THE JOURNEY TO EMMAUS

St Luke 24. 13-35( KJV 1611)

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about three score furlongs.

And they talked together of all these things which had happened.

And it came to pass, that while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.

But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad.?

And the one, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things that are come to pass there in these days.

And he said unto them, What things? And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people:

And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death and they crucified him.

But we trusted it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done.

Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre:

And when they found not his body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive.

And certain of them which were at the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken:

Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

And they drew nigh unto the village whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further.

But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is towards evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.

And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.

And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?

And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together,and them that were with them,

Saying the Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.

And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them by the breaking of the bread.

Comment.

The story of the Journey to Emmaus is one of the great short stories within the Gospels. Its spiritual value is developed, especially in the King James Version of the Bible, by its strengths as literature. It focuses on the walk of two disciples, we presume to their village home, following the crucifixion of their master. Their walk is clearly intended to be one way, but becomes, through the nature of their encounter on the road, a return journey. So they end up at the place they started from but utterly changed.

On the road from Jerusalem to their village the mood of the disciples -one of obvious despair and bewilderment- is expressed by the walkers’ body language as “they communed together and reasoned”. “Communed” suggests the close intimacy of their communication and their sadness is conveyed to the one who overtakes them. The sound of the ancient word “holden” (from the verb “to hold” so meaning something like “held” by their preoccupations ) is perfect for conveying this heavy downcast mood which makes them unable to look properly upward and outward to see that the stranger might be Jesus. Giving a perfect summary of the reasons for their sadness the stranger surprises the listeners with his critical response that challenges their understanding of the meaning of what they have experienced. Based on his knowledge of scripture, the stranger shows them there is another perspective. They, in their misery, have not seen what is there to be seen.

We, as readers, are in the position of knowing who the stranger is so we are in a privileged position. We can watch what they do.Yet, as readers, we can identify with the disciples seeing things as they do-so too would we. Thus we watch in knowledge while we are also dramatically involved in the effect that the2 revelation is going to have on the two disciples.

Obviously stirred by the words of Jesus, the disciples urge him to “abide” with them. The word constrained” ( compare “invited”) suggests the pressure inside them to urge him. It is the sharing of the meal that brings revelation. The wonderful sentence that leads to this deserves special attention: “And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, that he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.” Count the commas!. The commas ensure pauses, adding the slow rhythmic build- up reinforced by the alliteration of “bread”, ” blessed”, “brake” all rhythmically accented. The pauses with the “and”s (four of them including the start) help to isolate each stage of the action, each of significance to the hosts (who will know, anyway, we presume the Last Supper ritual).

The King James’ Version is rightly famous for its appropriateness for public reading. It is both formal and simple. In addition however it opens the way to imaginative contemplative reading. The build up of clauses and the start “And it came to pass” which works like the word “behold” (at the start of the story) to invite contemplative focus. These phrases help to concentrate the reading for this kind of focus on the significance of what is to pass or be beholden.

The revelation “and their eyes were opened and they knew him” brings it into direct contrast the beginning of the encounter “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him”. Glancing through a variety of recent translations no modern version makes this kind of strong linkage using the eyes: though several have “their eyes were opened” none specifically use the contrasting sense of their eyes being earlier blinded. At this point Christ vanishes. The point of recognition reached, his visual presence is required no longer.

The revelation impels action. The joyous journey back contrasts with their initial outward state of dolour. Their conversation reflects their wondrous joy: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he opened to us the scriptures”. (Again notice the effect of two strong words “hearts” and “burn” being placed side by side, slowing speech to emphasise the significance) . Where they were blind before, now they see.

It is this kind of slow , strong rhythmic beat emphasising key words and not allowing a more flat kind of recording prose to predominate. The point of scripture is that it is not there to be ordinary to be presented in an ordinary kind of conversational prose but to direct attention to what is truly significant. What we have in the King James Version is the story beautifully told to bring out the potential for renewed vision enabling a movement from despair to joy.

SAYING “I BELIEVE IN GOD” IS NOT THE SAME AS SAYING “I BELIEVE THAT GOD EXISTS.”(3)

I remember once hearing a young father tell me that he would not influence his children to believe or to not believe that God exists. When the children reached adolescence or at least the age of rational choice based on rational argument they could make the decision for themselves. Since they had no experience of church or Sunday School it turned out they had no decision to make; they just refrained from doing anything different from what they had always done

The father was not a philosopher but no doubt he would have agreed with the nineteenth century liberal and utilitarian J.S. Mill:

The most important quality of an opinion on any momentous subject is its truth or falsity, which to us resolves itself into the sufficiency of the evidence on which it rests. It is indispensable that the subject of religion should from time to time be reviewed as a strictly scientific question and that its evidences should be tested by the same scientific methods, and on the same principles as those of any of the speculative conclusions drawn by physical science.

