Sunday, April 29, 2012
“H.D. and the Lifted Being of God: In Our Time”
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
29 April 2012
The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Women at Kent Weekend
There are many things we celebrate on this beautiful spring morning. This is the fourth Sunday of Easter as we continue to celebrate new life and resurrection. Today is called Good Shepherd Sunday in the church calendar with readings from the 23rd psalm and the gospel of John. Here at Kent School, we also celebrate the lives, and witness, of Kent alumnae—the women of Kent--who have enriched this institution over the last 50 years. I would like to especially welcome our female graduates who are here in St. Joseph’s Chapel this morning. This morning is also a moment to celebrate our current female students as we recognize the experience of women who have come through this school before you. Today we wake up the echoes of the girl’s campus, and St. Mark’s Chapel, here in St. Joseph’s.
My sermon this morning will be in honor of our female graduates, as I focus on the life of an extraordinary woman poet from the twentieth century: Hilda Doolittle, who wrote under the name of just her initials, H.D. In her epic masterpiece of a poem called Trilogy, H.D. explores the major Mary figures associated with Jesus: Mary, his mother, Mary Magdalene, his follower and disciple, and also the often forgotten Mary of Bethany who is the person who anoints Jesus before his death in John’s gospel. The fact that most people have never heard of H.D., or know very much about the three Marys of Christian womanhood, is truly amazing. This Women at Kent weekend is the perfect time to do some spiritual and literary education this morning, and I hope you will enjoy my approach—part lecture, part sermon--on Good Shepherd Sunday. At any rate, I won’t go on for too long. I’ll have you on your way.
H.D’s major work called Trilogy presents the female poet as a seer in culture and history. The narrative poem is a proposition for the poet to be a partner in God’s redemption, the new thing that is happening. The poem is utterly unconventional among modernist works, or poetry from any period. The more apt comparison is with the mystics who seem to be above time: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Dame Julian of Norwich. Though an American from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, H.D. wrote in London while Hitler bombed the city daily, and nightly, during the blitz. H.D. wrote Trilogy, three narrative poems, in a war zone, and the three poems are “The Walls Do Not Fall,” “A Tribute to the Angels,” and “The Flowering of the Rod.” The last poem is about the flowering of the cross, the rod, or the rood, like in the old English poem The Dream of the Rood. In H.D.’s vision of the sacred, she experiences the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the modern scenes of warfare.
On a personal level, I should note that H.D.’s work affected me as dramatically as any work of art ever has in my lifetime. I experienced my calling to the priesthood while reading Trilogy for the first time at the age of twenty-one. It was like opening a magical book of ancient runes.
There are sacred stories and visions in our time as well as in ancient times, I learned from H.D. From her birth in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Hilda Doolittle was fascinated by the idea that each of us has a sacred birth and sacred life to live. She was a patient of Dr. Sigmund Freud who encouraged her poetic genius at a time when she lacked confidence; he also remarked that he found her to be simply enchanting as a woman. Trilogy begins during a time of war, when the cross was twisted by Nazism. Her poem is directly intended to straighten out human values—to straighten out the swastika. She writes: “The Christos-image/ is most difficult to disentangle.” The “incidents” of the bombing of London, as the British press called them, provide the context for a new sacred witness. From H.D.’s opening words:“An incident here and there,/ and rails gone (for guns)/ from your (and my) old time square.” The destroyed neighborhoods are the setting for H.D. to search for God in a world at war. The poet stands in her own time, but also goes back to the moments of ancient witness to God, the moments of revelation. She writes: “there as here, ruin opens/…the tomb, the temple; enter,/ there as here, there are no doors.”
H.D. is entering the sacred temple on one level of her composition. Back in London, she is literally walking through the damaged churches of her adopted city: “the shrine lies open to the sky,” she writes. War, paradoxically, produces intimacy with the sacred; or perhaps it is just that we need God the most during wartime. World War II is the new crucifixion. The beginning motif of destroyed churches and the broken human body convey that the human spirit has been shaken from its moorings. But the churches, and humanity, haven’t lost God. God just needs to be sought, and found, by the seer, the new prophet. The Spirit of God is loose in the world, and the female poet responds to the Word of God like the first prophet of old. H.D. writes: “unaware, Spirit announces the Presence;/ shivering overtakes us,/ as of old, Samuel.” H.D. had many religious dreams and visions in London, including a vision of her own death. In “The Walls Do Not Fall,” H.D. experiences a sanctuary of the human soul that God protects, even when human beings are doing their worst to the human body: a sacred center that can hold the individual psyche, as well as human civilization, together. The terrifying war triggers a search for wholeness in a female writer. In the first two poems of Trilogy, H.D. gives thanks to God for her and our spiritual survival during wartime. She writes: “…we pause to give/ thanks that we rise again from death and live.”
The implications of her vision are far-reaching in “The Flowering of the Rod,” the final poem, especially with H.D.’s emphasis on the Mary characters of Scripture: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany. The last poem remembers the feminine principle in God’s redemption, both ancient and modern, through the trinity of Marys that H.D. explores poetically. Some background on these Marys we think we know. As Mary gave birth to Jesus’s life, Mary Magdalene was the mid-wife of his death: the one who anointed Jesus before his crucifixion. However, this would be following solely Luke’s Gospel, and only by a logical leap: “And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” The woman is unnamed in Luke, but Mary Magdalene is introduced at the beginning of Luke’s very next chapter: as a woman of means, a wealthy woman and patron, not as a prostitute. In no biblical tradition is she described as a prostitute.
