Category Archives: christianity

A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’

It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”

This and my other sonnets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem

Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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Apostle! -a sonnet for St. Paul

Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany

The 25th of January is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great Apostle.

This and my other sonets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon.

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



Apostle

An enemy whom God has made a friend,

A righteous man discounting righteousness,

Last to believe and first for God to send,

He found the fountain in the wilderness.

Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,

A prisoner who set his captors free,

A naked man with love his only garment,

A blinded man who helped the world to see,

A Jew who had been perfect in the law,

Blesses the flesh of every other race

And helps them see what the apostles saw;

The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.

Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,

And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.

 

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The First Sunday of Epiphany -Jesus’ Baptism

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many little ‘epiphanies’, glimpses of how things really are, which are vouchsafed us in the Gospel. This coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Epiphany is a time to reflect on the moment when ‘the heavens opened’ at Jesus’ Baptism and we were given a glimpse of Father Son and Holy Spirit at the heart of all things. This sonnet, which I am posting a little early in case people might want to use it on Sunday, is a reflection on that mystery. As always you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ sign or on the title of the poem. I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful photograph, taken at the river Jordan which says as much as, if not more than the poem. The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop.  After the text of the poem I have included links to the wonderful song Steve Bell wrote from it.

Epiphany on the Jordan


Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings
‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’

In that quick light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.

Also check out Steve Bell’s amazing album Keening for the Dawn in which he reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song
Keening for the Dawn
You can hear the song itself on sound loud here:

Epiphany on the Jordan

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Hymn Before Sunrise by ST Coleridge

Image by Linda Richardson Image by Linda Richardson

For January 4th in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read a passage from A Hymn before Sunrise in the vale of Chamouni by ST Coleridge.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson for her book of responses to Waiting on the Word, she writes:

Anyone who has ever had a “glance” of God wants to share the experience. It is like running home to show your family the beautiful butterfly you have captured in your cupped hands but when you get there it has escaped and all you have are impressions and words. In the gospel of John we hear Andrew’s response after he meets Jesus: “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.”

Words and images have power to point to an experience but they aren’t the experience itself. What we really want to do is bring people to experience what we have experienced, to bring them to Jesus like Andrew brought his brother, (to bring them to the Holy Mountain). In my little painting, the mountain sits above the words, the words point to the mountain. God’s promise is that if we seek, we will find. Talking about God is good but if we don’t also open ourselves to be transformed by the experience of God, (Rise, O ever rise..), we remain in doctrine and dogma which, although essential, only has the power to point.

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

from The Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni   Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Ye Ice-falls! ye that from the mountain’s brow

Adown enormous ravines slope amain—

Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,

And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!

Motionless torrents! silent cataracts!

Who made you glorious as the gates of Heaven

Beneath the keen full moon? Who bade the sun

Clothe you with rainbows? Who, with living flowers

Of loveliest blue, spread garlands at your feet?—

God! let the torrents, like a shout of nations,

Answer! and let the ice-plains echo, God!

God! sing ye meadow-streams with gladsome voice!

Ye pine-groves, with your soft and soul-like sounds!

And they too have a voice, yon piles of snow,

And in their perilous fall shall thunder, God!

Ye living flowers that skirt the eternal frost!

Ye wild goats sporting round the eagle’s nest!

Ye eagles, play-mates of the mountain-storm!

Ye lightnings, the dread arrows of the clouds!

Ye signs and wonders of the element!

Utter forth God, and fill the hills with praise!

Thou too, hoar Mount! with thy sky-pointing peaks,

Oft from whose feet the avalanche, unheard,

Shoots downward, glittering through the pure serene

Into the depth of clouds, that veil thy breast—

Thou too again, stupendous Mountain! thou

That as I raise my head, awhile bowed low

In adoration, upward from thy base

Slow travelling with dim eyes suffused with tears,

Solemnly seemest, like a vapoury cloud,

To rise before me—Rise, O ever rise,

Rise like a cloud of incense from the Earth!

Thou kingly Spirit throned among the hills,

Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,

Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,

And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun,

Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God.

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Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For January 3rd in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Courtesy by Hilaire Belloc. I have chosen it for this run-up towards Epiphany because it is essentially a series of little epiphanies, or ‘showings’; in each of the three pictures themselves pictures of moments of ‘epiphanies’ or ‘showings forth’ of the glory of God in scripture.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

The poem we consider today is about ‘courtesy’, not a word that we attribute easily these days except if we are complaining that someone lacks ‘common courtesy’. As I reflected on this poem I was taken back to my childhood when I was at a convent boarding school. I loved going to the convent chapel and kneeling to pray. I remember thinking how inadequate I was to do this, unlike the professional nuns whose prayers I considered far more powerful than my own mute and rather unhappy attempts.

