Commonplace Book: November 2003 Archives

I chose this poem because it has been a theme much on my mind since diving into more of the materials on another site--as I hope to discuss in some detail later.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Wallace Stevens

            Among twenty snowy mountains,
            The only moving thing
            Was the eye of the black bird.

            I was of three minds,
            Like a tree
            In which there are three blackbirds.

            The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
            It was a small part of the pantomime.

            A man and a woman
            Are one.
            A man and a woman and a blackbird
            Are one.

            I do not know which to prefer,
            The beauty of inflections
            Or the beauty of innuendoes,
            The blackbird whistling
            Or just after.

            Icicles filled the long window
            With barbaric glass.
            The shadow of the blackbird
            Crossed it, to and fro.
            The mood
            Traced in the shadow
            An indecipherable cause.

            O thin men of Haddam,
            Why do you imagine golden birds?
            Do you not see how the blackbird
            Walks around the feet
            Of the women about you?

            I know noble accents
            And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
            But I know, too,
            That the blackbird is involved
            In what I know.

            When the blackbird flew out of sight,
            It marked the edge
            Of one of many circles.

            At the sight of blackbirds
            Flying in a green light,
            Even the bawds of euphony
            Would cry out sharply.

            He rode over Connecticut
            In a glass coach.
            Once, a fear pierced him,
            In that he mistook
            The shadow of his equipage
            For blackbirds.

            The river is moving.
            The blackbird must be flying.

            It was evening all afternoon.
            It was snowing
            And it was going to snow.
            The blackbird sat
            In the cedar-limbs.

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In honor of my trip to Virginia coming up shortly:

Ode to the Virginian Voyage
Michael Drayton

            You brave heroic minds,
            Worthy your country's name,
            That honour still pursue,
            Go and subdue!
           Whilst loit'ring hinds
            Lurk here at home with shame.

            Britons, you stay too long;
            Quickly aboard bestow you,
            And with a merry gale
            Swell your stretch'd sail,
            With vows as strong
            As the winds that blow you!

            Your course securely steer,
            West and by south forth keep;
            Rocks, lee-shores, nor shoals,
            When Ćolus scowls,
            You need not fear,
            So absolute the deep.

            And cheerfully at sea
            Success you still entice
            To get the pearl and gold,
            And ours to hold
            Earth's only paradise!

            Where nature hath in store
            Fowl, venison, and fish,
            And the fruitful'st soil,
            Without your toil,
            Three harvests more,
            All greater than your wish.

            And the ambitious vine
            Crowns with his purple mass,
            The cedar reaching high
            To kiss the sky,
            The cypress, pine,
            And useful sassafras;

            To whose the golden age
            Still nature's laws doth give;
            No other cares that tend
            But them to defend
            From winter's age,
            That long there doth not live.

            When as the luscious smell
            Of that delicious land,
            Above the seas that flows,
            The clear wind throws,
            Your hearts to swell
            Approaching the dear strand.

            In kenning of the shore,
            Thanks to God first given,
            O you, the happiest men,
            Be frolic then!
            Let cannons roar
            Frighting the wide heaven.

            And in regions far
            Such heroes bring ye forth,
            As those from whom we came;
            And plant our name
            Under that star
            Not known unto our north.

            And, as there plenty grows
            Of laurel everywhere,
            Apollo's sacred tree,
            You may it see
            A poet's brows
            To crown, that may sing there.

            Thy voyages attend,
            Industrious Hakluyt,
            Whose reading shall enflame
            Men to seek fame,
            And much commend
            To after-times thy wit.

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Christ Altogether Lovely X


I continue now the discussion of "Christ Altogether Lovely." While the doctrine is not thoroughly Catholic, the expression of love for Jesus is profoundly stirring and Flavel points up some things that we too often miss. Find the complete sermon here.

from "Christ Altogether Lovely"
Rev. John Flavel

He is Lovely in His Offices

Secondly, He is altogether lovely in his offices: let us consider for a moment the suitability, fullness, and comforting nature of them.

First, The suitability of the offices of Christ to the miseries of men. We cannot but adore the infinite wisdom of his receiving them. We are, by nature, blind and ignorant, at best but groping in the dim light of nature after God, Acts 17:27. Jesus Christ is a light to lighten the Gentiles, Isa. 49:6. When this great prophet came into the world, then did the day-spring from on high visit us, Luke 1:78. By nature we are alienated from, and at enmity against God; Christ comes into the world to be an atoning sacrifice, making peace by the blood of his cross, Col. 1:20. All the world, by nature, is in bondage and captivity to Satan, a miserable slavery. Christ comes with kingly power, to rescue sinners, as a prey from the mouth of the terrible one.

Secondly, Let the fullness of his offices be also considered, which make him able "to save to the uttermost, all that come to God by him," Heb. 7:25. The three offices, comprising in them all that our souls do need, become an universal relief to all our distresses; and therefore,

Thirdly, Unspeakably comforting must the offices of Christ be to the souls of sinners. If light be pleasant to our eyes, how pleasant is that light of life springing from the Sun of righteousness! Mal. 4:2. If a pardon be sweet to a condemned criminal, how sweet must the sprinkling the blood of Jesus be to the trembling conscience of a law-condemned sinner? If a rescue from a cruel tyrant is sweet to a poor captive, how sweet must it be to the ears of enslaved sinners, to hear the voice of liberty and deliverance proclaimed by Jesus Christ? Out of the several offices of Christ, as out of so many fountains, all the promises of the new covenant flow, as so many soul-refreshing streams of peace and joy. All the promises of illumination, counsel and direction flow out of Christ's prophetic office. All the promises of reconciliation, peace, pardon, and acceptation flow out of his priestly office, with the sweet streams of joy and spiritual comforts which accompany it. All the promises of converting, increasing, defending, directing, and supplying grace, flow out of the kingly office of Christ; indeed, all promises may be reduced to these three offices, so that Jesus Christ must be altogether lovely in his offices.

