The Brewing of Soma

The poem, The Brewing of Soma, by John Greenleaf Whittier, is the focal point for my sermon this Sunday, February 7.  The Soma that Whittier writes about was a ritual drink brewed by Hindu priests and drunk by worshipers, bringing “sacred madness” and “a storm of drunken joy.”  You will see that Whittier is ultimately critical of soma and the practices and behaviors it engenders.  He equates those drinking soma to certain Christians of his day (1872).  What do you make of this poem?  What speaks to you or disturbs you?  What is your “soma?”

The fagots blazed, the caldron’s smoke
Up through the green wood curled;
“Bring honey from the hollow oak,
Brink milky sap,” the brewers spoke,
In the childhood of the world.

And brewed they well or brewed they ill,
The priests thrust in their rods,
First tasted, and then drank their fill,
And shouted, with one voice and will,
“Behold, the drink of the gods!”

They drank, and lo! in heart and brain
A new, glad life began;
They grew of hair grew young again,
The sick man laughed away his pain,
The cripple leaped and ran.

“Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,
Forget you long annoy.”
So sang the priests, From tent to tent
The Soma’s sacred madness went,
A storm of drunken joy.

Then knew each rapt inebriate
A winged and glorious birth,
Soared upward, with strange joy elate,
Beat, with dazed head, Varuna’s gate,
And sobered, sank to earth.

The land with Soma’s praises rang;
On Gihon’s banks of shade
Its hymns the dusky maidens sang;
In joy of life or mortal pang
All men to Soma prayed

The morning twilight of the race
Sends down these matin psalms;
And still with wondering eyes we trace
The simple prayers to Soma’s grace,
That verdic verse embalms.

As in the child-world’s early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

Some fever of the blood and brain,
Some self-exalting spell,
The scourger’s keen delight of pain,
the Dervish dance, the Orphic strain,
The wild-haired Bacchant’s yell, –

The desert’s hair-grown hermit sunk
The saner brute below;
The naked Santon, haschish-drunk,
The cloister madness of the monk,
The fakir’s torture show!

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfill;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
And noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
Thy beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the hearts of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be numb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 1:39 am  Comments (11)  
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  1. Drink, mortals, what the gods have sent,

    This line speaks to the temporary illusions we use to comfort ourselves; but we do so employing things from us, not from God. . .and this is why it fails. Pick from any of a number of tangible diversions: addiction, celebrity, wealth, possession, . . . all filling the wants we create in the absence of what we truly need. But none are “what the gods have sent.” They are phantoms, mirages. These are all our own creations; our own substitutions for what we lack, what we need. Friendship, a feeling that we are loved and valued, proof that we matter, that we belong.
    These things may take away our pain for the moment but when the effect wears off we will hurt again. Celebrity may bring the attention of millions, but in our homes, minds and marriages we can still be alone. The latest purchase will be in fashion for now, but next season’s trend will make it irrelevant. And that last text message may seem like communication, but it is no substitute for seeing someone up close and experiencing their response in person.
    Yes, while we use these diversions, we will feel no pain, fear no evil and want for nothing. . .until it’s over. And it does end.
    I had the good fortune of participating in the prayer vigil last summer, my first ever. I took one of the graveyard shifts, 4:30 to 6AM or something like that. I arrived early and had to wait for my turn, so I sat in the back hall where we all gather for coffee. There were no lights on in the room and I had just come in from a bright hallway, so I just sat there in pitch darkness. For some reason, I decided to close my eyes and when I opened them, they had adjusted to the light after coming in from a lit hallway. Then I suddenly heard and saw things I never noticed. The steady tick of the grandfather clock across the room. The shifting and creaking of the wood. And even the small strobe lights that blink in unison from the smoke detectors in the ceiling. And in that moment I was aware.
    I was aware because I stopped trying to see, stopped trying to hear, stopped trying to force the world to reveal itself through my will alone. I closed my eyes and just accepted what I saw when I opened them.
    And then it happened; I got the message.
    Sometimes it’s better to let God comfort us then it is to manufacture that comfort for ourselves. Sometimes we try too hard to find our direction when we only need to let God show us the way. And sometimes, the things we are blind to in the dark will only be revealed when we close our eyes.

  2. I don’t know whether to respond with Amen! or Holy Crap! Either response would be meant to communicate that I think you got this just right and expressed it beautifully. Thanks. Mind if I quote you in tomorrow’s sermon (if the Spirit so moves)?

  3. Come follow me. That is the exortation in the gospel today. There is no way we can do that without emptying ourselves of the worriees and false promises of temporary pleasures. It is a daily journey to turn our will and lives over to God and trust that no matter whY we will be OK. Today I choose the long lasting benefits of the promises God makes…I will be with you always.

  4. Dear Pastor George,
    I just wanted to comment on how much I enjoyed your sermon on “The Brewing of Soma”. To me, the word “soma” has a different connotation as it is the Assyrian word for “fasting”. As I recall, the Assyrians of my grand-mother’s generation fasted for the entire 40 days of Lent. Halfway through, on the 20th day, they would bake a bread, called “Julleh’t Soma” or bread of lent. It resembled an Italian calzone. The main ingredients were: kidney beans, chick peas,onions,paprika, basil, walnuts,honey, and sesame seeds. A small wooden cross was hidden in one of them. The family member, whose portion contained the cross, received a special gift. As children, the sight of the bread heightened our excitement that Easter was almost here.

