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Lions Roar : March 2008
About a Poem: Sam Hamill on “Candles in Babylon,” by Denise Levertov CANDLES IN BABYLON Through the midnight streets of Babylon between the steel towers of their arsenals, between the torture castles with no windows, we race by barefoot, holding tight our candles, trying to shield the shivering flames, crying “Sleepers Awake!” hoping the rhyme’s promise was true, that we may return from this place of terror home to a calm dawn and the work we had just begun. THIS IS THE TITLE POEM of a volume of poetry pub- lished during the Vietnam War, and yet it seems almost as if written for present circumstances in Iraq—Babylon. The poet was a Christian devoted to Liberation Theology, a movement largely centered in Latin American Catholicism. The “rhyme” referred to is Matthew 25:1-13, where Jesus says, “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise and five were foolish...” Five had oil for their lamps; five did not. Five were prepared “to meet the bridegroom”; five were not. It is a controversial passage, claimed by some as pro- phetic, preparing for the second coming. While I never shared my old friend Denise’s religious convictions, I’ve always felt this poem could be read from an existential Buddhist perspective: some prepare for enlightened living while some do not. The poem articulates the fundamental compassion of Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist paci- fism, the prohibition against killing, and the “awakening” that lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching. ♦ PAINTINGBYTONYMATTHEWS 120 SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 MAR 108-120.indd 120 MAR 108-120.indd 120 12/19/07 2:22:29 PM 12/19/07 2:22:29 PM