Category Archives: literature

A Spell for World Book Day

Here is a poem called Spell, which I re-post for World Book Day, 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

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell 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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Prayer/Walk

The land's long memory in ridge and furrow

The land’s long memory in ridge and furrow

Here is today’s poem and commentary from my Lent Book The Word in the Wilderness

 
https://audioboom.com/boos/2952243-prayer-walk.mp3
Prayer/Walk   Malcolm Guite

 

A hidden path that starts at a dead end,

Old ways, renewed by walking with a friend,

And crossing places taken hand in hand,

 

The passages where nothing need be said,

With bruised and scented sweetness underfoot

And unexpected birdsong overhead,

 

The sleeping life beneath a dark-mouthed burrow,

The rooted secrets rustling in a hedgerow,

The land’s long memory in ridge and furrow,

 

A track once beaten and now overgrown

With complex textures, every kind of green,

Land- and cloud-scape melting into one,

 

The rich meandering of streams at play,

A setting out to find oneself astray,

And coming home at dusk a different way.

 

Continuing these reflections on the nature of prayer itself, I offer another of my own poems, which, like Gwyneth Lewis’s ‘Homecoming’, is written in direct homage to Herbert’s poem ‘Prayer’. I had come to notice that on retreats it was not always in the ‘offices’ in chapel, but also on walks and rambles in and around retreat house grounds that I found the deepest spiritual renewal and the best prayer. So I decided to write a poem that would be at once a celebration of walking in the countryside and of prayer itself. Every phrase in this poem is, I hope, both an account of what walking is like and an emblem of what prayer is like. As I have done with the previous two poems I will just lift out and open one or two phrases and encourage my readers to do likewise with the rest.

 

A hidden path that starts at a dead end,

 

I have noticed how often interesting footpaths and bridleways start just beyond the brambles at the end of tarmacked roads marked ‘dead end’. And it seemed, for me at least, that is very often where prayer starts too. I am sure that prayer should be a first resort, but for me it is sometimes the last resort when I’ve tried everything else! I’ve also noticed that the places in life where I get stuck and come up as it were against a ‘dead end’ sign, are inevitably the important places, the places where there is real stuff to deal with and that is precisely why I get stuck or find it difficult to move forward. Too often one simply shies away from these personal dead-ends and goes for the first diversion (usually Facebook!) to try something easier. But when I’m walking, the opposite is true. It gives me pleasure to walk down the apparent dead-end and find the hidden path where the cars can’t go, strike out across the fields and leave the traffic behind, so I have tried to apply this to my prayer life. To begin the prayer at one of my personal dead-ends and ask God to open up the path. That technique has had some surprising and beautiful results!

 

The sleeping life beneath a dark-mouthed burrow,

The rooted secrets rustling in a hedgerow,

The land’s long memory in ridge and furrow,

 

You sense, on a good country walk, the hidden richness and depth of everything that is going on around you. You know that what you actually see; the close up path ahead of you, the distant panorama, the occasional sweeping view of wider fields, are only a trace, a hint of what’s really there. Sometimes you suddenly hear the hedgerow rustle or see the tracks of badgers or deer and you realize that you are walking past a whole web of life and exchange of which you are only partly aware. Again, features in the landscape itself suddenly speak of a long history and almost take you there. The ridges and ripples in a field you cross that are remnants of the mediaeval ‘ridge and furrow’ agriculture, where your ancestors toiled on their separate ‘strips’ of soil, divided between the children of a large family. Again it seemed to me that this experience is very true of our prayer life. When we begin to pray we have to start where we are, usually just on the surface of our lives, but there is always so much else going on. We all have a familiar surface to our lives but are there not also, deeper in our psyche, the burrows and dens, where the shyer and more furtive elements of our inner life are rooted and nestling. Might these, half-acknowledged parts of ourselves also be brought to God for blessing, noticed a little and offered to him? Have we not also those longer and deeper memories, perhaps going right back into our family histories, which have, as it were shaped the landscape of who we are? Perhaps prayer, and particularly prayer in Lent might be a time to bring them for blessing and healing to God, for whom all times are present, in whom is the fullness of time.

Perhaps these last two poems, both responding to Herbert’s prayer, might encourage you to make a ‘listing’ poem of your own, filled with the images that have become, or could become, living emblems of your prayer life.

