The Hiddenness of God with Henry Vaughan and a prayer from Geoffrey Chaucer
I cannot stay away from Henry Vaughan’s “The Night.” You may have heard me on it before and you will likely see me write about it again (it makes a brief cameo in my forthcoming book). I would apologize… but it is such a magnificent poem that my apology would be inauthentic.
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Henry Vaughan was, of course, not a medieval poet. This is why this newsletter’s name is Medievalish. The ish gives me freedom to write about other works that I love. Vaughan was a Welshman living during the tumultuous time of the English Civil War. In the 1640s, the Book of Common Prayer was banned by the Puritans in power, and in 1645, Archbishop Laud was executed by Cromwell. By 1655, Anglican services themselves were entirely illegal. Henry Vaughan was a devout Anglican, and his poetry reflects his sense of loss and attempts to establish communion with the Anglican poets who came before him, like George Herbert. During this same period, Vaughan married, had four children, then his wife Catherine died. Vaughan lived through much suffering. Yet Vaughan writes some of the most beautiful verse of this period. Saturated in the nature of the Welsh countryside but not allowed to worship, he finds God outside of the traditional places and spaces which have been barred to him.
(Sidenote, which I must always mention because every time it makes me giggle anew: Silex Scintillans, his wonderful collection of poetry, has one of the most horrendous subtitles of all time: Private Ejaculations. Yeesh. Anyways, back to the poem.)
I’ve written before about this poem in relation to our own literal dark nights of anxiety or loneliness. When I re-read it recently, I was struck by something else: the hiddenness and intimacy of Jesus.
This poem is about the gospel of John, chapter three, when Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night.
First read, and then let’s think through it together:
John 3.2 Through that pure virgin shrine, That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon, That men might look and live, as glowworms shine, And face the moon, Wise Nicodemus saw such light As made him know his God by night. Most blest believer he! Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes Thy long-expected healing wings could see, When Thou didst rise! And, what can never more be done, Did at midnight speak with the Sun! O who will tell me where He found Thee at that dead and silent hour? What hallowed solitary ground did bear So rare a flower, Within whose sacred leaves did lie The fulness of the Deity? No mercy-seat of gold, No dead and dusty cherub, nor carved stone, But His own living works did my Lord hold And lodge alone; Where trees and herbs did watch and peep And wonder, while the Jews did sleep. Dear night! this world’s defeat; The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb; The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat Which none disturb! Christ’s progress, and His prayer time; The hours to which high heaven doth chime; God’s silent, searching flight; When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all His locks are wet with the clear drops of night; His still, soft call; His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch, When spirits their fair kindred catch. Were all my loud, evil days Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent, Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice Is seldom rent, Then I in heaven all the long year Would keep, and never wander here. But living where the sun Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire Themselves and others, I consent and run To every mire, And by this world’s ill-guiding light, Err more than I can do by night. There is in God, some say, A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here Say it is late and dusky, because they See not all clear. O for that night! where I in Him Might live invisible and dim!
-Henry Vaughan, The Night
There is too much to note—the glorious wordplay, the cluster of puns around Sun/Son, the language of light and dark, illumination and hidden refuge. I could go on forever about this poem. What I want to focus on, however, is what Vaughan has illuminated for me, as the moon lights up the face of Jesus for Nicodemus.
Vaughan was the first writer (yes, apparently I had not read the gospel of John carefully enough) who seriously impressed upon me that Nicodemus had sought out Jesus at night, and moreover, that some of Christ’s most encouraging though challenging words were spoken in a private conversation, person-to-person, under the cover of darkness. In fact, we realize, this little interaction with Nicodemus at night reveals to us the character of Jesus, God with Us, himself. It encapsulates the nature of the Incarnation.
Why does Nicodemus seek out Jesus at night? Is he, as an important teacher of the Law, ashamed to be seen talking to the perilous Jesus (who according to John, has already had his temple-table-throwing moment)? Was he so curious about this prophet that he could not sleep? Was he overcome with anxiety over the state of his people under oppression? Could he simply not get through to Jesus through the day time clamor? Nicodemus confesses to Jesus that he knows Jesus has come from God, because no one else could do the things he has done. And Jesus cryptically answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3, NRSV). Of course, this confuses Nicodemus greatly. And Jesus goes on, to tell Nicodemus what is now one of his most famous claims in all the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, NRSV).
Jesus says these earth-shattering words in an intimate conversation—away from platform, away from influence, away even from getting the most amount of people to hear the good news. It’s not that Jesus does not speak to large crowds—clearly he does, on a regular basis. He also does public miracles, which is what initially draws Nicodemus to him. Yet he chooses not the way of the sun, but the way of the moon, the way of hiddenness here. I wrote in my earlier piece about the first stanza,
“Vaughan begins with a lovely picture of the Incarnation through a metaphor of night and day. Through Mary, the “Virgin-shrine,” a “sacred veil” is drawn over the incandescent glory of high noon. This veil muffles the unbearable midday brightness of the sun so that people can actually look at and face a source of light, the moon’s gentler brightness that illuminates darkness. Divinity becomes flesh and blood and makes itself approachable and visible. As a result, Nicodemus can see and know God.”
The Son is the Sun, as Vaughan writes in the second stanza. But the Incarnation is a moonlit night. Christ constantly makes himself approachable in all his glory, even to the point of enshrouding himself. My eyes have adjusted enough to take in the beauty; my ears can hear the knock at the door of my heart in the quiet of the evening.
When Vaughan thinks on night, he calls it “the world’s defeat.” It is a stop to busy fools, the day of spirits, that is, a time when we spiritually come alive because we are quiet and attentive in ourselves, undistracted by the bustling, loud brightness of day. Night is when Christ himself prays; night, in our obscurity and weariness is when God comes silently searching for our spirits. Seemingly, it is Nicodemus who has come searching for Christ; he discovers that Christ has been seeking himself.
