Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Transfiguration; a glimpse of glory before Lent

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Today, the Sunday before Lent, many churches will hear again the story of the Transfiguration. So continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the Disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory.

The feast of the Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but The transfiguration is also the set reading for many churches on the Sunday before Lent. And just before Lent is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples on the journey with Christ towards Jerusalem, towards the events of Holy Week, and through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:

I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.

The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:

As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.

Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.

I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.

I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its 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 also 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.

Transfiguration

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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Renewing Vows for Valentine’s Day

As we approach St. Valentine’s day I thought I might re-post a sonnet on renewing Marriage vows which I wrote for my wife Maggie. It so happened that I began my ministry as a vicar in All Saints Hartford on Valentines day. I was priest in a beautiful mediaeval church where we had many weddings. Maggie and I decided that we would invite all the couples whose weddings we took there, year by year, to come back to the church each year on Valentine’s day and renew their vows with us as we renewed ours, (I’m delighted to see that my sucesor there is still keeping up the tradition!) and it was out of those yearly renewals that this poem arose. I hope it might be helpful for any couples out there who might want to renew their own vows this coming valentines day, if so please feel free to use or reprint this poem in anyway you like. The words in italics come from the Anglican Marriage service. In some ways this sonnet also continues the reflection on the gift of language and its mysterious powers, which have been the subject of my last few posts. Maggie and I will be reciting this sonnet together at her church of St. Marks in Newnham this Valentine’s day as part of their ‘St. Valentine’s Cabaret’! so wish us luck. The poem has been published in my most recent Collection The Singing Bowl which you can order in the UK through the Sarum College Bookshop or in North America from Signpost Music

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


A Renewal of Vows

So, open up the treasure-casket, love,

the treasure is still there, the hidden things

that love contains. Old words, like wedding rings,

surround their mysteries, they live and move

as breath renews them, burnished as the gold

around our fingers, glowing as we make

the vows that make us new again: I take,

protect, and comfort, cherish, have and hold.

The same old words, that cannot stay the same,

for they have grown, as we have, more than old.

They change and deepen like all things that live,

they compass more and still have more to give:

All that I have is yours, all that I am

I give again, with all I will become.

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A Week to go: getting ready for Lent

WiW coverLent is nearly upon us, and this is just a note to say that if anyone would like to join me in reading a poem a day for Lent there is still time, to order and have delivered The Word in the Wilderness the book in which I have set out a poem for each day of Lent together with some commentary to open out the poem and some reflections for the day. For those who would rather not use Amazon, the excellent Sarum College Book Shop have them in stock and can get them to you in time for Ash Wednesday when the series starts, just click Here. American readers who would like books sent directly from this shop can send an enquiry/place an order by sending an email to bookshop@sarum.ac.uk

Meanwhile, as a little taster, here is a passage from the Introduction to that book setting out why poetry, as a medium, might be especially helpful for us on the Lenten Journey:

 

Lent is a time set aside to re-orient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s Kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbours. There are a number of distinctive ways in which poetry can help us do that and in particular the poetry I have chosen for this anthology.

Heaney spoke of poetry offering a glimpse and a clarification, here is how an earlier poet Coleridge, put it, when he was writing about what he and Wordsworth were hoping to offer through their poetry, which was

 

awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

(Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Vol. II, pp. 6−7)

 

That wakening and renewing of vision is partly achieved by a change in the very way we read, which poetry asks of us. Poetry asks to be savoured, it asks us to slow down, it carries echoes, hints at music, summons energies that we will miss if we are simply scanning. In this way poetry brings us back to older ways of reading understanding both the Word and the World, and a way of reading, currently being revived in many churches, called Lectio Divina, a slow savouring of the text a rich meditation on meaning that begins with the senses, with taste and sound. The great practitioners and preservers of this art, as of so many other vital arts, were the monks of Europe. They showed it visually in their illuminated manuscripts, and aurally in this practice of Lectio Divina, the prayerful form of reading aloud. The Benedictine historian Jean Leclercq describes it in this way:

 

To meditate is to attach oneself closely to the sentence being recited and weigh all its words in order to sound the depths of their full meaning. It means assimilating the content of a text by means of a kind of mastication which releases its full flavour. It means, as St Augustine, St Gregory, John of Fecamp and others say in an untranslatable expression, to taste it with the palatum cordis or in ore cordis. All this activity is necessarily a prayer; the lectio divina is a prayerful reading. Thus the Cistercian, Arnoul of Boheriss will give this advice:

When he reads, let him seek for savour, not science. The Holy Scripture is the well of Jacob from which the waters are drawn which will be poured out later in prayer. Thus there will be no need to go to the oratory to begin to pray; but in reading itself, means will be found for prayer and contemplation.

(The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, p. 90)

 

For the English Church, echoes of this ancient art of reading are preserved in the Prayer Book collect on the scriptures with its petition ‘Help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’ (The Book of Common Prayer Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent).

We should also come to poetry both for that inner nourishment, and, in that beautiful Cistercian image, for waters drawn up from a well, to be poured out fruitfully later in our prayers.

As poetry begins to change the way we read it also starts to change the way we think and see. It becomes possible for us to enter into those moments of vision that are the beacons and turning points of our scripture, among which a moment of transfigured vision in the desert, Moses turning aside to the burning bush, is the archetype of all transfigured vision. In a poem we shall encounter early in this Lenten journey, R. S. Thomas calls us to do just that:

 

Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you

(‘The Bright Field’, Laboratories of the Spirit)

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In the Wilderness 7: Christ amongst the refugees

this scant and tented city outside Syria.

this scant and tented city outside Syria.

