Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Not in Vain and Not by Chance

June 22, 2009


Not in vain and not by chance 
Was life granted me by God 
And not without God’s hidden will
Has it been condemned to death.
I myself through willful power
Summoned evil from the dark abyss
And my soul I filled with passion,
Stirring up my mind with doubts.
Remember Him whom I’d forgotten
Pierce through with light the gloom of thoughts
Then it will be, through You created
 A heart that’s pure, a mind that’s clear

St. Philaret of Moscow

Poems of Pentecost

June 9, 2009

Pentecost Icon

Among the many friends I have had who have now entered the larger life, several were poets. Francis Hall Ford was a parishioner in St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Mission in Chattanooga, which I had a share in founding. She and her family had year’s before entered Orthodoxy through the Greek Church. In later years she split her time between little St. Tikhon’s in Chattanooga and St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas where her daughter, Katie, now lives. Katie has been kind enough to share some of her mother’s poetry. With her permission I share it here. As for Frances (whom I knew better by her Orthodox name, Kassiane) may her memory be eternal!

The first poem is a Japanese tanka (31 syllables, 5 lines, 5-7-5-7-7).


In mid-June’s muteness
When scarce birdword breaks languor
Flame azaleas speak.  
Sudden over path, up hill
Their Pentecost throats give tongue. 

 The second is a brief meditation.


At the Church’s birth,
Licked clean by flames of Spirit
Maid and Apostles in horseshoe
Make sweet maternal crib
In whose dark cave
The World, that Old King,
Waits with a swaddling cloth.

 Frances Hall Ford

Prayers By the Lake XXV – Prayers for the Departed

May 14, 2009

Picture 184This poem is from the collection of poems by St. Nikolai Velimirovich, the great 20th century Serbian saint. The Church continues its journey through the 50 days of Pascha and will conclude the feast with the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost (Troitsa) at the end of which the Kneeling Prayers are offered where (among many things) the souls of the departed are remembered before God. Christ came that the dead might live.


You sinful souls, yearn no longer to enter the body, as though you could flee the fire that is roasting you and the smoke that is smothering you! You would only bring the fire and smoke with yourselves, and your body would not be your rescuer but your burnt offering.

Rather direct all your attention to the eternal Virginity of God, which can cast out the evil stench from you, and to the Son of the Virgin, who would illuminate you with the flame of the wisdom of the Trinity, and to the All-Holy Spirit, who would give you the strength and the wisdom to elevate you to the choirs of angels.

You purified souls, who smell more captivating than all the balsams on earth, do not separate yourselves from those of us still on earth, who for another hour or two are still wandering over your paths of suffering and your ashes. All those who are pure on earth will be pure in heaven also, and will be your companions, perfumed with the balsam of paradise and clothed in the whiteness of virginity.

Strengthen your love for us and your prayer for us. For between you and us is no partition other than the frail veil of our flesh. For even though you have gone ahead while we have remained behind, the path is the same and the city at the end of the path is the same.

You righteous souls, we pray to the Lord for you as well, so that He may make your passage to Him easy and swift. Even though we are weaker than you, we nevertheless pray to God for you. We pray out of the love with which our heart burns for you, even as a younger and weaker brother reaches out to help his older and stronger brother.

For just as younger and older brothers are one flesh in the eyes of the love that gave them birth, so also are we and you one flesh in the eyes of the exceedingly wise and exceedingly strong love of the Most High.

You countless flocks of souls of the dead, do not be distraught and confounded, and have no more regard for the cold island of life on earth, to which we, being few in number, are still stuck for another hour or two until we come to join you for the summer in warmer and brighter regions.

For all of you, both righteous and sinful, we who are half dead, half-alive pray to the Mercy of Heaven, so that you may not be confounded, so that you may not be afraid and look back, but may, in the fullness of summer, head ever forward and ever higher–

toward light and joy

toward peace and plenitude.

Angels Sing

December 23, 2008


A Serbian Christmas Song – lyrics by St. Nikolai Velimirovich

Andjeli Pevaju

Noć prekrasna i noć tija,
nad pećinom zvezda sija,
u pećini mati spi,
nad Isusom andjel bdi.

Andjeli pevaju,
pastiri sviraju,
andjeli pevaju
mudraci javljaju:
Što narodi čekaše,
što proroci rekoše,
evo sad se u svet javi,
u svet javi i objavi:
Rodi nam se Hristos Spas
za spasenje sviju nas.
Aliluja, aliluja,
Gospodi pomiluj!

