Tag Archives: Hope

Because We Hunkered Down

These bleak and freezing seasons

These bleak and freezing seasons

Here is a poem for those of you who, like me, find this time of year difficult to get through, perhaps all the more so with the news, as well as the weather, so bleak. So here, from Parable and Paradox, is something about hunkering down and hanging on.

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

Because We Hunkered Down

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace

When they are memory. In time to come

When we speak truth, then they will have their place,

Telling the story of our journey home,

Through dark December and stark January

With all its disappointments, through the murk

And dreariness of frozen February,

When even breathing seemed unwelcome work.

 

Because through all of these we held together,

Because we shunned the impulse to let go,

Because we hunkered down through our dark weather,

And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,

Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.

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The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For New Year’s eve in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, which was written on New Year’s Eve at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Though it begins with Hardy’s characteristically bleak forboding, suddenly the poet in him discerns and allows another note of hope.

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:

I first heard this poem at school and thought Hardy a very depressing poet. I didn’t have the tenacity to stay with the poem through the bleakness until the hope. When we are not mature we only want laughter and fun and a perpetual summer time. There is no virtue in winter and we avoid pain at all costs. The consequence of this is, not only are we likely to be selfish, but we lack the contrasts that give life depth and meaning. The image I made reflects this theme of contrast.

I made a black and white photo transfer of a small bird in a tangle of twigs and painted the canvas with cold blues and violets. I enhanced the roughness of the surface by applying thread in an acrylic medium to the surface of the painting. Out of the grey coldness of the painting comes the idea of pure and beautiful bird song. If we try to make earth our heaven we will be terribly disappointed, but here, amid the stark grey of winter, comes a song of hope. Annie Dillard, the American writer and poet says, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”

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

The Darkling Thrush Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

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Launde Abbey on Saint Lucy’s Day

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

December 13th is St. Lucy’s day and the poem I have chosen in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, is ‘Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s Day’. I wrote this poem whilst leading an Advent retreat at Launde Abbey, a beautiful place hidden away in the soft folds of Leicestershire. This particular morning, on Saint Lucy’s day, whose brief brightness is dedicated to the martyr saint who found the true dayspring and whose name means light, I walked in the abbey grounds. As I watched the bright low winter sun rise dazzling through the bare bleak leafless trees and light at last the Abbey’s sunken rose garden this sonnet came to me.You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above, which anticipates the ‘great ‘O’ Advent antiphons, was created by Linda Richardson in her book of artwork responses to Waiting on the Word.

Linda Writes:

I made this great ‘O’ on St Lucy’s, as a foretaste of the ‘O Antiphons’ that will begin on the 17th. Here in the dark days of winter Malcolm describes a frozen pond, winter skies and ‘frosty light that yet recalls the glory of the summer…’ The ground of the painting is a chilling white and blue, the ‘O’ is frosted with streaks of white but there is too, beneath the layers of paint and gleaming through, a recollection of summer light, even though ‘winter night will soon surround us here…’.

Nothing much is happening in this painting just as it seems that nothing much happens in the dead of winter or in the dark night of the soul. It is at such times that we might discover with a great ‘Oh’,that it is Jesus who is praying within us, Jesus who understands, and that the song of His love for the Father can always be heard within us, even in the dark depths of winter.

 

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

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

Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s day

 

St. Lucy’s day is brief and bright with frost,

In round cupped dew ponds shallow waters freeze,

Delicate fronds and rushes are held fast,

The low sun brings a contrast to the trees

Whose naked branches, dark against the skies

And fringed with glory by the light behind,

In patterns too severe for tired eyes,

Burn their bright beauty on the weary mind.

Saint Lucy’s sun still bathes these abbey walls

And in her garden rose stalks stark and bare

Shine in a frosty light that yet recalls

The glory of the summer roses there.

Though winter night will soon surround us here,

Another Advent comes, Dayspring is near.

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Love, Remember: A Discovery

In a  previous post about my new book ‘Love Remember’, I mentioned that I had made a surprising discovery about the famous passage by Henry Scott Holland ‘Death is Nothing at All’. So I thought I would tell you something more about that, by sharing with you part of the introduction to Love, Remember, in which I discuss Scott holland’s ‘poem’ and its surprising original context.

Love, Remember is out already, but if you are in or near Cambridge do come to the official launch in Heffers Bookshop at 6:30pm. Admission free but tickets available here (so we know numbers for wine etc!)

Now here is my reflection on ‘Death Is Nothing at All’:

Funerals, which mark should mark and lament loss, name and confront death, are re-branded as ‘celebrations of life’. This insistence on giving everything an instant and positive spin, has begun to fill me with unease. This unease was crystallised for me in a brief and now nearly ubiquitous quotation from Canon Henry Scott Holland which is often presented, as a poem, usually titled ‘Death is Nothing at All’ :

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

 

Now I must tread delicately, this oft-quoted passage may, quite understandably, be a favourite with some readers of this book, and I do not doubt, that it has brought comfort, real comfort, to thousands, for there is, or rather there can be, real truth in it. I too live in the Christian hope that we, and those whom we have loved and lost, will together see the final truth of these words of consolation. One day we will know that ‘life means all it ever meant’, we will look back from the glory of resurrection on death as a ‘negligible accident’ and rejoice to know that ‘all is well’. But that is not where we are when this passage is handed to us on a shiny card by the funeral director or even when it is read at the funeral. Taken by itself and on its own, so soon after the shock of bereavement, these ‘comforting’ words about life can paradoxically seem like a deadly lie. A ‘quick fix’ appearance of happiness that only makes the grieving feel guilty for their grief.