J.S.Mill “Theism”

Science may be useful or helpful when considering religious beliefs. Consideration of the world and what it tells us of God has been part of natural theology at least since Aquinas. One-time atheist philosopher Antony Flew has written an interesting work There Is A God (HarperCollins 2007) in which he explains why he changed his mind on God on the basis of recent scientific research. But in what way can science focused on religion make a judgement challenging the truth of God one way or the other? Mill points to “scientific methods” presumably referring to the empirical idea of the detached observer considering evidence impartially. But what evidence? Can God be known by the detached observer?

As Ian Robinson explains:

“Existence” as Mill uses it at once transfers the discussion to the wrong science, and to the kind of evidence we would demand for the existence of the planets or the elements. If the existence of God is the same kind of question as the existence of uranium or Uranos it can be investigated by physics. Scientists do occasionally discover new celestial objects but God has never been spied through a telescope. Therefore, thinks Mill, with what I had to call startling naivety, the existence of God is at best not proven. No, all that follows is God is not a celestial object. The methods of physical science apply to physical things, but we are told that God is spirit.

Ian Robinson The English Prophets Edgeways 2001

Religion does not start from the Mill’s rational viewpoint. As Robinson argues the Creed does not begin “I believe that God exists therefore….” ; it starts from an inside commitment. “I believe in God …”

So that the fact Mill in his essay thinks on balance the existence of God as first cause is more likely than not does not mean he commits to God as the “light of the world or saviour”. He questions whether Mill is speaking about religion at all. For what is religion?

Religion has to do with things like certain practices called sacramental, associated with the divine, with absolutes in morality, with credal belief in revelation, with prayer. It also gives us a picture of human life though not a picture to be contemplated in an art gallery. The central Christian image derived from the Old Testament, is walking in a way. That is how Christians prove the existence of God. “If ye love me keep my commandments”. I do not go as far as Wittgenstein that it makes no difference whether the crucifixion actually happened. What concerns religion is the attitude of the soul to the event, and the consequences for living.

Ian Robinson ibid

Conversion, repentance, a changed life, may have physical effects but strictly the measurement of such is not something science can yield; only a sense, within and perhaps in community, of a changed life. Curiously Mill as he describes in his Autobiography goes through a kind of conversion from the kind of desiccated education he has been subject to as a child by reading Wordsworth’s poetry -but this does not leads him to prioritise the inner life in his philosophy. Nor does he ask in what way Science proves the existence of poetry-though clearly, for him, poetry creates a “momentous” change.

So the young father was as deluded in his idea as he would have been in denying his children the practice of reading poetry, until they were of an age when such a choice could be made rationally. And while natural theology may make interesting reading religion is closer to poetry than it is to science.

THE UNCONSCIOUS POETRY OF OUR CHRISTIAN FAITH (2)

What is the difference, if any, between writing that is spiritually inspired and writing that is imaginatively inspired?

I ask the question because to me the Luke infancy narrative ( which was probably added as a later preface to the original narrative) strikes me as a wondrous piece of literature of a depth that is both. Conservative readers of the scripture would tend to see it as directly God-inspired so that all of it is both historically and spiritually true. On the other hand -as explored in an earlier post “Inspiration: What Does It Mean to Say Writers Are Inspired?”– inspired writing is not necessarily simply Biblical or spiritual. We remember those writers who say with Blake: “though these works are mine I know they are not mine”. Perhaps both sets of writing are deeply imaginative: though the Biblical is more deliberately God-focused with an apparently definite historical background rather than being seen as simply imaginative.

There are possible difficulties, of course, with the phrase “historical background”. The problem stems from the lack of assured source material. Luke was working with material thirty or so years before the start of the ministry of Jesus. For the birth stories he would have relied on oral testimony traditions that were more distant and obscure. Moreover, for some like the encounters with Gabriel, the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth there was no one to report the details. Again how was it known what the angels declared to the shepherds? The amount of historically unconfirmed material, therefore, as well as imagined material made to fit in with Old Testament prophecies was high. But for generations of readers and hearers to whom the stories are vividly satisfying to their imaginations, the lack of precise historical evidence is neither here nor there.