(deep voice) no matter what you are doing, spin threads for heaven!

Angels Sing  (lyrics)

the night so grand and placid,
a star shining over the cave,
the mother sleeping in the cave,
where the angel of Jesus hast been.

the angels are singing,
the sheperds are fluting,
the angels are singing,
the wise bring it forth:
what the nations awaited,
what the prophets had said,
here and now it is announced,

it is announced and brought forth:
Christ, our Redeemer is born!
for the Salvation of us all.
halleluya, halleluya,
Lord, have mercy!

Joy, Soul, Passion, Honor, Jesus, Faith, Hope, Salvation, Peace, Repentance, the Lord, Calmness, Love, Charity, Harmony…

(addendum) God’s peace! Christ is born! Truly, He is born!… let’s renew ourselves, let’s lift up the pillars!

Prayers By the Lake – St. Nikolai of Zicha

December 22, 2008



Accept the sacrifice of my words, my Father — accept the babbling of a penitent child, my Father!

Correct my words with Your truth, and accept them on the footstool of Your feet.

 Cense my sacrifice with the fragrant incense of a saint’s prayer and do not reject it, O Triradiate Master of worlds.

 The ranks of angels offer You a more eloquent sacrifice, but their words stream to them from You, and return to You, untainted by the repulsiveness of darkness and not throttled in the throat by sin.

I am poor, and I have nothing else to offer on Your sacrificial altar except these words.

Even if I were to offer up creatures to You, I would be offering up words. For what are creatures except words. You have filled the entire universe with tongues, which are flames when they lift up praise to You and water — when they whisper Your praises to themselves.

Even if I were to offer up a lamb to You, I would be offering You a word.

Even if I were to offer up a bird to You, I would be offering You a word.

Why should I offer up someone else’s word to my Lord, why someone else’s and not my own?

Who has made me master over someone else’s life and someone else’s song, over someone else’s flame and someone else’s sacrifice; who?

My words are my life and my song, my flame and my sacrifice. I have taken from what is Yours and am offering it up to You — accept it and do not reject it, O Mother plenteous in lovingkindness.

I have picked a handful of wheat out of a field of tares, accept even a single kernel of wheat out of my handful and You will make me happy.1

From a single kernel You can bake bread, enough for nations.

Accept my mite, O Son Who Resurrects, accept and do not reject the mite of a pauper.2

Accept my sacrifice not for my sake but for the sake of someone who is even more impoverished than I; is there such a person?

Someone who does not even have what I do, for his sake accept my sacrifice; does such a person exist?

The world squeezed me like an accordion, scarcely did I take a breath and I moaned. Let Your angels give melody to my moaning and let them offer it up before You, my love.

I remind myself of all the blessings You have bestowed on me during my lifetime, my unfailing Companion, and I am offering up to You a gift in return from myself.

I am not offering up to You my entire self, for I am not entirely worthy to burn on Your most pure sacrificial altar. I cannot offer as a sacrifice to the Immortal One what is intended for death and corruption.

I offer up to You only that which has grown within me under Your light, that which was saved in me by Your Word.

Accept the sacrifice of my words, O Triune Bouquet of Flowers; accept the babbling of a new-born child.

When the choirs of angels begin to sing around Your throne, when the archangels’ trumpets begin to blare, when Your martyrs begin to weep for joy, and Your saints begin to sob their prayers for the salvation of the Church on earth, do not despise the sacrifice of my words, O Lord my God.

Do not mishear, but hear.

I pray to You and bow down to You, now and throughout all time, and throughout all eternity. Amen.

Written at Lake Ohrid 1921-1922.


1.          Cf. Matt. 13:24-3O.

2.          Cf. Mark 12:41-44.

Many Thanks for Prayers and a Request

August 9, 2008

I awoke feeling much better today and am deeply grateful for the many prayers. In my experience, rising from a bed of sickness is among the greatest joys we know in our earthly life. I think it is a foreshadowing of the resurrection when we shall all rise from our beds of sickness (and death) and join in the chorus of heaven. I am baptizing a child this afternoon, no better way to celebrate resurrection! I share again the wonderful song of resurrection by St. Nicolai of Zicha, because I do not know of a happier sound!

On a very sorrowful note – pray for our brothers in Russia, Georgia and Ossetia where the threat of war has broken out. How deeply grevious it is for Orthodox brothers to go to war. May God bring a swift and just end to their conflict!

