Monday, March 14, 2011

The Whole Poem So Far

So (or Hwaet), let us now praise famous men
The fathers of our faith
The saints who from their labours rest
Now full of Truth and Grace

(This section, and the two that follow, are mostly based on Ecclesiasticus 44.  Also, I have included a send-up to the hymn "For All the Saints."  As an aside, I highly recommend the Indelible Grace rendering of the hymn.  The "truth and grace" line is meant to show that we are to "become by grace what Christ is by nature" as St. Athanasius says in "On the Incarnation.")

The Lord, by them, great glory wrought
Through prophet, priest and king
Through virgin pure and martyr meek
The poor in spirit, silent, weak,
Through Roman, Hebrew, Celt and Greek
And golden-tongues that sing.

And some, there be, that we forget
As though they'd never been
Yet, God remembers each one still
And still, they are our kin.

(This stanza comes from Ecclesiasticus 44 as well, but is unnecessary.) 

They filled the earth with holiness
As bread is filled with leaven
As the Word of God once, with His birth
In weakness laid aside His worth
Thus dragging heaven down to earth
And earth, with Him, to heaven.

(This sets the theme for the whole poem.  Following the kenotic ... if that's a word ..., self-emptying Way of Christ is how we become Christians and, thus, saints.  But this path is not about acting holy or even about becoming holy.  It's about transformation participating in the transformation of the world, the redemption of the world.  Guthlac doesn't just become holy.  He makes the world around him holy.)

O! Ubi sunt sancti Dei
The blessed by God who bless
The soldiers of the risen Son
Who waged the war of faith and won (or fought the fight of faith)
Is there not left on earth just one?
O! Sancte, ubi es?

(This section is based on the excellent and somewhat ironic lament of St. Ephrem the Syrian.) 

Though ornery orphans here, behold!
Their cloud surrounds us still
From prayers raised in Ninian's cave
To Mary Hazel's holy grave
And Brendan's mass at Whale-on-wave
All following God's will

(The second line is a reference to Hebrews 12:1.   When I went to Scotland, I was blessed to visit St. Ninian's Cave.  It made an impression on me.  St. Mary Hazel of Sleep Hollow is from the Celtic Catholic Church.  The line regarding St. Brendan references his celebration of the Eucharist on the back of a whale and the penchant for English towns to be named "Something-on-Something".  English nerd humour.  It doesn't get more obscure than that.)

The holy ones and watchers come
As we, on Christ, are fed
Iona's monks the dead-paths race
While six-winged seraphs hide their face
And singing, "Sanctus," join in praise
When God becomes the bread.

The throne of God descends to earth
The temple veil is furled
All heav'n surrounds us as we sup
Prostrate before the holy cup
With wine and blood and God filled up
The center of the world



In the rent remains of the Roman reign

Alone and left without the will
Their weakened world to ward
Broken Britons bereft of aid
Fell prey to every foreign raid
The angle of the Anglish blade
And steel of Saxon sword
(The Saxon saex and sword)

Between the eve of Arthur's dream
And Alfred's English morn
In Mercia's marshy borderland
Beneath a sign, the blood-red hand
Good Guthlac there was born

7th c.

Wulfere was king (first Christian convert)


St. Nathan stood before the man
He softly spoke young Guthlac's name
As God's light wreathed his head like flame
His flesh, flayed from his fragile frame
He held in his right hand

Can you endure what I endured
While singing psalms of joy?

In rage and ruin, wreck and war
Your sword swings from on high
You know you're strong enough to kill
Do you have strength to die?

If you so ordered, all your men
Would charge the gates of Hell.
Your fellows follow (or "thanes submit to") your command
Can you command yourself?

You're brave enough to bear the brand (or "blade)
To terrorize the weak
Do you have courage great enough
To bow and become meek?



Note: This entire section need not necessarily be addressed to Guthlac, nor take place at the monastery.  It really is not important to the story/poem at all.  However, this poem has grown to become a vehicle for unrelated, yet still important, theology.  

The God who made outlandish beasts
Of sea and air and land
Leviathan and narwhal, too
The ostrich, snail and kangaroo
And this God, Guthlac, you think you
Could ever understand?

(This is almost entirely based on Chesterton's Introduction to the Book of Job, which I highly recommend.) 

Wheels in Wheels and still one wheel
Who heav'n and earth have trod
Father, Son and Spirit, He
As infinite as unity
The Three-in-One and One-in-Three
And fully flesh and God.

(The paradox of the Trinity and of the Incarnation) 

Our wise men he rejects as fools
Our fools He claims as His
How shall this God in words be caught?
Who thought is higher than our thought
I'd rather say what He is not
Instead of what He Is.

(This comes from random scriptures, Isaiah 55:8-9 and 1 Corinthians 1:25 and 3:19.  The last two lines refer to Apophatic/Via Negativa Theology.)   

