Tag Archives: christianity

Nativity by Scott Cairns

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

We return to Scott Cairns in my series of readings of the poems in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 27th, is  Nativity, a beautiful reflection on an icon of the Nativity and how it draws us in. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. Linda writes:

As I read this poem I discerned a kind of radiance and inwardness that fascinated me. Again there are glimpses of the Divine that may be missed if we are not attentive or prayerful. We lean in and see a “tiny God.. slip briefly out of time.. miss the point or meet there”.

In the image, I created a fissure in the virgin blue, and beyond that there is a brightness that cannot be touched. It is a secret brightness, obscure and transcendent and cannot be possessed by us. All of life is potentially prayer that deepens us and makes our ‘ordinary’ time more loving and creative. But prayer is not an intellectual activity but an activity of love where we learn to be near God and learn too, never to leave the holiness of his nearness as we go about our daily duties.

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

Nativity

As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend

the tiny God is wrapped

in something more than swaddle. The God

 

is tightly bound within

His blesséd mother’s gaze—her face declares

that she is rapt by what

 

she holds, beholds, reclines beholden to.

She cups His perfect head

and kisses Him, that even here the radiant

 

compass of affection

is announced, that even here our several

histories converge and slip,

 

just briefly, out of time. Which is much of what

an icon works as well,

and this one offers up a broad array

 

of separate narratives

whose temporal relations quite miss the point,

or meet there. Regardless,

 

one blithe shepherd offers music to the flock,

and—just behind him—there

he is again, and sore afraid, attended

 

by a trembling companion

and addressed by Gabriel. Across the ridge,

three wise men spur three horses

 

towards a star, and bowing at the icon’s

nearest edge, these same three

yet adore the seated One whose mother serves

 

as throne. Meantime, stumped,

the kindly Abba Joseph ruminates,

receiving consolation

from an attentive dog whose master may

yet prove to be a holy

messenger disguised as fool. Overhead,

 

the famous star is all

but out of sight by now; yet, even so,

it aims a single ray

 

directing our slow pilgrims to the core

where all the journeys meet,

appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,

 

where crouched among these other

lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers

receive that creatured air, and pray.

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On the Feast of Stephen

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood

There is something telling about the fact that the very day after Christmas the Church celebrates the Feast of Stephen, the first Martyr. Martyr means witness, and Stephen witnessed that the Babe born at Bethlehem was worth dying for, and more: he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and in that resurrection the promise of resurrection to humanity, for whom Christ died. The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church, and the seed Stephen sowed bore almost immediate fruit.  I believe it was the witness of Stephen’s martyrdom that opened the way for Christ into the life of St. Paul. Even as he held the coats and was consenting unto Stephen’s death he was witnessing in Stephen’s face the risen life and love of Christ, and Paul’s road to Damascus led past the very place where Stephen died.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button. This poem is taken from my collection ‘Sounding the Seasons; Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year’ published by Canterbury Press and also available from Amazon UK, US, and Canada

St. Stephen

 

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood,

Your martyrdom begins and stands for all.

They saw the stones, you saw the face of God,

And sowed a seed that blossomed in St. Paul.

When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter

He had to pass through that Damascus gate

Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter

As Christ, alive in you, forgave his hate,

And showed him the same light you saw from heaven

And taught him, through his blindness, how to see;

Christ did not ask ‘Why were you stoning Stephen?’

But ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’

Each martyr after you adds to his story,

As clouds of witness shine through clouds of glory.

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Descent: A Poem and Song for Christmas Day

mangerMerry Christmas!

Milton wrote an Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, which no one can hope to emulate,and which I have also posted in a blog post this morning with a beautiful illustration by Linda Richardson, however I thought I would also offer you something of my own. In this poem I have followed Milton’s lead in drawing a contrast between the various gods of the Classical world and the full and astonishing revelation of God’s love in the manger at Bethlehem. This was originally a short three verse poem, but at the behest of Steve Bell I have re-written it so that it is now also a song, with a tune of his composing on his award-winning Album Keening for the Dawn. I have written about our collaboration here.

The poem is published in my book The Singing Bowl. I have also recorded the song myself, on Steve Bell’s amazing new retrospective four cd set ‘Pilgrimage’ As always you can hear me reading of this poem which you can hear by clicking on the ‘play’ button below or the title


Descent

They sought to soar into the skies

Those classic gods of high renown

For lofty pride aspires to rise

But you came down.

 

You dropped down from the mountains sheer

Forsook the eagle for the dove

The other Gods demanded fear

But you gave love

 

 

 

Where chiselled marble seemed to freeze

Their abstract and perfected form

Compassion brought you to your knees

Your blood was warm

 

They called for blood in sacrifice

Their victims on an altar bled

When no one else could pay the price

You died instead

 

 

They towered above our mortal plain,

Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,

Aloof from birth and death and pain,

But you were born.

