08 March 2012

Poems for Lent (13): ‘Evensong,’ by CS Lewis

‘as Thou hast risen, / Raise us in Thy dawn’ (CS Lewis, ‘Evensong’) ... dawn on the River Shannon at Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The theft of the heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole from Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, is inexplicable. Who could want the mummified heart of a saint who died in 1180? The Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Dermot Dune, commenting on the theft of the heart of Dublin’s patron saint, said: “It has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links our present foundation with its founding father, Saint Laurence O'Toole.”

The heart has been in the cathedral for 800 years, and was kept in Saint Laud’s Chapel in a wooden container sealed inside a small iron-barred case.

Saint Laurence O’Toole was Archbishop of Dublin from 1162 until his death at the Augustinian Monastery in Eu in Normandy in 1180. He was canonised by Pope Honorius III in 1225. His skull was brought from Eu to England in 1442 by Sir Rowland Standish and his bones were buried in Saint Lawrence’s Church, Chorley, in Lancashire. But those bones disappeared at the Reformation.

A Lenten story associated with Saint Laurence says that he Lent he went to Glendalough each Lent, and lived in Saint Kevin’s Cell above the Upper Lake for 40 days.

But while his heart is now missing from the cathedral that was at the centre of his diocese, the thief or thieves have not stolen the heart of the Christ Church Cathedral. Each Sunday afternoon and each Thursday evening, Choral Evensong is sung by the Cathedral Choir. Last Sunday, I read the Old Testament reading at Choral Evensong, which included the Preces and Responses by Richard Shepherd, and the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from George Dyson’s Evening Service in F. This evening [Thursday], Choral Evensong at 6 p.m. includes settings for the Preces, Canticles, Responses and an anthem by Tomkins.

The heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole was stolen from Christ Church Cathedral last weekend ... but continuity in the tradition of Choral Evensong shows the heart of the Cathedral cannot be stolen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

And so, my choice of a Poem for Lent this morning is ‘Evensong’ by the Belfast-born writer, CS Lewis (1893-1963). He is known worldwide for his popular and scholarly works that include literary criticism, children’s literature, fantasy literature and, essays, as well as his works in theology and as a Christian apologist. His great works include Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, and Surprised by Joy.

Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends as Jack, was born in Belfast on 29 November 1898, the son of Albert James Lewis (1863-1929), was a solicitor from Co Cork. He was baptised in Saint Mark’s Church, Dundela, by the rector, the Revd Thomas Hamilton, who was his maternal grandfather.

As a boy, he went to school at the Wynyard School in Watford, Campbell College in Belfast, and Malvern in Worcestershire, before being awarded a scholarship to University College, Oxford, in 1916.

In 1917, he volunteered for the British Army, and was commissioned in the Somerset Light Infantry. He was sent to the trenches in the Somme in France on his 19th birthday. On 15 April 1918, he was wounded in shellfire, and he suffered from depression and home-sickness during his convalescence. At the end of World War I, he returned to Oxford, gaining a First in Greek and Latin Literature in 1920, a First in Greats (Classics and Philosophy) in 1922, and a First in English in 1923.

When he first met WB Yeats at Oxford in 1921, he wrote: “I am often surprised to find how utterly ignored Yeats is among the men I have met: perhaps his appeal is purely Irish – if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish.”

Lewis was a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, for almost 30 years, from 1925 to 1954. His students included the poet John Betjeman, the critic Kenneth Tynan and the monk Bede Griffiths.

He first met JRR Tolkien at Oxford in 1926. They became lifelong friends, and both were members of the literary group known as the Inklings. Other members of this literary circle included Charles Williams, Nevill Coghill, Lord David Cecil and Owen Barfield.

At the age of 32, through the influence of Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and other friends, Lewis returned to the Anglicanism of his birth: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

The other influence on his return to Christianity, was The Everlasting Man by GK Chesterton. He became “a very ordinary layman of the Church of England.” For the rest of his life, his faith exercised a lasting influence on his work.

He left Oxford in 1954 to become the first Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge and a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

In 1956, he married the American writer Joy Davidman Gresham, 17 years his junior, who died four years later of cancer at the age of 45. Lewis died three years after his wife, as the result of renal failure. His death on 22 November 1963 came a week before his 65th birthday – and on the same day that President John F Kennedy was assassinated. He is buried in the churchyard at Holy Trinity Church, Headington, Oxford. He is commemorated on 22 November in the calendars of the Church of England, the Episcopal Church and other Anglican churches, but not in the calendar of the Church of his birth, the Church of Ireland.

Although CS Lewis never published a book of verse during his lifetime, he wrote poetry from the age of 14. His poetic impulse is evident in much of his work, including his first prose piece, The Pilgrim’s Regress, which contains a number of short lyrics, and in his novel Till We Have Faces, which had its beginnings as a long poem.

The Eagle and Child in Saint Giles’, the pub in Oxford where CS Lewis and the Inklings met on Tuesday mornings in 1939 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Evensong, by CS Lewis

Now that night is creeping
O’er our travail’d senses,
To Thy care unsleeping
We commit our sleep.
Nature for a season
Conquers our defences,
But th’eternal Reason
Watch and ward will keep.

All the soul we render
Back to Thee completely,
Trusting Thou wilt tend her
Through the deathlike hours,
And all night remake her
To Thy likeness sweetly,
Then with dawn awake her
And give back her powers.

Slumber’s less uncertain
Brother soon will bind us
– Darker falls the curtain,
Stifling-close ’tis drawn:
But amidst that prison
Still Thy voice can find us,
And, as Thou hast risen,
Raise us in Thy dawn.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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