Category Archives: imagination

Word in the Wilderness: The Second Temptation

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views

Here is a further extract from My Lent book The Word in the Wilderness and an opportunity for those who are using it to hear me read today’s poem, which deals with the second temptation of Christ in the Wilderness:

‘Then the Devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the Devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me and I give it to anyone I please. If you then, will worship me, it will all be yours”’ (Luke 4.5−7).

This second temptation is the temptation to worldliness, to ‘success’, money and power, set up obsessively on the throne of our hearts as rivals to God. It is the supreme temptation of our own materially obsessed culture. And it is our failure at this point that has led to the gross imbalances between what has recently been termed the ‘1%’ and the ‘99%’.

‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority’ is the dreadfully conditional offer that the Devil still makes, and in my sonnet I have tried to flesh out in contemporary terms some of the figures who seem to be making and receiving that offer now, and the contemporary contexts in which this dreadful deal is transacted. It’s a striking thing that the old terms ‘wordly’ and ‘worldliness’ are scarcely ever used in contemporary moral discourse. We still talk of course, and rightly about fairness, and fair distribution of resources. We are rightly concerned with justice and fair dealing in the worlds of finance, commerce and trade, but we seem to have lost sight of the long Christian tradition, and the substantial Christian teaching, that there is something essentially tainted and corrosive in the very desire for worldly pre-eminence and success.

A symptom of this amnesia, of this serious spiritual malaise that afflicts our culture, can be found in our extraordinary use of the word ‘exclusive’ as a positive term! The liberal West is allegedly the most inclusive culture there has ever been and we deploy a great deal of rhetoric about including the marginalized, and take care that everyone should use politically correct and ‘inclusive’ language. But this is of course just a fig leaf. One look at the advertising in any magazine or website, one glimpse of the commercials that saturate our airwaves tells a different story. Every Estate agent advertising their residential properties (or ‘homes’ as they like to call them- as though a home was something you could sell) reveals that their favourite word is ‘Exclusive’. Come and view these ‘exclusive’ flats, come with us on this luxurious and ‘exclusive’ holiday! And nobody asks, just who is being excluded. Nobody responds to these ads with a letter to say: ‘I am interested in your product but perhaps I am one of those unfortunate people whom you and your exclusive clientele would like to exclude! No one asks themselves, as they read these ads, ‘Just what is it in me that is being roused and appealed to here?’ For it is not our generosity, our courtesy, or our sense of community that is being worked on and developed in this appeal. Rather it is the worst in us; the desire to be considered ‘special’ and ‘better’ and ‘superior’ at the expense of other people that is here being inflated and inflamed. In his chilling essay ‘The Inner ring’ C. S. Lewis lays open this fallen desire in all of us to belong to exclusive clubs, cliques, and circles, to be someone who is ‘in’; ‘in the know’, ‘in the right circles’, ‘in on the real knowledge and power’ among ‘those who really count’, and to look down on those who are ‘out’, excluded, not part of the magic circle. So much of the consumerism that is choking our society and bringing misery, alike to the haves and the have-nots, is driven by this desire to have and to wear, and to drive, the status symbols, the ‘exclusive’ signs of belonging. Time and again goods and services are offered by their manufacturers not for their intrinsic virtue, the beauty of their design, or the genuine pleasure that might be had from owning or using them, but for their ‘exclusive’ cachet, their ‘exclusive designer label’.

The other word which worldliness loves and has in turn subverted is the word ‘Dream’. We are to have ‘dream homes’, ‘dream holidays’, ‘dream wedding days’. As though all dreams were to enmesh us deeper in the tangles of getting and spending, not to lift our vision, change our perspective and give us glimpses of Heaven. I have tried to highlight some of these issues in the following poem, and here I see Jesus taking the worldly ‘dream’ on its own terms and calling us instead to wake up to the fullness of life. Perhaps only then can we, in Eliot’s phrase ‘Redeem the unread vision of the higher dream’.

This poem together with the other ‘lenten sonnets’ is published by Canterbury Press in my collection Sounding the Seasons

I am grateful, as before, to Margot Krebs Neale for these beautiful images

You can hear the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.

