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The Word in the Wilderness, a Journey through Lent

wildernessAs we approach Lent I have been asked if I would post again the poems, recordings and images which accompany my Lent anthology Word in the Wilderness, and I am happy to do so as I know there are a number of groups reading the book together who might find it helpful to have the recordings. So I have recorded each of the poems in the Lent book, as I did for the Advent one. Whereas in Advent I posted a recording each day, along with a beautiful image from Lancia Smith, what Lancia and I have decided to do for Lent is to offer you weekly posts. Each post will be headed by a beautiful image from Lancia and then contain links to recordings of all seven poems for that week as well as the texts of the poems themselves, though for my commentary on each text you will need to turn to the book itself. We will start with an introductory post that takes us from Shrove Tuesday, through Ash Wednesday to the 1st Sunday in Lent and then each subsequent post will come out on each of the Sundays in Lent. I hope you find this helpful and please feel free to share it. Those who are using the book in weekly Lent groups this year my find it particularly helpful to have all the weeks readings gathered on one page. If you would like to join an online reading group to follow this book through Lent then you might like to join the Literary Life Facebook Group run by Rick Wilcox

If you would like to make a retreat with me centred on this book, I am leading one over the weekend of 10-12th March at the beautiful Retreat House at Pleshy in Essex, full details are Here

You can get copies of Word in the Wilderness by ordering from your local bookshop (if you’re in England go for the excellent Sarum College Bookshop) or through this page on Amazon UK and this one on Amazon USA

As an appetiser, and to give you an idea of my reasons for compiling this anthology here are the opening paragraphs of my introduction:

Why might we want to take time in Lent, to immerse ourselves in poetry, to ask for the poets as companions on our journey with the Word through the wilderness? Perhaps it is one of the poet’s themselves who can answer that question. In The Redress of Poetry, the collection of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Seamus Heaney claims that poetry ‘offers a clarification, a fleeting glimpse of a potential order of things ‘beyond confusion’, a glimpse that has to be its own reward’ (p. xv). However qualified by terms like ‘fleeting’, ‘glimpse’ and ‘potential’, this is still a claim that poetry, and more widely the poetic imagination, is truth-bearing; that it offers not just some inner subjective experience but as Heaney claims, a redress; the redress of an imbalance in our vision of the world and ourselves. Heaney’s claim in these lectures, and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, is that we can ‘Credit Poetry’, trust its tacit, intuitive and image-laden way of knowledge. I have examined these claims in detail elsewhere (Faith Hope and Poetry) and tried to show, in more academic terms, how the poetic imagination does indeed redress an imbalance and is a necessary complement to more rationalistic and analytical ways of knowing. What I would like to do in this book is to put that insight into practice, and turn to poetry for a clarification of who we are, how we pray, how we journey through our lives with God and how he comes to journey with us.

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)

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Blake and Coleridge – an imagined conversation!

The Frontispiece of Blake's prophetic poem Jerusalem

The Frontispiece of Blake’s prophetic poem Jerusalem

There is a passage in my new book ‘Mariner’ in which I tell the story of how Coleridge met William Bake, then an old man living in almost complete obscurity and poverty in Fountain Court in London. The meeting was arranged by Charles Augustus Tulk, a Swedenborgian who had been inspired by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience to get poets and writers campaigning for the first factory act, limiting the working hours and improving the conditions of children working in he new factories. Coleridge was active and successful in this campaign. Having lent Coleridge Blake’s poems, Tulke brough the two great sages together. He says ‘Blake and Coleridge, when in company seemed like congenial beings from another sphere breathing for a while on our earth’. Unfortunately he doesn’t tell us what they actually said!

I was honoured to be invited by the William Blake Society to see if I could reconstruct, or at least encourage us to imagine, what that unrecorded conversation might have been like, and last night, at a meeting of the Blake society in Waterstones on Piccadilly I did just that. The substance of all that I imagined them saying is drawn from their letters and published works and I gave a handout with the sources which I also print here, along with a recording of the talk. I got rather carried away and paced around a bit and I occasionally move from the microphone so the sound comes and goes a little, but I think it is all audible.

