Russian -inspired icon of the transfiguration, artist unknown
Continuing my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, here is a sonnet for the feast of the transfiguration. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but sometimes on the Sunday nearest, and sometimes in mid-Lent, which is a good time for it, 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 through darkness that would lead to Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem. 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.
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.
On July the 11th the Church celebrates the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, the gentle founder of the Benedictine order and by extension the father of Monasticism. A moderate and modest man he would have been astonished to learn that his ‘simple school for prayer’, his ‘modest rule for beginners’ led to the foundation of communities which kept the Christian flame alight through dark ages, preserved not only Christian faith, scripture, and culture,but also the best of Classical Pagan learning and culture, fed the poor, transformed societies, promoted learning and scholarship, and today provides solace, grounding, perspective and retreat not only to monks and nuns but to millions of lay people around the world.
Here is my sonnet for Benedict, drawing largely on phrases from the Rule, I dedicate it to the sisters at Turvey Abbey. It appears in my second book with Canterbury Press, The Singing Bowl
As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
You sought to start a simple school of prayer,
A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,
With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,
No treating or retreating with contempt,
A little rule, a small obedience
That sets aside, and tills the chosen ground,
Fruitful humility, chosen innocence,
A binding by which freedom might be found
You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter in his peace,
To seek his Way amidst our many ways,
Find blessedness in blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.
Here is George Herbert’s beautiful Easter poem, together with my commentary on it from The Word in the Wilderness.
I am grateful to Linda Richardson who has given me permission to share with you her series of remarkable paintings, ‘The Faces of Holy Week’. These will be on display, together with my poems, in the resurrection chapel in St. Mary’s Linton throughout Holy Week, do look in and see them if you are in the area. You can also look at these paintings and others on Linda’s Webpage.
Linda writes about this picture:
For Easter day I tried to paint something that looks like an icon. An icon is not intended to show a real human face but is a simplification of composition and an absence of naturalism. Space and surface are emphasised, personal interpretation is eliminated and an icon is meant to be read as part of a religious practice.
The icon points us to the Divinity of Christ and as we come to Easter day we see Christ now with our “spiritual eyes”. Here Jesus is radiant with gold circling round his head and royal robes of blue. The incarnate One is now risen, and to me, he is once again the Word of God and the one we gaze on with the “eye of the heart”.
He is telling us that we too are children of the Light, that we come from the Light and we will return to the Light. We are the beloved of the Father.
As always you can hear me read the poem by Clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
For the last poem in this journey together on this day of glorious beginnings we return to George Herbert who has been such a companion and guide to us throughout.
So much of George Herbert’s poetry is in a kind of hidden dialogue, a call and response with the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible that he knew so well. So in this poem his starting point is psalm 57.8−11, one of the proper psalms for Easter Day Matins, and especially verse 9:
Awake up, my glory, awake, lute and harp: I myself will awake right early.
Herbert responds to that psalmic injunction with the words ‘Rise Heart; thy Lord is risen’ and in the second verse, ‘Awake my Lute’! He has sung the psalm in his ‘common prayer’ his public worship, and now he is applying it within himself and to his whole day. But as so often, in that application, the personal becomes the present, the tactile, the deft, the courteous. The Risen Christ of Easter is not, in this first verse, the cosmic Pantocrator but the familiar friend or lover who offers you a hand as you rise in the morning:
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise.
And then, in one of Herbert’s sudden luminous shifts, the poem takes an alchemical turn:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.
‘Calcined’ was the term used by alchemists for the fierce heat that burns away any impurity, bringing whatever passed through the flame to a purer state. So another poet of the time could write, ‘Yet you by a chaste Chimicke Art/Calcine frail love to pietie’ (William Habington, in Wilcox, year, p. 141). And after that ‘calcining’ experience of Good Friday, Easter brings the great transmutation of which Herbert had spoken in his other alchemical poem, The Elixir, ‘this is the famous stone that turneth all to gold’. But the transformative element is not a fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’, it is new life in Jesus Christ: ‘His life may make thee gold’
So in the first verse Herbert calls on his heart to rise. He echoes the psalm of Matins, even as he is preparing himself for the Eucharist with its ‘Sursum Corda’; ‘lift up your hearts’
Now in the second verse, again following the morning psalm, he calls upon his Lute:
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
And here he leaves alchemy behind and begins some beautifully extended musical metaphors. First with the daring and beautiful idea that
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
Terse lines evoke a kind of mystical empathy in which even the wood of his own lute is somehow blessed and transformed in the blessing of all wood when the maker of the world was stretched on the tree. And that stretching itself leads to another, and even more daring metaphor:
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
The stretched strings of lute and viol were, of course in Herbert’s day, literally visceral and organic lines of gut which, stretched and struck, set up a sympathetic resonance in the wood. Indeed this whole poem is itself a kind of theology of resonance; of our tuned response to the striking music of Christ’s sacrifice. Herbert’s own language here is extraordinarily sensitive and resonant, so ‘The cross taught all wood to resound his name’ carries in the word ‘taught’ also the sense of the tautness of the strings evoked in the next few lines. Even on Easter Day Herbert looks back to good Friday and in the light of Easter sees Christ’s ‘stretched sinew’ on the cross making a new music.
