Category Archives: literature

St. John of the Cross; a new sonnet

St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross also has his day in dark December, just the day after St. Lucy in fact. That seems right for the saint who, more than any other, understood and dealt with the darkness that sometimes comes upon us, the saint who gave us the phrase ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’.

John encountered darkness not only spiritually and psychologically, but actually: both physical darkness and the darkness of human evil when he was imprisoned in a dark dungeon by fellow Christians and indeed, members of his own order! But he did not give in to darkness, rather he perceived that it might become fruitful, the darkness not of evil but of God, that the way down might become the way up, that hidden even in the deepest darkness was the promise of that light which the darkness can never overcome. So he wrote that beautiful poem ‘Although it is the Night’, which Seamus Heaney translated so movingly, opening with the line:

How well I know that fountain, filling., running,

Although it is the night.

The other deep element in his writing is the way he understands Christ as our true lover and is able to draw on the deepest language of human loving to give voice to his intimate relationship with Christ.

I have drawn on ‘Although it is the Night’, poem and on some of the elements in his story and his spiritual writings in making the following sonnet in his honour. My sonnet also reflects on the fact that his day falls in Advent when we are all waiting in Darkness for the coming of God’s marvellous light. As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play button’.  There is a very fine meditation on St. John of the Cross and a song to go with it on Steve Bell‘s lovely Advent snippet book, which you can find Here

John of the Cross

Deep in the dark your brothers locked you up

But not so deep as your dear Love could dive,

There at the end of colour, sense and shape,

The dark dead end that tells us we’re alive,

You sang aloud and found your absent lover,

As light’s true end comes with the end of light.

In the rich midnight came the lovely other,

You saw him plain although it was the night.

 

And now you call us all to hear that Fountain

Singing and playing well before the Dawn

The sun is still below this shadowed mountain

We wait in darkness for him to be born.

Before he rises, light-winged with the lark,

We’ll meet with our beloved in the dark.

El Greco's landscape of Toledo depicts the priory in which John was held captive

El Greco’s landscape of Toledo depicts the priory in which John was held captive

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Launde Abbey on Saint Lucy’s Day

Launde Abbey on St. Lucy's day

Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s day

I am leading an Advent retreat here at Launde Abbey, a beautiful place hidden away in the soft folds of Leicestershire. This morning, on Saint Lucy’s day, whose brief brightness is dedicated to the martyr saint who found the true dayspring and whose name means light, I walked in the abbey grounds. As I watched the bright low winter sun rise dazzling through the bare bleak leafless trees and light at last the Abbey’s sunken rose garden this sonnet came to me.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s day

 

St. Lucy’s day is brief and bright with frost,

In round cupped dew ponds shallow waters freeze,

Delicate fronds and rushes are held fast,

The low sun brings a contrast to the trees

Whose naked branches, dark against the skies

And fringed with glory by the light behind,

In patterns too severe for tired eyes,

Burn their bright beauty on the weary mind.

Saint Lucy’s sun still bathes these abbey walls

And in her garden rose stalks stark and bare

Shine in a frosty light that yet recalls

The glory of the summer roses there.

Though winter night will soon surround us here,

Another Advent comes, Dayspring is near.

And fringed with glory by the light behind

And fringed with glory by the light behind

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O Radix: A Third Advent Reflection and Sonnet

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse

Over the course of Advent I am posting again the seven ‘Great O’ advent Antiphons together with my verse reflections on them. Today we come to the third Advent Antiphon, O Radix! This prayer calls on Christ as the Root, an image I find particularly compelling and helpful. The Antiphon Prayer, whose text I give below, is referring to the image of he ‘tree of Jesse’ the family tree which leads to David, and ultimately to Christ as the ‘Son of David’, but for me the title Radix, goes deeper, as a good root should. It goes deep down into the ground of our being, the good soil of creation. God in Christ is, I believe, the root of all goodness, wherever it is found and in whatsoever culture, or with whatever names it fruits and flowers. A sound tree cannot bear bad fruit said Christ, who also said, I am the vine, you are the branches. I have tried to express some of my feelings for Christ as root and vine more elliptically in my song The Green Man, but here I do it more directly in my sonnet on the third Advent Antiphon. Once again you should be able to hear it by clicking on the play button before the poem or by clicking on the link in the title of the poem. I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful picture that follows the sonnet. These Advent sonnets are now gathered together in a larger cycle called ‘Sounding the Seasons’ and which takes you right through the church year from Advent to the feast of Christ the King. It is out now with Canterbury Press, available in various bookshops, from Amazon, or direct from Canterbury Press. You can also hear this sonnet recited as part of a song on Steve Bell‘s amazing new album Keening for the Dawn.

