‘In The Midst Of Thy Temple’: A Response To Psalm 48

Psalm 48 is a celebration of the city of Zion and the temple in her midst, a celebration of the covenant promise that God would faithfully meet his people there. For a Christian this psalm takes on a new significance. Firstly because we know that the Temple, the meeting place of God and his people was a archetype and foreshadowing of Christ, who would himself be the temple, the meeting place of God and the whole of humanity. And secondly because of the wonderful truth that when we are members of the body of Christ, whose body is the true temple, then we ourselves, both body and soul, become a temple of the Holy Spirit, that Christ himself comes into us to a abide with us and in us. No longer need we travel to some outer destination to meet with God, but need only turn inward to find that ‘in our hearts are the highways to Zion’. The temple is already there within us, and Christ is waiting, deep in the mystery of our own heart and soul, if only we will enter those depths and find him. And there, in the depth of our own being he will meet with us, to cleanse us and renew us.

This is especially good news for us as Covid tightens its grip and lockdown looms again. If we are self-isolating, or if our churches are closed again, we can find him in our own hearts and homes where there will be no social distancing, only spiritual intimacy.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVIII Magnus Dominus

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home

Not just the hill of Sion, but the whole

Round world. Call him from anywhere, he’ll

 

Come to you and make his dwelling. Hail

Him in any language, he replies

In your own mother-tongue. For now your soul

 

Is his true Sion, and each day you rise

Already in the city of your God.

So mark the towers and temples, and apprise

 

Again the beauty of your new abode.

Your soul is greater than you ever knew:

Walk round its walls, then take the holy road

 

That winds towards its centre, where the new

Temple of his spirit shines and stands,

Where Christ himself is there to welcome you.

 

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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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He Is The Great King: a response to Psalm 47

If there was a struggle in the midst of trials, that issued in the hard-won hope of psalm 46, then that hope and confidence flowers into a great hymn of praise and joy in psalm 47, a hymn that rings with greater assurance precisely because it follows on from the struggles of the preceding psalm. Psalm47 is often set by Christians as a psalm for Ascension Day, especially with its ringing line, so often set to music:

God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump.

But to my mind the real joy of psalm 47 is not so much that he has gone up as that he has also come down. The great revelation here is that, though heaven is, in one sense, still to come, we can nevertheless begin rejoicing now because God has not abandoned us here on earth but has already come down to be our king and kindle our hope. So the key line for me is the second verse, which acknowledges that though the Lord is high and transcendent, the glorious king of heaven, he is also, ultimately, the king here on earth:

For the Lord is high, and to be feared: he is the great King upon all the earth.

Indeed psalm 47 begins a little sequence of psalms that anticipate the way that, in Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, heaven and earth can finally be brought together, and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. And that insight provided the key to my interpretation of this psalm.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVII Omnes gentes, plaudite

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease

He must be king of earth as well as heaven

We must invite him here, to make his peace

 

Within us and between us, that forgiven,

We may release forgiveness here on earth,

Working and spreading like a holy leaven,

 

A secret of the kingdom, heaven’s breath,

A kindling from the place where Christ is king

For he has triumphed and defeated death

 

And even now he calls our hearts to sing

Sing praises in the kingdom still to come

And in the one already here, to bring,

 

Ourselves, our arts and music, trumpet, drum

And tabor, all to make a merry noise,

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home!

 

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Hildegard of Bingen: A Sonnet

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

The 17th of September is the feast day of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable and prophetic woman, who described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’, and whose many works in theology, music, visual art, poetry and drama are still inspiring people today. Indeed she is coming more and more into her own, as one of her key ideas ‘Viriditas’, or the greening and life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit, seems especially apposite for our time. See this page on her by a contemporary Benedictine.

The photo below is by Margot Krebs Neale

I wrote this sonnet at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire. It is published in my second volume of poetry The Singing Bowl, Canterbury Press,  available on Amazon in both the US and the UK

As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.

Hildegard of Bingen

A feather on the breath of God at play,

You saw the play of God in all creation.

You drew eternal light into each day,

And every living breath was inspiration.

You made a play with every virtue playing,

Made music for each sister-soul to sing,

Listened for what each herb and stone was saying,

And heard the Word of God in everything.

 

Mother from mother earth and Magistra, 

Your song revealed God’s hidden gift to us;

The verdant fire, his holy harbinger

The greening glory of viriditas.

‘Cherish this earth that keeps us all alive’

Either we hear you, or we don’t survive.

