Michaelmas; a sonnet for St. Michael the Archangel

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

Continuing my sequence from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press, the 29th September brings us 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 also appears as the epigraph in the new edition of Holly Ordway’s excellent book Not God’s Type’ which I highly recommend. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or the title. Many of you have commented on how good it is to be able to hear the poems, and I’m glad thats working.

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. This Sunday, 25th, at 3pm I will be preaching at Southwark Cathedral, where Andrewes is buried, at a special Festal Evensong to commemorate him.

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 recent 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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A Sonnet for St. Matthew’s Day

St. Matthew by Rebbecca Merry

September the 21st is St. Matthew’s day, so here is a sonnet for the Evangelist, drawn from my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons. Like my sonnets for the other three evangelists, it draws on the traditional association of each evangelist with one of the four living creatures around the throne of God. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Rebecca Merry for the image above.

Matthew

First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;
A gospel that begins with generation,
Family lines entwine around the Son
Born in Judea, born for every nation
Born under Law that all the Law of Moses
Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace
As every word and deed in time discloses
Eternal love within a human face.

This is the gospel of the great reversal
A wayside weed is Solomon in glory
The smallest sparrow’s fall is universal
And Christ the heart of every human story
‘I will be with you, though you may not see
And all you do, you do it unto me’

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Holy Cross Day: some sonnets on the cross

Today, is Holy Cross day. It originally commemorated the day when Helena the Mother of Constantine was believed to have found the true cross, astonishing the inhabitants of Jerusalem by searching the rubbish tip of Golgotha and, on unearthing this discarded sign of shame, exalting it as the greatest treasure on earth. But this festival has become since then a day when any of us can again find the cross, still a discarded sign of shame, and find in it the greatest treasure and the source of grace. To mark the day I am reposting here four of the sonnets for the Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons and are also intended to be read on Good Friday.

Please feel free to make use of them in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are s available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle.

The Image above was made by Lancia Smith and the images below are taken from a set of stations of the cross in St. Alban’s church Oxford. I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.

From The Stations Of the Cross

 


II Jesus is given his cross

He gives himself again with all his gifts

And now we give him something in return.

He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,

Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,

And from these elements he forged the iron,

From strands of life he wove the growing wood,

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

He saw it all and saw that it is good.

We took his iron to edge an axe’s blade,

We took the axe and laid it to the tree,

We made a cross of all that he has made,

And laid it on the one who made us free.

Now he receives again and lifts on high

The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.

 


XI Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.


XII Jesus dies on the cross

The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black
We watch him as he labours to draw breath
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We hear him struggle breathing through the pain
Who once breathed out his spirit on the deep,
Who formed us when he mixed the dust with rain
And drew us into consciousness from sleep.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Mantles his world in his one atmosphere
And now he comes to breathe beneath the pall
Of our pollutions, draw our injured air
To cleanse it and renew. His final breath
Breathes us, and bears us through the gates of death.


XIII Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.

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A Quartet for Mary

The Theotokos of vladimirOn September 8th many churches across the world, both Catholic and Anglican, keep the feast of the Blesed Virgin Mary, fulfilling the scripture that says “All generations will call me blessed”, remembering the one who bore our saviour for us, who was full of grace.

It is true that some Christians have disagreed with one another bitterly about her, but equally, in every age and every church she has been, for many Christians, a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.

In a strange way, which I will write about one day, she was a sign of hope to me even before I was a Christian, and it was something numinous and beautiful in the paintings and poetry she has inspired that helped lead me to her Son.

I thought for this feast day, I would offer a quartet of sonnets in her honour, gathering together  the four sonnets about her which are part of my wider collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’. They take us, from the Annunciation and her ‘yes’ to the angel, through the Visitation, with its beautiful magnificat, to the birth of Jesus, and then to her presence with him on the via dolorosa and at the foot of the cross.

As always you can hear the poems by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears, or clicking on the title.

Annunciation

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

 


The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

 

Theotokos

You bore for me the One who came to bless

And bear for all and make the broken whole.

You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’

You spoke aloud for every living soul.

Oh gracious Lady, child of your own child,

Whose mother-love still calls the child in me,

Call me again, for I am lost, and  wild

Waves suround me now. On this dark sea

Shine as a star and call me to the shore.

Open the door that all my sins would close

And hold me in your garden. Let me share

The prayer that folds the petals of the Rose.

Enfold me too in Love’s last mystery

And bring me to the One you bore for me.

Jesus meets His Mother

This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.

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Angels Unawares: a little riff on Hebrews 13

Songs and Sonnets

Songs and Sonnets

One of the set readings for this Sunday, whose theme is hospitality, is the beautiful opening of Hebrews 13 which reads:

Let brotherly love continue.Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

This passage of course contains a deft allusion to the story of how Abraham and Sara entertained three strangers in the wilderness and in so doing opened their tent and their hearts to the Lord who then fulfilled his promise to bless them with a child. In my new book Parable and Paradox I have a poem about that moment in genesis which you can read and listen to here.

