I’m excited to announce that I’ll be co-leading a retreat this summer in lovely Big Sur, CA at New Camaldoli Hermitage. Along with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam. I’ll be sharing a weekend of poetry, music, cinema, liturgy, prayer, and meditation with any and all who wish to join us. Good times will abound, the Spirit willing!
The description of the retreat is below, and you can see the Camaldolese monks’ site here and register for the retreat by following the directions here. I’m very much looking forward to spending the weekend with the monastic and oblate communities at the Hermitage.
And a quick note to thank the monks and oblates of The Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome, ID for hosting me late last year for a retreat on the deep Benedictine contemplative tradition!
“Wake Up! The Legacy of Swami Abhishiktananda in Poetry, Song and Film”
Swami Abhishiktananda (Fr. Henri Le Saux) was a Benedictine monk who spent much of his life in India immersed in the contemplative traditions of Christianity and Hinduism. By the time of his death in 1973, Swamiji had become a prophet of interreligious dialogue, an accomplished spiritual writer, and one of the twentieth century’s great mystics. Swamiji sought and desired to lead others to the realization of Absolute Reality, drawing together Christian teaching on the Trinity and Hindu teaching on non-duality (advaita).
Though he, like so many of the great mystics, called seekers to go “Beyond!” (beyond concepts, beyond words, beyond images), he also understood the necessity of words and signs in our everyday reality. In that spirit, New Camaldoli Hermitage is excited to offer a retreat focused on Swamiji’s life and teaching. While we will make space for the silence Swamiji loved so well, we will also celebrate his life and teaching in various arts: New Camaldoli’s own Prior Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam will lead us in chant and song, Benedictine oblate and poet Jacob Riyeff will give a reading of Swamiji’s newly-translated poetry, and we will view the new documentary of Swamiji’s life, *Dawn of the Abyss: The Spiritual Birth of Swamiji*.
In addition to these multimedia sessions, traditional conferences on Swamiji’s teaching will offer a more detailed encounter with his profound insights into the contemplative life. Please join us for this joyous event!
Quick follow-up post: my translation of a classic Middle English lyric, “Adam Lay Ybounden,” has just appeared in the Benedictine magazine Spirit & Life. It’s a delightful short poem from c. 1400 that describes the paradoxical benefits of the Fall in Genesis 3. Plot twist!
Special thanks to Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration for publishing this. Check out the sisters’ daily podcast of their chanting of the Liturgy of the Hours at their monastery in Clyde, MO here.
After an unpremeditated hiatus, I’m back to posting. I’ll be posting some audio files of my own poems from my first poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck, that came out in October very soon. But for the moment here’s another from Swami Abhishiktananda, the Benedictine-monk-turned-wandering-sannyasi whose poems I translated last year.
In “Shri Ramana Was Great,” Swami Abhishiktananda wrestles with Christ, wondering how this sage of modern India could have such grace though clearly he was not in any formal sense part of Christ’s community that is the Church. (The ashram community responsible for Shri Ramana’s legacy is here; for more on Swamiji’s relationship to Shri Ramana and the holy mountain Arunachala, see my previous post.)
This realization of Shri Ramana’s greatness in the S/spirit was Swamiji’s first real leap into exploring the great Awakening that goes beyond religious affiliation and doctrine. In Shri Ramana, Swamiji found embodied the deep self-realization that he found recounted in the Upanishads, and this challenged his French Catholic upbringing and monastic and priestly formation. The poem here follows his searching, guiding the reader (and, one assumes, himself) to a precarious peace with a situation that doesn’t seem to have an obvious resolution along traditional religious lines. Here it is:
I am very excited to announce the publication of my first poetry collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck: A Palmer Stammering. It’s now available thru Resource Publications and Amazon.
The book includes poems from the last ten years or so, a number published in journals and magazines but plenty of unpublished material too. I’ll be posting some readings in the coming weeks, but here is the description from the back cover for now:
Sunk in Your Shipwreck is a collection of poems that employs the trope of the pilgrimage to structure its meanderings, especially (in murky and unfaithful ways) echoing the great medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. Moving through a poem from beginning to end is itself a kind of pilgrimage in the mind and on the tongue. The poems here reflect a late modern palmering, a movement from place to place and time to time and back again, movement through language and silence, inner and outer states, contemplative and active, starting and stopping, a longing for a constant or a destination in a life of uncertain circumstances and goals. In this verse peregrination, the palmer seeks out an illuminating and sustaining vision to form and transform common surroundings and moments of human life, a pursuit that is hopeful and darkly radiant by turns.
