Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Notes from a Reading Life: Alcuin of York

So....I'm tired. You can probably tell by the paucity of my posts here lately. Or maybe you are imagining me living a life of leisure, eating bon-bons and reading mystery novels. (Not! But doesn't that sound nice?)

In the midst of a crazy-busy life, I am doing a lot of reading. Some of it by necessity, since I'm assisting this term in three sections of a course in Medieval and Reformation Church History. The prof. I'm assisting sometimes piles on the primary source readings for our students, giving them the option to choose which sources they read according to what ressourcement lens they're working with (theology, worship or catechesis). But since I'm supposed to be responding to papers across all levels in the online section, I'm trying (note I said trying) to keep up with reading across all three tracks.

Since I often don't have time until late in the evening to tackle this reading, sometimes it feels like physical plowing. Read a few pages, get up and stretch and try to wake up. Read a few more pages, pop a hershey's kiss after unwrapping it from is pink foil blanket (ha! see, you were right...I *am* eating bon-bons). Listen to some lecture bits, record a few quiz grades, check in on facebook. Then back to the primary source readings, where I plow further ahead, trying to keep those furrows straight (that would be the furrows on my brow, as I try to exercise a very tired brain that's spent the day helping my third grader parse sentences, or figuring out what to cook for dinner, or answering missions committee related email, or mostly likely all three things at once...)

So though I am reading great quantities, I don't often have time for huge a-ha moments. I'm more in scribble-like-crazy-in-the-margins mode, or put-a-really-big- asterisk-next-to-this-important-thought and hope I'll be able to find it again mode.

So it's lovely when something I'm reading stops me in my tracks. Such was the case with Alcuin of York this evening.

Alcuin lived mostly in the eighth century (730 -804). He was Northumbrian by birth, influenced by the world of Bede, but he spent a lot of his life on the continent, where he became an important teacher/administrator/liturgist/writer in the court of Charlemagne. I could have gone on listing things he did, you get the drift. This was an important man whose thinking, writing, praying and teaching lay a lot of the groundwork for later medieval thought and practice.

He was also a poet. Do you know how blessed and happy it made my right-brain to happen upon his poetry in the midst of a long night of left-brain activity? Especially when I came across lines like these:

"Teach us faith, awaken hope, and fill us with love.
Give me the purity that comes from you and cannot come from me,
That I make forsake earth and seek heaven.
My soft plumage is weak without your help:
Grant me the wings of faith that I may fly upwards to you:
For I confess faith in you, through you and from you.

I confess that you are one in substance and Trinity in persons:
You are always the same, alive and all comprehending.
I confess the three in one and the one in three --
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: O blessed Trinity.
You are God, the Lord, and the Paraclete.
You are love, grace and communion:
For God is love, Christ is grace, and the Holy Spirit is communion:
Begetter, begotten and regenerator: O blessed Trinity.

The true Light, true Light from Light, and the Illuminator:
The fountain, the river and the refreshing stream:
All things are from one, through one and in one: O blessed Trinity."

I confess my heart soared (on wings of faith!) when I read these words. My tired eyes snapped open, my heart stood to attention and saluted. I fell into the words like someone who did indeed need to step into a refreshing stream. O Lord, I so need the language of poetry and prayer.

This is why -- and I say it as I've said it to students of all ages and stages over the years -- this is why it's so important that we spend time reading for formation and not just information. This is why we need the language of prayer and poetry and not just analytical prose (as much as I can delight in well-written history, biography, theology). Once in a while, we need to step out of words (even really good ones) that are written *about* and step into words that are *addressed to* the Word. We need to step out of mere thinking and into full-bodied, full-brained, full-hearted worship.


Elouise82 said...

Oh, what a lovely, uplifting poem. The first stanza especially spoke to me - I'm going to have to copy out the entire thing now. My husband will appreciate it, too!

And I have to say that the course you're assisting with sounds fascinating ... if mentally exhausting!

Beth said...

Glad you enjoyed it. This is actually only a piece of a longer poem/ goes on for quite a bit longer. And he was prolific -- wrote many such beautiful pieces, all of which show a heart devoted to God!

Despite my tired brain :) I am blessed to get to spend time in the company of such saints.