So Herbert’s heart and lute are brought together in a ‘consort’, a word which meant both a musical ensemble and a social harmony. But is it enough? No, in the third verse Herbert brings in, draws in, the Spirit, the breath that Jesus exhaled to bring us new life. He does so through another fine musical metaphor. The basis of all harmony is the triad, all music is ‘but three parts, vied and multiplied’ so Herbert needs a third part, to join lute and heart and invokes the Spirit:
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
The heart is our inner feeling, the lute is the art and skill with which those inner feelings find outward expression, but neither is complete without the Spirit that gives life to all, that prays within us when we do not know how to pray. And here the Spirit comes, not as an overwhelming or overmastering experience from above, but alongside us, as a fellow musician who has come with us to ‘bear a part’.
So now, at the end of the first part of the poem Herbert is awake, his lute is tuned, he has found in the spirit an accompanist and he is ready to begin the song, and it is the song itself which forms the second part of the poem.
This lovely lyric adapts the courtly tradition of the Aubade, the lovers poem at dawn, and here Herbert playfully suggests that even the ‘Sun arising in the East’ would be presumptuous to compete or contend with the rising of this true Son. Indeed the final verse claims that Easter Day is the only day; ‘Can there be any day but this? … we count three hundred but we misse’ he says, meaning the three hundred and fifty (rounded to three hundred) days of the year are wrongly counted! ‘we misse’! there is only ever one day, the true Easter.
We have been travelling together in this book through forty eight days together, but if George Herbert is right it has only been one day! From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection and by its light we can look back over our long pilgrimage and see the glory of this day, hidden once, but shining now, in all we have been through.
John 12 1-8 tells us of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus.I love this intense and beautiful moment in the Gospels, The God of the Cosmos enters as a vulnerable man into all the particular fragility of our human friendships and intimacy. I love the way Jesus responds to Mary’s beautiful, useless gesture and recognises it as something that is always worth while, something that will live forever, for all the carping and criticism of Judas, then and now.
This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all 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‘s Signpost Music. 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.
If you would like to join in a discussion go these and my other poems for Holy Week poems you can do so by joining the Literary Life Facebook Page
I am grateful to Linda Richardson who has given me permission to share with you her series of remarkable paintings, ‘The Faces of Holy Week’. These will be on display, together with my poems, in the resurrection chapel in St. Mary’s Linton throughout Holy Week, do look in and see them if you are in the area. You can also look at these paintings and others on Linda’s Webpage
Linda writes about this picture:
I think Jesus looks really tired in this painting, fully human and with everything that being human means. The story of the anointing is a beautiful and moving moment of deep love of a woman who has kept something precious for a very special occasion. But we know how the story continues and the anointing that will take place a few days later is the anointing of Jesus crucified body. I love this moment in Holy Week, knowing that Jesus had friends who loved him, touched and honoured his body, shared his life, his food, his laughter and his love. Touch the painting, touch Jesus face and imagine what you would say to him and as you smell the beautiful fragrance. What do you think he would say to you?
Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,
The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.
Continuing in my series of sonnets for the Church Year I have written this one for Mothering Sunday. It’s a thanksgiving for all parents, especialy for those who bore the fruitful pain of labour, and more particularly in this poem I have singled out for praise those heroic single parents who, for whatever reason, have found themselves bearing alone the burdens, and sharing with no-one the joys of their parenthood.
I am grateful to Oliver Neale for his thought-provoking work as a photographer, and, as always, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or on the title
In this first week in Lent my anthology Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk. But first we have a poem for the first Sunday in Lent. Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter. We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps as little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten Journey and that is how I shall treat them in this anthology. Once again thanks are due to Lancia Smith for the image which accompanies this week’s poems.
So to celebrate the first of them here is R. S. Thomas’s famous poem ‘The Bright Field’.
This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.
After the dimly burning wick of winter
That seemed to dull and darken everything
The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.
You keep the coastal path where edge meets edge,
The sea and salt marsh touching in North Norfolk,
Reed cutters cuttings, patterned in the sedge,
Open and ease the way that you will walk,
Unbroken reeds still wave their feathered fronds
Through which you glimpse the long line of the sea
And hear its healing voice.
Tentative steps begin to break your bonds,
You push on through the pain that sets you free,
Towards the day when broken bones rejoice
As we continue our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.
The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith
Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.
But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’e beautiful poem The Incarnate One
Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?
Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.