The Good Riddle GK Chesterton

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

I am continuing my series of posts for Advent,  in which I read each day’s poem to accompany my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, alongside a series of reflective images kindly provided by Linda Richardson. In today’s poem, which is an extract from GK Chesterton’s Ballad of the white Horse I am continuing yesterday’s theme; the paradox that the God who is rightly our Lord and Master, comes to us, out of his sheer love, as a servant.

Linda writes about today’s image:

How beautifully the subject of servant continues from yesterday, but in this poem we are served by God, not through human hands but through the material of our bodies and the environment. Perhaps we consider our bodies as our own possessions, unique down to our very DNA. But here we can ponder the thought that God sealed our skull and made our ribs. We are the created ones, we don’t create ourselves however much contemporary culture tells us otherwise.

Making an image every day is quite a challenge on top of family and work life. I already had this image in the studio and felt it suited the poem very well as it has a bark-like surface hinting at oaks on the upland, and primordial slumber. The words that sprung into my mind were, ‘who…shall speak of the Holiest’, and Psalm 139, ‘thou hast knit me together in my mother’s womb.   I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’. I considered how I am a marvellous work, I am created by Him, utterly unique with my own fingerprint, and how His fingerprint is upon all His creation if only we took the time to see it. The art work was completed when I cut a square in the centre and placed a fingerprint upon it.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the title, and read my reflective essay in Waiting on the Word

From the Ballad of the White Horse

And well may God with the serving-folk

Cast in His dreadful lot;

Is not He too a servant,

And is not He forgot?

 

For was not God my gardener

And silent like a slave;

That opened oaks on the uplands

Or thicket in graveyard gave?

 

And was not God my armourer,

All patient and unpaid,

That sealed my skull as a helmet,

And ribs for hauberk made?

 

Did not a great grey servant

Of all my sires and me,

Build this pavilion of the pines,

And herd the fowls and fill the vines,

And labour and pass and leave no signs

Save mercy and mystery?

 

For God is a great servant,

And rose before the day,

From some primordial slumber torn;

But all we living later born

Sleep on, and rise after the morn,

And the Lord has gone away.

 

On things half sprung from sleeping,

All sleeping suns have shone,

They stretch stiff arms, the yawning trees,

The beasts blink upon hands and knees,

Man is awake and does and sees-

But Heaven has done and gone.

 

For who shall guess the good riddle

Or speak of the Holiest,

Save in faint figures and failing words,

Who loves, yet laughs among the swords,

Labours, and is at rest?

 

But some see God like Guthrum,

Crowned, with a great beard curled,

But I see God like a good giant,

That, laboring, lifts the world.

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Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For the 5th of December the poem I have chosen in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, is Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above, bodying forth so much of the poem, was created by Linda Richardson, who writes:

Sometimes a piece of art comes into your mind already complete. So it was with this work. I used the homely linen fabric as the base, and in the middle of the work there is a rip, a rift, burnt round the edges. Beneath that, orange paper glows at the centre. The fabric is stained and frayed and there are pine needles stitched into the work because they make excellent fire lighters. The text is taken from Bible pages, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11.) I embroidered the words, ‘What did I know’ onto the work and added some turquoise silk. There are also real ruby beads and one pearl.

For me, the poem addresses the perfectionist in us who would like home life to be an idyll of peace and love when in reality we are dealing with the warp and weft in the characters of the people we live with. Don’t we all relate in some way to ‘the chronic angers’? So often we neither understand nor appreciate, ‘love’s austere and lonely offices’, and I think of my own Dad who used to get up at five in the morning to do a post round before he opened his shop and post office in the village where I grew up in Yorkshire.

Whilst this work may not be beautiful in a traditional sense, I wanted to combine poor cotton threads and paper with ruby and pearl to make use of many different materials, just like the diversity of human experience. We know where some of the stains, rips and burns are in our lives and it is often our challenge to be enriched by the silk, the gems and the pearls of promise that we also find within ourselves and each other.

You can find you can find my short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

 

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

 

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

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A Sonnet for Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding, on his feast day

Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar's monument

Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar’s monument

Nicholas Ferrar

Nicholas Ferrar

The Church of England keeps December 4th as the feast day of Nicholas Ferrar, the devout Anglican who founded the Community of Little Gidding in the early seventeenth century. Ferrar was trying to find a fruitful via media between protestant and catholic understandings of what it is to be Christian. As a member of a reformed church he and his community were devoted to reading the scriptures in their own language, to sharing their faith, and to worshipping together in the beautiful services of the Book of Common Prayer. But he was also keen to preserve and explore the Catholic heritage of community life, the daily offices of prayer, and praise, the pattern of Benedictine work and prayer, rooted in the psalms and the gospels. in holding these together he was recovering and preserving what he called. ‘The right good old way’. His great friend George Herbert, from his death bed sent Ferrar the manuscript of all his poems, and it was Ferrar who published them for all of us. In the 1930s TS Eliot visited Little Gidding, and eventually enshrined the experience of prayer and awareness granted him there, in the poem Little Gidding, the last of the Four Quartets.

