Monthly Archives: February 2015

First Steps, Brancaster

Here is today’s commentary and poem from my book The Word in the Wilderness, whose readers  may like to click the play button or the title below and hear me read the poem.

First Steps

This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.

After the dimly burning wick of winter
That seemed to dull and darken everything
The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.

You keep the coastal path where edge meets edge,
The sea and salt marsh touching in North Norfolk,
Reed cutters cuttings, patterned in the sedge,
Open and ease the way that you will walk,
Unbroken reeds still wave their feathered fronds
Through which you glimpse the long line of the sea
And hear its healing voice.
Tentative steps begin to break your bonds,
You push on through the pain that sets you free,
Towards the day when broken bones rejoice

And here is my commentary from the Word in the Wilderness:

It’s good that this call to journey and pilgrimage in Lent usually comes in spring and the turn of the year. For many of us winter is dark and difficult. It was particularly so for me in the winter of last year as I coped with a broken leg. This poem, written to celebrate my first walk outdoors after the accident, alludes to Psalm 51, the great Lenten penitential psalm with its prayer to ‘make me to hear of joy and gladness that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice’.

The poem is set on the North Norfolk Coastal Path near the village of Brancaster and I hope it gives some sense of that wide, wild, bracing countryside. It is customary to speak of ‘the pathetic fallacy’; the habit whereby we project our inner feelings, our distinctively human ‘pathos’, onto the surrounding environment, so that the outward becomes expressive of the inward. But I don’t think this is quite as fallacious as some people assume. The very fact that we find a constant and seemingly natural correspondence between the outer and inner may itself be a clue to the nature of the universe and our role in it. It may not be simply that we project, but that we, ourselves a part of nature are finely attuned to and can give a conscious ‘inward’ expression to its outer meanings. Indeed Coleridge went so far as to suggest that we are able to read the ‘eternal language’ which is already patterned into the appearances of nature. In his beautiful conversational poem frost at midnight he imagines how his son in opening himself fully to the experience and meaning of landscape will

 

see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

‘Frost at Midnight’

 

This is not the pantheism of which Coleridge is sometimes falsely accused. On the contrary God transcends nature, which is not God himself, but is his language. Certainly one sometimes has the experience of an outer scene entering deeply into ones soul as an expression both of consciousness and healing. This was my experience walking in Norfolk on the day commemorated in this poem. The lines that came first:

 

Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.

 

came spontaneously as an expression of how that deep blue, keen air and wide horizon, after months of confinement, seemed somehow to change and expand my inward self. The walk itself was brief and painful, pushing myself with each step and leaning still on my crutches, but somehow also transformative. I include the poem here because the experience it seems to me corresponds with a real experience on most people’s spiritual journey, a moment when vision is renewed, new possibilities become apparent even though we are still hobbled by our brokenness. That renewal is what gives us the courage to ‘push on through the pain’ in a strange and paradoxical combination of effort, grace and freedom.

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here

 

20130403-152420.jpg

5 Comments

Filed under imagination

A Sonnet for George Herbert

George_Herbert

Here is an extract from my book The Word in the Wilderness, marking George Herbert’s Day, February 27th:

Today the Church keeps the memory of George Herbert, who has been so strong a companion with us on our Lenten Journey. Shortly before he died he sent the precious manuscript of his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar at ‘Little Gidding’, asking him to publish them only if he thought that they might ‘turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul’, but otherwise to burn them. Fortunately for us Ferrar realized what a treasure he had been given and took them to Cambridge to be published as The Temple. They have been in print ever since, and have turned to the spiritual advantage of countless souls.

This sonnet reflects on a number of Herbert’s poems, but particularly on his master-piece ‘The Flower’. In that poem he imagines himself as a flower, sometimes blossoming sometimes shriveled back to its mother root, but somehow still capable of recovery:

 

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone

Quite under ground; as flowers depart

To see their mother-root, when they have blown;

Where they together

All the hard weather,

Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

 

But, as he goes through these traumas of loss and recovery, an inevitable part of our being in time, he longs, in a beautiful metaphor, to be transplanted at last into the true paradise of heaven:

 

O that I once past changing were;

Fast in thy Paradise, where no flower can wither!

 

So my sonnet celebrates the fact that he is now where he longed to be, in the place he had glimpsed ‘through the glass, in The Elixir. The Flower also contains the beautiful and mysterious lines:

 

We say amisse,

This or that is:

Thy word is all, if we could spell.

