Category Archives: literature

Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet

22nd July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and continuing my sequence of sonnets written in response to the church year I post this for her. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on its title or on the ‘play’ button.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.



Mary Magdalene

Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to  cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.
But one man set you free and took your part
One man knew and loved you to the core
The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears,
Till, in another garden, he revealed
The perfect Love that cast out all your fears,
And quickened you  with love’s own sway and swing,
As light and lovely as the news you bring.

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Thank God for ‘Doubting’ Thomas!

July the 3rd is the Feast of St. Thomas the apostle. Sometimes known as ‘doubting Thomas, but maybe honest Thomas, courageous Thomas, even Tenacious Thomas would be nearer the mark!
I thank God for St. Thomas, the one disciple who had the courage to say what everyone else was thinking but didnt dare say, the courage to ask the awkward questions that drew from Jesus some of the most beautiful and profoundly comforting of all his sayings. “We dont know where you’re going, how can we know the way”? asked Thomas, and because he had the courage to confes his ignorance, we were given that beautiful saying “I am the way the Truth and the Life” Here is the poem I have written for St. Thomas, and also a sermon called ‘Touching the Wounds’ which I preached this Sunday at St. Edwards.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.

I am greateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the thought-provoking image above, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button below or on the title of the poem and you can hear the sermon on my podcast site by clicking here: Touching The Wounds

St. Thomas the Apostle

 

“We do not know… how can we know the way?”

Courageous master of the awkward question,

You spoke the words the others dared not say

And cut through their evasion and abstraction.

Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,

You put your finger on the nub of things

We cannot love some disembodied wraith,

But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,

Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.

Because He loved your awkward counter-point

The Word has heard and granted you your wish.

Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine

The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

 

oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
the wounded God whose wounds are healing mine

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Hidden Joys; A Sonnet for the Visitation

The feast of the Visitation, on the 31st of May, celebrates the lovely moment in Luke’s Gospel (1:41-56) when Mary goes to visit he cousin Elizabeth, who was also against all expectations bearing a child, the child who would be John the Baptist. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon them, that the babe in Elizabeth’s womb ‘leaped for joy’ when he heard Mary’s voice, and it is even as the older woman blesses the younger, that Mary gives voice to the Magnificat, the most beautiful and revolutionary hymn in the world. There is much for the modern world to ponder in this tale of God’s blessing and prophecy on and from the margins, and i have tried to tease a little of it out in this sonnet. I am grateful again to Margot Krebs Neale for her inspiring image, and , as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. It is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great..

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

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A sonnet for Augustine of Canterbury

20130412-100740.jpg

Augustine

Justin

Justin

Today is the feast day of St. Augustine of Canterbury, and I am drawn back to one of the most moving moments in the  enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury the 104th successor to St. Augustine, when he stood before the Canterbury Gospels and showed his love for the Gospel, which is itself God’s declaration of love for us, by kissing the sacred text. It was moving because the book he kissed was the very book that Augustine of Canterbury brought to these shores in the 6th century. Like the gospel it contains, it has stood the test of time, like the gospel it contains it has persisted fresh and beautiful through all the vicissitudes of our history, the wars and betrayals, the making and breaking of governments, the wrecks of empire, declaring in time and in timely ways, the redeeming Love that comes to us from beyond time. It embodies the extraordinary and miraculous continuity amidst change, the apostolic succession, that links the first and the hundred and fifth Archbishop of Canterbury.

And for both men this same gospel book, and this same Gospel is a vital source of hope and inspiration, the story of strength made perfect in weakness, of Love triumphing against the odds. ‘Apostle to the English’ was a tough assignment then and it’s a tough assignment now. In fact St. Bede tells us that after Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to our shores he got cold feet on the way (literally I expect as well as metaphorically) and Bede tells us he wrote to Gregory asking if he could be allowed to turn back and have an easier posting somewhere else! Bede quotes the letter back from Gregory in which he strengthens Augustine’s resolve and says, ‘you’ve put your hand to the plough, go on in faith, Christ and his gospel will see you through. In last month’s enthronement service Justin Welby placed Christ, and reliance on Christ, the Christ revealed in those Canterbury Gospels at the centre of everything he will do as Augustine’s successor, and I am sure that the first ABC was cheering him on from Heaven. After watching the enthronement service I wrote this sonnet, for Augustine and his successors:

(As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or the \play button.This sonnet will be part of a sequence for the saints in my next book of poetry ‘The Singing Bowl’. meantime my current collection Sounding the Seasons, published by the appropriately named Canterbury Press, is available from Amazon and all good booksellers)

Augustine of Canterbury

‘Oh loving Lord don’t send me to the English,
Boorish and brutal pagans that they are’
You prayed, you wrote to Gregory in anguish
But he replied ‘since you have come so far,
Your hand is on the plough, you must continue,
And reach them on their rain-drenched island shore
There’s something in the English that will win you
And Christ himself will open up the door.’

