“Then in Distress We Upraise” (2)

Time for “Melanchthon Monday”!

Last week I introduced a poem by Melanchthon’s friend, Joachim Camerarius. Here is the poem again, first in Latin:

In tenebris nostrae, et densa caligine mentis,

#########Cum nihil est toto pectore consilii,

Turbati erigimus Deus ad te lumina cordis,

#########Nostra tuamque fides solius orat opem.

Tu rege consiliis actus pater optime nostros,

#########Nostrum opus ut laudi serviat omne tuae.

And then in my English translation:

When in the vaporous darkness that sickens our mind with its thick gloom,

     Searching our heart as we may, still we find no cure at all,

Then in distress we upraise the dim eyes of our heart to you, O God:

     Faith looks for no other aid; you alone hear us and help.

Father, all glorious in might, by your counsels rule all of our actions,

     So that our work may praise, always, your glorious name.

I promised I would have more to say on the connection to Melanchthon this week. This is the first of at least two posts on that score.

Many of us tend, I suspect, to think of poetry and prayer as two different things. As we have seen before, this has not always been the case. It is very important to observe that poems like that by Camerarius were not seen by contemporaries, or presumably by their own author, as little literary exercises and nothing more. Instead, they did the work of real prayer–because they were real prayer. Camerarius’s poem functioned in just that way for Melanchthon.

In fact, Melanchthon refers to the poem several times in various writings, and in the rest of this post we will look at just one: a letter Melanchthon wrote to Camerarius on 13 February 1550. The letter deals with then-current problems in church and state that have caused massive turmoil and unrest. As Melanchthon reflects on the situation, he says the following:

And someday that citizen of Samaria, who cared for the wounded traveler and took him to a nearby house, will heal these wounds. We see that the church cannot be preserved by human counsels alone. The nobles err, and so does Charles himself, who put forward new legislation when he saw that he was hindered by fatal causes. Let us, therefore, seek and await counsels from God, as well as the soothing of public and private miseries, as you say in your verses: “When in the vaporous darkness that sickens our mind with its thick gloom,” etc.

Melanchthon here engages in a figurative application of Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The church lies on the ground, wounded. The highwaymen (worldly powers, human sin, the devil) have attacked her and abandoned her for dead. Left to herself, she is finished. If she is to be saved, it will only be by a miracle of God. This she finds in the Samaritan: Jesus Christ. Note that Melanchthon claims (consistently with many patristic exegetes) that that is who the Samaritan, at the deepest level of reading and understanding, really is. As W.H. Auden puts it in For the Time Being,

We who must die demand a miracle.

How could the Eternal do a temporal act,

The Infinite become a finite fact?

Nothing can save us that is possible:

We who must die demand a miracle.

Thus we err if we attempt to “fix” the church by reliance on human schemes, because to do so is to misunderstand the kind of body she is. These will only make things worse. In deepest distress, the church must reject and abhor all her own counsels. Instead, says Melanchthon, the church must wait on God. Only so can she, and will she, be saved.

Camerarius’s poem teaches this truth forcefully and beautifully. Melanchthon’s mind instantly recurs to it, and he quotes the first line. In his own distress, Camerarius’s poetic hymn is a guide and balm.

This is what the best poetry does. It provides what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.”

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