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  • Ash Wednesday with Hopkins

    Thou art indeed just, Lord by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamenjusta loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just. Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must Disappointment all I endeavour end? Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend, How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain, Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes. Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. In Year 12 Literature, I would be the one down the back of the class pouring over the poems no-one else seemed to want to go near, least of all felt any resonance with. The existential terrors and mountain climbing spiritual intensities of Hopkin’s "Terrible Sonnets" felt like they were written for my soul, my mind, ‘frightful, sheer no-man-fathomed.’ At University we learned to objectify, walk carefully around words; poets were put on pedestals or their work drop kicked through post-modern theories. Favourite poets especially were shattered like glass, swept up, binned and then forgotten. Until years later when unexpectedly chosen to be used for a Lenten reflection, or advertised in a Poets in the Faith series, such as the one coming up for us here at St Peter’s, Eastern Hill this year. Dorothy Lee will be speaking on Gerald Manley Hopkins in March and will unwrap his poetry much more eloquently than I ever can. But once more interest is piqued back to explore, renew a bygone acquaintance long forgot. The ‘dappled things’ and ‘all things counter, original, spare, strange’ can still speak anew. Thou art indeed just Lord s also amongst those poems chosen for reflection in The Heart’s Time: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter by Janet Morley. This Lenten book has been around since 2011 and I still go back to it. It features this sonnet on Friday of Week 2. Morley has that gift for opening up poems, suggesting helpful pathways through; moving inside, then kaleidascoping the themes out into a wider context. Thou art indeed just Lord is set in Petrarchan form, weighing itself between an argument of its first eight lines, and counter response in the last 6. The epigraph, from psalm 119 in the Latin vulgate, sets the poem clearly from the outset in a religious context. Morley links the poem to voices in the Old Testament such as Job and Jeremiah, prophets of suffering who protest vigorously to God. But it's the nature of the relationship between the poet and their God which speaks so powerfully for me today. There is protest, lament, perhaps too a self-indulgent despair: ‘why must / disappointment all I endeavour end?’ and excessive anguish over unfulfilled sexual longing, ‘o the sots and thralls of lust.’ But note, not only does the tight structure of the poem keep the voice in check, but the poem is premised on the knowledge that our Lord is ‘O thou my friend.’ And in this friendship there is a great courtesy extended to ‘thou lord of life.’ Twice the poet calls our Lord, ‘sir’, and although the tone is very earnest, from a human point of view it is also very relatable. It pre-empts, for me, the words of the tragic character Tess in Thomas Hardy's, Tess of the d'Urbervilles: ‘Why does the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike?’ (1891). This is a very reasonable question to ask in the spiritual life. It’s one we all pray at some point. Why, after all, do ‘sinners ways prosper’?  Why, especially for some, is it that ‘disappointment all I endeavour end?’ Once, St Teresa in a more jocular tone asked, ‘if this is the way our Lord treats his friends, how then his enemies?’ The second part of the poem extends this relationship to include the recognition of the beauty and fecundity of nature. And this, I believe, is much deeper than the lament of the poet as simply being ‘time’s eunuch.’ Though there is piercing truth in the words: ‘birds build, but not I build’, the very simple admission that despite this inner state, nature is ‘leavèd how thick’ and ‘fresh wind shakes’ affirms the goodness and connection of God in the world.  These words remind us of other sonnets by Hopkins – Pied Beauty where the poet praises, ‘Glory be to God for dappled things…’ In Thou art indeed just Lord to be in this state where ‘disappointment all I endeavour end,’ yet still ‘see’ the beauty in life, and to have the ability to cry out ‘send my roots rain,’ is the essence of the gift and affirmation of a relationship with our Lord which is held in grace. The ‘justice’ of our Lord may forever remain a mystery in human terms, but God initiates and promises a relationship with Him which has space wide enough and time limitless enough to always bring before Him our private needs, our inner frustrations. God’s love, connecting, comprehensive, non-competing, enables us in times of suffering to ‘see’ the ‘fretty chervil’ whatever they may be for each of us. And thereby is sent the rain that nourishes our souls. The Heart’s Time: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter by Janet Morley is available in St Peter’s Bookroom. $32.95

  • What Can Hold Us Steady?

