01 January 2023

‘For last year’s words belong to
last year’s language and next
year’s words await another voice’

‘We shall not cease from exploration’ … winter sunset in the fields between Stony Stratford and Wolverton Mill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.

— TS Eliot, Little Gidding

‘And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

‘Little Gidding’ is the last poem in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Moving from last year’s words and language to the voice of this new year provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of time, the past, the present and the future.

A good place to do this last week was during the walks Charlotte and I took by the Balancing Lakes and the fields between Stony Stratford and Wolverton Mill.

It is a New Year, and I am now living on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, and living outside Ireland for the first time in many years. Fifty years ago I was living on High Street in Wexford; half a century later, I am living on High Street in Stony Stratford.

Time plays games with us all as we move between one place and the next, from one year to the next. Yet time does little to diminish the impact of a move like this, or to dampen the emotions – joys and losses – that are at the heart of making such a move.

During those late afternoon strolls at sunset by the water, between the enveloping dusk of the afternoon and the winter darkness of the evening, I was aware of how time moves on relentlessly even when we think we are moving at our own pace.

It has been a year in which I have been made aware of my own frailty and failings. Yet, in the midst of great losses, there have been immeasurable gains.

But ‘what might have been … is always present,’ as TS Eliot reminds us in ‘Burnt Norton,’ his first poem in the Four Quartets. And I have promised myself more time this year for walks by rivers and lakes, in gardens and in the countryside, more time for wonder at the world and creation, more time for prayer and reflection, and more time for friendship and for love.

‘Through the unknown, unremembered gate’ … in the mid-December snow in Saint Mary’s churchyard in Shenley Church End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

— TS Eliot, Burnt Norton

‘Footfalls echo in the memory / Down the passage which we did not take’ … night time in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying at Christmas through poems
and with USPG: 1 January 2023

‘May there be many a summer morning when,/ with what pleasure, what joy,/ you come into harbours seen for the first time’ … the Venetian harbour in Réthymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Later this morning, I hope to be present at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford.

Today is New Year’s Day, a day for new beginnings, for renewing relationships, for new beginnings, and for setting out on new ventures. In the Church Calendar, this is not the beginning of the Church Year – the Church Year begins with Advent. Instead, today [1 January] we recall the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

The celebration of this festival marks three events: firstly, the naming of the infant; secondly, the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham ‘and his children for ever,’ thus Christ’s keeping of the Law; and thirdly, traditionally the first shedding of the Christ’s blood. The most significant of these in the Gospels is the name itself, which means ‘Yahweh saves’ and so is linked to the question asked by Moses of God: ‘What is your name?’ ‘I am who I am,’ was the reply, thus the significance of Christ’s words: ‘Before Abraham was, I am,’ or the ‘I AM’ sayings in the Fourth Gospel.

In the Gospel reading this morning (Luke 2: 15-21), Saint Luke recalls the Circumcision and Naming of Christ in a short, terse summary account in one, single verse: ‘After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb’ (Luke 2: 21).

This feast has been observed in the church since at least the sixth century, and the circumcision of Christ has been a common subject in Christian art since the tenth century. A popular 14th century work, the Golden Legend, explains the Circumcision as the first time the Blood of Christ is shed, and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption, and a demonstration too that Christ is fully human.

Saint Luke does not say where the Christ Child was circumcised, although artists (Rembrandt in particular) have often depicting the ritual taking place in the Temple, linking the Circumcision with the Presentation, so that Christ’s suffering begins and ends in Jerusalem.

The beginning of redemption, the beginning of the New Covenant, the beginning of the New Year … as TS Eliot opens and closes ‘East Coker’:

In my beginning is my end
… In my end is my beginning

The harbour at Rethymnon on the island of Crete … for Cavafy, the beginning of the journey is as important as the end, the journey as important as the destination (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

If Eliot unites our beginnings and our ends, then for the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), in his poem ‘Ithaka’ (1911) – which I have chosen as my Christmas poem this morning – the beginning of the journey is seen as important as the end itself, the journey as important as the destination.

When I was in Kephallonia some years ago, it was impossible not to want to set sail for Ithaka, and when I was in Alexandria it was impossible not to go in search through the backstreets for Cavafy’s home in the former Greek Quarter. The Alexandria Cavafy writes about in his poems has now mostly vanished, and there are few Greeks left in the city today, alongside Cavafy’s apartment, which is maintained as a museum and library by the Greek government, the hospital he was treated in, a few sea front cafes, and a few churches, including Saint Saba, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.

As I visited his former apartment, I was told again how, in his dying days, Cavafy had asked: ‘Where could I live better? Under me is a house of ill repute, which caters to the needs of the flesh. Over there is the church, where sins are forgiven. And beyond is the hospital, where we die.’

