Category Archives: feasts

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

 

So we too were at once freed.

“Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him. The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

“The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendor.

“Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.

“By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honor.”

St Sophronius of Jerusalem, c. 560 – 638

He should make use of water.

Could Philip Larkin have intuited something that he did not personally encounter, about faith and life? The images he presents in the poem below evoke the reality of the ancient and present sacramental church I know, which doesn’t need to be constructed, because it was born at Pentecost by a sousing of the Holy Spirit Himself.

I’ve kept Larkin’s poem in my drafts for months, hoping to collect a few thoughts and sentences that would properly introduce it on the occasion of Theophany, that wonderful commemoration of water and light and the Incarnation. Here we are at the feast, so let’s just go to the poem:

WATER

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

-Philip Larkin

St. Michael the Chief Commander

 

Today we commemorate St. Michael and all the Bodiless Powers. This feast day was established at the beginning of the fourth century, even before the First Ecumenical Council. This page on the Orthodox Church in America website explains the nine ranks of angels and much about St. Michael, the Chief Commander of angels.

 

 

 

When I arrived at church I saw a rose gracing the damp and grey day,
so I memorialized it, too.

Father Stephen reminded us of a prayer that came from his son at about four years old:

Dear St. Michael,
Guard my room.

Don’t let anything
eat me or kill me.

Kill it with your sword.
Kill it with your sword.
Amen.

He shared other stories on his blog about children especially, who have seen their guardian angels. Our rector in his homily noted that many of us have our physical senses finely tuned so that we can know, when we taste wine, where the grapes were grown; and when we hear music we often know if it’s off-key, or even who composed it. But our spiritual senses are usually so dull that we not only can’t see our angels, but we mostly ignore them. In any case, they are there, guiding and protecting us! Let’s try to pay more attention.