For I would suggest that it is profoundly meaningful to them that:-

  • the mother of the Man, who was to be raised from the dead, is presented as a virgin (a post on the meaning of the virgin birth will follow soon).
  • that the birth of the child was of the most humble nature, not in a human residence but in a cave.
  • that the birth was greeted both by the most common( shepherds were frequently looked down upon) and the most learned, by shepherds and by Wise Men (though the story comes from Matthew, not Luke).
  • that in the background is the reign of Augustus Caesar, who stood for worldly power the alternative Son of God who has established along with Roman rule the Pax Romana under which the new religion of Jesus will spread.
  • that the birth was into a world in which power holds terrifying destructive potential as revealed in the Matthew story of Herod’s destruction of the innocents.
  • the tale kept true to Old Testament prophecies: the supposed birthplace of the Messiah at Bethlehem, the later connection with Nazareth.

Luke, that is, gained enough from oral sources to weave together a profound tale whose meanings for two millenia have been found to be inexhaustible, inspirational both imaginatively and spiritually.

Within the Infancy narratives there are some beautiful intimate touches:

For Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart in her heart”

This follows on the visit of the shepherds. Mary is storing in the depths of her mind her experiences and deeply reflecting on them. Luke’s insight here into the female mind and indeed his very dwelling upon it is astonishing.

The reader is invited by the focus on Mary to identify with her imaginatively and seek to understand her feelings.

That verse however does not stand on its own within the narrative. Consider:

“And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying , and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be”. (Luke 1:29)

Here again the reader is invited into Mary’s experience into shock and puzzlement at the angel Gabriel’s opening declaration.

Again later this time in the childhood of Jesus following the return from Jerusalem after Jesus was lost and found and after his pronouncement “Know ye not I must be about my Father’s business” Luke switches his attention to Mary once again: “but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (Luke 2:51) .

Imaginative identification includes the wonderful presentation of Elizabeth:

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:41).

There follows Elizabeth’s salutation Blessed art thou among women, the exalted tone of which leads directly to Mary’s inspired response in the speech known known as the Magnificat.

It is obvious that we as readers are not simply being given an account of what happened back then, we are being asked to read with imaginative insight, opening our minds to seek to understand what is going on in the minds of Mary and Elizabeth. The prose is of an astonishingly sustained reverential, annunciatory level that causes the reader to identify with the way in which it is crossing normal boundaries bringing together the divine and the human. The Bible as a whole does this but these stories, in particular, reflect an assurance that there is such a meeting ground.

In their intimacy, in their close identification with the two female characters, they show not only an author deeply in tune with the need to give voice to women, we are also given reading matter that invites spiritual reflection in the reader. You may have heard of the reading and prayer form of Lectio Divina a deeply contemplative form of Bible reading. It is passages like these which make a merely factual reading of the Bible inadequate; rather they require reading much more akin to that of reading poetry, necessarily imaginative.

Again in Luke’s infancy narratives speeches which could not have been passed on verbatim are used to present, again imaginatively, the thoughts and expressions of various characters from the angel Gabriel’s “Hail Mary”, Elizabeth’s acclamation of Mary, Mary’s own Magnificat beginning My soul doth magnify the Lord, the angels addressing the shepherds, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people followed by the later Hymn of Simeon-the Nunc Dimitus : Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word…….

It is little wonder that such passages, as the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimitus have been for centuries incorporated into Christian worship, that Handel used the material in addition to apt prophetic Old Testament passages for creating the unfailingly popular music of The Messiah, that the Nine Lessons and Carols still continue to draw huge congregations, and that fom medieval times the common people created joyous folk carols to celebrate and relive the the time when human and divine were brought together in a way that remains permanently meaningful.

Perhaps that is what Matthew Arnold meant when he spoke of “The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry”(see previous post). But does that dispose of what Arnold suggested was its failure to represent believable fact? I have given my case for believing not. For it is in the nature of Luke’s inspiration that the imagination meets spiritual truth within a particular historical and religious context.

For the fact is in the meaning and the meaning is the fact.

FAITH IN THE BIBLE; FAITH IN POETRY.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) by George Frederick Watts.
National Portrait Gallery, London

The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything: the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.

Matthew Arnold. Introduction to the first volume of The Hundred Greatest Men 1880 .

As you see this passage by the famous Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold was written 140 years ago. How well does it stand today?

Two large prophetic claims are made. Religion is in decline and poetry- at least “if it is worthy of its high destinies”- has the potential to take its place.

I imagine whereas the prophecy on religion- Arnold is speaking as a member of the Church of England- will meet with some agreement, given the decline in church attendance in recent decades, the positive claim for poetry will be treated with some astonishment. If the claims of religion as the supreme truth are held to be in doubt it is surely because science not poetry has taken its place as the socially regarded supreme arbiter of what is true and what is false.

