Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Wanderer: A Poem of Love and Longing

There is an Old English poem called “The Wanderer”[1] dating from somewhere around the 6th or 7th century that I find quite moving. The poet writes long after a disastrous battle. The lord and leader of the comitatus has been slain along with most of his followers, save for one young warrior who is cast adrift wandering lonely over the sundering seas. The comitatus is a warband, a brotherhood of warriors whose love and loyalty is focused on their lord who in turn rewards them with gifts, and a sense of belonging and purpose. The intensity of that bond is voiced in “The Battle of Maldon” where facing certain death, a follower of Brytnoth cries out,  

Our minds must be stronger, our hearts
Braver, our courage higher, as our numbers
Shrink. Here they slew our earl
And he lies in the dust. Whoever longs
To run from this field will always regret it.
I’m old. I want no other life.
I only want to lie beside my lord,
Near Brytnoth, who I loved so well.

The wanderer, filled with grief, “follows the frost-cold foam . . . sailing endlessly, aimlessly in exile,” looking for a home, for a new lord, for a new warband to belong to and give his life meaning. In poignant words he expresses his grief and longing,  

Sometimes it seems I see my lord,
Kiss and embrace him, bend my hands
And head to his knee, kneeling as though
He still sat enthroned, ruling his thanes.
And I open my eyes, embracing the air,
And see the brown sea-billows heave,
See the sea birds bathe, spreading
Their white-feathered wings, watch the frost
and the hail and snow. And heavy in heart
I long for my lord, alone and unloved.”

There are many in the church who are wandering today, lost and alone, adrift on the sundering seas. They have lost the church of their youth and they are filled with grief and longing, looking for a home, a comitatus, and a stable leader who will not be tossed to and fro by the stormy winds of the times. What is tragic is that while the church splits apart there are those who are dismembering the church by the failure to embrace what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all, and are busy suing those they have driven away.  

There is a recourse for our predicament in the very nature of the comitatus. One of the saints said, “Militia probat Christianum”[2], “The warring one is the Christian.” Warfare is a necessary part of Christian life, but it is perilous to strike out alone by yourself on the perilous seas. You may be surprised by the fact that warfare is a necessary part of Christian life, but consider the situation of ancient Israel as it struggled to establish its claim over Canaan. In Judges we find this remarkable assertion, “Now these are the nations that the LORD left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before” (Judges 3:1-2).   

Such is the nature of fallen humankind that we really don’t learn much without the stimulus of conflict. The problem usually is in how we feel about the conflicts that so often surround us. It here that the quality of our faith is revealed, and it is here that we can find our growing edge if only we will. It is precisely here that the genius of David is revealed as he prays, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; he is my steadfast love and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me (Psalm 144:1-2).

There is a hidden danger that needs to be recognized. Sometimes we get so used to conflict that we see it even where it is not, or perhaps even produce conflict where it doesn’t exist. In all moments of fear hear the words of Jesus as he says so frequently, “Fear not!” Conflict real or imagined calls for fresh surrender to the God who redeems our human experience.

Our comitatus, the Church, is broader and deeper than the warband lost by the Wanderer, as even the Wanderer himself was aware.  At the end of his poem he prays,

It’s good to guard your faith,
nor let your grief come forth
Until it cannot call
For help, nor help but heed
The path you’ve placed before it.
It’s good to find your grace
In God, the heavenly rock
Where rests our every hope.

The Wanderer bids us not to let our grief overpower us so that we cannot call for help, but instead he bids us to place our faith in God our heavenly rock. There is a proverb that says, “a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). While it is occasionally helpful to share our griefs and burdens with each other, as Christian we are called by grace through faith to rule our emotions, not to let our emotions rule us.

Unlike the predicament of the Wanderer we have some realistic options for fellowship. One of those options is the possibility of making an Oblation of one’s life in an abbey or monastery of the Order of St. Benedict, or here in the Dallas area the option of joining our own group of Oblates and Companions of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. Whether you are an Oblate or Companion, or just an interested friend you have the opportunity to live by a simple Rule of Life. A Benedictine Rule of Life reminds us to pray the Daily Offices, to practice the awareness of the perpetual Presence of  God, and to gather with the Church in frequent Eucharist. The Daily Offices include Morning and Evening Prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. Even praying just one office a day will add great stability to your life.

There is a distinct benefit in affiliating with an ancient comitatus that goes back for centuries; a fellowship that was foundational in the beginning of the Anglican Communion. After all St. Augustine of Canterbury was a Benedictine. That provides us with a double anchor for our lives with one anchor firmly in the Anglican Communion and the other in the Order of St. Benedict.    

Even in the midst of the stress of these days do not sell the Anglican Communion short.  The theologian Karl Barth reminds us that one of God’s miracles is that the Church still survives. The Anglican Communion has been around for centuries and throughout the centuries it has had its times of struggle and its seasons of unbroken peace. Frankly the problems of this day in the life of the church are pale in comparison with the antics of Cardinal Wolsey who was the almoner for Henry VIII. When you get worried over whether or not the Church will survive, read a little Church History; it’s quite refreshing. The stuff that’s going on will eventually go by. As long as you are firmly grounded in the faith and history of the Church you will be secure.

[1] Wanderer quotes are from  Burton Raffel,  Poems and Prose from the Old English, (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1998.  Burton is fine translator with considerable poetic skill.
[2] Johann Arndt