Modernity, or The Disputation of the Sacrament

By Shane Devine

Ekphrases on the Stanza della segnatura


In troubled youth, I searched for meaning
So to the Vatican I journeyed.
Its library I lit up with a torch
Looking for hidden

“The Parnassus” by Raphael, 1509-1511

I traveled long to Mt. Parnassus
Seeking out some spring of genius,
Liquid from the tap of the daemon,
Seeking my servitude to the muses;
But by the time I arrived everything had dried up.
The poets gathered ’round all turned and stared at me;
My mouth agape, I asked them of what I should sing,
But they had no answer. Apollo bowed the strings of his violin
In violent, haphazard bursts.

I left them behind, still reeling from my need
To sing of something great.
I traveled back down to mankind, went to Athens’ School,
Seeking knowledge, wondering what was True.

“The School of Athens” by Raphael, 1509-1511

They too were unhelpful:
A row of wits filled the chamber
Revolving round the two men upon the stairs
A man of Thought and a man of Sense,
Causing raucousness.
A figure caught my eye, positioned down to my left,
Laurels on his head, reading from a book.
Epicurus was his name.
And in his book was a mirror of the world around.
It did not impose, only showed me nature’s beautiful face.

Just then I heard a clamoring nearby.
These schoolmen here were locked in factious stupor
So I left them behind to seek the source of the noise.

“The Disputation of the Sacrament” by Raphael, by 1509-1510

A large procession of priests sparring,
The disputation on the holy sacrament,
Amongst whom, in that same bottom left,
A crowd of men more modern in their ways.

The staunch confusion of this tired man
Refusing to engage surrounding strife
Yet stuck among the thinking, building few
So far away from Old Believer fright;
Nearby the faithful remnant stands, steadfast,
He gazes still towards clouds above with hope
To see some angel’s face behind the fog.
But he is dressed in brown, a rag of gloom,
While royal purple, crystal blue is worn
By that free spirit guiding us to books,
Positioned down to my left, just the same;
The ladies gather round him, one to save
His soul by pointing back to hats and bread
The other fawning over words he reads;
A manly youth as well is gazing on,
While he himself with courage stands his ground.
These wanderers all group on rough terrain,
With sand, construction projects through the land,
With plans to build and work to do, and chance
So threatens all, for all’s uncertain still.
More safety’s to be found among the church,
The fathers grasping, pointing straight above
Defending Eucharist with tomes and gold
To guard the other-world that nourished them.
Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, the Popes
Collect theologies and man the fort.
But back behind this crowd of holy men
An old philosopher is wrapped with fright:
He points to clergy, seeking peace and calm,
Yet worries still about the argument
Of which he speaks about to his young friend
Who’s peering over marble walls to see
The war about what Bread and Wine might be.
These laymen left the woods of Arcady,
Those classic forests filled with nymphs and gods,
In search of knowledge and the Great Debate.
But hesitation sheared their wooly souls
With flames of doubt and knives of woes,
So they stopped here to shelter in this hut,
This stone named Peter where the Fathers rule.
With no great army do they plan to fight,
No swords are needed, no shields do they provide
But Thoughts they craft and give to all the flock
And lead them upwards to the haloed dove,
Not onward to the men who say the bread
Is only bread, and those still further on
Awash in fields of Nature and of World.
Yet what of that great scene that hangs on high,
The throne of God which pulsates white and pure
With blazing rays of gold around his mind
Connecting Christ and Father, man to God,
The aureole that sheds its light on all,
Redeeming all in blinding grace, dispersed
Through all the saints and prophets reigning fair,
Above the firm substrate of cherubim
With just a drop left for the bread of men
Which they must eat lest they die in sin.

What of this? Is it real? “The men can’t know,
They only point and pray and sit and wait
Till death arrives and everything is done,
The straining and the striving in the sun
Has ceased, and Nature slams its book, and light
As some candle flame alive in midnight
Hour, lighting up an attic ‘midst a storm,
Is snuffed out,” mutters fast the bearded man;
His arms then fold, a smug grin ripples out
But quickly hides behind a grimace, smart,
Imposing, wise, he’s got it figured out,
His back is turned to the construction work
He deigns not gaze into that opened book
And neither does he go into that church
But argues for its legacy instead.

“My friend, with beard as white as Dryden’s Hind,
But could it be some other way?” I ask,
“Could hidden truths lurk out beyond that rim,
Beyond the buildings, over all those fields,
Some unknown oracle awaiting us?”