 

For taken by themselves, and that point in our grieving, these words are simply not true: something terrible has happened, a seemingly irrevocable disaster, something inexplicable, blind and ruthless. We have been cut off from our belovèd in mid-conversation, the line has gone dead with so much left to do and say. There is a gap, a breach, a shadow and we are left stunned and sickened by its severity. If death is nothing at all, why did it have to happen? If death is nothing at all, why did the Son of God himself go through it with such sorrow, pain and cries of dereliction? Indeed, this little passage, as it is usually quoted and used at funerals, seemed to me so empty of the depth and resonance of the Bible, Christ in his dying and rising seemed so absent from it, that I could scarcely credit that it had been written by a Christian, let alone by a canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral! In the end, I decided I must find the original context and read for myself the sermon from which it was taken. What a revelation that proved to be! This passage has been cut clean away and lifted out of a sermon, which deals more profoundly, more honestly and courageously with the reality of death than almost any other sermon I have ever read. It is as though someone has swiftly copied out the answer to a question without ever knowing what the question was, or ‘cribbed’ the answer to a difficult sum without ever being able to show any of the ‘working out’. The original sermon was preached in St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 15th May 1910 after the death of Edward VII, and Scott-Holland addresses not only the death of a monarch, but the reality of death as we all encounter it. Right from the beginning of the sermon he gives full, clear and courageous expression to the shock and reality of grief. Here is what he says about death in the very opening of the sermon:

It is the supreme and irrevocable disaster. It is the impossible, the incredible thing. Nothing leads up to it, nothing prepares for it. It simply traverses every line on which life runs, cutting across every hope on which life feeds, and every intention which gives life significance. It makes all we do here meaningless and empty.

 

And he laments, as we all must if we are honest, how cruel and random it seems when death strikes.

But how often it smites, without discrimination, as if it had no law! It makes its horrible breach in our gladness with careless and inhuman disregard of us.

 

Then he goes on to show that shock and lamentation in the face of death is deeply embedded in scripture: our cry is the cry of the Word and the cry of all the World:

So the Scripture cried out long ago. So we cry in our angry protest, in our bitter anguish, as the ancient trouble reasserts its ancient tyranny over us today. It is man’s natural recoil. And the Word of God recognizes this and gives it vigorous expression.

 

So how does Scott-Holland move from these cries of pain to the serene and more familiar passage, beginning ‘death is nothing at all’ and ending, as it is often quoted, with the comforting words

All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

 

At first he simply speaks both of them, gives voice to what he calls ‘two ways of regarding death, which appear to be in hopeless contradiction with each other’. All honour to him that he does give voice to both of them, that he speaks for those that feel the grief as well as for those who feel and know the consolation. But he does more than that, he sets himself, and us, a real task:

Our task is to deny neither judgement, but to combine both. The contrasted experiences are equally real, equally valid. How can they be reconciled? That is the question.

 

The scriptural text of his sermon is 1 John, 3, 2-3.

Belovèd, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

 

As he opens out this text Scott-Holland seeks for the reconciliation of these two contrasting responses to death, where all reconciliation is to be found: in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, death is a terrible thing, but it is a terrible thing that that God faces for us and we face it with him and in him, in Christ. Our life is

hid with Christ in God, we face death with the promises and the assurance of God. We are already his belovèd children and doth not yet appear what we shall be.

As Scott-Holland says later in the sermon, ‘Already we are in Jesus; already we are of his body and yet it doth not year appear what we shall be’. And in the sermon he dwells compassionately on the ‘not yet’, for we are living in an ‘in between’ time, in one way still shadowed by death, in another lit by the promise of morning and resurrection.

As I read through this remarkable sermon, so much began to make sense. The famous passage which had seemed to me a facile denial when I read it torn out of context, not only made more sense but gained much greater authority, trustworthiness and comfort set against these other passages of the sermon which gave such compassionate voice to our grief and fear. These ‘contrasted experiences were indeed ‘equally real, equally valid and could both be given expression fully and brought to Christ.

 

So if we are agreed that it is a mistake to rush to the easy answer or the ‘quick fix’, and that the words of Henry Scott-Holland are weakened rather than strengthened by being separated from their context in a sermon that expresses pain as well as joy, how might we best restore the fullness, the range of experience and expression for all of us who have loved and lost? I hope that Love Remember will offer some help in restoring that full range of expression, in making the poetry of loving lamentation available in a new way. Love cannot help but remember, remembrance cannot help but weep. We yearn for trust, recovery and hope and hardly know whether and when and how to trust that hope, but perhaps the poetry in this book can help us as we feel our way forward.

