Litany of humility

I was paging through Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise this morning and came across the “Litany of Humility,” a prayer ordinarily (but erroneously) attributed to Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, the former Secretary of State of Pope Pius X. Like most prayers, it takes the form of a poetic, dramatic monologue when spoken aloud, even in private (the prayer is intended for private devotions) —  a monologue driven by the most significant of all dramatic and human conflicts, the conflict of the human heart with itself.

Though Merry del Val was a cardinal of the Catholic Church, the prayer is worth some contemplation whether one is a Christian or a believer or neither, and I find it particularly relevant to our own “twittering world,” as T.S. Eliot would have it. On the other hand, if one is a Christian or believer, the conflicts become even more complex and worth more contemplation.

You may disagree with me, or even find the poem the height of passive foolishness in this culture; if everyone took the prayer to heart, well, what would become of us? In which case I only have recourse to Yossarian’s response to Major Danby at the end of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:

Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”

“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

As to the prayer’s original author, Wikipedia gently notes: “The original author of the Litany of Humility seems to be lost to history, in the obscurity for which he prayed.” Below, the “Litany of Humility” as it appears in The Power of Silence:

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
Make my heart like yours.
From self-will, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire to be understood, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire to be visited, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being abandoned, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being refused, deliver me, O Lord.
That others may be loved more than I,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I go unnoticed,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I,
provided that I may become as holy as I should,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
At being unknown and poor,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
At being deprived of the natural perfections of body and mind,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When people do not think of me,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they assign to me the meanest tasks,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they do not even deign to make use of me,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they never ask my opinion,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they leave me at the lowest place,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they never compliment me,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they blame me in season and out of season,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
Blessed are those who suffer persecution for justice’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jeremy Irons reads “Four Quartets”

Jeremy Irons.

UPDATE: Jeremy Irons will read Four Quartets at the 92nd Street Y in New York on April 12, 2018; tickets are available here. The reading will launch the CD release from Faber & Faber of Irons reading all of Eliot’s poetry; the CD will be released on April 7 and is available for pre-order from Amazon here.


In 2014, Jeremy Irons recorded T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for the BBC, by far one of the best renditions of that great poem, perhaps the greatest religious poem of the 20th century and one that I’ve been returning to again and again. That recording can be heard below; it is introduced with comments from Michael Symmons Roberts, Lord David Alton and Gail McDonald. Running time is 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Roundup

T.S. Eliot and Jeremy Irons.

This week, the week before Christmas 2017, I mused over some of T.S. Eliot’s holiday-season “Ariel poems” — “Journey of the Magi,” “A Song for Simeon,” “Animula,” and finally the unjustly neglected (and my personal favorite) “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” — and I hope that they gave you as much pleasure as they did myself.

To wrap things up, a little audio present for you. Last New Year’s Day — January 1, 2017 — the BBC ran a splendid series of programs which featured Jeremy Irons reading just about all of Eliot’s collected verse. You can find the entire series here, but below is a 38-minute excerpt from the whole, in which you can hear Irons reading all of the poems published here this week. As an introduction, host Martha Kearney interviews actress Fiona Shaw about Eliot’s poetry; Ms. Shaw after discussing her own performance of Eliot’s poems proceeds to compare Eliot favorably with Samuel Beckett, Leonard Cohen (well … okay), and Beyoncé (about this I’m not so sure). But the interview is quite brief, and Irons’ glorious performances of “The Hollow Men” and the other poems follow.

Coincidentally, Irons plays Hans Gruber’s brother in one of the sequels to my favorite Christmas movie, Die Hard. Michael Hann wrote about this cheerful holiday entertainment in the Guardian yesterday.

I’ll be lifting a holiday glass with my lovely wife at Cafe Katja this afternoon. Merry Christmas to all.

The cultivation of Christmas trees

The publishing firm of Faber & Faber suspended its annual editions of holiday “Ariel poems” (in which T.S. Eliot’s series of “Ariel poems” first appeared) in 1931, but it revived the series briefly in the 1950s. In 1954, Eliot contributed one of his few occasional poems, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” to the resurrected project. It is, perhaps, the most charming of his holiday works, partaking of the conversational voice of the Four Quartets, which he completed 11 years before. And not merely is the voice echoed; the final lines of “Cultivation” recall the “In my beginning is my end” of “East Coker.” In “Cultivation,” Eliot can’t resist a little dig at himself, gently mocking his own “piety of the convert”:

Let [the child] continue in the spirit of wonder …
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children …

And far from sternly moralizing that Christmas is more about giving than receiving, Eliot’s happy to acknowledge the child’s “delight in new possessions / (Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell).”

Eliot’s light but moving poem deserves to be better known, especially at this time of year; it’s a lovely effort to recapture the childlike spirit of Christmas for all of us, and its concluding ambivalence is doubly touching. In 2013, Casey N. Cep did her part to spread the good news about “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” in the Paris Review. She wrote:

Eliot invokes a distinctly Christian belief about the birth of Jesus and the return of Christ, moving deftly between Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the Second Coming, but he also conveys a more universal idea about the bond between life and death. The poem will hold special significance for those who share Eliot’s faith, but its appeal extends beyond those beliefs.

There are always beginnings and endings, springs and winters, whether those seasons call to mind the heavenly seasons of creation and restoration or only the human seasons of birth and death. The symbolism of evergreen trees predates Christianity, and the Christmas trees of Eliot’s poem have meaning beyond their religiosity. The cultivation in the poem’s title is not really of trees, but of persons. Joy is born naturally, but it requires tending if it is to last.

The poem follows:

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Animula

T.S. Eliot’s third “Ariel” poem, “Animula” (1929), is like a step from the darkness into the light compared to “Journey of the Magi” and “A Song for Simeon.” Its subject appears to be childhood, not old age, and play, not sorrow. But this is the soul’s childhood, not the body’s, and before too long the “heavy burden of the growing soul / Perplexes and offends more, day by day.” This isn’t to detract from the obvious joy of the early part of the poem (which includes “the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,” the only seasonal reference here), but it’s also true that, once maturity occurs, the final peace will be only that peace that comes with “the silence after the viaticum.” Thus the prayers for one and all at the end of the poem: the ambitious, the victimized, the rich, the prodigal. (According to the Christopher Ricks edition of Eliot’s work, you needn’t concern yourself with the last names in the final stanza — the types, not the individual identities, are what count, Eliot told a correspondent.)

I couldn’t find a particularly good recording of this poem; the full text is below.

“Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul”
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
To light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
Moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
Rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
Advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
Retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
Eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
In the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
Pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;
Studies the sunlit pattern on the floor
And running stags around a silver tray;
Confounds the actual and the fanciful,
Content with playing-cards and kings and queens,
What the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
Perplexes and offends more, day by day;
Week by week, offends and perplexes more
With the imperatives of “is and seems”
And may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
Irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
Unable to fare forward or retreat,
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
Denying the importunity of the blood,
Shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
Leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
Living first in the silence after the viaticum.

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power,
For Boudin, blown to pieces,
For this one who made a great fortune,
And that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret, by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.