Monthly Archives: September 2021

Michaelmas: a sonnet for St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael at Mont St. Michell -photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The end of September brings us to the feast of St. Michael and All Angels which is known as Michaelmas in England, and this first autumn term in many schools and universities is still called the Michaelmas term. The Archangel Michael is traditionally thought of as the Captain of the Heavenly Host, and, following an image from the book of Revelation, is often shown standing on a dragon, an image of Satan subdued and bound by the strength of Heaven. He is also shown with a drawn sword, or a spear and a pair of scales or balances, for he represents, truth, discernment, the light and energy of intellect, to cut through tangles and confusion, to set us free to discern and choose. He is celebrated and revered in all three Monotheistic religions. There is a good, full account of him here. And here is a bright and playful image of him by the Cambridge Artist Rebecca Merry, who has done a number of icons and other images of the Archangels. You can see more of her art here, and also in the Byard Art Gallery.

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright

And here is a response to the poem from photographer Margot Krebs Neale, weaving the words at the heart of the poem into the heart-shaped image. More of Margot’s work can be seen here.

This poem comes from my sequence from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press, As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or the title.

Michaelmas

Michaelmas gales assail the waning year,

And Michael’s scale is true, his blade is bright.

He strips dead leaves; and leaves the living clear

To flourish in the touch and reach of light.

Archangel bring your balance, help me turn

Upon this turning world with you and dance

In the Great Dance. Draw near, help me discern,

And trace the hidden grace in change and chance.

Angel of fire, Love’s fierce radiance,

Drive through the deep until the steep waves part,

Undo the dragon’s sinuous influence

And pierce the clotted darkness in my heart.

Unchain the child you find there, break the spell

And overthrow the tyrannies of Hell.

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The Word and the words: a sonnet for Lancelot Andrewes

Lancelot Andrewes preacher and translator

September 25th is Lancelot Andrewes’ Day, when the Church remembers one of its greatest preachers and the man whose scholarship and gift for poetic phrasing was so central to the making of the King James Version of the Bible. My own Doctoral thesis was on Andrewes and he has exercised a huge influence on me. On the 400th anniverseary of the KJV I gave a lecture for the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature on Andrewes and translation which was published in this book The King James Version at 400. But I have also published a sonnet for Andrewes in my book for Canterbury Press  The Singing Bowl, so here it is. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button .

Lancelot Andrewes

Your mind is fixed upon the sacred page,
A candle lights your study through the night,
The choicest wit, the scholar of the age,
Seeking the light in which we see the light.
Grace concentrates in you, your hand is firm,
Tracing the line of truth in all its ways,
Through you the great translation finds its form,
‘And still there are not tongues enough to praise.’
Your day began with uttering his name
And when you close your eyes you rest in him,
His constant star still draws you to your home,
Our chosen stella praedicantium.
You set us with the Magi on the Way
And shine in Christ unto the rising day.

I also gave a talk about Lancelot Andrewes and the translation of the King James Bible to the Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society which various people have asked to hear. They have sent me a recording which I am posting here. The talk itself doesn’t start until about three minutes into the recording and last for about 50 minutes with a question and answer session afterwards.

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On Reading the Commedia 9:The Rose

a white rose opens a white rose opens

I come now to the final part my sequence of nine poems reflecting on the exprerience of reading, and re-reading Dante’s Commedia. By the end of the Paradiso Dante has taken us to the very limits of human thought and expression, to the brink of a reality which is beyond language, and yet which is the true source of all reality. That source is Love, ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, and the whole purpose of the poem is that we learn and choose also to be moved by, and find our peace, in that Love.

To describe his journey, Dante used the astronomy of his day, but the truth of his message does not depend on one scientific model, or another, but on what lies behind the reality they model. In this poem I have tried to hint at the exprerience of reading Dante with our own, equally marvelous and mysterious cosmology in mind.

