Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Poem for Lent by Kimball

Because I converted from having no particular religious beliefs to Catholicism after I'd traveled down the road quite a ways, I am still getting used to the rhythms of the Church, as well as still feeling as if I walked into the middle of a large family's party in which, among other things, several arguments have been taking place for, oh, three or four centuries, at minimum. I converted in 2000.

Catholics have just entered the season of Lent, which, I suppose, the public at large connects vaguely to Mardis Gras. Lent is a time of ashes, silence, self-reflection, figurative and literal fasting, and waiting.

I found a poem about Lent by Virginia Kimball. Usually I'm not drawn immediately to religious poems connected so directly to any one particular aspect of any one faith. I tend to like poems that are spiritual in a broader sense. For instance, you don't need to be a person of any particular faith (and you may even be an atheist) to see the sense of Hopkins' praise of "dappled things" in "God's Grandeur." But Kimball's poem intrigued me, and although she is, I believe, a Dominican nun, the poem has something for non-Catholics, non-Christians, and readers with no particular religious affiliation.

Rhythm of Lent,

by Virginia Kimball

The day dims to evening,
rosy sky tingeing
cold bare limbs
with pink tinting.

Wind howls meaning,
inner soul tingling.
Frigid cold wrapping,
on a coffin tapping.

Yet off to Compline,
this first day of Lent,
darkness creeping
on the sunset seeping,
chanted prayer singing
plaintive night shortening,
incense in vision ringing.

Rhythm of days proceed,
filling steady with hope:
prayers dressed in candlelight,
dark holes in a cosmos plight.

Stars birthing from strange, deep
abysses of compressed
energy, brilliance emerging
from death, a glory surging
in mystery,
God asking Job, "were you there
when I formed the earth?" (Job 38: 4)
"Have you seen the gates of darkness?" (17)
"Was it you who formed the deep?" (8)

From the mystery of nothing
we come by the breath of God.
From a valley of darkness walking,
yearning for Christ without talking,

from dimmer to brighter,
from shorter to longer,
the steps of this path
a cadence grows greater,
the pulse of Creator,
the beat with His heart,
to faith that is stronger.

I rather like the following lines:

prayers dressed in candlelight,
dark holes in a cosmos plight.

They present an unsentimental, startling image of prayer. The whole of stanza 5 is impressive. partly because, with ease and purpose, it blends modern physics into a religious poem, but also because of its stark references to God's having challenged Job. The poem is from a series of Lenten meditations by Kimball that are posted on a site at the University of Dayton.

The Jesuit priest at my parish gave a homily on Lent this weekend, and he mentioned that most Catholics are pretty predictable when it comes to giving something up for Lent. They might, for example, go on a diet or a give up a particular kind of food. The padre had no objections to these "sacrifices," but he also encouraged his listeners not just to give up something but to do something--something either to be better persons or to try to make the world a bit better. To me that was as refreshing as Kimball's poem.

Of course, the list of things I could give up is so long as to require several volumes. Food that's bad for me, impatience, self-absorption (said the blogger), and almost-constant worry are part of that heap. I guess I'll just pick one. As to what I will do, according to the padre's advice--I'm working on it, but I think I'll keep it a secret for now.

You don't need to be a Catholic to experience this time of year as one of waiting, especially in northern climes. A very large number of people in the Pacific Northwest are waiting for Winter to stop cuffing us around.
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