Category Archives: imagination

A Sonnet for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet for the feast of the Transfiguration. This is the day when we remember how the Disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials with him, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but sometimes on the Sunday nearest.

The transfiguration is also sometimes remembered just before Lent, which is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:

I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.

The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:

As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.

Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.

I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.

I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.

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 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.

Transfiguration

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet

The 22nd of July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and continuing my sequence of sonnets written in response to the church year I post this for her. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on its title or on the ‘play’ button.

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 . 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.



Mary Magdalene

Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to  cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.
But one man set you free and took your part
One man knew and loved you to the core
The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears,
Till, in another garden, he revealed
The perfect Love that cast out all your fears,
And quickened you  with love’s own sway and swing,
As light and lovely as the news you bring.

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Kenny: a sonnet from Ordinary Saints

‘Kenny’ by Bruce Herman

I have been working on a sequence of ‘ekphrastic poems’, poems about paintings, called ‘Ordinary Saints’. These poems have been written to accompany a series of extraordinary portraits of so- called ‘ordinary people, family and friends, by the American artist Bruce Herman, and our aim, as painter and poet, together with JAC Redford, the composer, who is working with us on the same sequence, is to show that no one is ‘ordinary’, that all of us bear, in different ways, the image of God, that all of us can receive and express his love. Today I thought I would share the portrait of ‘Kenny’ and the poem I have written to go with it. Kenny, who is no longer wth us in this world, was a man of great charm and felt by many who knew and loved him to be something of a saint. He was also a man with Downs Syndrome, and that syndrome was itself in some ways the key to the gifts he had to offer. I have been fortunate to know some people with Downs and to be friends with parents and siblings of Downs people, and I wanted to take this opportunity, in celebrating Kenny, to celebrate them too.

I hope you enjoy the poem, as always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title. If you would like to know more about the Ordinary Saints Project you can do so by clicking Here. If you would like to attend the premiers Laity Lodge from 26-28th October, where you can see all the paintings, hear JAC’s music, and hear me read the poems, you can find out more by clicking Here.


Kenny

I love the colours and the textures here,

I love the way that Kenny shines in them

With keen attention, a mischievous grin,

And all the child-like wisdom of the seer.

God, who came down, sends out the ones with Downs

As children of the kingdom, signs of joy,

To teach us life again. Our riches cloy;

Our slick sophistication weaves us round

With snares and sneers; a wan, world-weary gauze

Covers the radiance of God’s creation,

We give a hasty glance, we never gaze.

But Kenny greets us here with pure elation

And speaks God’s grace with gratitude and glee,

An ordinary angel, who can see.

 

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A sonnet for St. Benedict

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On July the 11th the Church celebrates the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, the gentle founder of the Benedictine order and by extension the father of Monasticism. A moderate and modest man he would have been astonished to learn that his ‘simple school for prayer’, his ‘modest rule for beginners’ led to the foundation of communities which kept the Christian flame alight through dark ages, preserved not only Christian faith, scripture, and culture,but also the best of Classical Pagan learning and culture, fed the poor, transformed societies, promoted learning and scholarship, and today provides solace, grounding, perspective and retreat not only to monks and nuns but to millions of lay people around the world.
Here is my sonnet for Benedict, drawing largely on phrases from the Rule, I dedicate it to the sisters at Turvey Abbey. It appears in my second book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl

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

Benedict

You sought to start a simple school of prayer,
A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,
With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,
No treating or retreating with contempt,
A little rule, a small obedience
That sets aside, and tills the chosen ground,
Fruitful humility, chosen innocence,
A binding by which freedom might be found

You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter in his peace,
To seek his Way amidst our many ways,
Find blessedness in blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.

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The Music of the Spheres: a poetic adventure

The Music of the Spheres

A number of years ago I was given an interesting poetic commission and I am at last in a position to reveal what it was, and some hint of its contents.

