Monthly Archives: February 2020

Lent with Herbert Day 3: ‘God’s breath in Man’

Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, the third phrase in Herbert’s Prayer is ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’.

This line invites us into a very early tradition of prayer and meditation rooted in a reflection on the image of breath and breathing in the Bible. To understand this line we need first to remember that Hebrew, Greek and Latin all use a single word to mean both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. ‘God’s breath in man’ evokes that primal image in Genesis of God breathing the breath of life into humanity, the moment of our wakening as living beings, a moment of tender closeness to our Maker. But after that inspiration comes the equally decisive moment of expiration. We have to trace our history through fall and alienation pain and sin and death at last to the foot of the cross where a Second Adam, one in whom also the whole of humanity is bound and involved, stretches out his arms to embrace the pain of the world and breathes back to God that gift of life:

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last (Luke 23:46)Then we must look beyond the cross, to the resurrection and the new breath of life that comes with the sending of the Holy Spirit. John’s account consciously parallels the first gift of the breath of life in Genesis:

And when he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’(John 20:22)

Contained in the pattern of our breathing is the whole story of our salvation. For a Christian in prayer, the very act of breathing can become a return to our birth, a receiving of original life from the breath of God, as we breath in with Adam in the garden of our beginnings, an offering of all that needs letting go and redeeming, as we breath out with Christ on the cross; a glad acceptance of new life in the Holy spirit as we breath in again receiving our life and commission afresh from the risen Lord

Here is the poem I wrote in response to the phrase, incorporating some of these thoughts. as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play button

God’s breath in man returning to his birth

 

Breathe in and in that breathing be created,

Wake from the dust, be conscious, and inhale,

Fresh from the Word and Light of God, delighted,

You find you have become a living soul.

But soon you must breathe out. What’s to be done?

Who will be with you then? And will you dare

To trust the breath of life back to the one

Who breathed it into you? Christ comes to share

Your letting go; you hear him sigh and say

Father into your hands receive my spirit

And find that he has opened up the way

For you as well. He takes your breath to bear it

Deep into heaven with him in his death,

That you might be reborn with every breath.

.

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Lent with Herbert Day 2: Angel’s Age

Here is the second poem in my sonnet sequence from After Prayer, reflecting on Herbert’s poem Prayer. This one on the mysterious phrase ‘Angels Age’. Scholars are divided as to what Herbert may have meant by this, but it seems he was suggesting that when we pray we are in some sense lifted out of our own ‘age’ or ‘seculum’, the time of our earthly pilgrimage, and participate, if only for a moment in the ‘angels age’, lifted from our earthly life to their heavenly life, given for a moment a glimpse of the heavenly perspective. Or perhaps it is the other way round: when we pray the angels join with us and give their wings to our prayers. My sonnet in response to Herbert’s phrase, plays with these different possibilities.

The image that follows the poem is Dore’s illustration of the eternal circle of the angels praising God, from his Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

After Prayer is available now for Pre-order on Amazon and from the Canterbury Press Website and you are very welcome to come to one of the November launch events and readings, all listed on my ‘Events and Gigs’ page which you can access on the tab above this page. You may also be interested in reading an interview about the new book from Lancia Smith’s excellent Cultivating Project. You can read the interview Here.

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

Angel’s Age

How might my prayer partake the angels’ age?

Theirs is no age at all, but all in one;

My moments pass, as steps in pilgrimage,

But they begin where my dark journey’s done.

They see all things at once: each point in time

For them is radiant with eternity.

Mine are the twists and turns, the long road home,

Theirs is the over-view, and flying free

They brush me with their feathers, with the rumour

Of their flight, and something in me sings

Into their passing light, till my prayer-murmur,

Circled in the slipstream of their wings,

Is lifted up in grace to join with theirs,

Who sing a Sanctus into all our prayers.

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After Prayer: Lent with George Herbert. Day 1

Today is George Herbert’s day, and, in addition to the weekly posts linked to my Lent book The Word in the Wilderness, I thought that I would also offer a series of posts comprising a Lenten journey through all the images in Herbert’s poem Prayer, drawing on the sonnets I wrote in response to each image in my new book After Prayer. Each post will give you the text of the poem, a recording of me reading it, and a little commentary or reflection on the image and the sonnet I wrote in response to it.