GuiteCommedia3If you have enjoyed reading these poems you may be interested to know that a Special Edition of them has been printed and bound in Florence by Aureo Anello Books. Printed in William Morris Troy Font, in a numbered limited edition of 250, these little chapbooks, with parchment covers, are being offered for a suggested donation of €15,00, to help the work of Anchoress and Dante Scholar Sister Julia Bolton Holloway who helps look after the famous ‘English Cemetry’ in Florence, where Elizabeth Barett Browning and other poets are buried. For Julia’s wonderful suite of web resources for Dante, Mother Julian, and mediaeval theology, start exploring here.  The special page telling you how to obtain Aureo Anello’s limited editions including my Dante poem is here.

I am Grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image of the rose, as usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button.

9 The Rose

A white rose opens in a quiet arbour

Where I sit reading Dante, Paradise

Unfolding in me, opens hour by hour,

 

In sunlight and amidst the hum of bees

On a late afternoon. I think of how

Everything flowers, the whole universe

 

Itself is still unfolding even now

Sprung from a stem of singularity

Which petals time and space.  I think of how

 

The very elements that let my body be

Began and will continue in the stars

Whose light and distance frame our mystery,

 

And how my shadowed heart still loves, still bears

With every beat that animates  my being,

Eternal yearnings through the turning years.

 

I turn back to the lines that light my seeing

And lift me to the limits of all thought

And long that I might also find that freeing

 

And enabling Love, and so be caught

And lifted into His renewing Heaven.

Evening glimmers, and the stars come out,

 

Venus is shining clear, my prayers are woven

Into a sounding song, a symphony,

As all creation gives back what is given

 

In music made to praise the Mystery

Who is both gift and giver. Something stirs

A grace in me beyond my memory

 

I close the book and look up at the stars.

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stars1

If you missed the earlier episodes, here are the links to the other poems in this sequence:

Previous poems in this Dante Series:

Inferno:

1 In Medias Res

2 Through the Gate

3 Vexila Regis

Purgatorio

4 De Magistro

5 Love in Idleness

6 Dancing Through the Fire

Paradiso

7  Look up

8 Circle Dance

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On Reading the Commedia 8: Circle Dance

Gustave Dore Imagines the cCrcle Dance Gustave Dore Imagines the Circle Dance

As Dante and Beatrice rise through the traditional seven heavens of mediaeval astronomy, the experience of each is lovelier and more intense, each sphere as it were prepares and trains Dante’s sight for the holiness and beauty of the next.

For Dante the Heaven of the Sun represents and embodies the light and life of the mind, the sheer joy of pursuing and apprhehending truth. It is in that sphere that he meets the great masters of Christian intellectual life from Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy through to to the great Dominican and Franciscan masters of thought St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. For Dante the life of mind, the pursuit of truth and the interweaving of intellectual exchange, are seen not as contention or rivalry, as they might be in some places, but as a kind of glorious circle dance, centred on the Logos who is the light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. The theologians whirl around Dante and Beatrice in sheer joy and energy. That is the true vision of the life of the mind!

When I came up to Cambridge as a young man I was on my second read-through of the Commedia and I was delighted to discover that almost all the philosophers whom Dante meets in the Heaven of the Sun were still on my syllabus to read! Starting with Boethius, whose Consolation of Philosophy still remans one of the most important books in my life.  Though earthly universities are not always an earthly paradise, I still enjoy in my Cambridge life some glimpses of Dante’s vision of the dancing and illuminated life of the mind!

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button. The image by Margot Krebs Neale which follows the poem reflects both its opening line and the idea ( a direct quotation from the Commedia) that ‘the inner brings the outer into life.’

For an easy link to the rest of the sequence go to On reading the Commedia 7

Circle Dance

A sun-warmed sapling, opening each leaf,

My soul unfolded in your quickening ray,

‘the inner brought the outer into life’;

I found the light within the  light of day,

The Consolation of Philosophy,

Turning a page in Cambridge, found my way,

My mind delighting in discovery,

As love of learning turned to learning love

And explanation deepened mystery,

Drawing me out beyond what I could  prove

Towards the next adventure, every chance

Discovery a sweet come-hither wave,

Philosophy a kind of circle dance,

Weaving between the present and the past,

The whole truth present in a single glance

That looked on me and everything in Christ!