The proximity of the woman who is a sinner (still not necessarily a prostitute) to Mary Magdalene in the text of Luke provides the connection; they must be the same woman. Mary Magdalene, the woman who is a sinner, is then the one anointing Jesus so intimately. This connection was first made official by Pope Gregory in the sixth century, six hundred years after the fact; there is no proof for it. But, lost in the sound and fury of Mary Magdalene’s alleged status as the woman who is a sinner, is the fact that Matthew, Mark, and John all agree that Jesus was anointed by Mary before his death. But she was not Mary Magdalene. It was more likely Mary of Bethany because the anointings all take place at Bethany. Only John’s woman is explicitly Mary of Bethany in his anointing at Bethany. A logical assumption would then be that Luke’s unnamed woman is also Mary of Bethany because it follows the same structure of the anointing scenes of the other three gospels; it just doesn’t locate it specifically at Bethany. Despite the overwhelming agreement of three gospels, and the anonymity of Luke’s woman, the anointing tradition is most often associated with Mary Magdalene. The tradition of anointing the human body was not embraced by the early church, and there is a great deal of mystery surrounding Mary Magdalene as a result. Bruce Chilton, a Religion professor at Bard College and also an Episcopal priest, attempts to rectify the repression of this remarkable woman in his biography of Mary Magdalene.
“Mary and her nameless colleague in chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel both show what other ancient documents demonstrate: Women in Jewish antiquity, particularly within the folk wisdom practiced in Galilee, exercised a prominent role as anointers. Their domain extended far beyond the conventional household, and there is evidence that significant groups of practitioners looked to these women to guide them in their quest to leave this world behind them and experience the divine world.”
Mary Magdalene’s suppression as an early leader in the church, which she was, as well as the first apostle—the first witness to resurrection in the gospels, which she was, is likely the result of the early church’s discomfort with physical anointing, especially its physical component. There is an unhidden element of eros in all four gospel traditions with the woman anointing Jesus with oil from the alabaster jar. For his part, Jesus is not embarrassed by it; he is instead deeply moved by the woman’s love and tender devotion. But the male witnesses are quite alarmed. In all but one case, they are too disturbed to even name the woman directly. The evangelists share the taboo panic with the witnesses; or rather they project it on to them. The scenes with the anointing woman show that the evangelists and the early church were uncomfortable with powerful women anointing others as a spiritual practice of the church, yet it was too important for them to fully cover it up. So it’s there, but confusing. Jesus also approved of it; all the gospels agree on that point, however reluctantly. Despite this institutional discomfort, the church has retained the remnant of the anointing tradition in four of its seven sacraments: Baptism (with the chrism, the oil anointing the forehead), Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Last Rites, with laying on of hands; as the bishop did to our five confirmands this past Thursday, along with our student who was baptized. The hidden history is actually in front of our eyes, hiding in plain sight, in the sacraments of the church. What a strange way for an institution to continue its past while repressing the mystical female tradition of Judaism and the early church, and completely forgetting its first priestly practitioners. H.D. remembers all of the Marys for who they really were.
The last poem of Trilogy is “The Flowering of the Rod,” the poem which celebrates the ecstasy of the cross in the full joy of resurrection. The rod is both the cross and the writing implement of the poet. The recovered writing implement, the rod and the rood, the stylus and the sacred tree, celebrates the full creativity of the masculine and the feminine now united, finally, in humankind and in the divine. Their balance has been restored in nature. The flowering of the rood and the rod is thus the full circle of resurrection. As much as any poet in the English language, H.D. writes about Easter. She is fully in touch with resurrection joy, with the resurrection ecstasy that came first to Mary Magdalene of all people. What does it say about human culture that it is far easier for us to imagine crucifixion than resurrection? What does it say that we have forgotten, and then misrepresented, the first person, a woman, who experienced the Easter miracle? In her own day, H.D. not only imagines resurrection, she presents the real experience of Easter. H.D. encounters the Risen Jesus in her broken modern world.
In resurrection, there is confusion
if we start to argue; if we stand and stare,
we do not know where to go;
in resurrection, there is simple affirmation,
but do not delay to round up the others,
up and down the street your going
in a moment like this, is the best proof
that you know the way;
does the first wild-goose care
whether the others follow or not?
I don’t think so--he is is happy to be off—
he knows where he is going…”
“do not think of His face
or even of His hands;
do not think how we will stand
“Now having given all, let us leave all;
above all, let us leave pity
and mount higher
Thanks so much for your attention this morning. Welcome back to Kent, ladies. At the heart of H.D.’s religious witness and modern experience of revelation is the heart of the Christian faith: the central understanding of Good Shepherd Sunday is that God is with us. God is still with us, just as in olden times, and we are in God’s image, as male and female. God loves each of you in a way that surpasses all human understanding. And God will be with us to the end of the ages: all will be well. May God bless our female graduates and students, and all of us at Kent School on this Good Shepherd Sunday.