IMG_0340.JPG

Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

Annunciation: A Poem and a Holy Challenge

The Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse (a Pre-Raphaelite artist)

The Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse (a Pre-Raphaelite artist)

First off, thank you for finding your way over here from the old blog, and oh, thank you for the encouraging comments and notes as this new space takes shape. What a pleasure it is to begin here.

Second, I may tweak the title of this blog page several times. New name, old one? We'll see. It has to feel right.

And now, let us turn to more Advent poetry.

Living, as I do, across the street from an old church whose temperamental bells (you never know which note they won't ring) toll a daily and vigorous invitation to every service, it's hard to miss the fact that evening prayer begins at 5:30 sharp. I trundle over more often as the weather gets colder; grateful for candlelight, for liturgy, for words that are almost like candles themselves, lit in the late-day dimness of my heart: Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord...

One of the best parts of presenting myself for prayer these days is the joy of daily repeating Mary's Magnificat (found in Luke 1:46-55), the hymn of praise and wonder that burst forth upon her greeting by Elizabeth. This jubilant song is a central part of the daily service and it's one that has long fascinated me. I've thought of it often this week after my poetry group discussed Denise Levertov's poem The Annunciation (full text below), because I think that both that poem and the Magnificat reveal the self-possessed courage that lies at the heart of Mary's answer to the angel, a courage that is a mighty challenge to us as we walk the road of Advent.

When I was writing Journeys of FaithfulnessI researched the Magnificat and found that each line echoed with allusions to the Psalms and prophecies of Israel, revealing that Mary's knowledge of Hebrew Scripture must have been intricate, long, and engaged. Her statement to the angel, 'be it done to me as you have said' was no naive, overawed half answer. 

Mary, as Levertov puts it, was free/ to accept or to refuse, choice/ integral to humanness. And in the meantime, as Levertov puts it in her bold, brief line: God waited.

What a thought. But what a woman. For Mary knew exactly what story she found herself in. She knew the aching beauty of Yahweh's promises to his people and she understood both the glory and the sorrow at stake at in the advent of the promised Messiah. She knew that to mother the Messiah would bring her the kind of blessing that echoes down the centuries, but also, and almost inescapably, a breaking, a battle, the same known by prophets and priests, by the righteous throughout the ages. She knew that the angel's words were a request for her:

to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

I love the Magnificat and I love Levertov's poem because they demonstrate, in Levertov's words, Mary's profound 'compassion and intelligence', qualities that lay at the heart of her courageous yes to the angel. Her intelligence lay in her keen sight, her recognition that the coming of this blessed baby meant joy and salvation beyond imagination, and also the start of a great struggle as God arrived to confront the darkness, to contend with the 'mighty on their thrones'. Mary's compassion lay in her capacity not only to share, but to welcome into herself, into her body, her story, her heart and soul, the redemptive intent and power of God. 

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light...

I love Mary a little more each year. I look so forward to a talk with her in Eternity. On this side of time though, I hope that I can grow ever more like her in that intelligent recognition of God's work, that joining of God's love and will, that acceptance of the Almighty into the core of her being. In a sense, this is what is asked of every one of us as we follow God. In Advent, each year, I am drawn afresh to ask myself if the whole of my being and self is ready for the coming of God. Do I assent to his coming in every way ? Where does the Spirit beckon me - and do I follow? Whether into new writing, or deepened relationship, or a fuller assent to God's grace invading the things I just can't change, for me, this is the challenge that Mary sets before me by her example. It's what Levertov sets before us too:

Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?
         Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.
More often those moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman, are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.                                 
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

I feel sometimes that getting older and being married and living overseas and owning my vocation - all this grown-up living I'm in the midst of doing - just serves to show me how much more learning I have to do, how many ways I have to grow. It's not discouraging so much as just a bit mind boggling. But Mary helps me to realise that the necessary quality to all of the growth I so need is simply assent; to God's presence, to his coming within every corner of my life, to his gift of himself and his promise to make me a saint (improbable as that sometimes seems).

Be it done to me as you have said.

And oh my goodness. Let the pathway stay bright in me! 

Annunciation, Botticelli

Annunciation, Botticelli

Annunciation
by Denise Levertov

We know the scene: 
the room, variously furnished, almost always a lectern, a book; always the tall lily.
       
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings, the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.

         God waited.

She was free to accept or to refuse, choice integral to humanness.      
           
 ____________________

Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives?

         Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.
More often those moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman, are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.                                 
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
                  ____________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time, she did not quail,
only asked a simple, ‘How can this be?’ and gravely, courteously, took to heart the angel’s reply, the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness; to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity; to contain in slender vase of being, the sum of power–in narrow flesh, the sum of light.
 
Then bring to birth, push out into air, a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love–
but who was God.


This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.
                  ____________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.