Threefold Beholding, look me into being,

Make me in Love again from first to last

And let me still partake your holy seeing

Beyond the shifting shadow of the earth,

Minute particulars, eternal in their being,

Forming themselves into a single path

From heaven to earth and back again to heaven,

All patterned and perfected, from each birth

To each fruition, and all freely given

To glory in and give the glory back!

Call me again to set out from this haven

And follow Truth along her shining track.

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The inner brought the outer into life The inner brought the outer into life

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On Reading the Commedia 7: Look Up!

image from Danteworlds image from Danteworlds

Having been through Hell (as it were), climbed together the steep terraces of the Holy Mountain of Purgatory and danced through the fire at its summit, back into the garden of our beginnings, we come now to the final section of my Dante Sequence. This is the first of my three poems responding to the Paradiso the poem in which, reunited with his beloved Beatrice, Dante ascends through the spheres of the heavens to attain at last a mystical vision of the God who is all in all, three in one and yet looks on us with a human face.

In some ways Inferno and Purgatorio are easier to read because they chart, with harrowing honesty, the familiar territory of our own experience, whereas Paradiso challenges us with a way of seeing reality, utterly itself, in all its variety and particularity, and bathed in the light of Love, which we have not yet attained. But the key I think is to recognise that just sometimes, and by sheer grace, we get a glimpse of the Paradisal or Beatific view of things, as the disciples did at the transfiguration, and from there we can begin to imagine, and so learn to love and grow into our paradise.

The key verbs throughout the Paradiso are ‘Look’ and ‘Love’; Dante is gradually transformed by learning to look at everything, himself and Beatrice included with the gaze of Love with which God beholds his creation and this prepares him gradually for the final look, the beatific vision in which he himself, together with the sun and the other stars becomes and is moved by the Love he beholds.

In this first poem I reflect on Dante’s ascent through the first three spheres of heaven, the Moon, Mercury and finally the third Heaven, Venus, the sphere in which our Eros is perfected by Agape.

The image above comes from the University of Texas’s excellent web resource Danteworlds and the image which follows the poem is by Margot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. If you have missed the other poems in this series i have put a list of links to them at the bottom of this page.

Look Up!

Look up at the resplendent lights of heaven

In all the glory of their otherness,

Within you and beyond you, simply given!

Let go your grandeur, love your littleness,

Begin a journey into clarity

And find again the love in loveliness,

The constant love in your inconstancy.

Reflected light you’re not yet fit to bear,

Pearlescent preface to eternity,

She glimmers through the veils you make her wear,

Delights and glories in each difference,

In every variation everywhere.

Now let love raise and ravish every sense,

Quicksilver scatterings of consciousness,

She makes you myriad-minded, you can dance

In her swift sway and swing, the suddenness

of ecstasy, third heaven’s heady swirl,

That lifts and flings her lovers into bliss.

Remember tenderly, you glimpsed a girl

Whose smile transfigured all without her knowing,

The tangles of your loving here unfurl

And find their freedom, every knot undoing,

Mistakes unmade, and unkind words unsaid

The spring released at last and freely flowing

As freely you forgive yourselves. The seed

of love, long-planted, breathes and blossoms here

Where you in-other one another, freed

And ensphered where love has cast out fear.