In all that He was appointed to do for us, there is perfection that transcends the human ability to express. He has perfectly served God's purposes in the redemption He won for us and more perfectly yet served each one of us. I am amazed most particularly by the last paragraph here. Is there a sound sweeter to those burdened than the music that means rest and quiet? Is there a gift greater to those who are in captivity than freedom, and not only freedom, but freedom with dignity and with possibility? We are not set free to struggle yet further for ourselves, as often happens with human captives. Rather we are set free to continue in the perfect freedom of Jesus Christ.

Indeed Christ is altogether lovely in all that He has done for us. In all that He is appointed to do He answers the office to perfection. Another cause for deep praise and tremendous devotion.

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November Poem--George Herbert--Time


George Herbert is one of the greatest poets with explicitly Christian themes. His works are still vibrant and meaningful today, and nearly everyone has already encountered him either in "The Temple" or in "Easter Wings," two of the most widely anothologized poems in the English language.

Note: the word "sithe" below is not the usual "sith" or "since" as context conveys, but an archaic spelling of scythe.

George Herbert

Meeting with Time, slack thing, said I,
Thy sithe is dull; whet it for shame.
No marvell Sir, he did replie,
If it at length deserve some blame:
But where one man would have me grinde it,
Twentie for one too sharp do finde it.

Perhaps some such of old did passe,
Who above all things lov’d this life:
To whom thy sithe a hatchet was,
Which now is but a pruning knife.
Christs coming hath made man thy debter,
Since by thy cutting he grows better.

And in his blessing thou art blest:
For where thou onely wert before
An executioner at best;
Thou art a gard’ner now, and more,
An usher to convey our souls
Beyond the utmost starres and poles.

And this is that makes life so long,
While it detains us from our God.
Ev’n pleasures here increase the wrong,
And length of dayes lengthen the rod.
Who wants the place, where God doth dwell,
Partakes already half of hell.

Of what strange length must that needs be,
Which ev’n eternitie excludes!
Thus farre Time heard me patiently:
Then chafing said, This man deludes:
What do I here before his doore?
He doth not crave lesse time, but more.

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I delight in these finely etched translations of Mary Sidney Herbert. There is something magnificent in the way they capture the essence of the psalm in tightly metrical verse. These could truly be put to music and sound most wonderful.

Psalm 52
Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, 1599

TYRANT, why swell'st thou thus,
Of mischief vaunting?
Since help from God to us
Is never wanting.

Lewd lies thy tongue contrives,
Loud lies it soundeth;
Sharper than sharpest knives
With lies it woundeth.

Falsehood thy wit approves,
All truth rejected:
Thy will all vices loves,
Virtue neglected.

Not words from cursed thee,
But gulfs are poured;
Gulfs wherein daily be
Good men devoured.

Think'st thou to bear it so?
God shall displace thee;
God shall thee overthrow,
Crush thee, deface thee.

The just shall fearing see
These fearful chances,
And laughing shoot at thee
With scornful glances.

Lo, lo, the wretched wight,
Who God disdaining,
His mischief made his might,
His guard his gaining.

I as an olive tree
Still green shall flourish:
God's house the soil shall be
My roots to nourish.

My trust in his true love
Truly attending,
Shall never thence remove,
Never see ending.

Thee will I honour still,
Lord, for this justice;
There fix my hopes I will
Where thy saints' trust is.

Thy saints trust in thy name,
Therein they joy them:
Protected by the same,
Naught can annoy them.

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Quote of the Day


"Prayer should be accomplished by grace and not by artifice. "
--St.Jane Frances de Chantal

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In his article "Meditating Day and Night: Keeping Vigil in Prayer," Fr. Carlos Mesters offers five different sorts of helps to those who would like to pray using the Bible. An excerpt of this excellent succinct guide follows:

from "Meditating Day and Night: Keeping Vigil in Prayer"
Fr. Carlos Mesters, O. Carm

When you begin a lectio divina of the Bible, you are not concerned with study. You are not going to read the Bible in order either to increase your knowledge or to prepare for some apostolate. Neither are you reading the Bible in order to have some extraordinary experience. You are going to read the Word of God in order to listen to what God has to say to you, to know his will and thus to live more deeply in allegiance to Jesus Christ (Prologue). There must be poverty in you; you must also have the disposition which the old man Eli recommended to Samuel: Speak, Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).

2 Listening to God does not depend on you or on the effort you make. It depends entirely on God, on his freely made decision to come into dialogue with you and to allow you to listen to his voice. Thus you need to prepare yourself by asking God to send his Spirit, since without the Spirit of God, it is impossible to discover the meaning of the Word which God had prepared for us today (cf. Jn 14:26;16:13; Lk 11:13).

3 It is important to create the right surroundings, which will facilitate recollection and an attentive listening to the Word of God. For this, you must build your cell within and around you, and you must stay in it (VII) all the time of your lectio divina. Putting one's body in the right position helps recollection in the mind.

4 When you open the Bible, you have to be conscious that you are opening a book which is not yours. It belongs to the community. In your lectio divina you are setting foot in the great tradition of the Church, which has come down through the centuries. Your prayerful reading is like the ship which carries down the winding river to the sea. The light shining from the sea has already enlightened the dark night of many generations. In having your own experience of lectio divina you are not alone. You are united to brothers and sisters who, before you, succeeded in meditating day and night upon the Law of the Lord and in keeping vigil in prayer (VII).