Matthew Arnold believed both in the “high seriousness” of poetry and the importance of religion. His doubts about religion, even though church attendance in his age and succeeding ages up to the 1950’s remained comparatively high, is based on the rise of scepticism in intellectuals brought about, particularly, by the impact of Darwinism which suggested an evolution of humanity that appeared to set it at odds with the generally accepted Creation story in Genesis; taken as factual description that is and not positively as myth. This, came on top of a climate philosophical scepticism, induced by such as David Hume- from the eighteenth century-for instance , with respect to miracles. Lives of Jesus by writers like Schleiemacher (1832) and Renan( 1863)- translated by George Eliot, the great novelist,- stressed his human qualities and downplayed the possibility of miracles or supernatural powers. Such delimitation has continued of course into our times in which various quests for the historical Jesus have been pursued. Here what Arnold has to say of the fact failing religion given the prominence of scientific reasoning and scepticism throughout society may well seem spot on.

But the consequent rise of poetry! Surely here Arnold is being unrealistic? Actually for many years no!. Matthew Arnold was not an “ivory-tower” critic; ; he worked for over thirty years as a school inspector working to advance the use of great literature in the school curriculum at the crucial stage when education had become compulsory for all children by law. Largely through his inspiration English poetry was seen as a vital element for newly educated children to be introduced to what was best in the language. To teach a child from the slums Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” , for instance, was important for getting a child to love a poem. In his Report for 1880 Arnold writes:

Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty and of truth in alliance together, it suggests, however indirectly, high and noble principles in action, and it inspires the emotion so helpful in making principles operative.

The language is very much Victorian , to an extent, that in our sceptical age might seem over-exalted. But then Arnold’s sentiments are culturally complentary to the spiritual emphasis St Paul makes in the Letter to the Philippians

Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, or if there be any praise, think on these things.

Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. Ch4.8

Paul’s verses are part of our culture, inevitably, because when a faith comes to be written down and translated it takes its place within the language’s culture. But how well they fit with Arnold’s expression of the value of poetry! Through reading or hearing poetry one absorbs its values and this is an important part of one’s education relating to the development of who one is. For Arnold’s perceived great poetry would share Paul’s emphasis on virtue as righteousness and beauty.

Arnold’s influence on the development of education was immense. While, inevitably, practice would vary from school to to school it was in general a part of the school’s responsibility to encourage people to know good poetry and to learn passages by heart. The idea continued right into the fifties and early sixties as I myself can report, when it was taken for granted that at secondary level, a variety of Shakespeare’s plays would be read and in poetry we would work through poets from “A Pageant of English Verse”; it was considered essential to give pupils the opportunity to experience a range of great poetry in English.

A future post will seek to show that Arnold’s sense of the significance of the “fact” is not so clear as he believes. But here I want again to point out that Arnold’s prophecy expressed in this quotation is not borne out by an age markedly less religious (I refer to North America and the West) but also less given to Arnold’s high estimate of poetry and very much more prone to an exaggerated identification of truth with science and objectively verifiable fact.

So what then are we to make of Arnold’s judgement that “the strongest part of our religion is its unconscious poetry”? See the follow-up posts.

FAITH IN THE BIBLE; FAITH IN POETRY (1).

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) by George Frederick Watts.
National Portrait Gallery, London

The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything: the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry.

Matthew Arnold. Introduction to the first volume of The Hundred Greatest Men 1880 .

As you see this passage by the famous Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold was written 140 years ago. How well does it stand today?

Two large prophetic claims are made. Religion is in decline and poetry- at least “if it is worthy of its high destinies”- has the potential to take its place.

I imagine whereas the prophecy on religion- Arnold is speaking as a member of the Church of England- will meet with some agreement, given the decline in church attendance in recent decades, the positive claim for poetry will be treated with some astonishment. If the claims of religion as the supreme truth are held to be in doubt it is surely because science not poetry has taken its place as the socially regarded supreme arbiter of what is true and what is false.

Matthew Arnold believed both in the “high seriousness” of poetry and the importance of religion. His doubts about religion, even though church attendance in his age and succeeding ages up to the 1950’s remained comparatively high, is based on the rise of scepticism in intellectuals brought about, particularly, by the impact of Darwinism which suggested an evolution of humanity that appeared to set it at odds with the generally accepted Creation story in Genesis; taken as factual description that is and not positively as myth. This, came on top of a climate philosophical scepticism, induced by such as David Hume- from the eighteenth century-for instance , with respect to miracles. Lives of Jesus by writers like Schleiemacher (1832) and Renan( 1863)- translated by George Eliot, the great novelist,- stressed his human qualities and downplayed the possibility of miracles or supernatural powers. Such delimitation has continued of course into our times in which various quests for the historical Jesus have been pursued. Here what Arnold has to say of the fact failing religion given the prominence of scientific reasoning and scepticism throughout society may well seem spot on.