Translation of lyrics:

People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mounts sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow*, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Silent Sentinels and the Saints among Us

May 16, 2008

I originally ran this post last December. I have watched the film mentioned in it many times. The thoughts in the post came back to me again today.

Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints., I do not know that his kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

Culture and the Fullness of the Faith

December 5, 2007


I have posted several articles recently about the relationship of the Orthodox Church to American culture – most of which have been critical of one element or another of culture. I want to look at the whole question from a different angle today.

First, it has to be observed and emphasized that, wherever Orthodox Christianity has existed in anything like its proper form, it has been productive of culture and will always be productive of culture.

Thus in Orthodox nations (or nations where Orthodoxy has existed for centuries) there is always a literature, music, all of the arts, indeed, the whole that we describe as culture – and it exists in a form that is not destructive of the Orthodox faith. One simple theological reason for this: if Orthodoxy is the fullness of faith, and leads human beings towards the fullness of what it is to be human – how can that humanity not be productive of what is completely natural for human beings? Human beings will sing the praises of God (liturgical music), but they will also sing of everything in their world: love, death, marriage, courtship, etc. Human beings will participate in the choreography of the liturgy but they will also dance – and do so for the fullness of their human life. Dancing will be expressive of the whole of their life. The same will be said of art and literature and of everything that is part of our life.

It has occasionally been the case in the history of Christianity that theology has set itself up as the enemy of culture. Thus Oliver Cromwell marches through England not only “purifying” the Churches by destroying much that existed of liturgical art, but also outlawing Christmas and much that had been normative in a nation that had embraced Christianity in the very earliest years of the faith (indeed, when St. Augustine of Canterbury came ashore with his mission to the Angles, as recorded in the history of the Ven. Bede, he is described as carrying “a portrait of Christ on a board, and a cross of silver.”)

There had never been a Christianity in Britain that was not productive of culture, indeed it largely baptized the culture of its native peoples. Thus the Book of Kells is uniquely British (or Celtic if you prefer), and properly so.

The madness of iconoclasm includes the destruction of culture (not just pictures). Orthodoxy in America, in its rush to embrace the fullness of the faith (I speak especially here to converts like myself), must not at the same time embrace an anti-American iconoclasm that would replace culture with Church (falsely conceived). Such a Church would not be the Church but would be an Apollinarian assembly (Apollinarius denied parts of the essential humanity of Christ), moving closer to gnosticism than to the fullness of Orthodoxy.

Orthodox Christians should write and paint and sing and dance. We should make movies and television shows. We should make clothes and produce textiles as art as well (the fullness of culture is itself too large to describe in a sentence, a paragraph or even a book). And in all these activities, they will be expressive of the fullness of our humanity without having to stick an icon on everything to prove its Orthodoxy. The hallmark of Orthodox cultural produce will be that it will not be destructive of human beings and the fullness for which we are created. Thus demeaning human beings, objectifying human beings, or reducing us to mere objects of sex or commerce, is not Orthodox. Where I have been critical of American culture is at precisely these points.

The Orthodox Church exists within an American culture that is indeed a mixture of many things. There are inherited elements of Puritanism in America that can trace their roots back to Oliver Cromwell and his religious cousins and forebears. These elements will not yield a Christian culture but a culture that diminishes our humanity and is, at best, a heretical Christian culture.

There are elements within American culture that have virtually no reference to Christianity – after all, secularism has a long history among us. We needn’t condemn everything simply because of its origin. But if we take up segments of the culture in which we live we must bring it into relationship with Christ. Ars gratia artis (“art for art’s sake”) if examined closely is likely not Orthodox, though the very same item of culture could be Orthodox. This is, to my mind, a matter of living in a one-storey universe.

As Orthodox Christians, we cannot agree to live with anything for which we cannot give thanks to God nor offer to Him as a product of His grace. Art for art’s sake is something for Nothing. We do not create for the sake of creating, but because we exist in the the image of the Creator and, like Him, take joy in the work of our hands (or minds). But Art for the sake of Christ need not be obviously “Christian” with the exception that it is not destructive or exploitative of what it means to be human in the image of God.

