Tag Archives: George Herbert

Week 5: prayer that pierces

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

Here is my usual Sunday posting resuming our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.

The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith

Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.

But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’s beautiful poem The Incarnate One

The Incarnate One   Edwin Muir

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,

And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.

I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,

Christ, man and creature in their inner day.

How could our race betray

The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake

Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

 

The Word made flesh here is made word again

A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.

See there King Calvin with his iron pen,

And God three angry letters in a book,

And there the logical hook

On which the Mystery is impaled and bent

Into an ideological argument.

 

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,

And truer sight was theirs outside the Law

Who saw the far side of the Cross among

The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,

In ignorant wonder saw

The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,

Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

 

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,

Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,

The auguries say, the white and black and brown,

The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all

Invisibly will fall:

Abstract calamity, save for those who can

Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

 

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown

Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well

The bloodless word will battle for its own

Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.

The generations tell

Their personal tale: the One has far to go

Past the mirages and the murdering snow.

 

MONDAY

 

Golgotha   John Heath-Stubbs


 

In the middle of the world, in the centre

Of the polluted heart of man, a midden;

A stake stemmed in the rubbish

 

From lipless jaws, Adam’s skull

Gasped up through the garbage:

‘I lie in the discarded dross of history,

Ground down again to the red dust,

The obliterated image. Create me.’

From lips cracked with thirst, the voice

That sounded once over the billows of chaos

When the royal banners advanced,

replied through the smother of dark:

‘All is accomplished, all is made new, and look-

All things, once more, are good.’

Then, with a loud cry, exhaled His spirit.

 

TUESDAY

 

The Agony   George Herbert


 

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,

Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states and kings;

Walk’d with a staff to heav’n and traced fountains:

But there are two vast, spacious thins,

The which to measure it doth more behove;

Yet few there are that sound them, ‒ Sin and Love.

 

Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see

A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,

His skin, His garments bloody be.

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

 

Who knows not Love, let him assay

And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike

Did set again abroach; then let him say

If ever he did taste the like,

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Gethsemane   Rowan Williams

Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

 

Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.

 

THURSDAY

 

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day   G. M. Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.

 

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

 

FRIDAY

 

God’s Grandeur   G. M. Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs ‒

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

SATURDAY

 

Love’s as warm as tears   C. S. Lewis

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A Sonnet for George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

On February 27th the Church of England keeps the feast and celebrates the memory of George Herbert, the gentle poet priest whose book the Temple, published posthumously in 1633 by his friend Nicholas Ferrar has done so much to help and inspire Christians ever since. In an earlier blog post I gave a talk on George Herbert and the Insights of Prayer, today, on the eve of his Feast Day, I offer this sonnet, part of a sequence called ‘Clouds of Witness” in my poetry book The Singing Bowl. The sequence is a celebration of the saints, intended to complement my sequence Sounding the Seasons.

You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon, As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.

George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,

With all that passed between you and your Lord,

That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles

Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.

Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,

Has been entrusted now to every soul,

We make a new beginning in your end

And find your broken heart has made us whole.

Time has transplanted you, and you take root,

Past changing in the paradise of Love,

Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,

And listen for an echo from above,

Open the window, let me hear you sing,

And see the Word with you in everything.

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Word in the Wilderness Week 1: The Pilgrimage Begins

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

As well as my posts from David’s Crown I will be continuing, each Sunday in Lent, to post the poems for the coming week, from My Word in the Wilderness anthology, for those who are following that. In this first week in Lent  Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk. But first we have a poem for the first Sunday in Lent. Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter. We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps as little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten Journey and that is how I shall treat them in this anthology. Once again thanks are due to Lancia Smith for the image which accompanies this week’s poems.

So to celebrate the first of them here is R. S. Thomas’s famous poem ‘The Bright Field’.

The Bright Field

MONDAY

The Pilgrimage   George Herbert


I travell’d on, seeing the hill, where lay

My expectation.

A long it was and weary way.

The gloomy cave of Desperation

I left on th’one, and on the other side

The rock of Pride.

And so I came to Fancy’s meadow strow’d

With many a flower:

Fair would I here have made abode,

But I was quicken’d by my houre.

