The sequence of my selection of poems for Advent, Waiting on the Word, resumes on the 1st December, but on this last day of November, a little pause between Advent Sunday and December the 1st, I am prompted by a lovely image from Lancia Smith, which Draws on GK Chesterton’s poem, The House of Christmas, a poem which contemplates the way that God made himself homeless that we might at last come home, to record that poem for you here, though it is not in the anthology. As always you can hear it by either clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.
A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.
This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
This is just to let you know that I have had a little go at simplifying and improving this website. The blog works just as it always did and still gives you new poems and a searchable archive of all the old ones, together with recordings of them all. You can now use the tabs above to navigate to the Books, Events and Home pages which have all been updated. There is a new page (also clickable on the tabs above called ‘Interviews‘ which gathers in one place links to various interviews I have given about my work, life and faith, particularly to the sequence of interviews on Lancia Smith’s excellent website Cultivating The True The Good and the Beautiful.
The other new thing is that I now have a dedicated email address for any enquiries about readings, lectures or performances, which is firstname.lastname@example.org and can be found permanently on the Home Page. I hope these simplifications and improvements will be helpful.
In other news, here is a poem about cheese (and poetry)! As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
A free man blowing smoke rings from his pipe (Photo Lancia Smith)
I have been reading a collection of Ballades by GK Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and their friends and it prompted this more playful piece of light verse about the pleasures of smoking my pipe and composing verse in the ‘Temple of Peace’, my trysting place with the muse. I have slightly tweaked the Ballade form by playing variations on the repeating line rather than simply repeating it verbatim. You can hear the poem, as usual, by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. The atmospheric photo is by the wonderful photographer Lancia Smith. I hope you all enjoy this, it goes out particularly to my generous friend Jerry Root who gave me one of the most beautiful pipes I possess.
The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, “It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time’ (Luke 4.9−3).
If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others, despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people. One of G. K. Chesterton’s wonderful Father Brown stories, ‘The Hammer of God’, explores this theme with his usual combination of acuity and humour. In the story a curate who has constantly taken to ‘praying, not on the common church floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires’ is tempted to deal justice to his sinful brother by flinging a hammer down on him from the heights. It is Father Brown who sees and understands the temptation and brings the curate down from the heights to a proper place of repentance. Here’s a fragment of their dialogue before they descend:
‘I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,’ said Father Brown. ‘Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.’
‘Do you mean that one may fall over?’ asked Wilfred.
‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest …
After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. ‘I knew a man,’ he said, ‘who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.’
Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.
‘He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.’
‘I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,’ said the other priest.
I was remembering something of this story when I wrote my sonnet on the third temptation, but thanks be to God that in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, Jesus shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.
WhenThe image above is from a sketch book of the painter Adam Boulter who 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) who sent me this sketch when we were working together on the In the Wilderness Exhibition for Westminster Abbey.
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 Word in the Wilderness are readily available from Steve Bell Here
In our house we keep the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas day to Twelfth Night. The Christmas holidays are a time when I tend to take old favourite books of the shelf, get comfortable in an armchair and re-read and savour familiar passages as much for their familiarity as anything else. In particular I like to savour seasonal favourites, so I have been re-reading some short pieces on Christmas by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Some of these I have read aloud onto podcast and audioboo sites, so I thought I’d gather up the links and share them again with readers of this blog. First up is GK Chesterton’s wonderful little piece ‘The Shop of Ghosts; a good dream’, which I had the pleasure of reading aloud last year with my friends Jerry and Claudia Root and Pat and Den Conneen. Then, in three short parts, I have posted some readings from ‘A Remaining Christmas’, Hilaire Belloc’s wonderfully partial account of how he kept Christmas at Kingsland, his beloved old house in Sussex. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed reading them.
In our house we keep the twelve days of Christmas, from Christmas day to Twelfth Night. The Christmas holidays are a time when I tend to take old favourite books of the shelf, get comfortable in an armchair and re-read and savour familiar passages as much for their familiarity as anything else. In particular I like to savour seasonal favourites, so I have been re-reading some short pieces on Christmas by GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Some of these I have read aloud onto podcast and audioboo sites, so I thought I’d gather up the links and share them again with readers of this blog. First up is GK Chesterton’s wonderful little piece ‘The Shop of Ghosts; a good dream’, which I had the pleasure of reading aloud tis year with my friends Jerry and Claudia Root and Pat and Den Conneen. Then, in three short parts, I have posted some readings from ‘A Remaining Christmas’, Hilaire Belloc’s wonderfully partial account of how he kept Christmas at Kingsland, his beloved old house in Sussex. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoyed reading them.
