Tag Archives: christianity

Advent in Music, Poetry, and Steve Bell’s Pilgrim Year

Tomorrow is Advent Sunday! The first Sunday in the Church’s year. The beginning of a holy season in which we connect again with our ‘inconsolable longing’, as CS Lewis called it, our yearning for the One who is to come and is also, mysteriously, the One who has come already, come as child, come as fellow-sufferer, come as Saviour, and yet whose coming, already achieved, we hold at bay from ourselves, so that we have to learn afresh each year, even each day, how to let him come to us again.

In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah, calling to him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key  O Light! come to us!

I have responded to these seven “Great O” Antiphons, as they are called, with seven sonnets, revoicing them for our own age now, but preserving the heart of each, which is a prayer for Christ’s Advent for his coming, now in us, and at the end of time, in and for all. These sonnets form the opening sequence of my larger cycle of sonnets for the church year which some of you have been following on these pages. That cycle has been published as a book called Sounding the Seasons. It is available  from Canterbury Press, the publishers, and is also available from from Amazon etc. The book is also available in North america from Steve Bell here, or Amazon here.

Over the course of this Advent season I shall post these sonnets onto my blog, so here is the first one; O Sapienita, (O Wisdom). I shall also give you the original o antiphon, in both Latin and English. You should also be able to hear the antiphons sung and hear me read the sonnet if you click on the play button just before the poem, or else click on the title of the sonnet to be taken to my audio page. Also check out the wonderful resources on the Advent Antiphons and aother mediaeval Wisdom on Julia Holloway’s beautiful website  The Great O Antiphons

One of my great joy’s is that these sonnets have also inspired some beautiful work from other Artists and Musicians. Steve Bell has woven some of them into his award-winning Advent CD Keening for the Dawn (also see the links at the bottom of this page)) and now JAC Redford, who originally set my O Sapientia sonnet to choral music has now completed a suite of all seven sonnets. these have been professionally recorded, I will post further details once that recording has been released.Meanwhile you can learn more about my work with JAC and to play a recording of his setting of O Sapientia see my earlier post here)

In a new development for this year Steve Bell has also produced a wonderful, media-rich resource for Advent as a ‘snippet’ ebook, The Pilgrim Year Advent to which I have also contributed poems and reflections which you can check out Here

O Sapientia

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the
Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.


O Sapientia

I cannot think unless I have been thought,

Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.

I cannot teach except as I am taught,

Or break the bread except as I am broken.

O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,

O Light within the light by which I see,

O Word beneath the words with which I speak,

O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,

O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,

O Memory of time, reminding me,

My Ground of Being, always grounding me,

My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,

Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,

Come to me now, disguised as everything.

Another way you might like to consider entering into and rediscovering Advent as a season of longing is through Steve Bell‘s new cd Keening for the Dawn. Steve has written a moving sequence of songs taking us from  longing and waiting in the dark, through the oracles of prophecy, to the first fulfilment in the birth of Christ and the deeper glimpses of epiphany. He has woven some of my poetry into his songs and I feel deeply honoured to be part of this record.

Steve Bell's Advent Album

Steve Bell’s Advent Album

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The Feast of Christ the King; a sonnet

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We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But for this Sunday the lectionary does an unexpected, but very wise thing. It sets as a reading the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King, hidden beneath the rags and even in the flesh of his poor here on earth. As Tolkien, that profoundly christian writer knew, He is our Strider, whose glory is for the most part hidden, as he walks in our midst and shares the burdens of our journey. And though we will be with him at that coronation when his true glory is revealed and the usurping Dark Lord is finally overthrown, we have the honour of meeting and knowing here, in the midst of our quest, for he has come to lead us us through middle earth and even asks us to play our part in proclaiming the Return of the King.

Here is a sonnet written in response to the gospel reading for the feast of Christ the King.

This sonnet comes at the end of my sequence ‘Sounding the Seasons’ published by Canterbury Press.

The book is available in North america from Steve Bell here, or Amazon here

You can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title.

Christ The King

Mathew 25: 31-46

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

Aragorn

A hidden King, clothed in humility

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge; a sonnet, and a new book!