And so the gospel came to Canterbury,
The very gospel book we still possess,
Weathering the storms of history
In all its splendour and it’s hiddenness.
We bless you for that gospel you proclaim,
Bless your successors as they do the same

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The new Archbishop and The Canterbury Gospels

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A Sonnet for Julian of Norwich

saintj85The 8th of May is the feast day of Julian of Norwich, sometimes known as Mother Julian or Lady Julian. She was an English Mystic of the late fourteenth Century, living as an Anchoress in Norwich. Her Shewings, or Revelations of Divine Love, a series of mystical visions of and conversations with Jesus, remain a source of profound wisdom and a gift to the church, present and future. For a good introduction to her work I recommend Julia Bolton Holloway’s website, she is herself an anchoress in Florence, and Robert Llewlyn’s classic work ‘With Pity, not With Blame, now reprinted by the Canterbury Press.

This poem is in my book The Singing Bowl which you can buy on Amazon or order from any good bookshop.. I will be preaching about Julian this Sunday the 11th May at St. Edward’s King and Martyr at 11 am. All Welcome. I’m posting this a little early in case you would like to incorporate the poem into church services or other celebrations.

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

Mother Julian

 

Show me O anchoress, your anchor-hold

Deep in the love of God, and hold me fast.

Show me again in whose hands we are held,

Speak to me from your window in the past,

Tell me again the tale of Love’s compassion

For all of us who fall onto the mire,

How he is wounded with us, how his passion

Quickens the love that haunted our desire.

Show me again the wonder of at-one-ment

Of Christ-in-us distinct and yet the same,

Who makes, and loves, and keeps us in each moment,

And looks on us with pity not with blame.

Keep telling me, for all my faith may waver,

Love is his meaning, only love, forever.

1413

From the Amhurst Manuscript of Julian’s showings

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Good Friday; the Stations of the Cross

Here, once more, is the complete sequence of sonnets for the Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons and are intended to be read on Good Friday.If you are in Cambridge today do come and join us for the three hours service at St. Edwards, where we will be using these sonnets. The service starts at 12.

Please feel free to make use of them in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle.

The Images are taken from a set of stations of the cross in St. Alban’s church Oxford. I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.

These sonnets have been used by a number of churches in different ways and Dr. Holly Ordway has given a series of excellent podcast talks based on these sonnets and you can find those here: Holly’s Podcasts

Stations Of the Cross


I Jesus is condemned to death

The very air that Pilate breathes, the voice

With which he speaks in judgment, all his powers

Of perception and discrimination, choice,

Decision, all his years, his days and hours,

His consciousness of self, his every sense,

Are given by this prisoner, freely given.

The man who stands there making no defence,

Is God. His hands are tied, His heart is open.

And he bears Pilate’s heart in his and feels

That crushing weight of wasted life. He lifts

It up in silent love. He lifts and heals.

He gives himself again with all his gifts

Into our hands. As Pilate turns away

A door swings open. This is judgment day.


II Jesus is given his cross

He gives himself again with all his gifts

And now we give him something in return.

He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,

Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,

And from these elements he forged the iron,

From strands of life he wove the growing wood,

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

He saw it all and saw that it is good.

We took his iron to edge an axe’s blade,

We took the axe and laid it to the tree,

We made a cross of all that he has made,

And laid it on the one who made us free.

Now he receives again and lifts on high

The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.


III Jesus falls the first time

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

And well he knows the path we make him tread

He met the devil as a roaring lion

And still refused to turn these stones to bread,

Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,

This darker path into the heart of pain.

And now he falls upon the stones that bruise

The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.

He and the earth he made were never closer,

Divinity and dust come face to face.

We flinch back from his via dolorosa,

He sets his face like flint and takes our place,

Staggers beneath the black weight of us all

And falls with us that he might break our fall.

20110418-125224.jpg

IV Jesus meets His Mother

This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.

20110418-125536.jpg

V Simon of Cyrene carries the cross

In desperation on this road of tears
Bystanders and bypassers turn away
In other’s pain we face our own worst fears
And turn our backs to keep those fears at bay
Unless we are compelled as this man was
By force of arms or force of circumstance
To face and feel and carry someone’s cross
In Love’s full glare and not his backward glance.
So Simon, no disciple, still fulfilled
The calling: ‘take the cross and follow me’.
By accident his life was stalled and stilled
Becoming all he was compelled to be.
Make me, like him, your pressed man and your priest,
Your alter Christus, burdened and released.


VI Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

Bystanders and bypassers turn away
And wipe his image from their memory
She keeps her station. She is here to stay
And stem the flow. She is the reliquary
Of his last look on her. The bloody sweat
And salt tears of his love are soaking through
The folds of her devotion and the wet
folds of her handkerchief, like the dew
Of morning, like a softening rain of grace.
Because she wiped the grime from off his skin,
And glimpsed the godhead in his human face
Whose hidden image we all bear within,
Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain
The face of god is shining once again.



VII Jesus falls the second time

Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.

VIII Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again

But still he holds the road and looks in love

On all of us who look on him. Our pain

As close to him as his. These women move

Compassion in him as he does in them.

He asks us both to weep and not to weep.

Women of Gaza and Jerusalem,

Women of every nation where the deep

Wounds of memory divide the land

And lives of all your children, where the mines

Of all our wars are sown: Afghanistan ,

Iraq, the Cote d’Ivoire… he reads the signs

And weeps with you and with you he will stay

Until the day he wipes your tears away.

