This particular rumination is a bit longer than others, but remember that 150 years ago, in Tennyson's time, he could take a very long time to write something and folks could take a very long time to read it. So, it is quite difficult to choose a subject matter from that time, that translates into the 15 seconds allotted to each article/video! Anyway, here goes.
After the sudden death of his young beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam, Alfred Lord Tennyson spent 17 years writing one of the most timeless poems, revealing the consciousness of the human being's deep awareness of, and sincere struggle with, their own mortality.
Beyond flight, beyond fight, there has arisen in people a level of consciousness that can contemplate philosophically and psychologically, the end of their own life and the end of the life of others. Out of this consciousness, and through his grief, Tennyson wrote a brilliant poem called In Memoriam, in which, for 17 years and 723 stanzas, he wrestles with Nature, with God, with existential meaning, with despair and hope, and with trusting that the symbiosis of life and death is filled with incarnate hope.
The deceased 22-year-old Arthur Hallam, was engaged to Tennyson’s younger sister Emily, and both the Hallam and Tennyson families were overcome with grief from this loss.
Mortality is no easy awareness to bear. That we should be born, to awaken to the beauty of the world all around us, and to connection, and to the love of others, and then have to say good-bye, feels like a costly business.
In this section of the great requiem, Tennyson wrestles with higher consciousness, and mortality, and faith, amidst what, at first glance, seems like a cruel joke: that God and Nature are at odds.
LV (2 stanzas)
The wish, that of the living whole
No life may fail beyond the grave,
Derives it not from what we have
The likest God within the soul?
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
And then here, he begins to see that although the loss is great, there is something sacred and trustworthy in the process. But in his grief, which is warranted and precious, he wants so much to just speak with his friend in the flesh, regardless of his comprehension of the big picture.
I wage not any feud with Death
For changes wrought on form and face;
No lower life that earth's embrace
May breed with him, can fright my faith.
Eternal process moving on,
From state to state the spirit walks;
And these are but the shatter'd stalks,
Or ruin'd chrysalis of one.
Nor blame I Death, because he bare
The use of virtue out of earth:
I know transplanted human worth
Will bloom to profit, otherwhere.
For this alone on Death I wreak
The wrath that garners in my heart;
He put our lives so far apart
We cannot hear each other speak.
When you read the whole poem, you traverse the path of the griever who is tempted at many turns, to arrive at a cynical end. But some great mysterious intuition leads the griever on to write words that suggest the cynical end is not an end at all.
And all is well, tho' faith and form
Be sunder'd in the night of fear;
Well roars the storm to those that hear
A deeper voice across the storm,
The part of In Memoriam that I chose to put music to, is from the 106th Canto, that stands in and of itself, as one of the great New Years hymns of hope. Here, he is walking toward another chapter of life that would dig back into earth, release his friend, and step back into the world of matter. To work towards more fairness, deeper love, as he longs to “ring in the Christ that is to be” here on this planet.
There is an element of an awareness of evolution in Tennyson’s poem, which would make sense, because the growing zeitgeist, including the publication of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle was exactly in these years.
But amidst acknowledging evolution, Tennyson takes his intuitions to another place, suggesting that the love his sister and his friend shared together was mirroring a higher state.
My Sunday Song and Rumination theme for the past few weeks has been taking a look at stepping into the circle of symbiosis (the circle of subsistence, the life to death to life to death to life cycle) in a way that sees Christ inside of it, while still honouring the shortest verse in the New Testament, that “Jesus wept” when he felt the grief of Lazarus’ death. A truly human experience not to be escaped from, even by the Christ.
Even so, as this year dies and we prepare to ring in a new year, may those of us who are able, find peace in new beginnings. May we find trust in the Big Picture. And most of all, may we not be driven by scarcity and fear of death.
And gently, remember too, especially for you who are grieving, that In Memoriam took 17 years to write. And the 723 stanzas were not written in linearity (they were later arranged). Some days there was peace. Some days he was stricken; and he wrestled. It was all mixed up, and even as the form of the poem holds steady, the form of his grief was unpredictable.
We are earthlings imbued with an awareness of the Divinity that flows through all of reality. God is not far away. God is interwoven with each of us, and the whole of life. And in the person of Jesus, we see someone who can weep in grief at death, and someone who, in his resurrection, can also teach us that there is no life in clinging.