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Christ Altogether Lovely IX

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from "Christ Altogether Lovely" Rev. John Flavel

How Christ is "Altogether Lovely"

Secondly, Next I promised to show you in what respects Jesus Christ is altogether lovely:

He is Lovely in His Person

First, He is altogether lovely in his person: he is Deity dwelling in flesh, John 1:14. The wonderful, perfect union of the divine and human nature in Christ renders him an object of admiration and adoration to both angels and men, 1 Tim. 3:16. God never presented to the world such a vision of glory before. Consider how the human nature of our Lord Jesus Christ is overflowing with all the graces of the Spirit, in such a way as never any of the saints was filled. O what a lovely picture does this paint of him! John 3:34, "God gives the Spirit [to him] without limit." This makes him"the most excellent of men and [his] lips have been anointed with grace," Psalm 45:2. If a small measure of grace in the saints makes them sweet and desirable companions, what must the riches of the Spirit of grace filling Jesus Christ without measure make him in the eyes of believers? O what a glory must it fix upon him!

He is adorable to both angels and men. Now there is a thought. He is adorable and lovely to beings whose first words to an human are "fear not." These magnificent warriors and messengers of heaven fall on their knees to adore Christ in His humanity and divinity.

Another point here--if virtue is valued in the saints, and such virtue is merely the pale reflection of God's fullness of grace, how much more should we be valuing Jesus Christ. Jesus is the most desirable of companions. Ever present, ever ready to help, always cradling us in a loving embrace--the wisest of counselors, the truest of friends, the only one who will speak the truth to use when others have abandoned truth for gain. Jesus does not merely reflect divinity, He is divinity. The light He brings is the purest of light--so pure indeed that no prism can break or bend it, nor mirror stop its beam. In His light all things are seen as they are. More they are seen in tender love and compassion, so flawed, broken, and imperfect, they are transformed in His light into the image of what they are in God's eye.

As the Holy Father expresses in a letter of 5 August 2002:

from "The Beauty (of Christ) Will Save the World"
A Letter of John Paul II dated 5 August 2002

The radiance of the beauty we contemplate opens the soul to the mystery of God. The Book of Wisdom reproached those who "were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists" (13,1), from the admiration of their beauty they should have been able to ascend to their Author (cf. 1,3; 3). Indeed, "from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator" (13,5). Beauty has a pedagogical power that can introduce us effectively to the knowledge of the truth. Finally, it leads to Christ who is the Truth. Indeed, when love and the quest for beauty flow from a vision of faith, we can have a deeper perception of things and enter into contact with the One who is the source of every beautiful thing.

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A return to one of my favorite centuries of poetry and to a lyric that is most marvelous and wonderful--one that may have a certain resonance with one of our parish priests

Christ Crucified
Richard Crashaw

THY restless feet now cannot go  
  For us and our eternal good,  
As they were ever wont. What though  
  They swim, alas! in their own flood?  
Thy hands to give Thou canst not lift,          
  Yet will Thy hand still giving be;  
It gives, but O, itself's the gift!  
  It gives tho' bound, tho' bound 'tis free!

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Christ Altogether Lovely VIII

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from "Christ Altogether Lovely"
Rev. John Flavel

6. All other loveliness cannot satisfy the soul of man. There is not scope enough in any one created thing, or in all the natural universe of created things for the soul of man to reach out and expand; but the soul still feels itself confined and narrowed within those limits. This comes to pass from the inadequacy and unsuitableness of the creature to the nobler and more excellent soul of man. The soul is like a ship in a narrow river which does not have room to turn. It is always running aground and foundering in the shallows. But Jesus Christ is in every way sufficient to the vast desires of the soul; in him it has sea-room enough. In him the soul may spread all its sails with no fear of touching bottom. And thus you see what is the importance of this phrase, "Altogether lovely."

Last week I refrained from comment on the longish excerpt that I noted. However, I need to return to this because I spent much of the weekend thinking about it. "All other loveliness can not satisfy the soul of man." This strikes me as both a wonderful and a terrible thing. If we spend our lives seeking out beauty, no matter how much we find, we will have to find more before we can become satisfied--and if all the beauty we find is merely in the world, no matter how much we find we will not be satisfied. However, if we were confined to a single room, unable to leave, and unable to see anything other than the walls arouind us and we spent the time gazing upon Christ, while we might long to be outside those walls, we would wait upon the Lord and be satisfied with the loveliness of Christ's face and the graciousness of God's will.

"In Him the soul may spread its sails with no fear of touching bottom." In Christ alone is there sufficient depth to bring us to our home port. All else fails. All loveliness, all human works, all human devices and desires, all natural things, all Holy things apart from Christ (an Egyptian Bastet isn't likely to be of much help), everything other than Christ is insufficient. But in Christ alone is depth and height, beauty and perfection, all goodness and all glory. In Christ alone is there sufficient room to move--"we live and move and have our being."

Christ is the vast and beautiful sea of all that is good, holy, and worthwhile. And we do well to spend some time at this oceanside, perhaps finally gaining the courage to take off our sandals and stroll in the surf--perhaps eventually setting sail, with no land in sight, but with great joy in our hearts as we explore all that God has in store for us.

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Something a bit more accessible. Even though it is "set" in spring, there is something terribly autumnal about it. And perhaps even worse is "Good fences make good neighbors." Boundaries are good, but they aren't the only good, nor the greatest good. Perhaps good gates also make good neighbors.

