A Sonnet for Ascension Day

 Here is a sonnet for Ascension Day, the glorious finale of the Easter Season.

In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon Him. And since His humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him.”For you have died”, says St. Paul, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours.  The sonnet form seemed to me one way to begin to tease these things out.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are also available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem.

I’m grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above, the image below was taken as we launched rockets to celebrate Ascension day at Girton College:

We have lift off!

Ascension

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

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A Sonnet for Julian of Norwich

saintj85The 8th of May is the feast day of Julian of Norwich, sometimes known as Mother Julian or Lady Julian. She was an English Mystic of the late fourteenth Century, living as an Anchoress in Norwich. Her Shewings, or Revelations of Divine Love, a series of mystical visions of and conversations with Jesus, remain a source of profound wisdom and a gift to the church, present and future. For a good introduction to her work I recommend Julia Bolton Holloway’s website, she is herself an anchoress in Florence, and Robert Llewlyn’s classic work ‘With Pity, not With Blame, now reprinted by the Canterbury Press.

This poem is from my book The Singing Bowl which you can buy on Amazon or order from any good bookshop. I am posting this a day early in case anyone would like to use it in services tomorrow. Please feel free to do so, just include a brief acknowledgement that it comes from ‘The Singing Bowl’, Canterbury Press, 2013. Thanks

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

Mother Julian

 

Show me O anchoress, your anchor-hold

Deep in the love of God, and hold me fast.

Show me again in whose hands we are held,

Speak to me from your window in the past,

Tell me again the tale of Love’s compassion

For all of us who fall onto the mire,

How he is wounded with us, how his passion

Quickens the love that haunted our desire.

Show me again the wonder of at-one-ment

Of Christ-in-us distinct and yet the same,

Who makes, and loves, and keeps us in each moment,

And looks on us with pity not with blame.

Keep telling me, for all my faith may waver,

Love is his meaning, only love, forever.

1413

From the Amhurst Manuscript of Julian’s showings

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English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era

Latimer’s Pulpit, you can touch the wood.

On May the 4th the Church of England celebrates the witness of the Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation Era. What is significant about this day is that we are not simply remembering ‘our own’ martyrs, those like Cramner, Ridley and Latimer, who died for maintaining adherence to the Church of England in the face of Roman Catholic persecution. We are also remembering those Roman Catholics who died at the hands of Protestants for maintaining their Faith and allegiance. We are recognizing that there was true Godliness and great courage in martyrs on both sides of that divide, and therefore also recognizing that there was terrible error and great evil committed by those who ordered the martyrdoms on both sides! It is a salutary lesson in humility; personal humility as one stands in awe of the holiness and courage of those who witnessed unto the point of death, but also corporate humility, humility and repentance for the Church as an Institution as we remember how Christians have turned so swiftly from being oppressed to becoming oppressors.

To mark this day I am reposting two sonnets; Latimer’s Pulpit which celebrates Hugh Latimer a Martyr associated with my former church of St. Edwards, and The Gathered Glories, a sonnet from Sounding the Seasons, which celebrates the many unknown saints who have passed through their great tribulation and now shine in glory around the throne of the Lamb.

Here first is a preliminary note about the pulpit described in the first poem:

It is known as Latimer’s Pulpit,  for Hugh Latimer the great Saint and Martyr preached there often, and it was in this pulpit that he preached the famous sermon of the card, to which my sonnet alludes.

In that sermon he imagines that we are losing a card game with the devil. One after another he lays out the black suit of our sins, he holds all the cards and is ready to take the ‘trick’ of our souls, but Christ leans forward and lays on top of all those sins the trump card that wins us back; the king of hearts, for in a universe where God is love, then love is always trumps. At the end of the sermon he exhorts his hearers to do for others what Christ has done for them. When people deal you cards of malice, hate, or envy always and only reply by trumping hate with love. His great love, even of his enemies, shone through when he was burned at the stake for his faith in 1555. It is an extraordinary experience to touch the wood, and to stand in that pulpit and preach as I used to do each week.

And here are the poems, as always you can hear it by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title:

Latimer’s pulpit

Latimer’s pulpit, you can touch the wood,
Sound for yourself the syllables of grace
That sounded and resounded through this place;
A quickened word, a kindling for good
In evil times; when malice held the cards
And played them, in the play of politics,
When knaves with knives were taking all the tricks,
When Christendom was shivered into shards,
When King and Queen were pitched in different camps,
When burning books could stoke the fire for men,
When such were stacked against him –even then
Latimer knew that hearts alone are trumps.
He gave the King of Hearts his proper name,
He touched this wood, and kindled love to flame.