IX Jesus falls the third time

He weeps with you and with you he will stay

When all your staying power has run out

You can’t go on, you go on anyway.

He stumbles just beside you when the doubt

That always haunts you, cuts you down at last

And takes away the hope that drove you on.

This is the third fall and it hurts the worst

This long descent through darkness to depression

From which there seems no rising and no will

To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.

Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,

And you could almost wish for that defeat

Except that in the cold hell where you freeze

You find your God beside you on his knees.


X Jesus is stripped of His garments

You can’t go on, you go on anyway
He goes with you, his cradle to your grave.
Now is the time to loosen, cast away
The useless weight of everything but love
For he began his letting go before,
Before the worlds for which he dies were made,
Emptied himself, became one of the poor,
To make you rich in him and unafraid.
See as they strip the robe from off his back
They strip away your own defences too
Now you could lose it all and never lack
Now you can see what naked Love can do
Let go these bonds beneath whose weight you bow
His stripping strips you both for action now


XI Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.


XII Jesus dies on the cross

The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black
We watch him as he labours to draw breath
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We hear him struggle breathing through the pain
Who once breathed out his spirit on the deep,
Who formed us when he mixed the dust with rain
And drew us into consciousness from sleep.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Mantles his world in his one atmosphere
And now he comes to breathe beneath the pall
Of our pollutions, draw our injured air
To cleanse it and renew. His final breath
Breathes us, and bears us through the gates of death.


XIII Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.

XIV Jesus is laid in the tomb

Here at the centre everything is still
Before the stir and movement of our grief
Which bears it’s pain with rhythm, ritual,
Beautiful useless gestures of relief.
So they anoint the skin that cannot feel
Soothing his ruined flesh with tender care,
Kissing the wounds they know they cannot heal,
With incense scenting only empty air.
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And makes our grief the pangs of a new birth.
The love that’s poured in silence at old graves
Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth,
Is never lost. In him all love is found
And sown with him, a seed in the rich ground.

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Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

For here the earth herself gives bread and wine

There is so much happening here, so many threads of connection flowing to and from this deep source of love and gospel vision. My sonnet for this central and sacramental day can only suggest one or two of them. Margot’s image, above, and Oliver Neale’s image below, take us a little further.

This sonnet, and the others I have been posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.

You can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Maundy Thursday.

 

Here is the source of every sacrament,

The all-transforming presence of the Lord,

Replenishing our every element

Remaking us in his creative Word.

For here the earth herself gives bread and wine,

The air delights to bear his Spirit’s speech,

The fire dances where the candles shine,

The waters cleanse us with His gentle touch.

And here He shows the full extent of love

To us whose love is always incomplete,

In vain we search the heavens high above,

The God of love is kneeling at our feet.

Though we betray Him, though it is the night.

He meets us here and loves us into light.

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Passion Sunday; the Stations of the Cross and an invitation

passion posterTomorrow is Passion Sunday, and I am once more making all my sonnets on the Stations of the Cross available, together with their recordings, for any individuals or Churches who may want to use them over the course of the next two weeks. I will post them again on Good Friday. They have been used in many different and creative ways by diffent churches since they were published and this year they are being used in a special event in Ely Cathedral to which I would like to invite any of my readers who are in range. The event is called ‘Passion; a contemporary journey to the cross’ and will take place on sunday 13th at 6:30pm. this will be a full recitation of the poems together with a remarkable interpretation of them in dance and music choreographed and danced by Claire Henderson Davis. Details on the poster on this page, and also on the Cathedral website here. All are welcome and admission is free.

Now here is a complete sequence of my sonnets for the Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons. Please feel free to make use of them in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′  so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used.

I will post them again on Good Friday

The Images are taken from a set of stations of the cross in St. Alban’s church Oxford. I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.

These sonnets have been used by a number of churches in different ways and Dr. Holly Ordway has given a series of excellent podcast talks based on these sonnets and you can find those here: Holly’s Podcasts

Stations Of the Cross


I Jesus is condemned to death

The very air that Pilate breathes, the voice

With which he speaks in judgment, all his powers

Of perception and discrimination, choice,

Decision, all his years, his days and hours,

His consciousness of self, his every sense,

Are given by this prisoner, freely given.

The man who stands there making no defence,

Is God. His hands are tied, His heart is open.

And he bears Pilate’s heart in his and feels

That crushing weight of wasted life. He lifts

It up in silent love. He lifts and heals.

He gives himself again with all his gifts

Into our hands. As Pilate turns away

A door swings open. This is judgment day.


II Jesus is given his cross

He gives himself again with all his gifts

And now we give him something in return.

He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,

Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,

And from these elements he forged the iron,

From strands of life he wove the growing wood,

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

He saw it all and saw that it is good.

We took his iron to edge an axe’s blade,

We took the axe and laid it to the tree,

We made a cross of all that he has made,

And laid it on the one who made us free.

Now he receives again and lifts on high

The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.


III Jesus falls the first time

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

And well he knows the path we make him tread

He met the devil as a roaring lion

And still refused to turn these stones to bread,

Choosing instead, as Love will always choose,

This darker path into the heart of pain.

And now he falls upon the stones that bruise

The flesh, that break and scrape the tender skin.

He and the earth he made were never closer,

Divinity and dust come face to face.

We flinch back from his via dolorosa,

He sets his face like flint and takes our place,

Staggers beneath the black weight of us all

And falls with us that he might break our fall.

20110418-125224.jpg

IV Jesus meets His Mother

This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.

20110418-125536.jpg

V Simon of Cyrene carries the cross

In desperation on this road of tears
Bystanders and bypassers turn away
In other’s pain we face our own worst fears
And turn our backs to keep those fears at bay
Unless we are compelled as this man was
By force of arms or force of circumstance
To face and feel and carry someone’s cross
In Love’s full glare and not his backward glance.
So Simon, no disciple, still fulfilled
The calling: ‘take the cross and follow me’.
By accident his life was stalled and stilled
Becoming all he was compelled to be.
Make me, like him, your pressed man and your priest,
Your alter Christus, burdened and released.


VI Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

Bystanders and bypassers turn away
And wipe his image from their memory
She keeps her station. She is here to stay
And stem the flow. She is the reliquary
Of his last look on her. The bloody sweat
And salt tears of his love are soaking through
The folds of her devotion and the wet
folds of her handkerchief, like the dew
Of morning, like a softening rain of grace.
Because she wiped the grime from off his skin,
And glimpsed the godhead in his human face
Whose hidden image we all bear within,
Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain
The face of god is shining once again.



VII Jesus falls the second time

Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.

VIII Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again

But still he holds the road and looks in love

On all of us who look on him. Our pain

As close to him as his. These women move

Compassion in him as he does in them.

He asks us both to weep and not to weep.

Women of Gaza and Jerusalem,

Women of every nation where the deep

Wounds of memory divide the land

And lives of all your children, where the mines

Of all our wars are sown: Afghanistan ,

Iraq, the Cote d’Ivoire…  he reads the signs

And weeps with you and with you he will stay

Until the day he wipes your tears away.

IX Jesus falls the third time

He weeps with you and with you he will stay

When all your staying power has run out

You can’t go on, you go on anyway.

He stumbles just beside you when the doubt

That always haunts you, cuts you down at last

And takes away the hope that drove you on.

This is the third fall and it hurts the worst

This long descent through darkness to depression

From which there seems no rising and no will

To rise, or breathe or bear your own heart beat.

Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,

And you could almost wish for that defeat

Except that in the cold hell where you freeze

You find your God beside you on his knees.


X Jesus is stripped of His garments

You can’t go on, you go on anyway
He goes with you, his cradle to your grave.
Now is the time to loosen, cast away
The useless weight of everything but love
For he began his letting go before,
Before the worlds for which he dies were made,
Emptied himself, became one of the poor,
To make you rich in him and unafraid.
See as they strip the robe from off his back
They strip away your own defences too
Now you could lose it all and never lack
Now you can see what naked Love can do
Let go these bonds beneath whose weight you bow
His stripping strips you both for action now


XI Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.


XII Jesus dies on the cross

The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black
We watch him as he labours to draw breath
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We hear him struggle breathing through the pain
Who once breathed out his spirit on the deep,
Who formed us when he mixed the dust with rain
And drew us into consciousness from sleep.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Mantles his world in his one atmosphere
And now he comes to breathe beneath the pall
Of our pollutions, draw our injured air
To cleanse it and renew. His final breath
Breathes us, and bears us through the gates of death.


XIII Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.

XIV Jesus is laid in the tomb

Here at the centre everything is still
Before the stir and movement of our grief
Which bears it’s pain with rhythm, ritual,
Beautiful useless gestures of relief.
So they anoint the skin that cannot feel
Soothing his ruined flesh with tender care,
Kissing the wounds they know they cannot heal,
With incense scenting only empty air.
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And makes our grief the pangs of a new birth.
The love that’s poured in silence at old graves
Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth,
Is never lost. In him all love is found
And sown with him, a seed in the rich ground.

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Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Meditation, Poems

Mapping New Worlds: John Donne and the Power of Metaphor

John Donne 1572-1631

John Donne 1572-1631

Today (31st March) is the day the Church of England remembers John Donne, the remarkable priest-poet whose poetry and preaching still inspire so many people today. I owe Donne a personal debt, for it was while I was reading and studying his sermons (having loved his poetry all my adult life) that my own vocation as a priest became clear. as a way of celebrating his day I am posting here the interpretation of some of his poems which I gave in my book ‘Faith Hope and Poetry‘:

Mapping New Worlds, John Donne and the Power of Metaphor.

Donne’s intellect and imagination delighted in double visions and multiple meanings. He was fascinated by the representation of one thing within and through another, by the correspondences between inner and outer worlds, by the shifts in perspective and dimension which could be produced by moving suddenly, by means of metaphor between the many worlds of his intellect and imagination. It is not surprising to discover that he was fascinated by the reflections of the great cosmos in the tiny world of an eye or a tear-drop, by the mapping of the microcosmos of man onto the huge cosmos of the world and the heavens, and fascinated therefore by maps and mapping of all kinds. He saw especially in the new science of projection, particularly Mercator’s projection, whereby the round, three dimensional world could nevertheless be represented in two dimensions on paper, a real model for the way in which his art could re-present our this-worldly experience to include or suggest its hidden other-worldly dimension. This playful but concentrated fascination with representation and mapping extends through both his love poetry and his devotional poetry. Emotional, imaginative, sexual and spiritual insights are all integrated and interlinked in Donne in a way that is perhaps unequalled in any other writer.