Tomorrow, my class on Old English poetry will be discussing the poem known as “The Order of the World.” The poem is found in the tenth-century Exeter Book (the first anthology of English poetry!) and is one of my favorite Old English poems.
The poem is a self-referential exploration of the power of verbal art set up as a kind of challenge to its audience to trade wisdom with its speaker. It begins by noting the power that poetry has to convey the wisdom begotten by the “sage who ponders the world, / holding in the meditation of his heart / what many have recounted in rhythmic recitations.” The speaker exhorts the audience to listen to his herespel (praise poem), which turns out to be a meditation on the nature of the sun reminiscent of Psalm 19. But herein lies the poem’s skill–the herespel becomes a “script” or a model for how contemplation of creation operates to lift the attentive mind (mens intenta in Gregory the Great’s vocabulary) to the Creator. And so he “shows” his audience how poetry conveys the mysteries of creation after he “tells” them it does. An artful poem all the way.
In my chapbook, Lofsangas, I translated this poem and gave it the title “Se Woðbora,” referring to one of the speaker’s epithets for himself from the poem’s second line. I read the original Old English and then my translation in the audio file below.
Here is another reading of one of my translations of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poems. This piece, “Bhairava,” is one of my favorite of Swamiji’s poems. The Sanskrit adjective “bhairava” means “frightful/terrible/etc.” and it is also the name of a deity recognized in Hinduism and various schools of Buddhism, especially associated in Hinduism with Shiva. Bhairava is then a frightful face of Shiva, having to do with dissolution and annihilation. Swamiji composed this poem during his month-long silent retreat at Kumbakonam, a town in Tamil Nadu, India in November of 1955.
Swami Abhishiktananda uses this title of Shiva as a novel way into some well-trodden tropes in the mystical poetic toolkit: abandonment, ravishment, desolation and dissolution, union-as-annihilation-of-the-self. The poem speaks to the terror and lonesomeness of the radically contemplative life and the experience of non-dualism within human consciousness–even as union is experienced, a lingering sense of the individual endures and can cause disturbance.
But beyond the surface of these frightful images and emotional states, one can also see the playful use of such imagery to paradoxically gesture toward profound states of consciousness that simply don’t “come out” in direct expression. Though Swamiji’s imagery here is distraught and painful–even calling his addressee an “Ogre” at one point–it points to a state of unknowing that is “tender and heartrending at once,” heartrending as long as there is some part of the identity that is clung to, at any rate.
In 1948, Dom Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine Monk, left his native Brittany and arrived in Southern India. He intended to establish the contemplative monastic life in the Indian church, a life dedicated to sacred silence in a land imbued with sacred silence.
Though he was sympathetic to Hindu philosophy, especially the ideas and experiences described in the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads, he still assumed that he would be converting others to the Christian way during his time in India. Yet when he encountered the simple faithful and the contemporary sages in his new homeland, he found the Spirit at work there, beyond the borders of institutional Christianity and any Christian faith whatsoever. This led him to dramatically reevaluate his “mission” in India and his very understanding of all R/reality.
This reevaluation was especially spurred by his encounter with the Self-realized sage Shri Ramana Maharshi (shortly before Shri Ramana’s leaving the body in 1950) and the sacred mountain where Shri Ramana lived, Arunachala. In Shri Ramana, Swami Abhishiktananda saw the heights of contemplation and divine union of his own Catholic Christian tradition lived in an authentic way, and he spent several retreats living in the caves of Arunachala and getting to know the hermits who lived there, the members of Shri Ramana’s ashram community, and those who lived in the adjacent town, Tiruvannamalai.