God could have light-blinded his people for what would have been our own good. He could have struck us down with awe and irresistible compulsion to follow him to our own salvation in a blinding and terrible power. Sometimes that is what we want, yet he knows better. We would like the Signs, the obviously right path, the razzle-dazzle, the loudly and easily explained. Unfortunately, we Christians often seek those traits in our leaders and our own paths of faith. Christ comes as Son, and not always as the Sun, but as the Moon in night, veiled in flesh, invitational rather than compulsory, offering our souls quietude and our bodies rest.
There is in God, some say, a deep and dazzling darkness. Christ speaks in parables, he comes as a baby, from the stupid obscurity of a province no one likes. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” his soon-to-be-friend Nathanael gibes earlier in John’s gospel. His life, death, and resurrection are shrouded in the illuminating but confusing words of a book upon which few people agree, and in the lives of his wildly imperfect people. Jesus is so often the hidden God in our lives. He hides himself to be found; he hides himself so that we come to him of our own power, not overruled by his profoundly greater power and beauty. There is nothing coercive in Christ, not even in his beauty and goodness.
For some reason, I expect the truth will be obvious. And yes, some folks have a St. Paul Conversion Moment. But too often we take that as a norm. Truth usually whispers more like the Incarnation. It takes the form of a quiet knock on the door of our souls in a dark night, an invitation into depth and intimacy, a stranger from Nazareth. Truth is so often more subtle, more beautiful, and more elusive than the glaring flashiness that we tend to look for in truth but more often find in lies.
As I was preparing for my guest on this week’s episode of Old Books With Grace, Dr. Zena Hitz, I read her book on the love of learning for its own sake. She quotes the German poet Goethe, who notes how strange it is that though we now know the truth about the spatial relationship between the Earth and the Sun, we still say that the sun rises and sets. Dr. Hitz comments, “if the earth’s movement around the sun is so invisible to us… we ought to expect reality in many cases to be invisible.” Like germs, like a broken heart, like the hobbies and histories of a new friend, so much of reality is invisible. Of course, this does not mean that reality is ultimately subjective. But it does mean that we are often asked to seek for it diligently, even to rejoice in that seeking. It means that in the dead of night we pursue Jesus in his hidden intimacy, and there we listen and ask questions.
I have recently returned to the writings of the midcentury Catholic philosopher, Josef Pieper. In Faith, Hope, Love, Pieper writes, “those who truly throw their souls open to the whole of truth expect, since they nowhere see the whole, that there will always be an additional new light beyond what they already know.” This is the tension of faith, Pieper notes. Faith continually draws one on, even within doubts; there’s no static place in faith. Pieper quotes Aquinas, “the cognition of belief does not quiet the craving, but rather kindles it.”
Vaughan skillfully draws these tensions out so tight in that final stanza. “The Night” expresses my own feelings of the paradox of dazzling darkness: between rest and pursuit, night as the place of both fear and profound comfort, the night of accepting my limitations of sight, and the final illumination of all things.
There is in God, some say, A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here Say it is late and dusky, because they See not all clear. O for that night! where I in Him Might live invisible and dim!
So we long for and seek, like Nicodemus, the man who in the damp night speaks in riddles of our death and birth and his love. Lord, let your deep but dazzling darkness come upon us.
What I’ve been up to this month:
I have a few new essays in my mind that I hope to share with you at some point in the future!
Working on the new season of Old Books With Grace, which emerges into the world in just three days, on September 15th! I am excited to begin this season—it has felt invigorating to chat with guests again. Zena Hitz, who I mentioned above, is my first guest of the season, and many more exciting folks have graciously agreed to come and chat with me. There will be conversations about Old English poetry and calendars, the Black intellectual tradition in America, prayers of the Puritans, what beauty in our reading does to us, and the good news in Charles Dickens… can you guess any of the guests?
What I’ve been reading this month:
Fiction: I’ve been on an unplanned spree of Arthurian novels published in the 1980s. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Joan Wolf… I’d love to hear your favorite Arthurian adaptation, film, poem, or fiction, in the comments!
Nonfiction: I just finished Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, the book I refer to above, as preparation for having Dr. Hitz on the podcast. It was a really enjoyable book—brief, thought-provoking, lots of fascinating examples. I definitely recommend it.
Medieval/medieval-adjacent: Taking a break after turning in a draft of my book (!!).
Article: Karen Swallow Prior wrote this timely meditation on friendship, especially between men and women.
A Prayer from the Past
This prayer is Geoffrey Chaucer’s translation and adaptation in his poem Troilus and Criseyde of a prayer to the Trinity, from Dante’s Paradiso 14.28-30. My modern English translation is below.
Thow oon, and two, and thre, eterne on lyve,
That regnest ay in thre, and two, and oon,
Uncircumscript, and al maist circumscrive,
Us from visible and invisible foon
Defende, and to thy mercy, everichon,
So make us, Jesus, for thi mercy, digne,
For love of mayde and moder thyn benigne.
Thou One, and Two, and Three, eternally being,
That reignest in Three, and Two, and One,
Uncircumscribed and circumscribing all,
From visible and invisible foes, us
Defend, and bring to thy mercy every one,
So make us, Jesus, for thy mercy, worthy,
For love of the maid, thy kind virgin mother.
-Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, V.1863-1870
Peace for your September,
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I've come to this essay half a year late, but also right on time. This meditation is everything I needed to hear and ponder this morning. Thank you.
This was lovely. Thanks for sharing. And I did laugh out loud at that subtitle.