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One of my all-time favorite poets agrees with me that poetry needs to be heard.
“…poetry is the darling child of speech. …it must be spoken: till it is spoken it is not performed, it does not perform, it is not itself.” Gerard Manley Hopkins
I’m doing my part by making recordings of my poems available here.
Meanwhile, it would be so great if, during National Poetry Month, you would take a poem and read it aloud. Any poem! I firmly believe that, unless we recover a taste for poetry, an ear for poetic speech, a soul in-formed by poems, we will greatly lack capacity for Christ. The Eucharist will be the same yesterday, today, and forever, but we must cultivate capacity to receive it.
Enter, poetry. Poems are one expression of poesis – the making of form, the realizing of ideas. Poems are one form that word takes when someone is trying to communicate more than words can say. As such, they have the potential of preparing our hearts to receive the meaning that lies within forms, within words, within the Eucharist and the Word of God.
My offer still stands: up to ten free copies of A Destiny to Burn for those who will give them away during National Poetry Month. Every day should be ‘poetry day’ for Christians, but while the world still has a poetry month, shouldn’t we people of the Word be its most enthusiastic supporters? In the month to come, I’ll be giving away volumes of poetry by Pavel Chichikov, Ruth Asch, Christopher Kelder, Malcolm Guite, Kathryn Mulderink, and other living Catholic poets, and subscriptions to some magazines that publish contemporary Catholic poetry. Will you help promote my promotion??
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For your copies of A Destiny to Burn, use the form below, or email me: Speaker@CharlotteOstermann.com.
Thanks to a friend who lets the Spirit move her, I now own a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry. I’m enjoying lots of lovely morsels from In Praise of Mortality, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Rilke wrote these Sonnets to Orpheus after the First World War left him bereft of words. He was paralyzed by the horror and destruction, but turned a corner in the effort to reconcile it with his vocation. As he saw it, a poet is called to praise, to “grasp and give shape to” his world, to name the world in gratitude for the goodness shining through it.
Here, the mythological Orpheus, prefiguring Christ in a form of preparatio evangelium, overcomes the darkness with the gift of his own life, and with his song. These sonnets, like the psalms, bear, through the art of poetry the tensions of real life in a dark but hope-filled world. Rilke’s joy in and union with Creation gave me a sense of his return to hope through the naming of the world that is poesis. “Tell me, Orpheus, what offering can I make to you, who taught the creatures how to listen?” Clearly, the appropriate offering for God’s gift of Creation is gratitude.
Speaking of a galloping horse, Rilke tells Orpheus “He embraced the distances as if he could sing them, as if your songs were completed in him.” Of forest animals he says, “…it was not fear or cunning that made them be so quiet, but the desire to listen.” Of an apple he writes, “…this sweetness which first condensed itself so that, in the tasting, it may burst forth and be known in all its meanings…” What a beautiful refusal to let an apple become an empty mental construct, or an impotent label. For Rilke, creation is actively calling to us – a super-Reality, and not an inert stage set for a meaningless play.
It’s impossible to do justice to poetry with excerpted lines, though I have many juicy favorites in this book. Since we are, ourselves, accosted in this day by the darkness that threatened to overwhelm this poet, I’ll give just one of his poems, whole, so you can sense the beauty of the rest.
“Only he who lifts his lyre
in the Underworld as well
may come back
to praising, endlessly.
Only he who has eaten
the food of the dead
will make music so clear
that even the softest tone is heard.
Though the reflection in the pool
often ripples away,
take the image within you.
Only in the double realm
do our voices carry
all they can say.”
(IX in Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus, in In Praise of Mortality.)
I hope that you who weekly eat the food of the dead, the Eucharist of the risen Christ, will take his image with you in the pool that is your interior being. There, His voice will carry, and through you be carried into the world. He is the double realm in whom we may live, move, and have being, and He has overcome death so that we may be free to praise Him endlessly. The heart of Christ, seen through Rilke’s reflections on Orpheus, “is a winepress destined to break, that makes for us an eternal wine.”
There’s so much more to love in this little volume, but go find your own, or make friends with someone who will think of you in dusty bookstores.
Giotto’s painting, The Wedding Feast at Cana, (select link for large image in a new window) portrays the literal and spiritual senses of this story. From John 2:1-11, we have the story that is the basis for the painting. Its details are conveyed in a simple, straightforward way. At the table from which the bride and groom face their roomful of guests sit, among others, Jesus (signified by the cross-marked gold halo) and his mother, Mary (signified by her blue robe and gold halo). Mary has turned toward the servants who attend the wine jars. This would seem to be the moment when she says to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Obligingly, the servant girl on the right fills the jars with water per Jesus’ instructions (John 2:7: “Fill the jars with water…”). The steward tastes red wine (“…the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine…” John 2:9). The servant beside him, clutching at his arm, is, perhaps, eager to try for himself a bit of the wine he hears praised by his surprised supervisor (“…you have kept the good wine until now.” John 2:10).
