Theologian's Almanac for Week of October 20, 2019


Welcome to SALT’s “Theologian’s Almanac,” a weekly selection of important birthdays, holidays, and other upcoming milestones worth marking - specially created for a) writing sermons and prayers, b) creating content for social media channels, and c) enriching your devotional life.

For the week of Sunday, October 20:

October 21 is the birthday of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born in Devonshire, England, in 1772.  As a young man, he gave lectures on religion, wrote journalism, and attempted to single-handedly create his own magazine - but eventually settled on poetry as his calling.  He met the poet William Wordsworth in 1795, and their brief friendship gave rise to the most productive period in Coleridge’s life. The two poets enjoyed composing their work while walking, and they spent several days hiking the coast, passing the time by creating a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage - which Coleridge eventually developed into his most famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  It was published with Wordsworth in a collection entitled, Lyrical Ballads, today considered the founding document of the Romantic movement in poetry.

Here’s a taste of Coleridge:

“If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke - Ay! and what then?”

And again, from the "Rime”:

“He prayeth best, who loveth best;
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us;
He made and loveth all.”

October 21 is also the date Martin Luther joined the faculty of the University of Wittenberg in 1512.  After a frustrating period in a monastery and a disillusioning visit to a church conference in Rome, he decided to pursue a doctorate at Wittenberg - and did so well that he was asked to join the faculty.  Preparing lessons for his students gave him an occasion to work out his thoughts about the monastery and his trip to Rome, and his thinking crystallized when, in 1517, Pope Leo X announced the sale of indulgences - monetary gifts to the church said to lessen the donor’s ultimate punishment for his or her sins - to help finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.  Outraged, Luther wrote a treatise called “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences” - commonly known today as “The Ninety-five Theses” - arguing against the sale of indulgences as both corrupt and mistaken. The (probably apocryphal) story goes that he nailed his theses to the door of the university chapel; in any case, his ideas circulated swiftly and widely, stirring controversy and helping to spark what later became known as the Protestant reformations in Western Europe.

October 23 is the birthday of physician and poet Robert Bridges, born in Walmer, England, in 1844.  Bridges is likely a name you don’t know - but you may know his close friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins (who wrote, among other masterpieces, “God’s Grandeur”).  Hopkins published very little of his poetry during his lifetime, but included many poems in his letters to Bridges - and Bridges, after Hopkins’ death, collected and published those poems in 1918.  Without Bridges, Hopkins’ poems might never have been remembered at all; it wasn’t until 1930, when a second edition of Hopkins’ poems was published, that people began to recognize him as one of the most gifted, innovative poets of his generation.

October 24 is the birthday of the writer Sarah Josepha Hale, born in Newport, New Hampshire, in 1788.  We have her to thank for the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and also for a beloved American holiday: Hale was a vocal, tireless supporter of Thanksgiving.  She wrote letters to successive presidents - Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and finally Abraham Lincoln. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving a national holiday, celebrated that year on the last Thursday of November: “The year that is drawing towards its close,” he wrote, “has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible.” Thanksgiving was born!

October 24 is also the birthday of the poet Denise Levertov, born in Ilford, England, in 1923.  She published more than 30 books, mostly poetry, but also essays and translations.  In 1997, the year of her death, she published the extraordinary The Stream and the Sapphire, a selection of poems with religious themes written over the course of her career.

She said: “Strength of feeling, reverence for mystery, and clarity of intellect must be kept in balance with one another.  Neither the passive nor the active must dominate, they must work in conjunction, as in a marriage.”

And again: “I'm not very good at praying, but what I experience when I'm writing a poem is close to prayer.”

And here’s a Levertov classic on the spiritual power of poetry and heritage: “Illustrious Ancestors.”

Elizabeth MyerComment