To set the context here are the words of Herbert’s poem, the map for our lenten pilgrimage:

Prayer

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

I learnt many things by writing in response to this poem, but perhaps the most telling was the discovery that Prayer is not a random compendium, but rather a soul-story, a spiritual journey. Usually the images flash by us so fast in such dazzling array that we have scarcely time to consider their order, their narrative arc. But by slowing the poem down and reflecting on each image both in itself and in its place in the sequence I found myself taken on a journey from the feasting and fecundity of the opening image of the Church’s Banquet, through mystery and variety and then, with the Christian plummet,down into unsounded depths and uncharted waters, into the painful battle fields and the wounded places of engine against the almightie, sinners tower, Christ-side-piercing spear, and then eventually up again through a kind of chastened recovery, a training of the ear to hear new music, a kind of tune,until one glimpsed the bird of paradise and caught the scent of the land of spices, until one was brought at least to the brink of something understood. The journey, I soon realised, was not just Herbert’s but had, necessarily, to be mine as well. And I found that, paradoxically, by following Herbert’s trajectory so closely I was also enabled to recognise and tell something of my own story too.

And here, to start us off on George Herbert’s day in the church calendar, is my response to the first image in Prayer: The Church’s Banquet

As with all these poems you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title

 

 

The Church’s Banquet

Not some strict modicum, exact allowance,

Precise prescription, rigid regimen,

But beauty and gratuitous abundance,

Capacious grace, beyond comparison.

Not something hasty, always snatched alone;

Junkets of junk food, fuelling our dis-ease,

Not little snacklets eaten on the run,

But peace and plenty, taken at our ease.

Not to be worked for, not another task,

But love that’s lavished on us, full and free,

Course after course of hospitality,

And rich wine flowing from an unstopped flask.

He paid the price before we reached the inn,

And all He asks of us is to begin.

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A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday

Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s Cross

I am reposting this Ash Wednesday Sonnet from  Sounding the Seasons, with a new sense of urgency. It was ten years ago that I wrote the lines:

The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.

Since then the destruction has increased, and more recently I wrote Our Burning World, set as an Anthem by Rhiannon Randle.

So here again is the sonnet and the little introduction I wrote for it a decade ago:

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, which is also found in my 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

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Shriven, Ashed, and ready for Action

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

Today, on Shrove Tuesday, I am reposting the first of the weekly series in which you can hear me read aloud the poems I chose for my Lent Anthology The Word in the Wilderness.  In the book itself you can read my commentary on each poem but I thought the recordings of my reading them might be useful, especially to groups who are using the book together.Where copyright allows I will also post the texts of the poems themselves here. Once more I am grateful to Lancia Smith who will be providing  specially made images for these weekly posts. Lancia has told me that today’s image of the shell suggests a sense of our  being ‘cleansed and emptied of what we once carried now waiting for a new day of our own’. But there is also of course the other sense in which the scallop shell is a symbol of pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is very much the central theme of this book.

Speaking of images that arise from this poetry you might like to know that there is now a Facebook Group Sounding the Sonnets which has some lovely galleries of art they have made in response to the poems in this and my other books.

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

Today’s post takes us from Shrove Tuesday through to Saturday, the next post in this series will be on the first Sunday in Lent.

So here, first is the poem set for Shrove Tuesday, Seamus Heaney’s beautiful eleventh poem in the sequence Station Island:

Station Island XI Seamus Heaney/St. John of the Cross

And here is my sonnet for Ash Wednesday
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.

From Thursday to Saturday I have chosen each of my sonnets on the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness. You can read my commentary on these in the book.

Thursday:

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.

 

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.’

Saturday:

On the Pinnacle

‘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.’

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Bright Star; a thanksgiving for John Keats

John Keats died on this day in 1821, so I am reposting this tribute to him for all his poetry has meant and continues to mean for me:

Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Thats how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens,  a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.

