Dr. Jane Kim provides a helpful analysis of the Inferno’s Canto V. Her concluding remarks struck me powerfully. In Canto V, a woman named Francesca reveals to Dante that her descent into hell was a consequence of reading the story of Lancelot alongside her lover, Paulo. In that story, the two found inspiration for the fall that led to the tragedy of their death, and now, the two find themselves forever confined to hell’s second circle, where those who fell victim to lust now dwell.
Reading is formative. I am being formed as I read Dante in community with others. I probably wouldn’t be following this journey at all if not for my friend, Matt.
The same applies to reading the Bible, or any other great text, with others. What we read shapes us. Who we read with, likewise, has the power to transform. Therefore, choose what, and with whom, you read wisely.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds Bends low, comes up twenty years away Stooping in rhythm through potato drills Where he was digging.
The course boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts on an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.
I was vicar of large things in a small parish. Small-minded I will not say, there were depths in some of them I shrank back from, wells that the word “God” fell into and died away, and for all I know is still falling. Who goes for water to such must prepare for a long wait. Their eyes looked at me and were the remains of flowers on an old grave. I was there, I felt, to blow on ashes that were too long cold. Often, when I thought they were about to unbar to me, the draught out of their empty places came whistling so that I wrapped myself in the heavier clothing of my calling, speaking of light and love in the thickening shadows of their kitchens.
In digging around for more information about Thomas, a Welsh poet, Anglican priest, and none-too-cheery-looking fellow, I found a prose piece that accompanied the poem above:
What had been blue shadows on a longed-for horizon, traced on an inherited background, were shown in time to contain this valley, this village and a church built with stones from the river, where the rectory stood, plangent as a mahogany piano. The stream was a bright tuning-fork in the moonlight. The hay-fields ran with a dark current. The young man was sent unprepared to expose his ignorance of life in a leafless pulpit.
What an image.
The pulpit does expose you, and service in ministry reveals to you how little you actually know. Indeed, you do represent “large things” even in small places–which really turn out to not be so small–and the people there contain depths profound and unfathomable. There are surprising moments, and unanticipated exchanges of words filled with tremendous meaning, not only about everyday moments, but about God, not only in the light, but in the shadows of life.
I, who live by words, am wordless when I try my words in prayer. All language turns
To silence. Prayer will take my words and then Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns To hold its peace, to listen with the heart To silence that is joy, is adoration. The self is shattered, all words torn apart In this strange patterned time of contemplation That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me, And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended. I leave, returned to language, for I see Through words, even when all words are ended. I, who live by words, am wordless when I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen.
– Madeleine L’Engle, The Weather of the Heart
Prayer can lead us through words to silence, beyond words to contemplation, and through contemplation to the Word of God. If you find yourself in silence when you pray, you have options. Stay awhile. Or keep going. God is working in the silence, and the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans (Romans 8:26-27).
I liked this little poem by L’Engle. I know what it is like to fall silent. I know what it is like to feel the insufficiency of words. I also know what it is like to be surprised by what I find in the deep quiet, a sense of being awestruck, an infilling of joy, and an experience of being delightfully “healed and mended.” I “try my words in prayer.” More importantly, though, I have been taught to find in words the capacity to “turn me to the Word.” That’s an evidence of grace, for which I am thankful.
“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.
“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.
Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”
God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).
The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.
I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.
But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.
John Donne was an English clergyman and poet who lived from 1572 to 1631. I love his work, and I’ve been hanging on to this poem since Good Friday, when it was shared by my friend Matt Anderson. Here is a link to the poem.