Monthly Archives: February 2021

The Word in the Wilderness, a Journey through Lent

wildernessAs we approach Lent I have been asked if I would post again the poems, recordings and images which accompany my Lent anthology Word in the Wilderness, and I am happy to do so as I know there are a number of groups reading the book together who might find it helpful to have the recordings. So I have recorded each of the poems in the Lent book, as I did for the Advent one. Whereas in Advent I posted a recording each day, along with a beautiful image from Lancia Smith, what Lancia and I have decided to do for Lent is to offer you weekly posts. Each post will be headed by a beautiful image from Lancia and then contain links to recordings of all seven poems for that week as well as the texts of the poems themselves, though for my commentary on each text you will need to turn to the book itself. We will start with an introductory post that takes us from Shrove Tuesday, through Ash Wednesday to the 1st Sunday in Lent and then each subsequent post will come out on each of the Sundays in Lent. I hope you find this helpful and please feel free to share it. Those who are using the book in weekly Lent groups this year my find it particularly helpful to have all the weeks readings gathered on one page.  You can get copies of Word in the Wilderness by ordering from your local bookshop, or through this page on Amazon UK and this one on Amazon USA

As an appetiser, and to give you an idea of my reasons for compiling this anthology here are the opening paragraphs of my introduction:

Why might we want to take time in Lent, to immerse ourselves in poetry, to ask for the poets as companions on our journey with the Word through the wilderness? Perhaps it is one of the poet’s themselves who can answer that question. In The Redress of Poetry, the collection of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Seamus Heaney claims that poetry ‘offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has to be its own reward’ (p. xv). However qualified by terms like ‘fleeting’, ‘glimpse’ and ‘potential’, this is still a claim that poetry, and more widely the poetic imagination, is truth-bearing; that it offers not just some inner subjective experience but as Heaney claims, a redress; the redress of an imbalance in our vision of the world and ourselves. Heaney’s claim in these lectures, and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, is that we can ‘Credit Poetry’, trust its tacit, intuitive and image-laden way of knowledge. I have examined these claims in detail elsewhere (Faith Hope and Poetry) and tried to show, in more academic terms, how the poetic imagination does indeed redress an imbalance and is a necessary complement to more rationalistic and analytical ways of knowing. What I would like to do in this book is to put that insight into practice, and turn to poetry for a clarification of who we are, how we pray, how we journey through our lives with God and how he comes to journey with us.

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)

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A Sonnet on the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Pausing for a moment in our progress through the Psalms I return to my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, to share a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials with him, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but is also sometimes remembered on this Sunday before Lent, which 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 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 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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A Sonnet for St. Valentine

Why should this martyr be the saint of Love?

Why should this martyr be the saint of Love?

Here is a sonnet I composed in honour of the original St. Valentine. I notice some FB posts implying that as an early Christian martyr he has nothing to do with Romantic Love and should be dissociated from it. I believe that on the contrary there is every reason why he should be the patron saint of Love and this sonnet explores why.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on either the title or the ‘play’ button. This poem is published in my collection ‘Parable and Paradox’

St Valentine

Why should this martyr be the saint of love?

A quiet man of unexpected courage,

A celibate who celebrated marriage,

An ageing priest with nothing left to prove,

He loved the young and made their plight his cause.

He called for fruitfulness, not waste in wars,

He found a sure foundation, stood his ground,

And gave his life to guard the love he’d found.

Why should this martyr be our Valentine?

Perhaps because he kept his covenant,

Perhaps because, with prayer still resonant,

He pledged the Bridegroom’s love in holy wine,

Perhaps because the echo of his name

Can kindle love again to living flame.

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How Amiable Are Thy Dwellings: A Response To Psalm 84

We come now to psalm 84, one of my all time favourites! For me the psalmist’s delight in being in the temple finds its paralell in my love of the simple, ancient English parish church. I wrote my responsive poem when we were still in the first full lockdown and I couldn’t go into our parish church at all, but the first thing I did when we were allowed back in was to go in, early in the morning  when all was quiet and read this poem aloud in the church.

Thanks to everyone who attended our virtual launch for David’s Crown which was, as much as anything, a celebration of the psalms themselves. If you couldn’t get to the live event you can still watch it all here

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

The full set of these poems has now been published as a book David’s Crown which you can buy from UK Amazon Here, or, in North America, it should soon be available from Amazon Here.