All the Kingdoms of the World

 

‘So here’s the deal and this is what you get:

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,

The banker’s bonus and the private jet

Control and ownership of all the news

An ‘in’ to that exclusive one percent,

Who know the score, who really run the show

With interest on every penny lent

And sweeteners for cronies in the know.

A straight arrangement between me and you

No hell below or heaven high above

You just admit it, and give me my due

And wake up from this foolish dream of love…’

But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.

Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’

So here’s the deal, and this is what you get

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The Transfiguration; a glimpse of glory before Lent

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Today, the Sunday before Lent, many churches will hear again the story of the Transfiguration. So continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the Disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory.

The feast of the Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but The transfiguration is also the set reading for many churches on the Sunday before Lent. And just before Lent 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 on the journey with Christ towards Jerusalem, towards the events of Holy Week, and 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 and physical copies 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.

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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A Week to go: getting ready for Lent

WiW coverLent is nearly upon us, and this is just a note to say that if anyone would like to join me in reading a poem a day for Lent there is still time, to order and have delivered The Word in the Wilderness the book in which I have set out a poem for each day of Lent together with some commentary to open out the poem and some reflections for the day. For those who would rather not use Amazon, the excellent Sarum College Book Shop have them in stock and can get them to you in time for Ash Wednesday when the series starts, just click Here. American readers who would like books sent directly from this shop can send an enquiry/place an order by sending an email to bookshop@sarum.ac.uk

Meanwhile, as a little taster, here is a passage from the Introduction to that book setting out why poetry, as a medium, might be especially helpful for us on the Lenten Journey:

 

Lent is a time set aside to re-orient ourselves, to clarify our minds, to slow down, recover from distraction, to focus on the values of God’s Kingdom and on the value he has set on us and on our neighbours. There are a number of distinctive ways in which poetry can help us do that and in particular the poetry I have chosen for this anthology.

Heaney spoke of poetry offering a glimpse and a clarification, here is how an earlier poet Coleridge, put it, when he was writing about what he and Wordsworth were hoping to offer through their poetry, which was

 

awakening the mind’s attention to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

(Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Vol. II, pp. 6−7)

 

That wakening and renewing of vision is partly achieved by a change in the very way we read, which poetry asks of us. Poetry asks to be savoured, it asks us to slow down, it carries echoes, hints at music, summons energies that we will miss if we are simply scanning. In this way poetry brings us back to older ways of reading understanding both the Word and the World, and a way of reading, currently being revived in many churches, called Lectio Divina, a slow savouring of the text a rich meditation on meaning that begins with the senses, with taste and sound. The great practitioners and preservers of this art, as of so many other vital arts, were the monks of Europe. They showed it visually in their illuminated manuscripts, and aurally in this practice of Lectio Divina, the prayerful form of reading aloud. The Benedictine historian Jean Leclercq describes it in this way:

 

To meditate is to attach oneself closely to the sentence being recited and weigh all its words in order to sound the depths of their full meaning. It means assimilating the content of a text by means of a kind of mastication which releases its full flavour. It means, as St Augustine, St Gregory, John of Fecamp and others say in an untranslatable expression, to taste it with the palatum cordis or in ore cordis. All this activity is necessarily a prayer; the lectio divina is a prayerful reading. Thus the Cistercian, Arnoul of Boheriss will give this advice:

When he reads, let him seek for savour, not science. The Holy Scripture is the well of Jacob from which the waters are drawn which will be poured out later in prayer. Thus there will be no need to go to the oratory to begin to pray; but in reading itself, means will be found for prayer and contemplation.

(The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, p. 90)

 

For the English Church, echoes of this ancient art of reading are preserved in the Prayer Book collect on the scriptures with its petition ‘Help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’ (The Book of Common Prayer Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent).

We should also come to poetry both for that inner nourishment, and, in that beautiful Cistercian image, for waters drawn up from a well, to be poured out fruitfully later in our prayers.