In the caves of Arunachala, Swami Abhishiktananda spent long hours in silence and experienced deep states of meditation. As Swami Atmananda Udasin, the director of the Abhishiktananda Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, says, “there [he] had his first great mystical insights. Later in his life, he would refer to the Mountain as his place of Awakening: ‘But as for myself, like Shri Ramana, it was Arunachala that awakened me. Oh, that Awakening!'”
The larger part of my new book, In the Bosom of the Father: The Collected Poems of a Benedictine Mystic, is comprised of the poems that Swami Abhishiktananda composed in light of his experiences in those first few years in India, especially in his encounter with Arunachala as well as Swami Abhishiktananda’s “renderings” of Shri Ramana’s Tamil poems. The first in the collection, Aruncachala, he described as being “sung to me by Arunachala one night before I went to sleep, and I relit my lamp several times to catch it. Perhaps it will convey some of the spell cast on me by Arunachala.” Below is a reading of my translation of Swami Abhishiktananda’s poem, and Swamiji’s own note for context.
“Arunachala is a holy place of particular veneration in Tamil Nadu in the South of India. The Puranas . . . tell of its origins. There was a quarrel between Brahma and Vishnu, each claiming that he was the First and Greatest. Suddenly, a Column of Fire appeared in the space between them. They decided that whoever first found either the foundation or the summit of this mysterious Column would be accepted by the other as the superior. Brahma dashed to the summit, while Vishnu began to dig into the earth, but both had to admit the vanity of their efforts. It was Shiva who had manifested themselves to them, convincing them of the futility of their former claims, for the greatest and first in Being is Shiva. The Column of Fire later turned into a Mountain of sapphire, and finally a Mountain of stone. Each year during the full moon of the month of Karttikai (15 November-15 December), an immense fire is lit on the summit of the Mountain, which is called the feast of Dipam (“dipa” in Sanskrit; “lamp” in English). The Tamil name for the city there is Tiruvannamalai.” (In the Bosom of the Father, 23.)
While I will be posting about other things very soon, given my recent preoccupation with all things Æthelwoldian I thought I’d share the news that, yes!, it is St. Æthelwold’s Day today.
For anyone reading this who may be unfamiliar with St. Æthelwold, he was an Anglo-Saxon bishop and abbot who was a primary architect of the religious and political movement we call the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform in the tenth century, which had huge implications for English religious life, the English state, and (most importantly to me) Old English literature. (More here.)
St. Æthelwold passed away (was “born into eternal life,” as his contemporaries would have thought of it) on August 1st, 984. His communities at Winchester and abroad “culted” him shortly after his death. This means they made him a saint by celebrating the anniversary of his death in the liturgy; this was long before “official canonization.” The technical word for this anniversary of a saint’s death is “deposition” (really referring to the body’s interment in a grave, but close enough…).
Though St. Æthelwold’s cult never spread very far, he is still recognized in the Roman Martyrology as a saint. There, it says:
“Vintoniæ in Anglia, depositio sancti Ethelwoldi, episcopi, qui, Regularem Concordiam illam exaravit ad monasticam disciplinam redintegrandam, quam a sancto Dunstano didicerat.”
Which means, more or less:
“At Winchester, in England, the deposition of St. Æthelwold, bishop, who composed the Regularis Concordia in order to renew monastic discipline, which he had learned from St. Dunstan.”
(The Regularis Concordia was the document intended to standardize daily observance of the monastic life throughout England, agreed upon at the Council of Winchester ca. 973 and thought to have been largely drafted by St. Æthelwold himself.)
In addition to the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church still venerating him, the Ordo (liturgical outline of the Church year) for the Personal Ordinariates of Our Lady of Walsingham and of the Chair of St. Peter also commemorate him, though the Ordinariates’ calendars place Æthelwold together with Sts. Dunstan and Oswald on St. Dunstan’s traditional feast day of May 19th.
Despite Æthelwold’s leaving a less-than-spectacular mark on the liturgical front, I’ve decided to make a good showing for this year’s deposition. Below, you can find a hymn and a collect prayer for St. Æthelwold’s feast day that were likely composed by his student, Wulfstan of Winchester. Wulfstan was the precentor, or liturgical director/composer, at Winchester’s Old Minster, where Æthelwold was buried (note that the hymn says “here before your holy limbs”/”Hic coram tuis artubus”). Both are from a manuscript known by the shelf-mark Alençon, Bibliothèque Municipale 14.