Mending Wall
Robert Frost

            Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
            That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
            And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
            And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
            The work of hunters is another thing:
            I have come after them and made repair
            Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
            But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
            To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
            No one has seen them made or heard them made,
            But at spring mending-time we find them there.
            I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
            And on a day we meet to walk the line
            And set the wall between us once again.
            We keep the wall between us as we go.
            To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
            And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
            We have to use a spell to make them balance:
            "Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
            We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
            Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
            One on a side. It comes to little more:
            There where it is we do not need the wall:
            He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
            My apple trees will never get across
            And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
            He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
            Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
            If I could put a notion in his head:
            "Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
            Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
            Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
            What I was walling in or walling out,
            And to whom I was like to give offence.
            Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
            That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
            But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
            He said it for himself. I see him there
            Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
            In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
            He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
            Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
            He will not go behind his father's saying,
            And he likes having thought of it so well
            He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

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A light entertainment from that most famous of works--Love Sonnets of a Cave-Man

XIII. The First Feminist
Don Marquis

When first I chased and beat you to your knees
And wried your arm and marked your temple bone
And wooed you, Sweet, and won you for my own,
Those were not hairless-chested times like these!
Wing'd saurians slithered down the charnel seas
And giant insects glistened, basked, and shone,
And snag-toothed ape-men fought with knives of stone --
And wise she-spouses mostly aimed to please!
But were not you the Primal Feminist
Ten hundred thousand years ago, my Love,
When we were first incarnate? I will say
Women Expressed themselves e'en then, Sweet Dove!
I do recall as if 'twere yesterday
That time your teeth met through my dexter wrist

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Edward Arlington Robinson

There is a drear and lonely tract of hell
From all the common gloom removed afar:
A flat, sad land it is, where shadows are,
Whose lorn estate my verse may never tell.
I walked among them and I knew them well:
Men I had slandered on life's little star
For churls and sluggards; and I knew the scar
Upon their brows of woe ineffable.

But as I went majestic on my way,
Into the dark they vanished, one by one,
Till, with a shaft of God's eternal day,
The dream of all my glory was undone,--
And, with a fool's importunate dismay,
I heard the dead men singing in the sun.

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It is often difficult to think of St. John of the Cross in particularly Marian terms. Not much of his writing touches on the Mother of God, and yet, that may be because she touches every part of his writing in so deep a way as to go almost unnoticed. We have the Blessed Martyr Titus Brandsma to thank for helping to bring this to our attention:

from Carmelite Mysticism Historical Sketches
"The Marian "Doctor Mysticus"
Blessed Titus Brandsma

A much loved comparison of the saint which he employs to express the necessity of our being susceptible and pure in order to partake of the grace of God, and even share the divine nature, is the image of the window through which the sunlight passes. The painters of the Flemish country, the land of Memling, of Quinten Matsys made a plentiful use of this image through their wonderful miniatures. No creature absorbed more purely the divine light that came into this world; no creature gave it back with less blemish or spot and grew more one with God than Our Lady. In the cherished metaphor of St. John of the Cross, Mary appears before our mind's eye as the greatest example of all; nay more, as the first pane of glass without spot, who gave us the light of the world. To her, more than to anyone else, may be applied the words of St. John of the Cross explaining the divine communing of the mystic life: "So close is the created communion, if God grants it this excellent and elevated favour, that the soul and everything that is proper to God are united by a participating re-creation. The soul seems more God than soul, even is God, through this participation, although its natural being, in spite of its re-creation, remains as distinct from God's being as before; just as the pane of glass, however lit up by the sun's beams yet retains its proper essence, different from the beam that passes into it." He further explains the image in a way that more directly concerns Our Blessed Lady. If the pane of glass be clean and spotless, the sunbeam will light it up and change it in such a way that it seems to be the light itself and gives out light itself. That is the reason why Our Lady deserved to become the Mother of God; because she offered not the slightest hinderance to the divine indwelling. Like Our Lady we must absorb the divine light.

For the complete series of essays, go here

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Christ Altogether Lovely VI


I will refrain from extended comment after the excerpt, for what can be added that would not detract from its simplicity? I just bring to your attention the recent work of Fr. Thomas Dubay The Evidentiary Power of Beauty and remark that it treads much the same ground at a finer level. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to take some time to experience some of this beauty. Here is Florida it is easily done--the birds that have dispersed through all the states return in droves so every lawn is whited with the whiteness of egrets and ibises, and the blossoms of the short day flowers color all and sundry. The new birth of lizards and snakes gives us the smallest of creatures, and those few deciduous trees we have give us some moments of glittering color and a few leaves drop.

from "Christ Altogether Lovely"
Rev. John Flavel

Fifthly, "Altogether lovely," i.e. Transcending all created excellencies in beauty and loveliness. If you compare Christ and other things, no matter how lovely, no matter how excellent and desirable, Christ carries away all loveliness from them. "He is (as the apostle says) before all things," Col. 1:17. Not only before all things in time, nature, and order; but before all things in dignity, glory, and true excellence. In all things he must have the pre-eminence. Let us but compare Christ's excellence with the creature's in a few particulars, and how manifest will the transcendent loveliness of Jesus Christ appear! For,

1. All other loveliness is derived and secondary; but the loveliness of Christ is original and primary. Angels and men, the world and all the desirable things in it, receive what excellence they crave from him. They are streams from the fountain. The farther any thing departs from its fountain and original, the less excellency there is in it.

2. The loveliness and excellency of all other things, is only relative, consisting in its reference to Christ, and subservience to his glory. But Christ is lovely, considered absolutely in himself. He is desirable for himself; other things are desirable because of him.

3. The beauty and loveliness of all other things are fading and perishing; but the loveliness of Christ is fresh for all eternity. The sweetness of the best created thing is a fading flower; if not before, yet certainly at death it must fade away. Job 4:21. "Doth not their excellency, which is in them, go away?" Yes, yes, whether they are the natural excellencies of the body, acquired endowments of the mind, lovely features, graceful qualities, or anything else we find attractive; all these like pleasant flowers are withered, faded, and destroyed by death. "But Christ is still the same, yesterday, today, and for ever," Heb. 13:8.