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She glimmersSM

Previous poems in this Dante Series:

Inferno:

1 In Medias Res

2 Through the Gate

3 Vexila Regis

Purgatorio

4 De Magistro

5 Love in Idleness

6 Dancing Through the Fire

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On Reading the Commedia 6: Dancing Through the Fire

Botticelli illustrates Purgatorio 27, Dancing through the Fire Botticelli illustrates Purgatorio 27, Dancing through the Fire

‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated sprit proceeds/ unless restored by that refining fire/ where you must move in measure like a dancer’

These words from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding have always struck a chord with me. They allude, of course, to the moment near the end of the Purgatorio when the pilgrims ascend towards the Earthly Paradise, the garden of our origins and of our restored humanity, at the summit of the Holy Mountain. But Eden is surrounded by a circle of fire. The poet-pilgrims must pass through that fire, in which the last of love’s imperfections will be purified. Desire for the beloved must be redeemed from the possessive  lust which makes a person an object, and restored to that wholeness of love in which the beloved is desired and loved, body and soul, for herself as  person. It is only when Virgil reminds Dante that his beloved Beatrice is waiting for him beyond the fire that he has the courage to enter the flame.

This episode has engaged my life and writing in various ways over the years and it is the title and subject of my most recent cd Dancing Through the Fire. Now I engage with it again as part of this sequence, in the terza rima that Dante used for his great poem.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the image which illustrates and interprets the poem at the bottom of this page

Dancing Through The Fire

‘per te poeta fui, per te Christiano‘  ( purg 22:73)

Then stir my love in idleness to flame

To find  at last the free refining fire

That guards the hidden garden whence I came.

O do not kill, but quicken my desire

Better to spur me on than leave me cold.

Not maimed I come to you, I come entire

Lit by  the loves that warm, the lusts that scald

That you may prove the one, reprove the other,

Though both have been the strength by which I scaled

The steps so far to come where poets gather

And sing such songs as love gives them to sing.

I thank God for the ones who brought me hither

And taught me by example how to bring

The slow growth of a poem to fruition

And let it be itself, a living thing,

Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition

And still to try the tautness of each line,

Taught me to taste the grace of transformation

And trace in dust the face of the Divine,

Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian ,

That drawing water turns it into wine.

Now I am drawn through their imagination

To dare to dance with them into the fire,

Harder than any grand renunciation,

To bring to Christ the heart of my desire

Just as it is in every imperfection

Surrendered to his sharp refiners fire

That love might have Its death and resurrection.

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DSC04828refiners fire

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On Reading the Commedia 5: Love-in-Idlness

Dante meets Belaqua from a Bodleian Maanuscript

Dante meets Belaqua from a Bodleian Manuscript

As he begins his ascent of the Holy Mountain, Dante runs into, indeed nearly trips over, an old friend called Belaqua, a Florentine lute-maker and musician. Dante is delighted to see him there as one of the redeemed, since in Florence he seemed, as many musicians seem to their friends now, to spend alot of his time just ‘hanging out’ with other musicians and not getting on with anything in particular. Then Dante is disturbed to notice that that is exactly what Belaqua still seems to be doing on the Holy Mountain, just lounging around, until Belaqua explains that this is actually his penance! He is obliged to hang around waiting for the exact amount of time he wasted on earth, before he can begin his true his ascent. What was previously just ‘time wasting’ is now being converted by grace into ‘otium sacrum’ that holy leisure, that pause and patience, that long wait in which at last we let God be God. It’s no wonder that Samuel Becket, who was to invest so much imagination into what it means to wait, was very drawn to this passage and that the hero of his semi-autobiographical short stories is called Belaqua. I wrote this poem over thirty years ago, influenced as much by Becket as by Dante, towards the end of an apparently fruitless period of lostness and indolence. Placing it now in this new sequence is itself a parable of what I understand redemption to be.

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title, and I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the lovely interpretative image which follows the poem

Love In Idleness

When I am bogged in indolence again

It’s purgatory for me, as for Belaqua,

Hanging around instead of getting on

With his salvation.  I can’t lift a finger.

The snow is falling heavily outside.

The earth gets lighter as the sky gets darker.

I shiver where I’m sitting (window wide

for snow-flakes to drop in and fade away)

And hide myself in something else’s hide.

Coat panther-black and shabby hat wolf-grey,

As my numb fingers wrap about my pen,

all I need is fire and something to say.