 

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

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God Is Our Hope And Strength: A Response to Psalm 46

Today we come to Psalm 46 which is is a firm favourite with many people and for good reason. Its opening line sets the theme of God’s reassuring strength and presence:

  1. GOD is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble.

It is in the context of that reassuring strength and confidence that we can face our fears and deal with what the prayer book calls ‘ all the changes and chances of this fleeting world’ and 2020 is certainly a year in which we have seen more than our fair share of those changes and chances. And so the psalm continues:

Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved: and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof rage and swell: and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God: the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest.

God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed: God shall help her, and that right early.

And then, towards the end comes the wonderful prophecy of peace, and the vision of God as peacemaker:

He maketh wars to cease in all the world: he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder, and burneth the chariots in the fire.

It was through Mary’s obedience that the Prince of Peace was born into this world, so I pick up the thread of the final line of my poem on psalm 45 to begin this poem, a poem for strength and encouragement written in the midst of this appalling year in which it seems, as I say in the poem, that ‘everything around us falls apart’. Everything except our loving God.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVI Deus noster refugium

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation,

For God was in the midst of her, and now

We too are called, in every generation

 

To find in him our hope and strength, though

Everything around us falls apart,

And all our towering schemes have been laid low

 

Now is the time to take his truth to heart

And to be glad within the holy place

That he himself has made in us. To start

 

Each day with him, abiding in his grace

As he abides with us. To know his peace

To turn towards his light and seek his face

 

And let his flowing spirit find release

And flow through us into his weary world

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease.

 

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‘Hearken O Daughter’: a Response to Psalm 45

After another brief break, this time for a pilgrimage to Canterbury and beyond, I resume the love-worn thread of the time-worn psalter, and we come now to psalm 45. In making my response I was tempted, of course, by its famous phrase ‘My tongue is the pen of a ready writer’ to write about writing itself and make a poem about poetry. But there is an older and richer tradition of interpretation for this psalm and I was drawn to that instead. That older tradition is to draw from this psalm some phrases and images that help us appreciate and bless Mary, the mother of our Lord. The scripture tells us that all generations will call her blessed and rightly so. Scholars think this psalm, with its image of the kings daughters, the handmaidens, the queen in a vesture of gold, may well have been set for a royal wedding, but from early on Christians found themselves thinking of Mary when they read it, and so I have taken occasion of this psalm to write another poem in her honour. I was brought up in the reformed tradition, which tended to ignore Mary in reaction to what they thought was Catholic ‘mariolotary’ but anyone who venerates Jesus must stand in awe of the one through whose obedience and courage he came into the world, the one to whom God entrusted his upbringing, and who, in Luke’s gospel, is filled with the spirit and speaks prophetic words. There is a deep sense in which every Christian must be like Mary and say to God ‘ Be it unto me according to thy word’, and like Mary, try to bear Christ fruitfully into the world and bring others to him.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLV Eructavit cor meum

And still we live as if we have forgotten

But someone keeps all these things in her heart.

Who bore for us the only one begotten,

 

The Son of God. And now she takes our part

And calls us to remember all his mercy

Calls us with all our skill, and all our art

 

To magnify his name, for it is holy

For now she dwells with him, in joy and gladness,

The Mystic Rose of heaven, once so lowly

 

Whose heart was also pierced, who feels our sadness

And shows us how to pray. Each generation

Has known her help and presence, heard her witness

 

The great things done through her. In every nation

She nurtures those who bear Christ to the world,

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation.

 

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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.

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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Smitten Into the Place Of Dragons: A Response to Psalm 44

After a much needed holiday, internet free in the remote parts of the Norfolk Broads, I am back and taking up again, the poetic thread of my journey through the psalms. We come now to psalm 44, a psalm at once of despair and hope, and a challenging psalm for  Christians to read. It speaks to our moments of despair because it describes the experience of feeling that God is ‘far off’ or even absent, and it laments the experience of defeat that we often endure in the world:

But now thou art far off, and puttest us to confusion: and goest not forth with our armies.

Thou makest us to turn our backs upon our enemies: so that they which hate us spoil our goods.

Thou lettest us be eaten up like sheep: and hast scattered us among the heathen.

And yet it also renews our hope for it invokes the very presence whose absence it laments:

Up, Lord, why sleepest thou: awake, and be not absent from us for ever.

But it is challenging because its context is battle and warfare, and we are rightly wary of invoking God to be partisan in our own bloody and sinful conflicts. One way for a Christian to read these battle psalms is to see them in the context not of our partial conflicts but of the ultimate struggle between good and evil whose front line runs through the centre of every human heart. In that ultimate and cosmic struggle Christ has already won the victory, and won it, not by bloody conquest, shedding the blood of others, but by shedding his own heart’s blood for all of us on the cross. The psalmist here complains that we have been ‘smitten into the place of dragons’ and ‘covered with the shadow of death’, but it is Christ who can really pray that line, for he entered death’s abode and fought with the devil, ‘that old dragon’ for all of us, and so my psalm ends with the passion and victory of Christ, which is, and always was, our only true hope.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLIV Deus, auribus

The living fountain whence I drink my fill,

Must rise in me before I sing this psalm

How could it ever be God’s Holy will

 

To raise an army, to inflict the harm

The special horror of a holy war

How could we ever conquer in his name?

 

Oh Jesus, did you sing this psalm before

You girded strength to brave your agony,

To fight the only holy battle for

 

The world you loved, and heal the misery

Of all mankind? As for us you were smitten

Into the place of dragons, victory

 

Was won for all of us, as it is written

And so in Christ shall all be made alive

And still we live as if we have forgotten.

 

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The Quarantine Quatrains: A Limited Edition for The Care Worker’s Charity!

One of Roger Wagner’s illustrations for The Quarantine Quatrains

I am delighted to announce the fruition of a a special project that the artist Roger Wagner and I have been working on together for the last couple of months. You will remember that I have been composing some ‘Quarantine Quatrains’ , in the metre of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, as a kind of ‘New Rubaiyat’ for our times. Happily this caught the attention of the excellent artist Roger Wagner, and, since the original Rubaiyat was so often published with beautiful illustrations, often exquisite Persian miniatures, Roger kindly agreed to make a beautiful set of seven ‘miniatures’, on Nepalese paper, illustrating and commenting on the text of my poem. As the final section of that poem is an elegy for the care workers who died of Covid themselves in the course of saving other people’s lives, we decided to dedicate this book to them and to donate our work on it, so that all profits, after the costs of printing, posting and packaging, could go to The Care Workers Charity. We engaged the Parchment Press in Oxford to produce a booklet with the poem and Roger’s illustrations beautifully reproduced, in a limited run of 6oo, numbered, and signed by both of us. By selling this at £15 inclusive of post and packaging (including postage to North America!), we hope to raise at least £5000 for The Careworker’s Charity.

So on this occasion, rather than buying me a coffee, why don’t you buy yourself this beautiful booklet, and at the same time support the care workers who are helping to get us all through this crisis. you can do so from this page on Roger’s website HERE 

Here, as a taster, is the final section of the poem with Roger’s beautiful illustration and embedded below that is a film, edited by Roger, in which the two of us discuss our inspiration for this project, and which also features a song setting of this section of the poem.

Roger Wagner’s Illustration of this final section

VII

35

At close of day I hear the gentle rain

Whilst experts on the radio explain

Mind-numbing numbers, rising by the day,

Cyphers of unimaginable pain

36

Each evening they announce the deadly toll

And patient voices calmly call the roll

I hear the numbers, cannot know the names

Behind each number, mind and heart and soul

37

Behind each number one belovèd face

A light in life whom no-one can replace,

Leaves on this world a signature, a trace,

A gleaning and a memory of grace

38

All loved and loving, carried to the grave

The ones whom every effort could not save

Amongst them all those carers whose strong love

Bought life for others with the lives they gave.

39

The sun sets and I find myself in prayer

Lifting aloft the sorrow that we share

Feeling for words of hope amidst despair

I voice my vespers through the quiet air:

40

O Christ who suffers with us, hold us close,

Deep in the secret garden of the rose,

Raise over us the banner of your love

And raise us up beyond our last repose.

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Bring Me To Thy Holy Hill: A Response To Psalm 43

Oh Jesus, show me once again the path out of my sadness

In many respects psalm 43 is a direct continuation of psalm 42, indeed some editions run them together, so this pairing of psalm 41/42 is a good place for my choice of the ‘corona’ form for this sequence of poems in which the last line of each poem forms the first line of the next, and at the end of my response to 43 I return to the image of the living waters which was central to my poem on psalm 42

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLIII Judica me, Deus

Shucked of the husk of all my wasted years

I long to step forth, free of all encumbrance

To set aside the heaviness, the tears,

 

The sin that clings so close, the doleful hindrance

Of resentment and regret, to let them go

Roll them below the cross, as Christian once

 

Did in his pilgrim’s progress. Then I‘d know

A lighter step once more, the joy and gladness

The psalmist longs for here. Oh Jesus, show

 

Me once again the path out of my sadness

And set my steps back on your holy hill,

Send out your light and truth to be my witness

 

And since I cannot climb by my own will

Abide with me and be my will, my strength,

The living fountain whence I drink my fill.

 

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