 

Just as Easter had suggested that there is really only one true day, shining through the ‘three hundred’ so here, in a moment of mystical intuition, Herbert senses that the one Word shines through and undergirds the myriad things we encounter, and I have alluded to that at the conclusion of my sonnet.

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here

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

George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,

With all that passed between you and your Lord,

That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles

Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.

Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,

Has been entrusted now to every soul,

We make a new beginning in your end

And find your broken heart has made us whole.

Time has transplanted you, and you take root,

Past changing in the paradise of Love,

Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,

And listen for an echo from above,

Open the window, let me hear you sing,

And see the Word with you in everything.

3 Comments

Filed under christianity, politics

Word In the Wilderness: 3rd Temptation

Temptation

Temptation

Here is my reflection and poem on Christ’s third temptation from my new book The Word in the Wilderness:

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time’ (Luke 4.9−3).

If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others, despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people. One of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful Father Brown stories, ‘The Hammer of God’, explores this theme with his usual combination of acuity and humour. In the story a curate who has constantly taken to ‘praying, not on the common church floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires’ is tempted to deal justice to his sinful brother by flinging a hammer down on him from the heights. It is Father Brown who sees and understands the temptation and brings the curate down from the heights to a proper place of repentance. Here’s a fragment of their dialogue before they descend:

 

‘I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,’ said Father Brown. ‘Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.’

‘Do you mean that one may fall over?’ asked Wilfred.

‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest …

After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. ‘I knew a man,’ he said, ‘who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.’

Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.

‘He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.’

‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest.

 

I was remembering something of this story when I wrote my sonnet on the third temptation, but thanks be to God that in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, Jesus shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.

WhenThe image above is from a sketch book of the painter  Adam Boulter who sent me this haunting sketch of two figures looking down at Petra ‘from the high place of sacrifice’ (as he added in a marginal note) who sent me this sketch when we were working together on the In the Wilderness Exhibition for Westminster Abbey.

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

Temptation in the wilderness

 

‘Temples and Spires are good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

1 Comment

Filed under christianity, literature, Poems

Word in the Wilderness: The Second Temptation

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views

Here is a further extract from My Lent book The Word in the Wilderness and an opportunity for those who are using it to hear me read today’s poem, which deals with the second temptation of Christ in the Wilderness:

‘Then the Devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the Devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me and I give it to anyone I please. If you then, will worship me, it will all be yours”’ (Luke 4.5−7).

This second temptation is the temptation to worldliness, to ‘success’, money and power, set up obsessively on the throne of our hearts as rivals to God. It is the supreme temptation of our own materially obsessed culture. And it is our failure at this point that has led to the gross imbalances between what has recently been termed the ‘1%’ and the ‘99%’.

‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority’ is the dreadfully conditional offer that the Devil still makes, and in my sonnet I have tried to flesh out in contemporary terms some of the figures who seem to be making and receiving that offer now, and the contemporary contexts in which this dreadful deal is transacted. It’s a striking thing that the old terms ‘wordly’ and ‘worldliness’ are scarcely ever used in contemporary moral discourse. We still talk of course, and rightly about fairness, and fair distribution of resources. We are rightly concerned with justice and fair dealing in the worlds of finance, commerce and trade, but we seem to have lost sight of the long Christian tradition, and the substantial Christian teaching, that there is something essentially tainted and corrosive in the very desire for worldly pre-eminence and success.

A symptom of this amnesia, of this serious spiritual malaise that afflicts our culture, can be found in our extraordinary use of the word ‘exclusive’ as a positive term! The liberal West is allegedly the most inclusive culture there has ever been and we deploy a great deal of rhetoric about including the marginalized, and take care that everyone should use politically correct and ‘inclusive’ language. But this is of course just a fig leaf. One look at the advertising in any magazine or website, one glimpse of the commercials that saturate our airwaves tells a different story. Every Estate agent advertising their residential properties (or ‘homes’ as they like to call them- as though a home was something you could sell) reveals that their favourite word is ‘Exclusive’. Come and view these ‘exclusive’ flats, come with us on this luxurious and ‘exclusive’ holiday! And nobody asks, just who is being excluded. Nobody responds to these ads with a letter to say: ‘I am interested in your product but perhaps I am one of those unfortunate people whom you and your exclusive clientele would like to exclude! No one asks themselves, as they read these ads, ‘Just what is it in me that is being roused and appealed to here?’ For it is not our generosity, our courtesy, or our sense of community that is being worked on and developed in this appeal. Rather it is the worst in us; the desire to be considered ‘special’ and ‘better’ and ‘superior’ at the expense of other people that is here being inflated and inflamed. In his chilling essay ‘The Inner ring’ C. S. Lewis lays open this fallen desire in all of us to belong to exclusive clubs, cliques, and circles, to be someone who is ‘in’; ‘in the know’, ‘in the right circles’, ‘in on the real knowledge and power’ among ‘those who really count’, and to look down on those who are ‘out’, excluded, not part of the magic circle. So much of the consumerism that is choking our society and bringing misery, alike to the haves and the have-nots, is driven by this desire to have and to wear, and to drive, the status symbols, the ‘exclusive’ signs of belonging. Time and again goods and services are offered by their manufacturers not for their intrinsic virtue, the beauty of their design, or the genuine pleasure that might be had from owning or using them, but for their ‘exclusive’ cachet, their ‘exclusive designer label’.