Belaqua’s lute speaks with the tongues of men,

The tongue-tied mind is loosened into praise

I slip the disc back in its sleeve again.

One side is columns stiff with turgid prose

About the quattrocento.  On the other

A sound-box holds the craftsman’s fretted rose

With Florence in the background.  What a cover

For the God who spoke through someone else’s fingers

When ours were still entwined with one another.

ages ago we heard the music linger

before this light had lost its  radiance

And cast on love the shadow of our Hunger;

We spoke of free-will and of innocence

And trod the pavements of the fourth cornice

Where Love is to be purged of indolence.

I write these verses pending my release

I write these verses pending my release.

I write these verses pending my release.

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On Reading the Commedia 4: De Magistro

Dante with mount Purgatory in the background

Dante with mount Purgatory in the background

With this fourth poem in my Dante series we leave behind the dark and stifled atmosphere of the Inferno and contemplate the holy mountain of the Purgatorio. Here souls already bound for Paradise are enabled to purify, strengthen and re-order their capacity for love so as to be ready for the love and joy of Heaven when they get there. In this book Dante shows how friendship, love, poetry and art are all means whereby God prepares our souls for the great ascent.Dante fills Purgatorio with tributes to friends and poets who have helped him. I open my own ‘readers pilgrimage’ here with a tribute to the teacher who first showed me how to read Dante, thus giving me the gift of a lifetime. This poem first appeared at the front of my book Faith Hope and Poetry.

As always you can hear my poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button’. I am grateful to Oliver Neale for the contemporary image that follows the poem.

4 De Magistro

I thank my God I have emerged at last,

blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars

bewildered by the shadows that I cast.

You set me on this stair, in those rich hours

pacing your study, chanting poetry.

The Word in you revealed His quickening powers,

removed the daily veil, and let me see,

as sunlight played along your book-lined walls,

that words are windows onto mystery.

From Eden, whence the living fountain falls

in music, from the tower of ivory,

and from the hidden heart, He calls

in the language of Adam, creating memory

of unfallen speech. He sets creation

free from the carapace of history.

His image in us is Imagination,

His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath

upon the letters of His revelation.

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path

that leads back to the springs of truth in speech.

You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

you showed me how my halting words might reach

to the mind’s Maker, to the source of Love,

and so you taught me what it means to teach.

Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove

climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.

Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,

as fellow pilgrims on a needful journey.

photo by Oliver Neale

photo by Oliver Neale

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On reading the Commedia 3; Vexilla Regis

Plan of the Inferno by Daniel Heald

Plan of the Inferno by Daniel Heald

In this third reflection on on my pilgrim/reader’s journey through Dante’s Commedia, I come to the end of the Inferno and the wonderful moment of reversal/renewal when, having sunk to the lowest depths, the very centre of the earth’s gravity, they realise that if they can just keep going and not give up or give in at this point, then everything will be upended,they will pass the centre and be climbing again on the journey back to light, proving what a later mystic, John of the Cross wrote, that ‘the way down is the way up’.

One other thing I might note by way of background to my poem is that ‘Vexilla Regis‘, which means the Royal Banner or Standard is a wonderful early mediaeval hymn about the cross of Christ, the apparent tree of defeat, becoming truly the tree of victory, the flag that rallies every faint and falling Christian back to the battle, back to hope and triumph in their true Captain. In Hell Dante hears a hideous parody of this hymn applied to Satan, so in my own poem about recovery I take up the true version as my witness to the saving power of the cross.

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

3 Vexilla Regis

I hear His call, now help me to respond

My freeing muse, I need your presence here

For poetry alone moves me beyond

The known and over-known, beyond the sheer

Drop into darkness and the all-unknown

To the last limits and the true frontier,

Where Light and life dare to begin again.

Reason alone will never take me there,

The shaping spirit of imagination

Must also be my guide and bring me where

We pass the centre, turn the world around

And find the first steps of the hidden stair

That climbs out of these pits, far underground,

Against the stream of Lethe. Help me climb

Out of the depths that you have helped me sound.

