The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed
All Saints Day falls on November 1st, so here is my sonnet for All Saints Day, a little in advance, for anyone who might want to read or make use of it in a service. On the feast of All Saints we celebrate the light of Christ reflected in the saints, living and departed who surround and inspire us even in our present darkness. The image I have chosen to accompany this poem is of candles lit to celebrate All Saints day in Poland. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title. This sonnet comes from my sequence Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. All of my books are available from this page on Amazon USA and this page on Amazon UK.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. Feel free to make use of this poem in all Saints or All Souls services, just include an acknowledgement of the book it’s taken from -thanks
Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest! These five glorious verbs, deepening as they follow one another in intensity of engagement, come altogether in one of the most justly famous collects in The Book of Common Prayer; the collect traditionally set for the second in Advent, and now used, in the new common lectionary for this Sunday, the 23rd October: Bible Sunday Here’s the whole collect:.
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is surely one of the best, and most Biblically rooted prayers about reading the Bible ever! here is a brief reflection on each of these petitions followed by a Sonnet about reading the Bible:
When it comes to our reception of scripture this collect starts where most people, at the time of its composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else, and of course the King Jmes Translation was made to be read aloud and not a verse of it was passed until it’s phrasing had stood the test of being read aloud, until it was something sonorous and memorable.
But of course we go on from hearing to reading, as so many of those first auditors did, for the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains to day one of he great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.
But we cannot rest with reading, we must learn to mark. Mark here means more than simply ‘pay attention’. It means to make a mark, not only in the outward sense of marking up or underlining and annotation of passages, but inwardly to mark, to let the scriptures themselves underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us. We all know such passages, the ones that, in a given reading seemed to have been marked out for us particularly.
Marking, and being marked in turn, is of course the beginning of learning. Now learning by rote, done by itself for no reason probably does no good, but learning by heart can sometimes be a pathway to learning in and through the heart. I will never forget when, as a newly-ordained curate, I was called to the deathbed of a very old lady in one of those dreadful ‘care homes’ She was suffering equally from dementia and neglect and the nurse told me that she couldn’t speak three words of sense together. At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm, in the Prayer Book version. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong snse that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ were the last words on her lips.
But there is more than that, the last petiton is the deepest. The prayer that we should ‘inwardly digest’ the scriptures has roots in a profound and ancient way of reading, still preserved by the church in the name ‘Lectio Divina‘. You can see its earliest roots in Jesus words to Satan, themselves a quotation from Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.
After the prologue, the first sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian year, is called The Lectern, and it is essentially a hymn to scripture written in response to this collect and what the collect reveals about reading scripture in church. Here it is. As usual you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Some rise on eagles’ wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak. Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain. Be still the Lectern says, stand here and read.
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow… So you stand,
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.
Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written
St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox
This Tuesday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour, especially as, in our lectionary, this is the year when all our Gospel readings are taken from his gospel. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year. My sonnets, in that series, present the four Evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the four Evangelists.
‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘ St. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 120-202 AD) – Adversus Haereses 3.11.8
For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote above. As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver. The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.
For the many churches that use the Common Lectionary, tomorrow’s Bible readings will include Genesis 32:22-31, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. So I thought I would re-post my poem about that encounter, the sonnet which goes with the painting on the cover of Parable and Paradox.
Jacob Wrestles with the Angel is one in a suite of five sonnets on the theme of Wilderness which were originally composed in response to a set of paintings by Adan Boulter and exhibited in Lent 2015 at St. Margaret’s Westminster . I refer to that in the lead-up to my reading of this sonnet.
My poem is voiced for Jacob in his life-changing encounter, that long wrestle in the dark that will change his name to Israel and change his future and ours for ever. This meeting with an angel is the harbinger of his dramatic encounter and reconciliation with his wronged brother Esau, the brother-victim he had deceived but in whose face he now recognises the face of God. Though I have voiced this poem for Jacob, it is written in full consciousness that his story is also ours, that we too, in our brokenness and alienation must also wrestle with, and be changed by the Love that wounds and heals.
