The poem I have chosen for December 15th in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, is Christmas and the Common Birth by Anne Ridler. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above, is once more from the beautiful book of art which Linda Richardson made in response to Waiting on the Word.
The image for today looks, from a distance, like a peaceful, sleeping face. On closer inspection you will see it is made up of hundreds of intense scribbled lines. We can, from a distance appear calm to those around us, but perhaps our inner lives are in turmoil, those inner voices utterly draining and our value comes from what we ‘do’, not what we ‘are’. In the poem we hear that, “Christmas comes at the dark dream of the year that might wish to sleep ever…birth is effort and pain.” Our busy-ness is often a way to stay asleep, to avoid the call that Jesus and all the mystics make on our lives to wake up to a greater vision of life where we are children of God, the beloved of the Father.
Our prayer today may be of a harried or sick person. This is the person God wants to be with and we come to God in the reality of what we are and with all the scribbles and scrawls that seem to make up our life. We bring all our addictions and anxieties with us and turn away from them to God, because the space inside us is the same space that contains the cosmos. One moment of true silence will find us in loving heart of the Great Silence out of which everything is and has its being.
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 14th in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, is Autumn by the contemporary poet and theologian David Baird. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above is from Linda Richardson’s book of responses to Waiting on the Word.Linda writes:
Ten days before Christmas Eve and the pressure is upon us. Will we continue to find the time to read these poems, to contemplate and wait upon the Word? A few days ago I encouraged the reader, if they were responding in some way, not to dismiss the response if it didn’t resonate, because later reflection could reveal hidden meaning.
Last year, responding to this poem, I reached out for what was at hand. I found a leaf that I had pressed in a book and a piece of medical gauze, found in the bedroom where my Mother-in-law had nursed my Father-in-law until his death on the 12th December 2005, almost ten years before I made this work in December 2015. These seemingly poor objects became the grist for creating the response to David Baird’s Autumn.
The art work is by-the-way, but reflecting on it a year later, the media is of greater interest. As death drew near to my Father-in-law, these words became his reality: ‘then fallen nature driven to her knees flames russet, auburn, orange fierce from within, And bush burns brighter for the growing grey’.
George Richardson was a man of Faith who lived by and for the Word. There were times in his younger years when he was inclined to unmake the incarnation and turn the Word made flesh back into legal words again as Edwin Muir the Scottish poet writes, “King Calvin with his iron pen, And God three angry letters in a book’. But George was utterly intent upon his Lord Jesus and came to a fuller, richer more loving faith, so that by the end of his life he glowed ‘orange fierce from within’. He would greet each person he met with complete attention, speaking to them as if they were the most important person, and the meeting, the most happy of his week. Being met by George at this time of his life was an invitation into the vast emptiness of his loving heart.
I didn’t realise the significance of the leaf and the gauze until I came to write about it this year.
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
As we approach the first Sunday of Advent, I thought I would repost this link to my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word. This Anthology 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 have also be recorded 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.
I will also repost the daily recordings each accompanied by an original painting from the talented Linda Richardson, who created a book of images to reflect on each poem whilst she was using the book devotionally, and has kindly agreed to share those pictures with us. Do join us on the journey via the pages of the book and the pages of this blog.
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 next 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.
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.