Cold weather has returned with the sunshine, and the fountain was frozen this morning. I have two little girls here all day making good use of my toys and the playhouse. It’s interesting to see the teamwork of these females in making a home of the playhouse. The typical use that my mostly boy grandchildren make of it revolves around “cooking” with whatever they can find, but my guests requested blankets and pillows and stuffies, and they created a cozy nest. It was cold enough that they needed their puffy jackets, but they asked to go barefoot.
Up at Pippin’s place where the temperatures were a little colder midday, 40 degrees, my grandchildren chose to eat lunch outdoors:
In my garden, the rain and sun combined to bring out — the flowers! Well, a few flowers… the purple, ground-hugging sort so far. But I see some taller iris buds. In February things will start to get exciting!
Some years ago Donald Sheehan’s widow Xenia shared on social media an excerpt from his book The Grace of Incorruption, a passage in which he links Robert Frost with St. Dionysius. She published it on the saint’s feast day in October, along with his icon below, but for re-posting Sheehan’s thoughts I have chosen today’s date, on which Robert Frost breathed his last, an appropriately wintry day in 1963. Xenia Sheehan:
This day the Orthodox Church celebrates St. Dionysius the Areopagite, 1st (or possibly 5th)-century poet of “Mystical Theology,” whom Donald Sheehan uniquely compares to American poet Robert Frost in his “deliberate turning out of all the lights of false knowing . . . in order to behold — in Dionysius’ astonishing words — ‘that darkness concealed from all the light among beings.'”
Don writes in The Grace of Incorruption that,
“…in order to know the personhood of another, we must unknow both the persona and the personality: we must let these lights go out. Again and again, in his finest poems, Robert Frost accomplishes precisely this unknowing, the deliberate extinguishing of all the false light, and a welcoming-in of the darkness in which true personhood can shine forth. And true personhood is, always, genuinely beautiful.
“I think what moves us so deeply about the poem ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’ is Frost’s evocation of genuine personhood in the old man. The old man in Frost’s poem is not a persona nor a personality; he is, genuinely, a person. And as the lights go out in the poem, the more beautifully and movingly his personhood emerges. One vivid detail: when the log in the stove shifts with a jolt, we, too, are jolted into a deeper intimacy with the old man, an intimacy that gains in power because of the darkness.”
Text and icon from Donald’s widow Xenia Sheehan in 2018
AN OLD MAN’S WINTER NIGHT
All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars, That gathers on the pane in empty rooms. What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand. What kept him from remembering what it was That brought him to that creaking room was age. He stood with barrels round him—at a loss. And having scared the cellar under him In clomping there, he scared it once again In clomping off;—and scared the outer night, Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar Of trees and crack of branches, common things, But nothing so like beating on a box. A light he was to no one but himself Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what, A quiet light, and then not even that. He consigned to the moon,—such as she was, So late-arising,—to the broken moon As better than the sun in any case For such a charge, his snow upon the roof, His icicles along the wall to keep; And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted, And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept. One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house, A farm, a countryside, or if he can, It’s thus he does it of a winter night.
One of the church book clubs I currently try to keep up with met recently to discuss our current selection, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective, by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It is an impressive compendium of material on the subject from Scripture, patristic tradition, and early Christian liturgical texts and poetry. I was intrigued by the section on liturgical poetry from the 4th-6th centuries, especially the verses of St. Ephraim (or Ephrem) the Syrian.
While St. Romanos the Melodist, who lived in the 6th century, is considered by most to be the preeminent poet of the Byzantine period, he “was familiar with Ephrem’s works and drew from them. He learned from Ephrem’s poetical artistry as well as from his handling of particular literary plots and theological themes.”
The author of Conqueror explains how Ephraim and the Syrian tradition differed from that of the Greek fathers and their Ecumenical Councils. While he also formulated dogmatic teaching for his flock, he “clothed theological truths not in the armor of precise dogmatic definitions but with the bright garments of poetic symbols and metaphors …. to theologize for Ephrem meant to glorify God rather than talk about or reflect upon God. He believed the truths of Christianity should not only be comprehended, reflected upon, defined, and established but also experienced by the faithful through prayer. This same avenue was followed by most of the writers of the liturgical texts in the tradition of the Orthodox Church.”
The subject matter of Christ the Conqueror of Hell is especially appropriate for Holy Saturday and Pascha, and maybe I will post some of the liturgical poetry in that season; at this time I wanted to mention the part about Saint Ephraim because January 28th is the day we commemorate this poet and theologian. I found an enjoyable historical video about his life, using the title that has been given to him: “The Harp of the Holy Spirit.”
You may be familiar with his Lenten Prayer we use daily during the Great Fast; also, hymns and meditations of St. Ephraim were collected by St. Theophan the Recluse into A Spiritual Psalter. I have this on my shelf and could stand to spend some time perusing it, especially after reading today’s entry in The Prologue of Ohrid, where there is a hymn to Ephraim by St. Nikolai opening with the words,
Ephraim’s heart burns
With love for Christ,
And Ephraim’s tongue speaks
Of the pure wisdom of the Gospel.
Ephraim, the honey-bearing bee;
Ephraim, the fruit-bearing rain!
Just as God sends the bees and the rain to work for our joy and profit, so He sends people like this man. Let me keep that image of a buzzing and busy bee in my mind a while; let me drink holy nectar and refresh others the way God uses His creatures and creation to constantly renew my spirit.
And for today, one morsel of honey from this holy bee:
The chutzpah of our love is pleasing to you, O Lord, just as it pleased you that we should steal from your bounty.
Just now I read a newsletter from a TouchstoneMagazine editor, on the subject of marriage. He included this quite old poem which conveys the feelings that a person might have, after the death of one’s spouse. Having lived that way of existence, the state of being one flesh with one’s spouse, as the Bible describes it, and then losing it… The poet graphically describes, in the most evocative metaphors, what the loss means, from his crown to his feet. He’s lost his grip on his own body.
ELEGY ON MAEL MHEDHA, HIS WIFE
My soul parted from me last night. In the grave, a pure dear body. A kind, refined soul was taken from me, a linen shroud about her….
Mael Mhedha of the dark brows, my cask of mead at my side; my heart, my shadow split from me, flowers’ crown, planted, now bowed down.
My body’s gone from my grip and has fallen to her share, my body’s splintered in two, since she’s gone, soft, fine and fair.
One of my feet she was, one side— like the whitethorn was her face— our goods were never ‘hers’ and ‘mine’— one of my hands, one of my eyes.
Half my body, that young candle— it’s harsh, what I’ve been dealt, Lord. I’m weary speaking of it: she was half my very soul.
My first love, her great soft eye, ivory-white and curved her breast, neither her fair flesh nor her side lay near another man but me.
We were twenty years together. Our speech grew sweeter each year. She bore me eleven children, the tall young long-fingered tree.
Though I am, I do not thrive since my proud hazel-nut fell, Since my great love parted from me, the dark world’s empty and bare.
Dear the soft hand which was here, King of the churches and bells. Och! that hand never swore false oath. Sore, that it’s not under my head.
—Muireadhach Albanach O Dalaigh, c. 1224 Translated from Gaelic in The Triumph Tree