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Nativity by Scott Cairns

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

We return to Scott Cairns in my series of readings of the poems in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word.The poem I have chosen for December 27th, is  Nativity, a beautiful reflection on an icon of the Nativity and how it draws us in. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. Linda writes:

As I read this poem I discerned a kind of radiance and inwardness that fascinated me. Again there are glimpses of the Divine that may be missed if we are not attentive or prayerful. We lean in and see a “tiny God.. slip briefly out of time.. miss the point or meet there”.

In the image, I created a fissure in the virgin blue, and beyond that there is a brightness that cannot be touched. It is a secret brightness, obscure and transcendent and cannot be possessed by us. All of life is potentially prayer that deepens us and makes our ‘ordinary’ time more loving and creative. But prayer is not an intellectual activity but an activity of love where we learn to be near God and learn too, never to leave the holiness of his nearness as we go about our daily duties.

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

Nativity

As you lean in, you’ll surely apprehend

the tiny God is wrapped

in something more than swaddle. The God

 

is tightly bound within

His blesséd mother’s gaze—her face declares

that she is rapt by what

 

she holds, beholds, reclines beholden to.

She cups His perfect head

and kisses Him, that even here the radiant

 

compass of affection

is announced, that even here our several

histories converge and slip,

 

just briefly, out of time. Which is much of what

an icon works as well,

and this one offers up a broad array

 

of separate narratives

whose temporal relations quite miss the point,

or meet there. Regardless,

 

one blithe shepherd offers music to the flock,

and—just behind him—there

he is again, and sore afraid, attended

 

by a trembling companion

and addressed by Gabriel. Across the ridge,

three wise men spur three horses

 

towards a star, and bowing at the icon’s

nearest edge, these same three

yet adore the seated One whose mother serves

 

as throne. Meantime, stumped,

the kindly Abba Joseph ruminates,

receiving consolation

from an attentive dog whose master may

yet prove to be a holy

messenger disguised as fool. Overhead,

 

the famous star is all

but out of sight by now; yet, even so,

it aims a single ray

 

directing our slow pilgrims to the core

where all the journeys meet,

appalling crux and hallowed cave and womb,

 

where crouched among these other

lowing cattle at their trough, our travelers

receive that creatured air, and pray.

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Christmas Eve by Christina Rossetti

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The poem I have chosen for Christmas Eve, is  Christmas Eve by Christina Rossetti. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson for her book of responses to waiting on the word. Linda writes:

Some years ago I had the wonderful privilege of seeing ‘Dance’ by Henri Matisse. It was the one kept at The Hermitage, St Petersburg, and it was brought to London for an exhibition. It is nearly four meters wide and unlike like one in New York, the figures are not pink but a glowing orange, like reflected fire light. I was utterly overwhelmed when I saw it, and I was moved to tears.

The words, ‘For Christmas bringeth Jesus”, echo through today’s poem and are for me, the centre of all this season’s activity and the reason for our joy and celebration. In the image I painted there is no speech except that of the wildly dancing figures. They are intent on celebrating the Word made flesh, through their own flesh, and all around them the trees join in the dance. Above them the birds wheel about with the clouds and stars and the whole of creation redounds in joy and praise.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Isaiah 55

 

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

I should add that unfortunately the little word ‘a’ was committed from the first line in the printing of the anthology, which slightly spoils the rhythm. You can hear me read the proper text on this recording and I also post that corrected text below:

Christmas Eve

 

CHRISTMAS hath a darkness

Brighter than the blazing noon,

Christmas hath a chillness

Warmer than the heat of June,

Christmas hath a beauty

Lovelier than the world can show:

For Christmas bringeth Jesus,

Brought for us so low.

 

Earth, strike up your music,

Birds that sing and bells that ring;

Heaven hath answering music

For all Angels soon to sing:

Earth, put on your whitest

Bridal robe of spotless snow:

For Christmas bringeth Jesus,

Brought for us so low.

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O Emmanuel; a final antiphon and more music

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson


In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,we come to the last of the Seven Great O Antiphons, which was sung on either side of the Magnificat on Christmas Eve, O Emmanuel, O God with us. This is the antiphon from which our lovely Advent hymn takes its name. It was also this final antiphon which revealed the secret message embedded subtly into the whole antiphon sequence. In each of these antiohons we have been calling on Him to come to us, to come as Light as Key, as King, as God-with-us. Now, standing on the brink of Christmas Eve, looking back at the illuminated capital letters for each of the seven titles of Christ we would see an answer to our pleas : ERO CRAS the latin words meaning ‘Tomorrow I will come!”

