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:
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.
In the Orthodox Church we have been celebrating the glorious Feast of Theophany, remembering the baptism of Christ and all that happened when the Son took on our humanity.
Every year when this commemoration comes around I find myself maxed-out with meaning, because who can fathom it, what God has done for us? and I usually try to meditate on something to do with the symbolism of water as the basic element of Creation. It’s so tactile and material, and when my mind is overwhelmed I can simply stand in church and receive the joyous sprinkling and be happy.
This year a more particular aspect of our sacramental life was the focus of my thoughts. As Christ was baptized, so have I been baptized, and as the scripture and hymn tell me, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
After we’ve had a few days of trying to improve ourselves by means of resolutions of will, the Church gives us again the solution to our emptiness and weakness, and it comes in Theophany hymns such as this:
“The voice of the Lord upon the waters cries aloud saying: “Come ye all, and receive the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of understanding, the Spirit of the Fear of God, from Christ who is made manifest.”
Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters,
Ye that have no money, come ye buy and eat.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress tree,
And instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle tree.
All of this sounds so much more vital and thrilling and real than my paltry goals for the coming year. If I would only live each day renewing the God-breath of my baptism, remembering that I have put on Christ….
But Christ Himself, when he came out of the waters of baptism, went into the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days. I am tempted and begin to fall as soon as I walk out of the church. All I can do is pray to be more resolute to pray more, which I think will work better than resolving to pray more, and it gets to the point faster. Lord, give me that Water of Life that You are.
I re-posted this from 2014. If you are new to my blog and are unfamiliar with this feast, you might be interested in my other writings about Theophany:
Today is the 1,000-year commemoration of the repose of St. Vladimir, Enlightener of Russia. He was the emperor whose decision to convert to Orthodox Byzantine Christianity transformed Russia and turned its history in a new direction, in about 988. I was lucky enough to attend Liturgy today, in a parish with Russian roots, and to hear a homily on St. Vladimir from a priest who had graduated from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The Orthodox Church in America has posted online a long and rich story of the saint if you would like to read more of his exploits than I can tell here.
The most famous story among the faithful is an account found in the Primary Chronicle of Russia, written about this time, of how Vladimir, when he was still a confirmed pagan, sent emissaries to check out the churches and faiths of his neighboring lands.
They were completely unimpressed with the Muslim Bulgars, partly because of the ban on alcoholic beverages; of the German churches they reported, “We beheld no glory there.”
But in Constantinople at Hagia Sophia: “…they led us to the place where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we only know that God dwells among men. We cannot forget that beauty.”
This has been the experience of so many of us converts to Orthodoxy, that we can well believe the story, which is not held to be as certain as the facts about the politics of the time and how Prince Vladimir made an arranged marriage with the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, and was baptized before the marriage. However it came about, his conversion was providential and has had tremendous ramifications for the last 1000+ years.
He ordered the baptism of all his subjects, who dutifully went down to the River Dneipr en masse the next morning. Here I want to quote from the OCA article about how this event resulted in the continuing celebration of another meaningful church feast day:
It is difficult to overestimate the deep spiritual transformation of the Russian people effected by the prayers of St Vladimir, in every aspect of its life and world-view. In the pure Kievan waters, as in a “bath of regeneration,” there was realized a sacramental transfiguration of the Russian spiritual element, the spiritual birth of the nation, called by God to unforeseen deeds of Christian service to mankind.
“Then did the darkness of the idols begin to lift from us, and the dawn of Orthodoxy appear, and the Sun of the Gospel illumined our land.” In memory of this sacred event, the regeneration of Rus by water and the Spirit, the Russian Church established the custom of an annual church procession “to the water” on August 1. Later, the Feast of the Procession of the Honorable Wood of the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord, which Russia celebrated with the Greek Church, was combined with the Feast of the All-Merciful Savior and the Most Holy Theotokos (established by St Andrew Bogoliubsky in the year 1164). In this combination of feasts there is found a precise expression of the Russian theological consciousness, for which both Baptism and the Cross are inseparable.
Prince Vladimir soon started to destroy pagan idols, some of which he had commissioned himself, and began serious reforms that would create a new Christian culture. He built monasteries and many and magnificent churches; hospitals, schools and orphanages. The capital city during this era was Kiev, and these first years of Christianity in Russia were a time of growth and prosperity and art. The hundreds of churches in Kiev were renowned for their beauty, for example, the fascinating Church of the Tithes, which has been destroyed many times and whose rebuilding is under discussion again at this time.
My own first experiences of Orthodox worship were not outwardly as splendorous as Hagia Sophia, but like those emissaries I felt the splendor of Heaven coming down on me. (Just this week I added to my page newly renamed “Orthodoxy and Me,” to tell much more of my story as a story and not just scattered parts.) In my parish we have a man who was born a Jew and took the name of Vladimir at his baptism somewhat late in life. This morning he joyfully passed out these little icon cards as gifts, and we were all glad that he was there so we could say, “Happy Name’s Day!”
Joy and sorrow have been mixed up together for me this week, as it has been life-eventful in a similar way to the days surrounding my husband’s death two months ago.