SamuelTaylorColeridgeThe great poet, philosopher, and Christian sage, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on the 21st of October in 1772, so I am posting this sonnet for his birthday!

I am deeply immersed in Coleridge at the moment, because, I am happy to announce, I have signed a contract with Hodder and Stoughton to write a new book, which will be called Mariner! A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and will be published in the spring of 2017, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Coleridge’s seminal book Biographia Literaria, and also the first full collection of his poems Sybilline Leaves. My book will tell Coleridge’s story through the lens of his own great poem The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, a poem which was uncannily prophetic not only of Coleridge’s own life, but of our own history and culture. My book will try both to show the vital thread of Christian thought and witness that runs through Coleridge’s life and writing and also the startling relevance of that life and writing to the challenges of the 21st century, so, as they say, Watch This Space!

I could not begin to reckon the personal debt I owe to Coleridge; for his poetry, for his personal and Christian wisdom, above all for his brilliant exploration and defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty which participates in, and is redeemed by the Logos, the living Word, himself the Divine Imagination. We are only now coming to appreciate the depth and range of what he achieved, his contemporaries scarcely understood him, and his Victorian successors looked down in judgement at what htey saw as the shipwreck of his life. Something of that experience of rejection, twinned with deep Christian conviction, can be seen in the epitaph he wrote for himself:

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

From my teenage raptures when I was first enchanted by Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner, to my struggles and adventures in the middle of life STC has been my companion and guide.In the chapter on Coleridge in my book Faith Hope and Poetry I have set out an account of his thinking and made the case for his central importance in our own age, but what I offer here is a sonnet celebrating his legacy, drawing on that epitaph I mentioned above, one of a sequence of sonnets on my fellow christians in my most recent book The Singing Bowl,  published last year by the Canterbury Press.

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

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

‘Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God!’

You made your epitaph imperative,

And stopped this wedding guest! But I am glad

To stop with you and start again, to live

From that pure source, the all-renewing stream,

Whose living power is imagination,

And know myself a child of the I AM,

Open and loving to his whole creation.

Your glittering eye taught mine to pierce the veil,

To let his light transfigure all my seeing,

To serve the shaping Spirit whom I feel,

And make with him the poem of my being.

I follow where you sail towards our haven,

Your wide wake lit with glimmerings of heaven.

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

Steve Bell captured me in ancient mariner mode!

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Abbess we need your help! St.Hilda and the Synod!

 

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby

The General Synod of the Church of England is in session, and is working on the measure to allow women to become bishops. I know there are strong feelings and deeply held beliefs on both sides, as there were at another Synod at Whitby 850 years ago in 664. That Synod was presided over by the great Saint and leader of the Church Hilda of Whitby, the first patron of English Christian poetry, and she brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I wrote this sonnet in her honour I also had in mind our need for her vision and for the gifts of women like her in the church now. We keep St. Hilda’s Day on the 19th of November but I  post this today as part of my prayers for the current General Synod.

The icon of Hilda above is from the St. Albans Parish website The Daily Cup

The sonnet also appears in my new book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on its title or on the play button

Hilda of Whitby

 

Called to a conflict and a clash of cultures,

Where insults flew whilst synod was in session,

You had the gift to find the gift in others,

A woman’s wisdom, deftness and discretion.

You made a space and place for poetry

When outcast Caedmon, crouching in the byre,

Was called by grace into community

And local language joined the Latin choir.

 

Abbess we need your help, we need your wisdom,

Your strong recourse to reconciliation,

Your power tempered by God’s hidden kingdom,

Your exercise of true imagination.

Pray for our synods now, princess of peace,

That every fettered gift may find release.

 

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On Prebends Bridge; a reflection

I linger on this bridge above the flow, And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear

I linger on this bridge above the flow,
And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear

To my great joy I have been spending part of my Sabbatical term up in Durham, as a Ruth Etchells visiting fellow at St. John’s College. This means that every morning I can wonder down the cobbled streets of the Bailey, beneath a lovely old stone arch and out onto the banks of the river Wear to where the graceful shape of Prebends Bridge arches across the river. This poem was written  about the experience of looking out from that Bridge,both down at the river and up at the Cathedral, and holding in balance that double sense of the flow of time and the stillness of transcendence. I hope you enjoy it. I had the great privilege of reading it in the Cathedral only a day or two after it was written, and so sounding out its last line along that line of presence between two saints with which the poem concludes. An unforgettable experience. The whole of that Cathedral reading is available here.

