Category Archives: christianity

Lent with Herbert Day 19: Gladness of the Best

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have completed Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into bliss, a bliss which is all the more  real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow, and in our last post we saw how Herbert focused that ascent and centred it in Christ in the single image ‘Exalted Manna’.

Now, having been lifted up by Christ, he has a chance to look around and be glad, to delight again in the goodness of God’s creation as well as the wonder of his grace and mercy. Indeed Herbert’s declaration that prayer is ‘gladness of the best’ is fully comprehensive and inclusive. Rather like the General Thanksgiving, it includes ‘our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life’, but also ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory’.

When I came to respond to this phrase in my sonnet sequence I found myself drawn to the word gladness itself, to the sheer glad sound of the word. It is striking that after ‘Manna’ which is a specifically religious word, Herbert chooses ‘gladness’, whose associations, for most of us, are as much ‘secular’ as ‘spiritual’. As for me, I can’t hear the word glad without at the same time hearing the glorious sound of The Beatles singing that word, singing ‘you know you should be glad’. So I decided to celebrate that memory in my response to Herbert’s phrase.

It so happened that shortly after I wrote this poem, I found myself recording some poetry and songs in Studio 2 in Abbey Road, as part of another project, and so I had the special pleasure of reading this ‘Abbey Road’ sonnet in a place that inspired it!

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

Gladness of the best

If prayer itself is gladness of the best,

Then all the best in everything is prayer.

Everything excellent, from east to west,

The best of sacred, best of secular,

The Beatles sing you know you should be glad

And that glad song is gladness of the best,

You know you’re loved, you know that can’t be bad,

Your once-lost love is found and you are blessed.

 

From that exultant sound in Abbey Road

To jubilation in the Albert Hall,

From well-honed phrases, to a well-wrought ode,

Whatsoever things are lovely, all

Brought to the source of every excellence,

That God might give them back as sacraments.

you know you should be glad!

10 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems

Lent with Herbert Day 18: Exalted Manna

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we have just completed Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into bliss, a bliss which is all the more  real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. We made this ascent by following Herbert’s steps upward in the single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

Now, in the first phrase that follows on that line, Herbert sums it all up in the single image ‘Exalted Manna’. This is a particularly rich and densely packed moment in his poem and is Herbert’s way of saying that the whole ascent we have just completed was in fact enabled and given by Christ himself. The first point of reference for this image is of course the story in Exodus of how God gave the children of Israel the manna, the bread from heaven, to sustain them on their journey through the Wilderness. But Herbert quite rightly interprets this image through the teaching of Christ himself, in John’s Gospel chapter 6, where Jesus identifies himself with that manna, or rather shows that the bread from Heaven in the Old Testament was a sign or foreshadowing of God’s final gift of the true Bread from heaven, Jesus Christ himself:

32 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.33 For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.35 And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst…40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.

So Christ is the true Manna, and he who came down is also the one who is raised up; first on the cross (John 3:14), and then in the resurrection and ascension, the one who, through his death and resurrection and will raise up all who trust themselves to him.

This link, made by Christ himself between the manna in the wilderness and his gift of himself to the world, and more specifically the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist (John 6:51-57), is the reason why the church chose to make communion wafers thin and white as a visual reference back to manna, and is also the reason why the priest elevates the consecrated wafer and shows it to the people as they make Eucharist together.  All these things were in my mind as I came to make my poetic response to Herbert’s phrase Exalted Manna, but as you will see ,the deepest connection for me, indeed one of my deepest connections with Herbert, is that like him I am a priest who has the awe-inspiring experience of raising up that consecrated host knowing that all the time it is Christ himself who holds and raises us.

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

Exalted Manna

I love to lift you in the Eucharist,

For you descended to the depth for me,

You stooped beneath the whole weight of the world,

And held it as the nails drove through each wrist,

You Held us all through your long agony,

Held all the taunts and curses that we hurled

Held all our hurts deep in your heart for healing

And when we lifted you onto your cross

You lifted all of us up to the Father

And made your outspread arms a sign, revealing

God’s all-sustaining love, that bears our loss,

Becomes our daily bread, calls as to gather

Each love, as manna in the wilderness.

So lift me as I lift you, lift and bless.

I love to lift you in the Eucharist

8 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems

Lent with Herbert Day 17: Bliss

After pausing for St. Patrick’s Day, we resume our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, Today we complete Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

The final step on Herbert’s ladder of ascent, which we have been climbing together these last five days, is Bliss. It may seem odd to be contemplating Bliss amidst all the sorrow and fear that surrounds us in this present crisis, but this is precisely the time when we need to lift our eyes to the Heavens, and contemplate that full and final bliss for which we are made. Herbert knew this well and of course his generation had to deal with several severe plague seasons, withdrawing from the fulness of their usual lives and sequestering themselves away, but such a time of crisis is just when faith deepens and just where the poetry comes from!

