Sunday, January 29, 2012
The book as a sacred space
In my last I mentioned literature as one of the places where sacred spaces can be made and found. In a comment on the post before that, “Drifting Away”, DaRev2005 (I call him Rev) said “most if not all of my sacred places are books or songs”. That stuck in my head, set me brooding. And now as my fingers dance on the keyboard, while I look out the window to yonder hill shrouded in mist, as in my upper photo, I suddenly understand why it was, late last night, that I turned to the Book of Psalms, in search of an example. (The second photo shows a rainbow moment from another day.) Actually, I was looking for no. 121, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”, but never got there, as I shall relate.
I have two bibles. Both contain text of the King James Authorised Version. One is the Holy Bible. Being no Christian, I treat it as a ritual object. It’s also handy for look-up, as the chapters and verses are all numbered. The other one is The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature, edited by Ernest Sutherland Bates and first published in 1936. I was introduced to it at school aged ten. Sixty years later, I have my own treasured copy. It wasn’t for religion’s sake that we studied the Bible’s stories and poems. It was for culture’s sake, to be schooled in our own civilization. These were the tales and songs of our tribe, and in learning them we were little different from any tribe of Aborigines learning the oral traditions of their Dream Time. Can anything be much more universal than that?
Today is the 70th anniversary of Desert Island Discs, a BBC radio programme in which celebrities are interviewed about their life, interspersed with their personal selection of eight gramophone records. At the end, they are invited to choose one book and one luxury to take along to the desert island on which they are to imagine themselves marooned. Following the programme’s tradition, they are reminded that the Bible and Shakespeare will be provided in any case. Like millions of people in Britain, I often wonder about my desert island choices. It’s less morbid than choosing music for one’s funeral. I’ve decided, quirky as it may be, that when they start inviting nonentities on the programme, I’ll ask for the Bible as Literature as my book choice.
Let it speak on its own behalf. First this, from the Introduction by Laurence Binyon, poet:
Some time about the end of the last century I remember waiting for a train at a little country station; and I was approached by an old shepherd in a smock-frock who, I learned, was making the alarming adventure of travelling by train (to the next station) for the first time. We fell into talk, and as he told me of his frugal life and the contrast between present conditions and those of his youth, when there was never enough to eat, and he had “neither home nor habitation,” I was struck by the Biblical character of the speech in which his thoughts seemed to find their natural expression. The Bible probably was the only book he knew; its language had soaked into his mind and fitted all the needs of his ancient solitary calling.... His world is gone, his language is heard no more..
Now I turn to the middle of the book, to “The Book of Psalms: an anthology of sacred poetry”. Here’s no. 104, where I wondrously find the proper answer to a comment made by Billy (BBC), appended to my last-but-one post. I’d said I’d “been seething with ideas for a post on sacred places”. “What the f— for?” he responded. “Isn’t the place you are standing (or sitting) on this very moment sacred? No one place is more sacred than another.” And of course he was right. And this is what the anonymous poet-psalmist expresses below. Joyously he sets out a great vision of ecological wholeness, undiminished by ignorance of modern science. Nowadays we have the scientific and technological visions together with updated definitions of “sinners” and “wickedness”. New ideas, true or false, have arisen to poison our minds with fear, in place of the poet’s reverent certainty, his vision of a single beneficent uniting force. A modern atheist fears that there is no such force, that the fragile agents of harmony can break. Who knows? In any case it is sad.
In the old-style Bible, typography* as in my illustration above inhibits the eye and soul from seeing this poem as it truly should be seen, below.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, thou art very great;
Thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment;
Who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters;
Who maketh the clouds his chariot;
Who walketh upon the wings of the wind;
Who maketh his angels spirits,
His ministers a flaming fire;
Who laid the foundations of the earth,
That it should not be removed for ever.
Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment;
The waters stood above the mountains.
At thy rebuke they fled;
At the voice of thy thunder they hastened away.
They go up by the mountains, they go down by the valleys
Unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over,
That they turn not again to cover the earth.
He sendeth the springs into the valleys,
Which run among the hills.
They give drink to every beast of the field;
The wild asses quench their thirst.
By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation,
Which sing among the branches.
He watereth the hills from his chambers:
The earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.
He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle,
And herb for the service of man:
That he may bring forth food out of the earth;
And wine that maketh glad the heart of man,
And oil to make his face to shine,
And bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.
The trees of the Lord are full of sap,
The cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted,
Where the birds make their nests;
As for the stork, the fir trees are her house.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats,
And the rocks for the conies.
He appointed the moon for seasons;
The sun knoweth his going down.
Thou makest darkness, and it is night,
Wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey,
And seek their meat from God.
The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together,
And lay them down in their dens.
Man goeth forth unto his work
And to his labour until the evening.
O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
In wisdom hast thou made them all;
The earth is full of thy riches.
So is this great and wide sea,
Wherein are things creeping innumerable,
Both small and great beasts.
There go the ships;
There is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
These wait all upon thee,
That thou mayest give them their meat in due season.
That thou givest them they gather;
Thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.
Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled;
Thou takest away their breath, they die,
And return to their dust.
Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created,
And thou renewest the face of the earth.
The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever;
The Lord shall rejoice in his works.
He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth;
He toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
My meditation of him shall be sweet;
I will be glad in the Lord.
Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth,
And let the wicked be no more.
Bless thou the Lord, O my soul.
Praise ye the Lord.
Yes, that would be my desert island choice.
Postscript I didn’t want to weigh down the main post with more quotes, so shall append here this further extract from Laurence Binyon’s Introduction, especially apposite in relation to Psalm 104 above, as if the author had it in mind at the time.
It was De Quincey, I think who noted in the precept ‘Let not the sun go down upon your wrath’ something characteristic of the literature of the Bible; namely, the seeking for a harmony, a correspondence, between the actions of mankind and the larger movements of the universe in which man’s life is set. And I think that this is one thing that may especially impress the mind in reading Hebrew poetry. There is no description of things for their own sake; they are vividly seen, but all things are related to one another; we are made aware of them all—the mountains and the streams, the vineyards, the olives, the desert places, the sheep and cattle, the wild ass and the lion in the wilderness, the tender grass, the rocks, the sea and the ships upon the sea, the fishes under the water, the stars, the rain, the wind and in all this world men moving and going about their business, acting, suffering and rejoicing; all these are related to one another because united by the presence in the poet’s consciousness of the pervading power of the invisible Creator. A modern reader may have quite other ideas about the constitution of the universe, a quite different approach to it; but he will hardly deny that it is a living and mysterious whole; and through this profound conviction of the pervading, eternal spirit, touching all life with a kind of glory, Hebrew poetry has a grandeur of horizon together with a kindling warmth and passion which we find in no other poetry with the same constancy or to the same degree.
* “The Bible is the worst-printed book in the world. No other monument of ancient or modern literature suffers the fate of being put before us in a form that makes it impossible without strong effort and considerable training, to take in elements of literary structure which in all other books are conveyed directly to the eye in a manner impossible to mistake.” (Dr R. G. Moulton in his “Literary Study of the Bible”, quoted in Laurence Binyon’s Introduction.) [return]
Posted by Vincent at 5:42 pm