O Emmanuel

O Rex

O Oriens

O Clavis

O Radix

O Adonai

O Sapientia

I have also tried in my final sonnet to look back across the other titles of Christ, but also to look forward, beyond Christmas, to the new birth for humanity and for the whole cosmos, which is promised in the birth of God in our midst.

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:

Within the ‘O’ I painted today there is a still point. Here the Virgin holds her Son Jesus, face to face. I imagine the sweet small breath of the newborn, the quickened little wick so tightly curled’, as he is held tenderly by his Mother, Mary.

The inspiration for this ink drawing came from a wood or lino cut. It is a simple image, quite different from the image of yesterday and reminds us to be simple when we come to God. How prepared are we to be emptied, to let go of our self stuffed fullness and cleverness? How radically are we willing to let God chisel off our pride so that we are open to the ‘Other’ who is God, who is our neighbour. Until we are emptied of our perceived ‘riches’ we will not be able to hear God or our neighbour who may be asking us for ‘spare change’, who may be from a different religious tradition, who may be our ‘enemy’. These are the thoughts I have as I look at this simple image. If we stubbornly cling to our own views and opinions, we can’t see a different perspective. Rumi, the Sufi poet says, ‘Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.’

 

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

Once More Jac Redford has kindly agreed to share the recording of his excellent setting of this sonnet, which you can find on his record Let beauty be our Memorial You can hear his setting here: 

The second ‘play’ button is the antiphon sung on either side of my reading of the poem.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

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A Hymn of Heavenly Love Edmund Spenser

An hymns of heavenly love image by Linda Richardson

An hymns of heavenly love image by Linda Richardson

Here is the next in my series of posts for Advent,  in which I read each day’s poem to accompany my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, alongside a series of reflective images kindly provided by Linda Richardson

Today’s poem is taken from Edmund Spenser’s Hymn of Heavenly Love. You can click on the title or the ‘play’ button to hear me read it and you can find my short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle.

Linda Writes about her image:

The theme of God’s love and action through Jesus is so unfathomable, so vast, neither words nor imagery are sufficient to grasp it and yet we continue to try. Words only refer to other words, images to created things. It is only through experience that we truly come close to the love that brings us peace, and even then only as a movement of heart and soul within us. Silence has so much to teach us about God, so the image I made reflects this silence. We call it faith because our experience is more often one of knowing about God in our heads, but actually experiencing that heart bursting glance of love is a rare occurrence.

In the painting, I imagine our fall into darkness, ‘enrooted in fleshly slyme’ in the dark paint at the bottom of the pages. Above that is the blue emptiness of the cosmos, but in one vertical line of yellow ochre, I imagine the act of the ‘eternal King of Glorie’, piercing the darkness of our consciousness, down descending into our heart and deepest being.


From An Hymn of Heavenly Love

Out of the bosome of eternall blisse,

In which He reigned with His glorious Syre,

He downe descended, like a most demisse

And abiect thrall, in fleshes fraile attyre,
That He for him might pay sinne’s deadly hyre,
And him restore unto that happie state
In which he stood before his haplesse fate.
In flesh at first the guilt committed was,
Therefore in flesh it must be satisfyde;
Nor spirit, nor angel, though they man surpas,
Could make amends to God for man’s misguyde,
But onely man himselfe, who selfe did slyde:
So, taking flesh of sacred virgin’s wombe,
For man’s deare sake He did a man become.
And that most blessed bodie, which was borne
Without all blemish or reprochfull blame,
He freely gave to be both rent and torne
Of cruell hands, who with despightfull shame
Revyling Him, that them most vile became,
At length Him nayled on a gallow-tree,
And slew the lust by most uniust decree.
O huge and most unspeakeable impression
Of Love’s deep wound, that pierst the piteous hart
Of that deare Lord with so entyre affection,
And, sharply launcing every inner part,
Dolours of death into His soule did dart,
Doing him die that never it deserved,
To free His foes, that from His heast had swerved!
What hart can feel least touch of so sore launch,
Or thought can think the depth of so deare wound?
Whose bleeding sourse their streames yet never staunch,
But stil do flow, and freshly still redownd,
To heale the sores of sinfull soules unsound,
And clense the guilt of that infected cryme
Which was enrooted in all fleshly slyme.
O blessed Well of Love! O Floure of Grace!
O glorious Morning-Starre! O Lampe of Light!
Most lively image of thy Father’s face,
Eternal King of Glorie, Lord of Might,
Meeke Lambe of God, before all worlds behight,
How can we Thee requite for all this good?
Or what can prize that Thy most precious blood?
Yet nought Thou ask’st in lieu of all this love,
But love of us, for guerdon of thy paine:
Ay me! what can us lesse than that behove?
Had He required life for us againe,
Had it beene wrong to ask His owne with gaine?
He gave us life, He it restored lost;
Then life were least, that us so little cost.