But the consequent rise of poetry! Surely here Arnold is being unrealistic? Actually for many years no!. Matthew Arnold was not an “ivory-tower” critic; ; he worked for over thirty years as a school inspector working to advance the use of great literature in the school curriculum at the crucial stage when education had become compulsory for all children by law. Largely through his inspiration English poetry was seen as a vital element for newly educated children to be introduced to what was best in the language. To teach a child from the slums Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” , for instance, was important for getting a child to love a poem. In his Report for 1880 Arnold writes:

Good poetry does undoubtedly tend to form the soul and character; it tends to beget a love of beauty and of truth in alliance together, it suggests, however indirectly, high and noble principles in action, and it inspires the emotion so helpful in making principles operative.

The language is very much Victorian , to an extent, that in our sceptical age might seem over-exalted. But then Arnold’s sentiments are culturally complentary to the spiritual emphasis St Paul makes in the Letter to the Philippians

Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, or if there be any praise, think on these things.

Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. Ch4.8

Paul’s verses are part of our culture, inevitably, because when a faith comes to be written down and translated it takes its place within the language’s culture. But how well they fit with Arnold’s expression of the value of poetry! Through reading or hearing poetry one absorbs its values and this is an important part of one’s education relating to the development of who one is. For Arnold’s perceived great poetry would share Paul’s emphasis on virtue as righteousness and beauty.

Arnold’s influence on the development of education was immense. While, inevitably, practice would vary from school to to school it was in general a part of the school’s responsibility to encourage people to know good poetry and to learn passages by heart. The idea continued right into the fifties and early sixties as I myself can report, when it was taken for granted that at secondary level, a variety of Shakespeare’s plays would be read and in poetry we would work through poets from “A Pageant of English Verse”; it was considered essential to give pupils the opportunity to experience a range of great poetry in English.

A future post will seek to show that Arnold’s sense of the significance of the “fact” is not so clear as he believes. But here I want again to point out that Arnold’s prophecy expressed in this quotation is not borne out by an age markedly less religious (I refer to North America and the West) but also less given to Arnold’s high estimate of poetry and very much more prone to an exaggerated identification of truth with science and objectively verifiable fact.

So what then are we to make of Arnold’s judgement that “the strongest part of our religion is its unconscious poetry”? See the follow-up posts.

KEEPING TRUE TO THE WONDER.

IT is Christmas tree purchase time once again-unless that is you are one of those wise people who has nurtured one from a previous year which you can continue to use, or unless you are one of those who for a variety of reasons- economical. practical, ecological- prefer not to buy.

It was fitting, then, to come across the following Eliot poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” in his “Collected Poems”. It cannot be claimed it is one of his best poems, and following, as it does in the Ariel series, the wonderful “Marina” which is, it is all too easy to overlook.

Yet I suggest what Eliot discusses is worth pursuing.

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

There are several attitudes towards Christmas 
Some of which we may disregard: 
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial, 
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight), 
And the childish-which is not that of the child 
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel 
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree 
Is not only decoration, but an angel, 
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree: 
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder 
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext; 
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement 
Of the first remembered Christmas Tree, 
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions 
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell), 
The expectation of the goose or turkey 
And the expected awe on its appearance, 
So that the reverence and the gaiety 
May not be forgotten in later experience, 
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium, 
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure, 
Or in the piety of the convert 
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit 
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to the children 
(And here I remember also with gratitude 
St Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire): 
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas 
(By eightieth meaning whichever is the last) 
The accumulated memories of annual emotion 
May be concentrated into a great joy 
Which shall also be a great fear, as on the occasion 
When fear came upon every soul: 
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end 
And the first coming of the second coming.   

It is not great poetry. It is rhythmically flat, no more than elegantly expressed rational discourse. As in the elderly Wordsworth, Eliot when he loses poetic force, without the driving impulsion of emotion creating and guiding the rhythm, the verse sounds prosaic.

That said, the poem has its interest. It appears to be Eliot’s last, written a few months before his death. It shows the unromantic Eliot holding on to that very Romantic emphasis on wonder that that great movement added to our understanding.

The child wonders at the Christmas tree; 
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder.  

