’ve read over the last year and write a response to it in conversation, as it were, with its preoccupations. I’ve chosen John Updike’s “Fine Point,” written just weeks before his death in January 2009. His consciousness of our tainted public and personal history, and faith’s endurance as he alludes to Psalm 23, is what engages me most. And so my response, “En Pointe.”
What divinity is this that tempers our clay
with hammers of wrath expended on temple,
church, in our uneasy play with pagan tunes
of lust? Even as we covet our neighbor’s lamb
we would sing tuneful papyrus songs in our Babylon
with lyres hung under willows, calling out as children
“Abba, Father,” knowing we are heard by the Name
of One who bore the curse of our sinful rebellions.
O Son of David, thou whose lips have tendered infinity –
“It is finished” — mercy and justice united — blood
spilled and body spent on the cross so that Surely—
yes, “surely”— and all the days of my life wilt thou
pursue — not merely “follow”— poor substitute
for the ancient tongue which reaches out in mercy
as unbounded as a lover’s song of songs to me
now to dwell in the house of the Lord, forever. Selah.
Since my last poem, “October Fire,” I encountered “The Bright Field” by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest of the last century. It’s theme of illumination is so allied to mine (though its poetic genius far eclipses mine) that I’d like to share it with you, that it might enflame and brighten your heart with hope. We are living in times that make us distrust the very leaders and experts that vie for our trust, and suspect the motives of those who claim to speak for the general welfare, for the sick, the poor and the oppressed. Our hopes have been misplaced if they have been placed on men and women. In the days leading up to our national election, let us pray that many will turn to the only true source of hope, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and reach out again to their neighbor on every street and every corner with grace and love.
For Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: This week’s CFFC topic is Special Request: Wilting, dead or aging flowers and leaves.
The topic is fitting somehow. This week I finished the last pages of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (2020). I had dreaded what was coming, so thoroughly had Thomas Cromwell and the world of 16th-century England peopled my imagination, a testimony to Mantel’s literary genius (see Well Met, Jude: Mann & Mantel).
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
There’s a moment in The Understudy1 when the novel shifts focus from what it means to be human to what it means to be religious. It’s a question introduced by an AI that’s a hybrid of microchip and flesh-and-blood tissue. Wondering aloud at his mistaking someone as religious, Attik is asked in turn: Are you a religious man? Are you religious? Without hesitation this organically grown hybrid replies, Of course. Human in every way except for his brain, he knows without a shadow of a doubt that his being is subject to contingencies, therefore dependent on a higher power. He knows too that this is an instinctively religious apprehension.
Attik is no Frankenstein’s monster. Yet this perfect invulnerable being has his fall. He is human after all. His is a body of death, just as the humans who designed him, full of rebellious and covetous desires. As he realizes just how human he is, he recognizes the need for absolution, for peace and reconciliation with the One who gave him and all humanity the gift of being.
Towards the end of the novel, Attik finds himself in the ironic position of a priest.
He knew the ritual. He had the bread and wine. It only wanted a God to make it body and blood now. …
They were all orphans here.
God could make a priest out of anything, metal or mud.
Whatever you were made of, you borrowed your blood, anyway.
Following Attik through the novel, one is following the growth of a religious man and, in a sense, traversing anew old ground, the fall and redemption of mankind, the journey to God. Which is what makes this sparely written scene so poignant and tinged by the piercing cost of sacrifice: the bread is Christ’s own flesh, the wine is Christ’s own blood shed on the cross.
And [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
As Attik intimates, we are all orphans: that is, until we find our home in Christ Jesus by way of his flesh and blood, his body the torn veil into the holy of holies where we can have eternal communion with God.
And as Attik finds, we are all religious, whether or not we choose to acknowledge the contingency of our being or not. We don’t have control over our lives, not even our own desires. We all need to be set free from the bondage of sin and death. And who can deliver us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7: 25)
1For more on this novel see post below; click here for author’s blog.
There are so many cliches about love, the word, perhaps, has lost its power, but not the notion, not the need, not the knowledge that love’s very presence makes life worth living. In one of his most famous poems (“In My Craft or Sullen Art”), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas speaks of lovers with “their arms round the griefs of the ages” which is curious, as if in embracing one another, they embrace grief, and not just each other’s but those universal.
Ack! What kind of love is this? you might ask.
Anyone who’s been married longer than a decade (or three, in my case) knows that this expresses the height of love. The willingness to bear another’s griefs rather than turn and walk away is love’s absolute zenith, its most precious characteristic. You don’t run away from the pain of those you truly love. Instead, you embrace it with them, faithfully, day after day after day.
