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A Sestina for Saint Lucy

December 18, 2018

A sestina is a mad-crazy French poetic form--thirty lines with six repeated words that end each line. Makes no sense. I love it. It's a pain to write.

 

St. Lucy knew about pain. Her feast day is December 13th. She was a fourth-century martyr condemed to die by fire. Legend goes that her eyes were ripped out. Also, that as she was dying her throat was speared to keep her for speaking. Yet she persisted. The spearing was unsuccessful and her words continued.

 

 In many Scandinavian countries (and those who seek to mimic them!)  young girls wearing crowns of candles bear plates of saffron buns--to represent St. Lucy's tortured eyes--come before their families to sing "Santa Lucia." Originally a Neapolitan sailor's song, the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter's darkness. 

 

St. Lucy is the matron saint of the blind. Also of ophthamologists,. Both for obvious reasons.

 

 

A Sestina for Santa Lucia

 

Sing of Santa Lucia, envoy of light,

bearing into the solstice her halo

of flame, white-robed and dark-eyed.

Sing of Santa Lucia, martyred by fire,

speared through the throat to silence her speaking.

Listen! What does love call us to hear?

 

What is in the music we hear?

We sing, but somehow it’s the martyr’s words that plea for light.

We hear promise in the prayer she is speaking.

Lilting, though plaintive, in lands darkness swallows

she moves among us, a corona of fire,

and sings with a luminous glow in her eyes.

 

Santa Lucia, with visionary eyes,

called forth from her pyre words few could hear.

The flames leapt at her, the flames of the fire,

upon which she stood martyred and blinded by light.

We imagine her words, more prayer than echo,

and wonder at the meaning of the words she is speaking.

 

But what are the words she is speaking?

O timeless legend with fire-blinded eyes,

a Nordic spirit with flaming tallows

atop her head singing that we might hear,

she summons from darkness the return of light,

she who was martyred in the brightness of fire.

 

The one who died from it summons the fire.

But it is not of death she is speaking,

nor is she frightened by the brightness of light.

Though dying, what was left for her eyes

To see, what beyond the fire’s roar could she hear?

Now she is the visionary, fire-hallowed.

 

In the dark morning, the young girls follow

one after another and stand by the parlor fire

singing “Santa Lucia” for the family to hear--

not the same words Santa Lucia was speaking,

but we see the same plaintive look in their eyes:

Let not the darkness be more final than the light.

 

In darkness Santa Lucia’s luminous echo is speaking--

the refining fire lent vision to her dying eyes--

and in deep December we hear the saint’s sweet plea for light.

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.