I may have saved the best for last.
I never speak in absolutes about favorite books or poems or writers, but I think Luci Shaw’s “Made Flesh” is my favorite poem for Advent.
Of course, I’ve mentioned Luci Shaw a few times before. Advent may be pouring itself out into the glory of the Christmas season, but Shaw’s poetry is an excellent literary companion through the whole year. Might I suggest beginning the new year with her poems close at hand?
This one is worth reading slowly.
the white-hot beam of annunciation
fused heaven with dark earth,
his searing, sharply focused light
went out for a while,
eclipsed in amniotic gloom:
his cool immensity of splendor,
his universal grace,
small-folded in a warm, dim
female space –
the Word stern-sentenced to be
nine months’ dumb –
infinity walled in a womb,
until the next enormity –
the Mighty One, after submission
to a woman’s pains,
helpless on a barn’s bare floor,
first-tasting bitter earth.
I in him surrender
to the crush and cry of birth.
was closeted in time,
he is my open door to forever.
From his imprisonment
my freedoms grow,
find wings. Part of his body,
I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
My life, as his,
slips through death’s mesh,
joins hands with heaven,
speaks with stars.
– Luci Shaw, from Accompanied by Angels
Time is undone, and the light will swiftly come.
Can you feel it? Can you begin to see it?
We are still waiting, still it is dark night, and yet … joy. We know the light is near because there is joy.
“Let us View With Joy and Mirth”
Let us view with joy and mirth
All the clocks upon the earth
Holding time with busy tocking
Ticking booming clanging clocking
Through the stars and winds and tides.
Who can tell where time abides?
Foolish clocks, all time was broken
When that first great Word was spoken.
Cease we now this silly fleeing
From earth’s time, for time’s a being
Bows before him
Who upon the throne is seated.
Time, defeated, wins, is greeted.
Clocks know not time’s loving wonder
Day above as night swings under,
Turning always to the son,
Time’s begun, is done, does run
Of the morning
Time, mass, space, a mystery
Of eternal trinity.
Time needs make no poor apology
For bursting forth from man’s chronology
Laughs in glee as human hours
Dance before the heavenly powers.
Because the Son
Swiftly calls the coming light
That will end the far-spent night.
– Madeleine L’Engle, from The Irrational Season
I’ve mentioned this book before. I’m keeping it close this Advent season.
I find it incredible how an old, old form can open my eyes to everything New.
Here is a poem for this, the second Monday of Advent.
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us,
O long-sought with-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name,
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
– Malcolm Guite, from Sounding the Seasons
A poem for this, the first Monday of Advent.
Henry Vaughan’s sonnet is an echo of Song of Solomon 2:11-12: “For behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” These verses hold special meaning for me and my family. They remind me of my own baby’s birth, but they speak of Mary’s child, too.
Advent is a season of contradiction. A high King and a lowly manger. A victorious Savior and a vulnerable infant. The brilliance of stars and the stench of a stable. Here, in Vaughan’s words, is another: “… here in dust and dirt, O here / The lilies of his love appear!”
We are creatures of dust, and we live out our lives on a crust of dirt. But would we wish it otherwise? For Love came down, and this dirt-filled world has never been the same.
So, plant your feet on solid earth. Feel the tremors of what has been and all that is to come.
Can you feel them?
The time for singing has come.
Unfold, unfold! Take in his light,
Who makes thy cares more short than night.
The joys, which with his day-star rise,
He deals to all but drowsy eyes:
And what the men of this world miss,
Some drops and dews of future bliss.
Hark how his winds have changed their note,
And with warm whispers call thee out.
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
The lofty groves in express joys
Reply unto the turtle’s voice,
And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of his love appear!
– Henry Vaughan (1622-95)
Autumn is a time for hoarding books. Like a squirrel and its acorns. Like my children and their Halloween candy.
Winter, the reader’s favorite season, will soon be here. And, yes, despite what we might say, winter is our favorite season. We can admire the beauty of fall, the fresh breezes of spring. We can enjoy mucking about in our gardens come summer. But, as readers, we are always at our happiest curled up with a book.
Short, dark days are welcome because they let us off the hook. What else is there to do but pull the blanket closer and go on reading our book?
Here are a few recommendations to help pad your winter reading list.
The first is welcome throughout the year, but I usually only remember it come fall. The Autumn Board Book, by Gerda Muller, is one of four wordless board books focused on the seasons.
I’m afraid I lost some of you when I wrote board book. But this is no ordinary board book.
As one of my favorite picture book characters would say, board books are the raisins and zeros of the book world. Condemned to be chewed upon. Containing only simplified, shortened versions of classic stories. I like to have a few lying around for the actual baby, but, otherwise, I give them a pass.
Except for these.
Muller’s four books are exquisite. I keep one nestled in with the candles and bowl of acorns on our kitchen table. It’s the kind of book you will want to pick up and enjoy for at least a few minutes every day.
These books make great first gifts for a new baby, but they are wonderful for older children, too. A good friend with grown children recently purchased all four. She told me she’s setting them aside for future grandchildren, but I’m quite sure she’s enjoying them in the meantime.
Autumn … the year’s last, loveliest smile. – William Cullen Bryant
One of my favorite things about this hinge season between summer and winter is the food. No more quick pestos or sauteed garden veggies. Now is the season for slow-simmered curries and meaty sauces and cranking the oven back to high.