LXXXIV Quam dilecta!

Yahweh saves, Our God is merciful

And how I long to enter in his courts

To nestle at his altar and to dwell

 

With him for ever. Day and night my thoughts

Are yearning towards the beauty of his temple

In swallow-flights of song.  For in his courts

 

Time is transfigured, opened out and ample,

It touches on eternity. I stay

Awhile within this church: its simple

 

Furnishings, and storied windows say

More to me of heaven than the pale

Abstractions of theology. A day

 

Spent in an empty church has been as full

Of goodness as an age elsewhere. I feel

Its peace refresh me like a holy well.

 

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David’s Crown Launch: Introducing my guests!

David with Bono and Eugene Peterson and his wife

I am very much looking forward to the webinar which will formally launch my new poetry collection David’s Crown this Thursday, and I thought I would take the opportunity, a few days before, to introduce the guests who will be joining me at that event.

David Taylor, an associate professor at Fuller and a brilliant contributor to the recent flourishing of Theology and the Arts, as an interdisciplinary venture, is also an old friend. I first met him at Duke University where I was poet in residence at the Duke Initiative in Theology and the Arts, and it was refreshing to find someone with such a combination of theological depth and cultural engagement. He recently amazed the world by curating, and then filming, a conversation about the psalms and what they mean to us now between Bono, of U2, and Eugene Peterson, of The Message. It was mesmerising and it is not surprising that Eugene Peterson wrote the Forward, and Bono the Afterword for David’s own recent book on the psalms Open and Unafraid! David’s book was one of my resources for approaching the psalms in my own poetry and I’m really looking forward to his response to those poems and his wider wisdom about the psalms.

Paula Gooder

Paula Gooder, the Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is one of the most brilliant and widely read of the younger generation of Biblical Scholars, and I, with many thousands of others, have sat at her feet at the Greenbelt Christianity and Arts festival. We have also spoken together at churches on the theme of Advent. As I began to post the poems that were to become David’s Crown online I was delighted to get a message from Paula encouraging me in my work and offering to help as a kind of scholarly biblical consultant, and I was, of course thrilled when she offered to write the Introduction to my book. It was Paula who helped me see the wood from the trees when it came to seeing the psalter as a whole, even as I worked on the details of the individual poems.

Roger Wagner working on his psalms book

My third guest is the distinguished artist and poet Roger Wagner. I had admired Roger’s paintings for a long time, and it seemed to me he was as it were a contemporary Samuel Palmer, someone who, like Palmer continued the mystical tradition, rooted in Blake, in which the eternal shines through and transfigures the temporal. More recently I have come to know Roger personally as we both have volumes of poetry with Canterbury Press and did some speaking and reading events together. Then, during the course of this lockdown, we collaborated on a joint work ‘The Quarantine Quatrains: a new Rubaiyat‘ for which Roger contributed a set of beautiful ‘miniatures’. It was whilst we were working on that book that I discovered Roger was also publishing a new translation of the psalms together with his beautiful woodcuts and paintings, also published by Canterbury Press, so he was the perfect person to complete my webinar panel for this Thursday and I’m delighted that he has agreed to do so.

The panel will be chaired by Christine Smith, the publishing director at Canterbury Press, and my indefatigable editor

So do join us on Thursday evening at 7pm GMT. The original set of free tickets ‘sold out’ but Canterbury Press have released a whole tranche more so there should be plenty of room. You can register Here. it says ‘buy ticket’ but I hasten to add that the tickets are all free. See you on Thursday!

Malcolm

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How Can I Pray This Psalm? A Response To Psalm 83

After the calm assurance of psalm 82, psalm 83 is, by contrast full of anger and enmity, a long rant calling down God’s vengeance on the enemies of Israel. How are we to pray it as Christians, knowing we are called on to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us?

In the end I felt it turned on the final verse which is about making known the name of God:

And they shall know that thou, whose Name is Jehovah: art only the most Highest over all the earth.

For the Christian the true name of God is not simply ‘Jehovah/Yahweh, but it is Jesus/Yeshuah which mean Yahweh Saves. Jesus absorbs all the wrath and righteous anger in this psalm and turns it into love, so that unlike the psalmist here we can proclaim peace, rather than war.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

The full set of these poems has now been published as a book David’s Crown which you can buy from UK Amazon Here, or, in North America, it should soon be available from Amazon Here.

