Category Archives: imagination

A Sonnet for St. Luke’s Day

St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox

This Thursday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist, and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year.  My sonnets in that series, include a mini-sequence on the four Evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced  by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the four Evangelists.

‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘  St. Irenaeus of Lyons  (ca. 120-202 AD)  –  Adversus Haereses 3.11.8

For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote above. As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. In this iconographic tradition Luke’s emblem is the ox, the lowly servant His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver.  The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press  and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.

 Luke

His gospel is itself a living creature

A ground and glory round the throne of God,

Where earth and heaven breathe through human nature

And One upon the throne sees it is good.

Luke is the living pillar of our healing,

A lowly ox, the servant of the four,

We turn his page to find his face revealing

The wonder, and the welcome of the poor.

He breathes good news to all who bear a burden

Good news to all who turn and try again,

The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,

A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,

The voiceless find their voice in every word

And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.

Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for this image

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The Christian Plummet

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

 

In my last post I mentioned a new sequence of poems written in response to George Herbert’s beautiful poem Prayer. , saying ‘I have long felt that each of the twenty-seven images and metaphor for prayer in that exquisite sonnet could itself be the seed and beginning of a new poem and so I have decided to make my own twenty-seven sonnet response to his masterpiece’. Prompted by the fact that it is World Mental Health Day I thought I would post another these sonnets. 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 thought I delft moved to imagine things from the point of view of the plummet and to see my own and other people’s experience of what it is suddenly to plummet down in the light of prayer. 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 than when they are cheerful.I hope this poem may help those who have had similar experiences of plummeting. 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.

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A Spell for National Poetry Day

Here is a poem called Spell, which I re-post for  National Poetry Day, which falls this year on 4th October, as it celebrates the magic powers of language itself. I have written in a previous post about the ‘daily miracle’ of our language and literacy, the magical way that words can summon up images, images that bring with them whole worlds, all the hidden correspondences between Word and World, a magic witnessed by the way a word like spell means both to spell a word and to make magic, the way chant is embedded in enchantment, the way even the dry word Grammar turns out to be cognate with Glamour in its oldest magical sense. But if all language is a kind of spell, it is a Good Spell (or Gospel as we later shortened that term). For Christian Faith points to a single source, in the Word, the Logos of God, for both the mystery of language and the mystery of being. Christ is the Word within all words, the Word behind all worlds.

Certainly many Christian writers have reflected on the paralells between the Genesis narrative in which God says “Let there be..” and each thing he summons springs into being, and the way, the uttering of words, the combination and recombination of a finite set of letters, can call into being the imaginary worlds, the sub-creations, as Tolkien calls them, that God in his Love has empowered us to create. It seems that being made as ‘Makers’ (the old word for poets) is one of the ways in which we are all made in God’s image.

Of course, because we are fallen we can abuse this gift of sub-creation, we can abuse language itself, making the very medium of creation a means of destruction. I have explored that shadow side of language in my poem “What IF…” But now I want to celebrate the God-given power and mystery of language, the magic of naming, the summoning powers entrusted to us in the twenty-six letters of our alphabet., in a sonnet I have simply called “Spell”. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or pressing the ‘play’ button.

This poem is from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

Spell

Summon the summoners, the twenty-six

enchanters. Spelling silence into sound,

they bind and loose, they find and are not found.

Re-call the river-tongues from Alph to Styx,

summon the summoners, the shaping shapes

the grounds of sound, the generative gramma

signs of the Mystery, inscribed arcana

runes from the root-tree written in the deeps,

leaves from the tale-tree lifted, swift and free,

shining, re-combining in their dance

the genesis of every utterance,

pattering the pattern of the Tree.

Summon the summoners, and let them sing.

The summoners will summon Everything.

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A Sonnet for St. Matthew’s Day

St. Matthew by Rebbecca Merry

September the 21st is St. Matthew’s day, so here, once more, is a sonnet for the Evangelist, drawn from my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons. Like my sonnets for the other three evangelists, it draws on the traditional association of each evangelist with one of the four living creatures around the throne of God. As I repost this in the midst of the current refugee crisis the final couplet seems more pressing than ever, as one aspect or another of things unfolding around us bring some facet of the gospel into even sharper focus.

As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Rebecca Merry for the image above.

Matthew

First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;
A gospel that begins with generation,
Family lines entwine around the Son
Born in Judea, born for every nation
Born under Law that all the Law of Moses
Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace
As every word and deed in time discloses
Eternal love within a human face.

This is the gospel of the great reversal
A wayside weed is Solomon in glory
The smallest sparrow’s fall is universal
And Christ the heart of every human story
‘I will be with you, though you may not see
And all you do, you do it unto me’

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St. Augustine’s Jubilation: a new sonnet

St. Augustine by Bruce Herman

Today is St. Augustine’s day and I thought I would post here a sonnet inspired by Augustine’s beautiful commentary on the psalms. I wrote this sonnet in response not only to Augustine but also to Jeremy Begbie’s use of the Augustine passage in his excellent new book Redeeming Transcendence, and the poem was first published in that book this year. Here is the passage from Jeremy’s book, which includes the Augustine quotation, followed by my sonnet!

A remarkable passage from Augustine is worth mentioning here. In meditating on Psalm 32:8, he writes: “Sing in jubilation: singing well to God means, in fact, just this: singing in jubilation.” And what does that mean?

“It is to realize that words cannot communicate the song of the heart. Just so singers in the harvest, or the vineyard, or at some other arduous toil express their rapture to begin with in songs set to words; then as if bursting with a joy so full that they cannot give vent to it in set syllables, they drop actual words and break into the free melody of jubilation. The jubilusis a melody which conveys that the heart is in travail over something it cannot bring forth in words. And to whom does that jubilation rightly ascend, if not to God the ineffable? Truly is he ineffable whom you cannot tell forth in speech, yet we ought not to remain silent, what else can you do but jubilate? In this way the heart rejoices without words and the boundless expanse of rapture is not circumscribed by syllables. Sing well unto him in jubilation.[1]

The experience is well known in charismatic and Pentecostal worship. Ecstatic song bursts the bounds of verbal language. Augustine reminds us of the limits of speech, in the face of both the need for a particular affective articulation of the heart and the need to recognize that God exceeds all speech. The sung jubiluscan “say” the unsayable, affording a “boundless expanse of rapture”. And yet there is no suggestion that we are thereby to take flight from any obligation to scriptural words, or are absolved from the need for clear speech to, or about God – even a few minutes with this theologian’s major texts would make that clear. On the contrary, Augustine’s “boundless expanse of rapture” stems from attending to the God whom he believes has graciously employed frail human language in his saving purposes.

[1]Augustine, St Augustine on the Psalms, trans. Scholastica Hebgin and Felicitas Corrigan, vol. II (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1961), 111–2.

 

And here is my sonnet, you can hear me read it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Bruce Herman for permission to use his striking painting of Augustine.

 

St. Augustine ‘s Jubilation

What else can you do but jubilate? St. Augustine On the Psalms

 

Augustine hears the sound of jubilation,

A snatch of song, hurrahing in the harvest,

He pauses, poised and open, pen in hand,

Held in the gracious space between God’s words,

And once again his restless heart is lifted

Within and through the song, into the Son.

 

A wordless song restores to him the words

Of scripture and his psalter breathes again.

Not circumscribed by syllables, but still

Delighting in them, jubilant, his pen

Turns to the furrow, opens the good ground,

So that the seed a psalmist sowed in tears

Might bear rich fruit for us in time to come.

We reap with joy and bring the harvest home.

 

 

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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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