But the phrase in Hebrews ‘angels unawares’ was also the inspiration, and indeed the title of a song of mine which I have  included on the new record Songs and Sonnets, which will very soon be available through iTunes etc and for order on the web.The song reflects on the many and various ways God sends his messages and his messengers to us. But as a reflection for tomorrow I thought I would post the lyrics here and also give you a chance to listen to one of the earlier mixes of the song, the final version of which is on the record. If you would like to use these lyrics or the song itself as part of a service please feel free to do so. I hope you enjoy it

Angels Unawares 

Some people say that life is just a given thing

but you and I both know by whom its lent

and that its right here in the dirt

where we’ve both been loved and hurt

that Love Himself has come to pitch His tent

 

sometimes we’re in the fields of holy roses

other times we’re rolling in the tares

breaking bread and sharing wine

did I feel your hand touch mine

or did we both touch angels unawares?

 

Abraham’s down by the oaks of Mamre

and Joseph dreams beside an empty barn

theres a woman by the well with dreams no man can tell

though a broken man might keep her safe from harm

Theres someone else inside this fiery furnace

and Jacob’s gazing up those endless stairs

we are wounded on the road, but we share each others load,

and make each other angels unawares

 

Everybody backs into the future

everyone’s just feeling for it blind

sometimes we get lost and the threads of our lives get crossed

but I’m sure glad yours got tangled up with mine

the day is gone and I know I should be going

theres barely light enough to say our prayers

ah but give me leave the while for to turn and see you smile

and leave to love like angels unawares

and leave to love like angels unawares

 

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Summer Tour part 2: Whistler, Orcas, and a CD!

With Roy Salmond and the new CD!

With Roy Salmond and the new CD!

I ought to begin this post by apologising for the strange little missive of indiscriminate gobbledygook which some of you may have glimpsed on these pages and even received in your emails. This was neither a rash experiment in free verse, nor, as some surmised, a bad translation of Welsh, but was in fact the free and random creation of the phone in my pocket! The mischievous little device not only switched itself on but also opened my wordpress app and managed to post its randomness to the world at large – perhaps my phone will in the end be due for its own literary prize!

But to return to something more deliberate, here is the second instalment of my North American Adventures. After my teaching stint at Regent and my joint reading with Luci Shaw my wife Maggie came out and joined me for 10 days holiday up in the mountains at Whistler where a kind friend had generously lent us his holiday house. Whistler is most famous as a ski resort and the scene of the Winter Olympics but it is also delightful in the summertime and home to a thriving colony of black bears some of whom we were fortunate to see whilst we were there. We hiked on trails, went wilderness canoing and took the impressive ‘gondola’ ride up to the top of whistler mountain and had a lovely walk up on the snowy heights.

Poetry: The original Olympic sport!

Poetry: The original Olympic sport!

I wrote no poetry whilst I was there, in a sense I felt the mountains were already doing it for me, but I took in great store of beautiful images which I hope will impress themselves into verse at some time in the future. I took occasion whilst I was up there to stand on the winter olympics podium and reinstate poetry as an olympic sport!

Another hi-light of this BC sojourn was meeting again with Roy Salmond the producer of my new CD ‘Songs and Sonnets’, which I know a number of you have kindly helped on its way through a crowdfunding page. and Behold! Roy had the CD fresh in his hand when we met. So it is in the world at last and there will be a more formal launch next month about which I will write in due course. I’m very happy with the result. Here is one of the poems I recorded for the CD ,which also contains songs and poems set to music:

Hospitality

 

I turn a certain key within its wards,

Unlock my doors and set them open wide

To entertain a company of words.

Whilst some come early and with eager stride

Others must be enticed and coaxed a little,

The shy and rare, unused to company,

Who’ll need some time to feel at home and settle.

I bid them welcome all, I make them free

Of all that’s mine, and they are good to me,

I set them in the order they like best

And listen for their wisdom, try to learn

As each unfolds the other’s mystery.

And though we know each word is my free guest,

They sometimes leave a poem in return.

With the indefatigable and ever-generous Jerry Root!

With the indefatigable and ever-generous Jerry Root!

Then, when the holiday was over we drove down to the States and took the ferry to Orcas Island where I spent a happy few days at the Kindlingsfest, speaking about the notion of Sabbath and rest and meeting with old friends. Amongst these was Jerry Root who had brought me the gift of an American College Football T-shirt bearing the legend ‘Fear the Poet’! This is a genuine football supporters’ shirt, apparently the emblem of the Whittier College football team is the poet after whom the college is named

Then began the next part of the adventure, a flight to Alberquerque and a wonderful week in Santa Fe and the chance to meet one of my favourite bands of all time: Over The Rhine! more about that in the next post.

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