The other word which worldliness loves and has in turn subverted is the word ‘Dream’. We are to have ‘dream homes’, ‘dream holidays’, ‘dream wedding days’. As though all dreams were to enmesh us deeper in the tangles of getting and spending, not to lift our vision, change our perspective and give us glimpses of Heaven. I have tried to highlight some of these issues in the following poem, and here I see Jesus taking the worldly ‘dream’ on its own terms and calling us instead to wake up to the fullness of life. Perhaps only then can we, in Eliot’s phrase ‘Redeem the unread vision of the higher dream’.

This poem together with the other ‘lenten sonnets’ is published by Canterbury Press in my collection Sounding the Seasons

I am grateful, as before, to Margot Krebs Neale for these beautiful images

You can hear the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.

All the Kingdoms of the World

 

‘So here’s the deal and this is what you get:

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,

The banker’s bonus and the private jet

Control and ownership of all the news

An ‘in’ to that exclusive one percent,

Who know the score, who really run the show

With interest on every penny lent

And sweeteners for cronies in the know.

A straight arrangement between me and you

No hell below or heaven high above

You just admit it, and give me my due

And wake up from this foolish dream of love…’

But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.

Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’

So here’s the deal, and this is what you get

5 Comments

Filed under imagination, Poems

From The Word in the Wilderness: The First Temptation

And He was led by the sprit into the Wilderness

Here is a sample from my book the Word in the Wilderness, This is Today’s poem and reflection on the first of Christ’s Temptations. It will also allow those who are following it in the book to hear me read the poem.

There are three days between Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent, the first day of the first week of our six-week pilgrimage. Since Christ’s own primal Lent, his sojourn as the Word in the Wilderness, is prefaced by his three temptations, by his confrontation with just those corruptions of the good that confront us every day, it seems good to spend these three days reflecting on these three temptations, which will themselves form the readings and subject for reflection in many churches this coming Sunday. I have chosen to follow the order of the three temptations as they are set out in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4.1−12). His order seems to me to make most spiritual and psychological sense. We start with the most straightforward, (and often most insistent!) of temptations, those generated by our bodily appetites and needs: the temptations to serve first our own creature comforts, to tend to our obsessions and addictions before we have even considered the needs of others. But then we move on to the deeper temptations to serve and feed, not just the body, but its driving ego, with its lust for power, the temptation to dominate in the kingdoms of this world. We may have overcome the first temptation only because we are captivated and driven by the second. We diet, and discipline our flesh in gyms and health-clubs, we submit our appetites to the dictates of personal trainers and three-month fitness plans, but only because we hope thereby to sharpen our image so as to shine and succeed in the world!

And then comes the last, the subtlest and worst temptation of all: the temptation to spiritual pride. We may rise above worldly ambition only to congratulate ourselves on how spiritual we have become, how superior to our fat-cat neighbours! The very disciplines and virtues designed to bring us closer to our saviour, to make us more available as ambassadors of his love become instead the proud possessions that separate us from the one whose strength is made perfect in weakness.

But this is to anticipate, let us begin at the beginning with the temptation to turn stones into bread.

Jesus meets this temptation with the profound reply ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. A word which certainly needs to be heard by Christians living in affluent Western societies dominated by consumer culture. I believe that Jesus underwent this ordeal on our behalf, to break open the ground of the heart and make real choice possible for us.