4. The beauty and holiness of creatures are ensnaring and dangerous. A man may make an idol out of them, and indulge himself beyond the bounds of moderation with them, but there is no danger of excess in the love of Christ. The soul is then in the healthiest frame and temper when it is most overwhelmed by love to Christ, Song of Songs 5:8.

5. The loveliness of every creature is of a confining and obstructing nature. Our esteem of it diminishes the closer we approach to it, or the longer we enjoy it. Creatures, like pictures, are fairest at a certain distance, but it is not so with Christ; the nearer the soul approaches him, and the longer it lives in the enjoyment of him, still the sweeter and more desirable he becomes.

6. All other loveliness cannot satisfy the soul of man. There is not scope enough in any one created thing, or in all the natural universe of created things for the soul of man to reach out and expand; but the soul still feels itself confined and narrowed within those limits. This comes to pass from the inadequacy and unsuitableness of the creature to the nobler and more excellent soul of man. The soul is like a ship in a narrow river which does not have room to turn. It is always running aground and foundering in the shallows. But Jesus Christ is in every way sufficient to the vast desires of the soul; in him it has sea-room enough. In him the soul may spread all its sails with no fear of touching bottom. And thus you see what is the importance of this phrase, "Altogether lovely."

Find the entire sermon here

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It sometimes astonishes me to realize that a great many people have never encountered the Bard in any significant way, either through choice or through the poor preparation of our educational system. When I was in nineth grade, the required reading for the year included Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." My teacher, Mrs. Erskine, had no time or tolerance for that "muddled romantic prattle" and further thought it set a bad example for young students. And so instead we read, and I fell in love with "The Merchant of Venice." Things I memorized in that year, I remember still and the play lives with me day to day. It is unlikely that Shakespeare meant it as an indictment of prejudices common at the time, and yet it is so easy to discern that thread. And this is a sililoquy that everyone should have some acquaintance with--so, if it is new savor it, and if not, enjoy the reacquaintance.

And so, without further ado, the poem:

from "The Merchant of Venice" Act IV Scene I
Portia, disguised as a Judge speaking
William Shakespeare

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

Something more of our legal profession might do well to internalize. More, something we could all benefit from practicing more often in our relations with others.

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Words from "The Merchant of Venice"

from Act I, Scene III

[Antonio speaking, referring to Shylock]

Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart:
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!

Act II Scence VI
[Jessica, disguised as a page speaks, descending to Lorenzo, her suitor]

But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit. . .

Act II Scene VII

[A Prince of Morocco has chosen the wrong casket in the lottery for Portia]
All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll'd:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.
Cold, indeed; and labour lost:
Then, farewell, heat, and welcome, frost!
Portia, adieu. I have too grieved a heart
To take a tedious leave: thus losers part.

And so I bid adieu at least till lunch, and perhaps until this evening. You are all a blessing to me.

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Christ Altogether Lovely V

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from Christ Altogether Lovely
Rev. John Flavel

Fourthly, "Altogether lovely," i.e. Nothing is lovely in opposition to him, or in separation from him. If he truly is altogether lovely, then whatsoever is opposite to him, or separate from him can have no loveliness in it. Take away Christ, and where is the loveliness of any enjoyment? The best creature-comfort apart from Christ is but a broken cistern. It cannot hold one drop of true comfort, Psalm 73:26. It is with the creature--the sweetest and loveliest creature--as with a beautiful image in the mirror: turn away the face and where is the image? Riches, honours, and comfortable relations are sweet when the face of Christ smiles upon us through them; but without him, what empty trifles are they all?

Which brings up the natural corollary--whatever is unlovely in action, word, person, or object is not of Christ. Whence then if not of Christ? Well then it seems two possible causes--the original Fall corrupted not only human nature, but dragged down with it all of nature, and the work of Satan. Satan cannot create, but he can work on what is created to distort. Whatever is unlovely has its source at one of these two fonts. And we are assured by Paul that nature groans for release from the bonds that hold it down. While there are mechanical aspects of a mosquito that are beautiful and remarkable, the propensity for spreading disease and its unpleasant source of food both are unlovely. And Christ has no part in these--we look to the other sources. Now, interestingly, even though He has no part in their production, they do serve His ends as do all created things.

But we should keep in mind, nothing is lovely in opposition to or separation from Jesus Christ. No matter how noble the cause, no matter how deserving the pursuit, if it is not done for the Glory of God at the behest of Jesus Himself, there can be no loveliness in it. Let me give you a prime example. Some people who support the right to abortion do so from a sense of the desperation of the people involved in these situations. They see the poverty and the struggles and the difficulties of the people who are suffering and conclude (erroneously) that their burden would be lightened if only they could relieve themselves of some part of the difficulty. While the motive--alleviation of suffering--might be noble, the effect is evil. It does not come from God nor does it properly fulfill God's commandment to love your neighbor--the quick fix is chosen over the proper thing to do. So too with all our ends. If the proper means is not God's will and God's grace, then the end is likely to be very ugly.

This can lead to long and complicated discussion about God's will in our lives, but I think simple discernment through prayer can help in all of these cases. There are causes that are always good--praying for the good of another, feeding, clothing, and providing shelter for the homeless--these things are things we are obligated to do in some way or another.

The important key is that whatever is beautiful in the world is beautiful inasmuch as it partakes of Christ's beauty. He makes all things lovely. The loveliness of every human being comes from Jesus Christ.

And I sometimes wonder if anyone at all is reading any of these reflections, or if because they come from another tradition, they are not at all interesting. And it occurs to me that it little matters, because this is what I feel God has given me to do here and not to do it would be a far greater folly than to continue in the face of silence.

