The Blessing of the New Year

Here’s a Highlands New Year’s Blessing from the Carmina Gadelica. It’s traditional to say this poem “the first thing on the first day of the year.” (I’m a little late.)

"Camhanaich" by John McSporran.Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/127130111@N06/16477446765/in/photolist-r74dRK-pCvAqb-3vH1uX-742jEJ-5WoZyN-5WjHAx-jgcbLB-5NA2iD-59z2D5-5Wp1ao-5Wp1rN-idk3uu-quULh1-NtL9m-5NBxs8-3ujV2S-idket1-qpVmtD-dGi73e-qD5eAS-3gxPUj-6tnBKg-4fWSH4-pYVokH-teYUrb-6vk4bs-pVvZZS-8E7XxW-ifnC2R-dz925x-4f1gn3-CsoXck-8HAAKT-nkGcMA-axsW3e-nCbMGx-s8u7Rp-9dyfK4-4nsuoU-41wC45-4nsvnA-5Sqb6x-9dBg8b-9dBc5d-6cbe6Q-diHrH5-uJWiXq-APLtMP-qYDTsk-ASuxXP

“Camhanaich” by John McSporran via Flickr. Creative Commons License.  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

GOD, bless to me the new day,

Never vouchsafed to me before;

It is to bless Thine own presence

Thou hast given me this time, O God.

.

Bless Thou to me mine eye,

May mine eye bless all it sees;

I will bless my neighbor,

May my neighbor bless me.

.

God, give me a clean heart,

Let me not from sight of Thine eye;

Bless to me my children and my wife,

And bless to me my means and my cattle.

.

Happy New Year and many blessings for a brand new day: a new beginning every day.

Thomas Merton: Man of Poetry and Prayer

All across America, people can’t stop talking about Pope Francis’s recent speech to Congress. And although he’s not my Pope, I still admit to being inspired by him. His historic speech to Congress is notable for many reasons, and I especially appreciate his references to Thomas Merton, the monk-poet. Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was an instant bestseller and has sold over one million copies and been translated into fifteen languages. Thomas Merton, perhaps better than anyone else in American popular culture, brought the notion of contemplative prayer into a somewhat widespread awareness and conversation. The Poetry Foundation website credits him “with introducing the mysticism of Eastern spirituality to Western Christians.”

I myself confess a certain fondness for a poet who conjures the image of the dim “light of early Lent.” Those of us who keep Lent know what he means.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMerton_Trappist.gif

Thomas Merton from Wikimedia Commons

 

Winter’s Night (1946)

When, in the dark, the frost cracks on the window
The children awaken, and whisper.
One says the moonlight grated like a skate
Across the freezing river.
Another hears the starlight breaking like a knifeblade
Upon the silent, steelbright pond.
They say the trees are stiller than the frozen water
From waiting for a shouting light, a heavenly message.

Yet it is far from Christmas, when a star
Sang in the pane, as brittle as their innocence!
For now the light of early Lent
Glitters upon the icy step –
“We have wept letters to our patron saints,
(The children say) yet slept before they ended.”

Oh, is there in this night no sound of strings, of singers!
None coming from the wedding, no, nor
Bridegroom’s messenger?
(The sleepy virgins stir, and trim their lamps.)

The moonlight rings upon the ice as sudden as a
footstep;
Starlight clinks upon the dooryard stone, too like a
latch,
And the children are again, awake,
And all call out in whispers to their guardian angels.

In the first stanza, the internal rhyme and harsh assonance of awaken, grated, skate, and breaking call to mind the cracking of ice on the frozen river. This poem is sad and hopeful both because it is the innocence of children who have wept letters to their patron saints, the faith of children whispering to their guardian angels, tentative faith balancing in the dark nights between Christmas and Easter. I am chagrined to realize that I do not cry out to the saints with such weeping pleas nor do I whisper secrets to my guardian angel. I am reminded that Christ called us all to become like little children. So too the poet conveys a patient, doubting, desperate hope—hope in the midst of despair—hope awaiting the far-off Bridegroom. The children awake to this hope. However dark and cold the winter, they have not lost faith; they still whisper to their guardian angels.

Merton’s poem reminds me to latch tightly to hope in a world hovering in bleak midwinter. It may be a seasonal poem, and perhaps I’ll return to it again in February. But for now, every day may I cry out to my saints and angels as I await the heavenly Bridegroom.

“Merton was above all a man of prayer . . .” Pope Francis said. As much as I respect Merton’s poetic career and social consciousness, I wonder if he best appreciates being remembered as a man of prayer. I hope that at the end of my career, I will be remembered as being a person of prayer.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for calling to remembrance God’s servant Thomas Merton, for publicly lauding a poet, and for reminding us that poetry and writing can be a calling from God.

"Thomas merton sign" by I, W.marsh. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg#/media/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg

“Thomas merton sign” by I, W.marsh. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg#/media/File:Thomas_merton_sign.jpg

References

“Thomas James Merton.” [Biography]. N.Y.: Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/thomas-james-merton. Web.

