Saturday, April 7, 2012

Christ in the trenches

Having just recently attended a chorale concert of Bach's "Christ lag in Todes Banden" based on the hymn of Martin Luther, "Christ Lay in Death's Bonds," I spent Holy Saturday looking through a stack of papers of an old 19th century Lutheran church in Brooklyn. The following note was addressed to an expatriated German pastor/scholar, the Rev. Dr. Ben McKelahan, serving in Brooklyn immediately after the First World War. 

Some marginal notes indicate that the translation and introductory note were both accomplished while serving in the trenches at the Western front. To state the obvious, it appears the texts of Pseudo-Dionysus the soldier was reading as he composed his prayers both responded to his Sitz im Leben as well as his sense of Christ's place on the day between Good Friday and Easter.

One wonders whether this type of prayer, influenced as it is by Pseudo-Dionysis the Aeropagite, might take off in social locations sensitive to the reality of death and earth.

Dionysian Prayers

“So, then, forms, even those drawn from the lowliest matter, can be used, not unfittingly, with regard to heavenly beings. Matter, after all, owes its subsistence to absolute beauty and keeps, throughout its earthly ranks, some echo of intelligible beauty. Using matter, one may be lifted up to the immaterial archetypes. Of course one must be careful to use the similarities as dissimilarities, as discussed, to avoid one-to-one correspondences, to make the appropriate adjustments as one remembers the great divide between the intelligible and the perceptible.

“We will find that the mysterious theologians employ these things not only to make known the ranks of heaven but also to reveal something of God himself. They sometimes use the most exalted imagery, calling him for instance sun of righteousness, star of the morning which rises into the mind, clear and conceptual light. Sometimes they use more intermediate, down-to-earth images. They call him the blazing fire which does not cause destruction, water filling up life and, so to speak, entering the stomach and forming inexhaustible streams. Sometimes the images are of the lowliest kind, such as sweet-smelling ointment and corner stone. Sometimes the imagery is even derived from animals so that God is described as a lion or a panther, a leopard or a charging bear. Add to this what seems the lowliest and most incongruous of all, for the experts in things divine gave him the form of a worm.

“In this way the wise men of God, exponents of hidden inspiration, separated the “Holy of Holies” from defilement by anything in the realm of the imperfect or the profane. They therefore honor the dissimilar shape so that the divine things remain inaccessible to the profane and so that all those with a real wish to see the sacred imagery may not dwell on the types as true. So true negations and the unlike comparisons with their last echoes offer due homage to the divine things. For this reason there is nothing ridiculous about representing heavenly beings with similarities which are dissimilar and incongruous, for the reasons mentioned. And I myself might not have been stirred from this difficulty to my current inquiry, to an uplifting through a precise explanation of these sacred truths, had I not been troubled by the deformed imagery used by scripture in regard to the angels. My mind was not permitted to dwell on imagery so inadequate, but was provoked to get behind the material show, to get accustomed to the idea of going beyond appearances to those upliftings which are not of this world.”

--The Celestial Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius

O hallowed and conquering Worm,
Born of Christ’s rotting flesh,
Break through the chalky clay of our hearts
And bring the air of your love into the deep soil of our innermost being
So that out of souls may grow the fruit of grace.
O eternal Cockroach,
Who ever survives my stamping foot of sin,
Skitter into the cracks of my life
Where my poisons cannot reach you
And lay your endless eggs of peace.

Bottomless Cesspool of mercy,
You drain away the bile of this world,
May my excrements of pain and suffering
Flow into your all embracing pit
And leave me empty to ingest once more
the feces of your children.

Everlasting Wad of Gum,
Who collects all manner of debris in your sticky folds,
Fix yourself to the bottom of my shoe
And bind me to your relentless love.

O rabid Dog of faith,
Neither shouts, nor stones, nor well-placed kicks and deter your frenzy,
Bite me with your foaming mouth of love
And infect me with your madness.

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