 

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Love, Remember: A New Book

This is just an advance notice to readers of my blog,to say that I have finished work on a third poetry anthology for Canterbury Press which will be called Love Remember and will be published at the end of October. My first two Anthologies, Waiting on the Word and Word in the Wilderness, accompanied Advent, and Lent, two seasons of the liturgical year, though they are also seasons of the spirit. My new anthology is offered to accompany and express nt a season of the year, but a season of the heart. It is an anthology of poetry that takes us on a journey through bereavement, grief, lamentation, remembrance and hope. As I say in the introduction:

This book is written to give voice both to love and to lamentation, to find expression for grief without losing hope, to help us honour the dead with tears, yet still to glimpse through those tears the light of resurrection. It is written in the conviction that the grief which we so often hide in embarrassment, the tears of which some people would want to make us ashamed, are the very things that make us most truly human. Grief and lament spring from the deepest parts of our soul because, however bitter the herbs and fruits they seem to bear, their real root is Love and I believe that it is Love who made the world and made us who we are.

There are poems from the great tradition, by Shakespeare, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, and also by contemporary poets like Luci Shaw and Carol Ann Duffy, as well as some of my own. As in my previous anthologies, each poem is followed by a brief essay which opens it out and reflects on its depths, which is something I know readers of my previous anthologies have found helpful. Here’s what I say in the introduction about how the book might be used:

This is an anthology into which one might simply dip, searching through the parts for a particular poem or finding the words that express or match a mood as it is needed. It might be used a resource to find language for oneself, for a friend, or even for a service or memorial; words that will give expression that needs to be said on that specific occasion. But it is also possible to use this book as a companion for the journey of grief itself, or as a means to accompany a friend who is making that journey. Most religions in their earlier traditions have set aside a special period somewhere between 30 and 40 days for a first intense and companioned encounter with mourning. In Judaism this was called Shiat. First the seven days of private grief, and then a further 30 accompanied lamentation. In the Catholic Church there was a tradition of 40 days of mourning, matching and balancing the 40 days of Lent. This book is also organised so that anyone who wishes can also make this journey with the poets over 40 days. For each day there will be the offered nourishment of a poem and my prose reflection on it. However you use this book I hope that it will give expression to Loving Remembrance and that you will find, as Tennyson did, that ‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’.

Anyway the book is now available for advance order from Amazon and from Canterbury Press, I hope some of my readers here will find it helpful.

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Because We Hunkered Down

These bleak and freezing seasons

These bleak and freezing seasons

Here is a poem for those of you who, like me, find this time of year difficult to get through, perhaps all the more so with the news, as well as the weather, so bleak. So here, from Parable and Paradox, is something about hunkering down and hanging on.

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

Because We Hunkered Down

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace

When they are memory. In time to come

When we speak truth, then they will have their place,

Telling the story of our journey home,

Through dark December and stark January

With all its disappointments, through the murk

And dreariness of frozen February,

When even breathing seemed unwelcome work.

 

Because through all of these we held together,

Because we shunned the impulse to let go,

Because we hunkered down through our dark weather,

And trusted to the soil beneath the snow,

Slowly, slowly, turning a cold key,

Spring will unlock our hearts and set us free.

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The Beatitudes: a little lifting of the veil

beatitudes wordcloudI was reminded of this poem when someone quoted it today on Facebook, saying she found it helpful for the dark times we are living through, so I thought I would post it again here. In this sonnet, which is from my last poetry book Parable and Paradox, I am reflecting on The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 verses 1-16, and on the beautiful series of  beatitudes, or blessings with which it begins, as well as on the image of a hidden light, taken out and set at last on a hill which follows these blessings. It seems to me that one way to understand how it is that the poor, and those who mourn, the persecuted, and those who keep yearning and hungering, in spite of everything, for a righteousness we do not yet see, are all nevertheless, even now, somehow blessed, is to see in the beatitudes a little lifting of the veil, a little glimpse into the coming kingdom. We can so easily feel defeated by the darkness of this present age and the apparent defeat of goodness at every turn, but in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lifts the veil and gives us hope! The Cross, his cross and ours, is not the end of the story! The kingdom is coming and one day His Easter, his glorious resurrection will also be ours! The beatitudes are an invitation to live from and for that coming day, even now, to take the hidden light of his love and goodness and let it shine through us into the pre-dawn darkness of our world.

As well as writing the sonnet I have also focused some of these reflections into the final sermon of a six sermon sequence, also called ‘Parable and Paradox, which I preached this term at Girton. The whole sequence is online now and can be found here.

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

Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-16

 

We bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,

And set this lovely lantern on a hill

Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt

By lifting for a little while the veil.

For longing is the veil of satisfaction

And grief the veil of future happiness

We glimpse beneath the veil of persecution

The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss

 

Oh make us pure of heart and help us see

Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning

The promised Comforter, alive and free,

The kingdom coming and the Son returning,

That even in this pre-dawn dark we might

At once reveal and revel in your light.

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