Angels pause on tasks of love: Keble’s poem for Ash Wednesday


When thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret.  St. Matthew vi. 17, 18.

“Yes—deep within and deeper yet

The rankling shaft of conscience hide,

Quick let the swelling eye forget

The tears that in the heart abide.

Calm be the voice, the aspect bold,

No shuddering pass o’er lip or brow,

For why should Innocence be told

The pangs that guilty spirits bow?

“The loving eye that watches thine

Close as the air that wraps thee round—

Why in thy sorrow should it pine,

Since never of thy sin it found?

And wherefore should the heathen see

What chains of darkness thee enslave,

And mocking say, ‘Lo, this is he

Who owned a God that could not save’?”

Thus oft the mourner’s wayward heart

Tempts him to hide his grief and die,

Too feeble for Confession’s smart,

Too proud to bear a pitying eye;

How sweet, in that dark hour, to fall

On bosoms waiting to receive

Our sighs, and gently whisper all!

They love us—will not God forgive?

Else let us keep our fast within,

Till Heaven and we are quite alone,

Then let the grief, the shame, the sin,

Before the mercy-seat be thrown.

Between the porch and altar weep,

Unworthy of the holiest place,

Yet hoping near the shrine to keep

One lowly cell in sight of grace.

Nor fear lest sympathy should fail—

Hast thou not seen, in night hours drear,

When racking thoughts the heart assail,

The glimmering stars by turns appear,

And from the eternal house above

With silent news of mercy steal?

So Angels pause on tasks of love,

To look where sorrowing sinners kneel.

Or if no Angel pass that way,

He who in secret sees, perchance

May bid His own heart-warming ray

Toward thee stream with kindlier glance,

As when upon His drooping head

His Father’s light was poured from Heaven,

What time, unsheltered and unfed,

Far in the wild His steps were driven.

High thoughts were with Him in that hour,

Untold, unspeakable on earth—

And who can stay the soaring power

Of spirits weaned from worldly mirth,

While far beyond the sound of praise

With upward eye they float serene,

And learn to bear their Saviour’s blaze

When Judgment shall undraw the screen?


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