Tag Archives: christianity

In the Wilderness 4: Temptation

Temptation

Temptation

When Adam Boulter sent me this haunting sketch of two figures looking down at Petra ‘from the high place of sacrifice’ (as he added in a marginal note) I realised that, with some small changes, it answered to my sonnet on the third temptation of Christ in the Wilderness. The whole sequence of seven ‘Wilderness’ moments hinges on the two glimpses of Christ in the Wilderness: the first, forced there as an innocent child refugee, sharing the trauma of all the coerced victims of conflict, and this second as a mature man choosing to face and feel, to suffer for us, and to overcome our temptations, and in this case, the most insidious of all temptations, and the root of the most destructive and ghastly of all our conflicts, the temptation to religious pride.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

Temptation in the wilderness

 

‘A sacred place is good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

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In the Wilderness 3: The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt

The Flight into Egypt

I found Adam Boulter’s sketch for the flight into Egypt very moving, with Mount Sinai in the back ground summoning the memory of the children of Jacob/Israel wandering through this same wilderness and knowing that somehow the Lord was with them, though under the shadowy symbols of the pillars of cloud and fire. But here the Lord is indeed our companion in this same wilderness. And not in the towering symbols of power, but in the fragile and vulnerable fresh of a refugee child, he takes the road with us. I had already reflected on this a little in my sonnet ‘Refugee’ from Sounding the Seasons, and Adam and I agreed to place that poem in this sequence and with this picture, where it seems to acquire a new resonance.The tragedy of the Syrian Civil War and the rise of Isis has unfolded since I wrote the poem and as you will see the final poem of this new sequence which deals with that catastrophe, and asks where Christ is in all these things, also alludes to and draws on this poem. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and you can visit the exhibition with the finished paintings and poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster throughout Lent

The Flight into Egypt

 

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

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In the Wilderness: 2 Jacob Wrestles With The Angel

DSCF9147Here is the second in my suite of seven sonnets on the theme of Wilderness composed in response to a set of paintings by Adan Boulter which will be exhibited along with the poems at St. Margaret’s Westminster . As before, I am giving you the initial sketch from Adam’s notebook with his pencilled notes (shown above) and then my sonnet in response. The finished paintings, made with both the sketch and the sonnet to hand, can be seen any day in lent at St. Margaret’s between 9am and 4pm.

In the first painting and sonnet Abraham welcomed the angels who were the harbingers of Isaac’s arrival. Now we skip  generation and Isaac’s own son has that life-changing encounter, that long wrestle in the dark that will change his name to Israel and change his future and ours for ever. This meeting with an angel is the harbinger of his dramatic encounter and reconciliation with his wronged brother Esau, the brother-victim he had deceived but in whose face he now recognises the face of God. I have voiced this poem for Jacob but written it full consciousness that his story is also ours, that we too, in our brokenness and alienation must also wrestle with, and be changed by the Love that wounds and heals.

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

2 Jacob Wrestles with the Angel

 

I dare not face my brother in the morning,

I dare not look upon the things I’ve done,

Dare not ignore a nightmare’s dreadful warning,

Dare not endure the rising of the sun.

My family, my goods, are sent before me,

I cannot sleep on this strange river shore,

I have betrayed the son of one who bore me,

And my own soul rejects me to the core.

 

But in the desert darkness one has found me,

Embracing me, He will not let me go,

Nor will I let Him go, whose arms surround me,

Until he tells me all I need to know,

And blesses me where daybreak stakes it’s claim,

With love that wounds and heals; and with His name.

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A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended at Twelth 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 year many churches will be keeping the feast a day early, on Sunday 1st of February, so I am posting this sonnet in time for them to make use of it should they wish.

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 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 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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25th January: The conversion of St. Paul!

Image by Margot Krebs Neale

This sunday, the 25th of January, is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often it is told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the church ‘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 poem 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 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, who freed him from his chains.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul

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The Words of Life: A New Sonnet

You have the words of eternal life

You have the words of eternal life

This is the season of new beginnings. Some people may have made the resolution, in one way or another, to ‘turn over a new leaf’, though when I used that phrase once in a conversation with my mother, she looked at me sharply and said: ‘Its not the leaves, its the roots that want turning!’