  5. Maureen, that is really fascinating! I would love to hear more about the Assyrian Lenten fast. What did the fast consist of? No food at all? Not eating certain foods? Not eating during certain hours of the day? One of our newer members, Tracy, fasted (only fruit juice) for thirty days during Lent last year. She will be leading a discussion about fasting as a spiritual practice at our mid-week Lenten get together on Wednesday, February 24 at 6:30 p.m. It would be great to have information about the Assyrian Lenten fast as part of that discussion. Maybe someone could even bake Julleh’t Soma. That would be really cool! Do you know how to make it? It reminds me of a Lenten tradition in New Orleans where I went to college. There they made something called a King Cake, a ring shaped sweet bread that had a small to baby hidden inside. The person that found the baby was said to have good luck. Tell me more!

    • Pastor George, thank-you for your interest. The Assyrian fast was more substantial than that which Tracy undertook. The majority of men worked at manufacturing jobs which consisted of heavy labor. They had to have foods to sustain them, at the same time, allowing them to show their devotion to their faith. The women,for the most part,were homemakers. It took days to prepare the foods and breads for Lent. Everything was done by hand; remember this took place before food processors, and other modern conveniences. Most of the meals were meatless, and consisted of simple soups,stews, bread, cheese,and fruit. Many recipes called for beans, lentils, chick peas,bulgar wheat, and a variety of herbs. One favorite meal was called “Bushala”. It was a yogurt soup with celery, swiss chard,spinich, cilantro, dill, and peppers. It was served warm in the winter, and chilled for the summer, sort of like “Vichyssoise”. Some Assyrian historians believe this was the “porridge” for which Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob.
      Another simple meal is called “Jajick”. Cream cheese is mixed with cottage cheese. Diced dill and coriander are added. This could be used as a sandwich, or served with flat bread.
      I don’t know how to make the “Julle’t Soma”, but I found a recipe in a “modern” Assyrian cookbook, which my sister sent me from Nevada. I will make you a copy and mail it to the church. It also has a picture of what the bread looks like. Perhaps someone who has a talent for baking would like to try to re-create it.
      Keep up your idealism, enthusiasm, and good work.

  6. Hi George,

    As in the child-world’s early year,
    Each after age has striven
    By music, incense, vigils drear,
    And trance, to bring the skies more near,
    Or lift men up to heaven!

    As I wrote to Rick separately, Whittier might have thought differently about the place of music in worship had he been at the Feb 7 service. At South Church, the music serves and elevates the word and the message; music is never introduced for effect or for show. It is really a thrill to experience a service crafted so beautifully from beginning to end, where every word and note reinforces and enlightens the other. Your sermons are always good, and always well-crafted, but this one was really superb. You write beautifully, and I note and appreciate the trajectory of each sermon. You read the poem with just the right touch, too.

    David’s interpretation (I had written “playing” but that was inadequate) of “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” made the text come alive, especially the last few bars of the last stanza.

    Each of the choral selections was just right for the mood of the service: the Wyton mass settings (powerful and bright as a laser beam), the Mendelssohn at the offertory (perfection), and the Talmadge at Communion (achingly beautiful). It was especially good to have a powerful Sanctus after Judy’s beautiful reading.

  7. […] Julleh’t Soma Maureen Abraham shares some great remembrances of Lent and her Assyrian grandmother under the “Brewing of Soma” post.  Soma, Maureen says, is the Assyrian word for fast, and Julleh’t Soma is a pastry (like an Assyrian calzone) that was served 20 days into a 40 day Lenten fast.  Read Maureen’s comments for more for more about Julleh’t Soma and Assyrian Lenten traditions […]

  8. I agree, Sarah. Sunday’s was an especially beautiful service. Whittier, being a Quaker, may have been dismissing the role of all music in our walk with God. Clearly, I disagree. But, as I noted in my sermon, there is still a valuable caution in his perspective. Our religious practices (communion, for example) should never supplant God as the object of our worship and commitment. Rather, these should be understood as the finger pointing to God.

    • The other night I watched the 2007 movie “Atonement” — do you know it? There’s a haunting scene of the evacuation at Dunkirk (June 1940), with devastation, destruction, and death all around. In the midst of the chaos, a group of soldiers is at worship. They are singing steadily and steadfastly. What are they singing? “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” (to the music (1888) of C.H.H.Parry, the version best-known and beloved in Britain). I haven’t (yet) read the book on which the film is based, but whether it was the author’s or director’s choice, it was arresting to hear the “…still small voice of calm…” float over the gunfire and screams of the wounded.

  9. Very Interesting It Is That I, Understanding Something Of The Friends Or Quakers. I Know That Before, During, And After This Poem “The Brewing Of Soma” Was Written There Was A Brewing And Impending Schism Within The Monthly Meetings Of Indiana And Ohio I Am Quite Sure Of. This Poem Was Directed At That. Thus, The Portions “Dear Lord And Father Of Manking, Forgive Our Foolish Ways..” We Can Understand The Prayer For A Peaceful Resolve Or Resolution! I See The Need For This In Me, Yea, And No Doubt, In All Of Thee! What A Prayer For Peace And Quietness! What A Prayer That All Schisms End! I Think All Of Mankind Has Each Their Own Brewing, Which We Need The Peace And Mercy Of God And His Christ To “Forgive” Each Of Our Own “Foolish Ways.” Thank Thee, For This, Thy Posting Which I Happened To Find. Thank Thee! Thy Unaffiliated Mennonite And Unaffiliated Sequestered Friend In The Light Of Christ.

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