Tag Archives: christianity

Dante and the companioned journey 6: Dancing Through the Fire

 

Botticelli illustrates Purgatorio 27, Dancing through the Fire

Botticelli illustrates Purgatorio 27, Dancing through the Fire

 

‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated sprit proceeds/ unless restored by that refining fire/ where you must move in measure like a dancer’

These words from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding have always struck a chord with me. They allude, of course, to the moment near the end of the Purgatorio when the pilgrims ascend towards the Earthly Paradise, the garden of our origins and of our restored humanity, at the summit of the Holy Mountain. But Eden is surrounded by a circle of fire. The poet-pilgrims must pass through that fire, in which the last of love’s imperfections will be purified. Desire for the beloved must be redeemed from the possessive  lust which makes a person an object, and restored to that wholeness of love in which the beloved is desired and loved, body and soul, for herself as  person. It is only when Virgil reminds Dante that his beloved Beatrice is waiting for him beyond the fire that he has the courage to enter the flame.

This poem is also set for this Saturday in The Word in the wilderness. Here’s what I wrote about it there:

So, at the end of this ‘Dante’ week, I give you my own poetic response to Friday’s passage from the Purgatorio. And I take occasion in this poem to thank God for the poets, the warm-hearted poets whose strength, and yes, sometimes weakness too, was in their service of Eros, but who always gave me, as the pagan Virgil gave Dante, a new kindling of hope and longing; a vision, even through the warmth of earthly love, of the eternal Love of Heaven. Through them I learned that the right response to Eros is not to ask for less desire, but for more, to deepen my desires until nothing but Heaven can satisfy them. I also take occasion here to think about the art of poetry itself. There is a parallel, I think between our love-life and the making of poetry. In both there is an initial gift and inspiration, a subtle and all-transforming intuition of beauty. But in both this might easily be frittered away or corrupted. The first glimpse, the intuition, which as it did for Yeats’s Wandering Aengus, should lead to a life-times quest, can be lost or dissipated in the pursuit of one will’o’the wisp after another. Or we can be faithful to it: that first intuition, that graceful gift of love can be attended to, and shaped. We can craft for it a steady reliable form and a home. We can bring it, in poetry and in love-life through slow growth to fruition. So I praise the poets, among them Dante himself, who

 

taught me by example how to bring

The slow growth of a poem to fruition

And let it be itself, a living thing,

 

And we can do more than that. Poetry must begin with specific and loving attention to the particular and the earthly, but it doesn’t end there. And so I praise the poets who

 

Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition

And still to try the tautness of each line,

Taught me to taste the grace of transformation

 

And trace in dust the face of the divine,

Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian,

That drawing water turns it into wine.

 

The lines, the images, the sounds and rhythms of a poem are all physical things of this world, and yet, somehow in them and through them, another light shines. George Herbert put it perfectly when he said

 

A man that looks on glass

On it may stay his eye

Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,

And then the Heavens espy.

 

And all this, that is true of poetry, is also true of the transformation of Eros in our lives. The familiar face of the person we live with, the quality of their steadfast covenant love can suddenly become a window through which the face of the God, who loves us in and through them, shines. Marriage itself is intended as the sacrament in which that transformation can happen, and that is why the marriage service alludes to our Lord’s presence ‘at a wedding in Cana of Galillee’. For the miracle that was wrought there, in which the very act of drawing water in Christ’s presence has turned it into wine, is a sign of what can happen to all we love and make in this world, poems and relationships, if we open them up to Christ.

 

This poem which shares the title and subject of my most recent cd Dancing Through the Fire is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title, and I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the lovely interpretative image which follows the poem

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

Dancing Through The Fire

‘per te poeta fui, per te Christiano‘  ( purg 22:73)

 

Then stir my love in idleness to flame

To find  at last the free refining fire

That guards the hidden garden whence I came.

 

O do not kill, but quicken my desire

Better to spur me on than leave me cold.

Not maimed I come to you, I come entire

 

Lit by  the loves that warm, the lusts that scald

That you may prove the one, reprove the other,

Though both have been the strength by which I scaled

 

The steps so far to come where poets gather

And sing such songs as love gives them to sing.