I am turning then to the roots of my faith in the living words of Jesus, deep generative words, words of Life, as the gospel calls them, because Life himself speaks them, and from them so much new life and growth can spring. But there is a problem. Many of these ‘words of life’, these sayings of Jesus are so over-familiar that we have ceased to hear them at all, ceased to register the shock, and challenge, that many of them contain. And when we do begin to grasp them we often find them difficult and don’t take the time we need to wrestle with them.

I have begun a new sonnet sequence called Parable and Paradox, reflecting on and wrestling with the sayings of Jesus to try and get past that familiarity and return again to these deep roots.

In this particular sonnet, which will come near the beginning of the sequence, I look at the moment in John’s Gospel, when disciples are leaving Jesus, because they find his sayings too hard and challenging, and he asks Peter directly if he too, is going to leave, and we read in John 6:68:

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Peter may not understand all that Jesus has to say to him, but he knows that somewhere in there is the heart of life itself and he is going to stay with Jesus until he understands it. And that really is the starting lace not only for this sonnet but for the whole sequence.

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

The Words of Life

 

John 6:68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

 

You have the words of life, where should we go

Except to you, to try and take them in?

We want your words to quicken us, to know

And be transformed by knowledge deep within.

How is it then, these words seem dead in us?

We neither let them go nor let them live,

Their empty echoes always seem to haunt us,

As daily we refuse what they might give.

 

Oh Teacher we need more than just the hearing,

More than these readings we have set apart,

Somehow the two-edged sword we have been fearing

Must pierce at last the well-defended heart.

Unsheathe it now and help us take the pain,

Pierce to the point where we can start again.

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Sunday 18th Jan: Nathanael’s Epiphany

You will see the Heaven opened

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, the second Sunday of Epiphany (John 1:43-51) takes us to one of the most mysterious and beautiful moments in the New Testament. As the disciples begin to gather around Jesus, Philip finds Nathanael and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) Nathanael’s unpromising response is ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ But Phillip gives the best possible reply that anyone sharing the mystery of their faith can give; ‘Come and see’. and that ‘come and see’ sets a theme of ‘seeing’ and vision which culminates in the amazing exchange between Nathanael and Jesus that follows.

Before Nathanael has uttered a word Jesus says ‘Behold an Israelite indeed’ and turns the tables of ‘vision’ onto Nathanael himself, and in that moment Nathanael suddenly knows that he is ompletely known by this man he has never met. ‘Whence knowest thou me?’ he asks, and Jesus’ reply is again about vision and seeing: ‘Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.’  Something amazing happens here, Nathan, who was scoffing at Nazareth a minute before, has a sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching, leaping ahead of all the other disciples to an undertanding and certainty that even Peter would not attain for another three years, and declares ‘Rabbi thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel!’

An Epiphany has taken place, something whole and complete has been disclosed in a single glance, to see and be seen is enough! This is an example in the Gospel of a sudden ‘awakening’, a direct pointing to reality, which some people think is only associated with Buddhism, but here it is. And then Jesus, alluding subtly to Nathanael’s mention of Israel, promises that this is just the beginning of a greater epiphany. Nathanael is ‘an Israelite indeed’ and Jesus points to the key epiphany in the life of Israel, when he was still called Jacob, the epiphany in which he saw the ladder connecting heaven and earth:

‘Verily, verily I say unto you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’

Here is one of those thrilling moments when a mysterious image from the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New! The ladder was a prophetic image given in a dream to Jacob of what is to come, now it has come true! I am the ladder, Jesus is saying, the true connection, the true gate of Heaven. And in this intimate exchange Nathanael has seen with his waking eyes what his ancestor had seen only veiled in dream and symbol!

I have tried to embody something of these reflections in the following sonnet. I am grateful again for Margot Kreb’s Neale’s beautiful photograph, itself a comentary on this same mystery.  The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop. As always you can hear this poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Nathanael’s Epiphany

A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,
A man of clay, his head upon a stone
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from Heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken-hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.

And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.

 

An extraordinary Sculpture of Jacob’s Dream at Abilene Christian University, Texas.

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