The 25th of January is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great Apostle.
The set readings for this third Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly, this sign points to the gift of His very self, His own heart’s blood, given once for all on the cross and received by us in communion. I have tried to bring out a little of the richness and depth of this first ‘sign’ in the following sonnet. This and my other sonets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’
You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon,
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title of the sonnet itself
Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.
Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has.’
The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many little ‘epiphanies’, glimpses of how things really are, which are vouchsafed us in the Gospel. This coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Epiphany is a time to reflect on the moment when ‘the heavens opened’ at Jesus’ Baptism and we were given a glimpse of Father Son and Holy Spirit at the heart of all things. This sonnet is a reflection on that mystery. As always you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ sign or on the title of the poem. I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful photograph, taken at the river Jordan which says as much as, if not more than the poem. The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop. After the text of the poem I have included links to the wonderful song Steve Bell wrote from it. He has written a fascinating blog post about writing that song here: Steve Bell on his song.
Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings
‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’
In that quick light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.
Also check out Steve Bell’s amazing album Keening for the Dawn in which he reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song Keening for the Dawn
You can hear the song itself on sound loud here:
For different reasons we have all, on both sides of the Atlantic, been reflecting on the way our words can travel and unravel beyond us, on the need to care for the tenor of what we say. Here in the UK we are on the cusp of a vital debate and vote on our future relations with Europe, deep passions are engaged and tempers are running high. Like many people I have been disturbed by the metaphors of violence that MP’s carelessly deploy about one another (‘sharpening the knife’ etc) and by the sheer torrent of angry abuse the MPs themselves face outside parliament. The murder of Jo Cox in 2016, just before our Brexit referendum, showed us how violent language can generate and spill over into actual bloodshed. Back in 2011, before any of these events, I had already become uneasy about the coarsening of our discourse and particularly about hate speech, and I wrote this poem reflecting on Jesus’ warning to us about the consequences of the words we use, about the fact that we will be held accountable for them. I published that poem in 2013 in my book The Singing Bowl, but now at the beginning of 2019, it seems more urgent than ever.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”Mathew 12:36-37
What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?
What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?
What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?
What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?
Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.
As it is Plough Monday I thought I’d post a little piece from my new book ‘In Every Corner Sing’ about taking part in the blessing of a plough. This piece was originally published last year in my ChurchTimes ‘Poet’s Corner’ column, but now all those pieces have been gathered together in a nice little hardback book which you can get directly from Canterbury Press, from Amazon, or of course from your own local bookshop! I hope this little extract gives you a flavour of what’s in it.
God Speed the Plough
Last Sunday I was called on, in my capacity as poet, to assist at the blessing of a plough on an old hill farm in Essex. I had driven through winding and increasingly narrow and shadowed lanes, past quickset hedgerows, and up the steep farm track, admiring the rambling old farmhouse, which seemed pieced together from every period in the last four hundred years, yet still at home with itself. But this was no quaint exercise in picturesque nostalgia, blessing the rusted wings and single blade of some hand-guided horse-drawn plough that hadn’t seen service in years (though there was just such a plough in the barn). The plough we were blessing meant business! It was a great long apparatus of paired bright sharp circular blades, capable of churning through the earth as efficiently as the old ‘screw steamers’ churned the ocean, and yoked behind an enormous modern tractor.
Yes, there had been a sense of tradition and continuity in the service; I had read Heaney’s poem ‘The Follower’, with its lovely opening:
My Father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow
and the farmer himself had a display in one of his barns of relics and artifacts from the continuous human flourishing on his acres since Roman times, but for now we all stood in the muddy farmyard in our wellies, ready to bless today’s hi-tech farm machinery, the present labour, the contemporary human flourishing. And just before she came to bless the plough itself the priest asked everyone gathered there to bring forward and hold beside it the implements of their own work; and gardeners came with trowels, a man who had been coppicing the woods and laying hedges that morning came forward with a bright-bladed axe and the other fascinating tools of his trade, children held out model tractors, and, taken by surprise, I held out my pen.
‘Let us each offer to God in our hearts our own work’ she said,
‘God Speed the Plough!’ and ‘God Speed the Plough!’ was our response.