Some more of my poetry for this seasons, including some new work is taken up into a new Ebook by Steve Bell called Advent, part of a series he’s started called Pilgrimage Its beautifully presented and includes songs, visual art and video as well sat Steve’s prose and my poetry. You can find out how to download and enjoy it here

 

O Radix

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing
as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer

O Radix

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,

Rose from a root invisible to all.

We knew the virtues once of every weed,

But, severed from the roots of ritual,

We surf the surface of a wide-screen world

And find no virtue in the virtual.

We shrivel on the edges of a wood

Whose heart we once inhabited in love,

Now we have need of you, forgotten Root

The stock and stem of every living thing

Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,

For now is winter, now is withering

Unless we let you root us deep within,

Under the ground of being, graft us in.

Picture by Margot Krebs Neale

Picture by Margot Krebs Neale

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In Praise Of Decay (and against plastic)

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

I walk each morning in some woodland near my home and especially savour in this late autumn, early winter season, the damp carpet of fallen leaves, now decaying and forming  rich mulch that will feed the soil for future growth. Even in their decay, losing edge and shape, melding and blending together there is in this carpet of leaves, a kind of grace and beauty. The other morning though, these meditations were interrupted by a sudden intrusion. There amongst the gold and mottled leaf mould, like some harsh alien excrescence, was a discarded plastic bag. It was totally out of place and told its own tale of indifference and carelessness; not just the carelessness of the person that dropped it, but the carelessness of the culture that produced it. The trees shed their leaves, and in that fall and letting go  achieve a new grace, the leaves themselves let go of shape and colour and in that change and decay become something rich and nurturing. That plastic bag will just persist in unchanging ugliness, and we who make and discard that plastic will continue to be maimed and made ugly by our accumulations, we who might have learned from the trees something about the grace of  diminishment and renewal.

But the plastic in our lives does much worse than just disfigure the occasional patch of woodland, it literally chokes the life out of other living things and then returns, in the food chain, to poison us from within. The morning’s Guardian has a harrowing piece about how prevalent and deadly discarded plastic is in the world’s oceans. you can read that here. One of the most distressing consequences of this plastic accumulating in the seas is being fed to young albatrosses by their parents as a result of which the birds, their bellies full of indigestible plastic cannot retain enough real food and starve to death. This has been chronicled with great power and pathos by Seattle Photographer Chris Jordan, one of whose pictures I have included after the poem. You can read more about that and see his film about it Here.  As so often, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was prophetic when he made the destruction of an albatross a sign of our wanton indifference to other life and our disturbance of a balance in nature which will eventually wreak havoc on us.

My morning walk, and the wider awareness of the damage caused by plastic’s bleak persistence led me to write this sonnet in praise of decay and praying for a return to older and wiser ways of living. As usual you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title. Do feel free to share this with other people.

In praise of decay

So much is deadly in the shiny new,

Persistent plastic choking out our life,

The landfill of each ego’s empty stuff,

Where poison and possession still accrue.

So praise Him in the old and mouldering,

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge,

In mottled compost rustling and rich,

From which the stuff of life is still unfolding.

 

Change and decay is what our plastic needs

To break the bleak persistence of our waste.

Pray that we learn the lost arts of our past,

The arts of letting go and sowing seeds,

That secrets of the lowly and the least

Might save us from the dreadful things that last.

 

 Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan's bleak picture


Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan’s bleak picture

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Entertaining Words: a sonnet about writing

What happens when I'm writing

What happens when I’m writing

As I make changes in my life to make more room for writing I have been reflecting on the process of writing itself, and particularly on what is happening when I write poetry. I want to resist the popular image of the writer as a lonely isolated ‘creative’  somehow making it all up and achieving it by themselves. It seems to me we all receive an inheritance of language, insights, images and ideas, which we in our turn, take and shape and pass on, that all writing is part of a collaboration, a collective human effort to articulate, explore and celebrate the miracle and mystery of our being here. This is especially true of language itself: every word we use has been used, enriched and nuanced by someone else before us. I take great comfort from the fact that all the words I use are older and wiser than I am, and I sometimes think it’s my task not so much to impose myself on the words that come to me as I start writing, as to welcome them, make them comfortable, listen to what they have to say, and ask them if there are other words,friends of theirs, who might like to join the party. My task as a poet, thinking of form and arranging lines and rhymes, is not so much that of a general imposing order as that of a genial host, arranging the places at a dinner party with a view to eliciting the best conversation from his guests. As usual I found that these thoughts and the words that went with them began to arrange themselves in the form of a poem, which I have called Hospitality. As this is a season in which many of us will be extending hospitality to friends and family, I thought it might be a good time to post it.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Hospitality

 

I turn a certain key within its wards,

Unlock my doors and set them open wide

To entertain a company of words.