Yesterday morning as I was standing at the kitchen sink I noticed out the window that the foxglove was blooming. I had been neglecting the garden and never noticed the flower stalk that must have been shooting up.
It was another overcast beginning of a day, perfect for pictures, so I went out with my camera to see what I could see – there’s a lot of beauty in my messy garden right now.
Over the last several years I’ve had the honor of being the sponsor/godmother to three women who all came into the Church as adults. One of them, Kathleen, told me when I first met her that she had a medical condition that was probably going to kill her, though her symptoms were well-managed at the time. We lived in the same neighborhood and became close friends.
Kathleen declined very quickly in the last few months; I was consumed with my husband’s care and didn’t know how ill she was, until he died and she gave out of her need to our family. She came to our house, barely able to walk in a straight line, and spent at least an hour reading Psalms and weeping by his coffin.
A couple of weeks ago she went into the hospital and was put on hospice care; many of us from church have been visiting her and I know she has felt the love of the Lord through His people. She’s been very peaceful in her distress.
The experience has been less peaceful for me, because of the similarities of her decline to what I went through so recently. I was angry for a week, over having to reawaken this chapter of my grief. For two days I couldn’t make myself go to the hospital to see her — I was too disabled by emotion to face the staff and other people who might be around, and I wished that K. were still at her house where I could be alone with her.
My priest came to the rescue when he asked me to come along the first time he brought her Communion in the hospital, and since then I’ve spent many hours by her side, talking at first, and reading things she wanted to hear.
At the same time, I was helping to prepare for the baptism of a new baby in our church, little Mary for whom I had been asked to be godmother, way back in the early part of the year. Last week I had the joy of laundering the baptismal gown that she would wear, a dear little dress in which her mother had also been baptized.
Sunday was the day: “Our” new baby was dipped in the font, and her tiny squirming self placed immediately in a big towel in my arms. I helped to dress her in this frock and put her new cross around her neck. Then she was anointed with holy chrism, “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
If you have never had a whiff of holy chrism, it’s worth attending an Orthodox baptism just to get an inkling of what it is like to participate with all your senses in the realities of the faith. In my parish all the newly-illumined carry about them this scent of heaven for at least a few hours, but this was the first time I held a goddaughter in my arms and was able to share so intimately the added sweetness, reminiscent of my own baptism eight years ago, by nuzzling a baby. It was a wonderful, almost magical day, all through, but just the beginning for Mary. I look forward to praying for her and loving her for many years on this earth. For that matter, after I leave this earth, why would I want to stop?
Kathie wasn’t able to attend the baptism, but afterward I spent some time with her and told her about my new goddaughter. Later in the week she lost the ability to talk, but we kept on reading psalms and prayers for her. We anointed her with holy oil and tried to make sure she was comfortable; one friend played music through Ancient Faith Radio on her smart phone for a few hours last night.
This week I have begun to understand that the timing of these events is a gift from the Lord. He’s giving me the means of experiencing the sorrow and meaning of my husband’s end of life in a way I wasn’t free to do at the time, because I was caught up in the swirl of decisions and tasks and being there in each moment. I didn’t have time to think, “These are the last days, or hours. You are about to be cut apart from your soul’s partner.”
But at this point I have been able to pray for Kathleen and grieve for myself at the same time. It’s certainly not anything pleasant, but I can appreciate the benefit, because I am someone who likes to do a thorough job of whatever is necessary.Kathleen fell asleep in the Lord early this morning when none of her friends was with her. May her memory be eternal! At noon four of us women from church prepared her body for burial, washing it and smoothing it all over with a special olive oil that had been infused with heady aromas of flowers. At the end of life, as at the beginning, out of love we lavish good smells. I was reluctant to wash my hands afterward, not wanting to lose the reminder of the grace that we all felt, and the honor of being able to minister to this earthly vessel, the body that was her means of worshiping God all these years.
The flowers in my garden tell this story that is the story of all of us: …as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting….
One blossom is just opening, exquisite and pure, and right next to it in God’s garden another flower has faded and will soon return to the earth from which she sprang not so long ago.
But that will not be the end, because we are not flowers, but humans made in God’s image. Jesus Christ assures us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Even though we are more than flowers, I am reluctant to be done with the metaphor. So, think of this: As we are made in God’s image, we have the potential and the opportunity to be gardeners of souls the way He is, co-laborers in loving the people around us, as we are cared for by Him. Let us tend His garden with love, as long as He gives us strength.
Tomorrow is one of the Soul Saturdays that we have in the Orthodox Church, on which we commemorate those who have gone to their rest. Archbishop Stylianos tells us that “Christians always took care, with memorial services and charitable acts done especially on Saturdays, to stay close to their dead and ask God for their repose and salvation.”
This spring appears to be a time God has specially given to me to stay close to my dead, so I will attend liturgy and eat koliva. Next week I will also read Psalms by Kathleen’s casket in the church, and attend her funeral.
We will be in the season of Pentecost then. My heart is more peaceful and light than last week, and it will be further nourished in this season when we sing, “The Holy Spirit has descended!” Enliven us, O Lord.