Some 20 years after Cavafy’s death in 1933, WH Auden spoke of his ‘unique perspective on the world’ and his ‘unique tone of voice.’ The Greek poet George Seferis conceded that he was the most important poet in the 20th century writing in Greek. Auden spoke of the unique capacity of Cavafy’s work to survive translation, so that the reader who has no Greek still feels on reading a poem by Cavafy that ‘nobody else could possibly have written it.’

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis regarded Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ as one of her favourite poems and asked for Maurice Templesman to read it at her funeral in May 1994. He concluded his reading by saying: ‘And now the journey is over, too short, alas, too short. It was filled with adventure and wisdom, laughter and love, gallantry and grace. So farewell, farewell.’ I was in Crete at the time, and when the New York Times reprinted the poem, it inspired a rush of sales of Cavafy’s Collected Poems, with new printings and new English translations.

That sudden rise in interest in Cavafy, brought about by such a simple poem, shows how most of us have a inborn ability to love poetry. Cavafy paints captivating images of ships sailing into harbours on summer mornings, of exotic bazaars and souks. Yet the lasting image is of the journey of life being of value in itself, rather than any of the honours or recognition we strive in vain to achieve.

Penelope waiting for Odysseus … Μαριάννα Βαλλιάνου, Η επιστροφή, Mariánna Valliánou, ‘The Return’

In the poem ‘Ithaka,’ Cavafy transforms Homer’s account of the return of Odysseus from the Trojan War to his home island. This transformation is a variation on how Dante and Tennyson handle the same theme. They offer an Odysseus who arrives home after a long absence only to find Ithaka less than fully satisfying and who soon makes plans to travel forth a second time.

However, Cavafy answers them by telling Odysseus that arriving in Ithaka is what he is destined for, and that he must keep that always in mind: one’s destiny, the inevitable end of the journey, is a thing to be faced for what it is, without illusions.

‘Hope the voyage is a long one. / May there be many a summer morning when … / with what pleasure, what joy, / you come into harbours seen for the first time’ (CP Cavafy) … the harbour at St Julien’s in Malta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The meaning of Ithaka is in the voyage home that it inspired. It is not reaching home or again escaping its limitations once there that should occupy Odysseus so much as those elevated thoughts and rare excitement that are a product of the return voyage.

As Edmund Keeley says, this new perspective is what frees the voyager’s soul of the monsters, obstacles and angry gods, so that when the voyager reaches his Ithaka he will be rich not with what Ithaka has to offer him on his return, but with all that he has gained along the way, including his coming to know that this perspective on things, this unhurried devotion to pleasure and knowledge, is Ithaka’s ultimate value.

‘As you set out for Ithaka/ hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery’ … the coast of Paxos in Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ιθάκη, Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωιά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους
να σταματήσεις σ’ εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν’ αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ’ έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά
σε πόλεις Aιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ’ τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί είν’ ο προορισμός σου.
Aλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει
και γέρος πια ν’ αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στον δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ’ έδωσε τ’ ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δεν σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες η Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν

Ithaka, Constantine P Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

– Constantine Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Elijah’s Chair, used at the circumcision of a Jewish boy when he is eight days old, seen in the Jewish Museum in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is ‘Refugee Response in Finland.’ This theme is introduced this morning by the Revd Tuomas Mäkipää, Chaplain at Saint Nicholas’ Anglican Church in Helsinki, who tells how a USPG grant is helping to support Ukrainian refugees:

‘Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been a steady flow of refugees from Ukraine to Finland. Those arriving are unable to travel by their own means and have no relatives or friends in Finland; and they are likely to have witnessed many of the horrors of war. Though the Finnish government has been very active in its response, many refugees are still without money and are living in reception centres or as guests in private homes.

‘Saint Nicholas’ Chaplaincy in Helsinki monitored the situation carefully from the outset and shared information about where refugees could access help. It also supported the Vallila Centre, founded by the Ukrainian Association in Finland, by having collections to provide basic hygiene products and food for refugees.

‘To explore how the Chaplaincy could further help the dedicated work of the centre, it got in touch with USPG. Knowing that the Vallila volunteers were working at full capacity, the chaplaincy recognised the centre could do more if they had a full-time co-ordinator, and a generous grant from the Diocese in Europe and USPG has enabled this. The chaplaincy is now hoping to support the centre in their transition from ‘first response unit’ to a place which can offer long-term help.’

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Your dawn from on high has broken upon us.
Give light to those who sit in darkness
and the shadow of death, O Lord,
and guide our feet into the way of peace.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The naming and circumcision of the Christ Child, depicted in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)