Author Archives: malcolmguite

About malcolmguite

Malcolm Guite is a poet and singer-songwriter living in Cambridge. He is a priest, chaplain, teacher and author of various essays and articles and a book about contemporary Christianity. He also plays in Cambridge rock band Mystery Train, and lectures widely in England and USA on poetry and theology.

The First Sunday of Epiphany -Jesus’ Baptism

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

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:

Epiphany on the Jordansteve-album

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‘Every Idle Word’: What if we had to own up to what we say?

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

What If…

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,
Insidious insinuation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Unexamined asservation
Idiotic iteration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?

What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Querulous prevarication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Simulated desparation
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.

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God Speed the Plough

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.

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A Sonnet for Epiphany

these three arrive and bring us with them

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.

Epiphany

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.

 

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The Divine Image by William Blake

Image created by Linda Richardson after Matisse

Image created by Linda Richardson after Matisse

For January 6th (the feast of epiphany) in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting 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

The Divine ImageWilliam Blake

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

All pray in their distress;

And to these virtues of delight

Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is God, our father dear,

And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love

Is Man, his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man, of every clime,

That prays in his distress,

Prays to the human form divine,

Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.

And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

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Rocky Mountain Railroad, Epiphany by Luci Shaw

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For January 5th in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Rocky Mountain Railroad, Epiphany by Luci Shaw. this poem makes an interesting contrast and parallel with Coleridge’s psalm-like outpouring of yesterday. Both poems are a response to the beauty of nature, and specifically to the sight of snowy mountains, and the whole play of light on snow and ice. In both poems we have a sense of glory and of the sublime rising ‘reaches of peak above peak beyond peak’.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She Writes:

Luci Shaw takes a subtly different approach to Coleridge as she describes, ‘in a net of words’, her transcendent experience. She uses herself as a mirror to describe the effect the experience has on her. ‘I imbed it in my brain so that it will flash and flash again…an alternate reality…my open window mind is too little,…I long for each sweep….’

 In the image I made, the words open and condense in the lines, sometimes clear, sometimes hidden in the ink, indicating the fleeting glimpses we see as we hurtle along in a train. Life reflects the train journey. The Divine is always around us, sometimes clearly visible in love given and received, sometimes only glimpsed as we speed by. And often, if our focus is too close, all we see is our own reflection in the window.

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

Rocky Mountain Railroad, Epiphany   Luci Shaw

The steel rails parallel the river as we penetrate

ranges of pleated slopes and crests—all too complicated

for capture in a net of words. In this showing, the train window

is a lens for an alternate reality—the sky lifts and the light forms

shadows of unstudied intricacy. The multiple colors of snow

in the dimpled fresh fall. Boulders like white breasts. Edges

blunted with snow. My open-window mind is too little for

this landscape. I long for each sweep of view to toss off

a sliver, imbed it in my brain so that it will flash

and flash again its unrepeatable views. Inches. Angles.

Niches. Two eagles. A black crow. Skeletal twigs’ notched

chalices for snow. Reaches of peak above peak beyond peak

Next to the track the low sun burns the silver birches into

brass candles. And always the flow of the companion river’s

cord of silk links the valleys together with the probability

of continuing revelation. I mind-freeze for the future

this day’s worth of disclosure. Through the glass

the epiphanies reel me in, absorbed, enlightened.

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Hymn Before Sunrise by ST Coleridge

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For January 4th in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read a passage from A Hymn before Sunrise in the vale of Chamouni by ST Coleridge.

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 her book of responses to Waiting on the Word, she writes:

Anyone who has ever had a “glance” of God wants to share the experience. It is like running home to show your family the beautiful butterfly you have captured in your cupped hands but when you get there it has escaped and all you have are impressions and words. In the gospel of John we hear Andrew’s response after he meets Jesus: “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.”

Words and images have power to point to an experience but they aren’t the experience itself. What we really want to do is bring people to experience what we have experienced, to bring them to Jesus like Andrew brought his brother, (to bring them to the Holy Mountain). In my little painting, the mountain sits above the words, the words point to the mountain. God’s promise is that if we seek, we will find. Talking about God is good but if we don’t also open ourselves to be transformed by the experience of God, (Rise, O ever rise..), we remain in doctrine and dogma which, although essential, only has the power to point.

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

from The Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni   Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ye Ice-falls! ye that from the mountain’s brow

Adown enormous ravines slope amain—

Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,

And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!

Motionless torrents! silent cataracts!

Who made you glorious as the gates of Heaven

Beneath the keen full moon? Who bade the sun

Clothe you with rainbows? Who, with living flowers

Of loveliest blue, spread garlands at your feet?—

God! let the torrents, like a shout of nations,

Answer! and let the ice-plains echo, God!

God! sing ye meadow-streams with gladsome voice!

Ye pine-groves, with your soft and soul-like sounds!

And they too have a voice, yon piles of snow,

And in their perilous fall shall thunder, God!

Ye living flowers that skirt the eternal frost!

Ye wild goats sporting round the eagle’s nest!

Ye eagles, play-mates of the mountain-storm!

Ye lightnings, the dread arrows of the clouds!

Ye signs and wonders of the element!

Utter forth God, and fill the hills with praise!

Thou too, hoar Mount! with thy sky-pointing peaks,

Oft from whose feet the avalanche, unheard,

Shoots downward, glittering through the pure serene

Into the depth of clouds, that veil thy breast—

Thou too again, stupendous Mountain! thou

That as I raise my head, awhile bowed low

In adoration, upward from thy base

Slow travelling with dim eyes suffused with tears,

Solemnly seemest, like a vapoury cloud,

To rise before me—Rise, O ever rise,

Rise like a cloud of incense from the Earth!

Thou kingly Spirit throned among the hills,

Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,

Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,

And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun,

Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God.

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