//

The Gathered Glories

Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards

Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,

It glances from the eyes, kindles the words

Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright

With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,

The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.

Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing

He weaves them with us in the web of being

They stand beside us even as we grieve,

The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,

Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above

The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,

To triumph where all saints are known and named;

The gathered glories of His wounded love.

‘Each shard still shines’ image by Margot Krebs Neal

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are also available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.

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A Sonnet for St. Mark’s Day

A winged lion, swift immediate

The 25th of April is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist,  so I  am posting again my sonnet on St. Mark’s Gospel, one of a set of four sonnets on each of the four evangelists. For each of these sonnets I have meditated on the way the traditional association of each of the evangelists with one of the ‘four living creatures’ round the throne helps us to focus on the particular gifts and emphasis of that Gospel writer. For a good account of this tradition click here. Mark is the lion. There is a power, a dynamic a swiftness of pace in Mark’s Gospel, his favourite word is ‘immediately’! and that suits the lion. His Gospel starts in the wilderness and that suits it too.

But the great paradox in Mark is that the Gospel writer who shows us Christ at his most decisive, powerful, startling and leonine is also the one who shows us  how our conquering lion, our true Aslan, deliberately entered into suffering and passion, the great ‘doer’ letting things be done unto him. In this sonnet, I am especially indebted to WH Vanstone’s brilliant reading of this aspect of Mark in his wonderful book The Stature of Waiting.

For all four ‘Gospel’ sonnets I have also drawn on the visual imagery of the Lindesfarne Gospels, as in the one illustrated above.

This sonnet is drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are also available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.

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

Mark

A wingèd lion, swift, immediate

Mark is the gospel of the sudden shift

From first to last, from grand to intimate,

From strength  to weakness, and from debt to gift,

From a wide deserts haunted emptiness

To a close city’s fervid atmosphere,

From a voice crying in the wilderness

To angels in an empty sepulcher.

And Christ makes the most sudden shift of all;

From swift action as a strong Messiah

Casting the very demons back to hell

To slow pain, and death as a pariah.

We see our Saviour’s life and death unmade

And flee his tomb dumbfounded and afraid.

 

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Hatley St. George; a poem for St. George’s Day

St. George’s Day and my thoughts turn again to Hatley St. George. If St. George, as our patron saint inspires English patriotism, then I’d say my own patriotism is about loving the little particularites of my native land. Not the big political rhetoric or the aggrandising imperial history, but the patchwork of little parishes and quiet shires. That’s one of the reasons why I love little mediaeval church dedicated to St. George in the village of Hatley St. George, not far from here.

Though the church goes back to the fourteenth century , in the late sixties it suffered the apparent misfortune of a collapse in its sanctuary which was declared unsafe and taken down. A new east wall was built but the architects had the wisdom to set in the new east window an arch of clear glass. For beyond that window, across the still sacred space of what had been choir and sanctuary, stands the most beautiful beech tree, which church-goers can see now in all its glory , through the changing seasons, simmering above their altar.

It’s a magical place, but like many such, struggling for survival and recognition. I originally wrote this poem both to celebrate the church and to help the cause. Do visit it if you can and support those who are working for its upkeep. One of the congregation has written this poem out in beautiful calligraphy and it is hanging on the wall there, and each summer I go and read it aloud for them as part of their summer fete. This poem is in my book The Singing Bowl which you can buy on Amazon or order from any good bookshop.

You can listen to me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. As you listen you will also hear the scatter of bright birdsong which lifted the early April morning where I read the poem in my little writing hut ‘The Temple of Peace’

the window of Hatley St. George

View through the window of Hatley St. George

Hatley St. George

Stand here a while and drink the silence in.
Where clear glass lets in living light to touch
And bless your eyes. A beech tree’s tender green
Shimmers beyond the window’s lucid arch.
You look across an absent sanctuary;
No walls or roof, just holy, open space,
Leading your gaze out to the fresh-leaved beech
God planted here before you first drew breath.

Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
You cannot stand as long and still as these;
This ancient beech and still more ancient church.
So let them stand, as they have stood, for you.
Let them disclose their gifts of time and place,
A secret kept for you through all these years.
Open your eyes. This empty church is full,
Thronging with life and light your eyes have missed.

Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
Shields of forgotten chivalry, and rolls
Of honour for the young men gunned at Ypres,
And other monuments of our brief lives
Stand for the presence here of saints and souls
Who stood where you stand, to be blessed like you;
Clouds of witness to unclouded light
Shining this moment, in this place for you.

Stand here awhile and drink their silence in.
Annealed in glass, the twelve Apostles stand
And each of them is keeping faith for you.
This roof is held aloft, to give you space,
By graceful angels praying night and day
That you might hear some rumour of their flight
That you might feel the flicker of a wing
And let your heart fly free at last in prayer.

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Easter Day: Station XV and a Villanelle

 

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

The Lord is Risen! He is risen indeed Alleluia!

On this Easter morning I have already posted George Herbert’s glorious Easter poem but I thought I would add a couple of my own; the fifteenth and final sonnet from my Stations of the Cross sequence, and a villanelle for Easter which I composed one dark morning last year whilst out walking my dog. Lancia Smith has made a beautiful image with lines from the new poem.

This sonnet, and the others I have been posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.

As usual you can hear the poems by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

XV Easter Dawn

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves

And now he blesses hers who stood and wept

And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s

Last touching place, but watched as low light crept

Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs

A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.

She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,

Or recognise the Gardener standing there.

She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,

Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light

That brightens as she chokes out her reply

‘They took my love away, my day is night’

And then she hears her name, she hears Love say

The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

 

On Easter Day 

As though some heavy stone were rolled away,

You find an open door where all was closed,

Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.

 

Lost in your own dark wood, alone, astray,

You pause, as though some secret were disclosed,

As though some heavy stone were rolled away.

 

You glimpse the sky above you, wan and grey,

Wide through these shadowed branches interposed,

Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.

 

Perhaps there’s light enough to find your way,

For now the tangled wood feels less enclosed,

As though some heavy stone were rolled away.

 

You lift your feet out of the miry clay

And seek the light in which you once reposed,

Wide as an empty tomb on Easter Day.

 

And then Love calls your name, you hear Him say:

The way is open, death has been deposed,

As though some heavy stone were rolled away,

And you are free at last on Easter Day.

 

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Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday by Linda Richardson

Happy Easter everyone!

Here is George Herbert’s beautiful Easter poem, together with my commentary on it from The Word in the Wilderness.

I am grateful to Linda Richardson who has given me permission to share with you her series of remarkable paintings, ‘The Faces of Holy Week’. These will be on display, together with my poems, in the resurrection chapel in St. Mary’s Linton throughout Holy Week, do look in and see them if you are in the area. You can also look at these paintings and others on Linda’s Webpage.

Linda writes about this picture:

For Easter day I tried to paint something that looks like an icon. An icon is not intended to show a real human face but is a simplification of composition and an absence of naturalism. Space and surface are emphasised, personal interpretation is eliminated and an icon is meant to be read as part of a religious practice.

The icon points us to the Divinity of Christ and as we come to Easter day we see Christ now with our “spiritual eyes”. Here Jesus is radiant with gold circling round his head and royal robes of blue. The incarnate One is now risen, and to me, he is once again the Word of God and the one we gaze on with the “eye of the heart”.

He is telling us that we too are children of the Light, that we come from the Light and we will return to the Light. We are the beloved of the Father.

As always you can hear me read the poem by Clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Easter   George Herbert

 

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise

Without delays,

Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise

With him mayst rise.

That, as his death calcined1 thee to dust,

His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

 

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.

The cross taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.

 

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song

Pleasant and long:

Or since all music is but three parts vied

And multiplied;

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,

And make up our defects with his sweet art.

 

I got me flowers to straw thy way:

I got me boughs off many a tree:

But thou wast up by break of day,

And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

 

The Sun arising in the East,

Though he give light, and th’East perfume;

If they should offer to contest

With thy arising, they presume.

 

Can there be any day but this,

Though many suns to shine endeavour?

We count three hundred, but we miss:

There is but one, and that one ever.

 

For the last poem in this journey together on this day of glorious beginnings we return to George Herbert who has been such a companion and guide to us throughout.

So much of George Herbert’s poetry is in a kind of hidden dialogue, a call and response with the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible that he knew so well. So in this poem his starting point is psalm 57.8−11, one of the proper psalms for Easter Day Matins, and especially verse 9:

 

Awake up, my glory, awake, lute and harp: I myself will awake right early.

 

Herbert responds to that psalmic injunction with the words ‘Rise Heart; thy Lord is risen’ and in the second verse, ‘Awake my Lute’! He has sung the psalm in his ‘common prayer’ his public worship, and now he is applying it within himself and to his whole day. But as so often, in that application, the personal becomes the present, the tactile, the deft, the courteous. The Risen Christ of Easter is not, in this first verse, the cosmic Pantocrator but the familiar friend or lover who offers you a hand as you rise in the morning:

 

Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise

With him mayst rise.

 

And then, in one of Herbert’s sudden luminous shifts, the poem takes an alchemical turn:

 

That, as his death calcined thee to dust,

His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

 

‘Calcined’ was the term used by alchemists for the fierce heat that burns away any impurity, bringing whatever passed through the flame to a purer state. So another poet of the time could write, ‘Yet you by a chaste Chimicke Art/Calcine frail love to pietie’ (William Habington, in Wilcox, year, p. 141). And after that ‘calcining’ experience of Good Friday, Easter brings the great transmutation of which Herbert had spoken in his other alchemical poem, The Elixir, ‘this is the famous stone that turneth all to gold’. But the transformative element is not a fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’, it is new life in Jesus Christ: ‘His life may make thee gold’

So in the first verse Herbert calls on his heart to rise. He echoes the psalm of Matins, even as he is preparing himself for the Eucharist with its ‘Sursum Corda’; ‘lift up your hearts’

Now in the second verse, again following the morning psalm, he calls upon his Lute:

 

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.

 

And here he leaves alchemy behind and begins some beautifully extended musical metaphors. First with the daring and beautiful idea that

 

The cross taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

 

Terse lines evoke a kind of mystical empathy in which even the wood of his own lute is somehow blessed and transformed in the blessing of all wood when the maker of the world was stretched on the tree. And that stretching itself leads to another, and even more daring metaphor:

 

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.

 

The stretched strings of lute and viol were, of course in Herbert’s day, literally visceral and organic lines of gut which, stretched and struck, set up a sympathetic resonance in the wood. Indeed this whole poem is itself a kind of theology of resonance; of our tuned response to the striking music of Christ’s sacrifice. Herbert’s own language here is extraordinarily sensitive and resonant, so ‘The cross taught all wood to resound his name’ carries in the word ‘taught’ also the sense of the tautness of the strings evoked in the next few lines. Even on Easter Day Herbert looks back to good Friday and in the light of Easter sees Christ’s ‘stretched sinew’ on the cross making a new music.

So Herbert’s heart and lute are brought together in a ‘consort’, a word which meant both a musical ensemble and a social harmony. But is it enough? No, in the third verse Herbert brings in, draws in, the Spirit, the breath that Jesus exhaled to bring us new life. He does so through another fine musical metaphor. The basis of all harmony is the triad, all music is ‘but three parts, vied and multiplied’ so Herbert needs a third part, to join lute and heart and invokes the Spirit:

 

O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,

And make up our defects with his sweet art.

 

The heart is our inner feeling, the lute is the art and skill with which those inner feelings find outward expression, but neither is complete without the Spirit that gives life to all, that prays within us when we do not know how to pray. And here the Spirit comes, not as an overwhelming or overmastering experience from above, but alongside us, as a fellow musician who has come with us to ‘bear a part’.

So now, at the end of the first part of the poem Herbert is awake, his lute is tuned, he has found in the spirit an accompanist and he is ready to begin the song, and it is the song itself which forms the second part of the poem.

This lovely lyric adapts the courtly tradition of the Aubade, the lovers poem at dawn, and here Herbert playfully suggests that even the ‘Sun arising in the East’ would be presumptuous to compete or contend with the rising of this true Son. Indeed the final verse claims that Easter Day is the only day; ‘Can there be any day but this? … we count three hundred but we misse’ he says, meaning the three hundred and fifty (rounded to three hundred) days of the year are wrongly counted! ‘we misse’! there is only ever one day, the true Easter.

We have been travelling together in this book through forty eight days together, but if George Herbert is right it has only been one day! From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection and by its light we can look back over our long pilgrimage and see the glory of this day, hidden once, but shining now, in all we have been through.

 

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