 

Just as Wordsworth holds on to the wonder of the rainbow in the sky and prays to maintain that wonder :

So be it when I shall grow old
       Or let me die.

so Eliot sees the importance of childhood wonder as informing our later life up to death

In Eliot’s poem the wonder then becomes associated, for the soul nearing death, with fear: the fear here referring us back to the fear felt by the shepherds visited by the angels (“Fear not: for behold, I bring tidings of great joy” )

Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion 
When fear came upon every soul. 

The fear of death, of the judgement death brings on a life approaching it, is mitigated by the accumulated wonder and gratitude developed through a lifetime of the celebration of God’s great gift, as remembered every Christmas.

Let us then, whatever our age, as we look at our Christmas tree and value the Christmas stories, seek sustenance from and nurture within us that sense of accumulated wonder.

“Lord, Open the King of England’s Eyes”

In his last letter, Tyndale asked that he might have “a warmer cap, for I suffer greatly from the cold… a warmer coat also for what I have is very thin: a piece of cloth with which to patch my leggings. And I also ask to have a lamp in the evening, for it is wearisome to sit alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech your clemency that the commissary will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary, that I may continue with my work.”

Tyndale’s New Testament. Translated by William Tyndale in 1534. Intro. David Daniell. Yale University 1995.

William Tyndale is a hero of the Christian faith and also our language. We live in an age that complacently takes both for granted.

Let it be said clearly every school child in an English speaking country should know the name of William Tyndale.

Living in the reign of Henry VIII, he was there at the start of the Reformation. It was in 1517 Luther nailed his proclamation challenging the Pope’s authority on the church at Wittenberg. An essential angle of the Reformation was making the Bible available to the laity in their own tongues. Up to that time Latin was the official language of the church and only though Latin could Christian truth be mediated in church.

Tyndale, living in exile, did what was rigorously repressed and forbidden in England. He translated the Bible into English: the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek. Around sixteen thousand translations were smuggled in from the continent over the years. This was dangerous work and ultimately Tyndale paid the price. Found guilty of heresy by a court in the Netherlands he was strangled, demonstrating he, and his like, were to be made voiceless.

It was a vain hope. He told a cleric who challenged him: Ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost. What Tyndale started could not be held back. The voice could not be silenced.

Ultimately, after his death, his translation was allowed being incorporated in the Great Bible of 1539. It was not so much that the eyes of King Henry VIII had been opened. His marital affairs famously led to his quarrels with the Pope and he became more accepting of Protestant states in Germany so allowing English publications were more a matter of political expediency than principle especially when his chief archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, who developed the English Book of Common Prayer, was in approval of the use of English in church.

It is not generally realised how much of the greatly loved Authorised Version of the Bible published in 1611 is based on Tyndale’s translation: according to Tombs “80-90percent of the New Testament and a large part of the Old Testament remained Tyndale”. This version tends to give a more formal and rhetorical elaboration of Tyndale. Here is the opening verse of Genesis in Tyndale’s translation:

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water

Tyndale’s Old Testament Intro by David Daniell 1992

The Authorised Version builds on this, slightly (I think improves it ) but we can see Tyndale’s more direct, less rhetorical syle in operation:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

King James Version of the Bible.

Notice the King James Version elaborates and slightly improves phrases ( “was without form”) and it uses the paratactic form (ie sentences beginning with “And”) which helps give weight to the delivery. Some find the Tyndale’s more direct, less formal style more appealing than the Authorised Version but what cannot be denied is the predominant influence of Tyndale on it and therefore our language for four hundred years

A look at the familiarity of words and phrases brought into the language by Tyndale’s translation makes this clear. I quote from Robert Tombs:

salt of the earth, the fat of the land, the powers that be, let there be light, the spirit is willing, the apple of his eye, a law unto themselves, filthy lucre, as bald as a coot, the straight and narrow, my brother’s keeper, blessed are the peacemakers, let my people go, eat, drink and be merry, flowing with milk and honey, a stranger in a strange land, the flesh pots, thou shalt not kill, love thy neighbour as thyself.

Robert Tombs “The English and Their History” Allen Lane 2014.

Tyndale’s language working through the earlier English translations and then the Authorised Version of the Bible, meant that for four centuries his English has made a unique contribution to the language wherever it is spoken.