So to Cares copse I came, and there got through

With much ado.

That led me to the wild of Passion, which

Some call the wold;

A wasted place, but sometimes rich.

Here I was robb’d of all my gold,

Save one good Angel, which a friend had ti’d

Close to my side.

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,

Where lay my hope,

Where lay my heart; and climbing still,

When I had gain’d the brow and top,

A lake of brackish waters on the ground

Was all I found.

With that abash’d and struck with many a sting

Of swarming fears,

I fell, and cry’d, Alas my King;

Can both the way and end be tears?

Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv’d

I was deceiv’d:

My hill was further: so I flung away,

Yet heard a crie

Just as I went, None goes that way

And lives: If that be all, said I,

After so foul a journey death is fair,

And but a chair.

TUESDAY

Satire III   John Donne


… though truth and falsehood be

Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;

Be busy to seek her; believe me this,

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,

May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must and about must go,

And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,

Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

To will implies delay, therefore now do;

Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too

The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries

Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

WEDNESDAY

The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage   Walter Raleigh

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet,

My staff of faith to walk upon,

My scrip of joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage;

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Blood must be my body’s balmer,

No other balm will there be given;

Whilst my soul, like a quiet palmer,

Travelleth towards the land of heaven ;

Over the silver mountains,

Where spring the nectar fountains:

There will I kiss

The bowl of bliss;

And drink mine everlasting fill

Upon every milken hill:

My soul will be a-dry before;

But after, it will thirst no more.

Then by that happy blestful day,

More peaceful pilgrims I shall see,

That have cast off their rags of clay,

And walk apparelled fresh like me.

I’ll take them first

To quench their thirst,

And taste of nectar suckets,

At those clear wells

Where sweetness dwells

Drawn up by saints in crystal buckets.

And when our bottles and all we

Are filled with immortality,

Then the blessed paths we’ll travel,

Strowed with rubies thick as gravel;

Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors,

High walls of coral, and pearly bowers.

From thence to heavens’s bribeless hall,

Where no corrupted voices brawl;

No conscience molten into gold,

No forged accuser bought or sold,

No cause deferred, nor vain-spent journey;

For there Christ is the King’s Attorney,

Who pleads for all without degrees,

And he hath angels, but no fees.

And when the grand twelve-million jury

Of our sins, with direful fury,

‘Gainst our souls black verdicts give,

Christ pleads his death, and then we live.

Be thou my speaker, taintless pleader,

Unblotted lawyer, true proceeder!

Thou giv’st salvation even for alms;

Not with a bribèd lawyer’s palms.

And this is my eternal plea

To him that made heaven, earth, and sea,

That, since my flesh must die so soon,

And want a head to dine next noon,

Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread,

Set on my soul an everlasting head.

Then am I ready, like a palmer fit;

To tread those blest paths which before I writ.

THURSDAY

Maps  Holly Ordway Check out Holly’s website HERE

Antique maps, with curlicues of ink

As borders, framing what we know, like pages

From a book of travelers’ tales: look,

Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.

No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state

Traced out in color-coded numbered highways,

A web of roads with labeled city-dots

Punctuating the route and its slow stories.

Now GPS puts me right at the centre,

A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.

Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn

And turn to orient myself. I have

Directions calculated, maps at hand:

Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

FRIDAY

 The Song of Wandering Aengus   W. B. Yeats


I went out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,

And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

And hooked a berry to a thread;

And when white moths were on the wing,

And moth-like stars were flickering out,

I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor

I went to blow the fire a-flame,

But something rustled on the floor,

And some one called me by my name:

It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone,

And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

SATURDAY

First Steps, Brancaster   Malcolm Guite


This is the day to leave the dark behind you
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is your time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.

After the dimly burning wick of winter
That seemed to dull and darken everything
The April sun shines clear beyond your shelter
And clean as sight itself. The reed-birds sing,
As heaven reaches down to touch the earth
And circle her, revealing everywhere
A lovely, longed-for blue.
Breathe deep and be renewed by every breath,
Kinned to the keen east wind and cleansing air,
As though the blue itself were blowing through you.

