Category Archives: imagination

A pair of sonnets for St. John and St. John’s Eve.

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 and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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 a formerly thorough 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. Johns 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 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! If you are in Canada you can get it direct from the excellent Steve Bell’s online store 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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A Trio of Sonnets, and a choral setting for Corpus Christi

The Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ), which falls this year on the 4th of June, is  a celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. In mediaeval times there used to be wonderful processions in which the consecrated elements were taken out of the church on this day and processed on the streets, showing that the Word made flesh was not just in a box labelled ‘church’ but in our midst, just as He was on the streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem. Rebecca Merry‘s lovely art work ( above) has the feel of those mediaeval ‘showings’ on Corpus Christi.

For my contribution to Corpus Christi I am offering here a trio of sonnets about the experience of receiving Holy Communion, each from a slightly different angle. The first two sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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. The third sonnet, which is about the 16th Century Oak communion Table in my church St. Edward King and Martyr, is from my most recent collection The Singing Bowl, also published by Canterbury Press.

Margot Krebs Neale has reflected on my phrases ‘He does not come in unimagined light ‘ and ‘to dye himself into experience’ with an image not simply of a stained glass window but of that dyed and refracted light itself reflected in water. I am grateful both to Rebecca and Margot for the way their work reflects on and develops mine. As always you can hear me read the poetry by clicking on the play button above each sonnet, if it appears, or on the title of the poem itself.


1 Love’s Choice

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,

A little visitation on my tongue,

A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.

This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung

A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,

Even its aftertaste a memory.

Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread

Love chooses to be emptied into me.

He does not come in unimagined light

Too bright to be denied, too absolute

For consciousness, too strong for sight,

Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;

Chooses instead to seep into each sense,

To dye himself into experience.

 

you can also hear JAC Redford’s beautiful choral setting of this sonnet from his new CD Let Beauty Be Our Memorial here

He does not come in unimagined light…


2 Hide and Seek

Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!

And so I know I’m hiding, and I know

My hiding-place is useless. You will come

And find me. You are searching high and low.

Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,

Below the sunlit surface others see.

Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.

And here you come and here I come to you.

I come to you because you come to me.

You know my hiding places. I know you,

I reach you through your hiding-places too;

Touching the slender thread, but now I see –

Even in darkness I can see you shine,

Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.

3 This Table

The centuries have settled on this table
Deepened the grain beneath a clean white cloth
Which bears afresh our changing elements.
Year after year of prayer, in hope and trouble,
Were poured out here and blessed and broken, both
In aching absence and in absent presence.

This table too the earth herself has given
And human hands have made. Where candle-flame
At corners burns and turns the air to light
The oak once held its branches up to heaven,
Blessing the elements which it became,
Rooting the dew and rain, branching the light.

Because another tree can bear, unbearable,
For us, the weight of Love, so can this table

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A Sonnet for Trinity Sunday

20110619-000808.jpg

Continuing my cycle of sonnets for the Church year. Here is one for Trinity Sunday which I am posting the day before, in case people would like to make use of it tomorrow.

By coming to us as the Son, revealing to us the Father, and sending to us the Spirit, Jesus revealed the deepest mystery; that God is not distant and alone, but is three in one, a communion of love who comes to make His home with us.

The Rublev Icon, above, shows the Three in One inviting us to share in that communion. If, as I believe, we are made in the image of God, as beings in communion with one another in the name of that Holy and Undivided Trnity whose being is communion, then we will find reflections and traces of the Trinitarian mystery in all our loving and making. I have tried to suggest this throughout the poem and especially in the phrase ‘makes us each the other’s inspiration’ and Margot Krebs Neale has taken this idea of mutual and coinherent inspiration and remaking in the remarkable image she has made in response to this sonnet which follows the poem, an image which involves the mutually -inspired work of three artists and is one picture woven of three images. She writes to me about this image:

“The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,

And makes us each the other’s inspiration.”

sent me in this direction…


The picture of you is by Lancia Smith

the picture of me is by Peter Nixon

the picture of the infinite is by an artist i don’t know

the composition is by me

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

Readers who are interested in my use of the word ‘coinherent’ will find out more by watching the video of my talk about the British theologian Charles Williams, a friend and fellow inkling of CS Lewis which can be found here.

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 and physical copies are now available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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..

Trinity Sunday

In the Beginning, not in time or space,

But in the quick before both space and time,

In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,

In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,

In music, in the whole creation story,

In His own image, His imagination,

The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,

And makes us each the other’s inspiration.

He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,

To improvise a music of our own,

To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,

Three notes resounding from a single tone,

To sing the End in whom we all begin;

Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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A Sonnet for Ascension Day

 Here is a sonnet for Ascension Day, which will be this Thursday, the 14th of May; the glorious finale of the Easter Season.

I am posting this a couple of days in advance, in case anyone would like to use this sonnet in their celebrations or devotions that day.