David Daniell in his introduction puts it well:

It is commonly said that Luther’s 1522 New Testament gave Germany a language; it ought to be said more clearly that Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament gave to English its first classic prose. Such flexibility, directness, nobility and rhythmic beauty showed what the language could do. There is a fine line from Tyndale to the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest English prose that followed: English, that is, rather than Latinised , prose. The sixteenth century began with debate about the worthiness of English. The later poets under Elizabeth and James-Shakespeare above all-showed that English was a language which could far out -reach Latin in stature but Tyndale and his successors made an English prose which was a more than worthy vehicle for the most serious matter of all.

ibid. Tyndale’s New Testament Tr. William Tyndale. 1534 Intro. David Daniell.

To forget or ignore Tyndale would be a sign that those of us who have inherited his language have forgotten where we have come from.

KNOWING WE DO NOT BELONG TO OURSELVES : DIFFERENT VIEWS.

What know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

(1.Corinthians 6.19)

But during the long February nights with the ewes in labour, looking out from the shelter into the flashing stars, he knew he did not belong to himself. He must admit he was only fragmentary, something incomplete and subject. There were the stars in the dark travelling, the whole host passing by on some eternal voyage. So he sat small and submissive to the great ordering.

D.H.Lawrence The Rainbow

“I did it my way”

Frank Sinatra “My Way”

Newspaper reports in the United Kingdom have suggested that most people want a secular rather than a religious funeral and that the favourite music is Frank Sinatra’s song “I did it my way”.

But does your life belong to you? And is your satisfaction (or disatisfaction) in it because of that? Or are you responsible to something beyond yourself?

Christ said” I am the way, the truth and the life”.(Gospel of St.John 14.6)

INSPIRATION: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY WRITERS ARE INSPIRED?

Biblical literalists will tell you the Bible is inspired by God and a picture has arisen of the writers faithfully transcribing God’s inspiring Word. However, poets have long sought from beyond themselves the inspiration of the Muse. That there might be similarity with the Biblical in the kind of inspiration in some artists’ and prophetic voices is suggested by the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who claimed in The Oak and the Calf that for the final draft of The Gulag Archipelago three large volumes written in seventy three days, his was merely the recording hand.

William Blake, referring to his pictures, though he might well have said the same of his prophetic poems, “though I call them mine I know they are not mine”.

The idea of divine inspiration is reflected by D.H. Lawrence, reflecting to a colleague on his approach to his work:

I know how hard it is. One needs something to make one’s mood deep and sincere. There are so many frets that prevent our coming at the real naked essence of our vision. It sounds boshy doesn’t it? I often think one ought to be able to pray, before one works- and then leave it to the Lord. Isn’t it hard, hard work to come to real grips with one’s imagination- throw everything overboard? I always feel as if I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me-and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist. I often think of my dear Saint Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said, “Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.

(To Ernest Collings, 24th February 1913 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence)

That it was possible for Lawrence- son of a coal miner- in 1913 to pitch his inspiration at so high a level- scarcely imaginable in a writer in English a hundred years later- demonstrates an intense seriousness in his conception of the possibilities and meaning of art in the twentieth century, which links it closely with the Biblical idea of inspiration.

Whatever, both Blake and Lawrence were brought up as Nonconformists; one was the earliest great English Romantic and the other developed into perhaps the last representative of that great outcrop of writers. Solzhenitsyn, a faithful follower of the Russian Orthodox church writes out of the the great tradition of the Russian novel, but all three writers develop their work out of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

But to get back to the Bible, perhaps you remember the second story of creation in Genesis 2:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils; and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2: 7 KJV

Hence inspiration -the breath of God breathed in by Man; with Man as “living soul” created in the image of God (Genesis1.27) ;there follows creative speech (Adam is to name the animals) developing into what, in time, Lawrence is to call “art speech” (“art speech is the only speech”) properly and originally inspired in Man by God.

The idea of inspiration is central to the Old Testament. God inspired Moses, much against his will, to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When Moses argues he has not the gift of eloquence he is told by God:

Who hath made man’s mouth…………Now therefore go, and I will be with thy mouth and teach thee what thou shalt say.

Genesis 4 11-12

The great Hebrew prophetic tradition follows in similar vein. Jeremiah similarly protests about being unable to speak for I am a child” (Jeremiah 1.6) and God reassures him Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me “Behold I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jeremiah 1.9). We hear of Ezekiel’s vivid visions followed by the words:

Son of Man, all my words that I shall speak unto thee receive in thy heart, and hear with thine ears“. (Ezekiel 3.10)

The prophetic tradition demonsrates most obviously the Biblical idea of inspiration. The prophets are men with a deep sense of accountability to God, deeply disturbed by the way in which their nation is going and finding, through inspired vision, a voice to express what they are convinced is God’s will. While much of what they say is directed towards the plight of their nation at a particular time, within the fluctuations of Middle-eastern geopolitics, from them emerge great visions like those of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, visions that were to inspire future prophets and indeed Jesus himself , who seemed particularly influenced by Isaiah’s idea of the “suffering servant” and Daniel’s apocalyptic visions.