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After Prayer is published tomorrow!

Photo by Lancia Smith from her interview

Tomorrow my new book After Prayer will be published by Canterbury Press. It’s the fourth collection of my poetry, and, on the eve of publication, I thought I would quote a couple of extracts from the full interview I did with Lancia Smith about the new book.

You can read the whole in-depth interview on Lancia’s excellent ‘Cultivating’ website Here, but here is a brief extract, about George  Herbert, and about the title sequence of the new book:

LES: Malcolm, you have spent considerable time and attention with the poetry of George Herbert. He shares the chapter “A Second Glance” with John Donne in your book Faith, Hope, and Poetry. His work and presence make frequent appearances on your website and in other poetry collections that you have authored, and you have even written a sonnet for him.  In our original interview in 2012 you mentioned that Herbert was one of the influences that shaped your becoming Anglican and finding a place within the Church.  With all the company you keep among remarkable poets (Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, Heaney), what is it that you find uniquely compelling about George Herbert? Why does he linger as a particular influence in your life?

MG: There are so many ways of answering this, because Herbert is an attractive figure in so many different ways, both as a person and as a poet. I think the first feature for me, in both the man and the poet is a kind of inclusive balance and honesty. He writes about both the struggles and the consolations of faith, about both sorrow and joy, and to my mind the consolation, the joy, and the final affirmation of love which animates his poetry, rings all the more true, and is all the more persuasive because he is honest about the sorrow and struggle. As he says in his little poem ‘Bitter-Sweet’:

I will complain, yet praise;

I will bewail, approve:

And all my sour-sweet days

I will lament, and love

 

But there is also his personal example: the way he brings all he is and has to the twin vocations of being a poet and a priest. As a young man in Cambridge he was known to be dapper, perhaps a little indulgent, with a fine taste in clothes, in food, and wine, a sense of elegance and style. In one sense he sacrificed all that and laid it at the feet of Christ when he forsook worldly life for his priestly vocation, but in another sense, there is a resurrection of those gifts and sensibilities but this time in the service of Christ and his Church, not King James and his court. So prayer itself becomes for Herbert, a banquet, the name and sovereignty of Jesus becomes itself a rich and sensual thing, as in the opening stanza of his poem ‘The Odour’:

 

‘How sweetly doth My Master sound! My Master!

As Amber-Grease leaves a rich scent

Unto the taster:

So do these words a sweet content,

An oriental fragrancy, My Master.’

To be a poet you must have a certain sensuousness, a certain sensibility to the almost aching beauties of sight and sound. As a priest you must know how to transcend these things, not stop at them, or allow them to become possessions or addictions, but rather pass through them towards their all-beautiful source in God.

Herbert shows me how to do that, and that is why one of his most famous verses, in ‘The Elixir’ has become a watchword, a kind of personal mantra for me:

A man that looks on glass

On it may stay his eye,

Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,

And then the Heavens espy

 

It is that quality of ‘throughness’, of translucence, that makes Herbert so important for me.

LES: Herbert said of prayer that it is “the soul in paraphrase”.  The 27 word-images that Herbert uses in his poem “Prayer” might be seen as a kind of alphabet through which we can both be in connection with our Maker, but also create a poetic knowing of our own inner being. How do you suggest that we practice using poetry and word-images to deepen our prayer life? Are there pitfalls along the way you might warn us to avoid?