Ferrar died on the 4th December 1637, the day after Advent Sunday, at 1 am, the hour he had always risen for prayers, and my sonnet touches on that. Certainly the place in which he and his community kept prayer going at all times, recited the psalms, and lived out their gospel harmony, is still soaked in prayer, still, a place through which the eternal light shimmers into time, still, as the inscription on the chapel says, ‘The very gate of Heaven’.

I would like to dedicate this sonnet to the memory of Susan Gray, a friend and parishioner who loved Little Gidding, both the place and the poem. When I took her last communion to her in the Hospice, she spoke the line from Little Gidding ‘In my end is my beginning’.

This poem is now published by Canterbury Press in my collection Parable and Paradox

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

For Nicholas Ferrar

 

You died the hour you used to rise for prayer.

In that rich hush beneath all other sounds,

You rose at one and took the midnight air

Rising and falling on the wings and rounds

Of psalms and silence. The December stars

Shine clear above the Giddings, promised light

For those who dwell in darkness. Morning stirs

The household. From the folds of sleep, the late

Risers wake to find you gone, and pray

Through pain and grief to bless your journey home;

Those last glad steps in the right good old way

Up to the door where Love will bid you welcome.

Love draws us too, towards your grave and haven

We greet you at the very gate of Heaven.

 

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Annunciation by Scott Cairns

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

Yesterday we considered a poem by John Donne, today we pair and compare it with a poem of the same title by Scott Cairns. I draw out some of the parallels and differences in the brief essay on this poem in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word. The image above  was created by Linda Richardson in her book of visual responses to Waiting on the Word. Linda writes:

This poem spoke particularly to my Celtic ancestry and my earthy upbringing in a farming community. As children we spent good days outside throwing dried cow pats and crab apples at each other and stacking bales of hay. I confess that without Malcolm’s commentary I would have wallowed in the lovely words of this poem without necessarily returning to Genesis at all!

The work I made is on brown wrapping paper and is full of rich earth colours. I tore a hole in the paper, leaving the virgin white paper showing through and surrounding the hole with large stitches in thick embroidery cotton. It is meant to suggest a radiating of light, or perhaps a womb, or the homeliness of stitching.

You can find my short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle and you can hear me reading the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Annunciation by Scott Cairns

Deep within the clay, and O my people

very deep within the wholly earthen

compound of our kind arrives of one clear,

star-illumined evening a spark igniting

once again the tinder of our lately

banked noetic fire. She burns but she

is not consumed. The dew lights gently,

suffusing the pure fleece. The wall comes down.

And—do you feel the pulse?—we all become

the kindled kindred of a King whose birth

thereafter bears to all a bright nativity.

 

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Annunciation by John Donne

Annunciation by Linda Richardson

Annunciation by Linda Richardson

The poem I have chosen for December 3rd in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, is The Annunciation by John Donne, and once again it is accompanied by a beautiful illustration from the book of responses to these poems by Linda Richardson. She writes:

The imagery of The Annunciation is richly grounded in our Western consciousness. It is always a challenge for an artist to invent something new but I kept within the tradition, painting the girl and the angel. Mary is sitting on the floor clutching her shawl around her in an entirely human reaction to an incomprehensible encounter. The angel’s hand reaches from its heavenly page on the right into Mary’s world, the page on the left. I made the journal in a book about interior design and there was a small reptile printed on the page. I kept this in the painting and you will see it just below Mary. I included it as a nod to the traditional imagery of Mary with her foot on the serpent’s head alluding to the prophecy of the coming of the Messiah, the ‘seed of the woman’, who will crush the ancient serpent. (Genesis 3)The quality of the paper is very poor and later I painted the image again, this time on canvas. In this painting neither the angel or the girl are seen. I wonder if this image speaks more powerfully to the spirit as it hints at emptiness, emptiness of the womb and the emptiness of our spirits as we wait to receive the gift of God.

Lao Tze says that it is a pot’s emptiness that makes the vessel useful, a room’s emptiness that allows us to inhabit it. And I wonder if it reminds you of Jesus Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit...’ It is not our fullness, our cleverness or our horde of knowledge that gain us the kingdom, but our poverty.

Linda's second painting

Linda’s second painting

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button and find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

Annunciation

Salvation to all that will is nigh;

That All, which always is all everywhere,

Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,

Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,

Lo! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie

In prison, in thy womb; and though He there

Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,

Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres time was created thou

Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;

Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now

Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,

Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room

Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.