There seems to be a direct line of sight from the amazed steward back to Christ, seeming to contradict the fact that, in the story, the steward immediately credits the bridegroom with the provision of this fine wine. This would seem to be a redirection of the viewer’s understanding of the story ‘upward’, toward its spiritual meaning. On the literal level, the bridegroom – as is fitting at his wedding – is the central figure. On the spiritual level, the ‘bridegroom’ has become a type, or sign of Christ. Giotto has even robed them in similar garments to emphasize this unity of meaning.
The feast itself – noticeably lacking any foods but bread and wine – is now seen as an image of the Eucharistic feast. Both Christ and the bridegroom raise hands of blessing over the bread, and the servant girl in the center seems to bow before it reverently. The girl in pink, arms folded, gazing intently at Jesus, might have seemed idle as a servant, but now reminds us of the Mary who sat still in the presence of Jesus while her sister, Martha, bustled around, busily preparing a meal for Him. (Lk 10:38-42) Each, in her own (though outwardly opposite) way, gives Him reverent attention – as these two servant girls, back-to-back, clearly do.
On Christ’s left sits a young man who seems to be listening to the narrator, St. John, who tells this story in his gospel account. Their oblique perspective on the scene suggests again that the literal events are meant to be seen and understood on another, spiritual, level. The young man sits, hands folded, more like a student/disciple than an active participant in a festive meal. He represents, perhaps, all those who would later be instructed through St. John’s retelling of the story of this feast.
The bride looking toward her husband mirrors Mary’s gaze at the miraculous wine – a direction of our gaze toward the moral sense that reverberates all through this painting. “Listen to Him,” says the girl on the left. “Learn of Him,” says St. John. “Bow to Him,” says the girl in green. “Follow His mother’s example,” says the bride. “Do as He tells you,” says Mary. “Take, and drink!” says the steward. The moral instructions conveyed by these events and by the artist’s careful rendering could not be clearer. Eventually, the viewer’s eye is drawn upward, past these ‘lower levels’ to a much higher plane.
Though the blue of the heaven-like ceiling is only a few feet above the seated guests, its distance is amplified by a three-part horizontal band. The colorful wall stops abruptly at the plastered white wall, where a decorative molding further accentuates the separation of the upper level. Finally, an almost crown-like balcony, carved with three rows of crosses and topped with six small urn-shaped finials lifts our eyes to what must be the highest meaning – the eternal significance – of this story. A seventh urn, much larger than the six, is centered precisely over the bridegroom, raising our understanding of the sign of ‘new wine’ to the sense in which a wedding feast prefigures the eventual fulfillment of the new covenant in the Wedding Supper wherein Christ will receive His Bride, the Church. “At Cana, the mother of Jesus asks her son for the needs of a wedding feast; this is the sign of another feast – that of the wedding of the Lamb where he gives his body and blood at the request of the Church, his Bride.” (CCC 2618)
Also directing our gaze fully upward is a vertical line of bright white paint at the left margin that seems to indicate quite a bright light shining from that direction, which also brightens the left side of the ‘crown balcony’ and flows across the white table cloth, over the white water jars, and even over the obedient servant girl in white. The dual movement of this light suggests the vertical-and-horizontal of the Cross, and also highlights the three gestures of blessing as it moves through Christ, man (the bridegroom) and Mary toward the fulfillment of the promise of finest wine.
The anagogical level leads us to the covenantal significance of this (and of every) wedding and of the Eucharistic feast. The literal wedding – like the natural elements of bread and wine, or the temporal covenant of natural marriage, is overshadowed and suffused with new life and meaning by what must be the Holy Spirit – shown as light, movement, and power. Because this wedding feast prefigures the Last Supper, at which Christ instituted the Eucharist, it also directs our attention “toward the fulfillment of the Passover in the kingdom of God” (CCC 1403). The Eucharist is the sign of the marriage covenant of Redemption between Christ and His Church (Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20, CCC 1405). The Old and New Covenants are joined together definitively in the feasts of Passover, Cana, and Eucharist, where all eyes are directed toward the coming kingdom, where the sign of Marriage, the signs of Bread and Wine, the signs of blood and water,and the sign of the Cross will be fulfilled in glory. (CCC 1359-1363, CCC 1334, 1335)
It is not always a pleasant thing to come to Christ. All around us are women in varying stages of hardened self-defense against the pains of un-love, abandonment, violation, fatherlessness, abuse and sin. To such women, from another, these poems have been written. The pair can be read individually, or back and forth from verse to verse, as a dialogue. ‘Cacophony’ is the cry of a woman’s heart to be loved, purified, and husbanded. The journey she has begun, of trusting her wooer, has become extremely painful as her vulnerability increases in response to his love. She feels betrayed and frightened as her self-protective cover drops away, revealing sin and pain. ‘Euphony’ is the response of Christ to this woman. His calm resolve to love and have her as his own is not upset by her self-loathing frenzy. Unperturbed even by her seeming hatred of him, he sees through to the deep need of her soul for healing through faithful love. [Read more…]