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   Sheep from A Ted Hughes Bestiary selected by Alice Oswald



The mothers have come back

From the shearing, and behind the hedge

The woe of sheep is like a battlefield

In the evening, when the fighting is over,

And the cold begins, and the dew falls,

And bowed women move with water.


Mother Mother Mother the lambs

Are crying, and the mothers are crying.

Nothing can resist that probe, that cry

Of a lamb for its mother, or a ewe’s crying

For its lamb.  The lambs cannot find

Their mothers among those shorn strangers.

A half-hour they have lamented,

Shaking their voices in desperation.

Bald brutal-voiced mothers braying out,

Flat-tongued lambs chopping off hopelessness

Their hearts are in panic, their bodies

Are a mess of woe, woe they cry,

They mingle their trouble, a music

Of worse and worse distress, a worse entangling,

They hurry out little notes

With all their strength, cries searching this way and that,

The mothers force out sudden despair, blaaa!

On restless feet, with wild heads.


Their anguish goes on and on, in the June heat,

Only slowly their hurt dies, cry by cry,

As they fit themselves to what has happened.


In our Lenten journey so far we have been enveloped in some of the richness of the Episcopal tradition of prayers and disciplines and simple soup and music and reflection, however challenged by Peter Rollins.  But the deeper we enter into the shadows of Lent, the fabled traditional richness can seem more and more threadbare and sketchy.  It’s elegant and fine, but the dark winds of our days and our sorrows blow through it more and more fiercely, stringently, scathingly cold.

If Lent is a time of change, Ted Hughes’ poem of the sheep in sheep shearing time is a moving flock of revelations to me, of being real about what change can mean to and in us. Everything that we counted on, Mother in the poem, is taken away and then shorn of all the comforts and smells of communion nourishment, no vestments left and no incense.  Nothing smells like it should, and Mother and nourishing life is cut off and gone.  The ewes return no longer embodiments of loving moms to their lambs, and instead become “Bald brutal-voiced mothers braying out”.

When  we change, and when others change, the meeting again is strange.  Who are you? Why don’t you recognize me?  What has happened to who we’ve always known we are? And terrors and losses and doubts come this way of being lost, feeling abandoned while yet in the midst of a crowd, but our names have changed, our shapes have changed, our smells have changed.  We can lose the familiar ways of finding our way back to open our hands in prayer and communion.  As we change we can become so strange to one another. We can lose one another and forget one another in the anxious panic of our calling out the old names, sniffing for the old smell, finding a way into whatever has happened beyond our control — shearing, alone, panic.

It would be nice if we could have a class for going through change, a Lenten curriculum of not only changing but changing along with everyone else, a kind of Dr. Seuss all holding hands and singing the song of Whoville on Christmas morning.  But we’re not a Dr. Seuss story.  When we change we go through this, as the ewes in Hughes’ poem, reluctantly, more often than not forced into the shearing and nakedness when all we are has been taken away and cozied into the common good.  But we feel left naked and cold, and then unrecognized by our anxious lambs, which turns us angry and desperate as “Bald-brutal voiced” ewes crying out.

Change is not pretty.  Change is an experience of naked loneliness.  It’s not like a cheery Fitbit record of your ambitioned steps for the day.  Lenten change is something stripped away from every goal you have set for yourself.  Lenten change is not about being a better you, well recognized by lambs and ewes alike.  Lenten change is giving it all up, nothing yours, and waiting to see what happens next that will turn you inside out and upside down and know you as you are, not as you think you are.

And it hurts and even betrays all you’ve promised.

Only slowly their hurt dies, cry by cry, 

As they fit themselves to what has happened.

Lent every time is different.  There is no standard program.  For every Lent a new shearing of all the cozy of our lives happens, and we become unknown to ourselves and to those we love best, and we cry and cry, and so may they.  How slowly we find our way back into communion, not of remembering before in Gospel stories of Jesus, but of “what has happened” in the Lenten shearings of our lives.







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