 

Born to these burdens, borne by all

Born with us all ‘astride the grave’

Weak, to be with us when we fall,

And strong to save.

 

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Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton

image by Linda richardson

image by Linda richardson

Merry Christmas! In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The poem I have chosen for Christmas Day is a substantial extract from ‘Ode on the Moring of Christ’s Nativity by John Milton. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created byLinda Richardson.Linda writes:

It is Christmas day and the poem recalls to my mind, all the beautiful images we have of Christmas. One of my favourites is the Magi. Perhaps it is because, of all the Christmas characters, they are very aware of what they are doing. They have travelled a long way and a great distance to worship a King. These are the Christmas ‘professionals’, the seers and Wise Men who have come prepared with gifts and acts of worship. As they reach their goal their faces are lit up with the light of the Holy Family.

I wonder where you would place yourself among the Christmas characters? Are you a prepared, professional with a worshipping heart? Perhaps you are like the shepherds and Christmas rolls right over you leaving you rather baffled and scratching your head. Perhaps you are an angel…perhaps you are a sheep. Whatever you feel you are, there is a place for all of us at the manger.

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

Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity

This is the month, and this the happy morn,

Wherein the Son of Heaven’s Eternal King,

Of wedded Maid and Virgin Mother born,

Our great redemption from above did bring;

For so the holy sages once did sing,

That he our deadly forfeit should release,

And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

 

That glorious form, that light unsufferable,

And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,

Wherewith he wont at Heaven’s high council-table

To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,

He laid aside; and, here with us to be,

Forsook the courts of everlasting day,

And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

 

Say, heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein

Afford a present to the Infant God?

Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,

To welcome him to this his new abode,

Now while the heaven, by the sun’s team untrod,

Hath took no print of the approaching light,

And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?

 

See, how from far, upon the eastern road,

The star-led wisards haste with odours sweet:

O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,

And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;

Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,

And join thy voice unto the Angel quire,

From out his secret altar touch’d with hallow’d fire.

 

THE HYMN.

It was the winter wild,

While the heaven-born child

All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;

Nature, in awe to him,

Had doff’d her gaudy trim,

With her great Master so to sympathize:

It was no season then for her

To wanton with the sun, her lusty paramour.

 

Only with speeches fair

She wooes the gentle air

To hide her guilty front with innocent snow;

And on her naked shame,

Pollute with sinful blame,

The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;

Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes

Should look so near upon her foul deformities.

 

But he, her fears to cease,

Sent down the meek-ey’d Peace;

She, crown’d with olives green, came softly sliding

Down through the turning sphere,

His ready harbinger,

With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;

And, waving wide her myrtle wand,

She strikes an universal peace through sea and land.

 

Nor war, or battle’s sound,

Was heard the world around:

The idle spear and shield were high up hung;

The hooked chariot stood

Unstain’d with hostile blood;

The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;

And kings sat still with awful eye,

As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.

 

But peaceful was the night,

Wherein the Prince of light

His reign of Peace upon the earth began:

The winds, with wonder whist,

Smoothly the waters kiss,

Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,

Who now hath quite forgot to rave,

While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

 

The stars, with deep amaze,

Stand fix’d in steadfast gaze,

Bending one way their precious influence;

And will not take their flight,

For all the morning light,

Or Lucifer, that often warn’d them thence;

But in their glimmering orbs did glow,

Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.

 

And, though the shady gloom

Had given day her room,

The sun himself withheld his wonted speed,

And hid his head for shame,

As his inferiour flame

The new-enlighten’d world no more should need;

He saw a greater sun appear

Than his bright throne, or burning axletree, could bear.

 

The shepherds on the lawn,

Or e’er the point of dawn,

Sat simply chatting in a rustick row;

Full little thought they then,

That the mighty Pan

Was kindly come to live with them below;

Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,

Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.

 

When such musick sweet

Their hearts and ears did greet,

As never was by mortal finger strook;

Divinely-warbled voice

Answering the stringed noise,

As all their souls in blissful rapture took:

The air, such pleasure loth to lose,

With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.

 

Nature that heard such sound,

Beneath the hollow round

Of Cynthia’s seat, the aery region thrilling,

Now was almost won

To think her part was done,

And that her reign had here its last fulfilling;

She knew such harmony alone

Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.

 

At last surrounds their sight

A globe of circular light,

That with long beams the shamefac’d night array’d;

The helmed Cherubim,

And sworded Seraphim,

Are seen in glittering ranks with wings display’d,

Harping in loud and solemn quire,

With unexpressive notes, to Heaven’s new-born Heir.

