Poetry and Lent: To whom it may concern (Adrian Mitchell), Some (Daniel Berrigan) — St Mary Magdalen School of Theology (2022)

This Lent, the School will feature meditations on poetry. Fr Simon Cuff starts us off with two modern offerings, anthems on truth.

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. — John 20.18

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain,
Couldn’t find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved out all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains.
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the Cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
Chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

+++

Lent is a good time to think about the nature of truth. During Lent, we prepare ourselves for our celebration of the Resurrection, the ultimate victory of truth over the deceit of evil. The Resurrection is the truth upon which we as Christians base our lives.

The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez described the foundational role of the Resurrection in the Christian life at an anniversary service commemorating the martyrdom of S. Oscar Romero:

We are here because we celebrate life… because someone once told us, “Christ is risen!”. This is why we are here: we believed it, and we became Christians... The resurrection of Jesus is never called a miracle in the Bible. It is too much for that. The resurrection of Jesus, if you will allow me to express it this way, is the death of death. This is what we are celebrating this afternoon: the death of Monseñor Romero’s death, the death of so many others’ deaths, the victory of life. Filled with anguish we certainly are and our hearts are oppressed, yet we breathe deeply, in a communion of hope with a people which does not stop fighting for its life.

Announcing the resurrection is the basis of the theology which the School of Theology celebrates, as our patron, Rowan Williams reminds us: ‘A theology that announces the resurrection, that announces it in the light of the sacramental life and worship we share, that announces it in grateful recognition of the continuity with all those who witness to the resurrection before us, here and throughout the world, right back to that first trembling inarticulate witness to the resurrection, who went off an announced it: the apostle to the apostles’. A theology which has the resurrection as its basis, which celebrates the death of death as the truth we’ve encountered at some point in our lives.

This is the same truth which Mary Magdalen first encountered. The same truth which St Mary Magdalen articulates trembling that she has seen the Lord. Christians throughout the ages have articulated this same truth. Like Mary Magdalen, in the midst of all the voices of doubt and disbelief, these Christians have encountered the risen Lord, and their lives are shaped by this truth. During Lent we too reflect on our encounter with this risen truth and the shape our lives have taken in response.

To Whom It May Concern is a poem that reflects on the nature of truth, or rather the noises and lies offered by alternative “truths” or ‘fake-news’. The author Adrian Mitchell (1932 - 2008) comes from the pacifist and anti-war movement. His poem decries the false reports used to defend the rush to war. The opening line describes a startling encounter with the truth, an encounter as startling as Mary Magdalen’s encounter that first Easter Day.

I was run over by the truth one day. /Ever since the accident I’ve walked this way /So stick my legs in plaster /Tell me lies about Vietnam.’ Mitchell reminds us that truth isn’t something we come to by polite reflection or debate. Truth knocks us sideways. 'We come to God not by navigation but by love’ as St Augustine noted. We don’t find our own way to God, God transforms our way from the inside. When we see things how they really are, we’re shaken out of what we used to take for granted.

The narrator gets back on his feet, albeit bandaged. We’re reminded of the damage to Jacob’s hip during his tussle with the angel. Jacob had ‘seen God face to face, and yet his life was preserved’ (Gen 32.30-1) but, like the narrator of our poem, is left with a limp.

The remainder of the poem is really a footnote to this first verse, and a reflection on the shock and alarm we experience when we encounter real truth. ‘Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain’. It is a reflection on how absurd the ordinary ways of being are, once we’ve seen things as they really are. We note the increasing absurdity of the ways which present themselves as truth but are anything but: ‘scrub my skin with women/Chain my tongue with whisky/Stuff my nose with garlic/Coat my eyes with butter/Fill my ears with silver/Stick my legs in plaster/Tell me lies about Vietnam’.