I thank God for the ones who brought me hither

 

And taught me by example how to bring

The slow growth of a poem to fruition

And let it be itself, a living thing,

 

Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition

And still to try the tautness of each line,

Taught me to taste the grace of transformation

 

And trace in dust the face of the Divine,

Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian ,

That drawing water turns it into wine.

 

Now I am drawn through their imagination

To dare to dance with them into the fire,

Harder than any grand renunciation,

 

To bring to Christ the heart of my desire

Just as it is in every imperfection

Surrendered to his sharp refiners fire

 

That love might have Its death and resurrection.

DSC04828refiners fire

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Dante and the companioned journey 5: Love-in-Idlness

Dante meets Belaqua from a Bodleian Maanuscript

Dante meets Belaqua from a Bodleian Manuscript

This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book  The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent.  In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence.

Yesterday, with De Magistro we began the ascent of Mount Purgatory. As he begins his ascent of the Holy Mountain, Dante runs into, indeed nearly trips over, an old friend called Belaqua, a Florentine lute-maker and musician. Dante is delighted to see him there as one of the redeemed, since in Florence he seemed, as many musicians seem to their friends now, to spend alot of his time just ‘hanging out’ with other musicians and not getting on with anything in particular. Then Dante is disturbed to notice that that is exactly what Belaqua still seems to be doing on the Holy Mountain, just lounging around, until Belaqua explains that this is actually his penance! He is obliged to hang around waiting for the exact amount of time he wasted on earth, before he can begin his true his ascent. What was previously just ‘time wasting’ is now being converted by grace into ‘otium sacrum’ that holy leisure, that pause and patience, that long wait in which at last we let God be God. It’s no wonder that Samuel Becket, who was to invest so much imagination into what it means to wait, was very drawn to this passage and that the hero of his semi-autobiographical short stories is called Belaqua. I wrote this poem over thirty years ago, influenced as much by Becket as by Dante, towards the end of an apparently fruitless period of lostness and indolence. Placing it now in this new sequence is itself a parable of what I understand redemption to be.

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title, and I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the lovely interpretative image which follows the poem

Love In Idleness

When I am bogged in indolence again

It’s purgatory for me, as for Belaqua,

Hanging around instead of getting on

 

With his salvation.  I can’t lift a finger.

The snow is falling heavily outside.

The earth gets lighter as the sky gets darker.

 

I shiver where I’m sitting (window wide

for snow-flakes to drop in and fade away)

And hide myself in something else’s hide.

 

Coat panther-black and shabby hat wolf-grey,

As my numb fingers wrap about my pen,

all I need is fire and something to say.

 

Belaqua’s lute speaks with the tongues of men,

The tongue-tied mind is loosened into praise

I slip the disc back in its sleeve again.

 

One side is columns stiff with turgid prose

About the quattrocento.  On the other

A sound-box holds the craftsman’s fretted rose

 

With Florence in the background.  What a cover

For the God who spoke through someone else’s fingers

When ours were still entwined with one another.

 

ages ago we heard the music linger

before this light had lost its  radiance

And cast on love the shadow of our Hunger;

 

We spoke of free-will and of innocence

And trod the pavements of the fourth cornice

Where Love is to be purged of indolence.

 

I write these verses pending my release

I write these verses pending my release.

I write these verses pending my release.

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Dante and the companioned journey 4: De Magistro

Dante with mount Purgatory in the background

Dante with mount Purgatory in the background

This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book  The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent.  In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the third of them Vexilla Regis, today I am posting the Fourth, De Magistro.’ This poem is set for Thursday ion The Word in the wilderness and the introduction is taken from that book.

Many of us can probably point to a figure like Virgil in our lives, not only an author, but a living friend and teacher, who meets us at the right moment, sets us on a good path and guides on our journey. In this poem, I celebrate someone who did that for me, the teacher, in fact, with whom I first read Dante. My poem takes its point of departure from the moment of transition we considered in Wednesday’s end of the Inferno when the poets emerge at last from the dark and see again the sky and stars, and their preparation to begin the painful and yet joyful ascent of Mount Purgatory.

