(parts of this were originally published on May 24, 2012) AND (from the Shameless Commerce Division, information about a choir event on October 4 that gives you a fun way to support the music offerings of this parish: An Evening in Paris. flyer)
The news these days brings us many reminders of the dangers of combining religion and politics. The separation of church and state has never seemed more necessary than it is in parts of the Middle East right now. It’s nothing new of course. As long as people have believed in anything larger than themselves – i.e. forever – it has seemed necessary by a few to impose those beliefs on others. Making it all the more apparent that they really don’t believe in anything except themselves, in my opinion. But that’s a bigger issue.
The Holy Sonnets of English poet John Donne (1572-1631) were written at a time when the devoutly Catholic Donne reluctantly became an Anglican priest upon strong “encouragement” from King James I. Donne’s brother had been jailed for protecting a Catholic priest, who himself had been tortured to death. Not the Anglican Church’s finest moment.
The turmoil from which Donne’s poetry arose is reflected in one of these sonnets, At the round earth’s imagined corners, sung this Sunday here at St. Alban’s to music by the American composer Lee Hoiby (1926-2011). This turmoil is not only related to that time in British history when being Catholic or Anglican was a life-threatening decision, depending on what day it was, but also related to scientific discoveries that rocked 16th and 17th century thinking. The earth had four corners, according to Revelations 7:1 (and incidentally in Hinduism, where the four corners of the earth are sunrise, sunset, north and south), and yet science and Magellan’s explorations gave convincing evidence that it was actually round. That Donne could exhort his readers to imagine corners on this round earth is a wonderfully Anglican suggestion, in my opinion. It appears one way, but could be another and we can make a square peg fit into a round hole after all. Just imagine.
At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go ;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space ;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for that’s as good
As if Thou hadst seal’d my pardon with Thy blood.
The narrator seems to declare in the opening octet, “let the Judgment begin Lord, I’m ready.” Amusing to Washington’s lawyer-saturated world that Donne would include “law” in line seven’s list of things that had killed those being called to rise by the angels’ trumpets, until you think about the outlawing of Catholicism that had devastated his own family.
But wait…at the sonnet’s turn he asks that the dead be allowed to sleep a bit longer. The narrator may need more time to atone for sins. He wonders if perhaps learning to repent – to feel sorrow for past failures and consequently act to repair those failings – is part of Christ’s message for us.
Something to think about as we try to live our lives, whether they are square or triangular or shapeless, on this round earth. I hear in the text a reminder to believe in something bigger than ourselves, bigger than this round earth. To keep wondering, in order to protect ourselves from the rigidity of knowing all the answers, which only serves to alienate us from those whose lives have different shapes from our own.
The Hindu mandala represents the four corners of their philosophy within a sphere. Imagine a world where differences worked in such balanced harmony.
Some old Chinese coins are round with a square cut into it, the earth centered under heaven.