September the 21st is St. Matthew’s day, so here is a sonnet for the Evangelist, drawn from my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons. Like my sonnets for the other three evangelists, it draws on the traditional association of each evangelist with one of the four living creatures around the throne of God. As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Rebecca Merry for the image above.
First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;
A gospel that begins with generation,
Family lines entwine around the Son
Born in Judea, born for every nation
Born under Law that all the Law of Moses
Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace
As every word and deed in time discloses
Eternal love within a human face.
This is the gospel of the great reversal
A wayside weed is Solomon in glory
The smallest sparrow’s fall is universal
And Christ the heart of every human story
‘I will be with you, though you may not see
And all you do, you do it unto me’
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 and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA and physical copies are s available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. The book is now also out on Kindle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On September 8th many churches across the world, both Catholic and Anglican, keep the feast of the Blesed Virgin Mary, fulfilling the scripture that says “All generations will call me blessed”, remembering the one who bore our saviour for us, who was full of grace.
It is true that some Christians have disagreed with one another bitterly about her, but equally, in every age and every church she has been, for many Christians, a sign of hope, an example of prayer, devotion and service, and an inspiration.
In a strange way, which I will write about one day, she was a sign of hope to me even before I was a Christian, and it was something numinous and beautiful in the paintings and poetry she has inspired that helped lead me to her Son.
I thought for this feast day, I would offer a quartet of sonnets in her honour, gathering together the four sonnets about her which are part of my wider collection ‘Sounding the Seasons’. They take us, from the Annunciation and her ‘yes’ to the angel, through the Visitation, with its beautiful magnificat, to the birth of Jesus, and then to her presence with him on the via dolorosa and at the foot of the cross.
As always you can hear the poems by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears, or clicking on the title.
This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.
I’m just back from an exhausting, but stimulating, expedition to North America in which I travelled from Boston to Vancouver, from Seattle to Albuquerque, from Santa Fe to LA and then home, so I thought I’d share a little of my adventures on the way.
The adventures began flying in to Boston so as to speak at the CS Lewis Foundation‘s Eastern Regional conference in Amherst. The Conference was on the theme of Lewis and Truth in the Public square and I gave a keynote address, preached a sermon on the Sunday and led a seminar on poetry as well as giving a reading/performance of my songs and sonnets. There was an impressive mix of people from many walks of life and many different churches all drawn by the common strand of Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and the sense that his plea for the Faith as offering truths robust and relevant in the ‘public square’ and not just a private ‘lifestyle option was well worth exploring. A highlight of that conference for me was a visit to emily Dickinson’s house still preserved just as it was. Seeing the tiny desk on which she wrote such great poetry inspired a new poem in me which I have given in a separate blog post here.
Then it was a flight to Vancouver to spend a week at Regent College teaching a course called ‘ Poetic reflections on the sayings of Jesus’ which gave me a chance to develop the themes and ideas set out in my new poetry sequence Parable and Paradox. One of those themes was the way in which Jesus, in all his teachings, appeals directly to the imagination, as well as to the reason. In parables and paradoxes he asks us to imagine what the kingdom is like and to begin living, even now, as if we were already in it! Two poems in the new collection, particularly bring that into focus: ‘ As If’ and ‘Imagine’. The latter poem is also my own response to John Lennon’s song of the same name! As always you can hear the poetry by clicking on the title or the play button so here they are:
Luke 6:37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Do not judge and you will not be judged.
Imagine if we took these words to heart,
Unselved ourselves and took another’s part,
Silenced the accuser, dropped the grudge…
Do not condemn, you will not be condemned.
Imagine if we lived our lives from this
And met each other’s outcasts face to face,
Imagine if the blood-dimmed tide was stemmed.
Forgive and you yourselves will be forgiven.
What if we walked together on this path,
What if the whole world laid aside it’s wrath,
And things were done on earth as though in heaven,
As though the heart’s dark knots were all undone,
As though this dreamer weren’t the only one?
With Luci Shaw at Regent College
My week at Regent ended with a wonderful invitation to join the poet Luci Shaw in one of her poetry readings, and so I had the opportunity to read to Luci in person, the poem I had written for her and published in Parable and Paradox. As always you can hear the poetry by clicking on the title or the play button. Here it is:
Whilst I was speaking at a CS Lewis conference in Amherst I had the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now beautifully preserved as the Emily Dickinson Museum. And so I came to stand in that ‘mighty room’ where all the poems were written, and there, plain and simple and strangely, paradoxically, small was her little desk: a small square writing table. I was filled with wonder at how much had flowed from so small a space, but then I thought about Dickinson’s characteristically concentrated and terse verse forms; those compact and concentrated little quatrains with the emphatic dashes linking and yet binding in the energy of her phrases, and it seemed to me the smallness of the desk was itself part of the form of the poetry, part of her gift.
Anyway the whole experience stirred me on to this: (as always you can hear me read it you click on the title or the play button)
On Remembrance Day in 2011 I was at home listening to the radio and when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily wrote this sonnet.
November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
The 29th of June this year is a Silver Jubilee for me: the 25th Anniversary of my ordination as a priest i the church of England. The 29th is of course also St. Peter’s day, when we remember the disciple who, for all his many mistakes, knew how to recover and hold on, who, for all his waverings was called by Jesus ‘the rock’, who learned the threefold lesson that every betrayal can ultimately be restored by love. It is fitting therefore that it is at Petertide that new priests and deacons are ordained, on the day they remember a man whose recovery from mistakes and openness to love can give them courage. So I post this poem not only for St. Peter but for all those being ordained this weekend and in memory of my own ordination on this day 25 years ago.
This poem comes from my collection Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. You can also buy it on Amazon Uk or US or order it in any bookshop. My Canadian readers can get it from Steve Bell.
As always you can her the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or on the title of the poem.