Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“Praise: Poems” by Mary Harwell Sayler

Up to a third or more of the Bible is written as poetry, mostly in the Old Testament and certain quoted passages in the New Testament. While the single largest “block” of poetry is the Book of Psalms, one can also find poetry in the prophets, Genesis, Exodus, Judges, the history books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, and several others.

The Song of Solomon, one of the earliest love poems, notwithstanding, the poetry of the Bible generally focuses on praise. The reasons for praise are many and varied, but the poetry is largely poetry of praise. Consider the picture of ancient Hebrews reciting poems and singing songs of praise to their God, often in the midst of terrible trials and upheavals.

So it is with Mary Harwell Sayler’s new poetry collection, Praise. These poems are not all about thanksgiving, but have a broader reach and purpose. As Sayler says in the introduction, “Praise focuses in Who God is, more than what God does. Praise pours out our love to the Lord.”

The collection of 72 is divided into six parts – praise, prayers, Easter, creation, wonder, and Christmas. And they are indeed a pouring out love for who God is. These aren’t poems about deliverance from trials. The focus is more eternal than transient.

Praise Christ Our Body—

Who holds us together
in cell and membrane,
tissue and blood,
tendon and tears.

Praise Christ Whose Body
each part of us—
an ear, an eye, a knee,
a scalp, a head of hair
with each curl counted.

Praise Christ Who gave
His Body and
welcomes each one of us—

Into the Body of Christ,
the Church—

To work, to play
and pray together,
to love and forgive,
to worship as One Being
the Lord we adore.

Mary Harrell Sayler
As in this example, Sayler consciously incorporates the title into each poem, and that’s part of her purpose here – creating contemporary psalms. “Instead of titling them with sequential numbers, as later editors had done to identify the biblical Psalms, the first line of each poem became its title and an integral part of its reading,” she says.

Sayler has published more than 2,000 poems in a wide array of publications ranging from magazines and e-zines, anthologies, journals, and church publications. She has five poetry collections, including Living in the Nature Poem (2012); Outside Eden (2014); Beach Songs and Wood Chimes (2014); Faces in a Crowd (2016); and Praise. She’s written three books on writing, and maintains several blogs, including The Poetry Editor and Poetry.

Praise achieves what it sets out to do – its poems individually and collectively pour out love for who God is.


Top photograph by Andrew Small via Unsplash.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Poets and Poems: Bernard O’Donoghue and “The Seasons of Cullen Church”

I hadn’t read the poetry of Bernard O’Donoghue before his most recent collection, The Seasons of Cullen Church. And yet, reading these poems, it seemed that I’d been reading him all of my life.

The poems O’Donoghue includes are poems of reflection and revisiting. No, you can’t go home again, but you can consider home in memory, and a life in memory, and understand what was important then is less so now, and what is important now was barely discernible then.

The Seasons of Cullen Church is a consideration of a life.

What does it mean for a grandfather to die at a young age, before his grandchildren will ever know him except by story and the memories of others? Or why did that copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary smell like cigarette smoke? Or remembering the insemination of dairy cows? Or seeing the nameplate on the school you attended? Or perhaps what it’s like to be traveling and arriving in an unfamiliar town?

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photograph: Bernard O'Donoghue at Oxford University.

Monday, March 27, 2017

"The Benedict Option" by Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times Bestseller List his past weekend; it was already a bestseller on Amazon. Not bad for a book addressed to conservative Christians.

Numerous reviews have been published, with praise, objections, and a combination of both. As author and professor Karen Swallow Prior has pointed out (in what I think is the best review so far) is that The Benedict Option has already become a kind of Rorschach test for how anyone who reads it views American culture. If you think the culture is in serious decay, this book will make more sense than if you think absolute freedom of the individual is a positive thing.

I’ve gone back and looked at a number of reviews, including one by David Brooks in The New York Times and one at the conservative Christian online blog The Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics. It’s clear to me that a lot of people are reading into the book things that simply aren’t there, although I do agree with Brook that the book may be the most important religious book of the year. Dreher isn’t arguing that Christians abandon the culture and seal themselves up in conservative Amish-type communities, or build a Christian ark to escape the coming deluge. He’s not even saying that the culture is beyond redemption.

What I keep coming back to is who he wrote this book for – traditional, orthodox Christians. People like me. People who have watched a sea change in American culture over the past 50 years, have sought all kinds of ways of dealing with that change, and are now seeing a rising tide of attitudes, anger, prejudice, and dismissal aimed at religious freedom, traditional Christian belief, and even what was the law a scant three years ago or less. People like me who see crudeness, viciousness, and incivility becoming a commonplace across society, to the point where the political chasm separating the right and left (the center is long gone) may be unbridgeable.

Dreher considers where this sea change has come from; it’s not something that happened overnight or in the last five years. It’s been brewing since the 1960s and the sexual revolution, the technological revolution, and the revolution that has enthroned absolute individual freedom as society’s hallmark. These changes permeate our schools and universities, our mainstream and social media, our corporate boardrooms, and our politics. The culture war is over, he argues (and I would agree), no matter who sits in the White House. “Conventional American politics cannot fix what is wrong in our society and culture,” he writes. “The disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul.”

Traditional Christians will find themselves increasingly isolated and disparaged. He suggests that discrimination is going to come, particularly in those professions that will require acceptance of beliefs that Christians will not be able to accept (comparable to what the early Christians faced with burning incense to Caesar).

He points to the Rule of St. Benedict, promulgated some 1,500 years ago, as a directional pointer for Christians, not to withdraw from society but to train themselves and their children to deal with society with the Christian faith permeating their lives. If we don’t know how to be a light in the darkness, the darkness is going to be overwhelming.

And so Dreher looks at education, work, technology, politics, the church, and more. He talks to people who have been implementing the Benedict Option, from monks and families in Italy to schools in Maryland and Texas. He doesn’t recommend some idealistic philosophy or program, but things that are already underway and working.

Rod Dreher
Dreher, who writes for American Conservative, is the author of Crunchy Cons (2006); The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013); and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015). He is a Greek Orthodox, and lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I can note that we both attended the same university, LSU, about 15 years apart. He describes what he didn’t get in college – the classical education of Western civilization – which is what I did get 15 years before. Those intervening years – 1973 to 1988 – were a crucial time for change in education, and not for the better.

The Benefit Option is a kind of epistle to orthodox Christians. It is written with care and concern. It’s written with understanding and love. And it’s written with keen insight into what is tearing the culture apart and the forces behind it.

I wish I found it to be exaggerated, untrue, and off-the-mark. Instead I found it to be like looking in a mirror, and realizing that I have to be part of the change. It’s a daunting task.