I have been working on, and have now completed, a quartet of sonnets for and about my beloved church of St. Edwards in Cambridge, though I hope they will have wider resonance beyound the place where they are rooted.
I am taking a leaf out of George Herbert’s book A Priest to the Temple, his poems like The Church Floor and The Windowes begin with the outward visibly part of the physical church fabric and move through it to show the spiritual ‘inside’, the ‘heaven in ordinarie’. My sequence of four takes you on a journey eastwards towards the heart of our mystery from the font by the West door of the church, a place of beginnings, to the lectern and the pulpit,, the places where we hear the bible and hear it opened for us, as the disciples did on the road to Emmaus, to the altar,(my poem is about our sixteenth century communion table) where for us, as for those disciples on the road, Jesus is known in the breaking of the bread.
I believe in the incarnation,and therefore I believe that the spiritual is known in and through the physical. I love and celebrate in these poems the particular physicality of ancient stone and wood in these time-worn objects, font, lectern, pulpit,table. I hope however that there is enough of the universal in what I write for something of what is in these sonnets to be helpful to anyone coming to any font, lectern or communion table anywhere. If you find these verses helpful please feel free to copy them and make what use of them as you like in your own church and church life.
This little sequence is in turn part of a much bigger project, to do a book of poems and pictures in collaboration with the wonderful artist Rebecca Merry, which will take the reader on a journey through the liturgical year and the sacraments, telling afresh the great sequence of Incarnation Death and Resurrection.
A preliminary note on Latimer’s Pulpit
Of the four the only one which is perhaps peculiar to St. Edwards is the pulpit. Ours is known as Latimers Pulpit, for Hugh Latimer the great Saint and Martyr preached there often, and it was in this pulpit that he preached the famous sermon of the card, to which my sonnet alludes.
In that sermon he imagines that we are losing a card game with the devil. One after another he lays out the black suit of our sins, he holds all the cards and is ready to take the ‘trick’ of our souls, but Christ leans forward and lays on top of all those sins the trump card that wins us back; the king of hearts, for in a universe where God is love, then love is always trumps. At the end of the sermon he exhorts his hearers to do for others what Christ has done for them. When people deal you cards of malice, hate, or envy always and only reply by trumping hate with love. His great love, even of his enemies, shone through when he was burned at the stake for his faith in 1555. It is an extraordinary experience to touch the wood, and to stand in that pulpit and preach as I do each week. But setting the pulpit sonnet aside, I hope that readers both in and beyond St. Edwards may find something helpful for their own journies from the font, past the lectern to the altar, and through life.
Four Sonnets for St. Edwards:
Old stone angels hold aloft the font
A wide womb, floating on the breath of God,
Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift
Bright lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,
And under-girded with their unheard song,
Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,
Calling us to the life for which we long,
Yearning to bring us to our birth again.
Again the breath of God is on the waters
In whose reflecting face our candles shine,
Again he draws from death the sons and daughters
For whom he bid the elements combine,
As old stone angels round a font today
Become the ones who roll the stone away.
Some rise on eagles wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak:
Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain.
Be still the lectern says, stand here and read
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow… So you stand
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.
Latimer’s pulpit, you can touch the wood,
Sound for yourself the syllables of grace
That sounded and resounded through this place;
A quickened word, a kindling for good
In evil times; when malice held the cards
And played them, in the play of politics,
When knaves with knives were taking all the tricks,
When Christendom was shivered into shards,
When King and Queen were pitched in different camps,
When burning books could stoke the fire for men,
When such were stacked against him –even then
Latimer knew that hearts alone are trumps.
He gave the King of Hearts his proper name,
He touched this wood, and kindled love to flame.
The centuries have settled on this table
Deepened the grain beneath a clean white cloth
Which bears afresh our changing elements.
Year after year of prayer, in hope and trouble,
Were poured out here and blessed and broken, both
In aching absence and in absent presence.
This table too the earth herself has given
And human hands have made. Where candle-flame
At corners burns and turns the air to light
The oak once held its branches up to heaven,
Blessing the elements which it became,
Rooting the dew and rain, branching the light.
Because another tree can bear, unbearable,
For us, the weight of Love, so can this table