 

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here

Here also is a beautiful journal and illustration responding to today’s prayer from Tracey Wiffen whose blog you can find Here

Tracey Wiffen's journal

Tracey Wiffen’s journal

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Word In the Wilderness: 3rd Temptation

Temptation

Temptation

Here is my reflection and poem on Christ’s third temptation from my new book The Word in the Wilderness:

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time’ (Luke 4.9−3).

If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others, despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people. One of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful Father Brown stories, ‘The Hammer of God’, explores this theme with his usual combination of acuity and humour. In the story a curate who has constantly taken to ‘praying, not on the common church floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires’ is tempted to deal justice to his sinful brother by flinging a hammer down on him from the heights. It is Father Brown who sees and understands the temptation and brings the curate down from the heights to a proper place of repentance. Here’s a fragment of their dialogue before they descend:

 

‘I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,’ said Father Brown. ‘Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.’

‘Do you mean that one may fall over?’ asked Wilfred.

‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest …

After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. ‘I knew a man,’ he said, ‘who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.’

Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.

‘He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.’

‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest.

 

I was remembering something of this story when I wrote my sonnet on the third temptation, but thanks be to God that in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, Jesus shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.

WhenThe image above is from a sketch book of the painter  Adam Boulter who sent me this haunting sketch of two figures looking down at Petra ‘from the high place of sacrifice’ (as he added in a marginal note) who sent me this sketch when we were working together on the In the Wilderness Exhibition for Westminster Abbey.

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that Copies of The Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here

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

Temptation in the wilderness

 

‘Temples and Spires are good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

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A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday

Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s Cross

I resume the thread of Sounding the Seasons, the sonnet sequence I have been posting here, and which is also available as a book from Canterbury Press, with this sonnet for Ash Wednesday. As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares. So some of those themes are visited in this sonnet. As we go through Lent I will post sonnets reflecting on each of the three temptations of Christ in  the wilderness, as well as for Mothering Sunday and the Feast of the  Annunciation which also falls in Lent. And this Lent I have two special additions. the first is a link to the new Snippet Book for Lent by Steve Bell, to which I have made some contributions. Check out his snippet series HERE, and the second is my own new book The Word in the Wilderness which contains these and other poems set out so that you can reflect on a poem a day throughout Lent. If you’d like to pursue the Lenten journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. But if you’d like to buy it from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

 

As before I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the remarkable commentary on these poems which she is making through her photographs. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play Button

Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

Beginning with this sign upon your brow

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Shriven and Ready: A Shrove Tuesday Post

O Shrieve me Shrieve me Holy Man!

O Shrieve me Shrieve me Holy Man!

