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Seven Last Words: Music and Poetry for Good Friday

In 1785 Josef Haydn wrote a chamber work based on what the Bible says were the seven last words spoken by Christ on the cross. That music has been used in Good Friday religious services ever since. In 2005, a Minnesota church asked poet Michael Dennis Browne to prepare poetry readings to accompany Haydn's music. Instead, he wrote his own poems. Browne came to our studio to read his collection.

Seven Last Voices
In response to
The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross
By Franz Josef Haydn

by Michael Dennis Browne


"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"
"Pater, dimitte illis; non enim sciunt quid faciunt"

You are descending stairs—
     Down and down and down
Slowly, as in a dream.
     You have never wanted to go this deep,
But the House of Forgiveness in large.

As if you were among the roots of oaks.
     Up there, storms;
You know the branches grind and shriek
but here no groaning, only this quietness,
as of whales asleep.

Is this down here the dream?
Or is it up there, where you do
things as wild as, wilder than,
     those plunging branches?

All hates, little and large, that you hold,
     let those winds sweep them from you,
send them as leaves down the street,
     let these deeps murmur to you,
wary of them as you were
     (and now their salt
washing your wounds clean).

Forgiveness—has she live here all along?
     Out of her blood once you came,
and so soon you hissed away from her,
     from whose body you began by drinking
before you learned any words
     to distance yourself from her.

And why such a stranger here?
     Why have you lived away?
Why only a guest in these rooms?
     Descending now, breathing this darker air,
what is to be done
     other than watch and listen
out of the heart she gave you?

Now windows are being opened,
     you feel it everywhere,
and what is this fragrance
     all through the air?
It is forgiveness.
     Forgiveness and her flowers.

Listen to "House"


"This day you will be with me in paradise"
"Hodie mecum eris in paradise"

At least they did not cut off my hands
     and leave me helpless.
At least they have only killed me,

Where you go, now I go
     You said: come with me,
you shall be with me.
     You said: I know the paths.
So: I will follow you.

All I know is that we die
     here together.
All I can do is trust you,
     tied as I am beside you.

My own crimes, I know.
     Too many, too often.
What was yours?
     Was there one only?
A large one?
     (They seem to have made
larger wounds in you.)

At dawn light this morning—
     It was so cold, remember?—
I did not know that now
     I would be walking these paths with you.

Are we near water?
     I think I see boats,
hear what sounds like ropes,
     slapping against masts
within a harbor.

This going with you,
     I already love.

As a boy,
     I never knew the names of trees,
but these are cedars.

Listen to "Thief"


"Woman, behod your son."
"Mulier, ecce filius tuus."

I thought I had my son in this life.
     And now, you give me another.
When did you ever not surprise me?
     It was not always an amazement I would have chosen,
but each time, like a dream, it was there
     And I belonged to it.

Do I hold this one to my heart?
     Is that what I must do?
Was there ever a time you did not ask of me
     more than I thought I could do?
I have never dreamed myself as large
     as you presume me to be.
Really, there are only so many rooms.

You never let me live my only life;
     You never did.

But in all you have asked of me,
     I did not fail you and I will not now,
even now, though this is hardest
     here in this place where you suffer so.

When I said yes—so long ago—
     to be your mother—
I was young, young—
     how could I have known
what this would ask of me?
     And could this be the last asking,
as you die before me?

I hardly think so.

I never knew how much
     could break in me,
and still be green.

And now you say, my son:
     Behold your son.
You cannot ask it, and you do.

Here I am.

Listen to "Mother"


"My God, My God, why have You abandoned me?
"Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani?"

The sea has taken everything. What has the sea not taken?

The sun looks like a scar, the birds like scars in the branches—where there is
any kind of tree.

Why is there nothing? (The something, as it just was, was never so much.)
Why is there now nothing?

Why is there another day after this one? Then another, then another?

What are the nights for? Yet I prefer the sky dark, so I never expect a sun.
I prefer the poor light of stars.

