In the interest of continuing to promote appreciation of Old English poetry and the anonymous poets behind the poems, and because it’s Friday, here’s a reading of an Old English poem.
This poem appears in the Exeter Book between the two big sets of riddles. It may not actually be a fragment, and you can see from the editorial title (“Homiletic Fragment II”) that it hasn’t received much love from editors and scholars of Old English literature. But I think it’s a nice little work, offering an exhortation to wisdom in light of the sweep of salvation history, and based in part on Ephesians 4:5-6. It does a lot in a little bit of room.
I thought it was interesting enough to have Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO and Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg do readings of the poem in a forum essay I did in the journal Religion & Literature too, and they mined monastic riches from it readily.
Anyhow, here’s the poem and my translation. It’s included in my chapbook Lofsangas: Poems Old and New, which features translations of oft-neglected Old English poems like this one.
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!
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.
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.]