Pursuing his inter-connected person/world/map metaphors first through two ‘secular’ and then through two ‘sacred’ poems can open up these powers and possibilities in Donne’s poetry. We will begin with ‘The Good Morrow’[1]

‘I WONDER by my troth, what thou, and I

Did, till we lov’d? were we not wean’d till then?

But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the seven sleepers den?

T’was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desir’d, and got, t’was but a dream of thee.

 

And now good morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room, an every where.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

 

My face is thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts doe in the faces rest,

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp North, without declining West?

What ever dyes, was not mixt equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.’

The poem opens in a natural and conversational way, with direct language and the rhythms of natural speech (something which was to be lost from English poetry for most of the next century until Wordsworth and Coleridge recovered it in Lyrical Ballads). We are disarmed by the frankness of his opening exclamation and are expecting something very straightforward and literal, when at the close of the first stanza Donne introduces the first of his metaphors of a multi-levelled reality, of ‘worlds on worlds’ nested within one another:

‘If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desir’d, and got, t’was but a dream of thee.’

At their first and simplest level these lines are simply a combination of amorous boasting and apology. If ever any beauty I did see which I desired, might leave the emphasis on the if, and let the person to whom this poem is addressed guess she is the first, but the barely concealed pride in Donne’s little rider ‘and got’ leaves us in no doubt that at the very moment he appears to be apologising for his sexual experience he is actually making a boast of it. If, indeed Then comes the brilliant turn whereby he offers his past conquests up to his present love: ‘twas but a dream of thee.’

Suddenly, in the midst of this back-handed compliment we have one of Donne’s vertiginous shifts of perspective, what was the real world only half a line ago turns out to have been only a dream from which he wakes to and with his present lover, and all the former beauties of his life were like the shadows in Plato’s cave, images which beckon us beyond themselves to another and greater beauty from which they drew their grace. Our imagination is prepared in these lines for the worlds on worlds to be encountered by our ‘Waking Souls’ in the next stanza:

‘For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room, an every where.’

The power of making one little room an everywhere ascribed here to love is of course also the power of imagination working in and through both reader and poet.. The whole world can be re-presented recapitulated in a room and its furnishings (an idea Donne develops in ‘The Sun Rising’) or in the bodies of two lovers each representing and recapitulating the great world they inhabit as surely as a map. Donne summons the exuberance and adventure of his age of discovery and makes it also mean the adventure and discovery of his loving:

‘Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.’

The bodies of the lovers become the maps of worlds yet to be discovered, a conceit he developed in more detail in poems like ‘Love’s Progress’[2] and ‘On Going to Bed’[3], with a play on discover; ‘O my America, my new-found land… how blest am I in this discovering thee’[4] we move then (naturally) from discovery to possession. A lesser poet would have left it here probably with something very obvious about planting the flag, but Donne in another perspective shift moves us first from one possessing another to both possessing a mutual world through to being worlds themselves:

‘Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one’

(a variant reading has ‘let us possess our world’. It is not simply that their love makes a new world, which they share, but that each of them as a microcosm of the great world is a world for the other to know and explore.) Further, just as the great world of the macrocosm is re-capitulated afresh in the little worlds of Donne and his lover, so they are each in turn re-capitulated in each other, each carrying the others heart, an idea expressed under the image of their mutual reflections in each others eyes:

‘My face is thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts doe in the faces rest,’

This wonderfully detailed observation, like Heaney’s ‘ear of a raindrop’, is the outward image and expression of true lovers’ inward desire to be to be in some otherwise inexpressible way within one another. The curvature of the surface of the eye suggests the curvature of the hemispheres of the great world and we return for a second to that macro-level. But this time it is the inner-world of Donne’s imaginative fantasy that becomes greater than, and forms a critique of, the outward and visible hemispheres we inhabit:

‘Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp North, without declining West?’

The outer hemispheres of the visible world are subject to change and decay, the ‘sharp north’ representing the cold that might freeze the warmth of love, the declining west representing sunset; the end of loves day, and ultimately, as we shall see in the other poems, Death itself. Donne holds out to us as to himself and his lover the tantalising possibility that this world of change and decay might be only the copy, shadow, or dream of the real world of their love that transcends it. The imperfect mixture of the elements, in the macrocosm, the humours in the microcosm which make for change and decay, are perhaps re-ordered and perfectly mixed in the new and transcendent world Love makes, but of course in a last tease Donne makes it all hang on an ‘if’, a pretty big if, perhaps the same if with which he closed the first stanza:

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

 

The notion that love can make this little room an everywhere is developed at large in the Sunne Rising[5] another love poem, like ‘The Good Morrow’, in the tradition of the aubade:

THE SUN RISING

BUSIE old fool, unruly Sun,

Why dost thou thus

Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide

Late school boys, and sour prentices,

Go tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,

Call country ants to harvest offices;

Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,

Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.