Whether or not you care much for food or cooking, you will enjoy Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House Reader’s Circle). Reichl, a celebrated food writer and restaurant critic, is the exact right person for memoir. Not only is she a great writer, but she is curious. She collects stories and experiences like I collect books.
This memoir is full of fun and sweetness, but it tells some hard stories, too. I realized while reading it that quite a few of my favorite memoirs are written about girls growing up with mentally ill mothers. I have no idea why this is. I do know that Reichl’s book is an excellent addition to a list that includes memoirs by Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls.
The most powerful things about this book is the way it makes you care. First, for Ruth, and then for her family and friends and even the stray characters who cross her path. Reichl sees the world (and writes about it) through a lens of love. And I believe we only see the world, other people, and our own lives truly when we look with love.
My parents entertained a great deal, and before I was ten I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner. – Ruth Reichl
Luci Shaw is one of my favorite poets. I’ve mentioned her here before. She is a poet of faith and substance and beauty.
What the Light Was Like: Poems is a perfect collection for this season of shifting light. Reading poetry slows us down, something I always long to do this time of year, and Shaw’s work, especially, calls us to notice the natural world and to listen to its messages.
Light has a peculiar quality of transforming what it touches, like gold foil over wood. In Hebrew the word for glory has the sense of heaviness, as if light adds to the bulk of its significance. When I see the road that runs in front of my house and the bushes along the sidealk touched with sunlight, even the black tarmac and the faded winter leaves look glorious. – Luci Shaw
Ours is a house full of invalids. Which means this week little has been written but much has been read.
Really, the hardest part of a cold for me may be the burning, tired eyes. I should probably just close them, but I don’t want to waste all of this lying-abed time with actual resting. Reading, that’s where it’s at.
Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live. – Gustave Flaubert
A friend recently gave me a copy of the new memoir by Kimberlee Conway Ireton: Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. I gobbled it up. Though, I should tell you, this is a book worth taking slow. In fact, the short chapters and brief, fragmentary interludes ask for it (but I was being greedy).
This is a simple story, simply told. I don’t mean that it’s simplistic. Rather, it is beautifully spare. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking.
Ireton hangs the story of the faith crisis she endured after the birth of twins on the scaffolding of the liturgical church calendar. The result is an exploration of one soul’s dark night that is both unique and universal.
This is the big story of Christ written very small. And that is something worth praising and worth seeking out. Advent, Lent, Easter … those are big stories, and we can become too much accustomed to their familiar contours. Sometimes we need to read them again in small ways. I am grateful to have read them here, in the small story of one year in one woman’s life.
How glad I am that I didn’t miss those cherry blossoms, that they caught at the corner of my vision, that I turned my head and saw. ‘They’re pretty,’ Doug said. But they were more than pretty. They were the color of hope. – Kimberlee Conway Ireton
Speaking of babies (oh dear, I am sometimes not very good with transitions), if you have had a baby within the past few years then you probably know this next book. You know it because I sent you a copy. Yes, this is my go-to gift for new babies: Psalms for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval.
We are so skilled at introducing our children to Bible stories. We decorate their nurseries with Noah’s-Ark-themed prints. We talk about Jesus while they glue cotton balls to pictures of sheep. But the Psalms? Sadly, the book I spend the most time reading can be the one I spend the least time sharing with my kids.
Of course, I do think children should be introduced to the actual Psalms. During Lent last year, my daughter read the same Psalm to us every night at dinner. The repetition was powerful and needful. However, I also think children, especially young children, can benefit from an age-appropriate introduction to the questions, concerns, and poetry of the Psalms.
What you will find in Psalms for Young Children are paraphrases written in child-friendly language. But they are not watered-down, exactly. They are Psalms from a child’s point-of-view, and they are lovely and prayerful even for the adult reading them at bedtime.
God, when I’m in my bed / at night, I think about you. / And then I’m not scared of / anything. I can fall asleep / quietly and in peace. – Psalms for Young Children
I hesitate to make this next recommendation. It is almost as if I want to pause, to make sure you are ready to appreciate a book like this. I’m afraid that sounds selfish, prideful. Really, I think my motivation is only this: I love this book and I feel so very protective of it. It is one of the most powerful, most devastating books I have read in a long time.
The book is Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is an accomplished poet and was, until recently, editor of Poetry magazine. Seven years ago, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer. This is a reflective book about life, art, and belief, and it was written in the valley of the shadow of death.
I’m afraid putting it like that makes it sound rather lovely, but Wiman will not let us forget this valley is made up of hospital rooms, searing pain, and medications almost worse than the disease they’re meant to fight.
It would be wrong to say that Wiman returned to the Christian faith of his childhood after being diagnosed with cancer. Though, on the face of it at least, this is true. Rather, I think Wiman would say that cancer revealed to him the God who had always been there, a presence revealed through absence..
This is not a book for those who feel quite comfortable with the Christian faith. This is a book for anyone who finds the language of belief too often a hindrance rather than a help. This is a book for mystics and lovers of poetry.
This is an uncomfortable, even difficult book. It’s central emblem is not the empty tomb, but Christ crying out his forsakenness on the cross.
It is also a book I found to be so wise and true, I copied whole pages into my journal. The paperback edition doesn’t arrive till spring. I suggest buying the hardcover. If you are like me, you will fill it with notes. You will look forward to reading it again, wrestling with it again, even before you’ve read it through once.
To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God. – Christian Wiman