This poem is published in my book  The Singing Bowl  which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

Gold

 

The sun strikes gold along the Spanish steps,

Patches of god-light where the tourists stray.

The old house is in shadow and still keeps

It’s treasures from the searching light of day.

I found it once, when I had lost my way,

Depressed and restless, sheltering from rain,

Long years ago in Rome. But from that day

Everything turned to gold, even my pain,

Reading the words of one who feared he wrote in vain.

 

I too was ‘half in love with ease-full death’,

But standing by the window, near his bed,

I almost heard the ‘tender-taken breath’

On which his words were forming. As I read

I felt things shifting in me, an old dread

Was somehow being brought to harmony

Taught by his music as the music fled

To sing at last, as by some alchemy

Despair itself was lifted into poetry

 

I spent that summer there and came each day

To read and breathe and let his life unfold

In mine. Little by little, made my way

From realms of darkness into realms of gold,

Finding that in his story mine was told;

Bereavements, doubts and longings, all were there

Somehow transmuted in the poem’s old

Enduring crucible, that furnace where

Quick-silver draws the gold from leaden-eyed despair.

 

 

Now with the sun I come on pilgrimage

To find this house and climb the foot-worn stair,

For I have lived to more than twice his age

And year-by-year his words have helped me bear

The black weight of my breathing, to repair

An always-breaking heart. Somehow he keeps

His watch on me from somewhere, that bright star…

So, with the words of one who mined the depths,

I sing and strike for gold along the Spanish steps.

The house where Keats died, by the Spanish Steps, now a memorial, museum and library

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‘Our Burning World’: a collaboration with Rhiannon Randle

Photo Credit: Matthew Abbott/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Back in November I was approached by the composer Rhiannon Randle to write some words for a piece on the theme of creation and the environment she had been commissioned to compose for St. Michael Cornhill.  We both felt that the church needed prayerfully to address the crisis of climate change and to express those concerns in her liturgy. The lectionary readings for the occasion seemed strikingly prescient and appropriate: God’s call to us through Isaiah: ‘Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!’ and Jesus’ words to the disciples in Gethsemane ‘Keep awake and Pray’. Together they seemed to me to form a wake-up call! What emerged as I began writing, was a long cry of the earth, an appeal from nature herself, which Rhiannon could set into song.

I wrote ‘Our Burning World’ before the recent devastating Australian fires, but, as you can imagine, these lines came back to me as those fires burned.

Now Rhiannon has completed the piece and it is to have its premiere at St. Michael Cornhill on Monday 17th February in an evensong service at 6pm. I am very much looking forward to hearing this piece – Rhiannon is a brilliant young composer. Do come and join us there if you can.

Here, meanwhile, are the words for ‘Our Burning World’, and below them the two readings which will accompany the anthem when it is sung.I hope that in a later post I can share a recording of Monday’s premiere:

Our Burning World

Our burning world is turning in despair,

I hear her seething, sighing through the air:

‘Oh rouse yourself, this is your wake up call

For your pollution forms my funeral pall

My last ice lapses, slips into the sea,

Will you unfreeze your tears and weep from me?

Or are you sleeping still, taking your rest?

The hour has come, that puts you to the test,

Wake up to change at last, and change for good,

Repent, return, re-plant the sacred wood.

You are my children, I too am God’s child,

And we have both together been defiled,

But God hangs with us, on the hallowed tree

That we might both be rescued, both be free.’

 

Isaiah 51:17-20

Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!

Stand up, O Jerusalem,

you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord

the cup of his wrath,

who have drunk to the dregs

the bowl of staggering.

18 

There is no one to guide her

among all the children she has borne;

there is no one to take her by the hand

among all the children she has brought up.

19 

These two things have befallen you

—who will grieve with you?—

devastation and destruction, famine and sword—

who will comfort you?[c]

20 

Your children have fainted,

they lie at the head of every street

like an antelope in a net;

they are full of the wrath of the Lord,

the rebuke of your God.

Mark 14:32-42

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, “Abba,[h] Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37 He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;[i] the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41 He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

 

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