“Thomas Merton’s Life and Work.” Louisville, KY. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx. Web. [Check out their website for some great photos of Merton.]

Pope Francis. Address to Congress. September 24, 2015. “Pope Francis Addresses Congress: Read the Full Remarks.” Vox Media, Inc. http://www.vox.com/2015/9/24/9391549/pope-remarks-full-text. Web.

“Winter’s Night.” Index of Thomas Merton’s Marian Poetry. Dayton, OH: The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute. http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/poetry/merton.html#toc. Web.

A Spring Flower Garland

The Annunciation, f.45v from Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary; vellum, 15th C; courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

The Annunciation, f.45v from Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary; vellum, 15th C; courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

Five days after the announcement proclaiming the arrival of Spring we have it: The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary: “For behold, you shall conceive and bring forth a Son . . .”

Winter has been long and brutal. I am cold; I am weary; my heart is frozen. I long for life. In the Northeast this Winter has been especially harsh, and I am just now starting to see the sprouts of daffodils and tulips poking through cold soil. The new life of Easter is just around the corner.

How many times a day do I become flustered and discombobulated—and downright cranky—by disruptions to my “plan,” my routine? Mary’s acceptance of the news brought by her unexpected visitor gives me a hint of how to experience blessing in my own life. May I learn to say, like Mary, “May it be unto me as you have said. . .”

Spring will come; it always does. I long for a fresh springtime in my permafrost heart.

 

In honor of Mary and Springtime, here’s a poem collected and recorded by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica:

 

Praise of Mary

 

Flower-garland of the Ocean,

          Flower-garland of the land,

Flower-garland of the heavens,

          Mary, Mother of God.

 

Flower-garland of the earth

          Flower-garland of the skies,

Flower-garland of the angels

          Mary, Mother of God.

 

Flower-garden of the mansion

          Flower-garland of the stars

Flower-garland of paradise,

          Mary Mother of God.

 

 

Keep Me From Haters

The Angelic Liturgy, Greek, 1619/20, Courtesy of http://pandektis.ekt.gr/pandektis/handle/10442/85924

The Angelic Liturgy, Greek, 1619-1620      From the Institute for Neohellenic Research http://pandektis.ekt.gr/pandektis/handle/10442/85924

 

The love and affection of heaven be to you,

The love and affection of the saints be to you,

The love and affection of the angels be to you,

The love and affection of the sun be to you,

The love and affection of the moon be to you,

Each day and night of your lives,

To keep you from haters, to keep you from harmers, to keep you from oppressors.

 

–from the Carmina Gadelica, oral hymns, poems, and charms collected by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th Century.

Even Bono Knows the Psalms

The Psalmes of King david

The Psalmes of King David, translated by King James, 1631

I have a weakness for Psalms in popular culture. It’s another one of my eccentric hobbies, along with the mostly-dead art of memorizing poetry, and collecting picture book adaptations of famous literary texts like Virginia Woolf’s Nurse Lugton’s Curtain and Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

Don McClean’s “Babylon,” from his famous “American Pie” album, far outshines the perhaps more familiar Godspell version of Psalm 137:

By the waters,
The waters of Babylon
We lay down and wept
And wept, for thee Zion
We remember thee, rememberThee
Remember thee, Zion

Listen here, courtesy of YouTube.

In high school, we were convinced the classic oldie “Stand By Me” was really an adaptation of Psalm 46—lo and behold, a little poking around on Wikipedia confirms our long-held suspicions:

Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

Stand By Me
Lyrics by Ben E. King, J. Leiber, and M. Stoller
. . . If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
All the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
(Second verse)

Even Bono knows the Psalms. Like as not, I can best quote Psalm 40 by singing the appropriately-named song “40” from U2’s early album War:

I waited patiently for the Lord.
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay.

I will sing, sing a new song. . . [Chorus]

You set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm.
Many will see, many will see and hear.

No surprise then that the admittedly pious medieval Celts would come up with their own Psalms. Many of these oral prayers, hymns, and poems were recorded by Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael and published initially in 1900 as the Carmina Gadelica (Charms of the Gaels).

Here’s one that struck me as particularly Psalm-like. Was it composed by an anonymous Celt or King David? If you didn’t know, could you tell?

Thou, my soul’s Healer,
Keep me at even,
Keep me at morning,
Keep me at noon,
On rough course faring,
Help and safeguard
My means this night.
I am tired, astray, and stumbling,
Shield Thou me from snare and sin.

Psalm references are taken from the common Western enumeration.

The Storm Has Spread Over All

Snow_blizzard

Cold, cold!

Cold to-night is broad Moylurg

Higher the snow than the mountain-range,

The deer cannot get at their food.

 

Cold till Doom!

The storm has spread over all:

A river is each furrow upon the slope,

Each ford a full pool.

 

A great tidal sea is each loch,

A full loch is each pool:

Horses cannot get over the ford of Ross,

No more can two feet get there.