Remember another poem that Tennyson wrote. It was sung at his funeral.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
I can’t find the composition by Frederick Bridge that was performed at Tennyson’s funeral, but the one below by C.H.H. Parry (1849-1918), is rather striking.
With that, I wish you a blessed New Year, as the one we're in is about to cross the bar. May the fertility of the world continue to reveal itself to us, so that in our acceptance of seasons, shifts and changes, our ways of fear-filled destruction may cease. Amen.
Thou angel of God who hast charge
From the dear Father of mercifulness,
The shepherding kind of the fold of the saints
To make round about me this night;
Drive from me every temptation and danger,
Surround me on the sea of unrighteousness,
And in the narrows, crooks, and straits,
Keep thou my coracle, keep it always.
Be thou a bright flame before me,
Be thou a guiding star above me,
Be thou a smooth path below me,
And be a kindly shepherd behind me,
To-day, to-night, and for ever.
I am tired and I a stranger,
Lead thou me to the land of angels;
For me it is time to go home
To the court of Christ, to the peace of heaven.
- Oral tradition ancient prayer - Carmina Gadelica
As I prepared to light the angel’s candle this last Sunday of Advent, I opened my copy of the Carmina Gadelica, which is a wonderful collection of ancient prayers and incantations gathered in the Scottish Highlands, by Alexander Carmichael in the 19th century. I also began researching what the mystics had to say about angels, and found that the Rhineland mystics are a fun study. Then I began to read Thomas Aquinas’ writings on angels and ended up traveling down a fantastic youtube rabbit hole with Rupert Sheldrake and Matthew Fox, watching the interviews they did for their book The Physics of Angels.
Whenever I hear fully grown people, astute in their fields, speaking with such candor on a topic that is somewhat “out there”, I feel better about the places I go in my hopes and imagination. (I blame it on Madeleine L'Engle, George MacDonalad, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.)
Seeing angels as “intelligences that help to steer evolution”? Comparing Thomas Aquinas’ language about angels to today’s quantum mechanics? They can seriously sit there and talk about this stuff and see it as something more than worth talking about. Plus, they have a pretty major historical grasp on the roots of materialism, and how quickly the heretic can become one who doesn’t quite buy the whole of the heresy. And they are still willing to play fools, in such a way that draws me in to why they would place their attention there.
As I got further into it, I recognized the fact that all of these biblical texts about angels are “out there” too. But somehow… at least within the walls of the tradition, they’re taken as commonplace, with the kind of apathy found in Sunday school rooms where children craft all their angels with white paper plates and yellow yarn. Somewhere along the line, someone squeezed the juice out of the text years ago, and all that sticky, juiciness is laying there dried up at the bottom of a waste basket in a church basement.
So then I did this deep dive to discover, to really observe, how many times angels show up in connection to Jesus - and of course, I recognized each instance - but I'd never really actually noticed before.
It is an angel who visits Mary to tell her about baby Jesus.
It is an angel who appears to Joseph, her betrothed, in a dream.
The angels and the heavenly hosts unleash their celebration of conscious incarnation at the birth of Jesus. And the shepherds get it.
An angel appears in a dream to warn the Holy Family to seek refuge in Egypt.
After the intensity of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, angels come to minister to him.
In the garden of Gethsemane, an angel appears to strengthen Jesus.
Then, in the Matthew account, Jesus says “do you not think that I cannot now appeal to My Father, and He will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?”
An angel rolls back the stone from the tomb.
An angel appears to Mary Magdalene, and then Jesus appears to her, making her the first apostle.
And then there are angels present at the ascension of Jesus.
For me, maybe it’s because that Sunday School crafting apathy set in long ago. Or maybe it is because in many of the protestant spaces in my past, to suggest we commune with angels or consider their presence, was seen as somehow a threat to God. (The same goes for asking the Saints to pray for us.)
But all that to say... I am grateful to be lighting the Angel’s Candle with a freshly arrived “second naïveté” about angels.
For me, as a songwriter, what shows up in the end, is a result of research, of opening, and of writing and singing from a place that has "gone the distance", so to speak. Even if the result is incredibly simple, it is simple often because I got complicated along the way.
For instance, when I listened to Rupert Sheldrake and Matthew Fox speak about Aquinas asking how fast an angel travels, and then comparing it to asking the same question about light in quantum mechanics, I also began to see what Aquinas was getting at when he said angels were in a timeless realm.
