When John Keble (1792-1866) published a collection of poems in 1827 based on the theme of the Christian year, he chose to remain an anonymous author. The book, however, proved quite popular, and Keble became well known as a poet in his generation. Though he was appointed to an Oxford professorship in poetry, he never lost his pastor’s heart. And while his poetry contains many of the themes of his theological bent, I find the poems to be universal in the way they address some of our deepest spiritual longings, shortcomings and hopes.
For the next little while we will ask Keble to be our guide in the journey through “The Christian Year”. For those not familiar with the theme, I would simply say that the idea of a liturgical year, a calendar with feasts and fasts and changing seasons is as old as the first prayer for rain, or the first thanks for harvest.
I want to look at Keble’s “The Christian Year” with two views. First, what does Keble the poet and pastor have to say to our souls? And second, it strikes me that we live in an age which runs counter to, and is often inimical to, the rhythms of creation and grace – the ways in which God has placed certain patterns into our lives. It is these rhythms of creation and grace which we resist with our desire to be autonomous, or productive, or yes, even lazy. So while there are specifics within the poems that are of themselves gems of wisdom, the entire collection calls us examine the patterns of our lives, and ask ourselves if we are being shaped by what another author has called the “rhythms of grace”. Oddly enough, I am starting with Ash Wednesday, which means that I’m posting in a rather syncopated fashion. I’ll have snippets, & give links to the full text.
Ash Wednesday, by John Keble (full text here)
"Yes--deep within and deeper yet
The rankling shaft of conscience hide,
Quick let the swelling eye forget
The tears that in the heart abide…
One of the great frauds of the history of the Christian church is the pretence that we are better than we are. We all have those “tears that in the heart abide”; we all have those places, somewhere in the basements of our souls, where stuff is hidden away, hopefully never coming to light.
"The loving eye that watches thine
Close as the air that wraps thee round -
Why in thy sorrow should it pine,
Since never of thy sin it found?
And wherefore should the heathen see
What chains of darkness thee enslave,
And mocking say, 'Lo, this is he
Who owned a God that could not save'?"
How we forget God’s presence! I love Keble’s beginning point in this stanza: “The loving eye that watches thine”. There is a connection between God and us on at least two levels. First, that we are under the gaze of God. We cannot escape His presence, which is as close as the air in which we live, and which we breathe unconsciously. There is also the wonderful image of God’s eye and our eye. This seems not only a reminder of being made in God’s image, but of the way in which the Incarnation, God-as-Jesus in the flesh, has made this “eyeing” literally true. The courage to confess comes from understanding who God is, and feeling ourselves under that “loving eye”.
Thus oft the mourner's wayward heart
Tempts him to hide his grief and die,
Too feeble for Confession's smart,
Too proud to bear a pitying eye;
Now Keble reminds us of the real reasons we do not disclose our faults. We are perhaps tempted to think that God cannot save, that He cannot forgive. And instead of confessing, we hide our grief, and die. Keble also reminds us that it takes a certain spiritual courage and strength to confess. It might be noted that practice of sacramental, private confession among Anglicans has its roots in Keble and his ilk. I am reminded of a saying regarding private confession in the Anglican tradition: “None must, all may, some should”. Think on that. But back to Keble’s insight. We are often too proud to be seen as sinners in the presence of another, even if that other is full of mercy (“Too proud to bear a pitying eye”). However, it is the one who stays outside who never tastes the feast. I believe to be often the case that the deeper we experience repentance (however difficult that may be), the deeper we will experience the forgiveness and love of Christ.
How sweet, in that dark hour, to fall
On bosoms waiting to receive
Our sighs, and gently whisper all!
They love us--will not God forgive?
Else let us keep our fast within,
Till Heaven and we are quite alone,
Then let the grief, the shame, the sin,
Before the mercy-seat be thrown.
Between the porch and altar weep,
Unworthy of the holiest place,
Yet hoping near the shrine to keep
One lowly cell in sight of grace.