What follows is the second week of reflections in our “Beauty in the Desert” Lenten series. To receive these each week in your inbox, click here.
When I lived in Russia, I fell in love with many poems. One of them by Arseny Tarkovsky ends:
I am a candle. I burned at the feast.
Gather my wax when morning arrives
So that this page will prompt you
How to be proud, and how to weep,
How to give away the last third
Of happiness, and to die with ease —
And beneath a temporary roof
To burn posthumously, like a word.
As a poet, that’s what I have always longed for — that my words can burn posthumously, living beyond my own earthly life.
I’m struck by how many religious traditions employ the metaphor of light to describe God or divinity. The Quaker response to someone suffering is: “I will hold you in the Light.” In the Jewish tradition, a Kabbalah creation story invites the faithful to seek the divine sparks that are scattered throughout the universe and inside each other. In Islam, the “Dua of Light” is an invocation said before going to the mosque, to enter into God’s house, to have God’s presence suffuse us entirely with light.
Recently on a winter night, I got up at 3:30 a.m., unable to sleep. I kept thinking of the phrase, there in the dark, about putting on the armor of light, unsure of its origin. That week, I heard at Mass St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: The night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light.
The time of Lent occurs during the dilation of light — yet a part of us has to contend with the darkness (inside and out) even as the light grows, as the season turns from suffering and death to resurrection.
Devotional (after a Muslim Prayer)
Light my face and light the flesh of my flesh,
Light each my eyes and light inside my sight,
Light the light that makes me light in the bones,
And in my hands, light, and in my loins, light,
And light your light before and behind me,
Above and beneath me, light to my right
And light to left, light to my enemies
Who in the moral dark will use my light
Against me, light the dull swords of my ribs,
The thick fist within, light the blood-hot rooms
Pulsing there, light the gates when they swing wide
To the stranger, light more light on my tongue,
In the light, light more light, in the black, light,
and when it’s time to snuff this wick — light that light.
Bon Iver’s “Holocene” is one of those songs that I can play a dozen times in a row without growing tired of it. I don’t know if my brain’s grown weird or if the world now requires us to be enveloped in a song on repeat forever, the way it did for Ravel when he composed Bolero.
Whatever the reason, “Holocene” has me in its thrall. Unlike most pop songs, “Holocene” lacks the usual verse-chorus-verse structure. It’s basically the same melody throughout, led by a guitar line, but it builds and builds, with other instruments joining in, like an enormous wave that grows and grows until the whole world is that dark wave rising, blotting out everything but itself. And then it gets quiet, right before the restrained chaos of horns at last kicks in.
The title “Holocene” comes from the name of a bar where Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon once had a “dark night of the soul” — but the events of the song concern another dark night in which the singer confronts the icy sublimity of a Wisconsin winter. In the pre-chorus, Justin Vernon sings the lines that bring tears to my eyes: “And at once I knew / I was not magnificent.”
To feel the immense and sometimes terrifying beauty of the world is to confront our own smallness. It’s not that we’re merely worm food — although we are that, too. It’s that creation itself so envelops us in its magnificent mystery that our small egos cannot hold. That, to me, is food for Lent. We are nothing, perhaps, except for the river of light that moves in us, that grace that has graced us and that we pour forth for others, a reflection of ultimate Light.
Philip Metres is the author of 10 books. His work — poetry, translation, essays, fiction, criticism and scholarship — has garnered fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council and the Watson Foundation. He is the recipient of the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, the Lyric Poetry Prize and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University. He lives with his family in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @PhilipMetres and at philipmetres.com.