So the lyric "her heart beat in time with my wings" implies, at the quantum level, that Mary's longing to bear forth the Divine was a timeless longing, beating in time with the angel's wings… or we could say, her heart beat in time with the "intelligences guiding evolution".
Her heart beat in time with my wings
Her heart beat in time with my wings
Hail Mary, full of Grace,
The Lord is with you.
May our angels protect us, and guide us, as we enter into the days of Christmas. I welcome their presence in my life, and in my work, and I welcome them to keep watch over my home, and to touch the soil that I long to bring to fuller life. Amen.
Wanting the seed to grow
my hand is one with the light
Eating the fruit,
my body is one with the earth
- Wendell Berry
My husband and I have been learning a lot about shepherds lately. Because by this time next year, we will literally be shepherds. To raise the biodiversity of our soil and grasses, we are doing a lot of research. We live on 80 acres of land that is 80 % grassland and as we walk the land and listen, we are beginning to understand what it is asking of us.
So, we are learning about how perennial grasslands thrived in nature, pre-monoculture.
There is no tragedy more alarming to me in our modern world, than the disconnection the majority of us have, from nature. That we see ourselves as alien and separate from the symbiosis of life, alarms me in ways I can hardly put into words. The roots of all the world’s problems come from schisms that often happen in the ideological realm, but cross over into the physical realm in the form of oppression, of other people, of animals and of the land itself.
There is more diversity in a teaspoon of soil than there is in the whole world of people. No wonder we have made choices to destroy soil. Its destruction is by far what puts the world in most jeopardy.
If we believe that this earth is precious, it should be no surprise to us that the angels appear to the shepherds out on the land, standing in the darkness, under moon and star, breathing the same breath as the flock they are tending to. There is something so very “first Adam” about the vocation of “tending to anything”. I wonder if we would be so quick to make the pretence that we grasp how far we’ve gone down the anthropocentric rabbit hole, if we were finally out of fossil fuels. And I mean even the folks who mean well, but unfailingly tend to gentrify indigenous ways in the name of privileged ideas of consciousness.
What I mean to say is: anthropocentrism and inverted anthropocentrism is not the same as stepping into the circle of life and symbiosis as a whole part, of the greater whole.
In our attempt to rid ourselves of anthropocentrism, we’ve often written ourselves out of the story altogether, in a sometimes smug admittance that we’re just a “cancer” and nothing more.
I grew up in an agrarian setting and with unlimited access to wild spaces. I was practically raised by the fields and the woods. But as I learn more about being inside the womb of the land I inhabit now, as an adult, I am being taught new things everyday.
My notions get knocked off their plank of certitude and I am humbled by the symbiosis of life that I now understand, is trying to include me.
I am not an alien to the earth.
When I walk into a forest, believing I am alien, the whole of that ecosystem is attuned to that belief. The repercussions of that stance are innumerably connected to the separateness expressed in how we treat, and extract from, the land.
Now ring in the first axial period and the great religions, that brought us an immense amount of wisdom and beauty, along with the worst growing pains the world of humans has ever known. Something happened there, where the idea that in order to be in an evolved state, we must not have a sexual relationship or take part in earthly endeavours. We have to bring ourselves into a higher state of being through the ascetic path. A very Platonic idea. That higher consciousness has to be separated from nature and physicality. Also, I disclaim here that there has been some understanding of pre-axial symbiosis anywhere in the world religions where we see connectivity in nature as well as spiritually. But mostly, and probably especially in Christianity, we dropped that thread of indigenous consciousness that understood earthly connectivity, and only carried on with a blown out of proportion version of tribalism that was anything but symbiotic.
Also, I've been looking at how mere conservation is only part of the story, but not complete enough in the breadth of a life well lived. I recently watched this great docu-series called Salt, Fat Acid, Heat with Samin Nostrat, where in the episode she visits Italy, she tells this story of an American couple receiving a very expensive bottle of olive oil as a wedding gift. They saved it for 30 years, only using it on special occasions. The Italian chef in the documentary responds with "what a waste!" To her, olive oil should be consumed while fresh, with all the pungent flavours of all the other diversity growing in the region. It reminds me of the bottle of perfume in the gospels.
There is something groundbreaking (or, now that I understand soil more deeply, I should say "ground-covering") in the arrival of Jesus, even though there is a never ending irony to how un-Jesus-like we Christians tend to be.