Tomorrow (Wednesday 12th of October) I shall be doing a poetry reading at St. Edward’s Church in Cambridge from my new book Parable and Paradox, and I thought I would share here a sonnet that I have come to realise is fairly central to the whole collection. As I wrote the fifty sonnets on the sayings of Jesus I came to realise how often he appeals to our imagination, asks us to imagine what it would be like if things were done on earth as if in heaven, as if the kingdom had come, asks us to treat each other now as if we already saw each other in the glory of heaven, asks us to live now and practically from the depths of a generous love that most of us can only imagine. These thoughts came into focus in this sonnet, ‘As If’, when I came to realise the other side of the equation; that in Christ God already treats us as if we were saints, already loves and cherishes us as if we were already home in heaven. And the ourt being loved already is what enables us to love in return, in the here and now.
As always you can hear me read the poem by pressing the play button or clicking on the title. but do also come and hear me read it live at St. Edwards at 7:30pm tomorrow
The True North Strong and Free (on the Victoria Ferry!)
As this Monday 10th October is Thanksgiving Day in Canada I am posting here a sonnet for Thanksgiving which I have written for all my North American friends. But today I am particularly grateful for the hospitality I recieved from Steve Bell, and the good people at St. Bendict’s Table and St. Benedict’s Monastery, and from David Jennings
There is no feast of Thanksgiving in either the British national or church calendars, but it seems to me a good thing for any nation to set aside a day for the gratitude which is in truth the root of every other virtue. So here is an Englishman’s act of thanksgiving. as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the play button if it appears or on the title.
This sonnet comes from my sequence Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. Since we don’t keep thanksgiving I have made it part of a mini-sequence of three centred on the feast of All Saints, which we have recently celebrated.
you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button
Thanksgiving starts with thanks for mere survival,
Just to have made it through another year
With everyone still breathing. But we share
So much beyond the outer roads we travel;
Our interweavings on a deeper level,
The modes of life embodied souls can share,
The unguessed blessings of our being here,
The warp and weft that no one can unravel.
So I give thanks for our deep coinherence
Inwoven in the web of God’s own grace,
Pulling us through the grave and gate of death.
I thank him for the truth behind appearance,
I thank him for his light in every face,
I thank him for you all, with every breath.
Here is a poem called Spell, which I re-post for today’s National Poetry Day, as it celebrates the magic powers of language itself. I have written in a previous post about the ‘daily miracle’ of our language and literacy, the magical way that words can summon up images, images that bring with them whole worlds, all the hidden correspondences between Word and World, a magic witnessed by the way a word like spell means both to spell a word and to make magic, the way chant is embedded in enchantment, the way even the dry word Grammar turns out to be cognate with Glamour in its oldest magical sense. But if all language is a kind of spell, it is a Good Spell (or Gospel as we later shortened that term). For Christian Faith points to a single source, in the Word, the Logos of God, for both the mystery of language and the mystery of being. Christ is the Word within all words, the Word behind all worlds.
Certainly many Christian writers have reflected on the paralells between the Genesis narrative in which God says “Let there be..” and each thing he summons springs into being, and the way, the uttering of words, the combination and recombination of a finite set of letters, can call into being the imaginary worlds, the sub-creations, as Tolkien calls them, that God in his Love has empowered us to create. It seems that being made as ‘Makers’ (the old word for poets) is one of the ways in which we are all made in God’s image.
Of course, because we are fallen we can abuse this gift of sub-creation, we can abuse language itself, making the very medium of creation a means of destruction. I have explored that shadow side of language in my poem “What IF…” But now I want to celebrate the God-given power and mystery of language, the magic of naming, the summoning powers entrusted to us in the twenty-six letters of our alphabet., in a sonnet I have simply called “Spell”. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.