Contemplation for the Unchurched: Years, Months, and Days by Luke Hathaway

The title derives from gravestone inscriptions of an Old Order Mennonite cemetery. The inspiration for the text is a 180-year-old collection of still-earlier German hymns compiled for Ontario Old Order observers. Hathaway’s poems―“not translations so much as… meditations on the possibility of translation”―were written to accompany music composed during a multi-disciplinary retreat.

Hathaway, though he describes himself as “unchurched,” infuses his lines with the spiritual. In the first poem, in the section called “Prologue,” the poetic voice is not identified, but the poem echoes the “invocations” of my United Church youth, only flipped. Instead of congregants calling for God’s attention, it seems to be the reverse:

O you who know my will
but do not understand it
and must be driven still
in restlessness, or stranded,
your soul will not be still
until you are resigned
how gentle is your friend
and kind.

The next three sections, named after the elements of the title, contemplate the cycles of life: “Years”―life and death; “Months”―seasons of growth and decay in a rural community; and “Days”―night and day, joy and sorrow. The following poem illustrates Hathaway’s ability to create intimacy out of an idea as big as the continuity of human life: “Death we inherit, / one from another, / so we pass on, / one to another.”

In many of the poems, Hathaway makes use of repetition, regular metre, and rhyme, recalling traditional hymns. Several poems are left without opening capitals or final periods. These “fragments,” the poet notes, are intended to “loop” like their musical accompaniment. The loops and repetition embody the cycles Hathaway captures in his lines. The work mostly avoids direct reference to Christian language and symbols, which allows the words to move secular readers. For example, in the following poem, “the little child” could refer to a Christ figure or to one’s own childlike innocence:

Day breaks, arise,
the morning star
will guide us now:
awake, my soul,
and do not stop
until you find
the little child.

In Hathaway’s notes about the work, he recounts his hesitancy in attempting translations from another language, culture, and religious sensibility. He asks, “What can be carried across the boundary between languages?” By the evidence of his work, the answer is, “much.” These intense but graceful poems express his connection to the original texts, the people they nourished, and the landscape which helped to shape them. I will revisit them as sparks to contemplation.





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