Thursday, March 13, 2014

And All The Wheels of Being Slow

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack'd with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Tennyson is one of my favourite poets. (Both 'Ulysses' and 'Locksley Hall' would be candidates for my favourite poem of all time.) 'In Memoriam' is not my favourite, but these lines seem to me a wonderful evocation of spiritual dryness, and (although I think Tennyson was addressing his dead friend rather than the Almighty) a very beautiful prayer.

I've often been struck by a strange paradox; faith seems strongest when it is slenderest. In some ways, we seem closest to God when we are spiritually arid, when we feel the least 'spiritual'. I feel frustrated writing this, because it seems like a truism from a devotional book, and that's not what I mean. I mean something very specific and very definite-- and perhaps something more psychological than spiritual (though one could argue those two adjectives are synonyms, 'psyche' simply meaning 'soul'. But you know what I mean.).

I know that when I find myself going through the motions at Mass, going through the motions in prayer, those are amongst the times I feel most comfort in my faith.

I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I actually like that prose poem 'Footsteps' that graces so many calendars and posters. (It is of a class with several poems that should be awful by any ordinary reckoning, but are actually very good-- 'Desiderata', 'The Gate of the Year', "A Visit from Saint Nicholas'. I'm sure there are others.)

I don't suppose this sensation I describe is unique to Catholics. I would guess it is shared by all organized religions, and that even patriotism (the more quiet sort of patriotism) might supply it to some extent. I think it is simply the case that ritual, community, ceremony and continuity mean the most to us when we are feeling the least spontaneous, exuberant and spirited.

But, on second thoughts, I think there is something, not uniquely, but especially Catholic about it.


  1. Oh, I probably shouldn't be saying this as a Catholic, but I think I tend to not be particularly strong in my Faith when I'm at Mass or even when I'm praying. In my Mass I think I might be taking it for granted as I tend to feel very passive. When I'm praying I tend to feel like a blabbering idiot, or if I'm saying an official prayer I tend to feel I'm lacking the spirit with which the prayer should be said. Having said that, the majority of time I go to bed without having said any prayers I tend to have a very awkward, uneasy feeling that forces me from my bed.

    **Keep in mind I am not trying to play down the importance of Mass or praying at all. I would sooner be flogged.**

    To be honest I think the thing that makes me feel closest to my Faith is when I'm either contemplating it or else reading about or seeing people who were/are very devout or did something particularly wonderful for the Faith.

    This is going to sound extremely stupid, but here's a quick example of what I mean. I recently saw Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The film revolves around a fountain that can extend the life of a person who drinks from it. After a map of the area is found the race is on between Blackbeard, the English, and the Spanish. Spoilers ahead...

    The English and Blackbeard, though facing many misfortunes, reach the fountain first. A short battle breaks out but is suddenly interrupted by the much larger Spanish force who silently command a halt to all action. While Blackbeard and the English sought to find the fountain for selfish purposes, the Spanish captain remarks something along the lines of "Only God can grant eternal life. Not this pagan water. Men, destroy this profane temple."

    What I find most interesting is that the Spanish are never portrayed as bad guys or weirdos, but actually as quite dignified and respectful. Before the fountain is destroyed, an English soldier jumps up with a flag claiming the area for the British Monarchy before being shot by the Spanish captain. The captain then announces "Someone make a note of that man's bravery".

    I like to think that this is me being inspired by devout people, or even devout characters. However, I'm not sure if that is the case or I am simply succumbing to human pride. It's a bit like when I see a film or hear a song that is religious or has religious undertones. I'm not sure if I'm being inspired by devoutness or if I'm just being an unjustly proud Catholic. Anyway, I've said enough.

  2. I don't think you are being unjustly proud at all. I think it's very natural and perfectly legitimate to be inspired by the example of holiness and devoutness in other people, even in fictional characters. I think this is why our Lord told us to let our light shine before others. I think it's why St. Paul said, "Be followers of me, as I follow Christ".

    I definitely share this tendency with you. I think most Christians do and probably most people. That's why I think the lives of the saints and stories about the saints are extremely important.

    Personally, it's not just the heroics of the saints I find inspiring (though that is hugely important to me), but even the little signs of devotion you see here and there. Sometimes just seeing somebody praying in a graceful way, or talking about God in a sincere and perhaps even casual way, is profoundly moving.

    But the most surprising thing about your comment is that you got anything at all out of On Stranger Tides, which I saw in the cinema....oh was so bad....!!

  3. Yes, I think you are right Maolsheachlann. It was like the first time I went to the Belloc Society, or even the talk with Dale Alqhist last week. I found it quite inspiring just being in the presence of all those people, which I think I said before.

    Ha ha The film wasn't great, no, but as I said I am always fascinated when I see a devoutly religious character in a film who is treated so sincerely. Even Jack Sparrow's love interest is somewhat religious as she seems concerned about her father's soul, and when she convinces him not to kill the preacher he replies with something like "Bah, you're a Latinist just like your mother". Even the part at the start of the film where the British noble or governor is talking to Jack, he starts becoming a bit heated at the thought that a Catholic (the Spanish) will find the fountain first, which I found kind of funny.

    That's why I sometimes wonder if I'm not just indulging in petty pride. Even small things like that where Catholicism is mentioned seem to get my attention. Perhaps it's just an Irish thing though. Irish people love taking pride in famous people who's link to Ireland is about as thick as a loose hair. We just seem to love getting a mention whenever we can.