In this and the other sonnets on Christ’s temptations I have born in mind two essential, but easily forgotten truths. The first is that because Jesus is both fully human and fully God there is a double aspect to each of these temptations. On the one hand Jesus experiences these temptations exactly as we do, in a fully human way, feeling their full force and yet showing us both that it is possible to overcome them and also, the way to overcome them. As the letter to the Hebrews says: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are but without sin’ (Hebrews 4.15 NRSV) But at the same time He is God and his action in defeating the Devil in resisting the temptation, casting back the tempter and creating, and holding a space in which right action is possible is done not just privately on his own behalf but is done with and for all of us. In the old Prayer Book litany there is a petition that says ‘By thy Fasting and Temptation, good Lord deliver us’. If Jesus were simply set before me as an example of heroic human achievement I would despair. His very success in resisting temptation would just make me feel worse about my failure. But he is not just my exemplar, he is my saviour, he is the one who takes my place and stands in for me, and in the mystery of redemption he acts for me and makes up, in his resistance to evil what is lacking in mine. I have emphasized this double aspect of the temptations by beginning the first sonnet with a series of paradoxes that turn on the truth that it is God himself who feels and suffers these things for and with us:

 

The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here,

The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.

 

And I have tried to bring out the way he endures these temptations both with us and for us. We ‘must dare with him to make a choice’, but at the same time ‘he chooses for the ones who cannot choose’.

The second essential truth is that we should not see the temptations in entirely negative terms. The Devil is no substantial being. A shadow himself, all he can do is cast shadows of God’s substantial good. All good things come from God and those things which the Devil pretends to offer, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, are cheap imitations of the very things that God does indeed offer and that Jesus himself receives, enjoys, and crucially, shares. He refuses to turn stones into bread for himself at the Devil’s behest, but later, in the very same wilderness he takes bread, gives thanks, and breaks it, and feeds five thousand with all they want, and twelve baskets full left over! This was the substantial good from God, in light of which, and to gain which, it was necessary to refuse the shadowy substitute

CS. Lewis evokes this truth very well in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Everything that the White witch pretends she can offer to the children is a stolen and corrupted version of something that Aslan fully intends them to have in its true substance. She pretends that she will share the throne of Narnia with Edmund and then leave it to him, and yet the whole story is about how Aslan will truly and substantially crown all four children kings and queens of Narnia. And this holds true in the smaller things too, even down to this matter of personal appetite. If Edmund had turned down the Witch’s Turkish delight he would have come sooner to Aslan’s feast!

As always I am grateful to Margot for her thought-provoking images. you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button.

Stones into Bread

 

The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here

The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.

When darkness speaks it seems so light and clear.

Now He must dare, with us, to make a choice.

In a distended belly’s cruel curve

He feels the famine of the ones who lose

He starves for those whom we have forced to starve

He chooses now for those who cannot choose.

He is the staff and sustenance of life

He lives for all from one Sustaining Word

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife

The stony ground of hearts that never shared,

God gives through Him what Satan never could;

The broken bread that is our only food.

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife

8 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems

A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday

Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s Cross

I resume the thread of Sounding the Seasons, the sonnet sequence I have been posting here, and which is also available as a book from Canterbury Press, with this sonnet for Ash Wednesday. As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares. So some of those themes are visited in this sonnet. As we go through Lent I will post sonnets reflecting on each of the three temptations of Christ in  the wilderness, as well as for Mothering Sunday and the Feast of the  Annunciation which also falls in Lent. And this Lent I have two special additions. the first is a link to the new Snippet Book for Lent by Steve Bell, to which I have made some contributions. Check out his snippet series HERE, and the second is my own new book The Word in the Wilderness which contains these and other poems set out so that you can reflect on a poem a day throughout Lent. If you’d like to pursue the Lenten journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. But if you’d like to buy it from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

 

As before I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the remarkable commentary on these poems which she is making through her photographs. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play Button

Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

Beginning with this sign upon your brow

4 Comments

Filed under christianity, literature, Poems

Shriven and Ready: A Shrove Tuesday Post

O Shrieve me Shrieve me Holy Man!

O Shrieve me Shrieve me Holy Man!