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Taken from the long anthology of small-town gossip Spoon River Anthology. One year I had the privilege of attending a regional Geological Society of America Convention held in Macomb Illinois at the University of Western Illinois. In passing through the state we stopped briefly at Dickson Mounds State park and drove by Edgar Lee Masters house in a nearby town. This was yet another enormous thrill for me. Nearly as exciting as the time when stumbling through Amish Country in Ohio, we happened upon Winesburg.

from Spoon River Anthology
Benjamin Pantier
Edgar Lee Masters

Benjamin Pantier

            Together in this grave lie Benjamin Pantier, attorney at law,
            And Nig, his dog, constant companion, solace and friend.
            Down the gray road, friends, children, men and women,
            Passing one by one out of life, left me till I was alone
            With Nig for partner, bed-fellow, comrade in drink.
            In the morning of life I knew aspiration and saw glory.
            Then she, who survives me, snared my soul
            With a snare which bled me to death,
            Till I, once strong of will, lay broken, indifferent,
            Living with Nig in a room back of a dingy office.
            Under my jaw-bone is snuggled the bony nose of Nig --
            Our story is lost in silence. Go by, mad world!

And for good measure, Mrs. Pantier's side of the story

Mrs. Benjamin Pantier

            I know that he told that I snared his soul
            With a snare which bled him to death.
            And all the men loved him,
            And most of the women pitied him.
            But suppose you are really a lady, and have delicate tastes,
            And loathe the smell of whiskey and onions.
            And the rhythm of Wordsworth's "Ode" runs in your ears,
            While he goes about from morning till night
            Repeating bits of that common thing;
            "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?"
            And then, suppose:
            You are a woman well endowed,
            And the only man with whom the law and morality
            Permit you to have the marital relation
            Is the very man that fills you with disgust
            Every time you think of it -- while you think of it
            Every time you see him?
            That's why I drove him away from home
            To live with his dog in a dingy room
            Back of his office.

Absolutely unlovely, and yet a portrait too clear and true of some unfortunate and selfish souls.

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I finished reading The House of the Seven Gables a night or so ago and have allowed myself time to crystallize some thoughts.

Hawthorne never claimed to write novels. He referred to all of his works as romances. This puzzles me, because it is hard to make The Scarlet Letter into a romance unless we view it as an ultimately failed romance. However, he was quite accurate as to the characterization in the sense that the characters in the novels never quite behave as real characters, but take on a fairy-tale like dimension in which they act some role to fulfill a purpose.

So in Seven Gables we have five main characters--Hepzibah, Phoebe, Clifford, Judge Pyncheon, and Holford (or Holworth or something like that--a Daguerreotypist). In addition there is a scattering of other characters--a young boy who patronizes Hepzibah's shop to the point nearly of terrorizing her.

Hepzibah and Clifford live in Seven Gables, a house of ill omen which is said to have brought about the deaths of several residents. Judge Pyncheon has actually inherited the vast majority of the other wealth once associated with the house and is out to get more. Phoebe is some sort of semi-detached cousin who floats in to start up a romance with the Daguerreotypist.

The novel suffers a bit from excesses. There is an entire chapter devoted to exhorting a dead man to rise from his chair and kind of looking at the ghosts that pass parade-like around him. There is a subplot involving mesmerism and of course the obligatory curse from the past that has come to roost on the present family.

What is most remarkable about the novel, despite its divergences from what we commonly consider the novelist endeavor, is how readable and how interesting it really is. I took quite a while to get through it because I read in fits and starts according to mood. This book requires a sustained reading and I am sure the atmosphere would be powerful and interesting. This is what Hawthorne excels at --atmosphere. But also, unexpectedly, he has a penchant for a dry and subtle sort of humor. Take for example this scene from very early on in the book:

IT still lacked half an hour of sunrise, when Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon-we will not say awoke, it being doubtful whether the poor lady had so much as closed her eyes during the brief night of midsummer - but, at all events, arose from her solitary pillow, and began what it would be mockery to term the adornment of her person. Far from us be the indecorum of assisting, even in imagination, at a maiden lady's toilet! Our story must therefore await Miss Hepzibah at the threshold of her chamber; only presuming, meanwhile, to note some of the heavy sighs that labored from her bosom, with little restraint as to their lugubrious depth and volume of sound, inasmuch as they could be audible to nobody save a disembodied listener like ourself. . . .

The maiden lady's devotions are concluded. Will she now issue forth over the threshold of our story? Not yet, by many moments. First, every drawer in the tall, old-fashioned bureau is to be opened, with difficulty, and with a succession of spasmodic jerks then, all must close again, with the same fidgety reluctance. There is a rustling of stiff silks; a tread of backward and forward footsteps to and fro across the chamber. We suspect Miss Hepzibah, moreover, of taking a step upward into a chair, in order to give heedful regard to her appearance on all sides, and at full length, in the oval, dingy-framed toilet-glass, that hangs above her table. Truly! well, indeed! who would have thought it! Is all this precious time to be lavished on the matutinal repair and beautifying of an elderly person, who never goes abroad, whom nobody ever visits, and from whom, when she shall have done her utmost, it were the best charity to turn one's eyes another way?

There is a sly current under this, an amusing undertone that sets certain expectations for the book that certainly are fulfilled.

Everyone should spend some time with the old books. For every modern piece read C.S. Lewis suggested that one of some vintage should be consumed to counterbalance our chronological chauvinism. If you are in the market for such an adventure--you could do much worse than to spend some time in The House of the Seven Gables

Next Report likely to be Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather's masterpiece of the Southwest.

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Christ Altogether Lovely IV


from "Christ Altogether Lovely"
John Flavel

Fourthly, "Altogether lovely," i.e. Nothing is lovely in opposition to him, or in separation from him. If he truly is altogether lovely, then whatsoever is opposite to him, or separate from him can have no loveliness in it. Take away Christ, and where is the loveliness of any enjoyment? The best creature-comfort apart from Christ is but a broken cistern. It cannot hold one drop of true comfort, Psalm 73:26. It is with the creature--the sweetest and loveliest creature--as with a beautiful image in the mirror: turn away the face and where is the image? Riches, honours, and comfortable relations are sweet when the face of Christ smiles upon us through them; but without him, what empty trifles are they all?