Again and again I find Dante’s poem gives me glimpses of places I have been, and places I may well yet find myself, and in doing so it gives me a map, and with the map, a way forward. When I wrote this poem I was emerging from period of depression. I was grateful to be past the worst but I realized that I had work to do, things to redeem, an ascent to make. To do so I had to call to mind all the resources available to me, and I found myself summoning the powers of the poetry I had read, the insights and example of the teachers who had guided me, and above all concentrating, as they had done, on the joyful task of teaching itself. The title of this poem, ‘De Magistro’, means ‘Of the Teacher’ and it is also the title of a little book by St Augustine, co-written as a dialogue with his beloved son Adeodatus, in which father and son explore together what it means to learn and to teach and come to the conclusion that at any moment when we suddenly ‘recognize’ a truth, and make a glad, inner assent to it, it is not the outward and visible teacher, the person in the room, who is the ultimate source of that truth and that assent, but rather an ‘inner’ teacher, deep within us, a source of light and truth to whom we have brought each proposition for confirmation, and that teacher, said Augustine is Christ, himself, the Logos, the Word in each of us, who guides us through the wilderness. At such moments of joyful recognition both teacher and pupil discern the Word in and through one another, and in and through the words they share.

Dante’s poem begins ‘in a dark wood’ in ‘midmost of the path of this life’. Sometimes words themselves can seem like a tangled wood, but a good teacher can show us the path, and guide us gradually to find the true source of all language and meaning in Christ the logos, and I have tried to evoke that experience in this poem, in the lines:

 

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path

That leads back to the springs of truth in speech.

You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

 

You showed me how my halting words might reach

To the mind’s maker, to the source of Love,

And so you taught me what it means to teach.

 

Perhaps, in the midst of this Lenten journey this is a good time to remember, give thanks and pray for those teachers, official and unofficial, through whom Christ has ‘brought us safe thus far’.

 

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

 

 

As always you can hear my poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button’. I am grateful to Oliver Neale for the contemporary image that follows the poem.

4 De Magistro

I thank my God I have emerged at last,

blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars

bewildered by the shadows that I cast.

 

You set me on this stair, in those rich hours

pacing your study, chanting poetry.

The Word in you revealed His quickening powers,

 

removed the daily veil, and let me see,

as sunlight played along your book-lined walls,

that words are windows onto mystery.

 

From Eden, whence the living fountain falls

in music, from the tower of ivory,

and from the hidden heart, He calls

 

in the language of Adam, creating memory

of unfallen speech. He sets creation

free from the carapace of history.

 

His image in us is Imagination,

His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath

upon the letters of His revelation.

 

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path

that leads back to the springs of truth in speech.

You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

 

you showed me how my halting words might reach

to the mind’s Maker, to the source of Love,

and so you taught me what it means to teach.

 

Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove

climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.

Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,

 

as fellow pilgrims on a needful journey.

photo by Oliver Neale

photo by Oliver Neale

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Dante and the companioned journey 3: Vexilla Regis

Plan of the Inferno by Daniel Heald

Plan of the Inferno by Daniel Heald

This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book  The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent.  In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the second of them Through the Gate, today I am posting the Third, Vexilla Regis.’

In this third reflection on on my pilgrim/reader’s journey through Dante’s Commedia, I come to the end of the Inferno and the wonderful moment of reversal/renewal when, having sunk to the lowest depths, the very centre of the earth’s gravity, they realise that if they can just keep going and not give up or give in at this point, then everything will be upended,they will pass the centre and be climbing again on the journey back to light, proving what a later mystic, John of the Cross wrote, that ‘the way down is the way up’.

One other thing I might note by way of background to my poem is that ‘Vexilla Regis‘, which means the Royal Banner or Standard is a wonderful early mediaeval hymn about the cross of Christ, the apparent tree of defeat, becoming truly the tree of victory, the flag that rallies every faint and falling Christian back to the battle, back to hope and triumph in their true Captain. In Hell Dante hears a hideous parody of this hymn applied to Satan, so in my own poem about recovery I take up the true version as my witness to the saving power of the cross.