“No,” says he, “it merely leads away, far
From truth, from the beauteous works of God:
Those workmen build their structures just for cash
To spend on more possessions; money rules,
Replacing prayer; so wonder not why vice
Pollutes their air, why Arcady corrodes
Beneath their hammers, plywood planks, and drills,
Why wholesome church halls shuttered for some shops,
Why Dante stands behind that altar, far
From here. The links of
«Be» don’t bind us here,
The chain was shattered by that book of his
Which taught these men that they’re the gods,
Instructing them to act the part, and change
The way of things, manipulate the earth,
Become the masters of the matter-world;
And so with God abandoned do they sulk,
With answers plenty, culture none, and souls
Devoured, chopped and bruised in winter’s night.
Turn back. That way is done. No shining sun
Will greet us should we push along those hills.”

The bearded man must have been speaking long
For disputations on the sacrament
Had ceased to sound. We turned around to look
And all was dark. The moon was out, and wind
Was blowing at the cloth that hung upon
The blackened altar. Cracked in half, in dirt
The monstrance lay. The books appeared as if
Two hundred years had passed: in tatters, ripped,
Collecting dust and mold. A crane flew down,
And snatched one up. It glided overhead,
Its massive wings flapped graciously in th’air
And swooped upon a lake; discovered quick
The thing it held was bad to eat, and dropped
It, sinking to the deep. The air was cool,
A leafless oak tree glistened wet with rain,
Its branches heaving solemn, slow; the town
Had grown into a city, an orange light
Off humming in those distant grassy hills.
The silence broke: the thinker dressed in blue
Spoke up, and called attention to his preaching girl
Whose hand, once pointing to the altar, dropped
And looked to him with worried, helpless eyes.
The thinker merely lifted up his book;
It was a mirror, reflecting all it saw:
The dark horizon, cities large: the din
Of motors, power plants, cigars, bold glass,
And nothing more. A hush of shock o’er all.
He tucked the book away, since it was done,
Had wrought what it desired in the world,
And started off down concrete highway veins;
The ladies followed close behind. The night
Breathed out its silence as a smoky mist.
The sky was bright, infused with crystal stars,
With which the city seemed to lie among.
A quiet siren howled from it, and steam
Drew up to kiss the hanging clouds: no face
Angelic leaned to kiss it back. I spoke:
“But, why? That man, so sure he knew the Truth,
Proclaimed his way, sang to fill the globe,
Derived from out that book of his, and they
Like locusts swarming our oasis brush
Worked tirelessly, mending fierce the Word –
For what? A broken land with teardrop fields,
The kingdom flipped for markets in its place?”

A murmur where that bird swooped down was heard:
A ring of men devoted to the sun
Supremely chanting hymns with voices blessed
By blood, replenishing the perfect sky,
That nursery, and filling with their song
The lake, surrounded by enchanted trees.
The wind began to stir the leaves and lap
The water, growing rapid, splashing full;
A vortex grew, disturbed the placid face.
A deep, imposing, grand intoning sprang
From out the lake, outlined with spectral light:

“Nature devours what is Lacking Power
Burns all the deadwood in a flame of Progress
Slams the whole ocean with a monstrous earthquake
Bursting old Lisbon!

Galaxies swirling, with the Logic brewing,
Grace in the Workings of divine enframing,
Blissful eternity displays the Love-force
Moving the Cosmos,

Thunder rolls loudly and the lightning dances
Riding on whirlwinds is the God who steers it
Power shifts Westward o’er the blue Atlantic,
New World is Chosen!

Knowledge of Medicine depletes the Spirit
Casting away any ethereal Vapors,
Sowing the seeds of the enlightened turning:
Health the new Gospel!

Legions of muskets then replaced the swordsmen
Dollars and Mind entwine to crush the mystic
Melting all Structures pretentiously claiming
Heaven designed them.

Bands are dissolving, the tyrannical baying,
Laws rise from Reason and Suppress the Raving
Court and the Pulpit are then bathed with crimson,
Steeples are toppled!

Earth makes new Temples out of Gardens Growing;
Burgeoning crests of Adirondack Mountains
Hold the new relics of religion rightful –
Empire of Reason!

Fate always Guides us to the Path of Nature,
Drags he who’s hesitating, cautious scarecrow;
Oracles urge us to the Future Music,
Great are our Prospects.

Heavenly canopy delights the dreamer
Beams of good sunlight entreat the waker:
Dawns so innumerable not yet broken
Beyond the horizon!”

And now a piercing flash of gold appears:
The sun is risen, splendid ray of hope!
Deliver us to warming might of burning love
Which emanates from ev’ry blade of grass.

Tug me, pull me,
Bring me closer
Send me, throw me
The past is over!

Glisten brightly
Patch of skyline,
Future’s window
Calls my name!

Power, Power,
Slashing weakness
Crumbles jesters
Spreads their dustclouds!