I had come to know the composer Marty O’Donnell, who is famous, amongst other things, for having composed the music for Halo, and for Destiny, two major games for the computer game company Bungie. When he was working on the music which would help to frame the game Destiny, a game whose narrative and architecture draws on the classical and mediaeval idea of the heavenly spheres, each with its own character and distinct music, he composed a beautiful new suite of music called ‘The Music of the Spheres’, and as we had talked together about the ‘seven heavens’ of the mediaeval world-view he asked me if I would compose a suite of poems to go with the music.

I came up with a sequence called ‘Seven Heavens, Seven Hells’. It consists of fourteen poems, arranged in seven pairs, which I composed in direct response to Marty’s music but also drawing inspiration, as we both did, from the mediaeval ‘seven heavens’, the crystalline spheres of the planets with their different characteristics and influences.

The whole approach, both to the poetry and the music, which Marty and I discussed early was a response to the idea, based in mediaeval astrology of ‘opposing pairs’. Each of the seven spheres has a certain cluster of associations and influences, Venus with Love, Mars with war and martial valour, the Sun with gold, but also poetry and inspiration etc. But equally it is possible for each of these celestial influences to become corrupted and malign, for, as St. Augustine says, good is primal and evil is always a corruption of some original good. Astrologically this is expressed in the idea that there is a diurnal, or good and light-filled aspect of each sphere, but also a nocturnal or dark aspect. Michael Ward, whose work Marty and I both admire, draws this out brilliantly in Planet Narnia, his account of the Seven Heavens in the thought and writing of CS Lewis.

So my poems are paired for each sphere, starting with the diurnal and following it up with the nocturnal. The form of these poems is the ‘roundel’, a development of a mediaeval form pioneered by Swinburne. In a roundel the first phrase of the first line becomes a kind of chorus or echo repeated elsewhere in the poem. So in my sequence that first phrase is common to both poems in the pair, but differently developed according to its heavenly or infernal form.  For example, the first pair, the moon, the ‘diurnal poem begins:

The moon is full and snow falls soft tonight

In silver filigree. I seem to fall,

Floating through the chapel of her light,

The moon is full.

 

But the ‘nocturnal version begins:

 

The moon is full and I have lost my way,

Drawn down her mazy path towards my fall,

Ready to swoon and sink beneath her sway.

The moon is full.

Happily, Bungie liked the poems when I presented them and I signed a contract with them, to use the poems in Destiny. The original plan was to have a stand -alone release of Marty’s music first as a CD etc, with my poems as part of the liner notes to accompany the music. However, this plan was abandoned, and though I was credited as ‘poet’ when the game came out, the poems were never released. But now I am happy to say that Bungie have released the music. In anticipation of the vinyl being shipped later this year, a creative group within the ‘Destiny Community’ have, after talking with Bungie, and with Marty’s blessing and mine, produced a very beautiful video sequence incorporating each poem, and presenting the music with images. My contract with Bungie means that I cannot publish the poems in full myself until two years after they have officially released the music, but happily they have allowed this group to incorporate them. The first of these is up and you can watch and listen to it here:

The others will follow and I will post the links here as I get them. I hope you enjoy this preview of some poems, which will, I hope appear in my next collection. I am especially pleased that this is happening in the year which marks the 10th anniversary of Planet Narnia, Michael Ward’s masterpiece that inspired both the composer and the poet.

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A pair of sonnets for St. John the Baptist.

So keep his fires burning through the night
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.

In our poetic journey through the sacred seasons of the year we have come to midsummer! The traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us  that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!

The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.

I have written two sonnets,  one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.

I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry  for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.

Both these sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on bothAmazon UK and USA  It 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 usual you can hear the poems by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.

St. John the Baptist: 1 St. John’s Eve

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill

Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:

‘He must increase and I diminish still,

Until his sun illuminates my night.’