My meat-mind can't conceive a God
Who nursed from Virgin breast
Who knelt to wash His student's feet
Who blessed the poor and cursed a tree
Forgave the whores and damned the priests
And trampled death by death.

(The first line comes from a phrase my e-friend, Silouan, used -- "meat-brains."  The last line comes from the Paschal Troparion:  "Alleluia!  Christ is risen, trampling death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life!"  The rest is mine, and I really like it.)



Secure and sain this savage waste
Into your care 'tis giv'n
For though the earth is sick with sin
It is the Lord's, and all therin
As it was once, make once again
A colony of heav'n

- ... catacomb
We know the holy goal you crave
These phantom fens to sain and save
By why this plundered, pagan grave
Should be our (something) home

For Christ, a barrow-plunderer
And grave-robber is Lord
He snatches us from death's decay
And steals our treasured sin away
He'll carry off our souls one day
His hallowed, heavenly hoard.

- battle plan = weak enough to be like Christ through asceticism 

His broken body for your meat
His blood poured out for you to drink
A meal we hardly dare to eat
And is that not enough?

Recall what Christ once did for you
To heal you, hale and whole
So take this beorg, by wrack-kin trekked
By wrathful, writhing, wild-wraith wrecked
And as your soul, by sin-stain specked
Was saved, so save this soil. 

As the Word once wore this world
To harrow and to heal
That man, the fallen, half-formed fake
By grace, His nature might partake
Rebuild this beorg, reform, remake,
Revive and make it real



The demons laughed uncertainly
At Guthlac, man of woes
A brittle bone-bag, bent and thin
A rack of ribs, a skein of skin
Still flashing a defiant grin
Against his hell-born foes

The battle-joy had gripped him then
Remembering old wars
And although fresh from saying mass
Said, "Let's go, if you've got the brass.
Laid up down here upon my ass
By God, I'll still kick yours."

"I'm through with all your threats of harm,
Foul creature of the curse
You think that you are so damned tough
My grandma treated me more rough
Let's go, then, if you're hard enough
I've beat myself up worse."

The demon, screaming, grabbed the man
By insults thus enraged
And though by blows on blows increased
At the hate-filled hands of the pride-born beast
Still, the laughing saint never stalled nor ceased
From singing songs of praise.

The hellion, having done his worst
Then threw him on the floor
Yet torn and trembling, rent and red
And raising battered, bloody head
Good Guthlac, bruised and broken, said,
"Nice try!  Do you have more?"
(or "Nice try! You got some more?")
(or "Please sir, can I have more?")

Alternate version of the previous stanza:

The hellion, having done his worst
The threw him in his den
Yet torn and trembling, rent and red
And raising battered, bloody head
With childlike glee, good Guthlac said,
"That's fun! Let's go again!"

(or "Good Guthlac, bruised and broken said,
Yippe! Let's go again!")



So taking Guthlac to the skies
They bade him look below
"See women who are naught but whores
And plundering, raping men in wars
Vile actions which you should deplore"
And Guthlac answered, "So?"

"These are baptized! The chrism-cross
They on their heads anoint!
Yet, see them; prideful, angry, vain,
vengeful, vicious kin of Cain ..."
Guthlac said, "Wait, now ... once again
I'm lost, boys. What's your point?"

"Your brother monks are steeped in sin
In loathsome lust and lies
They break their vows to steal a kiss
Forbidden fruit and wanton bliss..."
"I'm sorry, boys, did you think this
was Eden? Paradise?"

"The Church is not a hall of saints
All pure and bright and fair.
We come here, bent and broken men
Diseased by death and stained by sin
The Church is where the cure begins (or "The Cure of souls our cure begins")
This is intensive care"

Your lies are formed from twisted truth
From bent tales told in part
For faithless Peter keeps the keys
There's Paul the saint, of sinners chief
And David; killer, cheater, thief;
Was after God's own heart.

The Worker will complete His work
His children chant this hymn (or "So with one voice we say")
Both warrior kin and monk en-caved
En-castled king and man enslaved
From baptized babe to saints en-graved
"We have been saved, are being saved,
and will be saved by Him." (or "And will be saved one day.")



If you are servants of my King
Then fling me to the flame
Though He destroy me
Yet will I still bless His holy Name

This Flaming Flood flows from His throne
As fire and water wed
This stream that stings and salves, I'll swim
In justice sweet and grace most grim
For, I'd rather be consumed by Him
Than by your hands be fed!

My death is sweet if burned before
The Fire of His face
And though a slug, I hunger for
The salt of His embrace


St. Bartholomew gives Guthlac the scourge, at which point Guthlac begins wildly running about Crowland, like Quixote at the windmills, chasing away the demons that only he can see.

