Thursday, April 16, 2015

45 Years of Thrilling Truth: Rediscovering Apollo 13

On this blog about truth, beauty, and literature, most of the adventure stories I write about are fictional. But every once in a while, I encounter those absolutely true adventure stories which are all the more marvelous. The saga of Apollo 13--NASA's "successful failure"--is one of those tales.
Tomorrow, April 17, is the 45th anniversary of the splashdown of Apollo 13. Inside that tiny command module which landed safely in the Pacific Ocean were astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise. These three men had just been through a four-day ordeal unlike any other in the annals of survival stories--guiding, with the help of the Mission Control technicians on the ground, a dangerously malfunctioning spacecraft back to earth from 200,000 miles away.
For those of you not already familiar with this incredible account of courage, teamwork, and ingenuity, I cannot enough recommend Jim Lovell's own book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (co-authored by Jeffrey Kluger). The popular 1995 movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, was based off this book. The movie was actually my first introduction to the story. I watched it over and over as a kid, though I didn't really understand much of it until later. Although naturally a dramatized and somewhat abridged account of the events, the film is thrilling and well done. It's definitely worth a viewing (or a re-viewing, if you've seen it before!). The book is even more exciting. Lost Moon gives the reader a much fuller grasp of the story, including the backgrounds of the main characters, Apollo 13's place in the context of the NASA moon missions, and explanations of the highly-technical spacecraft operations in layman's terms--all woven into a plot so skillful and tight, you'll forget you're reading a non-fiction memoir and think you've plunged into a novel.
This past winter, I read the book for the first time, and watched the movie again for the first time in a few years. I was struck very deeply by the romance of the tale--the improbable catastrophe and the even more improbable triumph. And so this high-tech, space-age rescue story came out in my own words as a poem.
The references to Ulysses, Ithaca, and other names and places from ancient Homer, are not just my love of the classics randomly making themselves known. The name of Apollo 13's command module was actually Odyssey. (How NASA expected to blast a ship into space named after the most misfortune-ridden quest in literature, and not have a little trouble, is beyond me.)
Here, then, is my own retelling of this remarkable tale, in verse. It is dedicated to the three astronauts and Mission Control team of Apollo 13, and all those others who took part in or witnessed the extraordinary events of one April in 1970.

Crucible of Love: Apollo 13, April 17, 1970
By Mary Jessica Woods
The placid arc of earth fills up the glass
As Odyssey spins silent homeward-bound—
No great Greek fate-tossed warship, lone-captained,
But a thimble of steel crafted for airless seas,
Guided by three chilled crew with rudders of flame.
Four days the ship has fought, a blasted cripple,
Tracing a giddy whorl through death’s void,
Brilliant with cold stars and a starkling sun;
Four days in the gray tiered fort of Mission Control
A thousand have strained at their screens, marking the numbers,
Nursing the Odyssey’s slowing breath and blood;
Four days. Now, minutes from Ithaca,
All guidance is shed, all tillers are abandoned,
Surrendering to the fierce mother-love of Earth.
For the mother cries for the children of her body:
The metal drawn from the hard depths of her womb,
The mortals raised in the bounds of her warm breath—
These she clasps close again with a deadly joy,
An engulfing kiss of fire, a crushing strength;
Her fragile sons, knit of soft flesh and bones,
Plunge, trusting, through her crucible of love.
These men who have survived the span of space,
Now merely seek to endure the Earth’s embrace.
“Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.
Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.”
The silence on the surface swallows hearts
Of millions: wives, children, parents, friends;
Technicians, flight controllers dragging smokes;
Navy men glassing the South Pacific surge;
And strangers by the hundreds of thousands,
Willing, praying their mortal brothers home.
The sizzle of the empty radio
Is, for three minutes, the smolder of burning hope;
And for the fourth, the crackling choke of fear;
And by the fifth, the sputter of despair—
Again the hopeless greeting ventures out:
“Odyssey, Houston standing by, over.”
Of a sudden the radio gives a gasp—
A raspy, rushing hack of stirring life—
And the Odyssey replies to a heart-stopped world.
A roar goes up, a million pulses freed.
Ulysses once hailed his wife and son; now,
The whole world is Telemachus, Penelope,
To three men strapped exhausted in their ship,
Watching the scarlet ‘chutes, with quiet eyes,
Spin like three jewels against the silken skies.