You keep the coastal path where edge meets edge,
The sea and salt marsh touching in North Norfolk,
Reed cutters cuttings, patterned in the sedge,
Open and ease the way that you will walk,
Unbroken reeds still wave their feathered fronds
Through which you glimpse the long line of the sea
And hear its healing voice.
Tentative steps begin to break your bonds,
You push on through the pain that sets you free,
Towards the day when broken bones rejoice

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Christmas (1) by George Herbert

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

In my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 30th, is  Christmas (1a remarkable sonnet by George Herbert in which he imagines discovering Jesus in a local Inn. 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:

If you are feeling over indulged and replete with food and drink, this is the poem for you. Once again we return to the truth that even while we are far off, perhaps like the prodigal son, eating, drinking and over indulging, there is always a summons to examine our conscience, to look beyond the ‘fling and bling’, as Malcolm often describes this aspect of Christmas. The image for today is a very simple watercolour: a lone figure walks towards a simple shelter from which a radiant light emanates. The light comes from above and radiates out of the shelter where Christ is born, towards the figure. The figure walks towards the light, leaving behind a long dark shadow.

The history of the people of the Bible and of Christianity is stained by the corrupt idea that God is like us, full of disapproval and ready to punish. This idea keeps us away from God and we might even think that we are so bad, we might as well be a little more bad because truly, we have blown it with God. This is our ego talking, and if we listen to it we will find only self blame, self punishment and self loathing. The image tells us that we can turn at any moment and walk into the mystery of love and presence. It is not for us to perfect ourselves before we turn, God is the one who redeems. ‘You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” (Annie Dillard)

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

Christmas (1)

After all pleasures as I rid one day,

My horse and I, both tir’d, bodie and minde,

With full crie of affections, quite astray,

I took up in the next inne I could finde,

There when I came, whom found I but my deare,

My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief

Of pleasures brought me to him, readie there

To be all passengers most sweet relief?

O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,

Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;

Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,

To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:

Furnish & deck my soul, that thou mayst have

A better lodging than a rack or grave.

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Prayer and ‘After Prayer’, a Hypertext

Yesterday we completed our journey through my new Sonnet Sequence After Prayer, and I thought it might be good to gather it all together in a Hypertext of Herbert’s Original sonnet ‘Prayer’, to which my sequence was a phrase by phrase response. So here is Herbert’s original poem, and a recording of my reading of it. But now, if you click on any of the twenty-seven glorious phrases of this poem you will be able to summon up my reflections on it and the sonnet I have written in response. I hope you enjoy it.

You can hear me read Herbert’s poem by clicking on the title or the ‘Play’ Button

Prayer    George Herbert

 PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

        Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

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Lent with Herbert Day 27: Something Understood

Today we conclude our journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer.

Yesterday we looked at the final image, the Land of Spices, and now we see how Herbert himself looks back at the effort of the whole poem, in all its myriad images and insights, and modestly concludes that it might offer us some understanding. something understood, but not everything. It may well be that Herbert was consciously offering the preceding twenty-six images as a kind of primer, a table of the letters of prayer’s alphabet, helping us to spell out for the imagination a little more of the mystery of our prayer lives, but by finishing his poem with the phrase something understood he brings us back to the brink of experience itself, asking us to move beyond his images, his experience and understanding into our own. these at least were some of the thoughts in my mind as I penned this final sonnet and brought my own sequence of sonnets ‘After Prayer‘  to a close. Tomorrow I will post a ‘hypertext’ of the whole poem, where each of herbert’s phrases is itself a link to my responding sonnet.

I hope you have enjoyed hearing me read and reflect on them. I have been glad to share them here, (though I would also be glad if you were to buy the book, if you’ve not already done so), That way you can enjoy them privately and at your leisure, for poetry is always better on the page and on the tongue than on the screen.

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

Something Understood

And so the spell of Prayer comes to an end,

An end that offers us a place to start,

An invitation from a loving friend,

A colloquy where ‘heart speaks unto heart’.

These twenty-six attempts to say the Name,

The simple letters of prayer’s alphabet,

Bring us a little way, but end the same

Just on the brink of what’s not spoken yet.

