All posts by GretchenJoanna

About GretchenJoanna

Orthodox Christian, widowed in 2015; mother, grandmother. Love to read, garden, cook, write letters and a hundred other home-making activities.

Praising with drum and cello.

PSALM

Give thanks for all things
On the plucked lute, and likewise
The harp of ten strings.

Have the lifted horn
Greatly blare, and pronounce it
Good to have been born.

Lend the breath of life
To the stops of the sweet flute
Or capering fife,

And tell the deep drum
To make, at the right juncture,
Pandemonium.

Then, in grave relief,
Praise too our sorrows on the
Cello of shared grief.

-Richard Wilbur

Ascension – a poem and a prayer

I decided to post the prayer below, and not an hour later I finally found the poem. I say finally, because I had moved the small volume in which the poem is found, from the bookshelf in one room, to the top of a trunk in another, to a dresser and then a table, over the course of several months, in an absentminded effort to get it downstairs. One morning I managed to carry it down, and another day I followed through on my longstanding desire to open it.

To me the prayer and the poem share the same hope and desire. Doubtless when we get to know our true selves, we will find that we all share this. Richard Wilbur has said that he began writing poems in earnest while a soldier in the Second World War: “One does not use poetry for its major purposes, as a means to organize oneself and the world, until one’s world somehow gets out of hand.”

The older I get, and considering all the ways that my inner and outer worlds have required strong “organizing” by means of writing, the more I might wish I were in the habit of writing poetry. But writing anything and having it come out right is hard enough, at the same time it becomes more necessary.

Wilbur’s wife died when they had been married 65 years. Earlier, after only 50 years of marriage, he had said: “My wife was the first person it occurred to me to marry, and I was really quite stunned that she felt the same about me. I know that I would be capable of great disorder and emotional confusion if I were out of my wife’s orbit; she really has greatly steadied me.” In this poem he wrote after her death I think it’s significant that he is conscious of setting out for the place, not merely the person whose vision urges him on.

THE HOUSE

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

-Richard Wilbur

The prayer that inspired this post to begin with is in a book newly published by St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press. It contains many familiar prayers from previous Orthodox prayer books, but also some that aren’t as well known, and a few specially conceived for modern times, such as a prayer “Before Using the Internet,” and a “Prayer Against Insomnia.” One section is titled “The Glorious Majesty of the Lord.” Yes!

I hope to share a few other selections from this collection of Orthodox Christian Prayers, which is beautiful in its binding and formatting as well as its content, but for the first one, it seems fitting that is attributed to the patron saint of the oldest Orthodox monastery in America; their publishing arm gave us this book. It is in a section titled “Prayers for Spiritual Struggle.”

About a month ago ? — hard to say, time is strange right now — when I began to struggle myself with what you might call tormenting thoughts, driven by the social and economic upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic, I also opened this prayer book for the first time, and came upon this entry. In the words of Richard Wilbur, it speedily helped me to organize myself and my relationship to this world. It mentions the feast of Christ’s Ascension, so I waited to publish it now, 40 days after Pascha, when we are remembering that event.

A PRAYER to INHERIT HEAVEN
by St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

With my flesh I worship thine Ascension into heaven, and I pray to thee, my Lord, raise my mind from what is earthly to that which is on high, strengthen my infirmity, and make up for what is lacking and small in me, leading me heavenward unto a good and saving end, unto thee who art in heaven, which is our true home, our fatherland, inheritance, property, wealth, honor, glory, comfort, joy, and eternal blessedness. Amen.

When You did fulfill the dispensation for our sake,
And unite earth to Heaven:
You did ascend in glory, O Christ our God,
Not being parted from those who love You,
But remaining with them and crying:
I am with you and no one will be against you.

–Hymn for the Feast of Ascension

 

I admire Brodiaea and Clarkia.

Our California hills start turning golden crisp even before the rainy season ends. When a bright wildflower pops out in contrast it seems a little miracle, especially when it’s as exquisite as Elegant Brodiaea:

Brodiaea elegans was one of the wildflowers I saw this month on my two walks with a friend. But the photo above is from the same week, five years ago, with a different friend, same county. I must have taken it with an actual camera, before I started using my phone’s camera exclusively. I had a difficult time getting a good shot this time. This one I settled on from recently is not as clear:

I also saw Mariposa Lilies again, many of them dotting the slopes on one side of the path…

And other places, California poppies:

This pretty flower with a pretty name might be brand new to me; I don’t have a previous photo of it in my files. My Seek app helped me to identify Ithuriel’s Spear:

Winecup Clarkia, Clarkia purpurea, also is not familiar:

…but I have one of Pippin’s photos of it in my files, taken in California on Mount Diablo:

They have loosened restrictions on the county parks, so I’m hoping to visit others in the next weeks, and to discover a few later wildflowers along the trail.