I have since learned that God will inhabit the tiniest space we make for Him. Even our most feeble turning towards Him will make the angels of heaven hold their breath in excitement. Recently I read the words of a Rabbi who said, when the child of God walks down the road a thousand angels go before her crying, ‘Make way for the image of God!

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

Courtesy   Hilaire Belloc

Of Courtesy, it is much less

Than Courage of Heart or Holiness,

Yet in my Walks it seems to me

That the Grace of God is in Courtesy.

On Monks I did in Storrington fall,

They took me straight into their Hall;

I saw Three Pictures on a wall,

And Courtesy was in them all.

The first the Annunciation;

The second the Visitation;

The third the Consolation,

Of God that was Our Lady’s Son.

The first was of St. Gabriel;

On Wings a-flame from Heaven he fell;

And as he went upon one knee

He shone with Heavenly Courtesy.

Our Lady out of Nazareth rode –

It was Her month of heavy load;

Yet was her face both great and kind,

For Courtesy was in Her Mind.

The third it was our Little Lord,

Whom all the Kings in arms adored;

He was so small you could not see

His large intent of Courtesy.

Our Lord, that was Our Lady’s Son,

Go bless you, People, one by one;

My Rhyme is written, my work is done.

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The Bird in the Tree Ruth Pitter

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For January 2nd in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read The Bird in the Tree by Ruth Pitter. On New Year’s Eve we considered Hardy’s almost reluctant glimpse of transfiguration ‘when Frost was spectre-grey, and ‘shrunken hard and dry’, and Hardy’s heart, bleak as the world through which he moves, nevertheless hears for a moment the ‘ecstatic sound’ of his darkling thrush. And even though he wanted to end his poem with the word ‘unaware’, something of the transcended has ‘trembled through’ his poem. Today’s poem, also about hearing a bird in a tree, also addresses the question of how the transcendent might for ‘a moment of time’ ‘tremble through’ into the immanent.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson and is one of my favourites from the beautiful book of responses she made to Waiting on the Word, it is so full of life, movement and energy. Linda Writes:

A few years ago I was walking up the hill behind our house. I had an extraordinary experience of feeling myself dissolve into the land around me, of being one with the trees, the insects below the earth and the sky above me. When I got home I attempted to paint the experience and reading Ruth Pitter’s poem brought it back to my mind.

Throughout this Advent, Malcolm has offered us poems that invite us to ‘see’. We believe we know what a bird is like, what a tree is like, we have heard the Christmas stories so often that we think we know them, but if we give ourselves time to ‘see’ anew, we will be able to glimpse eternity shining all around us and within us. We can find God manifest in the finite and the infinite, in time and eternity. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says, ‘split the wood, and I am there. Turn over the stone and there you will find me.

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

The Bird in the Tree   Ruth Pitter

 

The tree, and its haunting bird,

Are the loves of my heart;

But where is the word, the word,

Oh where is the art,

To say, or even to see,

For a moment of time,

What the Tree and the Bird must be

In the true sublime?

They shine, listening to the soul,

And the soul replies;

But the inner love is not whole,

and the moment dies.

Oh give me before I die

The grace to see

With eternal, ultimate eye,

The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living Green,

The Tree and the Bird –

Oh have they ever been seen,

Ever been heard?

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New Year’s Day Tennyson’s ‘Wild Bells’

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

For New Year’s Day in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read another section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the famous and beautiful section about ringing out the old and ringing in the new which finishes with a vision of the true Advent, ‘the Christ that is to be’.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She Writes:

I have to confess that I don’t remember ever enjoying New Years Day. I always have the feeling that I am an unprepared host for this important guest, who, instead of finding my house with the bed made up and a roaring fire, discovers me amid the accumulated dross of previous revelry. The image I made does not reflect the hope of the poem, probably because I don’t believe in the great ringing in of the new – I don’t see it happening in the world.

What I can believe in, is that Christ can ring in me and in you. Annie Dillard, the American author and poet says, ‘I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.’ And so to the extent we ring for Christ, we also ring for the world.

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

You can also hear Alana Levandoski turning these verses into a lovely song on this youtube page:


In Memoriam CVI   Alfred Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,

And ancient forms of party strife;

Ring in the nobler modes of life,

With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,

The faithless coldness of the times;

Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes

But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,

The civic slander and the spite;

Ring in the love of truth and right,

Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;

Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;

Ring out the thousand wars of old,

Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,

The larger heart, the kindlier hand;

Ring out the darkness of the land,

Ring in the Christ that is to be.