 

With each new understanding we begin,

Again, and turn from text to mystery,

To prayer itself, that draws us deeper in,

Where knowledge ends, but love has mastery.

Still on that brink, I share, as pilgrims should,

Some of the somethings I have understood.

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Lent with Herbert Day 26: The Land of Spices

We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’website.

There are 26 distinct images or emblems of prayer, all sown, blossoming and bearing fruit in Herbert’s little poem Prayer, and this image, The Land of Spices, is the last of them. The whole poem has been a kind of Hortus Conclusus: a garden enclosed, and with this final image Herbert evokes the associations of the secret garden, the exotic herbs and spices, the rare planting. He may have been partly evoking the exotic travellers’ tales of his own day, of how even far out at sea the mariners, would scent, before they saw the welcome fragrance of the Spice Islands, but I think he also had in mind, as a particular locus of intimate mystical prayer, the evocative account of the spices in the garden of The Song of Songs, in Chapter 4 verses 12-16

 A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.

He would also have been familiar with the lovely verse in psalm 142 which compares prayer itself to incense:

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice

These verses were all in my mind too as I came to make my response to Herbert’s phrase.

As always you can hear me recite the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. Tomorrow we will savour the last phrase in which Herbert looks back on his 26 emblems and recognises ‘Something Understood’

The Land Of Spices

The land of spices is not far away

But planted close and gathered in one place

Ready to loose its perfume as we pray

And steal into the soul with subtle grace.

My prayer is set as incense in thy sight,

So Herbert and the whole church prayed their psalm,

His Prayer Book was a garden of delight,

Of many herbs and spices, myrrh and balm,

A fountain sealed, an orchard of rare trees

Of frankincense and aloes, cinnamon,

Whose scents, all summoned by a southern breeze,

Roused him to love and loving, stirred him on.

My soul too yearns to be where it belongs:

The fragrant garden of The Song of Songs.

His prayerbook was a garden of delight

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Week 5: prayer that pierces

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

Here is my usual Sunday posting, pausing the journey through After Prayer, and resuming instead our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.

The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith

Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.

But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’s beautiful poem The Incarnate One

The Incarnate One   Edwin Muir

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,

And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.

I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,

Christ, man and creature in their inner day.

How could our race betray

The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake

Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

 

The Word made flesh here is made word again

A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.

See there King Calvin with his iron pen,

And God three angry letters in a book,

And there the logical hook

On which the Mystery is impaled and bent

Into an ideological argument.

 

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,

And truer sight was theirs outside the Law

Who saw the far side of the Cross among

The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,

In ignorant wonder saw

The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,

Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

 

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,

Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,

The auguries say, the white and black and brown,

The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all

Invisibly will fall:

Abstract calamity, save for those who can

Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

 

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown

Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well

The bloodless word will battle for its own

Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.

The generations tell

Their personal tale: the One has far to go

Past the mirages and the murdering snow.

 

MONDAY

 

Golgotha   John Heath-Stubbs


 

In the middle of the world, in the centre

Of the polluted heart of man, a midden;

A stake stemmed in the rubbish

 

From lipless jaws, Adam’s skull

Gasped up through the garbage:

‘I lie in the discarded dross of history,

Ground down again to the red dust,

The obliterated image. Create me.’

From lips cracked with thirst, the voice

That sounded once over the billows of chaos

When the royal banners advanced,

replied through the smother of dark:

‘All is accomplished, all is made new, and look-

All things, once more, are good.’

Then, with a loud cry, exhaled His spirit.

 

TUESDAY

 

The Agony   George Herbert


 

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,

Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states and kings;

Walk’d with a staff to heav’n and traced fountains:

But there are two vast, spacious thins,

The which to measure it doth more behove;

Yet few there are that sound them, ‒ Sin and Love.

 

Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see

A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,

His skin, His garments bloody be.

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

 

Who knows not Love, let him assay

And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike

Did set again abroach; then let him say

If ever he did taste the like,

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

Gethsemane   Rowan Williams

Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

 

Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.

 

THURSDAY

 

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day   G. M. Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.