Like joy, bliss is almost impossible to write about, to put into words, it is beautiful, fleeting, not to be seized or grasped, or even sought, but only received as a sudden gift. As Eliot says of the experience ‘Quick, now, here, now, always/ a condition of complete simplicity’. In my poem I tried to evoke my own experience through particular glimpses and moments and to be true both to its brevity and its promise. For even the smallest moment of bliss seems to promise something more. As I came to compose the poem I found myself remembering one of Milton’s rare uses of this beautiful word in his Ode On Time, lines he wrote to be engraved on a clock. The poem begins ‘Fly envious Time till thou run out thy race’ but the lines that went to my heart, and which I was remembering when I wrote this poem were:

Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,

I loved that juxtaposition of the eternal and the personal, the infinite and the intimate, and I hope something of that comes across in my poem too.

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

Bliss

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss,

Love made this way, and lifts us up each stair,

Our maker knows that we were made for this:

The utter bliss that Heaven loves to share.

We glimpse it sometimes in another’s eyes,

We taste it sometimes on the tongues of prayer

It takes us wholly, takes us by surprise,

But grasping it, our arms clasp empty air.

 

Our bliss has vanished with a word of promise,

A sweet come-hither wave that offers more,

Each ecstasy has been a farewell kiss

That left us weeping on the hither shore.

Yet every passing moment whispers this:

Eternity shall love us into bliss.

Blake Jacob’s Ladder ‘Love made this way and lifts us up each stair’

4 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems

Lent with Herbert Day 16: Love

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we continue Herbert’s beautiful ascent back into joy, a joy which is all the more secure and real because it has passed through and transmuted sorrow. Herbert signals this in a single line:

Softness and peace and joy and love and bliss

Yesterday’s sonnet reflected on joy, and today it is the turn of love.

Any poet responding to Herbert’s use of the word Love, is immediately confronted by the fact that Herbert himself has written perhaps the greatest ever poem on the Divine Love that meets us in Christ, a poem in which Christ is simply named Love. After Herbert’s masterpiece Love (III) with which he ends his great sequence The Temple, there is, in one sense, nothing more to be said. So in responding to the word Love in my own sequence, it seemed to me that the only thing I could do was to begin with Herbert’s poem, and simply join in the moment of welcome with which it opens. ‘Love Bade me welcome’ says Herbert, and so in my poem I create an archway through which my reader and I can walk to receive that welcome and respond to it, perhaps a little shyly, a little hesitantly, as Herbert did. You might like to re-read Herbert’s poem before you read mine!

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

Love

Love took George Herbert’s hand and now takes mine,

The same quick eyes, the same wry, welcome smile,

The same spear-pierced and always-healing heart.

He turns to me and, taking bread and wine,

He spreads a table in the desert, while

I hesitate and draw back, stand apart,

Afraid, as always, of committed love.

But I have come too far to turn away,

Though Joy has vanished, she has led me here.

‘So come’, says Love, ‘there’s nothing left to prove,

And nothing that you need to do or say,

I am that perfect love that casts out fear,

Sit with George Herbert here, then taste and see

And find that all your loves are found in me.’

supper-at-emmaus_caracci

 

5 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems

Lent with Herbert Day 10: Christ’s side-piercing spear

On our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we conclude in this dark series, within the longer sequence, in which Herbert explores the experience of frustration, struggle and anger in our prayer life, with an image that at once sharpens and resolves, and re-frames all the preceding images of struggle and conflict: ‘Christ’s side-piercing spear’.

Here we are no longer in the realm of some great, general struggle, figured under the image of siege warfare, now it’s personal. And more than that. As I came to write my sonnet in response to this image of prayer I realised that it changes my understanding of all the previous images. It is as though, all that time I was besieging what I thought was God’s castle, I was really facing in the wrong direction, and imagining God himself in entirely the wrong way. For all the while I was looking up, he had, without my noticing, slipped out of the castle and come down. He was not ‘up there’ any more, he was down here, on the ground amongst the wounded, as vulnerable as I am, standing with open arms, just behind me, waiting for me to turn around and come to him. There had never been any question of my breaking his siege, on the contrary, he had come down to break mine, and the spear that pierced his heart was the true emblem of all my prayers.

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

Christ’s side-piercing spear

For all the while I hurl my hurts at heaven,

Believing I besiege the battlement,

Of God’s invulnerable heart and haven,

I strike at emptiness, at my own bafflement,

I shake my fist in fury at a shadow.

For he is not like us nor are his ways

Like ours. He left that heaven’s haven long ago

And broke our siege. A voice behind me says:

 

Why do you weep and rage at heaven above?

I have come down to die here in the dirt,

Your wounds have wounded me, for I am Love

And in my heart I hold your deepest hurt.

Oh turn around, return, and face me here

Your slightest prayer will pierce me like a spear.