Years ago, before entering college, I lived for a couple of years in a “commune.” It’s roots were Protestant and Pentecostal, and had a number of Puritan strains within the theology that marked its life. I recall starting college very cautiously (some of this was unique to my own religious neurosis). At the end of my first year, it turns out that I had been and was a very good student. I was majoring in Greek and Latin (perhaps, at first, because they were acceptably “Christian”). I remember asking my fiancee (now my wife of nearly 32 years) whether she thought it would be acceptable were I to get a doctorate and teach college. Admittedly, I was pretty far gone as a Puritan. She laughed at me – as she has frequently over the last 32 years. Her laughter was part of the sound of the spell of Puritanism breaking its hold in my life. There were years of healing yet to come. But I have remained a friend of those who understand that Christianity, in its fullness, should indeed be evidenced by a fullness. The culture in which it dwells should be ever more reflective of Paradise for this is the vision that is whispered in our heart by the One who gave us Paradise in the first place.

I have noted with some satisfaction that the statement I made recently in one of the comments sections has been quoted far and wide in the world of blogdom: “There’s something wrong with a nation where people don’t sing and dance.” The Orthodox mission in America will show signs of how deeply it has taken root as it begins to yield the fruit of culture as well as building Churches and making catechumens. I have no idea what the fullness of God’s plan for Orthodoxy in America will be. But I do know that whatever it is, if we truly exist in this land as Orthodox Christians, we will be a source of culture to ourselves and others around us. If Orthodoxy could help us learn to sing in dance in a way that expresses the fullness of what it is to be human rather than some narrow market niche, sexual or commercial enterprise, then I for one will rejoice. There are times in my life that I would gladly dance with those around me. May God teach my feet!

The Fullness of the Faith

October 2, 2007


The word “fullness,” is a very Orthodox word, one that is used for theological expression fairly frequently. It is perhaps among my favorites, as any regular reader here can quickly attest. It is a New Testament word, usually applied to Christ or to a sense of the “fullness” of time. But there is a sense that it also carries within Orthodox usage that refers to the Gospel itself. In this usage, fullness refers to the Gospel as a whole, versus some lesser aspect or special point of view of the Gospel. In this sense, the Gospel, in its fullness, cannot be summed up by a single Bible verse (despite the popular appreciation of John 3:16), much less reduced to four spiritual laws.

The fullness of the Gospel, in this sense, is the entirety of salvation history – from beginnig to end. It begins with the creation, extends through the life of Israel, reaches a climax in the Incarnation, mission, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as well as His ascension and the culmination of all things at His second coming. For most Christians, such a panoramic portrayal of the Gospel is simply foreign to experience, or is so truncated (for instance in some Eucharistic prayers) that the fullness becomes too reduced.

I found myself preaching on the topic of the fullness when I was visiting Nicholasville, KY, this past weekend for the Sunday and Monday celebration of the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. I had thought about the feast and planned to preach on Mary’s role in salvation history as an inherent part of its fullness (meaning that you cannot tell the whole story of the gospel without mentioning her). While we were praying Great Vespers, however, my sermon changed. Not its topic – but the illustrations I had in mind.

What happened could have happened in any Orthodox Vespers or Matins of a feast. Orthodox services (particularly those that make up a Vigil (Vespers, Litya, Matins) will almost always find a means of stating the Gospel in its fullness, regardless of the feast that may be celebrated. Part of this is a living demonstration that each feast is about all feasts – or, as I have said elsewhere, everything is Pascha. I will offer a few illustrations of what I saw and heard Sunday evening. These are only three of the “stichera” (verses) sung in the course of the service:

You are like a divinely-planted paradise, Theotokos, the place where the tree of life was watered by the Holy Spirit! We acknowledge that you gave birth to the Creator of all who feeds the faithful with the Bread of Life. Together with the Forerunner, entreat Him on our behalf// and by your precious veil protect your people from all attacks!

Heaven and earth are sanctified, the Church is radiant and all the people celebrate, for behold, the Mother of God enters invisibly with the armies of the angels, the Forerunner and the Theologian, the prophets and the apostles! She prays to Christ for Christians and entreats him to have mercy on this land and people// who glorify the feast of her protection.

You are the beauty of Jacob and the heavenly ladder upon which the Lord came down to earth. These images were manifestations of your honor and glory, Theotokos! Angels in heaven and men on earth call you blessed for you gave birth to the God of all! You pray for all the world,// by your mercy, protecting those who keep your holy feast!

In three short verses, mention or reference is made to:

  • creation and paradise (Genesis);
  • the tree of life (which is also the Cross);
  • watered by the Holy Spirit;
  • the annunciation and incarnation;
  • the Eucharist and hence Christ’s sacrifice (the giver of the Bread of Life);
  • the Forerunner (John the Baptist, greatest of all the prophets);
  • and Mary’s motherly care for the Church.
  • The liberation of heaven and earth (Romans 8);
  • the army of prophets and apostles (the great cloud of witness of Hebrews 12).
  • The dream of Jacob in which he saw a ladder (which is a type of the Theotokos for God comes to earth in her in the incarnation); and etc.