But here is the other irony. What is groundbreaking is the very decentralization of the whole nativity play. Like last week with Bethlehem being too little, but was the place where the one “from the days of eternity” is born. This week the angels show up where the manure and the soil and grass and animals and human life is teeming together in rich biodiversity.
Where the humble (humus) shepherds watch their flock and are “sore” afraid at the sight of the magnitude of the mystery of God…
and are told to fear not.
PS- Watch for your tendency to want to lift yourself, or Jesus, out of his earthly realm in the third verse. There is certainly symbolism there that marks his death on the cross, and the resurrection, but he also lived his life with arms spread out, wholly incarnate, constantly dying like a seed, symbolizing the built-in sacred geometry of abundance, surplus, overflow, and fearless self abandon that results in a balanced ecosystem.
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler of Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.
- Micah 5:2
Last week, leading up to the first Sunday of Advent, I posted the new chant Prophet's Candle. This week, we light the Bethlehem Candle.
There is a beautiful text often read on the Second Sunday of Advent, from the book of Micah. It is hauntingly similar to John 1, and the Christ hymns found in Ephesians, Colossians and Philippians.
But there is something else in the passage that gives me pause... that the town of Bethlehem was said to be "too little" to be marked among the clans of Judah.
We tend to think that all the greatest offerings and thoughts come from somewhere official and hallowed by humans. But there are places, (and it would seem, the more unlikely, the more we ought to look there,) where infinity pours forth, despite initial appearances. This point may be cliche to your ears, but that still doesn’t mean the impetus of it has taken root.
That the word “One”, in the Micah text, has always tended to be interpreted in one most obvious way… meaning the particular person… Jesus, the Christ child, is indicative enough. Because what if it also means: synonymously, that "One" means the Christ mystery in the whole of creation, from the days of eternity, activating wider conscious convergence?
Bethlehem Ephratha, from you One will go forth for me.
The more we deepen into this nativity play, the more can be seen, which has often been hidden for Christians, in our need to defend or to separate. Advent and Christmas often looks like masking our need to be special with an effort to make Jesus special. When all along what makes Jesus special was his life's work of hanging out with those who weren't cast in the special camp. In a sense, the story is special, because it’s always taking place in places that aren't noted, and almost always don't take place in a central location. And if we're to feast and be merry, may we feast and be merry because of that!
After all, Bethlehem was too little to be counted among the clans, but a porthole to infinity opened there - causing a profound evolution... moving forward from ascent toward descent, from conservation toward kenosis. From the 'who's in, who's out' tribal consciousness that was a necessity in pre-axial times, and blown out of proportion in the 1st axial great religions… to Jesus celebrating the Samaritan in storytelling, over and above someone from his own circle. From the idea of an "out there" Zeus God to an outpouring, overflowing, embodied, "in here" God in all directions.
It is important to name at least once, that like all the seasons, Advent and Christmas have been over-defended and squabbled over… literalists vs non-literalists, curmudgeons vs overconsumption... let alone the tender intricacies of working within interfaith dialogue, which is often not done tenderly at all.
Sister Joan Chittister in a talk she gave at the 2007 Peace Summit said that “scientists tell us that sacred values drive behaviour far more than the rational actor model, meaning: we know you’ll do what’s good for you, we know you’ll be rational. Instead, those things we call sacred, outweigh other values, including economic ones, and lead us to deal in extremes. Why? Because religion deals in extremes. In ultimate issues, you find ultimate extremism and therefore religion itself, must make the ultimate, the loving ultimate, rather than the death dealing ultimate.”
She also says: “Religion remember, is what theologized slavery, and segregation and now patriarchy. If we really, really feel compunction as well as compassion, we must be willing to admit that the history of the religious West is a bloody trail, of death and destruction in the name of God.”
The coming of the Christ child, which was a profound surfacing of conscious incarnation in the world has, baked into it, much of what is necessary to catch ourselves in the trappings of any attempt to deal in triumphant extremes in connection to the person Jesus. And yet we live in the heritage of the cross on the flags flown for Constantine that set in motion, the biggest wars we have ever known.
Why do I pair this harsh point with a simple little chant about Bethlehem? Because if we look close enough, remembering violence done in the name of power and religion, is part of what lighting the Bethlehem Candle is about.
Lighting the Bethlehem candle decentralizes our own religion.
May we continue to have a blessed Advent season, deepening our opening to Reality, and so to touch infinity.