There is also going to be a launch event/webinar on Feb 11th at 7pm GMT it will be completely free and you can register for it Here.

LXXXIII Deus, quis similis?

As kindred in our father’s house at last

We will make peace with one another. Yet

We still make war; we still live in the past.

 

Even the psalmist here is filled with hate,

As gleefully he lists his enemies

And calls God’s wrath upon them: ‘let 

 

Them perish, let them burn in flame’ he cries,

And puts his curses in the mouth of God!

How can I pray this psalm? Give me the eyes

 

Of Jesus, help me see the iron rod

Which only crushes sin to free the sinful,

That I may know the holy name of God

 

Is not a name of wrath, but plentiful

Redemption: Jesus, Yeshuah

Yahweh saves, our God is merciful.

 

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Defend the Poor And Fatherless: A Response to Psalm 82

Palm 82 is one of those challenging, but ultimately encouraging psalms about God’s Justice. The psalm sets out the fact and character of God’s Judgement unequivocally:

  1. GOD standeth in the congregation of princes: he is a Judge among gods.
  2. How long will ye give wrong judgement: and accept the persons of the ungodly?
  3. Defend the poor and fatherless: see that such as are in need and necessity have right.
  4. Deliver the outcast and poor: save them from the hand of the ungodly.

My response to this psalm was written at a time when both the Black Lives Matter movement and the social inequalities exposed and brought to the light by the covid pandemic were challenging our complacency and calling for a prophetic Christian response, and I once more felt how relevant these ancient psalms are to our everyday life.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

The full set of these poems has now been published as a book David’s Crown which you can buy from UK Amazon Here, or, in North America, it should soon be available from Amazon Here.

There is also going to be a launch event/webinar on Feb 11th at 7pm GMT it will be completely free and you can register for it Here.

LXXXII Deus stetit

For things are not so hopeless as they seem

God stands among the rulers as a judge.

He has no partiality.  We deem

 

Ourselves better than others, hold a grudge

Against the stranger in our midst, reject

The ones who aren’t like us, but he will judge

 

The world in righteousness. He will reject

The special pleading of the privileged.

And bless the meek instead. If we reflect

 

A little, in this earthly pilgrimage,

On how he loved the ‘other’ and the outcast

Then we will learn to share our heritage,

 

Not keep it only for our kin and caste,

But gather as the children of one king,

As kindred in our father’s house at last.

 

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The Lovely New Moon Shining: a Response To Psalm 81

After the sorrow and lamentation expressed in psalms 79 and 80, psalm 81 comes us a beautiful moment of uplift, with the sound of trumpets and the clear shining beauty of the new moon:

  1. SING we merrily unto God our strength: make a cheerful noise unto the God of Jacob.
  2. Take the psalm, bring hither the tabret: the merry harp with the lute.
  3. Blow up the trumpet in the new-moon: even in the time appointed, and upon our solemn feast-day.

Then the psalm looks back to all that God had done for Israel in the past, how he had ‘eased their shoulder from the burden’ and that renewed memory of grace gives the psalmist confidence for the future. My response to this psalm follows a similar pattern, and like the psalmist I have found that the beautiful clarity of the moon shining high above our passing troubles, becomes a symbol of hope.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button or the title and you can find the other poems in this evolving series by putting the word ‘psalms’ into the search box on the right.

The full set of these poems has now been published as a book David’s Crown which you can buy from UK Amazon Here, or, in North America, it should soon be available from Amazon Here.

There is also going to be a launch event/webinar on Feb 11th at 7pm GMT it will be completely free and you can register for it Here.

LXXXI Exultate Deo

Till shadows flee at last, and sorrows cease

Come down and ease our shoulders from the burden

To give our straining hearts some soft release,

 

Lest from sheer weariness they shrink and harden.

Refresh us with the memory of grace,

Remind us of your mercy, of that pardon

 

You won for us forever from the cross.

Then we will lift a lighter song to you

And glimpse beyond our loneliness and loss

 

The lovely new moon shining, and the true

Signs of the kingdom coming, where they gleam 

And kindle in the east, still showing through

 

This present darkness, even as a dream

Of light before the dawn. Send us a sign

That things are not so hopeless as they seem.

If you would like to encourage and support this blog, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!

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A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’

It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”

This and my other sonnets 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 poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem

Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

If you would like to encourage and support this blog, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!

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