A Pearl ... for the Brokenhearted
A Pearl ... for the Brokenhearted
Translated and with a commentary by Vernard Eller
This publication was originally published by The University Press of America (Washington, DC: 1983).
Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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PEARL is an anonymous 14th-century poem, itself a gem both of literary art and spiritual devotion.
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it." (Mt. 13:44-46)
To My Pearls
my grandmother, Jessie Pearl;
my aunt, Emily Pearl;
my sister, Elfreda pearl;
my sister-in-law, Margaret (from the French for "pearl")
and the remainder of the string not so named:
my other grandmother and aunts,
my mother and mother-in-law,
my wife and daughter,
my other sister-in-laws, nieces, et al.
"so comely a pack of jolly jewels"
(as the poet has it)
The original publication of this book featured the calligraphy of Rosanna Eller,
the author's daughter.
How are we to cope with loss? What counsel has the Christian gospel for the brokenhearted, what comfort for our own grief?
I suppose there is no topic upon which more books are being written in our day--particularly if "loss" be understood broadly as including not only the death of a loved one but also the loss of marriage, of friendship, of health, of status, of employment, of financial security, of one's youth, of happiness. Many of these books take the form of personal testimony: "This is how it was in my situation. This is how God helped me." And the case will be no different here.
Yet, even in the face of all that has been and is being written, there is room for this book--there is need for this book.
The difficulty with other books is that they have been written by contemporaries and so tend to reflect the bias of our day, the bias of current psychological counseling and the gospel as interpreted by that psychology. Conversely, the advantage of this book is that it stands at a distance; six hundred years seems about right for escaping the influences of modernity. Perhaps the change of perspective can give us some fresh insights.
Christians, above all people, should know that the latest is not necessarily the greatest. Indeed, the norm of our faith lies in a revelation given almost two thousand years ago, preserved in documents of strange and antique tongue. And closer to the instance of this book, we have an ancient church tradition that includes classics of devotion and counsel, written by saintly teachers and prophets--no people more capable of speaking the word we need to hear.
Yet, for the most part, their word goes unheard and unheeded, because their writings remain untranslated, inaccessible, unpromoted, unknown. This book, then, is the effort to rescue of these silenced voices and enable one such teacher to impart his counsel to the audience and for the purpose he intended--namely, to his brothers and sisters in Christ for the comfort of their brokenheartedness.
Pearl is a 14th-century poem known only to students of English literature--if to them. (I was at university in a graduate course on medieval literature before I discovered it.) It is written in English--although not so you could read it. During six hundred years the language has changed perhaps even more than have our intellectual biases. The poem has come down to us in a single manuscript copy, currently housed in the British Museum. This original uses letters that are no longer in our alphabet. It stands without any sort of punctuation--except for a capital letter at the beginning of each canto. It bears neither a title for the work nor a name for the author. It is bound together with several other poems that likely are by the same poet.
For obvious reasons, the work has come to be known as Pearl and the poet (for lack of any other identification) as the Pearl Poet. The poem currently is in print, available in two or three different translations. However, these editions all present it as a specimen for literary analysis; this one as a valuable word of Christian counsel for the brokenhearted. Even so, the translation offered here makes no pretense of putting the poem into Modern English. I have changed it only enough to get it within the understanding range of a modern reader--bringing it forward, say, to the language of the King James Bible or Shakespeare. I consider it most important that we read Pearl for what it is, a word spoken to our day be an elder (a much elder) brother. (See the Appendix for a more technical discussion of the translation.)
That the language of this writer is different will be obvious. That his message is different I think lies in this: The primary assumption behind many contemporary presentations of the gospel--and particularly those intended for grief counseling--is that God and I share a common goal, namely that I be happy and self-accepting. As sufferer, I know this is my primary concern; and the church assures me it is God's as well. The conservative church likes to talk about the miraculous blessings he is just waiting to heap upon me, and the liberal church prefers to focus upon the psychological therapies and social arrangements that are his vehicles for helping me feel better; but the church is united in approving my pursuit of happiness and telling me of God's support in the matter. Yet, on the contrary, the Pearl Poet specifically raises the question of whether any true, Christian comfort is to be found that way. His counsel is different.