 ~ Poem Ó Mary Jessica Woods, 2015

Photo credit: "Mission Control Celebrates - GPN-2000-001313" by NASA - Great Images in NASA Description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Long Live the Weeds! ~ Hopkins' "Inversnaid"

"Loch Heron", September 2014 - Photo by Mary Woods
I happen to live right on the border of where the sprawling Chicago suburbs begin to peter out into flat Illinois farmland. Consequently, in my town, the orderly ranks of streets and lawns and strip malls are occasionally invaded by wildness. Streams flanked by armies of reeds and young willows. Wedges of forest, stubbornly holding out between baseball diamonds and residential build-ups. Spreading creekside trees, like bulwarks of romance against the mundane tyranny of Suburbia.

Loch Heron. Linden Cove. Smuggler's Nook. The Forest of Silver Hands. You won't find these names on any map of Frankfort, IL, but they are important places, nonetheless, for me. They are my own haunts, my own landmarks. Wonder is the guide which leads me to them. They are beautiful spots, in their unobtrusive way, with endless surprises for those who wait and keep open eyes. Old mussel shells, washed from mud, which gleam royal pearl inside. Muskrats nuzzling through cool water, slick-furred and beady-eyed. Geese taking flight in magnificent, thunder-winged, trumpeting hundreds. These are the poems I read and love from God's "First Book" of nature.

Recently I came across a poem--with human words--expressing much the same sentiments. Not very surprisingly, it's by Gerard Manley Hopkins. This 19th-century English poet and Catholic priest is most famous for his inimitable descriptions of nature in pieces like "Pied Beauty", "God's Grandeur", and "Hurrahing in Harvest". Not just descriptions--raptures. The mere way he uses words usually makes me want to fall flat on my face for sheer joy (in the beauty) and utter despair (because I will never even touch his skill and imagination).

Despite that, I never regret picking up a volume of Hopkins. Some of his works are so richly and convolutedly packed with ideas, like glittering mosaics, that they are hard to comprehend. But many of his poems are simpler in concept and no less lovely in art. One of these small gems is "Inversnaid".

Written in 1881, the poem describes the landscape of Inversnaid, a small settlement in the Scottish Highlands near Loch Lomond. Hopkins' natural descriptive abilities, his skill in playing with alliteration and assonance, and a sprinkling of Scots vocabulary, make for a poem as delicious in the mouth as it is lovely in the mind's eye. I myself am not certain what all the words mean precisely, but I let my ear create images for me--if that makes the least ounce of sense.

Finally, Hopkins ends the poem with a poignant cry for the preservation of wilderness. Let it be left, he says, O let it be left. It is good for the mind and body; it is good for the soul. Let it be left--even small corners of it, for the good of us all.

By Gerard Manley Hopkins
This dárksome búrn, hórseback brówn,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A wíndpuff-bónnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a póol so pítchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet,
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Bridegroom Song: A Poem for Great and Holy Week

The title of the of icon above is "Christ the Bridegroom". This juxtaposition of concepts, this inherent mystery, strikes me to the heart every Great Fast. This is how Christ comes to His divine wedding with His bride, His people, His Church--God bleeding, tortured, utterly humiliated. Earlier this Lent, my own meditation on this icon called forth this poem into being. May we all be blessed as we enter into His Passion tonight and tomorrow.

A note: The accents indicate an unusually long stress on a word, and should be read as such. The form is meant to be extremely simple and forceful, expressing, I hope, something of undiluted longing and anguish.

Bridegroom Song

By Mary Jessica Woods
Sée hów I come to thee—
Wrísts ráw and bound for thee,
Brów blóody-crowned for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Lóok hów I gaze for thee—
Éyes sált-blind for thee,
Weeping God divine for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Féel hów I ache for thee—
Shoulders stiff with blood for thee,
Féet fóuled in mud for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Hear my lóve sóng to thee—
Whíp-wáils high for thee,
Every shaking cry for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

Knów, nów, my thirst for thee—
Bríde, my own, I long for thee,
Behold my sorrow strong for thee,
Wílt thóu come to me?

