Holy Saturday is a strange, still day, hanging in an unresolved poise between the darkness of the day before and the light that is not yet with us. No more so than now, in the preternatural stillness emptiness and grief of this pandemic, when life is paused, but also perhaps poised on the threshold of the new.
When I wrote the two ‘stations’ sonnets I am posting today I was conscious of how these great Christian festivals, especially Easter and Christmas, draw up and carry with them some of our deepest family memories. If we are going to remember and miss someone we have loved and lost, we will do it now. So in the second sonnet I have moved from a contemplation of the women bearing spices and wishing they could at least anoint the one they miss, to focus on the many people who will visit graves and memorial plaques over this weekend, ‘Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth’. All those ‘beautiful useless gestures’, all that ‘love poured out in silence’ is, I believe, somehow gathered together in these three days and sown deep in the ground of God’s love, ready for the day when he will make all things new again.
That need, expressed in these sonnets bon to honour grief and yet to bring a whisper of hope to the grieving, seems more pressing than ever.
Please feel free to make use of these poems in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA It is now also out on Kindle.
The Images above are by Lancia Smith, I have also read the sonnets onto audioboo, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Now on this cross his body breathes no more
Here at the centre everything is still
Spent, and emptied, opened to the core.
A quiet taking down, a prising loose
A cross-beam lowered like a weighing scale
Unmaking of each thing that had its use
A long withdrawing of each bloodied nail,
This is ground zero, emptiness and space
With nothing left to say or think or do
But look unflinching on the sacred face
That cannot move or change or look at you.
Yet in that prising loose and letting be
He has unfastened you and set you free.
Here at the centre everything is still
Before the stir and movement of our grief
Which bears it’s pain with rhythm, ritual,
Beautiful useless gestures of relief.
So they anoint the skin that cannot feel
Soothing his ruined flesh with tender care,
Kissing the wounds they know they cannot heal,
With incense scenting only empty air.
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And makes our grief the pangs of a new birth.
The love that’s poured in silence at old graves
Renewing flowers, tending the bare earth,
Is never lost. In him all love is found
And sown with him, a seed in the rich ground.
Here are the first 12 stations from The Stations of the Cross, which form the core of my book Sounding the Seasons and are intended to be read on Good Friday. We will read the 13th and 14th tomorrow on Holy Saturday and then on Easter Morning we will have the 15th’ resurrection’ station handsome other poems I have written for Easter Morning.
Please feel free to make use of them in anyway you like, and to reproduce them, but I would be grateful if you could include in any hand-outs a link back to this blog and also a note to say they are taken from ‘Sounding the Seasons; seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, Canterbury Press 2012′ so that people who wish to can follow the rest of the sequence through the church year, or obtain the book, can do so. The book has an essay on poetry in liturgy with suggestions as to how these and the other sonnets can be used. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA . The book is now also out on Kindle.
The Image above is courtesy of Lancia Smith. I have also recorded the sonnets, so you can click on the ‘play’ button or on the title of each poem to hear it.
If you wish to use these sonnets devotionally, together with Scripture, there is an opportunity, via a youtube recording to participate in a reflective service using these sonnets and artwork by Gwyneth Leech from St. Barts Church in Manhattan, which I strongly commend to you:
This darker path into the heart of pain
Was also hers whose love enfolded him
In flesh and wove him in her womb. Again
The sword is piercing. She, who cradled him
And gentled and protected her young son
Must stand and watch the cruelty that mars
Her maiden making. Waves of pain that stun
And sicken pass across his face and hers
As their eyes meet. Now she enfolds the world
He loves in prayer; the mothers of the disappeared
Who know her pain, all bodies bowed and curled
In desperation on this road of tears,
All the grief-stricken in their last despair,
Are folded in the mantle of her prayer.
In desperation on this road of tears
Bystanders and bypassers turn away
In other’s pain we face our own worst fears
And turn our backs to keep those fears at bay
Unless we are compelled as this man was
By force of arms or force of circumstance
To face and feel and carry someone’s cross
In Love’s full glare and not his backward glance.
