Category Archives: imagination

The Word and the words: a sonnet for Lancelot Andrewes

Lancelot Andrewes preacher and translator

September 25th is Lancelot Andrewes’ Day, when the Church remembers one of its greatest preachers and the man whose scholarship and gift for poetic phrasing was so central to the making of the King James Version of the Bible. My own Doctoral thesis was on Andrewes and he has exercised a huge influence on me. On the 400th anniverseary of the KJV I gave a lecture for the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature on Andrewes and translation which was published in this book The King James Version at 400. But I have also published a sonnet for Andrewes in my book for Canterbury Press  The Singing Bowl, so here it is. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button .

Lancelot Andrewes

Your mind is fixed upon the sacred page,
A candle lights your study through the night,
The choicest wit, the scholar of the age,
Seeking the light in which we see the light.
Grace concentrates in you, your hand is firm,
Tracing the line of truth in all its ways,
Through you the great translation finds its form,
‘And still there are not tongues enough to praise.’
Your day began with uttering his name
And when you close your eyes you rest in him,
His constant star still draws you to your home,
Our chosen stella praedicantium.
You set us with the Magi on the Way
And shine in Christ unto the rising day.

I also gave a talk about Lancelot Andrewes and the translation of the King James Bible to the Chelmsford Cathedral Theological Society which various people have asked to hear. They have sent me a recording which I am posting here. The talk itself doesn’t start until about three minutes into the recording and last for about 50 minutes with a question and answer session afterwards.

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Hildegard of Bingen: A Sonnet

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

The 17th of September is the feast day of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable and prophetic woman, who described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’, and whose many works in theology, music, visual art, poetry and drama are still inspiring people today. Indeed she is coming more and more into her own, as one of her key ideas ‘Viriditas’, or the greening and life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit, seems especially apposite for our time. See this page on her by a contemporary Benedictine.

The photo below is by Margot Krebs Neale

I wrote this sonnet at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire. It is published in my second volume of poetry The Singing Bowl, Canterbury Press,  available on Amazon in both the US and the UK

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

Hildegard of Bingen

A feather on the breath of God at play,

You saw the play of God in all creation.

You drew eternal light into each day,

And every living breath was inspiration.

You made a play with every virtue playing,

Made music for each sister-soul to sing,

Listened for what each herb and stone was saying,

And heard the Word of God in everything.

 

Mother from mother earth and Magistra, 

Your song revealed God’s hidden gift to us;

The verdant fire, his holy harbinger

The greening glory of viriditas.

‘Cherish this earth that keeps us all alive’

Either we hear you, or we don’t survive.

 

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

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God Is Our Hope And Strength: A Response to Psalm 46

Today we come to Psalm 46 which is is a firm favourite with many people and for good reason. Its opening line sets the theme of God’s reassuring strength and presence:

  1. GOD is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble.

It is in the context of that reassuring strength and confidence that we can face our fears and deal with what the prayer book calls ‘ all the changes and chances of this fleeting world’ and 2020 is certainly a year in which we have seen more than our fair share of those changes and chances. And so the psalm continues:

Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved: and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof rage and swell: and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God: the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest.

God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed: God shall help her, and that right early.

And then, towards the end comes the wonderful prophecy of peace, and the vision of God as peacemaker:

He maketh wars to cease in all the world: he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder, and burneth the chariots in the fire.

It was through Mary’s obedience that the Prince of Peace was born into this world, so I pick up the thread of the final line of my poem on psalm 45 to begin this poem, a poem for strength and encouragement written in the midst of this appalling year in which it seems, as I say in the poem, that ‘everything around us falls apart’. Everything except our loving God.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVI Deus noster refugium

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation,

For God was in the midst of her, and now

We too are called, in every generation

 

To find in him our hope and strength, though

Everything around us falls apart,

And all our towering schemes have been laid low

 

Now is the time to take his truth to heart

And to be glad within the holy place

That he himself has made in us. To start

 

Each day with him, abiding in his grace

As he abides with us. To know his peace

To turn towards his light and seek his face

 

And let his flowing spirit find release

And flow through us into his weary world

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease.