~ © Mary Jessica Woods, 2015 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Descent into the Heart: "The Way of a Pilgrim" and the Jesus Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

A dozen words. A dozen words make up the most powerful prayer of the Eastern Christian tradition--the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart.

The Jesus Prayer is one of the most ancient in the Church. When exactly it came into being is unclear, but it was certainly being used by the 7th century, and is probably a good deal older. The text itself is clearly drawn from two Gospel passages--the parable of the publican and the pharisee, and Christ's encounter with the blind Bartemeus--blended into a single potent petition:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' (Luke 18:13)
And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47)
The purpose of the Prayer is simple: to put oneself into the presence of God. It is an aid to meditation, meant to be recited slowly, with attention, and repeatedly--indeed, unceasingly. As the Rosary, in the West, has its beads, so the Jesus Prayer has its prayer rope, known as a chotki in Russian. The chotki is typically made of wool, a loop of closely-nestled knots, ending in a cross and tassel. The number of knots varies, but is often 100, divided by beads into sections of 25. On each knot is recited one Jesus Prayer. Other prayers can be said on the beads, if desired. The purpose of the tassel--traditionally--is to wipe away tears of penitence.

I cannot remember when I first learned this prayer. My family entered the Byzantine Catholic Church when I was four. I know my father must have discovered the tradition of the Prayer soon after, but I have no memory of him first teaching it to me and my siblings--in the same way I cannot recall first learning the Our Father or the Hail Mary. I do remember getting my first chotki, when I was six or seven. I remember wearing it doubled around my wrist for years, until the knotted loop stretched out of shape and the tassel at the end wore away to a nub. And I remember my father reading us stories from The Way of a Pilgrim.

The Way of a Pilgrim is considered a flower of 19th century Russian Orthodox spirituality. And yet it is a small book, simple in style and approachable in form. And it's probably the best introduction to the Jesus Prayer. Here is the book's first paragraph:

By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.

Thus we are introduced to the Pilgrim,  an anonymous peasant living in mid-1800s Russia. While not considered strictly autobiographical, the stories are likely based around the experiences of a real Russian pilgrim, re-written with the focus of spiritual edification. The tale begins when the Pilgrim, attending Divine Liturgy one morning, hears the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, to "pray unceasingly" (1 Th 5:17). These words, recalls the Pilgrim, "engraved themselves upon my mind". From that time on he is launched on a journey--both physical and spiritual--to pursue unceasing prayer.

Before long, he encounters an elder at a monastery, the first person to give him clear guidance on the meaning and method of constant prayer:

As we entered his cell he [the elder] began to speak again: "The constant inner Prayer of Jesus is an unbroken, perpetual calling upon the Divine Name of Jesus with the lips, the mind and the heart, while picturing His lasting presence in one's imagination and imploring His grace wherever one is, in whatever one does, even while one sleeps. This Prayer consists of the following words: - 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!' Those who use this prayer constantly are so greatly comforted that they are moved to say it at all times, for they can no longer live without it.

The elder then introduces the Pilgrim to the Philokalia--a collection of writings by the Church Fathers on this practice of inner prayer. This book, along with the Holy Bible, is destined to be the Pilgrim's constant companion on the rest of his journey. As they sit together in the cell, the elder gives the Pilgrim his first lesson in the Jesus Prayer:

He opened the book, and after having found the instruction by St. Simon the New Theologian, he began to read: "Take a seat in solitude and silence. Bend your head, close your eyes, and breathing softly, in your imagination, look into your own heart. Let your mind, or rather, your thoughts, flow from your head down to your heart and say, while breathing: 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' Whisper these words gently, or say them in your mind. Discard all other thoughts. Be serene, persevering and repeat them over and over again."