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The Moons by Grevel Lindop

The Moons, image by Linda Richardson

The Moons, image by Linda Richardson

Here is the poem set for the 2nd December in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, The Moons comes from Grevel Lindop‘s latest collection of poems Luna Park (which I highly recommend!) and is used with his permission

You can read my brief essay on this beautiful poem in Waiting on the Word, and click on either the title or the ‘play button below to hear me read it. Linda Richardson writes about her image:

‘Here it is, distant gleam on the page of a book.’ These final words were the ones that jumped out for me as I responded to this poem, and also Malcolm’s comment, ‘offered to a companion in the darkness of our common journey’. So my starting point was night time, the soul’s time, when light gleams through our consciousness in dreaming. The poem spoke to me of memory and the sharing of life with someone, not the immediacy of sense experience. To paint a moonlight image was too immediate so I let the words literally gleam in white ink on black paper. In this way I felt that it was keeping the integrity of the poem, that our memories are uniquely our own, and we will recall them either for enriching or impoverishing our lives and the lives of those who are on our common journey.I noticed that it was she who saw and brought him to seeing. It was the feminine leading the masculine away from the desk of the intellect, to step out into the dark womb of the night and to apprehend a phenomenon of nature, the wonder of the reflected light of the sun at night. I am left with the wonder of the contrasts in our lives, the light and dark, the male and female, all the many different parts that form one body and one spirit.


The Moons by Grevel Lindop

Too many moons to fill an almanac:

the half, the quarters, and the slices between

black new and silvercoin full –

pearl tossed and netted in webs of cloud,

thread of light with the dull disc in its loop,

gold shaving afloat on the horizon of harvest –

How many times did you call me from the house,

or from my desk to the window, just to see?

Should I string them all on a necklace for you?

Impossible, though you gave them all to me.

Still some of their light reflects from memory.

Here it is, distant gleam on the page of a book.

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The Glance by George Herbert

The Glance -Linda Richardson

The Glance -Linda Richardson

For the 1st of December the poem I have chosen in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, is The Glance by George Herbert. The illustration above is the first in a series of responses to the book made by Linda Richardson which she has kindly agreed to share with readers of my blog. She writes:

The images that accompany the poetry in Waiting on the Word were part of my spiritual discipline last year, Advent 2015. I made an image every day, so they are experimental, sometimes impulsively done, often inspired by the work of other artists. If I had known they would be shown here, I probably wouldn’t have had the freedom to make one every day. I am delighted to show them, and to tell you how they came about, and would like to encourage you to have a go too. As I come to reflect upon my own work a year later, I can see nuances that I hadn’t intended, areas where my subconscious by-passed my mind and made artistic decisions that have only been revealed as I return to them now, twelve months later.

Here are Linda’s notes on today’s image:

One night, when I was very young, maybe as young as four, I had a strange and deep experience. I got up to sit near the storage heater in the bedroom I shared with my sister, drawn there by the little light and by the warmth. As I sat there I was overwhelmed with a feeling of utter joy, happiness and deep reassurance that I was part of something safe and deeply good.

I didn’t relate that experience to God and as I grew up, religion taught me that I could not trust myself, that God was watching me from a distance, and watching out for my sin. The experience I had as a child was not mediated to me through religion, but as I have continued in a religious tradition I can now see that child’s experience as God’s glance of love.

Meister Eckhart says: ‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.

In the very simple work I made as a response to the George Herbert’s The Glance, there are two eyes but one face, two tones of paper but one experience, and as I sit in daily meditation, I do so both in darkness and in light. God is the mystery that no-one wants, the mystery we see, ‘through a glass darkly’ (1 Corinthians). These days I mostly ‘see God face to face’ when I am outside watching the soaring flight of a flock of birds or hear a robin in winter. You may see The Glance as you lift a baby’s foot to your lips, or watch two elderly people walking along holding hands. Perhaps we see God in these diverse ways because, ‘We shall be like him for we shall see Him as He is’. (1 Corinthians).

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. You can also find  a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

The Glance

When first thy sweet and gracious eye

Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night

To look upon me, who before did lie

Weltring in sinne;

I felt a sugred strange delight,

Passing all cordials made by any art,

Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart,

And take it in.

 

Since that time many a bitter storm

My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,

Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm

His swing and sway:

But still thy sweet originall joy

Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,

And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll,

And got the day.

 

If thy first glance so powerfull be,

A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;

What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see

Thy full-ey’d love!

When thou shalt look us out of pain,

And one aspect of thine spend in delight

More then a thousand sunnes disburse in light,

In heav’n above.

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