    ‘To be able to see, hear, and attend to that within us which is there in the darkness and the silence.’ Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld. The destabilising, yet deeply human, emotions of fear and anxiety take on different forms in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel. The anxiety experienced by the disciples often has its basis in their lack of faith. The phrase ‘you of little faith’ or simply oligopistos in Greek, occurs five times in relation to them. In this Gospel, ‘fear’ is also born out of the dread of evil and destruction, ‘loss of moral code of the kingdom.’ But there is also the fear which is akin to awe, the revelation of the numinous: the clear, bright presence of Jesus at the transfiguration, and his living presence before the women at the empty tomb. Jesus often reassures, not only by his words: ‘do not be afraid,’ ‘take courage’, but also in his presence. (See The Book of Gospels by Dorothy Lee). The charged events of Holy Week are permeated with people’s attempts to restrain chaos. Here, in Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests conspire to arrest Jesus but not during Passover lest there be a commotion; Judas Iscariot’s character disintegrates from agreeing to betray Jesus, looking for the right opportunity, then later hanging himself; Pilate, when sensing a riot from the crowd can only wash his hands. A madness is brewing which is born out of group fear and anxiety. It finds its culmination at the crucifixion. Having finally been humiliated and taunted by the soldiers at the cross, when Jesus dies the curtain of the temple is torn in two, the earth shook: ‘They were terrified.’ What is it that can hold us steady? Keep us grounded when we experience deep anxiety, impending chaos and the very earth feels to shake under our own feet? Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, an unfailing courageous worker for world peace during the Cold War, died in a plane crash over the Congo in 1961. In 2021 a previously unpublished document confirmed there was a death warrant out for him accounting for the plane being shot down. Hammarskjöld kept a notebook found by his bedside after his death. This diary he described as ‘a sort of White Book concerning my negotiations with myself – and with God.’ It reads as an ongoing dialogue between a person’s deeply questioning, reflecting soul and their God and Maker. Holy Week is a period where we are invited to look into our own hearts. There’s darkness there, as another famous 20th century writer testified to. But if you really attend, stay close to your own honest negotiations with yourself and God, in the space of prayer, you will come to glimpse something much deeper in the darkness. Beyond fear and anxiety too. Love casts out fear. The narrative in the Gospel of Matthew makes this point clear again and again. The unwavering, steady presence of Christ’s love during Holy Week is astonishing. The Institution of the Lord’s Supper reveals to us a Jesus who is centred, clear eyed about truth, yet tender in surveying the messy emotions and actions of those around him. And honest in recognising more was yet to come. In his humanity he spent time in prayer at Gethsemane negotiating, communing, praying in and with his Father. ‘- Night is drawing nigh-‘ Let me finish what I have been permitted to begin. Let me give all without any assurance of increase. The pride of the cup is in the drink, its humility in the serving. What then do its defects matter? Markings, Dag Hammarskjöld. Photo: St Peter's Anglican Church, East Melbourne, Palm Sunday 2023

  • Rejoice! Laetare Sunday

    Reflection for Sunday 19th March, 2023 I’ve just finished reading the novel Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. It narrates the slow ruin of a proud, wealthy ship merchant whose life has been focused on financial gain and having a male heir to continue the great House of Dombey. Dombey expresses only coldness and cruelty towards his loving and devoted daughter, Florence. Frustrated when his only son dies at a young age, outraged when his second wife elopes with his friend, Carker the Manager, Dombey withdraws into isolation and financial ruin. It’s only in this state of broken misery that he finally recognises the unchanging goodness of his daughter. But in this wretched state he owns that he is ‘so proud in his ruin…that if he could have heard her voice in an enjoining room, he would not have gone to her. If he could have seen her in the street…..he would have passed on with his cold, unforgiving face and not addressed her, or relaxed it, though his heart should have broken soon afterwards.’ The journey of Lent is like a little journey of life. It is framed by a beginning and end; reminds us that we are time-bound, space-bound and have our being in relationship with one another. Our readings today encourage us to stay open and aware so that our seeing is always fresh: ‘everything exposed by the light becomes visible.’ (Eph 5:13). Everyday has something new to teach us. Being human we create habits. Habits influence our neural pathways, the patterning of our actions and form our nature. They affect those around us and our environment. Barely perceptible, often least recognised by ourselves, habits can make us who we are. It can be near impossible to change some habits. Except that the work of the Holy Spirit makes it possible. Lento in music means to move at a slow tempo. We work in the spirit, the spirit works in us, at a slow pace. It doesn’t operate at record breaking speed. Laetare Sunday is a sign that the human heart doesn’t change at a great pace, but slowly. This day of rejoicing isn’t about how great it is that we may be changing some of our habits. But rather, how great God is in the recognition of our human limits and fallibility. God knows our brokenness. Knows too our blind spots. Paul Dombey is redeemed by the end of the novel. Not so much by his efforts, but by the faithful grace of love. This is God’s endless patient work in our own frail human hearts. In Lent and beyond. Rejoice! Readings for Sunday 19th March: 1 Samuel 16:1-13 Psalm 23 Ephesians 5.8-14 John 9.1-14 Illustration: Let Him Remember It in That Room Years to Come. Illustration from The Charles Dickens Novel Dombey and Son by Phiz (H.K. Browne 1815-1852)

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