Dar, or light, there is nothing left to dream.

My God, My God, I cannot begin to ask what You were thinking.
I cannot begin to dare to imagine that You might have turned away
just a moment from he world, even that You were beginning
to think of a different world, wearing of this one...

I cannot believe that for even a moment You drew back Your heart from
us. Why, then, this heartlessness?

We have been betrayed not only by the sea, but especially the sea.
Everything we had is broken; everything known.

Lord, You, even You, even if You are there in some lost corner of my heart,
calling like a mad bird, I do not hear You. Instead I call and call.

Am I still Your bird, even if I am a mad one?

My God, My God, I always knew You were with us. Now do I know?

Mother, mother of my mother, mothers, can you tell me anything beyond my
own question with its thousand mouths: Why?

When I was a child, always they told me there was light, that the light was
real, but was hidden. And now?

Hidden is beating its drum, its drum, its drum.

Listen to "Tsunami"


"I thirst"

I do not know how long the line is. I know I am not the first of the thirsty,
not the last. The line goes round the world.

Cracked the lips of the children; the lips of the mothers, the lips of
the fathers.

The belly is a begging bowl, a shallow little thing. It trembles, but we are not
to see that. (Only surgeons, like ravens high above the body, could look down and in.)

These are lives in which rain has not fallen for years: no steady slow soaking
of rain in the night, no loosened earth, no fragrance, no flowers unfolding,
no silky lotus with all its leaves unfurled.

Lord, now that we know You thirst, what is our own dryness but Yours?
Yours but ours? You thirst, since You are with us, even till the end of time,
Your bowl no bigger. With us in this line.

Did you tremble in Your own abandonment? I have imagined Your wounds
so wide that small animals ran there to hide from the hunters—nothing. You
could do about it, nothing you would have chosen to do, even if Your hands
had not been nailed to wood.

No creature too small for You to be its savior, to take upon Yourself its thirst.

The line goes round the world. Your world.

Listen to "Line"


"It is finished."
"Consummatum est."

Apples. Olives. Table. Door. Dust. Rain.

It is over.

The whale in her deeps. The hawk, circling.

Scar. Cut. Bruise. Vein. Pulse. Bone.


Mud. Straw. Coins. Dawn. Twigs. Wind.

Your mother's songs. Your father's stories. Games with the little friends.


The sheep with their bells. The goats—of course the goats.

Hands. Lips. Bread. Fingers. Tears. Healing.

It is over. Pockets emptied of minutes and hours and days.

Mercy, the oil.
Mercy, the womb.
Mercy, the breath.


Now go to Mercy herself.
The One who always strengthened You.
The One in whom there was nothing You could not do.

Waves rolling onto the shore, sliding away.

It is over. It begins.
It is over. It begins.

Riddles Blessings. Teachings. Streams. Leaves. Birds.
(Maybe the birds go with You.)

Now, how can we not know what must die in us?
What must grow less?

What lives?

It is over. It begins.

It is over. It begins.

Listen to "Over"


"Father, into Your hands I let go my spirit."

What did not begin with You?

What goes back to You has always been with You—
  in Your hands, we say, but not that, not that,
    we know You are Spirit, that there are no hands,
      and when were we ever not in them?

How do we return to You?
  Ground our being (not that, not that),
    Ruler of All (not that, not that)
      though Father, we can say, though Mother,
        since from the first breath
          we have loved those names.

In our need, in our joy, we have spoken to You,
  Little intimate conversations,
    Who knew us since before we were born.
      Nothing we would not say to You
        Who know all the rivers we are.
          Nothing in us that does not flow to You.

Into Your hands, though Your hands are the sky,
  into Your heart, though Your heart is all flowers...
    See, we cannot imagine You!
      And since we cannot imagine You—
        Immensity, forgive us, then.

With what does not die,
  With what in us does not know how to die,
    We come.
      Like children,
        Like leaves before the wind.
          Father. Mother. To You.

Listen to "Pantokrator"
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