This lesson is the foundation of all the rest of the Pilgrim's spiritual endeavors. He stays with the elder for a few more months, learning the art of constant prayer, until the old monk passes away (although that is not the end of the elder's teaching--he appears multiple times in the Pilgrim's dreams, continuing, even after death, to give him guidance!) After this, the Pilgrim takes to the road, reciting the Jesus Prayer, reading the Bible and Philokalia, and visiting shrines and churches. On the way, he encounters a host of characters, from robbers and army captains to priests and pious married couples. Many of these have their own tales of spiritual journeys, to which the Pilgrim listens eagerly for his enlightenment.

But the essence of the book still revolves around inner contemplation and the Jesus Prayer. These passages continue the instruction given by the Pilgrim's elder, describing how to time the Prayer with one's heartbeat and breathing--an integrated body-soul experience--all for the purpose of drawing closer to Christ. The Pilgrim exults in the peace, holy longing, and spiritual insight the Prayer gives him. He has his share of trials, too--spiritual and physical--but the pure joy of the Jesus Prayer always buoys him up once more.

The stories in The Way of the Pilgrim are truly life-changing. The instructions on the Prayer of the Heart are so simple and straightforward, that it's actually hard not to try and incorporate them into one's spiritual life. The most difficult thing, I have found, is perseverance. Often the Prayer seems dry repetition; but then I have never yet labored enough to get past that part of the process. However, even in short spurts, it is a beautiful comfort. I pray it before Liturgy, to focus my mind. I wrap my chotki around my wrist every night and recite it while falling asleep. It is always the first prayer to spring to my mind and heart in times of trouble.

The Jesus Prayer is so simple. It is so powerful. If you feel so moved, I urge you to take it up. Read The Way of the Pilgrim. Most of us don't have the time to devote the entire day to inner prayer, as the Pilgrim does. But that is no excuse for not bringing ourselves to Christ. Set aside a little time. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Take a step into your heart, away from the world, and into the Divine Presence of God.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Mishmash of Masters: My Commonplace Book

Six AM on a weekday morning found me at the breakfast table, bleary from another late night, novel-writing like a madwoman. As I munched my toast and swallowed tea, desperately hoping for an energy burst, I opened up Homer's Odyssey--meals are often my only time for reading-- and stared at the first lines of Book II:

Now when the child of morning, rosy-fingered Dawn, appeared, Telemachus rose and dressed himself. He bound his sandals on his comely feet, girded his sword about his shoulder, and left his room looking like an immortal god.

I almost burst out laughing. Man! Why can't I get up like that in the morning?

The lines, besides making me smile, also struck my poetic imagination. I wanted to remember them. In fact, they delighted me so much that they urged me to restart my commonplace book.

I have kept a commonplace book since May of 2013. I was inspired to begin by a passage in the "Guide to Daily Reading", an introduction to a set of books The Pocket University, published in 1934. Among a series of lovely little essays on books and the art of reading in general, I came across this passage by Richard LeGallienne, in a section on how to remember what one reads:

Yet it often happens that he [the reader] forgets much that he needs to remember, and thus the question of methodical aids to memory arises.

One's first thought, of course, is of the commonplace book. Well, have you ever kept one, or, to be more accurate, tried to keep one? Personally, I believe in the commonplace book so long as we don't expect too much from it. Its two dangers are (1) that one is apt to make far too many and too minute entries, and (2) that one is apt to leave all the remembering to the commonplace book, with a consequent relaxation of one's own attention. On the other hand, the mere discipline of a commonplace book is a good thing, and if--as I think is the best way--we copy out the passages at full length, they are thus the more securely fixed in the memory. A commonplace book kept with moderation is really useful, and may be delightful.

I have certainly found my commonplace book a delight, and in fact a very helpful tool for memory. I don't always copy long passages, but I may enter a short poem, or a few paragraphs of prose, or verses from spiritual reading and Scripture. The book has proven a good way for me to memorize the latter. In some places it has served double duty as a prayer journal, when I copy down Bible verses and reflection to help me through some spiritual trial. The other entries--the poems, the bits of novels, the Gaelic song lyrics, and other miscellania--are my personal treasure trove of fond memories and future inspiration.