 

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong

Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them-with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long:

If her eyes have not blinded thine,

Look, and to morrow late, tell me,

Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She is all States, and all Princes, I,

Nothing else is.

Princes doe but play us; compar’d to this,

All honour’s mimic; All wealth alchemy.

Thou sun art half as happy as we,

In that the world’s contracted thus;

Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties bee

To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.

Shine here to us, and thou art every where;

This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Coleridge said of this poem that it showed a ‘Fine vigorous exaltation, both soul and body in full puissance’[6] and certainly one feels the bliss of love fulfilled filling the language with a kind of careless glory, a happy splendour before which even the sun in his glory is only a busy old fool. Love fulfilled has filled the present moment with an experience of such intensity that the passage of time outside that love seems poor and ragged

‘Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.’

Donne is here celebrating secular, erotic love, but he was well aware that such ecstasy, in which time itself and the world are for a moment transcended, was a type of that greater awareness of the eternal which arises when the soul is wood by God. Indeed he was not afraid, in a later sermon when he was Dean of Saint Paul’s to take up again his great phrase about the rags of time in relation to God’s mercy:

‘We begin with that which is elder than our beginning, and shall overlive our end, the mercy of God…The names of first and last derogate from it, for first and last are but rags of time, and his mercy hath no relation to time, no limitation in time, it is not first nor last, but eternal, everlasting.[7]

In his second verse Donne plays with the analogy between the sun and the eye which we saw was so strong in Davies, introducing a characteristically playful reversal of perspective whereby the sight of the sun, the great eye of nature depends on our eyes and not the other way round. In the poem Donne and his Lover are the centre, the  fons et origo of a new world and every outer reality depends on them. He has only to blink and the corresponding eye of the sun is closed:

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong

Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them-with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long:

In the normal world the light of the sun might blind our eyes, but in the poem the eyes of Donne’s lover shine so brightly that she might blind the sun, Donne then shifts perspective and from being luminaries themselves he makes the lovers and their bed into an entire world, reversing the usual microcosm/macrocosm analogy. We are the macrocosm, the great world Donne is saying it is the so-called real outer world that is the tiny and pale imitation:

‘If her eyes have not blinded thine,

Look, and to morrow late, tell me,

Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay’.

Donne maps the great world onto his lovers body, in bed with her he has explored the two Indias of spice and mine. (The detail of this nice analogy is made more explicit in Loves Progress[8], a journey across the body; here it is just a hint). One little room has indeed become an ‘everywhere’, and he can boast:’Nothing else is’. He delights in the power of imagination to incarnate the vast into the tiny, a kind of shadow of the incarnation, the worlds ‘contracted thus.’ Of course he is playing, impishly and in a kind of glad wantonness with powerful ideas whose truer meaning and proper application he also knew and revered, the answering poem to this conceit of the world contracted to a lovers bed is in the beautiful line on the incarnation in his sonnet to Mary:

‘Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.’[9]

That lovely line from ‘Nativity’ in Holy Sonnets brings us to consideration of two sacred poems in which Donne continues to explore the possibilities in the triple vision which overlays world/body/map. We will look first at his ‘Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness,’[10]:

    Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before.

 

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

 

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

For, though their currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.

 

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,

All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,

Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

 

We think that Paradise and Calvary,

Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

 

So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;

By these his thorns, give me his other crown;

And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,

Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:

‘Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.’

This poem opens with a metaphor drawn from music making; life is a tuning of the instrument before we enter the holy room of heaven

‘Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before.’

This verse almost stands alone like an opening chord in a composition as for the rest of the poem Donne turns not to music but to map-making and cosmography for a key to transfiguring his experience. For transfiguration is what this poem is all about; glimpsing the possibility of renewal in the midst of sickness and death, catching a phrase of the music ‘you would never have known to listen for’ in the ‘fall of grit and dry seeds’ which is Donne’s approaching physical death. After the first stanza’s glimpse of heaven by way of prelude the poem returns to the grim insistence of Donne’s present experience as a fevered patient, flattened and sweating on his bed, being pored over and prodded by his doctors as though he had already ceased to be human and had become a mere object, hearing their diagnosis of steady decline and death by fever. Can poetry and the transfiguring power of imagination release any hope from that?

     Whilst my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

Once more the body is a map of the world, pored over and read, this time not in the joy of love-making but in the anxiety of diagnosis. The cosmographer/physicians make a ‘South-west discovery’. In the common symbolism in which this poem participates south stands for heat, the heat of Donne’s fever, and West, the quarter into which the sun declines, stands for decline and death. The cosmographers and explorers, Donne’s contemporaries in the outer-world, had been searching for a southwest passage, some narrow straight through which they could sail west into the pacific. The cosmographers of Donne’s body have found that south-west passage those narrow straights of fever through which he will pass into death ‘per fretum febris’, by the streights of fever.

But having by this metaphor expressed the worst, Donne, by the same metaphor begins to redeem the worst. For the outer cosmographers what lies beyond the straights of their ‘south-west discovery’ is not annihilation but the new and unimagined world of the Pacific Ocean, and in a round world the mariner who sails west into night and declination far enough finds he has arrived in the east, the east of morning and resurrection. So Donne having closed his second stanza with those two hard words ‘to die’, goes on:

‘ I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

For, though their currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.’