The brethren, baffled, could not find
The foe at which he flailed
His scouring scourge fell from on high
And "Kyrie!" his battle-cry
The demons he assailed

A mad berserker's crazed attack
As feral, fierce and wild
Yet holy joy was in his face
As the running, leaping saint gave chase
A bizzare ballet, a perplexing race
As giddy as a child

Like Jesus in the temple court
With tables tipped and thrown
And just as once in Jericho (or "like Joshua at Jericho")
The walls came tumb'ling down


Exsurgat Deus
Et dissipentur inimici eius
Et fugiant qui oderunt
Eum a facie eius

Let God arise
And let his enemies be scattered
Let them that hate him
Flee before his face

Let God arise, and scattered
let all his en’mies be;
And let all those that do him hate
before his presence flee.


The Sovereign God is all they know
Omnipotent above
So desperate, they, to make Him King
God-in-control of everything
(or "God is in control," they sing)
Conductor, pulling every string
That He forgets He's Love

Yes, Christ is King! He reigns in ways
We cannot comprehend
He makes throne of maiden-womb
A manger, cross and stone-sealed tomb
And, bringing light to Sheol's gloom,
He reigns and brings death's end.



Heed the words, the life of Christ
And ask not how or why
Death conquers when you try to live (win)
Yet loses when you die.


  1. "And some, there be, that we forget"
    -- remove commas.

  2. Commas removed. I'm not sure if I like the wording of that phrase. It sounds a little to "piratey" for me. It seems like it should be, "And some there are that we forget," or "And there are some that we forget." But I used exact wording from the KJV translation of Ecclesiasticus.

    Grammar question: the KJV uses a comma after "there be." I put one on both sides because it is a clause. You could say, "And some we forget." But, rearranged, no commas are necessary. Why do you say no commas?

    Joke: Do you know what the difference is between a cat and a comma?

    I like Temptation 2 as well. Temptation 3 has wonderful theology and sentiment and temptation 1 is just badass. But Temptation 2 ... I wrote that very much with myself in mind. I remember confessing to Bishop Dwain on the pilgrimage, a long list of sins (it was my first confession, after all). After I was done, he said something like, "Oh, is that it? God can forgive those easily." Although I went on to see if I could do something that would be harder for God to forgive, I never forgot that.

    There's something about the wording of, "This is intensive care," that bothers me. However, the connection with the modern sensibility of what intensive care is and what the Church is supposed to be is too important to lose. If I can't find a better way to say it without keeping the same idea intact, even the same words, I'll keep it as is.

  3. "You know you're strong enough to kill
    Do you have strength to die?"

    I was expecting, for the second line, "but have you strength to die?" It might be good to disrupt expectations. The version as is needs a period after "kill." A bit of a pause. A pregnant pause, in fact. The version I propose would flow a more smoothly, but would lose a drop of drama.

    I also really enjoy -- and deeply yearn for -- a poem which combines within itself exalted fine poetic language, self-conscious borrowing, and a little occasional buffoonery. I love what you are doing because it seems to be _the exact same thing_ the ancient poets did. Lots of borrowing, lots of creative adaptation, lots of originality.

    I read "some there be that we forget" as a re-arranged sentence. "There be some that we forget." No comma needed or wanted. Remember, English was a bit punctuation-chaotic at the time of the KJV. They had not yet been blessed by God with fully developed pre-frontal cortexes (corteces?) and just weren't as smart about such things as we (I) are (am).

    And yes, I do know the difference, thank you very much.

  4. Do not worry about "the intensive care." You are not a 6th century Mercian or 12 cent Yorkie or anything of the sort. You are here, you are now, this is the reality of the world you live in. If this poem is to be -spiritually- honest, and not just an attempt at re-enactment, it must be real. DO THE SAME THING THE POETS YOU ADMIRE DID. Write authentically from your situation, within a tradition and with plentiful borrowing from the past. Then you can't go wrong. Then you will have charm in the words, and the charm will be for the enchantment of souls, and the enchantment will be for drawing them in, for showing them someone beautiful, and someOne more beautiful yet.

  5. "Do you have strength to die?"

    THANK YOU! I tried that line fifteen different ways and couldn't find one that worked. That's it. Sweet.

    Regarding the intensive care line, I want it to say just that, but to shift the meter. Like, "intensive care this is." However, that's too Yoda for me.

    Thanks for the overall advice. That's one thing I'm trying to do. Maybe "not trying not to do" would be more appropriate. I was much influenced by the documentary I watched on the Book of Kells. The sheer volume of whimsy and number of what seem to be household pets that inhabit even the Chi Rho page and glory of the overall product ... that's what I'd like. Like that bacon nativity on S-P's blog.

  6. Don't alter the "intensive care" line. Try reading it forcefully, semi-bad-assly. The way I naturally want to read it, it fits just right. Maybe I should call you and read it as I hear it and thereby convince you of the rightness of your ways.