These are typical of every feast in the Church, and but a small sample from the Vigil of that night. But this is the character of Orthodox worship. Whatever event or person is celebrated, the center of the celebration is ultimately the Pascha of Christ, who in Himself, gives meaning to everything around Him. And it seems to have been the joy of Orthodox hymnographers through the ages to see if it were possible to include everything within the course of a feast. Every feast (to use an old jazz term) is a riff on the same theme.

It helps that Orthodoxy is not in a hurry to get through a service. It takes time to celebrate the fullness. But celebrating less leaves us bereft of the revelation God has given us. Why would we want to sing less than everything?

The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe – Gerard Manley Hopkins

August 17, 2007


Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was a Jesuit priest (a convert from Anglicanism) and perhaps the greatest modern (?) poet of the English Language (ok, he’s my favorite). My second daughter, Khouria Kathryn, made me aware of this poem. Hopkins is wonderfully sacramental in his poetry – God permeates his words and the world his words come from. Thank you Kathryn.

Wild air, world-mothering air,

Nestling me everywhere,

That each eyelash or hair

Girdles; goes home betwixt

The fleeciest, frailest-flixed

Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed

With, riddles, and is rife

In every least thing’s life;

This needful, never spent,

And nursing element;

My more than meat and drink,

My meal at every wink;

This air, which, by life’s law,

My lung must draw and draw

Now but to breathe its praise,

Minds me in many ways

Of her who not only

Gave God’s infinity

Dwindled to infancy

Welcome in womb and breast,

Birth, milk, and all the rest

But mothers each new grace

That does now reach our race—

Mary Immaculate,

Merely a woman, yet

Whose presence, power is

Great as no goddess’s

Was deemèd, dreamèd; who

This one work has to do—

Let all God’s glory through,

God’s glory which would go

Through her and from her flow

Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound

With mercy round and round

As if with air: the same

Is Mary, more by name.

She, wild web, wondrous robe,

Mantles the guilty globe,

Since God has let dispense

Her prayers his providence:

Nay, more than almoner,

The sweet alms’ self is her

And men are meant to share

Her life as life does air.

If I have understood,

She holds high motherhood

Towards all our ghostly good

And plays in grace her part

About man’s beating heart,

Laying, like air’s fine flood,

The deathdance in his blood;

Yet no part but what will

Be Christ our Saviour still.

Of her flesh he took flesh:

He does take fresh and fresh,

Though much the mystery how,

Not flesh but spirit now

And makes, O marvellous!

New Nazareths in us,

Where she shall yet conceive

Him, morning, noon, and eve;

New Bethlems, and he born

There, evening, noon, and morn—

Bethlem or Nazareth,

Men here may draw like breath

More Christ and baffle death;

Who, born so, comes to be

New self and nobler me

In each one and each one

More makes, when all is done,

Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Again, look overhead

How air is azurèd;

O how! nay do but stand

Where you can lift your hand

Skywards: rich, rich it laps

Round the four fingergaps.

Yet such a sapphire-shot,

Charged, steepèd sky will not

Stain light. Yea, mark you this:

It does no prejudice.

The glass-blue days are those

When every colour glows,

Each shape and shadow shows.

Blue be it: this blue heaven

The seven or seven times seven

Hued sunbeam will transmit

Perfect, not alter it.

Or if there does some soft,

On things aloof, aloft,

Bloom breathe, that one breath more

Earth is the fairer for.

Whereas did air not make

This bath of blue and slake

His fire, the sun would shake,

A blear and blinding ball

With blackness bound, and all

The thick stars round him roll

Flashing like flecks of coal,

Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,

In grimy vasty vault.

So God was god of old:

A mother came to mould

Those limbs like ours which are

What must make our daystar

Much dearer to mankind;

Whose glory bare would blind

Or less would win man’s mind.

Through her we may see him

Made sweeter, not made dim,

And her hand leaves his light

Sifted to suit our sight.

Be thou then, O thou dear

Mother, my atmosphere;

My happier world, wherein

To wend and meet no sin;

Above me, round me lie

Fronting my froward eye

With sweet and scarless sky;

Stir in my ears, speak there

Of God’s love, O live air,

Of patience, penance, prayer:

World-mothering air, air wild,

Wound with thee, in thee isled,

Fold home, fast fold thy child.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.