Too little to be among the clans of Judah
From you One will go forth for me
His goings forth are from long ago
From the days of eternity.
So we light this flame and touch infinity
From you One will go forth for me
From you One will go forth for me
“For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness.”
- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
“If the book of Genesis were rewritten today, how would the story begin? In light of what the new science tells us, it might begin something like this: “In the beginning was God, filled with power and mystery, and God spoke one Word, and the Word exploded into a tiny, hot, dense ball of matter that gave rise to forces and fields, quarks and particles, all joined together like a single strand of thread.”
- Ilia Delio, Christ in Evolution
“God is the prodigal who squanders himself.”
- Karl Rahner, The Theology of Christmas
This week I am sharing two songs, because sometimes illustrations need different angles, shading and texture to paint a fuller Big Picture.
First, we will listen to First Advent (Ex Nihilo), (or perhaps I could call it The Birth of the Universe, Out of Nothing ) in which we hearken back to the mystery of origin. We currently call this the Big Bang, which cosmologists are saying happened close to 14 billion years ago.
For generations, the mystics and the poets and most earth-based traditions have been inadvertently comfortable with big bang cosmology, and would have been quite “at home” with many scientists today.
Normally, “first advent” is seen as the coming of the Christ child. So some folks might take issue with those who are rewinding the narrative so many billions of years back, but likewise, other folks might find it very helpful.
As a point of clarity, in this reflection, when I say “first advent” I’m speaking to the incarnate mystery of origin itself. When I say “second advent” I am referring to the Christ child, Jesus. And when I say “third advent” I am referring to the Christ Omega.
So travel with me if you will, back to the murky area, before that one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, and before the first sub atomic nuclei formed, approximately three minutes after the Big Bang and before the first stars began to shine about 300 million years after the Big Bang. Then on and on, to the expanding universe in which we find ourselves today.
There is a theory that mystery of origin is a “something from nothing”. Other theories imagine that our Big Bang is the result of another contracting universe preceding this expanding one. Whatever the case, the farther we reach back, there is this humbling vastness to the plot, that is incredibly ancient, but really quite new to us.
Just reading about this vastness requires our imaginations to open up. So, through the lens of ancient mystics and poets and philosophers, I sat with this beautiful concept of “ creatio ex nihilo”, the idea that creation came “out of nothing”.
As a songwriter, what I like about working with “ex nihilo” as a self-emptying, loving, pre-matter energy, is that it simultaneously says that love manifested all of this, but that we cannot destroy love because it precedes existence. And then, as a songwriter, I work with evolution as a complex, trial and error, participatory, incarnate thing.
Here is the song First Advent:
The second song Prophet’s Candle is also a brand new chant, written for today, the first Sunday of Advent in which the first of the Advent candles, (the Prophet’s Candle), is lit in the darkness of expectancy and longing.
We light a candle for the ancient prophets
And sing hymns of longing
for the Fruit of the root
of the Jesse tree
And the Spirit of the Lord rested on him
We light a candle for the ancient prophets
And chant hymns of longing
for the Fruit of the root
of the Jesse tree
May the Spirit of the Lord rest upon us
As we contemplate the humbling vastness of first advent, and the prophecy of conscious incarnation growing in the darkness of Mary’s willing womb, as second advent, and the Christ Omega singing us ever forward as third advent in us… may we plunge into this womb-dark time, with the willingness to be shaped and formed anew. With sober sincerity, offering up our yearning for abundant, verdantly fertile, healing and life.
To yearn for this is not yearning to live a risk-free life! We are a heritage of fire that converged into teeming, ever-converging life. Symbiosis is not without some tooth and claw. We are careening through space and time. Tonight, here in zone 2a, above the 49th parallel, the stars are magnificent, and I can hear their incantations for greater convergence, even as I know they are great burning balls of gas. The fact that they are does not destroy the poetry of star gazing.
Incarnation has to be plunged into the very realities of life and death and risk, and of darkness and light, to be incarnation. This is a seedy, soiled, dripping, hoofed, pawed, finned, fingernailed, pulsating, fleshy business. A lying in a straw bed manger, visible breath of animal nostrils, and a birth blood soaked earthen floor, business.
And it is into this gritty life-filled reality that the great self-emptying Lover has poured.
To download these songs for free, click here
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on an aspiring permaculture farm on the Canadian prairies.