If the loveliness of a created thing is sought for itself, it ceases to be lovely--it becomes a momentary distraction from the true loveliness that informas all of creation. If our pursuit of art, beauty, mathematics, science, love, or any other good thing is absent an underlying pursuit of the God who created them all, it is ultimately futile--ashes and dust.

All beautiful things derive their beauty from the One Most Beautiful. All things that are endearing and charming receive their essential character from Jesus Christ. How often do we pause and let the realization that the beauty we are perceiving comes from Christ and reflects him. In the blossom of the hibiscus and in the wonder of the small lizard, everything that entrances does so because of His beauty. And what seems beautiful and does not partake of Him is corruption and horror--and there are those things in the world today.

Spend some time today thanking God for the beauty around you and seeing Him in that beauty. Spend some time with Jesus and let Him know that you are aware of His loveliness that knits the world together into a wonderful and glorious place to live.

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Many do not care for my longer poetic excerpts here, but this is so marvelous a lyric, so wonderful a poem, it would be a shame to try to truncate it. The poem is a dramatic monologue, the speaker Ferrara is talking to someone who may be brokering his next marriage. He tells the story of his previous and it is by way of a mystery.

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Christ Altogether Lovely III


from "Christ Altogether Lovely"
John Flavel

Thirdly "Altogether lovely," i.e. He embraces all things that are lovely: he seals up the sum of all loveliness. Things that shine as single stars with a particular glory, all meet in Christ as a glorious constellation. Col. 1:19, "It pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell." Cast your eyes among all created beings, survey the universe: you will observe strength in one, beauty in a second, faithfulness in a third, wisdom in a fourth; but you shall find none excelling in them all as Christ does. Bread has one quality, water another, raiment another, medicine another; but none has them all in itself as Christ does. He is bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, a garment to the naked, healing to the wounded; and whatever a soul can desire is found in him, 1 Cor. 1:30.

There is nothing new here. But it helps to think each day about the perfections of Jesus Christ. It gives rise to springs of living water within us. I'm sure many Catholic Saints wrote as evocatively, or perhaps even more evocatively--but few as sustainedly one the single topic of the Beauty of Jesus Christ.

Through Him all things came to be and from Him all things have their perfection of form. A cardinal is a cardinal (bird) because of Him and it differs from a robin because of Him. Herons have their stilty legs, and butterflies their wings because of Him. Through him the frogs and the alligators have their voice, the hibiscus has its blossom, and the palm tree sways in the wind.

In Him the waves break on the shore, filling the air with the smell of salt and sea, the sandpipers dance in the ebb and flow, and the coquina continue their daily chore of keeping up with the ever moving tide.

Everything that is beautiful, all that is, reflects in some way the perfection of the creator, and in the creator is gathered all the loveliness of all created things and more. When we think of awe-inspiringly beautiful things--, the ghost orchid, , appendicularians,, the blue morpho butterfly or the blue-ringed octopus--we see in them a small fraction of the beauty of Christ. Every part of creation partakes of the beauty of the Creator, but in no way does all the combined beauty of creation approach the altogether loveliness of Jesus Christ, whose perfection of love and goodness opens up the perfection of beauty.

Spend a few moments this morning with the beauty of Christ. Revel in it, and bring it into the day to share with all around you. It is far more persausive than any human argument--it convinces to the marrow and convicts beyond question. Many people resist it, but they cannot do so for long. Introduce the unconvinced to the perfection of God in all of His creation, and then invite them into the Word to discover from whence this perfection.

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Unlike my plan for the rest of the site, I have not real plan for the presentation of poetry--whatever happens to strike my fancy on a given day. If you were prefer some greater structure, let me know. In the near future I do plan to start "illuminating" the poems--providing explanatory notes and reasons why I like or perhaps appreciate the particular poems.

A Poison Tree
William Blake

            I was angry with my friend.
            I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
            I was angry with my foe.
            I told it not, my wrath did grow;

            And I water'd it in fears,
            Night and morning with my tears;
            And I sunned it with smiles,
            And with soft deceitful wiles;

            And it grew both day and night
            Till it bore an apple bright,
            And my foe beheld it shine,
            And he knew that it was mine,

            And into my garden stole
            When the night had veil'd the pole.
            In the morning glad I see
            My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Besides being William Blake, who is one of the great, if one of the stranger, poets of all time, this poem has a special place in my heart because it gave title to one of the very few mysteries by V.C. Clinton-Baddley (My Foe Outstretch'd Beneath the Tree). I think this author starting writing very late in life and gave rise to only four complete novels and a fifth that was finished by a son. I don't recall the details, but I do remember liking the detective very much.

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After some fairly somber and serious poetry, it seemed time for a break, time for a bit of levity, even if Leigh Hunt didn't intend for it to be amusing:

Song of Fairies Robbing an Orchard
Leigh Hunt

We, the Fairies, blithe and antic,
Of dimensions not gigantic,
Though the moonshine mostly keep us,
Oft in orchards frisk and peep us.

Stolen sweets are always sweeter,
Stolen kisses much completer,
Stolen looks are nice in chapels,
Stolen, stolen, be your apples.

When to bed the world are bobbing,
Then's the time for orchard-robbing;
Yet the fruit were scarce worth peeling,
Were it not for stealing, stealing.

Leigh Hunt is the poet who gave us "Abou Ben Adhem" among other pieces. During his time, a well-reputed poet, now nearly forgotten.