Yet inspiration is not confined to the prophets. The Genesis stories of creation and the Fall are told at a depth which makes them continue to be deeply meaningful thousands of years later. The psalms are poems written by poets inspired to address God, some in gratitude to the good shepherd, some in distress to a God seemingly turned away. Job’s great drama daringly imagines God giving voice to the creation of the cosmos.

Biblical literalists then are not misguided in seeing inspiration as central to the creation of the books of the Bible. However the power to be a prophet or seer does not guarantee authenticity in itself. The Bible speaks of false prophets. Ezekiel is warned to distinguish true prophecy from those so called prophets who “follow their own spirits and have seen nothing” (Ezekiel 13.7). Of them God says

Have ye not seen a vain vision and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say,The Lord saith it albeit I have not spoken.

Ezekiel 13.7

We are disturbed by Biblical visions that speak of the the destruction of the Ammonites. These are visions, based on an idea of tribal purity at odds with later Christian ideas. Peter’s wonderful vision of being commanded to eat foods he instinctively considers impure (Acts 10. 9-16) is a revelatory turnaround of what he has learned from his religious heritage.

We need, in other words, as well as revelation, critical discernment . It is not enough to claim the inspiration and expect immediate endorsement. Prophecy may stretch the bounds of credibility or seem confusing or downright wrong as sometimes do the later Blake and the later Lawrence.

Yet inspiration, that is true inspiration, has an authority about it that we should be wary of countermanding:

And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him.

Gospel of St. Mark 1.27

The voice of Jesus saying and doing what intellectual traditionalists of his day find outrageous, yet calls forth, as the revelatory does, wonder at the voice of counter- authority.

We, of the English language, have been peculiarly fortunate in a tradition of great prophetic voices who from Blake, Coleridge, Carlyle, Dickens, Lawrence, Leavis have represented a continuity of voices protesting against mainstream thought systems that have led to modern day scientism and technological- Benthamism (the phrase is Leavis’ characterisation of the age) which have vitiated our modern culture and depressed and diverted the religious spirit of the people.

Inspired voices? Our age desperately needs to learn from them.

THE MARRIAGE AT CANA (PART 2)

Last time we looked at a poem on the Marriage of Cana -which if you have not yet read I would encourage you to look at. Here is the story as described in St. John’s Gospel.

And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there. And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus, saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. And there were set there six waterpots of stone after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now and bear to the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was (but the servants which drew the water knew) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

Our first reaction reading this as if for the first time might be to say “What an extraordinary story!”. We might it also find it a very mysterious one. The mystery is less as to the actuality of the miracle : “Did it happen?” or “How did it happen? ” and more on its significance: “Why has John decided to make this the first “sign” of Jesus’ ministry?”

Another way of looking at it is its sheer strange aliveness. We are caught up in a story we are not sure we fully understand so that at the critical moment, when the “governor” of the feast tastes the water, we are filled with suspense. How will he react to this drink that is prepared as water and is purportedly wine? All we are given is a good humoured, genial reaction demonstrating that transformation has indeed been wrought.

The reader’s curiosity is roused by John’s choice of this story, not one of healing as the opening sign of Jesus’ ministry. There is clearly a significance in the use of waterpots normally used for purification purposes. And the underlying significance seems to be contained in the summing up phrase “You have kept the good wine till now”. Wine is used in John’s gospel by Jesus as something he brings as the “true vine”. The Communion service as introduced by Jesus at the Last Supper (not included as such in the gospel unless this story is seen as an alternative symbolic reference) relates the transformation brought in us in drinking the “wine ” of Jesus.

More simply this is a story whose significance is less bound up with the amazement of a miracle but the transformation Jesus brings in his ministry and through his death and Resurrection. The realism of the telling combines with a mysterious hinterland of points of significance that engages our sense of wonder as readers of a fascinating story.

At the heart of Christian belief is the idea of transformation. John’s gospel and this story that is the first sign manifesting Christ’s glory is one that invites us into a reading that takes us beyond the literal, beyond the happening to the significance of the presented happening.

It might be called an inspirational story. John clearly was to inspired to develop the story and give it a primary place in his gospel. The Christopher Morgan poem we looked at last time is an inspired imaginative reflection on the story. With Jesus’ new wine readers are encouraged to seek inspiration.