The absurdities of our everyday lives which we mistake for truth impair our senses. Using Mitchell’s imagery, our tongues are chained, our noses stuffed, our eyes buttered, our ears filled. We find ourselves living absurd lives, failing to live up to the truth which we once encountered that made us realise the absurdities of everyday life for what they really are in the first place. They make us do absurd things, and things which are very often at odds with the truth we discovered, things which destroy even our humanity. ‘You take the human being and you twist it all about’.

Lent is the time for us to take stock of our relationship to truth, to examine our lives and our humanity to see where we are living out that truth, and where we’ve succumbed to the false absurdities which present themselves as truths all around us. Lent is a time to think about how we spend our money, what we value, what we’re doing with our lives, how we are responding to that truth, how we are responding to that encounter with the Risen Christ, how loudly our lives resound with our ‘Amen’ to the proclamation of that Resurrection.

The danger here is that the paucity of our response can demoralise us. Our Lenten reflection can alert us to just how poor our response to God’s call in our lives has been. Lent can remind us starkly just how much we have preferred easy absurdities over risen truth. ‘Some’ by Fr Daniel Berrigan (1921- 2016) is an antidote to the temptation to Lenten despair.

Fr Berrigan comes from a similar, albeit Catholic, anti-war and pacifist stable as Mitchell. A life-long activist, anti-nuclear and AIDS campaigner. His poem ‘Some’ is a hymn to remain faithful to the cause which originally motivated you, and not be down-heartened that there is no end or possible victory in sight. It is a call to remain steadfast, even when others are calling the truth you have discovered absurd.

It begins by reflecting on those who began to share in the truth but fell away, like those seeds on rocky ground In the parable of the sower who receive the word with joy, but endure only a while and fall away at the first sight of trouble. (Matt 4.16-17). Berrigan’s poem recollects earlier protest movements that won victories and reclaimed power from those who were holding it abusively, but from which others fells away. ‘Some stood up once, and sat down./Some walked a mile, and walked away.’

Berrigan reflects on the despair that can creep in and the temptation to abandon the commitment to what is right. ‘Some stood up twice, then sat down./“It’s too much,” they cried./Some walked two miles, then walked away./“I’ve had it,” they cried’.

There is another way. Berrigan’s poem concludes with those who did not abandon the truth, who did not lose their way through despair or through foolish adherence to the noisy world and its mistruths. This is the way taken by those who ‘stood and stood and stood’ who ‘were taken for fools’ who ‘were taken for being taken in’. These were those who were regarded foolish by the foolishness of the world.

These were thoose who were challenged for their commitment to the truth. “Why do you stand?” they were asked, and “Why do you walk?”. In the midst of this challenge and disdain, they remain steadfast. They do not turn away. Instead they restate their cause: “Because of the children,” they said, and/“Because of the heart, and/“Because of the bread,”.

Berrigan’s poem ends where we began. His final note is one of Resurrection. “Because the cause is/ the heart’s beat, and/ the children born, and/ the risen bread.” He leaves us with the promise of life ‘the heart’s beat’, new life ‘the children born’, eternal life ‘the risen bread’.

Lent is a time to clear away distractions, absurdities, mistruths, and to spend time refocussing our attention on the risen bread of Christ, the ‘bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (John 6.33). Lent is a time, in Gutiérrez’s words, to renew our membership of that ‘communion of hope with a people which does not stop fighting for its life’. To stand and stand and stand with Christ, to scrub our skin, to loose our tongues, to open our eyes and ears, to take up the cause once more, to recommit ourselves to the Resurrection on which all our hope is founded. Lent is a time to regain the enthusiasm of that ‘Amen’ with which once we greeted the Easter acclamation: ‘Christ is Risen’. Lent is a time to be regarded as fools by the foolishness of the world. During Lent we are invited once again to leave running from our encounter with truth to join with the song of Mary Magdalen and countless Christian throughout the ages: ‘I have seen the Lord’ - to take our stand afresh and witness to the truth of the Resurrection in all that we are and think and do.

“Because the cause is the heart’s beat, and the children born, and the risen bread.”

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,

Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
Why do you walk?”

“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”

“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”

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