The hymn is octosyllabic Latin verse, and I’ve done a rough-and-ready English translation into octosyllabic verse too; the text for both is found below the audio. The audio immediately following this paragraph is a recording of the hymn being chanted in Latin and English to a traditional setting for octosyllabic hymns from the Divine Office, which was taught to me by a former Premonstratensian. (Disclaimers: 1) I have no idea whether or not this setting or something like it would have been used in the tenth century–likely not, but it’s in the same stream of tradition so I use it here; 2) I have no training in singing generally, nor in Gregorian chant specifically–this is just to give a taste or hint of what such things would sound like.)
The Latin text goes like this (edited by Michael Lapidge and Michael Winterbottom in their The Life of St. Æthelwold):
Celi senator inclite
Sancte pastor ecclesie:
O Adeluuolde supplices
Tuos exaudi seruulos!
Iam sidus inter sidera
Resplendens super ethera,
Nobis benignus impetra
Pronis rogamus mentibus
Hic coram tuis artubus:
Nostris adesto precibus
Serenus ac propitius.
Vt tuis necessariis
Ad celorum perpetua
Prestet nobis Ingenitus
Hoc atque Vnigenitus
Sanctus amborum Spiritus
Trinus et unus Dominus!
O heav’nly representative
and good shepherd of holy Church,
O father Æthelwold, hear us,
grant good end to your servants’ search.
Now brightest star among the stars,
shining resplendent in the sky,
obtain for us you blesséd man,
the Holy Spirit’s gifts most high.
We beg you with our souls prostrate
before your body’s holy limbs,
attend to all our earthly prayers:
calm, gentle healing of our sins,
that in our weakness protected
by patronage that you employ
we might be led to the heavens
rejoicing in perpetual joy.
May the Inborn and Holy Source
and Unbegotten Only Son
and Holy Spirit of them both,
the Three-in-One, grant this to us. Amen.
And here’s the collect (Latin again from Lapidge and Winterbottom):
Deus, qui hodiernam diem beati confessoris tui Adeluuoldi episcopi transitu nobis honorabilem dedicasti, concede propicius ut cuius eruditione ueritatis tue luce perfundimur, eius intercessione celestis uite gaudia consequamur. Per.
And a translation:
God, who have dedicated this glorious day for us thru the passing away of your blessed confessor Æthelwold, kindly grant that we may obtain the joys of heavenly life through the intercession of the one through whose erudition we have been imbued with the light of your truth. Though [our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.]
As part of my continued efforts to make available more obscure resources for understanding the cultural, intellectual, and religious context of the culture in which Old English poetry was copied down, I have created a page on my website for translations of texts that are difficult to find.
The two installments (no more are planned right now, but if folks find them helpful for themselves or students and let me know, I’d be happy to do more) are both documents providing some background to the early moves of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform. I have heard both of these texts referenced in classes once or twice throughout my studies, but never actually read them. I found out recently that at least part of why I never read them is that there aren’t readily available Present Day English translations. Hence the new page.
Both texts have to do with the refounding of monasteries in Winchester. Why Winchester? It was the seat of royal power at the time, it had a bishop’s see, there was a growing city in the period with agriculture and craftspeople, and St. Æthelwold became bishop there, establishing a school that would shape Anglo-Saxon music, manuscript illustration, and the standardizing of the Old English language for decades.
The first text is a translation of the New Minster Charter from 966. Written in the voice of King Edgar, it was almost certainly composed by Æthelwold, and it is a surprisingly elaborate charter written in gold lettering and including an illustration of King Edgar that visually situates the grandeur and limits of royal power. The charter was likely intended to sit on the New Minster’s altar for the monks and the visitors to see, and it was meant to be read aloud throughout the year (though the chapter that promises to describe that process is missing.) The text places the refounding of Winchester’s New Minster in the context of salvation history, blesses those who will help the monks, condemns those who would hinder them, and notes that the monks will be able to choose their own abbot, all in a surprisingly elaborate way.
