Saint Robert Southwell: The Burning Babe

As this is the last Sunday of Advent, I thought I would share a poem that looks forward to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Day. The poem in question is the The Burning Babe by Saint Robert Southwell; a piece that is shot through with a deep sense of urgency and wonder, piling on a series of startling images that take what we know about the Nativity of Christ and re-present them in order to allow us to see just how radical an event the Incarnation really is. The method employed by Southwell is partly rooted in scriptural typology, in the sense that he makes Christological connections to reference points from the Old Testament (principally the episode of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3), but he does so in a way that draws imaginative parallels instead of connecting Christ to the older narratives in terms of prophecy.

Just as Moses, when confronted with the presence of God in the Burning Bush, was afraid of what he had encountered, falling to the ground because of the holiness that was before him, here Saint Robert Southwell imagines himself in a bitterly cold winter’s night suddenly coming across an intense heat and light. Just like Moses, he lifts up a ‘fearful eye’ to see from whence the heat and light came, but finds there instead a lonely child. Moreover, the great burning heat that emanates from the babe is revealed to be fuelled and stoked not by any earthly means, but by justice and mercy, whilst the fire itself is Love. The Babe goes on to explain that ‘the metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls’ – that whilst the intensity of the heat and light of the encounter is borne of a great tenderness, it is no less holy, no less a challenge to us:

 

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,

Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;

And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,

A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;

Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed

As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,

Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!

My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;

The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls,

For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,

So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.

With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,

And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas Day.

 

By describing the Nativity of Our Lord in terms of the great and terrible holiness of the Burning Bush, and employing the language often found in the Prophets of divine furnaces honing the souls of men, Southwell reminds us that, whilst Christmas should indeed be a comfort to us (the fire, he writes, ‘made my heart to glow’) we do not therein encounter something insipid or saccharine, and are not merely told that we are ‘alright as we are’ and left to dwell in self-satisfied ease. Christ comes in weakness and humility, as a wailing child, born into poverty and peril; but His coming in this way, shows us what God (who will one day judge us all) is like and what He truly values – that ‘his mercy is on those who fear him’ and that the proud are therefore scattered ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ whilst He has ‘exalted those of low degree’ (Luke 1:50-52).

This revelation of God’s true nature and what He deems important should be deeply challenging to us all, given how deeply we cling to the stories we tell ourselves of our innate goodness and prestige, how much we deserve from God and neighbour and the excuses we so creatively conjure up to mask the reality of our connivance, jealousies, malicious speech, and the acts of dishonesty or meanness committed when we think noone is looking. The subtlety of our sins, and the degree to which we have become used to them, does not do anything to erase them, and so Christmas, if we take seriously what it means, must remain a great interruption for us – a shock to wake us from our indolence and complacency.

Saint Robert, in another poem of his (New Heaven, New War – memorably set to music by Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols), wrote of Our Lord that ‘His battering shots are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes’. This captures well the central import of the poem above and thus of Christmas in general – namely that, though it be by meekness and not by force, God wishes to conquer the sin in us and make clean our souls, putting a right spirit within us; to thereby make right His creation through us and finally to make us His. He knows that the things we so often put first are wants of a secondary nature and that the desires of our hearts can only find true fulfilment in Him, and so He means to bring us to Himself in and through the furnace of divine Love – a love that was first revealed in the clamours of the Child at Bethlehem.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Saint Robert Southwell: The Burning Babe

  1. Your article is truly inspiring Michael… and very moving. You have brought out the deep insights and biblical context in St. Robert Southwell’s poem so well, while at the same time leading us to other rich insights that are all your own. This is a perfectly timed Christmas meditation! 🙂

    St. Robert Southwell was clearly a great saint, a talented man of strong and heroic virtue, and I think it is strange that he is not better known. His poetry is beautiful and he has left us so many wonderful quotes like this well known one: “The God of Hosts, in slender host doth dwell.”

    • Thank you very much Kathleen – I am glad this is how you read it, as I had hoped it would be a good meditation for Christmas. It is indeed strange that Saint Robert Southwell is not better known – from what I can glean he was very well thought of during and shortly after his lifetime, and is reckoned to have been an influence on Shakespeare’s poetry. Ben Jonson even remarked that had he written a poem like ‘The Burning Babe’, he would have been happy to destroy the majority of his own! I think he is still highly though of amongst poets and academics, but it is a shame he doesn’t have the wider readership he deserves. And yes, a great saint as well!

