An Advent meditation for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio
Friday, December 13, 2013
I remember learning, from John Donne’s Nocturnall, that S Lucie’s day was the shortest, the darkest, “the yeares midnight,” as he would have it. It took me decades to remember why the thirteenth should be the shortest, instead of the twenty-first or second, as we all know it to be. It’s because the calendar changed, during Donne’s lifetime, and the season shifted, in case, like me, you’d forgotten.
Still, since those school days for me, Lucy has always been associated with that “year’s midnight.” Her candles hardly seem sufficient to drive away the tired dullness of a day on which “the Sunne is spent, and now his flasks Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes.” And yet, remember this:
If, in a vast, velvet darkness, you strike a single sulfur match, and watch its tiny flame flicker and fade, and close your eyes, the image that burns on inside your eyelids will not be of the surrounding darkness, but of light, spreading to fill your inner vision.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9). Amen: Come, Lord Jesus.
John Donne, A nocturnall upon S. Lucie’s day, Being the shortest day, in The Complete Poetry of John Donne, John T. Shawcross, ed. (Anchor Books, 1967), 155
A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day,
Being the shortest day.
Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes,
Lucies, who scarce seaven houres herself unmaskes,
The Sunne is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rayes;
The worlds whole sap is sunke:
The generall balme th’hydroptique earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the beds-feet, life is shrunke,
Dead and enterr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with mee, who am their Epitaph.
Study me then, you who shall lovers bee
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his art did expresse
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and leane emptinesse:
He ruin’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death;things which are not.
All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soule, forme, spirit, whence they beeing have;
I, by loves limbecke, am the grave
Of all, that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have wee two wept, and so
Drownd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two Chaosses, when we did show
Care to ought else; and often absences
Withdrew our soules, and made us carcasses.
But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing, the Elixer grown;
Were I am man, that I were one,
I needs must know; I should preferre,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; Yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I am ordinary nothing were,
As shadow,’a light, and body must be here.
But I am None; nor will my Sunne renew.
You lovers, for whose sake, the lesser Sunne
At this time to the Goat is runne
To fetch new lust, and give it to you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since shee enjoyes her long nights festivall,
Let mee prepare towards her, and let mee call
This houre her Vigill, and her Eve, since this
Bothe the years, and the dayes deep midnight is.