Christmas Eve 2020

Here, where the rivers dredge up
the very stone of Heaven, we name its colors—
muttonfat jade, kingfisher jade, jade of appleskin green.

And here, in the glittering
hues of the Flemish Masters, we sample their wine;
rest in their windows’ sun warmth,
cross with pleasure their scrubbed tile floors.
Everywhere the details leap like fish— bright shards
of water out of water, facet cut, swift moving
on the myriad bones.

Any woodthrush shows it— he sings,
not to fill the world, but because he is filled.

But the world does not fill with us,
it spills and spills, whirs with owl wings,
rises, sets, stuns us with planet rings, stars.
A carnival tent, a fluttering of banners.

O baker of yeast scented loaves,
sword dancer,
seamstress, weaver of shattering glass,
O whirler of winds, boat swallower,
germinant seed,
O seasons that sing in our ears in the shape of O—
we name your colors muttonfat, kingfisher, jade,
we name your colors anthracite, orca, growth tip of pine,
we name them arpeggio, pond,
we name them flickering helix within the cell, burning coal tunnel,
blossom of salt,
we name them roof flashing copper, frost scent at morning, smoke singe
of pearl,
from black flowering to light flowering we praise them,
from barest conception, the almost not thought of, to heaviest matter,
we praise them,
from glacier lit blue to the gold of iguana we praise them,
and praising, begin to see,
and seeing, begin to assemble the plain stones of earth.

‘The Stone of Heaven’

Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart

As Rilke noted (quoted yesterday) rivers will bring our deepest sources of treasure into the daylight, because God ‘foregathers’ the brilliance we choose to ignore, the gold we never imagined existed within us.  Jane Hirshfield (above) also points to the same movement of Spirit: ‘Here, where the rivers dredge up/ the very stone of Heaven, we name its colors’.  Even when I have to ‘dredge’ the intention up from the depths of my shadowed places, such noticing and naming receives the gifts of God’s bounty, and responds in praise, in a bellow of gratitude, in a delight that ‘from black flowering to light flowering’ there is treasure to sustain me, if only I have eyes to see.  This is the arc of the JoyPilgrimage I have been on this Advent, and Hirshfield’s hallelujah of colour seem to fit the moment where, once-again and for the first time, I celebrate the ‘breaking-in’ of the Cosmic Christ incarnate in my here and my now.  As the poet John Milton wrote, 

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

Reverence.  Awe.  Gratitude.  These are the ingredients of the ‘everyday epiphanies’ of the God-with-us, that will transfigure me, heal me, if I will let them.  

I experienced one such ‘epiphany of the ordinary’ when I came across an article written by Clive James on a phrase unknown to me until then, a ’feu de joie’:

The French expression feu de joie refers to a military celebration when all the riflemen of a regiment fire one shot after another, in close succession: ideally the sound should be continuous, like a drumroll … Symbolically, the fire of joy is a reminder that the regiment’s collective power relies on the individual, and vice versa.  Imprinted on my mind, the succession of explosions became an evocation of the heritage of English poets and poetry, from Chaucer onwards. It still strikes me as a handy metaphor for the poetic succession, especially because, in the feu de joie, nobody got hurt. It was all noise: and noise, I believe, is the first and last thing that poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compel­ling, it won’t continue to exist … With a poem the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it … 

My understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or frag­ments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe, that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.  The Italians have a word for the store of poems you have in your head: a gazofilacio … a treasure chamber of the mind. The poems I remember are the milestones marking the journey of my life. And unlike paintings, sculptures or passages of great music, they do not outstrip the scope of memory, but are the actual thing, incarnate … The remarkable thing, I suppose, is not that I memorised a few poems, but that I never forgot them. Perhaps because the reward for success was freedom, I thought of poetry, forever afterwards, as my ticket out: the equivalent of hiding in the laundry in the truck out of the prison camp. When I am busy with the eternal task of memorising chunks of Milton, I can hear the sirens as I escape through the woods outside the wire of Stalag Luft III. For me, poetry means freedom. Even today, in fact especially today, when the ruins of my very body are the prison, poetry is my way through the wire and out into the world.

Such ‘everyday epiphanies’ are my personal route to freedom, both with and without a camera in my hand.  A delight in language, even if my concentration and memory are too poor to retain its delicacies, brings untold riches to me each day.  The world is full of fascinating people making interesting things out of their experiences.  I am so grateful for the gift of sight, for the education I received so I can read, for the technology that connects me to a web of connections with others, for the trees that render me their matter so I can write and print and paint on blank pages.

Let my gratitude become a ‘feu de joie’.

May I become the embodiment of the Joyful Noise of Spirit pulsating in my very marrow.

May I embrace all the colours of the Colourful One.

May I join with other JoyPilgrims in creating the rope of Hope to extend to others we meet on our way, pulling each other out of the ‘slough of desponds’ we find ourselves imprisoned by at that moment.  

May the Fire of Joy act as a reminder to me that our collective power relies on each individual releasing the jewels from her own gazofilacio, his treasure chamber of the heart, so she may be healed.  May the Fire of Joy act as a reminder to me that it relies on each member of the community doing likewise, in a successive fan of gold light so that the world may be healed, so that God’s Kingdom may come.

Start where you are, and realise you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems.  Do what you can … remember you are not alone, and you do not need to finish the work.  It takes time, but we are learning, we are growing, we are becoming the people we want to be.  It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering.  We people who care must be attractive, must be filled with joy, so that others recognise that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy.  Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy.  This, too, is a great gift.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with the Dalai Lama and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy (274)

feu de joie. iPhone image.

Published by Kate Kennington Steer

writer, photographer and visual artist

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