A Clerk of Oxford reminds us of the timeless themes of our faith, especially in Lent. And so it is here, where she brings forward one of the classics of the English language and faith, Piers Plowman. As always, she gives us the middle English, which is fascinating, but difficult for many of us to decipher, so I will simply give her translation.
And with that I awoke, and rubbed my eyes,
and after Piers the Plowman peered and stared about;
eastwards and westwards I looked for him,
and went forth like a fool, searching the region
for Piers the Plowman; many a place I sought.
And then I met with a man, on mid-Lent Sunday,
as hoary as a hawthorn-tree, and Abraham was his name.
I asked him first whence he had come,
and where he was from, and where he was going.
“I am Faith,” said that man, “it befits me not to lie;
a herald of arms in Abraham’s household.
I seek for a man I saw once,
a most bold knight – I knew him by his blazon.”
“What does that warrior wear,” I asked, “as bliss betide you?”
“Three figures in one person, none larger than another,
of one degree and power in length and in breadth.
What one does, all do, and each does alone.
The first has power and majesty, maker of all things:
Father is his proper name, a person in himself.
The second of that lord is Truth, the Son,
guard of all who have wits, who ever was without beginning.
The third is called the Holy Ghost, a person in himself,
the light of all that live on land and on water,
comforter of creatures – of him comes all joy.
So three attributes belong to a lord who lordship claims:
might, and the means of expressing his might,
his own and his agent’s, and what sustains them both.
So God, who never had beginning but what seemed good to him,
sent forth his Son, to be servant for a time,
to labour here until issue was brought forth –
that is, the children of charity, with Holy Church the mother.
Patriarchs and prophets and apostles were the children
And Christ and Christendom and all Christians are Holy Church…’
[He goes on to discuss the Trinity further, and tells some of Abraham’s story.]
I wondered at his words, and at his voluminous clothes –
for at his bosom he bore something which he kept blessing.
And I looked within his cloak: a leper lay there,
among patriarchs and prophets playing together.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked, “and what is it you want?”
“I want to know,” said I, “what is in your cloak.”
“Look,” he said, and let me see. “Lord, mercy!” I said.
“That’s a precious gift; for what prince is it intended?”
“It is a precious gift,” he said, “but the devil has seized it –
and me, as well,” said that one, “and no ransom may redeem us,
nor can anyone pay our bail or free us from his power;
no payment of surety can take us out of the devil’s prison,
until the one comes whom I speak of: Christ is his name,
the one who shall deliver us, some day, out of the devil’s power,
and pay a better price for us than we are all together worth:
that is, life for life. Else we would lie thus for ever,
lolling in my lap, until such a lord saved us.”
“Alas,” I cried, “that sin so long should hinder
the might of God’s mercy, which might us all amend!”
I wept for his words.
The Clerk reminds us that, “The image of the dead, those who had died before the coming of Christ, resting in the bosom of Abraham comes from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It was a popular subject in medieval art; here, the combination of the idea with Abraham’s explanation of the nature of the Trinity strikingly echoes an image found in medieval English alabaster,” such as the one that heads this article.
I’m not sure that I have anything to add to this, the poet, as brought to us here, seems pretty clear to me, so I’ll simply leave you with this, as did the Clerk.