As poetry begins to change the way we read it also starts to change the way we think and see. It becomes possible for us to enter into those moments of vision that are the beacons and turning points of our scripture, among which a moment of transfigured vision in the desert, Moses turning aside to the burning bush, is the archetype of all transfigured vision. In a poem we shall encounter early in this Lenten journey, R. S. Thomas calls us to do just that:

 

Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you

(‘The Bright Field’, Laboratories of the Spirit)

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In the Wilderness 3: The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt

I found Adam Boulter’s sketch for the flight into Egypt very moving, with Mount Sinai in the back ground summoning the memory of the children of Jacob/Israel wandering through this same wilderness and knowing that somehow the Lord was with them, though under the shadowy symbols of the pillars of cloud and fire. But here the Lord is indeed our companion in this same wilderness. And not in the towering symbols of power, but in the fragile and vulnerable fresh of a refugee child, he takes the road with us. I had already reflected on this a little in my sonnet ‘Refugee’ from Sounding the Seasons, and Adam and I agreed to place that poem in this sequence and with this picture, where it seems to acquire a new resonance.The tragedy of the Syrian Civil War and the rise of Isis has unfolded since I wrote the poem and as you will see the final poem of this new sequence which deals with that catastrophe, and asks where Christ is in all these things, also alludes to and draws on this poem. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

The Flight into Egypt

 

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

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In the Wilderness: 1 Abraham and Sarah at Mamre

I am publishing here the first of a sequence of seven sonnets which were commissioned to go with a sequence of paintings by the artist Adam Boulter on the theme of Wilderness. They will form part of the exhibition ‘In the Wilderness: Preparing for Public Service which will be installed for the whole of Lent in St. Margaret’s Westminster. The paintings and poems are a series of meditations on key turning points in Biblical and Church wilderness experience. The way Adam and I worked on them was this: First he sent me the scriptural or patristic point of inspiration together with a sketch he had made, in situ, of the wilderness episode, for he is a chaplain in Amman in Jordan and has been able to journey through the desert himself and visit these sites. Then I composed the poem, drawing on both the scripture or church history and the sketch, and sent him the poem. Then he completed the painting having in mind both the initial sketch and the poem. It has been a remarkable and I think fruitful long distance collaboration, and I can hardly wait to see the paintings themselves when he and I meet for the opening night on the 17th of this month.

In the meantime though he has given me permission to share with you  the initial sketch book images I worked with, as well as the sonnets, so I am going to post them in a series over the next week. If you want to see the finished paintings then do come among to the exhibition which is open 9-4 every day in Lent, at St. Margaret’s just next to Westminster Abbey and across from the Houses of Parliament.

All but two of the sonnets are completely new. For two of the wilderness moments his Bible readings, and indeed sketches, came so close to what I had already written that we agreed to use earlier sonnets with some revision, but they seem to take a new life in the new sequence. As in other posts I have also read these poems aloud for you and you can hear them by clicking on the title or the play button.

So we begin with Genesis 3 chapter 18, with Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre in what is really, in both poem and painting, a meditation on Hospitality in the wilderness, a theme to which we will return with contemporary force in the final sonnet of the sequence. It is in the very act of going hospitality that Sarah and Abraham receive a blessing which confirms their true vocation. Their hospitality to the strangers has unlocked something in them and the power of God’s promise to bless us all through Abraham is released.

DSCF9148


1 Abraham and Sarah at Mamre

 

They practice hospitality; their hearts

Have opened like a secret source, free flowing

Only as they take another’s part.

Stopped in themselves, and in their own unknowing,

But unlocked by these strangers in their need,

They breathe again, and courtesy, set free,

Begets the unexpected; generosity

Begetting generation, as the seed

Of promise springs and laughs in Sarah’s womb.

 

Made whole by their own hospitality,

And like the rooted oak whose shade makes room

For this refreshing genesis at Mamre,

One couple, bringing comfort to their guests,

Becomes our wellspring in the wilderness.

 

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The Words of Life: A New Sonnet

You have the words of eternal life

You have the words of eternal life

This is the season of new beginnings. Some people may have made the resolution, in one way or another, to ‘turn over a new leaf’, though when I used that phrase once in a conversation with my mother, she looked at me sharply and said: ‘Its not the leaves, its the roots that want turning!’