The second text is a letter from Pope John XII (+964) that gives permission to King Edgar (+975) and St. Æthelwold (+984) to eject secular priests from the Old Minster in Winchester and to set up monks in their place. The letter is important 1) in showing the papal blessing on innovations in church governance that the Reform was pursuing, like having monastic cathedral chapters and monks electing bishops (both of which were unique at this time in the western church), and 2) it helps attenuate somewhat a picture of St. Æthelwold as a particularly harsh figure. (An excellent treatment of how this perspective came to be can be found in Alison Hudson‘s article.) Though we do not want to understand such actions naively, the letter translated here provides context for Æthelwold’s actions at Winchester’s Old Minster in 964–namely, that King Edgar had received permission for the expulsion from Pope John XII via a letter to the pope from St. Dunstan (+988), archbishop of Canterbury. Æthelwold was the agent on the ground, as it were, but it is good to keep in mind that he was acting in concert with other powerful forces.
These pieces can help interested readers and students of western monasticism and Old English literature understand a bit more of the institutional conduits through which the majority of Old English, and lots of Anglo-Latin, was copied, preserved, and passed down the centuries.
Ever since I first saw Old English poetry on the page (when I happened on J.R.R. Tolkien’s edition of Finn and Hengest in the library of a Dominican University in California) and heard it recited aloud (by my first Old English teacher at UW-Madison), I have loved it. (Old English is the English language as spoken and written ca. 450-1100.) The verse’s sonic qualities are second to none and the use of letters strange to us English-speakers a thousand years on appeal to my aesthetic sense for novelty too. After falling in love with Old English poetry, I decided to study it for real and I’ve been doing so for the last thirteen years of my life. (Which seems like a lot when I say it.)
One thing that has always seemed very strange to me is how little the social and cultural and, let’s say it, religious context of Old English poetry is tended to in the classroom, and in popular collections of translated Old English. I’ve been in lots of Old English and medieval literature classrooms–my teachers’, my own, and some of my colleagues–and specifically the monastic and Benedictine context of the production of Old English verse is mostly left out of the discussion. Scholars research the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform, and professors sketch in the nature of the church and the royal court in general terms in the classroom, but almost all that we have of Old English poetry was recorded either by the monks of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform or other clerics in their cultural orbit. Old English poetry can certainly be understood without a keener sense of the specific subculture that produced its material record, but the fact that we do have a good sense of this subculture still leaves me fairly baffled as to why we (teachers and translators of Old English) mostly don’t share this with our students and audiences.
Cistercian Publications recently published my translation of St. Æthelwold of Winchester’s Old English rendering of the Rule of St. Benedict, and I largely took on this project in order to provide students and more general readers of Old English poetry with easier access to information on and primary texts of this literary subculture. In his “translation” of the Rule, Æthelwold shows clearly that he understands the original Latin, but he also shapes the text as he likes. He inserts his own commentary, omits material, changes the meaning of certain sections that conflict with the goals of the Reform movement he co-headed, and inserts commentary from the Frankish abbot Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel–all without acknowledging that he is doing it. And so the “translation” becomes its own text, a “reception” of Benedict’s text by a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon abbot and bishop. I’ve also included a translation of another Old English text by Æthelwold that describes the progress and goals of the Reform and a “Life” of St. Benedict by Æthelwold’s pupil Ælfric of Eynsham. My hope is that these texts can give students, general readers, and burgeoning scholars alike a clearer window into the lives of many of the people responsible for handing Old English poetry on to us.
With all this in mind, I’m also going to be trying this approach out in a class this fall. I will be teaching Old English poetry as a genre class with an emphasis on the monastic culture in which it is historically anchored. I’m looking forward to seeing what students make of this more direct contextualization of the poetry and am excited to see how they teach me about the connections between these two discrete but intertwined sets of texts.
Looking forward to this, and simply wanting to share how enthralling I find all this material (I still also just think Old English sounds amazing), I have recorded a reading of the Prologue to The Old English Rule of St. Benedict in the original Old English followed by my Present Day English translation. I’m planning for this to be the first of many readings on this blog, so stay tuned for further recitations of the arcane…
(And that’s Mary Berry and the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge chanting Christmas in Royal Anglo-Saxon Winchester in the background–highly recommended!)