For Shakespeare death was ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’, Donne had read in mariners’ tales of  narrow straights whose currents were so swift that any vessel caught and borne by them could never hope to win a way back against them. So in his metaphor the strait of death is par excellence the straight ‘whose current yields return to none.’ But Donne knows from those same tales that eastern riches and pacific promise were never reached except through narrow straights as he says in a later verse:

‘Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,

All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,’

And so he says of the narrow straits of death

  ‘I joy, that in these straits I see my west;’

For in this brilliant metaphor he sees how in the flat Mercator projection the extreme points of east and west, appear to be separated at opposite edges of the map but the line of extreme west and the line of extreme east represent the same line and the same space in the real three dimensional world of which the map is a two dimensional image. So equally death seems the extreme edge of the map in the two-dimensional world of our physical experience, but in the three dimensional world of God’s reality the ‘west’ of death curves round to touch the ‘east’ of resurrection. Our bodies are only the deceptive flat maps of our true selves and when we stand in the true dimensions of heaven then we will know how ‘death doth touch the resurrection.’

This fruitful paradox leads him beyond the map-making metaphor to develop in the rest of the poem  a whole range of paradoxes on the identity of death and resurrection, paradise and Calvary, Christ’s cross and Adams tree until he reaches this complex poems simple and powerful conclusion:

‘Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.’

If the ‘Hymne’ mirrors and answers the map metaphors of ‘The Good Morrow’, transposing them from a secular to a sacred key, then it is equally true that the play with worlds and spheres and time which makes up ‘The Sun Rising’ is revisited and transformed by Donne in ‘Good Friday 1613 Riding Westwards’[11]

GOOD FRIDAY, 1613. RIDING WESTWARD

LET mans Soul be a Sphere, and then, in this,

The intelligence that moves, devotion is,

And as the other Spheres, by being grown

Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,

And being, by others hurried every day,

Scarce in a year their natural form obey:

Pleasure or businesses so, our Souls admit

For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West

This day, when my Soul’s form bends toward the East.

There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endlesse day beget;

But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all.

Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for me.

Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die;

What a death were it then to see God die?

It made his own Lieutenant Nature shrink,

It made his footstools crack, and the Sun wink.

Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,

And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

Could I behold that endlesse height which is

Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,

Humbled below us? or that blood which is

The seat of all our Souls, if not of his,

Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn

By God, for his apparel, rag’d, and torn?

If on these things I durst not look, durst I

Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,

Who was Gods partner here, and furnished thus

Half of that Sacrifice, which ransomed us?

Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,

They’re present yet unto my memory,

For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards me,

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;

I turn my back to thee, but to receive

Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

O think me worth thine anger, punish me,

Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,

Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,

That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Although this is one of Donne’s most subtle and complex poems, packed densely with allusions to the science and theology of his day, its basic scenario is clear; Donne Travels west on business in the outer world, whilst his soul turns eastward in devotion, and out of the particular moment of journeying which is the poem’s occasion Donne brings out and develops dilemmas and paradoxes of universal significance. As with all Donne’s poems we are invited to see with a double-vision both an outward and visible journey over the earths surface and an inward and spiritual journey, a journey of humanity towards God and God towards humanity. In the outward and visible world Donne, constrained by business, is riding westward, a direction which symbolises the journey of all our bodies towards sunset, decline and death, westering away from the eastward moment of our morning and birth. The business that forces Donne’s body to journey west also stands for the mortality which forces all our bodies along the long day’s journey into night. But Donne is constrained, he doesn’t actually want to journey west, anymore then any of us want to journey away from our morning into death. Whilst Donne feels outwardly constrained to journey west, in heart and soul he wants to turn east, to turn and face towards the place, outside Jerusalem where the great drama of all our deaths and resurrections takes place. Just as the heavenly bodies are deflected by ‘foreign motions’ from their true course, so likewise the business of this world diverts us from our true priorities and sets up a conflict between what carries us outwardly and where we are inwardly yearning to be:

‘And as the other Spheres, by being grown

Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,

And being, by others hurried every day,

Scarce in a year their natural form obey:

Pleasure or businesses so, our Souls admit

For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West

This day, when my Soul’s form bends toward the East.’

We may have changed the specifics of our astronomy but we can still relate to Donne’s account of how our souls allow pleasure or business to become so much our first mover that our whole life gets out of kilter, as we are carried out of our true course. Donne’s personal dilemma riding westward while his soul’s true form bends towards the east, is a good picture of our whole culture. We are ‘hurried every day’ away from our true course, away from the deep springs of truth, away from vision and purpose and love, hurried into triviality, until we are as Eliot would later put it, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction.’[12] But in the midst of his hurried westering the poet’s soul yearns towards the east and there his imagination embraces a series of paradoxes which prepare us for the great paradox of God’s death which forms the poems climax:

‘There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endlesse day beget;

But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all’

Then comes the admission that although he longs to turn back from his ‘business’ and seek God’s face he is in fact afraid to do so. It may be that his ‘business’ like our everyday hurriedness is something we choose as a way of hiding from God. From here the rest of the poem turns on images of seeing and being seen:

‘Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for me.