So Simon, no disciple, still fulfilled
The calling: ‘take the cross and follow me’.
By accident his life was stalled and stilled
Becoming all he was compelled to be.
Make me, like him, your pressed man and your priest,
Your alter Christus, burdened and released.
Bystanders and bypassers turn away
And wipe his image from their memory
She keeps her station. She is here to stay
And stem the flow. She is the reliquary
Of his last look on her. The bloody sweat
And salt tears of his love are soaking through
The folds of her devotion and the wet
folds of her handkerchief, like the dew
Of morning, like a softening rain of grace.
Because she wiped the grime from off his skin,
And glimpsed the godhead in his human face
Whose hidden image we all bear within,
Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain
The face of god is shining once again.
Through all our veils and shrouds of daily pain,
Through our bruised bruises and re-opened scars,
He falls and stumbles with us, hurt again
When we are hurt again. With us he bears
The cruel repetitions of our cruelty;
The beatings of already beaten men,
The second rounds of torture, the futility
Of all unheeded pleading, every scream in vain.
And by this fall he finds the fallen souls
Who passed a first, but failed a second trial,
The souls who thought their faith would hold them whole
And found it only held them for a while.
Be with us when the road is twice as long
As we can bear. By weakness make us strong.
You can’t go on, you go on anyway
He goes with you, his cradle to your grave.
Now is the time to loosen, cast away
The useless weight of everything but love
For he began his letting go before,
Before the worlds for which he dies were made,
Emptied himself, became one of the poor,
To make you rich in him and unafraid.
See as they strip the robe from off his back
They strip away your own defences too
Now you could lose it all and never lack
Now you can see what naked Love can do
Let go these bonds beneath whose weight you bow
His stripping strips you both for action now
See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black
We watch him as he labours to draw breath
He takes our breath away to give it back,
Return it to it’s birth through his slow death.
We hear him struggle breathing through the pain
Who once breathed out his spirit on the deep,
Who formed us when he mixed the dust with rain
And drew us into consciousness from sleep.
His spirit and his life he breathes in all
Mantles his world in his one atmosphere
And now he comes to breathe beneath the pall
Of our pollutions, draw our injured air
To cleanse it and renew. His final breath
Breathes us, and bears us through the gates of death.
So many gospel themes find their focus on Maundy Thursday, so many threads of connection flowing to and from this deep source of love and vision, in the foot washing, and in the last supper.
The meditation in this sonnet, is centred on the ancient idea of the four elements of earth, air, water and fire, for it struck me as I contemplated the events of Maundy Thursday, both the foot-washing and the first communion, that all these elements of the old creation are taken up by Jesus and transformed in the making of the new. Jesus is both the fully human companion cleansing his friends with a gentle touch, sharing his last supper with them, showing the fullness of his love, and he also the Word, God in his full creative and shaping power, the One in and through whom everyone in that room, and every element of the world is sustained in the beauty and particularity of its being. What we witness in the birth of the sacraments is both a human drama and a divine act of new creation. Although we cannot be in church to receive the familiar sacrament of this night, it may be, that if our eyes and ears are open we will sense Christ’s all-transforming presence even through the ordinary elements of the place where we are.
This sonnet, and the others I have been posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA . The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
John 12 1-8, tells us of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus. I love this intense and beautiful moment in the Gospels, The God of the Cosmos enters as a vulnerable man into all the particular fragility of our human friendships and intimacy. I love the way Jesus responds to Mary’s beautiful, useless gesture and recognises it as something that is always worth while, something that will live forever, for all the carping and criticism of Judas, then and now.
I feel a special poignancy in this gospel moment amidst the isolation of our present crisis, because it celebrates the touch and intimacy which so many of us are having to go without. My poem opens with the injunction ‘come close’ and yet the mantra of our time is ‘keep apart’. All the more then, as we are social distancing, must we seek intimacy with God, the intimacy he offers us in Christ.
This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
I’m grateful to Lancia Smith for the image above. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,
The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.
