Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany
The 25th of January is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘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.
In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word,The poem I have chosen for Christmas Eve, is Christmas Eve by Christina Rossetti. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson for her book of responses to waiting on the word. Linda writes:
Some years ago I had the wonderful privilege of seeing ‘Dance’ by Henri Matisse. It was the one kept at The Hermitage, St Petersburg, and it was brought to London for an exhibition. It is nearly four meters wide and unlike like one in New York, the figures are not pink but a glowing orange, like reflected fire light. I was utterly overwhelmed when I saw it, and I was moved to tears.
The words, ‘For Christmas bringeth Jesus”, echo through today’s poem and are for me, the centre of all this season’s activity and the reason for our joy and celebration. In the image I painted there is no speech except that of the wildly dancing figures. They are intent on celebrating the Word made flesh, through their own flesh, and all around them the trees join in the dance. Above them the birds wheel about with the clouds and stars and the whole of creation redounds in joy and praise.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Isaiah 55
You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle
I should add that unfortunately the little word ‘a’ was committed from the first line in the printing of the anthology, which slightly spoils the rhythm. You can hear me read the proper text on this recording and I also post that corrected text below:
The fifth ‘great ‘O’ antiphon in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word calls on Christ as the ‘Oriens’, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, and it comes as an answer to the sense of darkness and captivity in the fourth antiphon, O Clavis‘ I find the idea of Christ as rising light in the East very moving, for he is Alpha, the ‘Beginning’. The Translation which gives ‘Dayspring’ for Oriens I especially love, both because ‘Dayspring’ suggests at one and the same time, both light and water, two primal goods in life which I love in combination, especially light reflected on water, and also because ‘Dayspring’ was the name of a ship my great grandfather built for Scottish missionaries and also the name of the little gaff cutter, from whose deck I saw the dawn rise after a long period of darkness. Many of these senses of ‘Dayspring’ are at play in the sonnet I have given below. I should also mention that the line from Dante means “I saw light in the form of a river’ another touchstone moment for me in the Paradiso You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:
How often do you hear the word ‘Dayspring’ used in common parlance? It is such a beautiful word meaning ‘dawn’. Here it is in Luke 1:76-79: ‘And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways… whereby thedayspringfrom on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (King James Version)
I laboured over this small painting using acrylic paint, ink and watercolour to try to get that ephemeral light that only a very few astronauts have ever seen with their own eyes. The great blue Earth turns away from the darkness of the void and is lit by the Sun, the archetype of God, and Malcolm’s poem is so full of expectant joy and peace – ‘the darkness was a dream’. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says, ‘ We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience’.
You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle
I am also glad that Jac Redford has given me permission to share his beautiful setting of this poem:
O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The poem I have chosen for December 16th in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, is Advent Good wishes by the contemporary priest poet David Grieve. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The dramatic image above, which brings so much of both war and the hope of peace into play, was created by Linda Richardson in response to this poem. she writes:
In this painting there is a figure, maybe an angel or a tree spirit holding a candle, but the light from the candle has a radiance that is other worldly. It gently lights up the sleeping wolf and lambs that rest at the foot of the painting. At first the painting seems very peaceful but it is disturbingly fiery and high above the tree are two military helicopters hovering, it seems, like vultures. I wanted to paint both peace and war, as they are the reality of the times we live in, however the centre of the painting is very still, the figure has its eyes closed and is perhaps praying.
In turbulent times we may wonder how to keep despair at bay, but the radiant, gleaming colours of the painting tell us that God’s love surrounds us on every side and encompasses us. If we trust God, then the gleaming beauty with which God surrounds us can become our vision and fear is kept at bay.
You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle
The poem I have chosen for December 11th in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, is Despised and Rejected, a dramatic and challenging reflection on encounter with Christ by Christina Rosetti. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above, takes up the poems opening proclamation, was created by Linda Richardson.
There are some dramas you watch with dread. The Director lets you in on a secret that is unknown to the protagonist and you watch the drama unfold, knowing that along the way, you and the protagonist will meet at this awful moment. It was with this feeling that I began work.
When Malcolm invited me to show the images I made last year in response to Waiting on the Word, I decided to do a new art work for this poem as the one I made didn’t turn out well. But now as I come to write about it I hope you will forgive me for including it. The poem’s title is Despised and Rejected, so as a small gesture of redemption, it seems appropriate to include this work that I would otherwise have rejected.