My feet, rise up!
My wings have grown
Nature flies me
T’wards that unknown!

A seal of greatness,
A ring of light,
The stream of life
The blessing sight!

Begone, yon wretch,
Resenter’s dust
Your fleur-de-lis
Your scowl and must!

Brash exuberance
Bang and clatter!
Sound the cymbals
Vibrant matter!

God is with me
Pervasive hum
He is the World
I’m mixed with sun!

“Nature is sacred,”
Screams all the creatures
Cities included
Concert of the centuries

Finds its way
Under Nature’s name

All is bursting
Electric with glee
I find my girl
At the end of my spree

I wed her, bless us
Send me to Life
I take Life’s offer:
My God and my wife!


Over chainless bay waters, glistening
There the sunshine droplets, sparkling
Reflect Lady Liberty, illuminating
The dark recesses, bravely unperilous,
Hoisting her torch up, staunch on her tiny island,
Offering Hope fetched from her endless supply;
She has been waiting, in this sun-dyed fog,
For us to come around. We have been a long time sick;
Feverishly sinking to Atlantic abysses in search of mollusks
To ape, or some mystic despot high upon a Himalayan hill
Lording over us a celestial harem, or a golden homeland
Trodden with the odd steps of geese,
But now we cleave into that gracious bosom;
It is all over; the hour has come where we at last
Shall greet ourselves in Nature’s mirror
Free from all the wisps of heaven,
Free from all that’s been known already,
Now to know the unknown knowns
Loosed upon the exterior of the globe
Rumbling with the shouts of a great Business Man.

He wasn’t in exclusive, fancy clubs
With Bush and Kerry sipping wine from Skulls;
He wasn’t hip to theorists’ moral arcs,
On glossy mags with Priestlian Barack;
A crass New Yorker, loudmouth, a Joe,
Mad like him, but with funds to fund himself;
A rich man and a common man in one.
He gave his speech on Fifth about the world,
Our people getting gypped and screwed; to hear
Him yell the people filled the stadiums,
Returned his yells with chants, and ballot votes.
The traitors down in Washington had caved,
Had sold the country out for fancy checks,
Had shipped the labor off to Chinese Reds,
Had sent our men to fight in others’ wars
They bled beneath a hot Iraqi sun
And died in Libya by the rabble’s gun
Had them replaced with Aztec slaves while gone
And after hooking them on debt and pills
They slandered them in schools and in the films.
Reward for that? A spade to dig a grave.
Lo, fear the men with nothing left to lose,
They might just take your “City on a Hill.”

His violent shifts of mind decide all trade,
The world hangs on to every single word,
The money trickles, bends, explodes with rays
Of liquid power crashing on our shore,
And winding backward to the sea of Need;
He rules the waves of Value, Desire –
Of Money : Being and Time wrapped with Mind,
The logic of the cosmos given form,
A language to speak, theologic code
Derived from out the blue-black sparkling pool.

Capital, muscled captain of our fate:
It gathers greatest mates for sailing seas,
Those willing to forego their pleasures, good
To spend a year upon the waves and winds
And steer a Ship, navigate the course
Of fiscal oceans, riving lighting cracks –
But bliss descends to men when deals are made
And every man gets what he needs for life;
The huffing, the heaving, the manly work of days
Exhaling proudly after workday’s done
And earning silver treasure for your sweat,
Magnetic nectar, pulled towards those who strive.
The self-possessing purpose of the world,
This is its heaven and its sweet reward,
When will unites with force, and meets resolve;
It comes not from a miracle or prayer
But us, for God helps those who help themselves.
Let us rejoice upon the grave of Past:
As olden Orders break apart, the new
Break forth, the youthful vigor cleanses all,
Awakes the tired, frees up choked pathways . . .

Yet we still protest on a sacred point.
I’ll chill these praises, let me make this clear–:
Blame the ones who took away our time
Claiming all the joys of art are waste;
Tend again to dalliance and poise
Rend mechanic minds and dash the hive;
For soon a Book of Books shall give a cry
The birth pang of a newborn baptism,
A crooning with the wisdom of our day.

I’m tasked with this, my life’s great hallowed task,
To suffuse our realm with luminous grace
And refuse the Nothing’s venomous breath.
Calliope, O bless me with your spark!
Your milk-white bosom, that’s the spring I’ll taste.
Unbind me from the speaking logos gray
Remake me with the grace of epos gold:
O, blind these stubborn eyes and drench my mind
With golden lines from Homer’s arcane muse;
Return the holy higher key once more,
Demand the world return to me once more,
And o’er and o’er. I’ll tell you masses this.
There is a fountain that was not made by
The hands of men. Sweetly it springs on earth,
Should we have the silence and the patience
To listen to its flowing.