I am turning then to the roots of my faith in the living words of Jesus, deep generative words, words of Life, as the gospel calls them, because Life himself speaks them, and from them so much new life and growth can spring. But there is a problem. Many of these ‘words of life’, these sayings of Jesus are so over-familiar that we have ceased to hear them at all, ceased to register the shock, and challenge, that many of them contain. And when we do begin to grasp them we often find them difficult and don’t take the time we need to wrestle with them.

I have begun a new sonnet sequence called Parable and Paradox, reflecting on and wrestling with the sayings of Jesus to try and get past that familiarity and return again to these deep roots.

In this particular sonnet, which will come near the beginning of the sequence, I look at the moment in John’s Gospel, when disciples are leaving Jesus, because they find his sayings too hard and challenging, and he asks Peter directly if he too, is going to leave, and we read in John 6:68:

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Peter may not understand all that Jesus has to say to him, but he knows that somewhere in there is the heart of life itself and he is going to stay with Jesus until he understands it. And that really is the starting lace not only for this sonnet but for the whole sequence.

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

The Words of Life

 

John 6:68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

 

You have the words of life, where should we go

Except to you, to try and take them in?

We want your words to quicken us, to know

And be transformed by knowledge deep within.

How is it then, these words seem dead in us?

We neither let them go nor let them live,

Their empty echoes always seem to haunt us,

As daily we refuse what they might give.

 

Oh Teacher we need more than just the hearing,

More than these readings we have set apart,

Somehow the two-edged sword we have been fearing

Must pierce at last the well-defended heart.

Unsheathe it now and help us take the pain,

Pierce to the point where we can start again.

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Sunday 18th Jan: Nathanael’s Epiphany

You will see the Heaven opened

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the second Sunday of Epiphany (John 1:43-51) takes us to one of the most mysterious and beautiful moments in the New Testament. As the disciples begin to gather around Jesus, Philip finds Nathanael and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) Nathanael’s unpromising response is ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ But Phillip gives the best possible reply that anyone sharing the mystery of their faith can give; ‘Come and see’. and that ‘come and see’ sets a theme of ‘seeing’ and vision which culminates in the amazing exchange between Nathanael and Jesus that follows.

Before Nathanael has uttered a word Jesus says ‘Behold an Israelite indeed’ and turns the tables of ‘vision’ onto Nathanael himself, and in that moment Nathanael suddenly knows that he is ompletely known by this man he has never met. ‘Whence knowest thou me?’ he asks, and Jesus’ reply is again about vision and seeing: ‘Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.’  Something amazing happens here, Nathan, who was scoffing at Nazareth a minute before, has a sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching, leaping ahead of all the other disciples to an undertanding and certainty that even Peter would not attain for another three years, and declares ‘Rabbi thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel!’

An Epiphany has taken place, something whole and complete has been disclosed in a single glance, to see and be seen is enough! This is an example in the Gospel of a sudden ‘awakening’, a direct pointing to reality, which some people think is only associated with Buddhism, but here it is. And then Jesus, alluding subtly to Nathanael’s mention of Israel, promises that this is just the beginning of a greater epiphany. Nathanael is ‘an Israelite indeed’ and Jesus points to the key epiphany in the life of Israel, when he was still called Jacob, the epiphany in which he saw the ladder connecting heaven and earth:

‘Verily, verily I say unto you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’

Here is one of those thrilling moments when a mysterious image from the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New! The ladder was a prophetic image given in a dream to Jacob of what is to come, now it has come true! I am the ladder, Jesus is saying, the true connection, the true gate of Heaven. And in this intimate exchange Nathanael has seen with his waking eyes what his ancestor had seen only veiled in dream and symbol!

I have tried to embody something of these reflections in the following sonnet. I am grateful again for Margot Kreb’s Neale’s beautiful photograph, itself a comentary on this same mystery.  The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop. As always you can hear this poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Nathanael’s Epiphany

A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,
A man of clay, his head upon a stone
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from Heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken-hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.

And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.

 

An extraordinary Sculpture of Jacob’s Dream at Abilene Christian University, Texas.

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