Little by little, one step at a time

Towards the other side, the star-lit world

Where he has gone before and for all time

The world-tree’s steadfast roots are crossed and coiled

But on the tree of life He dies for me

Vexilla Regis sounds and all unfurled

The royal banners of the true and free

Stream out against the tempest and the fear

And summon me to all that I should be.

Up from that black and smothered atmosphere

I toil towards the light The worst is past

I hear the voice that called me, deep and clear

And let Love draw me into light at last.

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On Reading The Commedia 2: Through the Gate

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

Continuing my contribution to the Dante 700 celebrations,Today I am posting the second, ‘Through the Gate.’ Here is the commentary with which I introduced it in The Word in the wilderness and then the poem itself:

So Dante begins again, accompanied by Virgil and they come to the very gate of Hell, with its famous inscription ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’! But they don’t abandon hope, and that is the whole point. It is hope that leads and draws them on, hope inspired by love. For Virgil has revealed to Dante that it is Beatrice, the woman with whom he had fallen so completely in love as a young man, now in the bliss of Heaven, who has herself ‘ventured down the dark descent’ (to borrow Milton’s phrase) to find Virgil and ask for his help in rescuing Dante, so that she and Dante can meet again and rise together through the spheres of Heaven. Like Jesus, who went to the cross, not for pain in itself, but ‘for the joys that were set before him’, so we are to make this journey through the memories of pain and darkness, not to stay with these things but to redeem them and move beyond them. And the journey is itself made possible because Christ himself has gone before. ‘He descended into Hell.’ Throughout the journey into the Inferno we are shown signs that Christ has been this way before and broken down the strongholds. Dante is here alluding to one of the great lost Christian stories, which we need to recover today; ‘The Harrowing of Hell’. We, who build so many Hells on earth, need to know that there is no place so dark, no situation so seemingly hopeless, that cannot be opened to the light of Christ for rescue and redemption.

This is the theme I have born in mind in the following poem, which is my own ‘reader response’ to Dante’s journey. Throughout I have been mindful that the Inferno is really ‘in here and right now’ not ‘out there and back then’, and emphatically not, if we trust in Christ, some inevitable end awaiting us. In that knowledge we must have the courage to expose our own personal Hell’s to Christ and let him harrow them with us, and that is precisely what Dante’s great poem allows us to do. The great statesman and Dante enthusiast, W. E. Gladstone said: ‘The reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man’.

For all of us, somewhere within, there is a threshold or a gate beyond which we feel we dare not go, but it is sometimes just past that threshold that our real healing and restoration needs to take place. Sometimes the best way to get through that gate, and let Christ in, is in a companioned inner journey, with a trusted ‘soul friend’, a spiritual director, or a priest to whom we can make confession in complete confidence. I have deliberately echoed the phrase, from the form of confession ‘All I cannot call to mind’ as a way of suggesting that this journey with Dante down the dark spirals; one sin leading to another, one wound inflicting the next, can itself be an invitation to confession, and so to absolution and release.

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

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

Through the Gate

Begin the song exactly where you are

For where you are contains where you have been

And holds the vision of your final sphere

And do not fear the memory of sin;

There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,

Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain

Into translucent colour. Loose the veils

And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,

Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,

The hopeless gate that holds in all the  fears

That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide

And open to the light that finds and fares

Through the dark pathways  where you run and  hide,

through all the alleys of your riddled heart,

As pierced and open as His wounded side.

Open the map to Him and make a start,

And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark

His light will go before you, let Him chart

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache

To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind

Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk

And muted gloom in which you cannot find

The love that you once thought worth dying for.

Call Him to all you cannot call to mind

He comes to harrow Hell and now to your

Well guarded fortress let His love descend.

The icy ego at your frozen core

Can hear His call at last. Will you respond?

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Filed under christianity, Poems