Whilst some come early and with eager stride

Others must be enticed and coaxed a little,

The shy and rare, unused to company,

Who’ll need some time to feel at home and settle.

I bid them welcome all, I make them free

Of all that’s mine, and they are good to me,

I set them in the order they like best

And listen for their wisdom, try to learn

As each unfolds the other’s mystery.

And though we know each word is my free guest,

They sometimes leave a poem in return.

 

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O Adonai, my second Advent Antiphon reflection and sonnet

O Adonai initial letterBack on November 30th I posted a reflection and sonnet on the first of the seven great ‘O’ Antiphons of Advent; O Sapientia. today I turn to the second of these Antiphons; O Adonai. O Adonai touches on the ancient title of  God himself, who was called ‘Adonai’, meaning Lord, in the Old Testament, because his sacred name, the four letters known as ‘The Tetragramaton’, could not be uttered by unworthy human beings without blasphemy. But the Advent Hope, indeed, the Advent miracle, was that this unknowable, un-namable, utterly holy Lord, chose out of His own free will and out of love for us, to become known, to bear a name, and to meet us where we are. The antiphon prayer reflects on the mysterious and awesome manifestations of God to Moses on the mountain in the sign of the burning bush. For early Christians this bush, full of the fire of God’s presence, yet still itself and unconsumed, was a sign of the Lord Christ who would come, who would be fully God and yet also fully human. I have tried to pick up on some of these themes in the sonnet I wrote in response to this antiphon.

These sonnets now form part of Sounding the Seasons, a longer sequence of seventy sonnets for the Christian Year. It is out now, published by Canterbury Press. You can buy it from them, from Amazon, or order it through your local bookstore. You should be able to hear the antiphon, sung by Ed Button and the sonnet, read by me, by clicking on the ‘play’ button below, or if that does not appear in your browser then click on the title of the poem and you will be taken to my audioboo page.

Some of more of my poetry for this seasons, including some new work is taken up into a new Ebook by Steve Bell called Advent, part of a series he’s started called Pilgrimage Its beautifully presented and includes songs, visual art and video as well sat Steve’s prose and my poetry. You can find out how to download and enjoy it here

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,

qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,

et ei in Sina legem dedisti:

veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,

who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm

O Adonai

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,

Unseeable, you gave yourself away,

The Adonai, the Tetragramaton

Grew by a wayside in the light of day.

O you who dared to be a tribal God,

To own a language, people and a place,

Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,

If so you might be met with face to face,

Come to us here, who would not find you there,

Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,

Who heard no more than thunder in the air,

Who marked the mere events and not the myth.

Touch the bare branches of our unbelief

And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

Thanks to Margot Krebs Neal for the beautiful photo above.For more information about the Advent Antiphons and the wisdom of the mediaeval mystics see Julia Bolton Holloway’s great site Umilita

To read and hear my first Advent sonnet O Sapientia click here

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World’s End; A New Advent Sonnet

its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves

its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves

Advent has a moving, double focus. We focus on the coming of Christ, both as he came, the babe of Bethlehem and as he promises to come again at the end of all things. The readings in church on this first Sunday in Advent made this clear, as we heard the challenging verses of Mark chapter 13 verses 24 to the end. This passage, in which Jesus speaks of the end of all things, but paradoxically calls his disciples to hope, is known to scholars as the ‘little apocalypse’, and its amazing how preachers manage to shy away from it whenever it crops up!

This year I have tentatively begun a new sonnet sequence called ‘Parable and Paradox’ in which I am trying to reflect, as honestly as I can, on the teachings of Jesus as I hear them read to me over the year. So here first is the reading I heard on Sunday, and then the sonnet I have written in response. I was especially moved by the unexpected word ‘tender’, in the midst of all that apocalyptic imagery, when Jesus, in describing the signs of spring in a fig tree, says ‘its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves’.

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. You can find some other sonnets from the new ‘Parable and Paradox’ sequence Here and Here

Mark 13:24-end

24 ‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,  25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.28 ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.32 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’


World’s End

So we begin to contemplate the End

With shadowed glimpses of apocalypse.

How can we even start to understand?

The heavens shaken, and the vast eclipse

Of everything that we have ever known.

Then, suddenly revealed, the power and glory

Once-veiled in symbols of the lamb and throne,

The all-revealing climax of our story.

 

About that day, you tell us, no one knows

But we must wake and watch for you, look up.

Yet hidden in this warning you disclose

A tender yearning, a deep stirring hope,

And bid us, in the visions that you bring,

To see the world’s end as a sign of spring.

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