 

The fish of Ireland are a-roaming,

There is no strand which the wave does not pound,

Not a town there is in the land,

Not a bell is heard, no crane talks.

 

The wolves of Cuan-wood get

Neither rest nor sleep in their lair,

The little wren cannot find

Shelter in her nest on the slope of Lon.

 

Keen wind and cold ice

Has burst upon the little company of birds,

The blackbird cannot get a lee to her liking,

Shelter for its side in Cuan-wood.

 

Cozy our pot on its hook,

Crazy the hut on the slope of Lon:

The snow has crushed the wood here,

Toilsome to climb up Ben-bo.

 

Glenn Rye’s ancient bird

From the bitter wind gets grief;

Great her misery and her pain,

The ice will get into her mouth.

 

From flock and from down to rise—

Take it to heart!—were folly for thee:

Ice in heaps on every ford—

That is why I say ‘cold’!

 

Source: Meyer, Kuno, trans. Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry. London, 1911. p. 57. In the Public Domain.

 

Shackleton & Eliot: You’re Never Alone

“Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton.”  –Apocryphal announcement for the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. [1]

Photo by Frank Hurley, a member of Shakleton's expedition, taken ~1914-1915, Public Domain, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales and Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Frank Hurley, a member of Shakleton’s expedition, taken ~1914-1915, Public Domain, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales and Wikimedia Commons

2014: The Midwest and Northeast hunker down for blizzard and blizzard-like conditions, followed by frigid cold. In Antarctica, 52 passengers are rescued from a Russian research vessel trapped in ice; less well reported: the 22-member crew stays with the ship. The purpose of their Antarctic voyage: to recreate Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911 to 1913 exploratory voyage.

Nearly one hundred years ago, Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton watched his aptly-named Endurance become trapped in Antarctic pack ice for months before being crushed and swallowed by massive shifting ice floes.  Shackleton had no helicopters to radio for rescue in 1915. His resultant sixteen-month odyssey entailed making camp on ice floes, dragging sledges and life boats across glaciers, cooking seal and penguin meat over a blubber-fueled camp stove, and splitting-up and taking a last-ditch rescue party on a sea journey in a lifeboat followed by a thirty-six hour do-or-die hike across unexplored interior South Georgia island to finally reach the safe harbor of the ‘civilization’ at a remote whaling station.

In their loneliest moments of isolation, during their near-delirious deprivations across the unnamed mountains, glaciers, and crevasses, Shackleton and his men never felt truly alone. Shackleton kept to himself his impression that their three-man rescue party was joined by a fourth.  Captain Frank Worsley later admitted to the “curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.”[2] T. S. Eliot would capture these sentiments in his epic poem The Waste Land:

“Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you. . .” (lines 360-363).

In his own mind, Shackleton explained it. “When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us,” he wrote in South, his account of their odds-defying journey.[3]

I believe Providence walks beside us—some might say within us—on our own sometimes-perilous life journeys.  We do not have to be truly at the edge of the world and the literal end of our rope to be aware of God’s presence in our lives. (Human nature being what it is, our crises often seen to function in this fashion.)

I can starting with being thankful for a snow day off from work, and offer a prayer for the less fortunate, for the crew remaining on the contemporary Russian Antarctic vessel, for the essential employees plowing the roads, fighting fires in Minnesota temperatures so cold the water freezes immediately, and those working extra hospital shifts and fixing downed power lines. Right or wrong, I gave a subway token to a Septa station panhandler during yesterday’s evening commute: May everyone stay warm today.

"Within a few Seconds she heeled over until she had a List of Thirty Degrees to Port".  From Shackleton's 1919 book, South. Public Domain. via Wikimedia Commons.

“Within a few Seconds she heeled over until she had a List of Thirty Degrees to Port”. From Shackleton’s 1919 book, South. Public Domain. via Wikimedia Commons.

Bonus Info

Film and photographs of the Endurance expedition.

Well-done tribute site by Nova.

Shackleton narrates the loss of a pony, via the Australian Screen archives.

Shackleton museum.

Shackleton as expert witness on Titanic inquest.

Whisky recovered from Shackleton’s 1907-1909 voyage.

Photo by Frank Hurley, 1915. Public domain. Via the State Library of Queensland and Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Frank Hurley, 1915. Public domain. Via the State Library of Queensland and Wikimedia Commons.

Bibliography/Notes

Heacox, Kim. Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society. 1999.

Hempleman-Adams, David, Sophie Gordon, Emma Stuart, and Alan Donnithorne. The Heart of the Great Unknown: Scott, Shackleton, and Antarctic Photography. NY: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Margot Morell and Stephanie Capparell. Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer. N.Y.: Viking, 2001. Reviewed by the author of this blog at Library Worklife.

Worsley, F.A. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1931, 1999.


[1] Heacox, Kim. Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge, p. 34

[2] Ibid, p. 185.

[3] Ibid, p. 183.