Beautiful life project, with heavy books.

After a brief introduction to Japanese literature and culture for a few months of 2019, when I joined a Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided to leave behind the aesthetic vision of Japan, so to speak, and explore the reality and idea of Beauty in a less specific and encultured way.

My remodeling project and accompanying disorder are the reason, I believe, that I haven’t been able to concentrate on this extended philosophical reading project. It could be also that the topic is just too out-of-sync with the situation in my (indoor) living space. The chaos results from having none of the planned-for storage finished — that’s closets and cabinets in six or seven rooms — and that situation is abetted by the pandemic shutdowns of various sorts. The pandemic itself taxes the mind and emotions, and lately I’ve been reading more children’s books than anything.

But, the planned exploration looms large in the background, and the its bulk has increased in a physical way, by means of big books. (I consider The Book of Tea to be about beauty, and it was by contrast such a slim and elegant item!) I’m not going to tell you about all of my Beauty books yet. Goodness, I haven’t begun anything in earnest. But the last one that came into the house was only recently published, and I may be most excited of all about it.

It’s The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy G. Patitsas, and it “weighs in” at over 700 pages. Professor Patitsas explains in the first sentence of his Preface what he is about: “…to recover a lost way of doing Ethics, one in which love for Beauty played the central and the leading role.” He shows how the definition of contemporary ethics, when seen in terms of Socrates’ three transcendentals of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (ethics being the study of Goodness), is biased against Beauty. A little more from the Preface:

“The central text about Orthodox Christian prayer life, The Philokalia, itself means ‘the love of the beautiful.’ The Ethics of Beauty is best conceived as a prose companion to that spiritual collection — certainly not on the same level as that classic text, but hopefully recognizably in the same family. Where The Philokalia is an aid to the pursuit of the Beautiful Way in prayer, The Ethics of Beauty is a discussion of why the Beauty-first Way is preferable, and an examination of the Way within as many areas of life as possible.”

“I would never have set out upon the journey that led me to The Ethics of Beauty had I not read Jonathan Shay’s observation in his Achilles in Vietnam that contemporary analytical psychotherapy has been largely unable to heal the suffering of the soldiers afflicted most severely with post-traumatic stress disorder. I have slowly come to see that… the initial focus of soul-healing must be on Beauty rather than on truth, on a living vision of a loving and crucified God, rather than on an autopsy of the broken self.”

Hmmm… I wouldn’t be surprised if Dee Pennock talks about this healing effect of Beauty in her book that I recently mentioned.

But, going back to the beginning of my vague plan, about a year ago I brought a fat book about Beauty and Truth into the house. The priest who lent it to me said he’d been unable to penetrate it. I knew it would likely be as heavy for me intellectually as it was in poundage, but it seemed a work I should at least have at hand when I began my study of Beauty.

This one is The Beauty of the Infinite, by David Bentley Hart; I had never yet opened it to read a line, but it’s been sitting on my mobile bookshelf in the kitchen/family room. When the Patitsas book arrived, I took Hart’s book off the shelf behind me and set it on the table so that the two could meet. And a few days later, avoiding some work, I’m sure, I opened Hart randomly in the middle, and my eyes landed here:

“…theology owes Nietzsche a debt: I intend nothing facetious in saying that Nietzsche has bequeathed Christian thought a most beautiful gift, a needed anamnesis of itself — of its strangeness. His critique is a great camera obscura that brings into vivid and concentrated focus the aesthetic scandal of Christianity’s origins, the great offense this new faith gave the gods of antiquity, and everything about it that pagan wisdom could neither comprehend nor abide: a God who goes about in the dust of exodus for love of a race intransigent in its particularity; who apparels himself in common human nature, in the form of a servant; who brings good news to those who suffer and victory to those who are as nothing; who dies like a slave and outcast without resistance; who penetrates to the very depths of hell in pursuit of those he loves and who persists even after death not as a hero lifted up to Olympian glories, but in the company of peasants, breaking bread with them and offering them the solace of his wounds. In recalling theology to the ungainliness of the gospel, Nietzsche retrieved the gospel from the soporific complacency of modernity….

My own philosophy and theology were settled already on this source of Beauty: the Holy Trinity, the relationship of love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A few years ago Jonathan Edwards put me in mind of it in his thoughtful way, and maybe I should go back and read the extensive quotes I transcribed on the subject. But if I never get around to reading all these pages of words that are waiting for me in books, it’s okay. My heart knows the story.