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!)