Category Archives: Theology and Arts

A Sonnet for Ascension Day

 Here is a sonnet for Ascension Day, which will be this Thursday, the 14th of May; the glorious finale of the Easter Season.

I am posting this a couple of days in advance, in case anyone would like to use this sonnet in their celebrations or devotions that day.

In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon Him. And since His humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him.”For you have died”, says St. Paul, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours.  The sonnet form seemed to me one way to begin to tease these things out.

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 are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of this, and my other 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 always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem.

I’m grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above, the image below was taken as we launched rockets to celebrate Ascension day at Girton College:

We have lift off!

Ascension

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

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A Sonnet for the Annunciation

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings

Wednesday 25th of March is the feast of the Annunciation, that blessed moment of awareness, assent and transformation in which eternity touches time. In my own small take on this mystery I have thought about vision, what we allow ourselves to be aware of, and also about freedom, the way all things turn on our discernment and freedom.

As so often I am indebted to Margot Krebs Neale for the accompanying images, and she has kindly offered the following note for the images that accompany this sonnet:

‘As I was making suggesting a picture for another sonnet, Malcolm said he was working on the Annunciation sonnet. A little cheeky I sent a picture of a beautifully blurred lily wondering if it might help. Malcolm liked it and could see angel wings in it, I thought we needed a face. A young woman of sixteen. One of the many 16 years old I know and love or…myself. I remembered and found this picture of me taken when I was 16 or 17. Why me? Because of the “We” of the first strophe, I read it like an “I” : We see so little, only surfaces, and yet we have a choice.

« Quel fruit lumineux portons-nous dans l’ombre de la chair? » What luminous fruit do we carry in the shade of our flesh?

« un fruit éternel enfant de la chair et de l’Esprit ». An eternal fruit, child of the flesh and the Spirit »

May we be granted the joy of giving it to the light.’

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 are available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. 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. You may also like to check out Steve Bell‘s wonderful Snippet eBook The Pilgrim Year, in which this sonnet also appears, together with some of my reflections on Fra Angelico’s great fresco of the Annunciation.

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Annunciation

We see so little, stayed on surfaces,

We calculate the outsides of all things,

Preoccupied with our own purposes

We miss the shimmer of the angels’ wings,

They coruscate around us in their joy

A swirl of wheels and eyes and wings unfurled,

They guard the good we purpose to destroy,

A hidden blaze of glory in God’s world.

But on this day a young girl stopped to see

With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;

The promise of His glory yet to be,

As time stood still for her to make a choice;

Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,

The Word himself was waiting on her word.

but on thi day a young girl stopped to see

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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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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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25th January: The conversion of St. Paul!

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

This sunday, the 25th of January, is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often it is told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the church ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great apostle.

This poem and my other sonnets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or viaAmazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry book The Singing bowl are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE

As always you can hear the poem by clicking n the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title of the poem.

Apostle

An enemy whom God has made a friend,

A righteous man discounting righteousness,

Last to believe and first for God to send,

He found the fountain in the wilderness.

Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,

A prisoner who set his captors free,

A naked man with love his only garment,

A blinded man who helped the world to see,

A Jew who had been perfect in the law,

Blesses the flesh of every other race

And helps them see what the apostles saw;

The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.

Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,

And bound by love, who freed him from his chains.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul

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A Recording of my Reading at Durham Cathedral

A Good Place to read Poetry!

A Good Place to read Poetry!

I had the extraordinary experience, and indeed great privilege, of reading my poetry in the Quire of Durham Cathedral, at the invitation of the Dean and Chapter there, and in collaboration with St. John’s College, where I am currently the Ruth Etchells Visiting Fellow. Many of my Facebook friends, and followers of this blog, who couldn’t be at the event itself, have asked if they could hear a recording. So here is the reading I gave. It is largely drawn from Sounding the Seasons, though it does include four completely new poems written whilst I have been up here. Will Ford, from the St. John’s College Choir sings the ‘Great O’ Antiphons which inspired my Advent Antiphon poems. I hope you enjoy this recording.

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