Afterwards I read them my sonnet ‘Daily Bread’ which remembers
The ones who plough and sow
Who pick and plant and package as we sleep
With slow back-breaking labour, row by row
And send away to others all they reap,
We know that these unseen who meet our needs
Are all themselves the fingers of your hand…
What if we glimpsed you daily in their toil
And found and thanked and served you through them all?
I don’t know what the theologians and the philosophers would say had happened there, how they would discern the difference a blessing makes, but I do know that somehow that farmer would turn the soil of God’s good ground with a renewed sense of blessing, and the gardeners return to their gardens with a new awareness, for I felt it too. When I had come home, washed the mud from my boots, and was sitting at my desk, that plough-blessed pen poised in hand, I had some sense of a difference made, some sense that with this pen, like Heaney before me, I might dig a little deeper.
The Feast of the Epiphany falls on the 6th of January and I am posting this sonnet of mine as a little extra in addition to the extracts from my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word which I have been posting each day.
Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the three wise men at the manger in Bethlehem has a special mystery and joy to it. Until now the story of the coming Messiah has been confined to Israel, the covenant people, but here suddenly, mysteriously, are three Gentiles who have intuited that his birth is good new for them too. Here is an Epiphany, a revelation, that the birth of Christ is not one small step for a local religion but a great leap for all mankind. I love the way that traditionally the three wise men (or kings) are shown as representing the different races and cultures and languages of the world. I love the combination in their character of diligence and joy. They ‘seek diligently’, but they ‘rejoice with exceeding great joy’! I love the way they loved and followed a star, but didn’t stop at the star, but rather let the star lead them to something beyond itself. Surely that is a pattern for all wise contemplation of nature whether in art or science. The last line of this poem is a little nod in the direction of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses
This sonnet is drawn from my book Sounding the Seasons, which is available from Amazon etc or by order from your local bookshop, should you be lucky enough to have one.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title of the poem which will take you to the audioboo page.
It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.
For January 6th (the feast of epiphany) in my Anthology from Canterbury Press, Waiting on the Word, I have chosen to read, as the final poem in the collection The Divine Image by William Blake. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the visit of the magi to the Christ-child, and so the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Gospel story: and not simply the Gentiles in some generic way, but all the distinct races, cultures and religions of ‘the nations’, which is why the tradition of depicting the three kings as representing three different races is so helpful. On this Feast Day, it might seem obvious to choose one of the well-known poems that recall or describe that familiar scene: Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’, or Yeats’ poem ‘The Magi’. But I wanted in this final poem to move from the outward and visible picture which already adorns so many of the Christmas cards we will be taking down today, and as those outward images fade away, to come through poetry to the inward and spiritual truth which they proclaim. And that spiritual truth is that in the Incarnation Christ, in taking on human nature, takes on, becomes involved in, visits, redeems the whole of humanity, not just the chosen people to whose race and culture he belonged. And what is more, when the fullness of God comes to dwell in the fullness of Christ’s humanity, then that mysterious ‘image of God’ in which all humanity was made (Genesis 1:27) is at last restored. And we can see that the Light who so uniquely and particularly became the Christ-child at Bethlehem is also, as John’s Gospel clearly proclaims, ‘The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world’ (John 1:9). It seems to me that it is William Blake’s poem ‘The Divine Image’, rather than any specifically Christmas or Epiphany verse, that goes to the heart of these things.
You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson, for the unique book of responses to Waiting on the Word last year, and again this is one of my favourites. As we finish this series of posts I would like to thank Linda for allowing me to share these beautiful images with you and for making such a rich and creative response to my book in the first instance. She will soon be establishing a website for more of her art and when she does so I will write about it on this blog. about this final image Linda writes:
Once again I return to Matisse and his dancers. The little figures are naked and in a trance of wild woodland worship. They are unselfconscious and free, not arguing a doctrinal point but holding tight to each others hands as they whirl around a Divine tree. Our minds and thinking can ensnare us like a flies on a spider’s web, but our bodies do not lie. If we are stressed, we can talk ourselves into believing we are relaxed, but our jaw may be tight and our brow heavy. In the same way we sometimes mistake ‘correct doctrine’ for love, and wonder why we feel so angry when our doctrines are attacked. In the image, the little figures are ‘every man’ and ‘every woman’. They are lost in the present moment, and the only government is the beauty of the silent tree around which, with all their hearts, they dance.
There exists only the present instant… a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence. Meister Eckhart
You can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle