Wednesday 8 September 2010

Akathistos Hymn

Celebrating the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary today with friends at Bishop's Staff, Archdeacon Karen brought us a poem by Denise Levertov, about the faith, openness, and Mary.

I hadn’t come across DL since reading her Penguin Modern Poets sub-collection (with Kenneth Rexroth and Wiliam Carlos Williams) which records indicate I read in May 1971!
After that she did all sorts of fabulous things, including discovering Christianity for herself in 1984, and her poem from 1989 is inspired by a line from the 6th Century Greek Orthodox Akathisthos, from which it takes its title:

‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’

We know the scene:
the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book;
always the tall lily.

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador,
standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience.
No one mentions courage.

The engendering Spirit did not
enter her without consent.

God waited. She was free to accept or to refuse,
choice integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? Some unwillingly undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride, uncomprehending.

More often those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from in dread,
in a wave of weakness,
in despair and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate,
slept like any other child –
but unlike others, wept only for pity,
laughed in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence fused in her,
Called to a destiny more momentous than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,

only asked a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb Infinite weight and lightness;
to carry in hidden, finite inwardness, nine months of Eternity;
to contain in slender vase of being, the sum of power –
in narrow flesh, the sum of light.

Then bring to birth, push out into air,
a Man-child needing, like any other,
milk and love –
but who was God.
This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,


She did not cry, "I cannot,
I am not worthy,"
nor "I have not the strength."
She did not submit with gritted teeth, raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light, the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.

courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.


acetate monkey said...

Thanks for that, what a great poem!

June Butler said...

An all-around lovely post, Bishop Alan. Someone else sent me the beautiful poem in an email. I love Mary's final words in the Gospel, "Do whatever he (Jesus) tells you."

Shadow Caster said...

Thanks for sharing this with us. That was lovely.

Anonymous said...

I note here: that some think the poem is entitled 'Annunciation', but I prefer the title you've been introduced to it by.

Something for a non-scriptural Christmas reading, and thus printed for my father's collection.

For me, it inspires other thoughts...

Robin Ward said...

I think it should be called the Immaculate Conception - good to see poetry sugaring the pill of doctrine.

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