My main criterion when choosing passages for a commonplace book entry is the strikingness of them. Occasionally I will enter things that I think I simply ought to memorize--like the Creed, or, more recently, the list of American presidents--but usually I only copy a passage because it plucked some chord in my heart, of drama, or beauty, or romance. Thus, flipping through my commonplace book is a detailed portrait of the characters, scenes, themes and words which have most shaped my thoughts and writing over the past two years.

Many of these entries I have already shared on my blog--like Frost's "My November Guest" and "The Lone Striker", Stevenson's novels and poems, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and others. But many I have not shared. Here, then, is a selection of my favorite passages from my commonplace book. May they inspire you to read some of the beautiful works they come from!

May 22, 2013

"On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again. -- Oh Mary! Mary! -- boy! boy! boy! -- But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's body this day week may sink with all the crew! Great God, where are Thou? Shall I? Shall I? -- The wind has gone down and shifted sir; the fore and main topsails are reefed and set; she heads her course."

"Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!"

Such were the sounds that now came hurtling from out the old man's tormented sleep, as if Starbuck's voice had caused the long dumb dream to speak.

The yet levelled musket shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place.

"He's too sound asleep, Mr Stubb; go thou down, and wake him and tell him. I must see to the deck here. Thou know'st what to say."

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 123

I DARE someone to tell me Moby Dick is a big boring book about a whale.
June 10, 2013
The Gobhaun Saor and his son were left in the dun without light, without food, and without companions. Outside they could hear the heavy-footed Fomorians, and the night seemed long to them. "My sorrow," said the son, "that I ever brought you here to seek a fortune! But put a good thought on me now, father, for we have come to the end of it all." "I needn't blame your wit," said the father, "that had as little myself. [...]"
"If we had light itself," said the son, "it wouldn't be so hard, or if I had a little pipe to play a tune on." He thought of the little reed pipe he was making the day the three Fomorians came to him, and he began to search in the folds of his belt for it. His hand came on the lock of wool he got from Mananaun, and he drew it out, "Oh, the fool that I was," he said, "not to think of this sooner!" "What have you there?" said the Gobhaun. "I have a lock of wool from the Sea God, and it will help me now when I need help." He drew it through his fingers and said: "Give me light!" and all the dun was full of light. He divided the wool into two parts and said: "Be cloaks of darkness and invisibility!" and he had two cloaks in his hand colored like the sea where the shadow is deepest.
"Put one about you," he said to the Gobhaun, and he drew the other round himself. They went to the door; it flew open before them; a sleep of enchantment came on the guards and they went out free. "Now," said the son of the Gobhaun Saor, "let a small light go before us"; and a small light went before them on the road, for there were no stars in Balor's sky. When they came to the Dark Strand the son struck the waters with his cloak and a boat came to him. It had neither oars nor sails; it was pure crystal, and it was shining like the big white star that is in the sky before sunrise. "It is the Ocean-Sweeper," said the Gobhaun. "Mananaun has sent us his own boat!" "My thousand welcomes before it," said the Son, "and good fortune and honor to Mananaun while there is one wave to run after another in the sea!"
They stepped into the boat, and no sooner had they stepped into it than they were at the White Strand, for the Ocean-Sweeper goes as fast as a thought and takes the people she carries at once to the place they have their hearts on. "It is a good sight our own land is!" said the Gobhaun when his feet touched Ireland. "It is," said the son, "and may we live long to see it!"
~ From "How the Son of the Gobhaun Saor Shortened the Road", retold by Ella Young
This is Irish fairy-tale at its most striking and moving. Elements of this story haunt my own Celtic tale.
August 8, 2013
Hotspur: He shall be welcome too. Where is his son,
The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales,
And his comrades, that daff'd the world aside,
And bid it pass?
Vernon: All furnished, all in arms;
All plumed like estridges that with the wind
Baited like eagles having lately bathed;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm'd,
Rise from the ground like feather'd Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
Hotspur: No more, no more: worse than the sun in March,
This praise doth nourish agues. Let them come;
They come like sacrifices in their trim,
And to the fire-eyed maid of smoky war
All hot and bleeding will we offer them:
The mailed Mars shall on his altar sit
Up to the ears in blood. I am on fire
To hear this rich reprisal is so nigh
And yet not ours. Come, let me taste my horse,
Who is to bear me like a thunderbolt
Against the bosom of the Prince of Wales:
Harry to Harry shall, hot horse to horse,
Meet and ne'er part till one drop down a corse.
William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 4, Scene 1

Could you possibly heap any more praise on an enemy than Vernon does on young Prince Harry (the future King Henry V of Agincourt fame)? And can't you just see Hotspur fuming in envy as he leaps astride his charger? This Shakespeare play is as gripping as an adventure novel!

