Thinking Poetry: St. Brendan

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This is the first of a regular posting focusing on spiritual poetry/reflective writing of note. Today I will be reading ‘The Questions’, attributed to St. Brendan.

There is very little concrete biographical information concerning the life of Brendan, but he was a contemporary of St. Columba of Iona.

A printed version of the poem can be found in: ‘The Wisdom of Saint Columba of Iona’ by Murray Watts.

‘But The Silence In The Mind’

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R.S. Thomas was a welsh clergyman and talented poet. It’s hard to think of a more beautiful and evocative poem on silence.  ‘But the silence in the mind’ is, in my opinion, one of his best:

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean.
We launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

Note: This poem, and several others of Thomas’ can be found in Roger Housden’s ‘For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems Of The Christian Mystics’

‘It Is Still A Beautiful World’

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Amidst the turmoil of life, the triumphs and the frustrations, the laughter and the pain, we are called to introspection.  Such self-examination takes many forms, and occurs at different points in our journey; it is a reflection the growing awareness of the truth of Carl Jung’s insightful observation: ‘who looks outside dreams who looks inside awakes’.

Desiderata, a wonderful poem by Max Ehrmann, is a beautiful expression of that reality; I personally find the first and the last verses, reproduced here, as being especially meaningful:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Faith & Wealth

‘Every form of wealth acquired at the cost of other nations, and every kind of economic imperialism, debases the dignity of men and women, and is an infringement of God’s glory.’ Jürgen Moltmann.

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The view of wealth articulated by Moltmann, has a solid biblical foundation.  Specifically, Jesus’ teachings emphasise stewardship and the true value of wealth –  as a means of serving others and preserving, or indeed augmenting, their dignity. Consider Matthew 25:34-45 as an example:

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

And then there is, as another example, the strongly worded warning found in the first Johannine epistle (1 John 3:17):

17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Against this biblical backdrop it is perhaps worth remembering the extent of wealth inequality in contemporary society. Drawing on the 2017 Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, published in 2017, Rupert Neate wrote in The Guardian:

‘The globe’s richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, according to a new report highlighting the growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else.

The world’s richest people have seen their share of the globe’s total wealth increased from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn (£106tn)’.

That this is neither just, nor sustainable, is self-evident; the real test comes in developing strategies that ensure and facilitate a more equal distribution of wealth.

‘I Am The Master Of My Fate’

A favourite short poem of mine was written during the Victorian era by William Ernest Henley. ‘Invictus’ is a classic blend of Stoicism, cultural and a biblical reference.  With respect to the latter, in the fourth stanza Henley alludes to Matthew 7:14, ‘Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’ 

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Here is a poem that was written by a defiant Henley – he had a leg amputated and was fighting Tuberculosis.  He knew hardship and he knew how to make a defiant stance against ‘fate’.  This stance was a measure of a man who lived in a challenging world, accepted that to be the case, but through his words, demonstrating the power of free will Anyway, here is the full poem:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

Such has been the impact of this poem over the years, it has been quoted by Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, among others.

‘I Forget You are Suffering’

Although as Hemingway noted, suffering can often go unnoticed by those around us. But that is only part of the story, and perhaps the least important part of all.  That God notices, and helps us to re-orientate and widen our perspective, is brought into sharp focus in Isaiah 43:2 –  ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’

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