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the Title or the ‘play’ button

3 Vexilla Regis

 

 

3 Vexilla Regis

 

I hear His call, now help me to respond

My freeing muse, I need your presence here

For poetry alone moves me beyond

 

The known and over-known, beyond the sheer

Drop into darkness and the all-unknown

To the last limits and the true frontier,

 

Where Light and life dare to begin again.

Reason alone will never take me there,

The shaping spirit of imagination

 

Must also be my guide and bring me where

We pass the centre, turn the world around

And find the first steps of the hidden stair

 

That climbs out of these pits, far underground,

Against the stream of Lethe. Help me climb

Out of the depths that you have helped me sound.

 

Little by little, one step at a time

Towards the other side, the star-lit world

Where he has gone before and for all time

 

The world-tree’s steadfast roots are crossed and coiled

But on the tree of life He dies for me

Vexilla Regis sounds and all unfurled

 

The royal banners of the true and free

Stream out against the tempest and the fear

And summon me to all that I should be.

 

Up from that black and smothered atmosphere

I toil towards the light The worst is past

I hear the voice that called me, deep and clear

 

And let Love draw me into light at last.

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Dante and the companioned journey 2: Through the Gate

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

This week is the Dante Week for readers of my book  The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent.  In that book I give three poems from my sequence of nine written in response to the Commedia but I thought I might repost all nine on this blog for those who were interested in following up the sequence. Yesterday I gave the first of them In Medias Res, today I am posting the second, ‘Through the Gate.’ Here is the commentary with which I introduced it in The Word in the wilderness and then the poem itself:

So Dante begins again, accompanied by Virgil and they come to the very gate of Hell, with its famous inscription ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’! But they don’t abandon hope, and that is the whole point. It is hope that leads and draws them on, hope inspired by love. For Virgil has revealed to Dante that it is Beatrice, the woman with whom he had fallen so completely in love as a young man, now in the bliss of Heaven, who has herself ‘ventured down the dark descent’ (to borrow Milton’s phrase) to find Virgil and ask for his help in rescuing Dante, so that she and Dante can meet again and rise together through the spheres of Heaven. Like Jesus, who went to the cross, not for pain in itself, but ‘for the joys that were set before him’, so we are to make this journey through the memories of pain and darkness, not to stay with these things but to redeem them and move beyond them. And the journey is itself made possible because Christ himself has gone before. ‘He descended into Hell.’ Throughout the journey into the Inferno we are shown signs that Christ has been this way before and broken down the strongholds. Dante is here alluding to one of the great lost Christian stories, which we need to recover today; ‘The Harrowing of Hell’. We, who build so many Hells on earth, need to know that there is no place so dark, no situation so seemingly hopeless, that cannot be opened to the light of Christ for rescue and redemption.

This is the theme I have born in mind in the following poem, which is my own ‘reader response’ to Dante’s journey. Throughout I have been mindful that the Inferno is really ‘in here and right now’ not ‘out there and back then’, and emphatically not, if we trust in Christ, some inevitable end awaiting us. In that knowledge we must have the courage to expose our own personal Hell’s to Christ and let him harrow them with us, and that is precisely what Dante’s great poem allows us to do. The great statesman and Dante enthusiast, W. E. Gladstone said: ‘The reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man’.

For all of us, somewhere within, there is a threshold or a gate beyond which we feel we dare not go, but it is sometimes just past that threshold that our real healing and restoration needs to take place. Sometimes the best way to get through that gate, and let Christ in, is in a companioned inner journey, with a trusted ‘soul friend’, a spiritual director, or a priest to whom we can make confession in complete confidence. I have deliberately echoed the phrase, from the form of confession ‘All I cannot call to mind’ as a way of suggesting that this journey with Dante down the dark spirals; one sin leading to another, one wound inflicting the next, can itself be an invitation to confession, and so to absolution and release.