Epilogue: If you have actually read to the end of this post, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. There's a heck of a lot more I'm dying to share from my commonplace book, and this post makes me realize I should do it more often. Until next time--happy reading.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The King of Glory Enters: A Journey through the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts


It is a Friday evening during Great Lent. The church is muted, except for the rhythmic rush and jingle of the bells of the incenser as the deacon moves about the sanctuary. The cantor and people raise their voices in an opening hymn--a traditional Slavic Ruthenian chant, perhaps the heartbreaking "Now Do I Go to the Cross":
Now do I go to the Cross,
nowhere else shall I find You,
Jesus Lord, peace of my soul.
There I shall find the Mother of God,
sorrow and pain piercing her heart.
Sorrow now is all I feel.
The deacon strides out through the side of the icon screen, stands before the royal doors, and declares to the celebrant in the sanctuary, "Father, give the blessing!"
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts has begun.
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts--often referred to as "Presanctified Liturgy"--is a unique Lenten tradition among the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. In form, it is essentially a Vespers service with the distribution of the Eucharist. Besides that, one important fact distinguishes it from a regular Divine Liturgy--it has no consecration. The reason, as the name of the service implies, is that the gifts of bread and wine are pre-sanctified--they have already been consecrated on the previous Sunday.
Roman Catholics should be familiar with this concept through their commemoration of Good Friday. Good Friday, in the Western Church, is an "a-liturgical" day--meaning it is not allowed to consecrate the Eucharist that day. But in the Eastern tradition, every weekday of Lent is considered a-liturgical. Thus, during the Great Fast, we celebrate Presanctified Liturgy with the already-consecrated Body and Blood every week--typically on Wednesdays and Fridays.
The service begins, as the normal Vespers service always does, with the chanting of Psalms. The words are utterly familiar, but the mournful Lenten melody lends them a special poignancy. Sorrow, joy, peace and longing strain forth in the flow of alternating verses. The Psalms finish with the singing of the Stichera, or propers for the day--liturgical poems often centering on a theme of Lenten struggle or repentance.
The service proceeds with the Hymn of the Evening, "O Joyful Light"--also a standard part of Vespers and one of the most ancient Christian texts. Traditionally, the church is dark or only partially lit up until this point; now, as we sing of the Light of Christ, the church is fully lit:
O Joyful Light of the holy glory of the Father Immortal,
the heavenly, holy blessed One, O Jesus Christ:
Now that we have seen the setting of the sun, and see the evening light,
we sing to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is fitting at all times to raise a song of praise in measured melody to you,
O Son of God, the Giver of Life.
Therefore, the universe sings your glory.
Next come the Prokeimena--the equivalent of Responsorial Psalms--and the readings. Unless the service takes place during Holy Week or some other major feast day, the readings are always from the Old Testament--Genesis and Proverbs, Exodus and Job. These books encompass essential Lenten themes: returning to beginnings to discover who we are and ought to be; humility and desire to pursue wisdom; escape from sin; and the purpose of suffering and repentance.
After the readings, we chant the Solemn Evening Psalm: Let my prayer arise to you like incense, and the lifting up of my hands like an evening sacrifice. The people sing this refrain standing, then kneel as the priest chants each of his verses. The bodily gestures of repentance continue with the full prostrations performed during the reciting of the Prayer of St. Ephrem (see this post for the text of the prayer).
During a regular Divine Liturgy, the text sung after the readings is the Cherubic Hymn. As the clergy process around the church with the yet-unconsecrated gifts, we sing of the angels and of the mystical sacrifice in which we are about to participate. But in a Presanctified Liturgy, the bread and wine the clergy hold are already the Divine Body and Blood of Christ. Thus the text is slightly different. This, as the priest and deacon prepare in the sanctuary, is what we sing:
Now the powers of heaven are serving with us invisibly.