I promised last time to tell you a little more about how I came upon these treasures of Chestertoniana,and what is to become of them now. The treasures are the gift of the wonderful collector and enthusiast in whose house I first saw them when I was a young man. He was a bookseller in Bedford and I remember making the journey, past the great statue of Bunyan, to look for what I thought would be an ordinary bookshop. But the address I had been given proved to be a private house in a quiet back street. The book seller who opened the door was an elderly man with a wonderfully warm countenance and a twinkle in his eye. He welcomed me in and let me browse amongst the books by Chesterton he had for sale, many rarities I had been looking for for years. And when he saw my enthusiasm and my exclamations of delight as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves, he said ‘step in here I have some things you might enjoy seeing.’ I stepped into another room and there was the Theatre! The hat! the walking stick,! the wonderful old typewriter! the chair in which he sat to write, the curiously shaped walking sticks! the drawings in coloured chalks on brown paper, and shelf after shelf of GKC’s own personal books full of his inimitable annotations!
I looked up to see Aidan Mackey ( for it was he!) smiling with the pleasure of sharing things he loved with a fellow enthusiast. Over the years I came to know Aidan better and visited his magical house many times, gradually realising that I was in the presence of one of the greatest living authorities on GKC, full of a kind of tacit knowledge and familiarity which is not to be found in academia. When the time came for him to retire from book-selling there was a circle of friends, of whom I am one, who formed the Chesterton Library Trust to fulfill his three specific wishes for this collection; that it should be kept together, that it should remain in England, and that it should be made accessible to scholars and to the wider public. And now at last we are going to be able to do all these things. The Library Trust which is affiliated to the GK Chesterton Institute, has at last finished cataloguing the collection and will loan the whole collection to the Oxford Oratory who will display it and make its treasures accessible not only to scholars but to any Chesterton fans, and there will be many, who make the pilgrimage to Oxford to see these things. They are currently housed in the Oxford Centre for Faith and Culture, and available, by appointment for scholars to consult, but as of next year they will be housed, and displayed for all to see in the Chesterton room in the new study centre at the Oratory in Oxford.
A Piece of Chalk
That Piece of Chalk!
And now, as I review these treasures in my mind, my eyes light on a piece of chalk! When I first held it in my hand, and looked also on his chalk drawings on brown paper I remembered the opebing of GKC’ own ‘blog post’ on A Piece of Chalk in Tremendous Trifles:
I remember one splendid morning, all blue and silver, in the summer holidays when I reluctantly tore myself away from the task of doing nothing in particular, and put on a hat of some sort and picked up a walking-stick, and put six very bright-coloured chalks in my pocket.
Ah how often I also reluctantly tear myself away from that delicious task! so we follow GKC downstairs where he asks someone for brown paper to draw on, she wants to give him nice crisp expensive white drawing paper but Chesterton just wants the stuff that parcels were wrapped in:
I then tried to explain the rather delicate logical shade, that I not only liked brown paper, but liked the quality of brownness in paper, just as I liked the quality of brownness in October woods, or in beer, or in the peat-streams of the North. Brown paper represents the primal twilight of the first toil of creation, and with a bright-coloured chalk or two you can pick out points of fire in it, sparks of gold, and blood-red, and sea-green, like the first fierce stars that sprang out of divine darkness. All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one’s pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pockets. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.
So off he goes with his paper, coloured chalks, a pocket-full of jingling oddments and a head-full of potential poems. But when he gets out on to the great wide Sussex Downs, he realises he has forgotten something!
I had left one chalk, and that a most exquisite and essential chalk, behind. I searched all my pockets, but I could not find any white chalk. Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. And one of the two or three defiant verities of the best religious morality, of real Christianity, for example, is exactly this same thing; the chief assertion of religious morality is that white is a colour. Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun
There is so much glorious truth in this reflection on goodness as a positive force and reality in the world, a ‘sun-clad power’ as Milton called it, and all springing from a reflection on chalk drawing, but then chalk drawing is maybe where all human art started. Then comes the wonderful ‘turn’ in this essay, the sudden realisation that he is sitting up there on the chalk downs, the very chalk that whitens the white cliffs of Dover!
I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk. The landscape was made entirely out of white chalk. White chalk was piled more miles until it met the sky. I stooped and broke a piece off the rock I sat on; it did not mark so well as the shop chalks do; but it gave the effect. And I stood there in a trance of pleasure, realising that this Southern England is not only a grand peninsula, and a tradition and a civilisation; it is something even more admirable. It is a piece of chalk.
I wonder, as I think of him ‘sitting on an immense warehouse of chalk’, how often we are sitting, unthinking on a vast warehouse of the very resources we need for any task. Desparately searching around in shops for prefab, pre-packed items, prefab, pre-packed ideas, when all we need do is dig a little deeper into the vast resource of our own mind and consciousness, our memory imagination, and maybe digging a little deeper right down into The Ground of our Being, who is God, the one in whom we are being ‘rooted and grounded in love.’ If we dug deep enough we might find what Chesterton called, in another place ‘the buried sunrise of wonder’. but that’s another tale for another time.
glorious things drawn with coloured chalks on good brown paper!