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The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For New Year’s eve in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, which was written on New Year’s Eve at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Though it begins with Hardy’s characteristically bleak forboding, suddenly the poet in him discerns and allows another note of hope.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

I first heard this poem at school and thought Hardy a very depressing poet. I didn’t have the tenacity to stay with the poem through the bleakness until the hope. When we are not mature we only want laughter and fun and a perpetual summer time. There is no virtue in winter and we avoid pain at all costs. The consequence of this is, not only are we likely to be selfish, but we lack the contrasts that give life depth and meaning. The image I made reflects this theme of contrast.

I made a black and white photo transfer of a small bird in a tangle of twigs and painted the canvas with cold blues and violets. I enhanced the roughness of the surface by applying thread in an acrylic medium to the surface of the painting. Out of the grey coldness of the painting comes the idea of pure and beautiful bird song. If we try to make earth our heaven we will be terribly disappointed, but here, amid the stark grey of winter, comes a song of hope. Annie Dillard, the American writer and poet says, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”

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

The Darkling Thrush Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

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Christmas (1) by George Herbert

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

In my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 30th, is  Christmas (1a remarkable sonnet by George Herbert in which he imagines discovering Jesus in a local Inn. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

If you are feeling over indulged and replete with food and drink, this is the poem for you. Once again we return to the truth that even while we are far off, perhaps like the prodigal son, eating, drinking and over indulging, there is always a summons to examine our conscience, to look beyond the ‘fling and bling’, as Malcolm often describes this aspect of Christmas. The image for today is a very simple watercolour: a lone figure walks towards a simple shelter from which a radiant light emanates. The light comes from above and radiates out of the shelter where Christ is born, towards the figure. The figure walks towards the light, leaving behind a long dark shadow.

The history of the people of the Bible and of Christianity is stained by the corrupt idea that God is like us, full of disapproval and ready to punish. This idea keeps us away from God and we might even think that we are so bad, we might as well be a little more bad because truly, we have blown it with God. This is our ego talking, and if we listen to it we will find only self blame, self punishment and self loathing. The image tells us that we can turn at any moment and walk into the mystery of love and presence. It is not for us to perfect ourselves before we turn, God is the one who redeems. ‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)

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

Christmas (1)

After all pleasures as I rid one day,

My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,

With full crie of affections, quite astray,

I took up in the next inne I could finde,

There when I came, whom found I but my deare,

My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief

Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there

To be all passengers most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,

Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;

Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,

To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have

A better lodging than a rack or grave.

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For Our Lady of Guadelupe by Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe - given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe – given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

For today’s poem in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word we return to the poet Grevel Lindop with an honest meditation on a visit to Mexico entitled ‘For our Lady of Guadelupe’. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. After the Waiting on the Word anthology was published, for which Grevel had kindly given me permission to include this poem,  we met up and he actually gave me  the image he had bought on his visit and which is part of the subject of the poem and of my reflections on it. I was very moved by the gift and the little statue sits on my desk, so as Linda had not done an image for today I have included a photo of it here.  As I wrote about that statue in the commentary:

We know too, from this first verse, that this mind-changing journey is one the poet himself has to make himself. Those lines,

where I will buy her plastic image later

garish, I hope, and cheap,

are highly significant, implying that when he first arrived he might have disdained the stalls of plastic images. It is only after his actual encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe that he understands their value and comes back to buy one….What we learn on the journey of this poem is that the devotion of the poor may transfigure cracked and broken, even poor and shoddy material more effectively than the finesse and fine taste of the sceptical rich

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

For Our Lady of Guadelupe

The taxi windscreen’s broken,

lightning-starred with a crack from one corner:

signature of a stone from the Oaxaca road.

It drops me by the shanty-town of stalls

where I will buy her plastic image later –

garish, I hope, and cheap,

for kitsch is authenticity.

A jagged rift of space

splits the old basilica’s perfect Baroque,

an intricately-cracked stone egg

atilt on sliding subsoil where the Aztec

city’s lake was carelessly filled in.

Crowds pass its listing shell without a glance,

heading for the concrete-and-stained-glass

swirl that mimics

Juan Diego’s cloak, where she appeared

and painted her own image on the fabric

to show sceptical bishops

how perfect love could visit a poor Indian

after the wars, and fill his cloak with roses.

Now the cloak’s under glass behind the altar.

A priest celebrates Mass,

but we walk round the side

to queue for the moving pavement that will take us closer,

its mechanical glide into the dark

floating us past the sacred cloth

and her miraculous, soft, downcast gaze:

not Spanish and not Indian but both,

lovely mestiza Virgin, reconciler

who stands against the flashbulbs’ irregular

pizzicato of exploding stars,

and while we slide on interlocking steel

opens for us her mantle, from which roses

pour and pour in torrents, like blood

from a wound that may never be healed.

If you would like to encourage and support this blog, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!

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