For behold the King of Glory enters.
They escort the mystical sacrifice, already accomplished.
When the clergy process out from the sanctuary--the priest holding up God and the deacon incensing Him--the church hushes. The people bend to the ground in a full prostration. In complete silence--the only noise being the slow tread of the clergy, and the jangle of the incenser--we adore Christ passing through our midst.
(To understand the full power of this moment, you have to understand the ethos of Eastern liturgies in general. Unlike in the Western Mass, there are few moments of silence and meditation during services. Literally everything besides the homily is sung, and the litanies, responses, and hymns follow one upon the other with hardly a pause. This fosters an atmosphere of holy exuberance and joy--a gorgeous and occasionally overwhelming experience, especially for newcomers! In contrast, quiet moments during liturgy, even accidental ones, are rare. Thus a period of prolonged, purposeful, and solemn silence--as during the Great Entrance of Presanctified Liturgy--is almost overwhelming. To close the eyes and touch the head to the cold floor and listen, in that breathless hush, to God walking by--I am no theologian, but in my own small experience, it is a pinnacle of love and existence.)
After the Great Entrance, the service moves fairly quickly towards Communion. The text of the Communion Hymn is the beautiful Psalm verse, "Taste and see that the Lord is good." And we do indeed taste and see. In the East, the Eucharist is received not in the separate forms of wine and an unleavened host, but combined--small pieces of leavened bread soaked in wine, dropped into the mouth by a spoon. On regular Sundays, the loaves of bread used are fresh, and soft wine-soaked pieces dissolve easily in the mouth. But for Presanctified Liturgy, the Body of Christ--being, after all, in the physical form of bread which has been sitting in the tabernacle since the previous Sunday--is, well, harder than usual. Hard enough to require chewing. There is nothing irreverent about this. Christ is our Nourishment, body and soul; why should He not come to us solid and physically filling, as well as spiritually saving?
After Communion the service concludes in a tone of solemn thankfulness and joy. In the Byzantine Ruthenian tradition, the short final hymn "Having Suffered" is sung three times, in English and Old Slavonic. Sometimes, during its passionate mournful phrases, the church is darkened again, leaving, once more, only the candles burning before the icon screen, in mystical darkness.
(For the extra-curious or musically inclined reader, below are some to videos I've hunted up, providing a sample of the music I've referenced in this blog post. For the full experience, of course, visit your nearest Eastern Catholic--or Orthodox!--church.)
Now Do I Go to the Cross ~ A slightly different version, melodically, from the hymn I'm familiar with, but with the same text and surging mournful spirit. Beautiful.
Let My Prayer Arise ~ A short clip from a liturgy celebrated in one of our own Byzantine Catholic Ruthenian parishes in the Midwest by our Bishop John Kudrick. The video shows the clergy in the sanctuary; you can see the congregation through the open royal doors in the icon screen. The video includes the recitation of the Prayer of St. Ephrem directly afterwards.
Let My Prayer Arise ~ A choral arrangement of the Solemn Evening Psalm by Russian composer Dmitry Bortniansky. A favorite of mine, and hauntingly performed in this recording.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Celtic Stereotype: A Rant

It's the end of February and Chicago is still buried in snow. But recently I've seen a certain kind of green plant popping up in various places--usually on windows or walls of homes and storefronts, or plastered on posters and event announcements. It's the clover, and it's been making its annual appearance as the United States (prematurely, as usual) prepares to celebrate its absurd version of St. Patrick's Day.

I know St. Patrick's Day is still weeks away. And I know I should be used to how our secular culture trashes real holidays. But the diluting of this particular holiday touches one of my pet peeves--the romanticization of the Celtic.

I've always had a vague interest in Celtic culture, given my heritage. My grandmother's maiden name was Gallagher, and there is a family legend (mostly a joke, but who knows?) that our ancestors were Irish horse thieves. However, my family never put special emphasis on our Celtic background, so it wasn't until I read Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped that I began unearthing the Celtic riches for myself.

Kidnapped, of course, is set in Scotland, so the book left me obsessed with all things Scottish. Having quickly depleted the list of Scottish stories by Stevenson, I turned next to Walter Scott. In books like Waverly and Rob Roy I discovered more adventure, more romance, more delicious Scots dialect. Soon after I found myself writing a short story (very much inspired by Rob Roy) which featured an 18th century Highland village. Now, in Scott's story, the stereotypical Highland peasant, along with being ragged and uneducated, spoke an unintelligible language called Gaelic. So for fun, I thought I'd translate bits of my story's dialogue into Gaelic. It would give it that more foreign, romantic atmosphere, wouldn't it?

An internet search revealed no automatic translations tools for Scottish Gaelic. But it did turn up a truckload of resources for learning Scottish Gaelic. Curious, I tried out a few websites. (The first thing that boggled me--not surprisingly--was the phonetics. "You mean, mh sounds like v? And th sounds like h?? And what's with dh--it sounds like g???")

Despite my bewilderment, I was hooked. My study of modern Scottish Gaelic launched me into a whole new consideration of Celtic culture. It was more than romance. It was real. Its language was more than unintelligible babble--it was a poetic, expressive tongue, both liquid and edgy. Its people were more than the nostalgically uncivilized peasants portrayed by Scott--they were human beings, who lived, worked, prayed, loved, sang, mourned, rejoiced. Their lives were harsh and often primitive by our standards, but that did not reduce their humanity.

After discovering this nugget of true Celtic culture through the Gaelic, I found I could not return to my old obsession with romantic Scotland. Scott's portrayal of the primitive Highland life irritated me. On the other hand, movies like Brigadoon, with its over-idyllic Highland village (not to mention its Highland villagers who speak in Lowland Scots), annoyed me as well. The truth lay deeper than the bagpipes and plaids, the thatched roofs and hairy cattle. I don't mean to say that these things were not a real part of Highland culture. They were--but not in the picture-postcard way they're often presented.
Brigadoon, the musical
Perhaps I split hairs. But I insist the deeper study of a culture reveals beauties far more engaging than any romantic stereotype, because it reveals real human personalities. To prove it, I here share the English translation of an old Gaelic song, once sung by real Highland women while milking real Highland cows.

Come, Mary, and milk my cow,
Come, Bride, and encompass her,
Come Columba the benign,
And twine thine arms around my cow.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
My heifer dear, generous and kind,
For the sake of the High King take to thy calf.
Come, Mary Virgin, to my cow,
Come, great Bride, the beauteous,
Come, thou milkmaid of Jesus Christ,
And place thine arms beneath my cow.
Ho my heifer, my gentle heifer.
Lovely black cow, pride of the shieling,
First cow of the byre, choice mother of calves,
Wisps of straw round the cows of the townland,
A shackle of silk on my heifer beloved.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer.
My black cow, my black cow,
A like sorrow afflicts me and thee,
Thou grieving for thy lovely calf,
I for my beloved son under the sea,
My beloved only sun under the sea.
(From "Carmina Gadelica" Vol. 1, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael)
This song is chock full of reality. It reflects the deep Christianity of the old Highland peasantry. It reveals their poetic love of nature and animals. And it hints, in that mournful last stanza, of the harsh and tragic side of their lives. No Broadway writer could have reproduced the glinting nuance of joy and sorrow in such a song. Only a real woman, who had prayed and milked cows and lost a son to the sea, ever could have composed it.

In this country St. Patrick's Day is primarily an excuse for a party, featuring small three-leafed plants, small green-clothed men, and green beer. But I challenge my readers this year to treat it as a chance to explore real Celtic culture. Read the prayer of St. Patrick. Listen to a traditional Gaelic song. Never mind the cute cartoon leprechauns--read one of the ancient Irish myth cycles, like The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (a warning, though: Cu Chulainn and company are not for the faint of heart!).

Enjoy a bit of this true heritage. I bet you won't be able to go back to the stereotypes, either.