 

Such musick (as ‘tis said)

Before was never made,

But when of old the sons of morning sung,

While the Creator Great

His constellations set,

And the well-balanc’d world on hinges hung;

And cast the dark foundations deep,

And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.

 

Ring out, ye crystal spheres,

Once bless our human ears,

If ye have power to touch our senses so;

And let your silver chime Move in melodious time;

And let the base of Heaven’s deep organ blow;

And, with your ninefold harmony,

Make up full consort to the angelick symphony.

 

For, if such holy song

Enwrap our fancy long,

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold;

And speckled Vanity

Will sicken soon and die,

And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;

And Hell itself will pass away,

And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

 

Yea, Truth and Justice then

Will down return to men,

Orb’d in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,

Mercy will sit between,

Thron’d in celestial sheen,

With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;

And Heaven, as at some festival,

Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall …

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O Oriens A Fifth Advent reflection with music

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The fifth ‘great ‘O’ antiphon in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting 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 the dayspring from 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: 

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis

O Dayspring,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

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Oh Clavis; A Fourth Advent Antiphon Sonnet and Jac Redford’s music!

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The poem for today in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word is Oh Clavis, Oh Key!

Of all the mystic titles of Christ, this is the one that connects most closely with our ‘secular’ psychology. We speak of the need on the one hand for ‘closure’ and on the other for ‘unlocking’, for ‘opening’, for  ‘liberation’. The same ideas are also there in the lines from O Come O Come Emmanuel that are drawn from this antiphon, which could easily be part of anybody’s work in good therapy:

“Make safe the way that leads on high,

and close the path to misery.”

I see this antiphon, and the sonnet I wrote in response  to it, as the ‘before’ picture that precdes the beautiful fifth antiphon O Oriens about Christ as the Dayspring and  when l wrote this sonnet I found that I had at last written something clear about my own experience of depression. I hope that others who have been in that darkness will find it helpful.

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:

As I made this drawing, the words ‘huddled in misery’, were my starting point. The figure sits in something like a cave, but if the figure would only turn towards us, it would be able to rise, step through the doorway of the ‘O’ and walk free. Instead the poor naked figure hides its face and covers its head in shame. We can spend years ‘huddled in misery’ forbidding ourselves the freedom we crave, literally being miserly because we are captive to a way of thinking that has imprisoned us. We believe we can only be loved if we are perfect, or at least a lot better than we are, but a key only opens. It takes our action to walk out.

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 delighted to say that the composer Jac Redford, who set all these antiphon sonnets to music on his excellent CD ‘Let Beauty be our Memorial’ has kindly given permission for me to share those recordings with you. Here are the first four including today’s:

O Sapientia:

O Adonai: 

O Radix: 

O Clavis: 

 

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Clavis

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

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O Adonai, a second Advent reflection and sonnet

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson


The second of the Advent Antiphons,in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, O Adonai, touches on the ancient title of  God himself, who was called Adonai, Lord, because his sacred name, the four letters known as ‘The Tetragramaton’, could not be uttered by unworthy human beings without blasphemy. But the Advent Hope, indeed, the Advent miracle was that this unknowable, un-namable, utterly holy Lord, chose out of His own free will and out of love for us, to be known, to bear a name, and to meet us where we are. The antiphon touches on the mysterious and awesome manifestations of God on the mountain in the sign of the burning bush. For early Christians this bush, full of he fire of God yet still itself and unconsumed, was a sign of the Lord Christ who would come, filled with God and yet in mortal flesh unconsumed. I have tried to pick up on some of these themes in the sonnet I wrote in response to this antiphon. 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:

O Adonai! This is the plural of the word Adon, meaning Lord or Master. These wonderful ‘O’ antiphons surge into our Advent consciousness, bringing with them all the weight of our Christian tradition. The joy of what is coming resounds in our ears as it has done for Christians down the centuries, connecting us with those who first encountered YHWH, those early tribal refugees in Egypt.

Keeping tradition in mind you will see behind the ‘O’ the Latin plainsong and I imagine that it is still chanted in many places.

 

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

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,

qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,

et ei in Sina legem dedisti:

veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento

 

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,

who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm

O Adonai

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,

Unseeable, you gave yourself away,

The Adonai, the Tetragramaton

Grew by a wayside in the light of day.

O you who dared to be a tribal God,

To own a language, people and a place,

Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,

If so you might be met with face to face,

Come to us here, who would not find you there,

Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,

Who heard no more than thunder in the air,

Who marked the mere events and not the myth.

Touch the bare branches of our unbelief

And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

For a wonderful site about the Advent Antiphons and the wisdom of the meadiaeval mystics see Julia Bolton Holloway’s great site Umilita

to read and hear my first advent sonnet O Sapientia click here

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