The Word in the Wilderness, My new Anthology of Poetry for Lent, begins, not on Ash Wednesday, but on Shrove Tuesday with a reflection on what ‘shrove’ itself means. I thought I would share that with you on this Shrove Tuesday. If you’d like to pursue the journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. But if you’d like to buy it from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock. Shrove Tuesday: This is the day we think about being ‘shriven’ – confessing our sins and receiving the cleansing and release of forgiveness. The word ‘shrove’ drives from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘shrift’ meaning to hear someone’s confession, or ‘shrive them’. So Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, when he makes it to land, and needs to be released from the burden of his guilt, says to the hermit: ‘O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy Man.’ It was the duty of priests especially to hear the confession and grant forgiveness and spiritual counsel to those who were facing execution and when prison chaplains failed to do this properly, with time care and attention, there was a complaint that people were being ‘given short shrift’, which is where that phrase comes from. Here and now on this Shrove Tuesday we can take that time and care. But the whole idea of confession and absolution can seem strange and alien if it was not part of our life and culture, and sometimes daunting if it was! Sometimes it takes a poet to help us re-imagine the possibilities of being ‘shriven’, really letting go, being truly forgiven. This poem is from Seamus Heaney’s Station Island, a sequence of poems about confronting the past, letting it go, in order to be released, freed and unburdened for the journey of life. The whole sequence ‘Station Island’ is a masterpiece; but ‘XI’ is the jewel in its crown, containing as it does not only a fine emblem of sin and redemption, but also a powerful new translation of perhaps the greatest of the poems of St John of the Cross. The poem opens with the poet’s memory of having ruined a kaleidoscope he had been given as a child, by plunging it ‘in a butt of muddied water’, in his desire, even then, to see into the dark. This gift, ‘mistakenly abased’, becomes an emblem for all that is ruined and ‘run to waste’ in us. The kaleidoscope becomes an emblem of the gift of imagination itself, an instrument in which we may see refracted through the creation, the glories of God’s light. Our fall, collectively and individually has plunged this kaleidoscope into muddied water. The world we see habitually is not the true world at all, because it is seen through the sludge with which the kaleidoscope is encrusted, a sludge which Coleridge so charitably called, ‘the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude’. The question is, has the gift been ruined forever? Can the kaleidoscope surface again? Can it ever again become the ‘marvellous lightship’, the window into heaven? That is a sharp question, both for ourselves individually and for our whole culture. In this poem, Heaney suggests that it can: ‘What came to nothing could always be replenished’, and the replenishment, the restoration of vision, like the resurfacing of the kaleidoscope, is precisely the business of poetry. The monk to whom Heaney has made confession understands this absolutely; he understands that Heaney’s vocation as a poet comes from the same source as his own vocation to be a monk, and is therefore able to say, ‘Read poems as prayers’. It is not that Heaney is asked to, or would be prepared to sloganize for the Catholic Church, but rather that this cleansing of the instruments of our vision by the power of his imagination as a poet, is part of that whole restoration even in our darkness, of the vision of Truth which is the work of the whole Trinity, but especially in us of the Logos, the Word who is also the Light. This becomes abundantly clear in the poem Heaney goes on to translate, in which at last, after all his journeying, he arrives at and names the Source of that river which Milton named, ‘Siloam’s brook’, and Coleridge called, ‘Alph, the sacred river’. Perhaps we can see our own Lenten pilgrimage as a journey upstream to the source of that ‘fountain, filling running’ that is celebrated in this poem.

Station Island XI Seamus Heaney/St John of the Cross

 

As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope

I plunged once in a butt of muddied water

Surfaced like a marvellous lightship

 

And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face

That had spoken years ago from behind a grille

Spoke again about the need and chance

 

To salvage everything, to re-envisage

The zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift

Mistakenly abased …

 

What came to nothing could always be replenished.

 

‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance

Translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’

 

Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,

His consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,

He had made me feel there was nothing to confess.

 

Now his sandaled passage stirred me on to this:

 

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,

Although it is the night.

 

That eternal fountain, hidden away

I know its haven and its secrecy

Although it is the night

 

But not its source because it does not have one,

Which is all sources’ source and origin?

Although it is the night.

 

No other thing can be so beautiful.

Here the earth and heaven drink their fill

Although it is the night.

 

So pellucid it never can be muddied,

And I know that all light radiates from it

Although it is the night.

 

I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,

Nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom

Although it is the night.

 

And its current so in flood it overspills

To water hell and heaven and all peoples

Although it is the night.

 

And the current that is generated there,

As far as it wills to, it can flow that far

Although it is the night.

 

And from these two a third current proceeds

Which neither of these two, I know, precedes

Although it is the night.

 

This eternal fountain hides and splashes

Within this living bread that is life to us

Although it is the night.

 

Hear it calling out to every creature.

And they drink these waters, although it is dark here

Because it is the night.

 

I am repining for this living fountain.

Within this bread of life I see it plain

Although it is the night.

hidden_fountain_by_yoruichi_takashi

hidden_fountain_by_yoruichi_takashi

 

2 Comments

Filed under christianity, literature