As usual you can hear the poem itself, recorded the day it was written, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. This poem is not yet published but will appear in my next volume. Meanwhile my new Anthology, The Word in the Wilderness is available here.

On Prebends Bridge

 

I linger on this bridge above the flow,

And idle stir, the swirl of the slow Wear,

Whose purling turns and gentle fallings call

Some inner spring to stir and rise in me.

The morning light lies richly on each arch

And signs its white reflections on their stone,

Telling me more than I can see or know.

I am a passing eddy in the flow

And force of centuries that raised this hill,

That shaped this sheer peninsula and let

The Wear’s slow curve enclose the city’s crown.

Above me on that crown I sense the pull

And presence, hidden deep within their shrines,

Of saints through whom the primal spring still flows:

Bede in the west and Cuthbert in the east,

A field of force in flux between two poles,

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge

Above the hush and hum of their exchange

Pushing and pulling through the pulse of things.

 

And now a bell is calling me to climb

And take my place with others where the choir

Unbinds a waiting Sanctus from its chords

And joins our voices, in rich Latin words

With all the company of heaven and earth

And with these two, between whose hearts we sing.

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge Above the hush and hum of their exchange

Perhaps the great cathedral is a bridge
Above the hush and hum of their exchange

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A Recording of my Reading at Durham Cathedral

A Good Place to read Poetry!

A Good Place to read Poetry!

I had the extraordinary experience, and indeed great privilege, of reading my poetry in the Quire of Durham Cathedral, at the invitation of the Dean and Chapter there, and in collaboration with St. John’s College, where I am currently the Ruth Etchells Visiting Fellow. Many of my Facebook friends, and followers of this blog, who couldn’t be at the event itself, have asked if they could hear a recording. So here is the reading I gave. It is largely drawn from Sounding the Seasons, though it does include four completely new poems written whilst I have been up here. Will Ford, from the St. John’s College Choir sings the ‘Great O’ Antiphons which inspired my Advent Antiphon poems. I hope you enjoy this recording.

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Cuthbert’s Gospel; a new sonnet

St. Cuthbert's Gospel

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel

The other day I found myself standing in front of perhaps the most precious and numinous book in Europe. Not simply because it is the oldest bound book to survive intact, but because of the Saint whose book it was, the centuries through which it has journeyed to reach us, and the glorious Gospel it contains. I had entered the exhibition innocently enough, ‘Bound to Last’, it was called ‘Bookbinding from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, and I was expecting little more than the beautiful leather tooling, the gold-hilighting, and luxury embossing of prestige binders. And then I came face to face with Cuthbert’s Gospel; the very book they placed upon his breast, the gospel that he loved the most and lived so fruitfully, a little pocket-book, red-leather-bound and all intact that sailed through centuries to meet me here on Palace Green. And in that presence it seemed that every care for bindings and for covers fell away, and I seemed to hear the saint himself, chanting the words that Saint Augustine heard, that brought him also to the Gospel, Tolle, Lege, Tolle Lege, take it and read it!  I wrote this sonnet before opening my own copy of St. John.

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the play button. I will be reading this and other sonnets in Durham Cathedral Quire on the 10th of November at 7:30pm. this event is free and all are welcome. Details Here

Cuthbert’s Gospel

I stand in awe before this little book,

The gospel that lay close on Cuthbert’s breast,

It’s Coptic binding and red leather-work

As sound and beautiful as when they placed

This treasure with the treasure they loved best

And set them sailing through the centuries

Until these coffined riches came to rest

In front of me as open mysteries.

 

But as I look I seem to hear him speak

‘This book is precious but don’t waste your breath

On bindings and half uncials and the like,

Breathe in the promise of a better birth

Tolle et Lege, try and find it true,

The bound Word waits to be made flesh in you.

The opening page of Cuthbert's copy of St. John

The opening page of Cuthbert’s copy of St. John

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