In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon Him. And since His humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him.”For you have died”, says St. Paul, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours.  The sonnet form seemed to me one way to begin to tease these things out.

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 and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book 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 always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem.

I’m grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above, the image below was taken as we launched rockets to celebrate Ascension day at Girton College:

We have lift off!

Ascension

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

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A Sonnet for St. Mark’s Day

A winged lion, swift immediate

The 25th of April is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist,  so I  am posting again my sonnet on St. Mark’s Gospel, one of a set of four sonnets on each of the four evangelists. For each of these sonnets I have meditated on the way the traditional association of each of the evangelists with one of the ‘four living creatures’ round the throne helps us to focus on the particular gifts and emphasis of that Gospel writer. For a good account of this tradition click here. Mark is the lion. There is a power, a dynamic a swiftness of pace in Mark’s Gospel, his favourite word is ‘immediately’! and that suits the lion. His Gospel starts in the wilderness and that suits it too.

But the great paradox in Mark is that the Gospel writer who shows us Christ at his most decisive, powerful, startling and leonine is also the one who shows us  how our conquering lion, our true Aslan, deliberately entered into suffering and passion, the great ‘doer’ letting things be done unto him. In this sonnet, I am especially indebted to WH Vanstone’s brilliant reading of this aspect of Mark in his wonderful book The Stature of Waiting.

For all four ‘Gospel’ sonnets I have also drawn on the visual imagery of the Lindesfarne Gospels, as in the one illustrated above. Margot Krebs Neale has given me the beautiful image below taken in Galillee in Beth Shean,

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 and physical copies are also available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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.

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

Mark

A wingèd lion, swift, immediate

Mark is the gospel of the sudden shift

From first to last, from grand to intimate,

From strength  to weakness, and from debt to gift,

From a wide deserts haunted emptiness

To a close city’s fervid atmosphere,

From a voice crying in the wilderness

To angels in an empty sepulcher.

And Christ makes the most sudden shift of all;

From swift action as a strong Messiah

Casting the very demons back to hell

To slow pain, and death as a pariah.

We see our Saviour’s life and death unmade

And flee his tomb dumbfounded and afraid.

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A poem for St. George’s Day, and a Grantchester Gig!

St. George’s Day and my thoughts turn again to Hatley St. George. If St. George, as our patron saint inspires English patriotism, then I’d say my own patriotism is about loving the little particularites of my native land. Not the big political rhetoric or the aggrandising imperial history, but the patchwork of little parishes and quiet shires. That’s one of the reasons why I love little mediaeval church dedicated to St. George in the village of Hatley St. George, not far from here.

Though the church goes back to the fourteenth century , in the late sixties it suffered the apparent misfortune of a collapse in its sanctuary which was declared unsafe and taken down. A new east wall was built but the architects had the wisdom to set in the new east window an arch of clear glass. For beyond that window, across the still sacred space of what had been choir and sanctuary, stands the most beautiful beech tree, which church-goers can see now in all its glory , through the changing seasons, simmering above their altar.

It’s a magical place, but like many such, struggling for survival and recognition. I originally wrote this poem, which I also posted last year, both to celebrate the church and to help the cause. Do visit it if you can and support those who are working for its upkeep. One of the congregation has written this poem out in beautiful calligraphy and it is hanging on the wall there, and each summer I go and read it aloud for them as part of their summer fete. This poem is in my book The Singing Bowl which you can buy on Amazon or order from any good bookshop.

May I also add that this year on St. George’s day I will be hosting an evening of song and general merriment at The Blue Ball in Grantchester from 9pm onwards, which will include a new setting I have written for GK Chesterton’s wonderful poem about St. George. It’s all free do come and join us if you can!

the window of Hatley St. George

View through the window of Hatley St. George

Hatley St. George

Stand here a while and drink the silence in.
Where clear glass lets in living light to touch
And bless your eyes. A beech tree’s tender green
Shimmers beyond the window’s lucid arch.
You look across an absent sanctuary;
No walls or roof, just holy, open space,
Leading your gaze out to the fresh-leaved beech
God planted here before you first drew breath.

Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
You cannot stand as long and still as these;
This ancient beech and still more ancient church.
So let them stand, as they have stood, for you.
Let them disclose their gifts of time and place,
A secret kept for you through all these years.
Open your eyes. This empty church is full,
Thronging with life and light your eyes have missed.

Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
Shields of forgotten chivalry, and rolls
Of honour for the young men gunned at Ypres,
And other monuments of our brief lives
Stand for the presence here of saints and souls
Who stood where you stand, to be blessed like you;
Clouds of witness to unclouded light
Shining this moment, in this place for you.

Stand here awhile and drink their silence in.
Annealed in glass, the twelve Apostles stand
And each of them is keeping faith for you.
This roof is held aloft, to give you space,
By graceful angels praying night and day
That you might hear some rumour of their flight
That you might feel the flicker of a wing
And let your heart fly free at last in prayer.

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