MG:  Yes, in fact one might see Prayer as having 26 distinct images, the same number as the letters in the alphabet, and then in the final, 27th phrase, a little coda, to say that through these images we might at last attain to the modest goal of ‘something understood’. So in that sense Herbert may have been deliberately offering the first 26 image-phrases as a kind of alphabet of prayer. I think we come to know the truth as much through images as through words and in my poetry sequence I have taken each of the images in Herbert’s visual alphabet and tried to sense a little of what they might be spelling out for us now. The sequence is the fruit of many years of leading retreats based on Herbert’s poem and exploring with the retreatants how each of these word-images might help us discern both the state of our own souls and also give us new ways to approach God in prayer. One way of practicing this in prayer is to take Herbert’s images one at a time and pray with, and through them; another is to follow his example and make our own cascading list of images and see where they take us. I have done that in my poem responding to his image ‘The Soul in Paraphrase’, in this new sequence.

 

To continue reading this interview on Lancia’s site click HERE

Of course there are pitfalls in all forms of prayer, and the pitfall here is to get stuck on the glassy surface of our own image and not pass through it or let Christ’s light shine through it, for of course the aim of all prayer, in the end, is to let God’s Spirit bring us back into Christ and Christ back into us.

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‘Heaven in Ordinary’ and a book launch invitation!

I am happy to announce that the official launch of my new poetry collection After Prayer will take place in the church of St. Edward King and Martyr, Peas Hill in central Cambridge on the 8th of November from 8-9:30pm. There will be wine and other refreshments, a reading of some poems from the new book and the chance to buy a copy at a discount and have it signed. All the readers of this blog are warmly invited. I know that for many of you there are oceans and various other impediments between you and Cambridge, but if you are anywhere near do come along if you can. If you are coming could you let me know at malcolmguite@gmail.com so I can make sure there’s enough wine!

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.

Mean while here is another ‘sampler’ poem from the collection. As you know the opening sequence is a series of meditations on the phrases in George Herbert’s poem Prayer, so here is the sonnet I wrote in response to the most famous phrase in that poem: ‘Heaven in Ordinary. As always you can hear me read it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Heaven in Ordinary

Because high heaven made itself so low

That I might glimpse it through a stable door,

Or hear it bless me through a hammer blow,

And call me through the voices of the poor,

Unbidden now, its hidden light breaks through

Amidst the clutter of the every day,

Illuminating things I thought I knew,

Whose dark glass brightens, even as I pray.

 

Then this world’s walls no longer stay my eyes,

A veil is lifted likewise from my heart,

The moment holds me in its strange surprise,

The gates of paradise are drawn apart,

I see his tree, with blossom on its bough,

And nothing can be ordinary now.

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Easter Day: Station XV and a new Easter Aubade

 

the sun is on the rise

The Lord is Risen! He is risen indeed Alleluia!

For this Easter morning I am posting the fifteenth and final sonnet from my Stations of the Cross sequence, but also adding a new Easter poem, which takes the form of an Aubade, a traditional form, set as a dialogue between lovers and the break of day. I have taken a genre of secular love poetry and set it in a new, spiritually resonant key, imagining a dialogue between Christ and the Soul. This poem will appear in my next collection ‘After Prayer’ which is due out in the autumn. As the poem is also a dialogue between bride and groom, Maggie, my wife, has kindly read the bride’s part on the recording.

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 It 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.

As usual you can hear the poems by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button if it appears

XV Easter Dawn

He blesses every love which weeps and grieves

And now he blesses hers who stood and wept

And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s

Last touching place, but watched as low light crept

Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs

A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.

She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,

Or recognise the Gardener standing there.

She hardly hears his gentle question ‘Why,

Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light

That brightens as she chokes out her reply

‘They took my love away, my day is night’

And then she hears her name, she hears Love say

The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.

 

 

Aubade

And are you sleeping still my love?

The sun is on the rise,

A gentle west wind lifts the leaves,

And songbirds fill the skies.

 

I closed my eyes in sorrow love,

My heart as cold as stone,

And thought, as darkness covered me,

That I would lie alone.

 

I closed my eyes in weariness,

I closed my eyes in pain,

And never thought I should be called

To open them again.

 

But you were not alone my love,

Your weariness was mine,

I brought a light into the dark

That you might see it shine.

 

I too endured the deadly cold

That chilled us to the bone,

That I might warm the sepulchre

And roll away the stone.

 

Awaken now to life my love,

Arise alive and free,

Shake off the sleep of death my love,

And come away with me.

 

And she has risen from her bed

And held her arms out wide

And touched his wounded hands and heart

And gone to be his bride.

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