John Keble’s The Christian Year is a wonderful resource for reflecting on the feasts and memorials of the liturgical year. It seems to me to be a work that can provide great spiritual edification in a structured way that is deeply rooted in Scripture, and so is something I would recommend to Christians of any stripe. It is also a good example of the notoriously hard to pin down ‘Anglican patrimony’ that Anglicanorum Coetibus was created to try and preserve within a Catholic context. This patrimony has more to do with the textures and character of a lived heritage of music, poetry and liturgy than with any theological distinctiveness, and so Keble’s work speaks more eloquently of what is unique about Anglicanism than any doctrinal formulations proffered could do.
With respect to the piece below, today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and Keble’s poem reflects upon the passage in chapter nine of the Acts of the Apostles, particularly verses four and five, where Saul is struck to the earth by a blinding light and hears the voice of Jesus asking him why it is that he persecutes Him. Keble captures the great drama of the event, with Saul’s fiery determination at the beginning of the poem emphatically knocked back by ‘rich glory’, and the deeply personal character of the vision – ‘deep within that dazzling field His persecuted Lord reveal’d’. He then elaborates on Jesus’ affirmation to Saul/Paul of the deep bond between Him and His Body, the Church, drawing out imaginative resonances with the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, before urging us to consider how we may open our hearts to Jesus today, and allow our gifts to be used as Saint Paul’s were then – not changed, but converted, redirected and strengthened by love:
The mid-day sun, with fiercest glare,
Broods o’er the hazy twinkling air:
Along the level sand
The palm-tree’s shade unwavering lies,
Just as thy towers, Damascus, rise
To greet yon wearied band.
The leader of that martial crew
Seems bent some mighty deed to do,
So steadily he speeds,
With lips firm closed and fixèd eye,
Like warrior when the fight is night,
Nor talk nor landscape heeds.
What sudden blaze is round him poured,
As though all Heaven’s refulgent hoard
In one rich glory shone?
One moment—and to earth he falls:
What voice his inmost heart appalls?—
Voice heard by him alone.
For to the rest both words and form
Seem lost in lightning and in storm,
While Saul, in wakeful trance,
Sees deep within that dazzling field
His persecuted Lord revealed,
With keen yet pitying glance:
And hears time meek upbraiding call
As gently on his spirit fall,
As if th’ Almighty Son
Were prisoner yet in this dark earth,
Nor had proclaimed His royal birth,
Nor His great power begun.
“Ah! wherefore persecut’st thou Me?”
He heard and saw, and sought to free
His strained eyes from the sight:
But Heaven’s high magic bound it there,
Still gazing, though untaught to bear
Th’ insufferable light.
“Who art Thou, Lord?” he falters forth:—
So shall Sin ask of heaven and earth
At the last awful day.
“When did we see Thee suffering nigh,
And passed Thee with unheeding eye?
Great God of judgment, say!”
Ah! little dream our listless eyes
What glorious presence they despise,
While, in our noon of life,
To power or fame we rudely press.—
Christ is at hand, to scorn or bless,
Christ suffers in our strife.
And though heaven’s gate long since have closed,
And our dear Lord in bliss reposed,
High above mortal ken,
To every ear in every land
(Thought meek ears only understand)
He speaks as he did then.
“Ah! wherefore persecute ye Me?
’Tis hard, ye so in love should be
With your own endless woe.
Know, though at God’s right hand I live,
I feel each wound ye reckless give
To the least saint below.
“I in your care My brethren left,
Not willing ye should be bereft
Of waiting on your Lord.
The meanest offering ye can make—
A drop of water—for love’s sake,
In Heaven, be sure, is stored.”
O by those gentle tones and dear,
When thou hast stayed our wild career,
Thou only hope of souls,
Ne’er let us cast one look behind,
But in the thought of Jesus find
What every thought controls.
As to Thy last Apostle’s heart
Thy lightning glance did then impart
Zeal’s never-dying fire,
So teach us on Thy shrine to lay
Our hearts, and let them day by day
Intenser blaze and higher.
And as each mild and winning note
(Like pulses that round harp-strings float
When the full strain is o’er)
Left lingering on his inward ear
Music, that taught, as death drew near,
Love’s lesson more and more:
So, as we walk our earthly round,
Still may the echo of that sound
Be in our memory stored
“Christians! behold your happy state:
Christ is in these, who round you wait;
Make much of your dear Lord!”