      • “Ben Jonson even remarked that had he written a poem like ‘The Burning Babe’, he would have been happy to destroy the majority of his own!”

        One could hardly hope for greater praise than that! 🙂

        It reminds me of the words of the great St. Thomas Aquinas once He was graced with a vision of God (and this after he had written so extensively and so magnificently on the things of God and Our Catholic Faith). He said, referring to his lifetime of work: “It is but straw”.
        IOW, when one is faced with the beauty of Truth in all its splendour, all our former words, actions, etc. in trying to define it are but straw!!

        • Absolutely! I love that story about Saint Thomas as well – really sums up how great is the splendour and glory of God, and a reminder of how greatly life with Him will surpass all our expectations 🙂

          Another story about Saint Thomas Aquinas I like (apart from the famous one about him chasing the girl out of his room with a hot poker – which always makes me chuckle) is that when he was having his final confession heard, the confessor came out of the room white as a sheet, and when he was asked what was wrong, he finally stammered out ‘The sins of a child of five…a child of five!’

          • What a lovely comment!
            A big resounding “Oh yes!” to your first paragraph. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard… etc.” 🙂

            Just loved your stories about St. Thomas Aquinas. I’d heard the first one before, but it always makes me laugh too when I’m reminded of it… but I don’t think I’d heard the second one previously; or at least not the astounded words of his confessor. It’s wonderful!

            There are not many people who pass into Eternal Life with the pure soul of a five year old child – not even amongst the saints. St. Therese, I believe, was another one; perhaps St. Padre Pio too. Original Sin does not seem to have worked its marks of sinful concupiscence on these angelic souls.

            • Yes this is true. There have been saints who have had wonderfully warm and devout upbringings and thus had their roots planted deep in the fertile soil of the Faith, allowing them to avoid much of the marring of the soul that we all suffer during life, but it is indeed only a select few who have persisted in such innocence of spirit and purity of will. Saint Therese and Saint Pio I agree would be on that list. I cannot think of any others off hand, apart from Our Lady and Saint Joseph of course 🙂

            • P.S. And this purity of soul is of course perfectly compatible with a life lived amidst real trials, suffering and temptations and with full experience of the sinfulness in the world, as the lives of the parents of the Holy Family testify to!

              • You’re right about St. Joseph too, I’m sure. “The silent saint” he is called… yet I have such a burning love for this holy guardian of Our Lady and the Holy Infant; his silence with (recorded) words reveals how actions speak so much louder. He is the symbol of faith, hope and love, and is also a fine masculine role model for all men of protectiveness, authority (decision making), loyalty and courage.

                I agree with what you say in your p.s. too. In fact what merit for men would a life lived in perfect purity of soul be if there were no “trials, suffering nor temptations” to contend with? It is precisely because great saints have confronted these too and remained pure that they have achieved such heroic virtue in their lives.

                Besides, was not Our Blessed Lord tempted in his human body as well? Perhaps Our Blessed Lady was too. But sin could not enter in anywhere near what was perfect Holiness, Purity, Goodness and Love.

                • Yes indeed, and the lives of the saints (in having maintained purity whilst enduring many trials, etc) gives the lie to the accepted idea nowadays that it is only by giving in to your urges or lashing out against the circumstances we find ourselves in that we can truly gain experience – it is as if weakness (of giving in to these things) is now held up as a virtue, whereas the strength of the saints in their perseverance amidst trials is seen as weakness! Daft of course, as is a great deal of modern thinking 🙂

                  Re Saint Joseph, I completely agree about how important a role model he is, and how his actions say so much despite the finer details of his role being hidden from us in great part. In fact, I have just (finally) gotten around to reading Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on Saint Joseph (‘Quamquam Pluries’) – a wonderful little document which explains really well why the Church has Joseph as her patron, and how important a role he should have in all our lives. I intend to read ‘Redemptoris Custos’ (by Pope St John Paul II) soon as well, as apparently he goes into this in much more detail – should make good Christmas reading!

                  http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15081889_quamquam-pluries.html

                  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_15081989_redemptoris-custos_en.html

                  • Wonderful! Thank you for these links Michael. 🙂

                    And my sincerest best wishes for a truly holy and blessed Christmas to you as we join with all Christians the world over to celebrate the wondrous event of Our Blessed Saviour’s Birth among us. God bless x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s