The Word in the Wilderness, My new Anthology of Poetry for Lent, begins, not on Ash Wednesday, but on Shrove Tuesday with a reflection on what ‘shrove’ itself means. I thought I would share that with you on this Shrove Tuesday. If you’d like to pursue the journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. But if you’d like to buy it from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock. Shrove Tuesday: This is the day we think about being ‘shriven’ – confessing our sins and receiving the cleansing and release of forgiveness. The word ‘shrove’ drives from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘shrift’ meaning to hear someone’s confession, or ‘shrive them’. So Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, when he makes it to land, and needs to be released from the burden of his guilt, says to the hermit: ‘O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy Man.’ It was the duty of priests especially to hear the confession and grant forgiveness and spiritual counsel to those who were facing execution and when prison chaplains failed to do this properly, with time care and attention, there was a complaint that people were being ‘given short shrift’, which is where that phrase comes from. Here and now on this Shrove Tuesday we can take that time and care. But the whole idea of confession and absolution can seem strange and alien if it was not part of our life and culture, and sometimes daunting if it was! Sometimes it takes a poet to help us re-imagine the possibilities of being ‘shriven’, really letting go, being truly forgiven. This poem is from Seamus Heaney’s Station Island, a sequence of poems about confronting the past, letting it go, in order to be released, freed and unburdened for the journey of life. The whole sequence ‘Station Island’ is a masterpiece; but ‘XI’ is the jewel in its crown, containing as it does not only a fine emblem of sin and redemption, but also a powerful new translation of perhaps the greatest of the poems of St John of the Cross. The poem opens with the poet’s memory of having ruined a kaleidoscope he had been given as a child, by plunging it ‘in a butt of muddied water’, in his desire, even then, to see into the dark. This gift, ‘mistakenly abased’, becomes an emblem for all that is ruined and ‘run to waste’ in us. The kaleidoscope becomes an emblem of the gift of imagination itself, an instrument in which we may see refracted through the creation, the glories of God’s light. Our fall, collectively and individually has plunged this kaleidoscope into muddied water. The world we see habitually is not the true world at all, because it is seen through the sludge with which the kaleidoscope is encrusted, a sludge which Coleridge so charitably called, ‘the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude’. The question is, has the gift been ruined forever? Can the kaleidoscope surface again? Can it ever again become the ‘marvellous lightship’, the window into heaven? That is a sharp question, both for ourselves individually and for our whole culture. In this poem, Heaney suggests that it can: ‘What came to nothing could always be replenished’, and the replenishment, the restoration of vision, like the resurfacing of the kaleidoscope, is precisely the business of poetry. The monk to whom Heaney has made confession understands this absolutely; he understands that Heaney’s vocation as a poet comes from the same source as his own vocation to be a monk, and is therefore able to say, ‘Read poems as prayers’. It is not that Heaney is asked to, or would be prepared to sloganize for the Catholic Church, but rather that this cleansing of the instruments of our vision by the power of his imagination as a poet, is part of that whole restoration even in our darkness, of the vision of Truth which is the work of the whole Trinity, but especially in us of the Logos, the Word who is also the Light. This becomes abundantly clear in the poem Heaney goes on to translate, in which at last, after all his journeying, he arrives at and names the Source of that river which Milton named, ‘Siloam’s brook’, and Coleridge called, ‘Alph, the sacred river’. Perhaps we can see our own Lenten pilgrimage as a journey upstream to the source of that ‘fountain, filling running’ that is celebrated in this poem.

Station Island XI Seamus Heaney/St John of the Cross

 

As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope

I plunged once in a butt of muddied water

Surfaced like a marvellous lightship

 

And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face

That had spoken years ago from behind a grille

Spoke again about the need and chance

 

To salvage everything, to re-envisage

The zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift

Mistakenly abased …

 

What came to nothing could always be replenished.

 

‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance

Translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’

 

Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,

His consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,

He had made me feel there was nothing to confess.

 

Now his sandaled passage stirred me on to this:

 

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,

Although it is the night.

 

That eternal fountain, hidden away

I know its haven and its secrecy

Although it is the night

 

But not its source because it does not have one,

Which is all sources’ source and origin?

Although it is the night.

 

No other thing can be so beautiful.

Here the earth and heaven drink their fill

Although it is the night.

 

So pellucid it never can be muddied,

And I know that all light radiates from it

Although it is the night.

 

I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,

Nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom

Although it is the night.

 

And its current so in flood it overspills

To water hell and heaven and all peoples

Although it is the night.

 

And the current that is generated there,

As far as it wills to, it can flow that far

Although it is the night.

 

And from these two a third current proceeds

Which neither of these two, I know, precedes

Although it is the night.

 

This eternal fountain hides and splashes

Within this living bread that is life to us

Although it is the night.

 

Hear it calling out to every creature.

And they drink these waters, although it is dark here

Because it is the night.

 

I am repining for this living fountain.

Within this bread of life I see it plain

Although it is the night.

hidden_fountain_by_yoruichi_takashi

hidden_fountain_by_yoruichi_takashi

 

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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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In the Wilderness 4: Temptation

Temptation

Temptation

When Adam Boulter sent me this haunting sketch of two figures looking down at Petra ‘from the high place of sacrifice’ (as he added in a marginal note) I realised that, with some small changes, it answered to my sonnet on the third temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. The whole sequence of seven ‘Wilderness’ moments hinges on the two glimpses of Christ in the Wilderness: the first, forced there as an innocent child refugee, sharing the trauma of all the coerced victims of conflict, and this second as a mature man choosing to face and feel, to suffer for us, and to overcome our temptations, and in this case, the most insidious of all temptations, and the root of the most destructive and ghastly of all our conflicts, the temptation to religious pride.

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

Temptation in the wilderness

 

‘A sacred place is good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

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