When Adam Boulter sent me the final sketch for his Wilderness series, titled ‘Contemporary Christian Refugees,’ I began to see the whole series in a new context. These stories of life-changing wilderness journeys which began with the well-known and resonant Biblical Narratives are not over. The Lord is still with his people in an exodus through the desert, Jesus is still with the displaced people ‘on the long road of weariness and want’. We have all been horrified by the events unfolding in Syria and Iraq, and as Christians flee from Mosul and the other places where ‘ISIS’ has persecuted, and painted ‘Nazarene’ on their doors, we are tempted to ask ‘Where is Christ in all this’?

But we must answer,’Christ is where he said he would be! With his people on the road, with the poor and persecuted, even where two or three are gathered together.’

Adam visited the UNHCR refugee camp where he sketched this tent, and there was something about the tent itself that moved me. Not only that it linked with the tent of hospitality pitched by Abraham and Sarah in the first painting and poem of this sequence, but because it set me in mind of how the powerful Greek word that’s used for ‘dwelt’  in John 1:14 14 ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,’ is εσκηνωσεν (eskenosen) which comes from ‘skenoo’, which means ‘to have one’s tent’, or ‘to pitch one’s tent’. As I saw the tented city of these Christian refugees I thought in a new way of how Christ pitches his tent in our humanity, and I try to suggest a little of that in this final poem in the series, into which other details Adam had observed at the scene, like the dark smoke from a devastated city looming over the horizon are also woven.

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. If you are not able to come to the exhibition, Adam has created a page on which you can see images of all seven finished paintings alongside their corresponding sonnets HERE

Christ amongst the refugees

 

That fearful road of weariness and want,

Through unforgiving heat and hate, ends here;

We narrow sand-blown eyes to scan this scant

And tented city outside Syria.

He fled with us when everything was wrecked

As Nazarene was blazoned on our door,

Walked with the damaged and the derelict

To where these tents are ranked and massed, foursquare

Against the desert, with a different blazon;

We trace the letters: UNHCR,

As dark smoke looms behind a cruel horizon.

Christ stands with us and withstands, where we are,

His high commission, as a refugee;

To pitch his tent in our humanity.

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In the Wilderness 6: Abba Moses the Black

Abba Moses the Black near Petra

Abba Moses the Black near Petra

For the last two, in our sequence of seven wilderness episodes, we leave the familiar territory of Biblical story and see how that story extended and extends into the life of the Church, for the God of Scriptures extends his steadfast covenant love to us too. Adam’s picture of a shadowy figure meditating in a dark cave touches on a remarkable story. That shadowy figure is Abba Moses the Black one of the great desert fathers, but before his conversion he had been a notorious and grossly violent bandit terrorising travellers. After his conversion it was said of him: “The grace of God worked in Moses to the extent that as much as he hated humankind before his conversion, in Scetis he came to love everybody. He received all visitors with joy. ” You can read his story in greater detail here. He foresaw his martyrdom at the hands of raiding berbers and accepted it willingly, and as fitting, saying that he who had once lived by the sword should die by the sword. But the story of his repentance and new life gives us hope and encourages us to pray that those committing violent atrocity in these same deserts today may also have a change of heart, and I have reflected a little on that in the phrasing of my sonnet.

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

Abba Moses the Black

 

You were yourself what everybody fears:

Sickening terror in the wilderness,

Roadblocks and robbery, as hatred stares

From the eyes of a cold killer, practiced, pitiless.

And then you met your match: outdone, undone

By One whose wounds pierced deeper yet than yours,

One victim’s agony met you alone

To touch and pars a gospel in your scars,

And turn you to what everybody needs:

All-understanding, all-forgiving grace,

A radical humility that bears and feeds

The needy, lets them blossom in the place

Where love has planted them. Your martyr’s blood

Still seeds and feeds and nurtures us for good.

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In the Wilderness 5: Paul Blinded and led to Damascus

Paul Blinded Being Led Into Damascus

Paul Blinded Being Led Into Damascus

I loved the evocative sketch Adam Boulter sent me for this poem for many reasons. Firstly because it focussed on a liminal, in-between time: we all think of, and many artists have painted, the dramatic moment of blinding light which was Saul’s ‘Damascus road experience’, or we think of him, after Damascus, in the full power of his Christian convictions, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, but Adam asks us to imagine the last bit of road, between the blinding light and the opening of his eyes. And then there is something tender and affecting in the tentative holding hands as the strong man who was the leader must allow himself to be led, and finally there was something in the gorgeous purple colours of the night and the beautiful slender crescent of the moon in this painting, some how rendered more poignant because it is a painting of a man who cannot see them. I have tried to get some of that feeling and those reflections into this poem.

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

Paul blinded being led into Damascus

 

He cannot see the crescent moon, but feels

This night’s wide wilderness. He is afraid,

And holds the hand of one he used to lead,

Through folds and shadows where the moonlight falls

He holds his counsel and still holds the road,

As it winds northward. Rounding a last bend,

Paul senses each slight change in scent and sound;

A gradual Damascus just ahead,

Whose pre-dawn hush is filling him with dread,

For what awaits him there is his true end.

 

Slowly from Ananias he will learn

To touch the body and to break the bread

And, as the scales fall from his eyes, discern

How Love himself has risen from the dead.

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In the Wilderness 4: Temptation

Temptation

Temptation

When Adam Boulter 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) I realised that, with some small changes, it answered to my sonnet on the third temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. The whole sequence of seven ‘Wilderness’ moments hinges on the two glimpses of Christ in the Wilderness: the first, forced there as an innocent child refugee, sharing the trauma of all the coerced victims of conflict, and this second as a mature man choosing to face and feel, to suffer for us, and to overcome our temptations, and in this case, the most insidious of all temptations, and the root of the most destructive and ghastly of all our conflicts, the temptation to religious pride.

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

 

‘A sacred place is 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.’

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