When Solomon dedicated the Temple he rightly declared that not even the Heaven of Heavens could contain almighty God, much less this temple made with hands, yet God himself still came into the temple. He came as a baby, the essence of all light and purity in human flesh, he came as a young boy full of questions, seeking to know his father’s will, and today he came in righteous anger to clear away the blasphemous barriers that human power-games try to throw up between God and the world he loves. Then finally, by his death on the cross he took away the last barrier in the Temple, and in our hearts, the veil that stood between us and the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God, in us and beyond us.
But these outward events are also inward ones. We cannot go out to the outer edifice of church or cathedral this week, but we can certainly invite Christ to come in to us, and that is what I do in this sonnet, with its fourfold cry for Christ to come into the temple of my heart.
This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA . The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
This strange Holy Week has begun in tears: tears of frustration, tears of lament, and for so many who have been cruelly bereaves, tears of grief. It’s hard to see through tears, but sometimes its the only way to see. Tears may be the turning point, the springs of renewal, and to know you have been wept for is to know that you are loved. ‘Jesus Wept’ is the shortest, sharpest, and most moving sentence in Scripture.
I have a God who weeps for me, weeps with me, understands to the depths and from the inside the rerum lachrymae, the tears of things.
This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all drawn from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press here in England. The book is now back in stock on both Amazon UK and USA The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
Thanks to Lancia Smith for the image. as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button if it appears.
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
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.
As we continue 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
Last week we walked with Dante, and I want to develop this sense of our ‘companioned journey’ this week by drawing alongside two other poets who may help us with our reflections on the way. In particular I want to share with you some gems from their longer poems which, precisely because they occur in the midst of long poems, are very rarely anthologized, but which have a great deal to offer us. The twin themes which I hope these poets will open for us are self-questioning on the one hand and self-knowledge on the other. Anyone who has taken a long pilgrimage, or even just a long walk, such as we are doing through Lent, will know that there comes a time when, as other concerns subside, the big questions arise: Who am I? How much do I really know myself? What can I really know about God? How can I trust that knowledge? The passage from John Davies on what it is to be human seems especially powerful in this present crisis!
but first we start with our Sunday poem, this time for Mothering Sunday, as always with all these poems you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button
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.
In our last post on Gladness of the Best, we saw how, having been lifted up by Christ, Herbert has a chance to look around and be glad, to delight again in the goodness of God’s creation as well as the wonder of his grace and mercy. But he knows that we cannot yet remain on the heights forever, but that we must instead, descend again from the mountain of vision, back into the ‘ordinary’ world, but still taking that visionary gleam with us, ready to see the light of heaven suddenly shining out from anywhere in the midst of the every day, and so the next phrase in his poem is Heaven in Ordinary.
As you can imagine I approached this, perhaps the most famous phrase in Herbert’s poem, with some trepidation. The phrase ‘Heaven in ordinary’ always seems to summon that other famous verse of Herbert’s, which we sing together in church:
A Man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass
And then the Heavens espy.
Just for a moment the glassy surface of the world, dusty and familiar, is cleared and cleansed; something shines through, and we have a brief anticipation of Paul’s great hope for us all: that though ‘now we see through a glass darkly’, one day ‘we shall know as we are known’, one day ‘we shall see face to face’, and the face we shall see is the face of Love. It also happened that I wrote this poem just before Christmas and it seemed to me that any understanding of Herbert’s phrase must start with the moment the Lord of Heaven was born on earth,a midst the dirt and clutter of the stable and the manger.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
As usual, on each Sunday in Lent I am taking a break from the daily readings from After Prayer to post a week’s worth of recordings from from my book The Word in the Wilderness, for those who are following that this Lent.I am providing the texts of the poems and you can find my commentaries on those poems in the book itself. I am also taking the opportunity to correct one or two errors which crept into the printed book, in transcribing passages from Robin Kirkpatrick’s beautiful translation of Dante, which is used here with permission. The wonderful pilgrim image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith and was taken by her on a recent visit to share in the life the church in South Africa.
As always you can hear me read the poems by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button