 

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Holy Cross Day: some sonnets on the cross

Today, is Holy Cross day. It originally commemorated the day when Helena the Mother of Constantine was believed to have found the true cross, astonishing the inhabitants of Jerusalem by searching the rubbish tip of Golgotha and, on unearthing this discarded sign of shame, exalting it as the greatest treasure on earth. But this festival has become since then a day when any of us can again find the cross, still a discarded sign of shame, and find in it the greatest treasure and the source of grace. To mark the day I am reposting here four of the sonnets for the Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons and are also intended to be read on Good Friday.

Please feel free to make use of them in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog.

The Image above was made by Lancia Smith and the images below are taken from a set of stations of the cross in St. Alban’s church Oxford. I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.

From The Stations Of the Cross

 


II Jesus is given his cross

He gives himself again with all his gifts

And now we give him something in return.

He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,

Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,

And from these elements he forged the iron,

From strands of life he wove the growing wood,

He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion

He saw it all and saw that it is good.

We took his iron to edge an axe’s blade,

We took the axe and laid it to the tree,

We made a cross of all that he has made,

And laid it on the one who made us free.

Now he receives again and lifts on high

The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.

 


XI Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.


XII Jesus dies on the cross

The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black
We watch him as he labours to draw breath
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We hear him struggle breathing through the pain
Who once breathed out his spirit on the deep,
Who formed us when he mixed the dust with rain
And drew us into consciousness from sleep.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Mantles his world in his one atmosphere
And now he comes to breathe beneath the pall
Of our pollutions, draw our injured air
To cleanse it and renew. His final breath
Breathes us, and bears us through the gates of death.


XIII Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.

 

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St. Clare: a Sonnet

This mosaic in Assisi, Italy, photographed May 28, depicts St. Clare of Assisi holding a palm frond, a symbol of her entering religious life. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

August the 11th is the day the church remembers with thanksgiving the life and witness of St. Clare.  She was the friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the Poor Clares. Her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts a soul-guide, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime and still a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.

Clare wrote:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”

So here is my sonnet in her honour reflecting on how the meaning of her name, ‘light and clarity’, was also the meaning of her life. This sonnet is taken from  The Singing Bowl , which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.


Clare

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,

Shining through you as Holy Caritas,

Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection

The girl whom Love has called to call us all

Back into truth, simplicity and grace.

Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,

Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.

Christ holds the mirror of your given life

Up to the world he gives himself to save,

A sacrament to keep your city safe,

A window into his eternal love.

Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,

Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.

 

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A Sonnet for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

Pausing for a moment in our progress through the Psalms I return to my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, to share a sonnet for today’s 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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With Thee Is The Well Of Life: A Response To Psalm 36

Chalice Well gardens in Glastonbury

After a little break for saint’s days and site launches I return to my new sequence on the psalms.Psalm 36, is one of those psalms that suddenly shifts in tone part way through and rises to the sublime. It starts, as so many psalms in anger and frustration at the manifest evils in the world:

MY HEART sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly: that there is no fear of God before his eyes.

For he flattereth himself in his own sight: until his abominable sin be found out.

but then, from the fifth verse on our vision is suddenly lifted, quite literally, into the heavens:

Thy mercy, O Lord, reacheth unto the heavens: and thy faithfulness unto the clouds.

Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains: thy judgements are like the great deep.

And then comes, the master image of the psalm, one of the most sublime images in all of Scripture:

For with thee is the well of life: and in thy light shall we see light.

In my responsive poem I have dwelt on that image, together with the other lovely phrases that precedes it:

the children of men shall put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.

They shall be satisfied with the plenteousness of thy house: and thou shalt give them drink of thy pleasures, as out of the river.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

 

XXXVI Dixit injustus

As pilgrim souls on whom your light has shone

Let us leave judgement to your tender mercy

And turn instead to you, keep pressing on

 

Towards the steadfast heights, the mountain country

Of your holy presence. Let us drink

From that swift river, our true ecstacy.