Who sees Gods face, that is self life, must die;

What a death were it then to see God die?

It made his own Lieutenant Nature shrink,

It made his footstools crack, and the Sun wink’.

 Here the conceit, in ‘The Sun Rising’ of eclipsing the sun with a wink is re-visited as the sun darkens and the earth gapes at God’s death on the cross. Donne’s imagination of a body which could be all kingdoms, of one persons passion affecting the whole cosmos, whose body is mapped out against the stars, and yet crushed to the ground by human malice is here made real by the creators endurance of a passion within his own creation:

‘Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,

And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

Could I behold that endlesse height which is

Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,

Humbled below us? or that blood which is

The seat of all our Souls, if not of his,

Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn

By God, for his apparel, rag’d, and torn?’

Then, after his reflection on the terrible figure of Mary standing by the cross, comes the paradox of present absence and piercing vision which is at the very heart of the poem and forms the transition from the speculation with which it begins to the impassioned prayer that ends it:

‘Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,

They’re present yet unto my memory,

For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards me,

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;

The line ‘For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,’is the hinge upon which the whole poem turns. Up to this point the poem has been about Donne’s looking, or failing to look, towards the East where the crucifixion takes place, but suddenly the tables are turned. Just as Donne thinks he is contemplating an image of something distant and in the past in his own memory, he finds the image he contemplates is neither distant nor in the past, but close and present. He finds that it is not he who looks, or fails to look, upon Christ but Christ who looks upon him. In this as in other poems, Donne shows how a human gaze, looking intently on an outward scene could pierce through it veils and in that piercing glance transfigure it. So he discovers at this crux of the poem that the gaze of his saviour looking back at him from his imagined image of the cross is ready to pierce and transform him.  Suddenly he realises that for all his protestations, he still has his back to God.  Here is a profound revision and reversal of the Old Testament archetype of man’s encounter with God.  There Moses climbs the mountain searching for God and finds that he can only glimpse a God whose back is turned to him so great is the barrier of human sin. But with the coming of God into human flesh in Christ the world is indeed turned upside down. God descends from the mountain to seek for humanity and this time it is humanity whose back is turned. Just as Moses was afraid to see the face of God, now Donne is afraid to turn and let God see his face and so he prays instead that even with his back turned, the piercing gaze of the crucified will begin to transform and purge him to make him able even to begin to turn and show his face.  His fear is that he has lost himself so utterly in the entrustment and deformity of sin, that he will no longer be recognisable to the God whose image he is to bear. Yet he longs to be known and so he begins with the fearful image of punishment and correction, the back turned to receive blows but even as he writes the word ‘corrections’ he discovers in those corrections God’s hidden mercy and prays for a burning-off of rust and deformity so that the lost image can be restored.  When the last line of the poem comes the word ‘turn’ has acquired the fullest sense of metanoia, repentance understood as a complete turning around of oneself and so also of one’s perspective.

‘I turn my back to thee, but to receive

Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

O thinks me worth thine anger, punish me,

Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,

Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,

That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face’.

 

[1] In The Poems of John Donne edited by Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford 1949) p.7 I have modernised the spelling

[2] The Poems pp.103-106

[3] Ibid pp.106-8

[4] Ibid p.107 lines 27-30

[5] Ibid pp.10-11

[6] Samuel Taylor Coleridge Marginalia vol.II edited by George Whalley (Princeton 1984) p.219  volume 12 in CC

[7]Preached Christmas 1624. collected in The Sermons of John Donne edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson (California 1953 re-issued 1984) volume VI p. 170

[8] The Poems pp.103-106

[9] Ibid p.290

[10] Ibid pp.336-337

[11] The Poems pp.306-308

[12] TS Eliot The Four Quartets (Faber London 1944) ‘Burnt Norton’ section III line 101

 

 

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A Sonnet for the Annunciation

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings

Tuesday 25th of March is the feast of the Annunciation, that blessed moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time. In my own small take on this mystery I have thought about vision, what we allow ourselves to be aware of, and also about freedom, the way all things turn on our discernment and freedom.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great. You may also like to check out Steve Bell‘s wonderful Snippet eBook The Pilgrim Year, in which this sonnet also appears, together with some of my reflections on Fra Angelico’s great fresco of the Annunciation.

As so often I am indebted to Margot Krebs Neale for the accompanying images, and she has kindly offered the following note for the images that accompany this sonnet:

‘As I was making suggesting a picture for another sonnet, Malcolm said he was working on the Annunciation sonnet. A little cheeky I sent a picture of a beautifully blurred lily wondering if it might help. Malcolm liked it and could see angel wings in it, I thought we needed a face. A young woman of sixteen. One of the many 16 years old I know and love or…myself. I remembered and found this picture of me taken when I was 16 or 17. Why me? Because of the “We” of the first strophe, I read it like an “I” : We see so little, only surfaces, and yet we have a choice.

« Quel fruit lumineux portons-nous dans l’ombre de la chair? » What luminous fruit do we carry in the shade of our flesh?

« un fruit éternel enfant de la chair et de l’Esprit ». An eternal fruit, child of the flesh and the Spirit »

May we be granted the joy of giving it to the light.’

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Annunciation

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

but on thi day a young girl stopped to see

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