Today I would like to share with you a poem which can be found in my upcoming book Psalter of the Birds. This poem comes from The Black Book of Carmarthen, which is a thirteenth century book with a black cover from the area of Carmarthen, Wales. This poem is interesting because it speaks about poetry and how it effects our souls and even the universe itself. I was inspired to write this article by a deeply sacred time I shared with some friends on zoom yesterday. You can learn more about our regular Chapel meetings by clicking HERE.
The poem is written in a traditional bardic style which is said in praise of a king. The king which this poem praises, however, is God instead of an earthly king. After opening with words of praise to God, the poet slips in a small but not unimportant reference to how this sacred song is to be used.
The poet says, “I will sing a sacred song to the blessed God until I become blameless in his sight”. The idea that we can become blameless through the singing of sacred songs is essential to understanding what this poem is getting at. The poet is nervous about the judgement day and the sin of Adam and the way in which they chose to address this anxiety is to sing this sacred song in praise of God the king. Singing songs in praise of God’s compassion truly does help us heal our spiritual wounds.
A little later in the poem there is a reference to the nine orders of Heaven, which means the angels. The poet longs to be counted among the angels at the end of time. What the poem does not say but which would have been easily understood by a medieval audience is that the nine orders of angels are also referred to as the nine choirs of angels. They also sing a sacred song of praise to the king of Heaven and it is this song which the poet is participating in. You can read more about the traditional understanding of chanting biblical poetry as a way to join the song of the angelic choirs HERE.
The music of the angelic choirs is what gives order to the universe. It is through the angel song that God’s will for the cosmos is made manifest. And so, by singing this poem to the great God, the poet is uniting themself with the powers that orchestrate the unfolding of the cosmos. The poet spoke to this truth when they said, “My Lord God may my bardic art affect the bonds of the universe”. I’ll let you read the poem before I continue.
Here is a graciously disposed King Who is wonderful in the highest degree Who is chief above the children of Adam Who is a happy and most mighty defence Who is generous, glorious, and most pure Whose claim is most strong and binding What is heard of him, and what is true That is what I will celebrate A poem to the great God Who in his compassion descends to us I will sing a sacred song to the blessed God Until I become blameless in his sight I will meditate on the nature Of the sin which Adam sinned I am very anxious of my sin before the judgement The day of doom when everyone will come From their graves with all their might and vigour Exactly as they were in their prime To go together to the place most pleasant To the top of a hill to be judged May I be worthy to be among their number May I be protected by the entourage Of the nine orders of heaven My God what a gathering that will be! My Lord God may my bardic art Affect the bonds of the universe My great superior, my owner The object of my reverence
We are the image of God and, as such, we are gifted with the ability to create. Our fate is not handed to us as a complete package which cannot be changed. Rather, we are active participants in creation and in our own salvation. This is true on many levels. We often speak about justice as something which comes from God but which requires our participation, and that is very true. How we act in the world and how we treat others is essential. Compassion is the seed of faith and the fruit of salvation. We grow into the likeness of God when we undertake kindness.
Becoming compassionate action is one way in which we co-create with God, but this poem teaches that our artistic endeavours also work towards our salvation. We are able to heal the brokenness within us by composing and singing sacred songs. Our hearts are works of art and God has left our creation incomplete on purpose so that we may complete ourselves. When we compose sacred songs, make sacred pictures, or write sacred words, we are also creating ourselves. Most artists will tell you that making art changes them in a deep inner way. An artist is someone who shapes their own soul. The poem or painting which emerges from that process is an expression of the artist’s inner transformation.
The spiritual world and the material world are not as far apart as we often like to imagine. The human being is a microcosm of the universe and so when we heal our souls we also heal the entirety of everything. Our artistic endeavours imapct the world around us. The poet is not simply using flowery language to impress their audience when they pray that their creativity may contribute to the unfolding of the cosmic order. When we sing sacred songs we heal ourselves and when we heal ourselves we heal the universe. Lord God, may my creative endeavours heal the wounds in my soul and by doing so may they affect the bonds of the universe. Amen
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