Theologian's Almanac for Week of September 8, 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, September 8:
September 8 is the day in 1504 that Michelangelo unveiled his astonishing sculpture, David. Some four decades earlier, a colossal, misshapen block of marble - more than 19 feet high - was imperfectly quarried and then delivered to the sculptor Agostino di Duccio, along with the commission to create a biblical figure for one of the buttresses of a Florence cathedral. The block was unwieldy, and Duccio gave up after a rough attempt at carving some feet and legs; the commission then passed on to Antonio Rossellino, who also conceded defeat. The abandoned slab lay in a field in Florence for thirty years; locals dubbed it “the Giant.” When church authorities revived the project in 1501, the commission went to the young, ambitious Michelangelo - who promptly built a shed around the Giant, and got to work. When the sculpture was at last unveiled for public viewing, it must have seemed a miracle: the dirty, twisted Giant had become an elegant, beautiful man, the ancient Shepherd King of Israel. Michelangelo didn’t battle the block’s imperfect dimensions, but rather used them to create the figure’s signature pose. He later said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” And again: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
September 8 is also celebrated as the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, the young woman who boldly sang of a revolutionary God turning the world upside down, who taught Jesus about the world, who stayed with him until the bitter end, presided over the windswept gathering at the first Pentecost - and became known in Eastern Christianity as Theotokos, “the house of God.”
September 9 is the birthday of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, author of two of the world’s most renowned novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). After a raucous youth, Tolstoy’s experiences as a soldier profoundly changed his spiritual views, planting seeds for his commitment to pacifism and nonviolence, which went on to influence Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
September 10 is the birthday of poet Mary Oliver, born in Maple Heights, Ohio, in 1935, where she endured a troubled childhood (“It was a very dark and broken house that I came from. And I escaped it, barely. With years of trouble.”). Partly to retreat from her home life, she would often skip school and spend time in the woods, reading and rereading the likes of Keats and Dickinson and Whitman (“I got saved by poetry. And by the beauty of the world.”). After dropping out of college, one day she made a pilgrimage to Steepletop in Austerlitz, New York, the historic home of the famous poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Mary hit it off with Millay’s sister, Norma, and ended up staying at Steepletop for seven years, helping Norma organize Millay’s papers and working on her own poems. It was there she also met the photographer Molly Malone Cook, who came to visit Norma; Mary and Molly fell in love, eventually moving together to Provincetown, Massachusetts. In 1984, Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection, American Primitive.
She wrote much of her work while walking or hiking in the woods, with a hand sewn notebook and pencil in her pocket. She once lost a pencil on such a walk, and subsequently began hiding pencils in the trees along the trails, so she could always find a spare.
She said: "I was very careful never to take an interesting job. Not an interesting one. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. I also began in those years to keep early hours... If anybody has a job and starts at 9, there's no reason why they can't get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day - which is what I did."
And again: “It has frequently been remarked about my own writings that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer.”
One of her most beloved poems, “The Summer Day,” ends with the line, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” An interviewer once asked her what she’d done with hers, and she replied, with a twinkle in her eye: “Used a lot of pencils.”
September 14 is the day George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio in 1741. He wrote virtually nonstop, morning and night, completing the score in just 24 days. It was originally written for the Easter season, but eventually became associated with Christmastime. Even Mozart, when he supervised a new arrangement in 1789, was reluctant to change a thing: “Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect,” Mozart declared. “When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt!”