There is no feast of Thanksgiving in either the British national or church calendars, but it seems to me a good thing for any nation to set aside a day for the gratitude which is in truth the root of every other virtue. So on the eve of American Thanksgiving, I am re-posting here an Englishman’s act of thanksgiving. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the play button if it appears or on the title.
Thanksgiving starts with thanks for mere survival,
Just to have made it through another year
With everyone still breathing. But we share
So much beyond the outer roads we travel;
Our interweavings on a deeper level,
The modes of life embodied souls can share,
The unguessed blessings of our being here,
The warp and weft that no one can unravel.
So I give thanks for our deep coinherence
Inwoven in the web of God’s own grace,
Pulling us through the grave and gate of death.
I thank him for the truth behind appearance,
I thank him for his light in every face,
I thank him for you all, with every breath.
We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and the following Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King, hidden beneath the rags and even in the flesh of his poor here on earth.
Here is a sonnet written in response to the gospel reading for the feast of Christ the King.
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
The 19th of November is the feast day of Abess Hilda of Whitby. Saint Hilda was great leader of the Church in England and the first patron of English Christian poetry. She also presided at the crucial and controversial Synod of Whitby and brought that Synod to a fruitful and peaceful conclusion. When I posted this sonnet on her feast day some years ago it happened that the church’s General Synod was meeting and I had that in mind as part of my prayerful remembrance of Hilda, as you will hear in the preamble to the recording of the poem.
This year its another aspect of her story I’d like to highlight, to which I also allude in my poem. This is the story of Caedmon, the earliest English poet whose name is known. Bede tells the story of how he came to his vocation as a poet:
According to Bede, Cædmon was a lay brother who cared for the animals at the monastery Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey). One evening, while the monks were feasting, singing, and playing a harp, Cædmon left early to sleep with the animals because he knew no songs. The impression clearly given by St. Bede is that he lacked the knowledge of how to compose the lyrics to songs. While asleep, he had a dream in which “someone” (quidam) approached him and asked him to sing principium creaturarum, “the beginning of created things.” After first refusing to sing, Cædmon subsequently produced a short eulogistic poem praising God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Upon awakening the next morning, Cædmon remembered everything he had sung and added additional lines to his poem. He told his foreman about his dream and gift and was taken immediately to see the abbess. The abbess and her counsellors asked Cædmon about his vision and, satisfied that it was a gift from God, gave him a new commission, this time for a poem based on “a passage of sacred history or doctrine”, (account taken from this Wiki article )
So as I remember Hilda with thanksgiving I also give thanks for all the churches and church leaders who have been patrons of the arts and especially those who have found a space and place for poetry in liturgy. I give thanks too for all those churches who have chosen to weave my own poems into liturgy and sermons and pray that those words have been fruitful
The icon of Hilda above is from the St. Albans Parish website The Daily Cup
The sonnet also appears in my second poetry book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on its title or on the play button
There was a former soldier, now a homeless man, who used to come sometimes into the back of our church in Cambridge. Dressed in camouflage and carrying an imaginary rifle he would squat behind the pews, take aim at the pulpit, or edge his way round the side of the church, clearly frightened and looking for cover. We knew he was reliving things we could scarcely imagine and we did our best to calm him and make him feel welcome (as well as dealing with the alarm he sometimes caused to members of the congregation.) It was meeting with him, and other former soldiers like him, that led me to write this Sestina, which is part of a sequence called ‘Six Glimpses’ in my book The Singing Bowl.
As a form, the Sestina insists that the poet return again and again, but in a different order, to the same six words with which the first six lines of the poem end. Of its very nature this form explores, repetition, return, trappedness, circularity, the very things with which so many soldiers with PTSD and their families are having to deal, so it seemed the right form to try and express a little of what I could see. I post this now so that we might remember, pray for and find ways of helping those who have been through the trauma of battle and cannot find their way back into ‘normality’ yet. I hope and pray that as awareness grows there might be more in the way of help and counselling provided both by the Military and the NHS, and perhaps more understanding from the general public.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox
This Friday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist, and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year. My sonnets in that series, include a mini-sequence on the four Evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the four Evangelists.
‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘ St. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 120-202 AD) – Adversus Haereses 3.11.8
For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote above. As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. In this iconographic tradition Luke’s emblem is the ox, the lowly servant His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver of his brother Luc. The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.
A few years ago, on the exact anniversary of his Martyrdom by fire in 1555, I stood in the very Pulpit from which Latimer had preached, to preach a sermon celebrating his memory and re-affirming the gospel for which he died. On this aniversary therefore I am posting again the Sonnet I wrote called Latimer’s pulpit. It is part of a sequence of St. Edward’s sonnets you can read here, but I republish it on its own, for Latimer’s day.
Here first is a preliminary note about the pulpit:
Ours is known as Latimers Pulpit, for Hugh Latimer the great Saint and Martyr preached there often, and it was in this pulpit that he preached the famous sermon of the card, to which my sonnet alludes.
In that sermon he imagines that we are losing a card game with the devil. One after another he lays out the black suit of our sins, he holds all the cards and is ready to take the ‘trick’ of our souls, but Christ leans forward and lays on top of all those sins the trump card that wins us back; the king of hearts, for in a universe where God is love, then love is always trumps. At the end of the sermon he exhorts his hearers to do for others what Christ has done for them. When people deal you cards of malice, hate, or envy always and only reply by trumping hate with love. His great love, even of his enemies, shone through when he was burned at the stake for his faith in 1555. It is an extraordinary experience to touch the wood, and to stand in that pulpit and preach as I do each week.
And here is the poem, as always you can hear it by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title:
Latimer’s pulpit, you can touch the wood,
Sound for yourself the syllables of grace
That sounded and resounded through this place;
A quickened word, a kindling for good
In evil times; when malice held the cards
And played them, in the play of politics,
When knaves with knives were taking all the tricks,
When Christendom was shivered into shards,
When King and Queen were pitched in different camps,
When burning books could stoke the fire for men,
When such were stacked against him –even then
Latimer knew that hearts alone are trumps.
He gave the King of Hearts his proper name,
He touched this wood, and kindled love to flame.
I am happy to announce that the official launch of my new poetry collection After Prayer will take place in the church of St. Edward King and Martyr, Peas Hill in central Cambridge on the 8th of November from 8-9:30pm. There will be wine and other refreshments, a reading of some poems from the new book and the chance to buy a copy at a discount and have it signed. All the readers of this blog are warmly invited. I know that for many of you there are oceans and various other impediments between you and Cambridge, but if you are anywhere near do come along if you can. If you are coming could you let me know at email@example.com so I can make sure there’s enough wine!
If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’ website.
Mean while here is another ‘sampler’ poem from the collection. As you know the opening sequence is a series of meditations on the phrases in George Herbert’s poem Prayer, so here is the sonnet I wrote in response to the most famous phrase in that poem: ‘Heaven in Ordinary. As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.