So John the Baptist pioneers our path,

Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,

Unlatches the last doorway into faith,

And makes one inner space an everywhere.

Least of the new and greatest of the old,

Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,

He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold

The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”

So keep his fires burning through this night,

Beacons and gateways for the child of light.


St. John the Baptist: 2 Baptism

Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,

A wide womb floating on the breath of God,

Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift

Lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,

And under-girded with an unheard song,

Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,

Calling us to the life for which we long,

Yearning to bring us to our birth again.

Again the breath of God is on the waters

In whose reflecting face our candles shine,

Again he draws from death the sons and daughters

For whom he bid the elements combine.

As living stones around a font today,

Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.

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Columba and my calling.

A fierce dove racing in a fiercer gale

A fierce dove racing in a fiercer gale

June the 9th is Saint Columba’s day, a saint who has a special place for me, as somehow, he feels bound up in my own journey to Faith. When I was 19, and moving from  atheism, towards a greater spiritual openness, but by no means yet a Christian, I went for a long slow walk round Ireland. I went without a map because the Zen practice in which I was interested at the time, and on which I still draw in prayer, was always emphasizing ‘The map is not the reality”! You must utterly and absolutely be in the place you’re in, and let that place be what it is and teach what it has to teach without any overlay from your maps and preconceptions. So I took that literally and walked round Ireland without  a map, just keeping the sea on my left! One evening, St. John’s Eve it was, right at the end of my journey, I came round a headland at sunset into a beautiful little bay and inlet on the west coast in Donegal, just as the fires were being lit around the headlands for St. John’s Eve, and there was drinking and fiddle playing and dancing round the fires that evening. And I asked where I was, and they said Glencolmcille, and I felt a sudden quickening and sense of connection, as though a memory stirred. And they asked me my name and I said ‘Malcolm’, and they said, ‘Ah that is why you have come, because he has called you’, and I said ‘who?’ and they said ‘Colm has called you, Malcolm, for this is the place he fought his battle and gathered his disciples and from here he left for the white martyrdom and Scotland. And they told me the story of St. Columba, and the battle he had fought, of his repentance, his self-imposed exile, his journey with twelve disciples from this glen to Scotland where he founded the abbey of Iona from whence Scotland and much of the north of England was converted. ‘Of course he is calling you here’, they said, ‘for your name, in Gaelic means’ servant of Colm’, which is Columba. And as they spoke I remembered at last, right back into my childhood, how I had been told stories about this saint, and how I was named for him, and how my grandmother had published poems about him and sung her lullaby for the infant Columba over me as a child. I wandered down to the shore whence he had set sail and felt how thin the veil was, how something of heaven, whatever heaven might be, seemed to glimmer through the sky and the sea itself in this place. And I thought: ‘I’m not a Christian, and I don’t see how I could ever become one, but if I do ever become one, I’ll remember Columba and I’ll go to Iona and thank him’. Which I did, and I did. Now here’s my sonnet for the saint. This poem is now collected in my book The Singing Bowl from Canterbury Press which you can get on amazon, or better still, order from your local bookshop! Click on the title or the ‘play button to hear me read the poem!

I am happy to announce that I will soon be joining ship with a project called Navigators of Faith, which seeks prayerfully to recreate the voyages of the early Celtic saints including Columba. Read about it Here 

Columba

 You called me and I came to Colmcille

To learn at last the meaning of my name

Though you yourself were called, and not the caller,

He called through you and when He called I came.

Came to the edge at last, in Donegal,

Where bonfires burned and music lit the flame

As from the shore I glimpsed that ragged sail

The Spirit filled to drive you from your  home,

A fierce dove racing in a fiercer gale,

A swift wing flashing between sea and sky.

And with that glimpse I knew that I  would fly

And find you out and serve you for a season,

My heaven hidden like your native isle,

Though somehow glimmering on each horizon.

Glencolmcille, scene of a small epiphany

Glencolmcille, scene of a small epiphany

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