‘Your slightest prayer will pierce me like a spear’. Painting by Fra Angelico

7 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems

Lent with Herbert Day 7: Engine against th’Almightie

Continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, we find, after the Christian plummet, that we have entered into a dark sequence of four further sonnets of struggle and conflict, and I would like to say something by way of preface to this dark sequence within the wider sequence of the whole poem, before I give you each day the individual poems:

‘Engine against th’Almighty, sinners tower

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,’

This is as an extraordinary clutch of related images, all drawing on pictures of warfare and violence against God to describe of part of our relation with Him in prayer. Herbert achieves his effect by a sudden reversal of perspective, epitomised here in the phrase ‘reversed thunder’ We think of God in Heaven thundering down on us, but in prayer we are at liberty to thunder back at him as indeed in our desperation we sometimes do and perhaps those are our best prayers. The ‘Engine against the Almighty’ is almost certainly intended to conjure the image of a catapult or similar siege engine.

The image of prayer as a form of weaponry is of course rooted in St. Paul’s military metaphors (e.g. Ephesians 6:13 forward) but here Herbert has dared to observe that it is not always the devil, but sometimes God himself whom we are fighting, as we struggle with our vocation to full humanity. In compressing this idea into the images of his poem Herbert may have been remembering a sermon by his older friend John Donne:

‘Earnest prayer hath the nature of Importunity; Wee presse, wee importune God…Prayer hath the nature of Impudency; wee threaten God in Prayer…and God suffers this Impudency and more. Prayer hath the nature of Violence; in the publique Prayers of the Congregation we besiege God, saies Tertullian, and we take God Prisoner, and bring God to our Conditions; and God is glad to be straightened by us in that siege.’[The Sermons of John Donne ed. Potter and Simpson, (Los Angeles, 1953-1962) vol. V  p.364]

But after the thunders and towers and cannons of the siege imagery, Herbert brings the focus down and sharpens it with that single piercing image: ‘Christ-side-piercing spear’. We have become the centurion, making that terrible thrust, but this time it is not cold iron but our own agonies which are piercing the heart of Christ

Now here is my poem for ‘Engine against th’Almightie. As I say in the preface to After Payer, I found that following Herber’s images allowed me to open out and give expression to some of my own experiences of struggle and desolation in prayer.

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

Engine Against Th’Almightie

Here in this shadowed valley, dark and bleak,

We lay a bitter siege against the one

Who was our heart’s desire, but now withdraws

Behind his battlements. Our prayers just break

Against what seem like walls of silent stone.

We make an engine of our injuries,

And vault at God a volley of our sorrows:

All the despair and anger that we feel.

The catapult of our catastrophes

Hurls up its heavy load, and flights of arrows

Clatter against his walls, fall back and fail.

How can we make him feel our miseries?

We fling back famine at him, torture, cancer,

Is he almighty then? Has he no answer?

7 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems

Lent with Herbert day 6: The Christian Plummet

A Stone Cold Jonah
Image by Alma Sheppard-Matsuo taken from the Tablet

 

I am continuing, with our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer, this time responding to Herbert’s line ‘The Christian Plummet, sounding heaven and earth’.

Herbert is referring to the plummet or sounding line used on ships to measure the depth below the keel, lowered into the waves on a marked line and then hauled up so that the linesman could tell the helmsman what depth he had below his keel. In my own poem though I felt moved to imagine things from the point of view of the plummet itself, and to put into the context of prayer my own and other people’s experience of  suddenly plummeting down into depression. I especially responded to seeing the words ‘Christian’ and ‘plummet’ together. Some Christians can give you the impression that unless your constantly cheerful you’re not a true believer or haven’t ‘heard the gospel’, as though Jesus had never endured the agony in the garden. But it’s my conviction that a person is just as much a Christian when they are plummeting down and sounding depths others may not know, as when they are cheerful.I hope this poem may help those who have had similar experiences of plummeting.

With this line in Herbert’s Prayer, and this sonnet, in my responding sequence, we begin as it were a new movement in the overall music of the piece, we transpose from a major to a minor key. We might call the first movement, the one we have just completed, ‘Abundance’, its key motif set by the opening phrase ‘the Church’s Banquet’, and the second movement, which starts here and carries through to ‘christ’s side-piercing spear’, we might call ‘Plunge and Shadow’ as it deals with the darkness and struggle which is also necessarily part of our prayer lives. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’button.

The Christian Plummet

 

Down into the icy depths you plunge,

The cold dark undertow of your depression,

Even your memories of light made strange,

As you fall further from all comprehension.

You feel as though they’ve thrown you overboard,

Your fellow Christians on the sunlit deck,

A stone cold Jonah on whom scorn is poured,

A sacrifice to save them from the wreck.

 

But someone has their hands on your long line,

You sound for them the depths they sail above,

One who takes Jonah as his only sign

Sinks lower still to hold you in his love,

And though you cannot see, or speak, or breathe,

The everlasting arms are underneath.

13 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems