On this Marian feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, I thought I’d offer a reading of Dame Gertrude More’s poem “To Our Blessed Lady, the Advocate of Sinners.”
A short prayer-poem set in common metre, “To Our Blessed Lady” was composed by the Benedictine nun Gertrude More in the early seventeenth century and is edited in my fourth book, Dame Gertude More’s Poems & Counsels on Prayer and Contemplation.
Benedictines paved the way of Marian devotion thru-out the early and high middle ages, and here’s Gertrude, co-foundress of Stanbrook Abbey, carrying on the tradition.
Here is my reading (with a small cameo from my daughter) of Dame Gertrude More’s (1606-33) poem to her master in the monastic life, St. Benedict.
Dame Gertrude was a Benedictine nun in exile on the continent and a great contemplative of the early modern period when the English Catholic Church persevered thru persecution. You can pick up a copy of her poems and shorter prose here if you like.
After several years and help from a number of scholars and monks, I am very happy to announce that my edition, translation, and study of an anonymous fourteenth-century Latin treatise for novice Benedictines, De modo meditandi vel contemplandi (“On the method of meditation or contemplation”), was published last month by the good folks at The Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures. The treatise comes to us from the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds, the monastery (dissolved in the sixteenth-century) that was home to the most prolific Middle English poet, Dom John Lydgate.
My thanks to the editors, Christine Cooper-Rompato and Sherri Olson; everyone who offered their help along the way; and to my anonymous reader at JMRC for all their assistance in presenting this work to the world.
Here is the article’s abstract:
This article presents the first study, edition, and modern English translation of a Latin treatise for novice Benedictine monks copied at the English monastery of Bury St. Edmunds in the fourteenth century in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 240. The treatise is comprised of two primary parts, the first describing a monastic program of meditation or contemplation to be followed throughout the day, the second discussing the benefits and nature of “the discipline” (the practice of flagellation) for curing a lack of devotion to monastic practice. The introduction and notes place the treatise within the larger context of the manuscript, of religious life and history in England and the West more generally, and of the treatise author’s sources, monastic heritage, and a variety of traditional and innovative medieval genres. The text is finally placed in the context of newer historiography on late medieval English monasticism and the relationship of monastics to their lay associates.
St. Æthelwold’s Day is upon us again! On this day in 984, St. Æthelwold passed on to his eternal reward, as the saying goes. I’m currently teaching two classes and in the midst of writing three different books, so unfortunately I am not able to post a translation of a hymn in honor of Æthelwold today as I did last year, but I will post at least another collect and translation below.
But I will make one Æthelwold-related suggestion: anyone interested in Æthelwold’s legacy, the English Benedictine Reform generally, and especially their influence on English culture and literature would do well to check out John D. Niles’s new book out from Exeter University Press, God’s Exiles and English Verse, an excellent new and comprehensive study of the tenth-century Exeter Book. The Exeter Book is the first anthology of English poetry, and it contains some of the great poems that have come down to us from Anglo-Saxon England. As it was made in the cultural orbit of the Benedictine Reform, Niles reads the whole manuscript in light of this movement, and when I read his book last month I was both impressed and delighted.
Next year, I’m hoping to have a translation of the Middle English verse Life of St. Æthelwold done for his day. As I assume I won’t find a publisher in a journal for that one, I’ll likely publish it here. Stay tuned.
Anyhow, for today, here’s my translation of a collect for Æthelwold’s feast, found in Alencon Bibl. mun. 14 and edited in Lapidge and Winterbottom, The Life of St. Æthelwold, p. cxv:
Deus, qui preclari sideris sancti pontificis Adeluuoldi illustratione nouam populis Anglorum tribuisti lucem hodierna die clarescere, tuam suppliciter imploramus clementiam ut cuius magisterio totius religionis documenta cognouimus illius et exemplis informemur et patrociniis adiuuemur. Per [Dominum nostrum Christum. Amen.]
O God, who by the illumination of the bright star of the bishop Æthelwold have today made a new light to shine upon the English people, we humbly implore your mercy that we might be formed by the example and aided by the protection of him by whose teaching we have found the model of all religious observance. Thru [Christ our Lord. Amen.]
I have an enduring appreciation for all the spiritual and religious traditions of humanity, and within the Church I am particularly enthusiastic about the witness to unity that the full communion of the Latin Catholic Church and the twenty-three Eastern Catholic Churches (all twenty-four being sui iuris Churches in communion with the bishop of Rome) share.
The extensive diversity on the surface (of liturgical form, spiritual culture, and secular culture and language), attended by the willingness and desire to share in the most profound depths of sacred ritual (most especially the Eucharist) point up just how much we can be united within our very real differences.
In one specific and practical example, I address the fruits of this communion in a new article published by Spirit & Life, the magazine put out by the congregation of Benedictine sisters with whom I am an oblate. You can read the full essay here.
My wife and I just returned from the Big Sur coast where I led a retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio on Swami Abhishiktananda‘s life and wonderful legacy. The weekend was filled with deep conversation and joy in the Spirit.
The Hermitage offers nourishment for soul and body, with a tremendous view of the Pacific (and attendant cloudscapes) from its mountain perch. The liturgy, meditation, and space for silence and presence of mind and spirit were all exactly what my wife and I needed after a busy school year and the recent publishing push and . . . everything!
My sincerest thanks to the Camaldolese monks at New Camaldoli, and especially to all the retreatants who came along for the ride–I hope our paths cross again soon!
In continued celebration of Swamiji’s work, here is a translation of a poem from Swami Abhishiktananda’s journal that is in my collection; I read this at the retreat during a session on Swamiji’s use of poetry to gesture at his profound advaitic and mystical experiences.
“You have seen the lightning” addresses its own author and all those who have glimpsed the root unity of things beyond appearance, with a kind of fatherly caution. It speaks to the intimacy of such experience and the inadequacy of words in its face–and yet our desire to speak or sing of it despite this. Enjoy!
It is my great pleasure to share that Dr. David Grubbs of the Christian Humanist Radio Network recently invited me to sit down and talk about my work with St. Aethelwold’s Old English translation of the Rule of St. Benedict (and other Anglo-Saxon things), and the interview is now available here.
We had a great time, and while we geeked out over all kinds of Anglo-Saxon things, we also wanted to keep the conversation grounded in order to invite folks into a relatively specialized topic. That is to say: you don’t need to be a student of medieval history or literature to follow the interview, so please do give a listen!
Thanks again to Dr. Grubbs and everyone there at The Christian Humanist!
While my first literary love is Old English poetry, I am a fan of Middle English too. In my new collection, I have a few translations of poems from Geoffrey Chaucer. I like to remind folks in general, my students, and myself from time to time that Chaucer did things aside from The Canterbury Tales (as great as they are).
So here’s one of his shorter lyric poems, “Truth,” done in the forme fixe of the ballade, a French verse form that was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. Contemporary English poets (Chaucer himself and John Lydgate preeminent among them) liked to use it too, and later English-language poets have continued the tradition. I’ve retained the verse form over literal meaning, to preserve the musicality of Chaucer’s original. (In my translation I also omit the “envoy,” the final stanza that is addressed to a particular person, to “universalize” the poem–for better or worse.)
I like especially his image of the futility of “kicking the point of an awl.”
The texts follow the audio file of my reading of the Middle English and translation.
Truth: Balade de Bon Conseyl
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thing, though it be smal,
For hord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal.
Savour no more than thee bihove shal,
Reule wel thyself that other folk canst rede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
Tempest thee noght al croked to redresse
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal;
Gret reste stant in litel besinesse.
Be war therfore to sporne ayeyns an al,
Stryve not, as doth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
That thee is sent, receyve in buxomnesse;
The wrastling for this world axeth a fal.
Here is non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;
Hold the heye wey and lat thy gost thee lede,
And trouthe thee shall delivere, it is no drede.
Truth: A Middle English Ballade of Good Counsel by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee the crowd and dwell securely in trueness.
Let your own suffice, though it not be much,
for greed leads to hate and grasping to coldness;
the crowd leads to envy, and wealth deceives such
as hold too tightly everything they touch.
Rule yourself well, that others clearly see,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Don’t try to amend all that is amiss,
trusting that Lady who spins like a ball;
true rest lies in spurning busyness.
There’s no sense in kicking the point of an awl
nor in the crock’s struggle against a wall.
Rule yourself, you who rule others’ deeds,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Take what is sent to you in obedience;
struggle, for this world surely begs a fall.
We have no home here, only wilderness.
Go forth, pilgrim! Go forth, beast, from your stall!
This is one of the more recent pieces collected in my first book of poems, Sunk in Your Shipwreck. The dominant trope of the collection is the archetypal movement of “pilgrimage,” and this poem falls directly in that ambit.
In 2006, my older brother and I went on a fairly random two-week trek around Ireland and Great Britain, focusing on southwestern Ireland, London, and Cornwall. We have ancestors from Cornwall (around Camborne), and we spent a good bit of our UK time in the western-most part of Cornwall, Penwith.
The poem’s text follows the audio file of my reading, and I hope you enjoy (and visit Penwith someday!).
We railed it from Holyhead to Birmingham,
sleeping splayed across three seats like vagrants,
a Welsh child crawling down luggage racks
to case us out, hills rolling by outside.
Eyelids like metal traps resisting peregrinations
but the world springs back to form and clarity
over trestles in mine-ruin Redruth,
downtown Camborne—and little did we suspect
ancestral hamlet Gwillanwarthas a stone’s throw away.
Our uphill tramp along Penzance soaked cement
to the wrong hostel almost too much to take.
Back down petunia-lined lanes of thatched roofs—
who knew they still took the time?
Bags thrown on bunks that make you sad
how wet they are—we’re told that’s just Cornwall, mate—
and our clothes, our shoes did not dry for four days’ time,
despite the hostel dryer’s heroic and repeated attempts.
The rock, the seabirds too many to number and shades of difference,
another car cramped and rented, sitting in inverted seats,
but the same stick: we had that.
And you drove up the curb off Alverton Street
to the horror of several Cornish folk passing by
to their morning papers and pasties.
We kept the sea to our left on our circumambulation
always moving, the next fountain, the next cairn
and dolmen and churchyard, the next pond with
white streaks of swan and springs swallowed up
by time, padding up the A-30 to Bodmin Moor,
making wrong turns down claustrophobic lanes
toLamorna Cove with housewives’ sidelong glances
as they potted plants with strangers driving slowly past
and tossing off the world, the forest strange in these parts and sopping.
Why did we careen down backways, narrow and hard as rock
to find standing stone rings in farmers’ fields,
searching miry paths hung with moss for baptistries
left standing since the Reformation? Why the restless
surge to moor and field and shore in damp and rain,
in hard grey midmornings and no food ’til teatime?
The cracked and bristling grass that welcomed our feet,
the draughts from Iron Age wells and flowering club moss?
How can we know? The last bleak
stretch of path down unknown woods, opening out into clearings
lined with mud and lichen, into centuries, then turning ’round,
was more than enough—circling Penwith into the dawn
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!