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

As before, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Through the Gate

Begin the song exactly where you are

For where you are contains where you have been

And holds the vision of your final sphere

 

And do not fear the memory of sin;

There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,

Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain

 

Into translucent colour. Loose the veils

And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,

Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,

 

The hopeless gate that holds in all the  fears

That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide

And open to the light that finds and fares

 

Through the dark pathways  where you run and  hide,

through all the alleys of your riddled heart,

As pierced and open as His wounded side.

 

Open the map to Him and make a start,

And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark

His light will go before you, let Him chart

 

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache

To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind

Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk

 

And muted gloom in which you cannot find

The love that you once thought worth dying for.

Call Him to all you cannot call to mind

 

He comes to harrow Hell and now to your

Well guarded fortress let His love descend.

The icy ego at your frozen core

 

Can hear His call at last. Will you respond?

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Dante and the Companioned Journey 1

Dante and his Poem

Dante and his Poem

Readers of The Word in the Wilderness, my compilation of a poem a day for Lent, will know that all this coming week we are sharing our Lenten Pilgrimage with Dante. Now in that book I have alternated 3 passages from Robin Kirkpatrick’s brilliant new translation of the Commedia with 3 poems from my own sequence of nine poems ‘On Reading the Comedia’, which comes at the end of my book The Singing Bowl. As readers of The Word in the Wilderness make that journey this week I thought some of them might be interested in the full sequence from which my three poems were taken and would perhaps like to hear me read them, so I am reposting that sequence on this blog, starting today with the opening poem In Medias Res, itself a response to the opening of Dante’s poem, which opens  ‘in the middle of the path of our life’

This poem is from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

If English readers would like to buy my books from a proper bookshop Sarum College Bookshop here in the UK always have it in stock.

I am happy to announce to North American readers that copies of The Singing Bowl and my other books are readily available from Steve Bell Here

As with other posts I have read it onto ‘audio boom’ so you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title


In Medias Res

And so I start again, here in the middle,

The middle of a life I scarcely know,

How many guesses left to get the riddle?

 

The woods are dark and darker shadows grow.

I followed someone here, but lost her leading,

With nothing but my lostness left to show.

 

The voice that drew me on is faint and fading

But something else is creeping up behind

Over whose heart, I wonder, are we treading?

 

My shadow-beasts can scent, though they are blind

All three are here, the leopard, lion, wolf,

My kith and kin, the emblems of my kind.

 

They’ve come to draw me back across the gulf

Back from the path I wanted to have chosen.

Fall back, they call, you can’t run from yourself

 

Fall to the place where every hope is frozen…

But not his time, this time I choose to choose

The other path, path of the dead and risen,

 

To try the hidden heart of things, to let go, lose,

To lose myself and find again the voice

That called and drew me here, my freeing muse.

 

Begin again she calls, you have the choice,

Little by little, you can travel far,

Learn to lament before you can rejoice

 

Sing to the shadows, sing and do not fear

But sing them into love little by little

Begin the song exactly where you are.

 

And so I start again here in the middle

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I Am With You Always

JesusTeaching2I am working on a new sequence of sonnets, called Parable and Paradox, responding to the sayings of Jesus, and I have come to the end of Matthew’s Gospel and the last words of Jesus to his disciples as he sends them out to the four corners of the earth to make disciples of every nation

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20)

It seemed to me that these final words actually linked back to and fulfilled the promise that was given in the Naming of Jesus, that he should be called ‘Emmanuel’, God with us, and that was the starting point of this sonnet.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. Parable and Paradox will be published by Canterbury Press in 2016.

I will be with you

 

Your final words fulfill your ancient name,

A promise hidden in Emmanuel,

A promise that can never fade or fail:

I will be with you till the end of time;

I will be with you when you scale the height

And with you when you fall to earth again,

With you when you flourish in the light,

And with you through the shadow and the pain.

Our God with us, you leave and yet remain

Risen and hidden with us everywhere;

Hidden and flowing in the wine we share,

Broken and hidden in the growing grain.

Be with us till we know we are forgiven

Be with us here till we’re with you in heaven.

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