At the core of this conversation as I imagine it, is the way both men recognised Jesus as the Divine Imagination and Love bodied forth for us and kindling afresh in us the love and imagination which is God’s lost image deep in our souls. Both men were calling for England (‘Albion’ in Blakes terms) to awaken from the sleep of materialism, greed and conquest, and to be renewed in Christ through an awakening of the spiritual imagination. I hope some sense of the power and urgency of that unfinished task, and the call to continue it, comes through in this recording:

Albion comes to Christ and repents: "O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law"

Albion comes to Christ and repents: “O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law”

Here is the text of the handout giving the sources of my quotations:

  • To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour (from Auguries of Innocence)

 

  • I see the Four-fold Man. The Humanity in deadly sleep
    And its fallen Emanation. The Spectre & its cruel Shadow.
    I see the Past, Present & Future, existing all at once
    Before me; O Divine Spirit sustain me on thy wings!
    That I may awake Albion from his long & cold repose.
    For Bacon & Newton sheathd in dismal steel, their terrors hang
    Like iron scourges over Albion, Reasonings like vast Serpents
    Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations
    I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
    And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
    Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
    In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
    Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
    Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
    Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace. (From Jerusalem)

 

  • so shalt thou see and hear
    The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
    Of that eternal language, which thy God
    Utters, who from eternity doth teach
    Himself in all, and all things in himself.
    Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
    Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask. (from Frost at Midnight)

 

  • Be not afraid, that I shall join the party of the Little-ists – I believe, that I shall delight you by the detection of their artifices – Now Mr Locke was the founder of this sect, himself a perfect Little-ist. My opinion is this – that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton’s works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind & therefore to you, that I believe the souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakspere or a Milton. But if it please the Almighty to grant me health, hope, and a steady mind, (always the 3 clauses of my hourly prayers) before my 30th year I will thoroughly understand the whole of Newton’s works – At present, I must content myself with endeavouring to make myself master of his easier work, that on Optics. I am exceedingly delighted with the beauty & neatness of his experiment, & with the accuracy of his immediate Deductions from them – but the opinions found on these Deductions, and indeed his whole Theory is, I am persuaded, so exceedingly superficial as without impropriety to be deemed false. Newton was a mere materialist – Mind in his system is always passive – a lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God’s Image, & that too in the sublimest sense – the Image of the Creator – there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system. (Coleridge letter to Thomas Poole)

 

  • They and only they can acquire the philosophic imagination, the sacred power of self-intuition, who within themselves can interpret and understand the symbol, that the wings of the air-sylph are forming within the skin of the caterpillar; those only, who feel in their own spirits the same instinct, which impels the chrysalis of the horned fly to leave room in its involucrum for antennae yet to come. They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them. (From Biographia Literaria)
  • ‘The imagination then, I consider either as primary or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary Imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. (From Biographia Literaria)

 

  • Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me.
    Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
    To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
    Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
    Ever expanding in the Bosom of God. the Human Imagination
    O Saviour pour upon me thy Spirit of meekness & love:
    Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be thou all my life!

Abstract Philosophy warring in enmity against Imagination
(Which is the Divine Body of the Lord Jesus. blessed for ever). (Jerusalem)

  • O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
    I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law (Jerusalem)
  • I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination. (Jerusalem)

 

  • For the writings of these Mystics acted in no slight degree to prevent my mind from being imprisoned within the outline of any single dogmatic system. They contributed to keep alive the heart in the head; gave me an indistinct, yet stirring and working presentiment, that all the products of the mere reflective faculty partook of death, and were as the rattling twigs and sprays in winter, into which a sap was yet to be propelled from some root to which I had not penetrated, if they were to a ord my soul either food or shelter. If they were too often a moving cloud of smoke to me by day, yet they were always a pillar of fire through- out the night, during my wanderings through the wilderness of doubt, and enabled me to skirt, without crossing, the sandy deserts of utter unbelief. Biographia Literaria

 

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A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’

It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”

This 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 on the ‘play’ button if it appears or on the title of the poem

Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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Christ the King

20111119-111210In recent days many people have, quite understandably been remembering 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.