 

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

 

FRIDAY

 

God’s Grandeur   G. M. Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs ‒

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

SATURDAY

 

Love’s as warm as tears   C. S. Lewis

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Lent With Herbert Day 25: The Soul’s Blood

We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’website. As we come towards the end of Herbert’s poem we arrive at one of his most profound and mysterious images. Herbert says that prayer is ‘the soul’s blood’! What does he mean by that? If prayer is to the soul what blood is to the body then we can think about prayer as the very life of the soul coursing through it, we can think about how blood absorbs and shares and circulates the oxygen it takes from the lungs, as prayer is open to and depends on the intimate breathing of God’s Spirit, we can think about how the blood must be nourished with iron and other elements lest we become anaemic; perhaps our prayer life too requires some real nutrients, some varied diet. I think too about how blood is circulating all the time even though we don’t consciously attend to it, and so is the prayer of the whole church and the innermost prayer of our souls. And just as we are only conscious of our blood when we are hurt or wounded and the blood comes to the surface, so too, many people who have not uttered a prayer for years will suddenly and rightly find themselves praying aloud in a crisis, as the soul’s blood comes to the surface. But most of all I think of how my heart keeps the blood in my body circulating, and Herbert’s image makes me realise that all prayer flows in and through Christ, that is why we end our prayers, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’. It is the sacred heart of Jesus, the heart of our loving saviour that beats in every prayer.

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

As I post these sonnets on prayer in the midst of the present crisis I pray for all my readers and ask you too, in your turn to pray for me.

The Soul’s Blood

Oh unacknowledged, rich and living stream,

Dark river in each vein and artery,

You pulse within us, even as we dream:

Our lifeblood, our salvation’s mystery,

We all ignore you till we bruise and bleed,

And you bloom red and reach the upper air,

And then we know and see you in our need

And every heartbeat is our body’s prayer,

 

As every pulse of prayer is our soul’s blood:

Some coursing through us all unconsciously,

Some owned and known and spoken out for good,

All given and returned, all flowing free

From heaven to earth and back to heaven, where

The heart of Jesus beats in every prayer.

The heart of Jesus beats in every prayer

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Lent With Herbert Day 24: Church Bells Beyond the Stars Heard

We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’website. Today we come to Herbert’s 22nd image of prayer which is Church Bells beyond the stars heard.

So many poets have been inspired by the sound of bells, for their art also depends on echoes, reflections and reversals, on apparently spontaneous peals of sound that conceal their own patterns. Coleridge heard in the village church bells ‘most articulate sounds of things to come’, and centuries later, Bob Dylan, taking shelter in a church porch during a thunderstorm, seemed to hear in the flashes of thunder and lightening the tolling of great bells, ringing out, in his unforgettable phrase, ‘the chimes of freedom’:

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll

We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds

Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

George Herbert also had this sense that the sound of the bells might be going both ways and so he made them an emblem of prayer. His phrase ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ is deliberately ambiguous: it might mean that our prayers rise beyond the stars, as the sound of our church bells rises to the skies, or it might mean that in prayer our ears are opened at last to hear the bells of heaven, ‘Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind/Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind’ as Dylan would later put it.

Those intuitions of double direction, of falling and rising, and of the time beyond time that every bell brings closer, were all in my mind when I came to compose my own response to Herbert’s phrase, but now, as I post this in the midst of our present crisis I think leo of the yearning I put in the final lines, and the hope of heaven, of the glorious day when the dark veil/ Is lifted and we say the radiant face/Of Love in everything.

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

Church bells beyond the stars heard

 Is it our bells they hear beyond the stars,

Or theirs whose echo sounds to us below?

Or is it both? The music of the spheres

Which we imagine, and yet cannot know,

Whose ringing joy we hear and do not hear,

Elicits a response, and our church bells,

Whose steepled peals still ring in each New Year,

All cry and clamour for the time that tells

Us time itself is over, the dark veil

Is lifted, and we see the radiant face

Of Love in everything; the mournful bell

That tolled for all our funerals gives place

To Heaven’s music truly heard at last,

Our last change rung on earth, our last pain past.

 

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