Later: Ms. Moss notes that likely Hunt did intend for it to be amusing. It's always so difficult to tell--but given the general tenor of some other poems she is probably right.

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Christ Altogether Lovely


From the sermons of John Flavel

from "Christ Altogether Lovely"
John Flavel

"Yes, He is altogether lovely." Song of Songs 5:16.

At the ninth verse of this chapter, you have a question put forth by the daughters of Jerusalem, "What is your beloved more than another beloved?" The spouse answers, "He is the chief among ten thousand." She then recounts many of the things she finds so excellent in her beloved and then concludes with these words that I have read: "Yes, he is altogether lovely."

The words set forth the transcendent loveliness of the Lord Jesus Christ, and naturally resolve themselves into three parts:

1. Who he is.

2. What he is.

3. What he is like.

First, Who he is: the Lord Jesus Christ, after whom she had been seeking, for whom she was overcome by love; concerning whom these daughters of Jerusalem had enquired: whom she had struggled to describe in his particular excellencies. He is the great and excellent subject of whom she here speaks.

Secondly, What he is, or what she claims of him: That he is a lovely one. The Hebrew word, which is often translated "desires," means "to earnestly desire, covet, or long after that which is most pleasant, graceful, delectable and admirable." The original word is both in the abstract, and plural in number, which says that Christ is the very essence of all delights and pleasures, the very soul and substance of them. As all the rivers are gathered into the ocean, which is the meeting-place of all the waters in the world, so Christ is that ocean in which all true delights and pleasures meet.

Thirdly, What he is like: He is altogether lovely, the every part to be desired. He is lovely when taken together, and in every part; as if she had said, "Look on him in what respect or particular you wish; cast your eye upon this lovely object, and view him any way, turn him in your serious thoughts which way you wish; consider his person, his offices, his works, or any other thing belonging to him; you will find him altogether lovely, There is nothing disagreeable in him, there is nothing lovely without him." Hence note,

DOCTRINE: That Jesus Christ is the loveliest person souls can set their eyes upon: "Thou art fairer than the children of men." Psalm 14:2.

The entire sermon can be found here. Erik will be delighted to encounter yet another Calvinist with a somewhat greater exposition of the some of the doctrinal infelicities of his ilk; however, what he has to say here is worth our attention.

Jesus Christ is altogether lovely. "Christ is that ocean in which all true delights and pleasures meet." This phrase alone is sufficient for several days of rewarding meditation and prayer. For one thing, do we really believe it? Next, do we act upon that belief? Do we let others know about the storehouse of all that is worthy? If not, how can we do so better? Is Jesus really altogether lovely in our lives. That is, does He take up the greater portion of our time? Do we love Him as though He were altogether lovely? Is He for us the "pearl of great price?" Would we surrender all the material things of the world to Him, surrender our attachment to them and cleave only unto Him? If not, how do we say that He is altogether lovely?

On this day when we honor and pray for those who have gone before us, spend some time seeing them in the embrace of light and loveliness who is Jesus Christ. Be open to their prayers for you and let Him in some small way transform your life.

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Sorry, just one other that gives a sense of the other side of things. Another poem written in memoriam.

from "Lycidas"
John MIlton

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,
For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor;
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of him that walk'd the waves;
Where, other groves and other streams along,
With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptial song,
In the blest kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet societies,
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Now, Lycidas, the shepherds weep no more:
Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.

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From Tennyson's lengthy cycle trying to cope with the loss of a dear friend. Tennyson himself says of it that it is:

"a poem, not a biography .... The different moods of sorrow as in a drama are dramatically given, and my conviction that fear, doubts, and suffering will find answer and relief only through Faith in a God of Love. `I' is not always the author speaking of himself, but the voice of the human race speaking through him."

from In Memoriam--A.H.H. Obiit MDCCCXXXIII #54
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final end of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last--far off--at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

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For All Saints


from Parochial and Plain Sermons Number 32 "Use of Saints' Days"
John Henry Cardinal Newman

I have not yet mentioned the peculiar benefit to be derived from the observance of Saints' days: which obviously lies in their setting before the mind patterns of excellence for us to follow. In directing us to these, the Church does but fulfil the design of Scripture. Consider how great a part of the Bible is historical; and how much of the history is merely the lives of those men who were God's instruments in their respective ages. Some of them are no patterns for us, others show marks of the corruption under which human nature universally lies:—yet the chief of them are specimens of especial faith and sanctity, and are set before us with the evident intention of exciting and guiding us in our religions course. Such are, above others, Abraham, Joseph, Job, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the like; and in the New Testament the Apostles and Evangelists. First of all, and in His own incommunicable glory, our Blessed Lord Himself gives us an example; but His faithful servants lead us on towards Him, and confirm and diversify His pattern. Now it has been the aim of our Church in her Saints' days to maintain the principle, and set a pattern, of this peculiarly Scriptural teaching.

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It was fantabulously difficult to find a poem for All-Saints. Don't know why--I suppose I could have picked any individual Saint. Be that as it may, this hymn came up in the course of search and I thought it wonderful.

Alexander Pope

Thou art my God, sole object of my love;
Not for the hope of endless joys above;
Not for the fear of endless pains below,
Which they who love thee not must undergo.
For me, and such as me, thou deign'st to bear
An ignominious cross, the nails, the spear:
A thorny crown transpierced thy sacred brow,
While bloody sweats from every member flow.
For me in tortures thou resign'st thy breath,
Embraced me on the cross, and saved me by thy death.
And can these sufferings fail my heart to move?
What but thyself can now deserve my love?
Such as then was, and is, thy love to me,
Such is, and shall be still, my love to thee--
To thee, Redeemer! mercy's sacred spring!
My God, my Father, Maker, and my King!

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from November 2003.

Commonplace Book: October 2003 is the previous archive.

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