 

Refresh us Christ, and bring us to the brink

Of that deep well where life itself is light

And goodness, more than we can dream or think,

 

Flows from your plenteousness, from your delight

In all your works, and where your loving kindness

Shines through our day and comforts us at night,

 

Like soft wings safely overarching us,

That we might put our utter trust in you

And fret no more for passing wickedness.

 

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Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet

The 22nd of July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and, returning to 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 . It is 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 me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.



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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John Keble and Sounding the Seasons

Rebecca Merry’s beautiful cover design for my book Sounding the Seasons

Today is the day the Church of England remembers John Keble, a priest, scholar and poet who was part of the Oxford Movement which so enriched the church’s mission and liturgy. He has a special place for me in my own calendar of saints because, almost exactly 200 years ago he began a cycle of poems going through every Sunday in the Christian Year and celebrating its distinctive mysteries which was eventually published as ‘The Christian Year” and proved immensely popular and helpful to many Christians all over the world, and went through 50 editions in Keble’s own lifetime. Keble’s book, together with George Herbert’s The Temple was one of the inspirations for my own book of poems for the liturgical year: Sounding The Seasons. So on Keble’s day I am reposting the opening sonnet from that book, simply called Sounding the Seasons, a sonnet which meditates on what we hope to achieve by keeping the seasons, keeping holy and memorial days. Of course the truths on which we meditate over the course of the liturgical year, from the mystery of Christmas to the all-transforming drama of Good Friday and Easter, are true all the time! But we do not remember or think of them all the time, for time itself, ‘the subtle thief’, can so easily take even the memory of truth from us. So it was a deep wisdom that led the early church to turn ‘Time the thief’ into ‘Time the messenger’, to make the very medium that might have taken the truth away from us become the medium that restores it, as Time brings round and renews each Holy Day.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. This recording was made early in the project before the sequence was finished, or the book was published.

Sounding The Seasons

Tangled in time, we live with hints and guesses
Turning the wheel of each returning year,
But in between our failures and successes
We sometimes glimpse the Love that casts out fear,
Sometimes the heart remembers its own reasons
And breathes a Sanctus as we tell our story,
Tracing the tracks of grace, sounding the seasons
That lead at last through time to timeless glory.

From the first yearnings for a Saviours birth
To the full joy of knowing sins forgiven
We gather as His church on Gods’s good earth
To share an echo of the choirs of heaven
I share these hints, returning what was lent,
Turning to praise each ‘moment’s monument’.

 

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The Relief of Honesty: A response to Psalm 32

Arriving at psalm 32, we come to one of the great ‘penitential psalms’, a group of psalms  often used in the season of Lent, or at anytime to express personal confession and contrition. But that doesn’t make it a gloomy psalm, it’s a beautiful psalm because in the same breath that it calls for confession, it proclaims forgiveness. It opens with a ‘Beatus’, a beatitude, a blessing:

  1. BLESSED is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven: and whose sin is covered.

The key to this psalm is the observation that hiding and repressing the truth about oneself only makes things worse: ‘For while I held my tongue: my bones consumed away’, and then, after honest confession and forgiveness comes that beautiful line:

Thou art a place to hide me in, thou shalt preserve me from trouble: thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance.

My poem in response to this psalm takes a necessarily more personal tone but I hope it can in that sense be personal to all its readers.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXII Beati, quorum

In your deep silence and your mystery

You led me to confess and be forgiven.

You gave me the relief of honesty.

 

How long and bitterly I might have striven

With all the guilt that I could hardly name

How painfully my heart might have been riven

 

By hidden memories and secret shame

Instead you blessed me with a new beginning

Unbound me from bands and brands of blame

 

My false accounts of losing or of winning

And called me to come forth like Lazarus

And start my life again, rejoicing, singing

 

Baptised and born in your mysterious

And all-involving love, a love that lifts,

A love that comforts and embraces us.

 

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