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Poem for Another Feckless Lent

By March 27, 2015 No Comments

This time I’m not surprised that Lent hasn’t turned out the way it’s supposed to be. Uhh, that I didn’t get into Lent—do the work in Lent—that I’m supposed to. I’ve made resolutions before: to take more time for reflection, read some religious classics (Donne? Herbert? Hopkins?), do that reading that will get my doctrine of the Atonement right. But it’s never turned out. This year I didn’t even pretend I’d try. Way too much to do. All good things, too. Courses. Some volunteer teaching at church. Interested students—two different sets of them—who asked for independent studies on widely different subjects. A once-a-week for seniors. Ramping up the next book project with a grant application and conference paper proposals.

Less altruistically, a unique chance to get to England and see new sights with good friends. This week, of all things, two days devoted to running around with a Dutch film crew that’s putting together a documentary series on the nineteenth-century Netherlands. Hey, they want to come to America to interview me about Abraham Kuyper, I’m glad to oblige. The two days of taping will probably yield fifteen minutes of final product; miniscule enough, but I wonder if I have that much fame left. Least worthy of all, getting irked enough by references to bad (that is, ones I don’t like) atonement theory to flip on the tapes of all-purpose grousing. Turns out the only thing I gave up for Lent was reflection.

Such a relief, even a border-line delight, then, to stumble across Denise Levertov. (I did so at “The Journey with Jesus: Poems and Prayers” website, organized by Dan Clendenin: I’ve run across Levertov’s name many a time but never dipped into her poetry. It turns out she ran a course after my own heart. Daughter of a Welsh mother and Russian Hasidic father who converted to Christianity, moved to England, and became an Anglican priest, Levertov emigrated to the USA soon after World War II and immediately proved herself among a pretty elite circle of artists. She published voluminously, held down many prizes and teaching positions, and became politically active on the Left, for instance, founding the Writers and Artists Protest against the War in Vietnam. She was still active in this vein in the decade of her death in 1997.

Levertov had been interested in religious themes all along, but in 1983, her 60th year, she formally converted to Christianity while teaching at Stanford. She joined a Roman Catholic church upon moving to Seattle six years later. This fine poem, “Primary Wonder,” appeared in Sands of the Well (New Directions Press, 1996). For its taut description of distraction, and for the recognition of that which can save—the wonder of goodness, finally outweighing the problem of evil—I share this poem today. Maybe I can still make a good Lent by getting a hold of her collection, The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (New Directions, 1997). Ahhh, work to do….

Primary Wonder, by Denise Levertov

Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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