The image is indelibly cut in two by a separating path of black ink from the top left to the bottom right. Throughout the image, Rossetti’s impassioned words weave about through the paths of ink and paint, but there, in the bronze paint at the top right of the image, like a smear of dried blood, is a cord. The cord is bundled and scrunched into the paint and travels in the opposite direction, to the bottom left of the image. The two paths meet at a cross. Art is like life, and the marks we make sometimes come from our deep subconscious, so as I return to this work I recognise the cord as something that leads out of a labyrinth. ‘Footsteps echoing like a sigh passed me by’, Rossetti says towards the end of the poem. And I am left with the question, ‘What opportunities of love do I miss when I am lost in the labyrinth of my mind’?
You can find a short reflective essay on this poem, which draws out its many references to Scripture, in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle
Tomorrow will be the first Sunday of Advent, so I thought I would repost this link to my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word. This Anthology which offers the reader a poem a day throughout Advent and on through Christmas and Epiphany. I also offer a little reflective essay to go with each poem, which I hope will help the reader to get into the depths of the poem more easily and will draw out some of the Advent Themes and the way the poems link to each other. The book works entirely as a stand-alone thing and could be used privately or in groups, but I shall also be recording each poem and will post a recording of my reading of that day’s poem for each day of Advent on this blog, so that readers of the book who wish to, can also hear the poem being read. Readers of this blog can of course also enjoy hearing the poems, and might like to get hold of the book (which is also on Kindle) so that they can follow along the text and read the interpretive essay.
Last year we enjoyed the poetry accompanied by Lancia Smith’s interpretive photographs, this year, continuing that tradition of art to accompany poetry, I am happy to say that we will have an original painting to accompany each poem from the talented Linda Richardson, who created a book of images to reflect on each poem whilst she was using the book devotionally last year, and has kindly agreed to share those pictures with us this year. Do join us on the journey via the pages of the book and the pages of this blog.
Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest! These five glorious verbs, deepening as they follow one another in intensity of engagement, come altogether in one of the most justly famous collects in The Book of Common Prayer; the collect traditionally set for the second in Advent, and now used, in the new common lectionary for this Sunday, the 23rd October: Bible Sunday Here’s the whole collect:.
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is surely one of the best, and most Biblically rooted prayers about reading the Bible ever! here is a brief reflection on each of these petitions followed by a Sonnet about reading the Bible:
When it comes to our reception of scripture this collect starts where most people, at the time of its composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else, and of course the King Jmes Translation was made to be read aloud and not a verse of it was passed until it’s phrasing had stood the test of being read aloud, until it was something sonorous and memorable.
But of course we go on from hearing to reading, as so many of those first auditors did, for the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains to day one of he great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.
But we cannot rest with reading, we must learn to mark. Mark here means more than simply ‘pay attention’. It means to make a mark, not only in the outward sense of marking up or underlining and annotation of passages, but inwardly to mark, to let the scriptures themselves underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us. We all know such passages, the ones that, in a given reading seemed to have been marked out for us particularly.
Marking, and being marked in turn, is of course the beginning of learning. Now learning by rote, done by itself for no reason probably does no good, but learning by heart can sometimes be a pathway to learning in and through the heart. I will never forget when, as a newly-ordained curate, I was called to the deathbed of a very old lady in one of those dreadful ‘care homes’ She was suffering equally from dementia and neglect and the nurse told me that she couldn’t speak three words of sense together. At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm, in the Prayer Book version. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong snse that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ were the last words on her lips.
But there is more than that, the last petiton is the deepest. The prayer that we should ‘inwardly digest’ the scriptures has roots in a profound and ancient way of reading, still preserved by the church in the name ‘Lectio Divina‘. You can see its earliest roots in Jesus words to Satan, themselves a quotation from Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.
After the prologue, the first sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian year, is called The Lectern, and it is essentially a hymn to scripture written in response to this collect and what the collect reveals about reading scripture in church. Here it is. As usual you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Some rise on eagles’ wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak. Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain. Be still the Lectern says, stand here and read.
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow… So you stand,
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.
Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written