And because no one’s life is without its griefs, we often say that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Sorrow and pain are universals. Beyond any happiness, we can readily sympathize with suffering. Each of us carries our pain within us. There are voiceless cries and unshed tears behind every smile we see. And apprehending the universality of our hidden hurts binds us more completely to one another than anything that divides us.
Emily Dickinson realizes this in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” and while reading it, it struck me that our Lord Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with this understanding, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).”May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other,” St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians.
Christ Himself, of course, set the example. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3, 4). “Blessed be the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19, NASB). Because he does, He is where our hearts find their rest.
It’s not easy to help shoulder someone’s grief, not simply in the context of marriage and family, but also those of our friends and neighbors, even our enemies. Yet God commands us to love (Matt. 5:44), even as He loves us, and the way is the way of the Cross, our own and each other’s.
Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet” (1830-1886)
I measure every Grief I meet With narrow, probing, Eyes — I wonder if It weighs like Mine — Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long — Or did it just begin — I could not tell the Date of Mine — It feels so old a pain —
I wonder if it hurts to live — And if They have to try — And whether — could They choose between — It would not be — to die —
I note that Some — gone patient long — At length, renew their smile — An imitation of a Light That has so little Oil —
I wonder if when Years have piled — Some Thousands — on the Harm — That hurt them early — such a lapse Could give them any Balm —
Or would they go on aching still Through Centuries of Nerve — Enlightened to a larger Pain – In Contrast with the Love —
The Grieved — are many — I am told — There is the various Cause — Death — is but one — and comes but once — And only nails the eyes —
There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold — A sort they call “Despair” — There’s Banishment from native Eyes — In sight of Native Air —
And though I may not guess the kind — Correctly — yet to me A piercing Comfort it affords In passing Calvary —
To note the fashions — of the Cross — And how they’re mostly worn — Still fascinated to presume That Some — are like My Own —
Isaiah 53: 2-5
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 (NIV)
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
I’ve been reading David R. Helm’s Commentary¹ on Jude while finishing up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. She’s a gifted writer is Mantel. Her incisive yet poetic imagination will send chills up your spine. And Helm unfolds his commentary with a literary feel that many theologians sadly lack.
Everyone knows that both Dante and Petrarch were haunted by their visions of ideal love, Dante had his Beatrice, and Petrarch his Laura. And as political exiles, each poet knew the terror of death. Writing was a way of easing the pain of both.
But did you know that these two titans of the Renaissance might have met in a quirk of circumstance?
Here’s a retelling of the story of Job imagined in today’s context that will make your hair stand on end. For one thing, it’s not the way you would expect Job’s trials to go when instead of Job losing all he’s got, he gets all he wants. A tale retold, it may be, but make no mistake, it’s all strangely familiar. But not in the ways you may be expecting.
JOB: A FAIRY TALE OF GOD, SATAN, AND US
by K.D. Azariah-Kribbs
Once upon a time, there was a man called Job. And one day, Job bought a lottery ticket.
Now, Job did not do this thing because he was a lazy or a greedy man. Job simply felt, as many do, that he should be provided for without having to labor and earn his bread by the sweat of his brow when there are so many who have so much more than they need.
So Job slipped some money from his wife’s purse, and before she could ask him where he was bound, he let himself quietly out the door, went to the store at the corner, and bought the ticket.
And immediately and quite strangely, the simple act of buying the lottery ticket made Job feel that things were now somehow changed. Of course, he did not know whether he had won the lottery or not. But somehow, the sun seemed brighter and warmer when he came out of the store.
Now, at this same time, the Heavenly host had assembled to present themselves before the Throne of God, or at least all those were gathered there who cared to come.
For there are always those who, given the choice, prefer to remain in Hell.
And Satan, who at this time still occasionally appeared before the Throne of God, came to call. Satan always made sure he arrived late to these gatherings so that he could make something of a grand entrance. He ignored the angels standing to attention on either side of the great golden archway and pushed open the massive doors of living arcwood bound in black iron and strode before the Heavenly Hosts in a great dark cloud of sooty flame and sulph’rous black smoke, the brazen light of his entrance reflecting in wavering sheets of fire from the golden pillars beside him and backlit by the magnificent lapis lazuli sky far behind, for he knew the beauty of gold and fire set against deep blue and utter black, and in Hell he never got to display himself in such a way, for there is no sky in Hell.
What betrayals do we unwittingly commit in mistaking selfish desires for selfless love? Happy to recommend a newly published fairy tale, “The Three Sisters,” a wise meditation on men, women, and our expectations one of the other. As C. S. Lewis once said, “Sometimes fairy stories say best what needs to be said.”
Once upon a time there were three brothers who lived with their parents in the midst of a vast forest. If there were any other people in the forest, they knew nothing of them, for they found no tra…