Tuesday, April 19, 2011



Out of the east window a storm
Blooms spasmodically across the moonrise;
In the west, in the haze, the planets
Pulsate like standing meteors.
We listen in the darkness to the service of Tenebrae,
Music older than the Resurrection,
The voice of the ruinous, disorderly Levant:
“Why doth the city sit solitary
That was full of people?”
The voices of the Benedictines are massive, impersonal;
They never fear this agony nor are ashamed of it.
Think...six hours ago in Europe,
Thousands were singing these words,
Putting out candles psalm by psalm...
Albi like a fort in the cold dark,
Aachen, the voices fluttering in the ancient vaulting,
The light of the last candle
In Munich on the gnarled carving.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
Return ye unto the Lord thy God.”
Thousands kneeling in the dark,
Saying, “Have mercy upon me, O God.”
We listen appreciatively, smoking, talking quietly,
The voices are coming to us from three thousand miles.
On the white garden wall the shadows
Of the date palm thresh wildly;
The full moon of the spring is up,
And a gale with it.

--Kenneth Rexroth

This Wednesday, at 8:00 p.m., St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Elkhart will be celebrating Tenebrae, an ancient Holy Week service of psalms and readings. Tenebrae is Latin for “darkness” or “shadows.” Fifteen candles are lighted in a stand called a hearse. At the end of each reading one candle is extinguished, until all but one candle is left burning. And that candle is hidden behind the altar, putting the church sanctuary in total darkness. A loud noise (Latin streptius) is made, usually by slamming a book shut or stomping on the floor, to symbolize the earthquake after Jesus' death. After the great noise, the single lighted candle is returned to the hearse, signifying the light of Christ's resurrection.

Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his early childhood in Elkhart, was an Anglo-Catholic or High Church Episcopalian, and he deeply appreciated the service of Tenebrae. In 1943, depressed about the war and uncertain of whether his conscientious objector status would be approved, tried to persuade an Episcopal or Roman Catholic church in San Francisco to offer the service, but without luck.

But three years earlier, Rexroth and his second wife Marie listened to Tenebrae broadcast on the radio from a Benedictine monastery somewhere on the east coast. The early spring of 1940 was the time of the “Phoney War,” in which the Germans and their Soviet allies were busy consolidating their conquest of Poland while the Western Front was relatively quiet. In fact, French troops had penetrated a few miles into Germany but then withdrew behind the Maginot Line.

Everyone knew a German attack on France was coming—the question was when, and Rexroth juxtaposes the dark service of Tenebrae with the tensions in Europe and the approaching storm outside his window. Rexroth mentions three European cities in the poem.

Albi, in southern France, was once the center of the Cathar Christians, deemed heretical by the Catholic Church and all but wiped out in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) under Pope Innocent III. (Like other crusades this one had as much to do with temporal affairs as theological ones. The French monarchy gained control of southern France by participating in the crusade.) In any case, Albi brings to mind we now call genocide.

Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle in French, was the seat of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, and represents the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Many Nazi leaders wanted to exchange Christianity for a kind of neo-paganism. (I wonder whether the pre-Christian Germanic tribes would have recognized it as their religion.)

Munich, the principal city of Catholic southern Germany and Hitler's base of operations during the 1920s, was also the home of Cardinal Archbishop Michael Von Faulhaber, who spoke out against the Nazis' persecution of the Jews. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return ye unto the Lord thy God,” Rexroth pleads, quoting from the liturgy.

While we do not stand on the brink of world war today, the service of Tenebrae gives us an opportunity to reflect on the dark side of history and to take solace in the Light of Christ.

Image: Tenebrae hearse from Mainz Cathedral: Wikimedia commons


Patry Francis said...

This poem is so evocative that I can almost feel what it was like to be alive in that perilous time. Thanks for reminding me of it and for your beautiful reflection. Wishing you light.

Charles Gramlich said...

I really like that opening poem. Very nice.

Peter said...

This is the third beautiful reflection on holy week services I've read this week, the other two being at Cassandra Pages and Tasting Rhubarb. I feel so blessed by them all.

Beth said...

Steve, I'm sorry to be coming here so late, but very happy to discover through you this beautiful poem and your own meditation. I was fortunate to sing at a Tenebrae service last week; it's one of my favorite liturgies of the whole year but you've taught me a lot just now that I didn't know. Thanks.

steve on the slow train said...

Patry, Charles, Peter, Beth: Thank you all for your kind and thoughtful comments. The service was quite beautiful--the first reader had flawless pronunciation of the Hebrew letters, and the streptius was properly stunning.

Dave Eriksen said...


Another Rexroth fan here. I read practically all of his works when I was in my twenties. A lot of time spent in the Seattle Public Libraries. However, I must say that you did a wonderful job fleshing out his Wednesday of Holy Week, 1940" poem.

Speaking as another transportation worker (Merchant Marine), I'm pleased to find such a high level of erudition from a blue-collar autodidact--or did you actually go to college? Doesn't really matter, as your writing is lovely in its pace and thoughtfulness in a manner that suggests a lot of time writing letters to loved ones. That kind of "storytelling" rarely comes from school learning. It's the language of the heart. Please keep writing when you can. Please don't stop.

By the way, I found you via my wondering about Mary Rexroth after hearing Greg Brown's song. My sweetheart brought the album home from the library, and I noticed the song title. It took me back over twenty years to those days spent wandering the library stacks, reading Rexroth's poems and essays. And that was a wonderful post you did on that subject. Please keep it up. The Art of Language is a fire I can tell you keep burning.

--David Eriksen

steve on the slow train said...

David--sorry for the delay in replying. I've neglected my blog of late, spending way too much time on Facebook. I'm also trying to write a novel--a sort of spiritual time-travel piece that it centered on the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the protests in Lincoln and Grant Parks.

Unlike Rexroth, I'm not an autodidact (though he sat in on classes at the University of Chicago). I have a Bachelor of General Studies from the University of Iowa. And I spent two years in grad school at Iowa before I decided to go to travel school. The prospects of employment for someone with a history degree were as bad or worse than they are today.

I really became interested in Rexroth after I moved to Elkhart and learned that he had spent his early years here. Rexroth once wrote that as columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, he was in the same position as another famous ex-Elkhartan, Ambrose Bierce.

Thank you for your kind comments about my writing. I'll try to return to this site more often.