This passage in Matthew is especially challenging to us now in the midst of a major refugee crisis triggered by the dreadful violence in Syria and Iraq. We can and should make a compassionate response, even though that response is shadowed by our fears of terrorist infiltration. It should be possible to be alert to and vet those malicious persons who might try to infiltrate themselves amongst genuine refugees. But it is clear that the huge numbers of widows and children in desperate need are no threat to anyone, but rather themselves threatened by the terrorists whom we oppose. There is no reason for a proper caution about infiltration to inhibit a genuine and generous response to crisis.I wrote this sonnet some years before the present Crisis, but Christ’s words, on which this poem reflects, seem more vital and more needed than ever.

Here is a sonnet written in response to the gospel reading for the feast of Christ the King.

This sonnet comes at the end of my sequence ‘Sounding the Seasons’ published by Canterbury Press.

The book is available in North america from Steve Bell here, or Amazon here

You can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title.
Audio Player

Christ The King

Mathew 25: 31-46

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.

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4th of Epiphany; the miracle at Cana

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The set readings for this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany tell the story of  ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly,  this sign points to the gift of His very self, His own heart’s blood, given once for all on the cross and received by us in communion. I have tried to bring out a little of the richness and depth of this first ‘sign’ in the following sonnet. This and my other sonets 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 via Amazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry books The Singing bowl  and Parable and Paradox 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 sonnet by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title of the sonnet itself

Epiphany at Cana

Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily  living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.

Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has.’

It cost our Saviour everything he has

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The Beatitudes: a little lifting of the veil

beatitudes wordcloudI was reminded of this poem when someone quoted it today on Facebook, saying she found it helpful for the dark times we are living through, so I thought I would post it again here. In this sonnet, which is from my last poetry book Parable and Paradox, I am reflecting on The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 verses 1-16, and on the beautiful series of  beatitudes, or blessings with which it begins, as well as on the image of a hidden light, taken out and set at last on a hill which follows these blessings. It seems to me that one way to understand how it is that the poor, and those who mourn, the persecuted, and those who keep yearning and hungering, in spite of everything, for a righteousness we do not yet see, are all nevertheless, even now, somehow blessed, is to see in the beatitudes a little lifting of the veil, a little glimpse into the coming kingdom. We can so easily feel defeated by the darkness of this present age and the apparent defeat of goodness at every turn, but in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lifts the veil and gives us hope! The Cross, his cross and ours, is not the end of the story! The kingdom is coming and one day His Easter, his glorious resurrection will also be ours! The beatitudes are an invitation to live from and for that coming day, even now, to take the hidden light of his love and goodness and let it shine through us into the pre-dawn darkness of our world.

As well as writing the sonnet I have also focused some of these reflections into the final sermon of a six sermon sequence, also called ‘Parable and Paradox, which I preached this term at Girton. The whole sequence is online now and can be found here.

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-16

 

We bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,

And set this lovely lantern on a hill

Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt

By lifting for a little while the veil.

For longing is the veil of satisfaction

And grief the veil of future happiness

We glimpse beneath the veil of persecution

The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss

 

Oh make us pure of heart and help us see

Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning

The promised Comforter, alive and free,

The kingdom coming and the Son returning,

That even in this pre-dawn dark we might

At once reveal and revel in your light.

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Apostle! -a sonnet for St. Paul

Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany

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.

This and my other sonets 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 books The Singing bowl  and Parable and Paradox 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, he freed us from our chains.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul

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