Icon of Julian with her cat by Br Robert Lentz OFM
The 8th of May is the feast day of Julian of Norwich, sometimes known as Mother Julian or Lady Julian. She was an English Mystic of the late fourteenth Century, living as an Anchoress in Norwich. Her Shewings, or Revelations of Divine Love, a series of mystical visions of and conversations with Jesus, remain a source of profound wisdom and a gift to the church, present and future. For a good introduction to her work I recommend Julia Bolton Holloway’s website, she is herself an anchoress in Florence, and Robert Llewlyn’s classic work ‘With Pity, not With Blame, now reprinted by the Canterbury Press.
This poem is from my book The Singing Bowl which you can buy on Amazon or order from any good bookshop. Please feel free to use this poem in services, and print it in service bulletins, just include a brief acknowledgement that it comes from ‘The Singing Bowl’, Canterbury Press, 2013. Thanks
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the title.
Here is another week’s worth of recordings in which I read the poems I selected in my anthology for Lent The Word in the Wilderness. I hope you enjoy these recordings, just click on the title of the poem or the ‘play’ button if it appears. Once again I am grateful to Lancia Smith for providing the two lovely images to go with this week’s readings.
The reading set for this Sunday, the last before Lent, is Luke 9:28-36, the story of the Transfiguration, so I am posting again my sonnet on the Transfiguration for anyone who might like to read or make use of it in preparation for Sunday.
Although the Feast of the Transfiguration itself falls in August, I think that just before Lent is a good time for us to glimpse it too. I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ the disciples saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain them through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced this poem.
I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by some brilliant artist’s and photographers, and you may like to know that there is a Facebook group which has galleries of images inspired by my poems, you can find it by clicking on this link: ‘Sounding the Sonnets’. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:
I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.
The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:
As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.
Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.
I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.
I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
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 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
I will also take this opportunity to announce that earlier this year I signed the contract for my next poetry book with Canterbury Press and it should be out this October. It will be called ‘After Prayer’ and it’s centrepiece will be an entirely new sequence responding to George Herbert’s seminal poem ‘Prayer’. I have taken each of the 27 images in that poem as the seed or starting point for a new poem and written a sequence of 27 sonnets. In the next few weeks I shall be posting one or two of them on this blog as ‘tasters’ of the forthcoming book. Meanwhile here is the sonnet I wrote in appreciation of Herbert himself:
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button.
John Keats died on this day in 1821, so I am reposting an earlier blog post paying tribute to him for all his poetry has meant and continues to mean for me:
Sometimes a poet, or even a single poem, can save your life. It can take you the way you are, in a place of darkness, loss or lostness, and, without changing anything, transmute everything, make everything available to you new, having ‘suffered a sea-change/ into something rich and strange. Thats how it was for me when I first encountered Keats, in my mid-teens, a very dark period of my life. This poem, written in the Spenserian Stanzas he used so effectively, is an account of how he changed things for me, and in its own way an act of testimony and thanksgiving. It is set on the Spanish Steps and in the house there where Keats spent the last months of his life. It was there, in the room where he died, that I first read the sonnet Bright Star, written into the fly leaf of his Shakespeare.
As it is Plough Monday I thought I’d post a little piece from my new book ‘In Every Corner Sing’ about taking part in the blessing of a plough. This piece was originally published last year in my ChurchTimes ‘Poet’s Corner’ column, but now all those pieces have been gathered together in a nice little hardback book which you can get directly from Canterbury Press, from Amazon, or of course from your own local bookshop! I hope this little extract gives you a flavour of what’s in it.
God Speed the Plough
Last Sunday I was called on, in my capacity as poet, to assist at the blessing of a plough on an old hill farm in Essex. I had driven through winding and increasingly narrow and shadowed lanes, past quickset hedgerows, and up the steep farm track, admiring the rambling old farmhouse, which seemed pieced together from every period in the last four hundred years, yet still at home with itself. But this was no quaint exercise in picturesque nostalgia, blessing the rusted wings and single blade of some hand-guided horse-drawn plough that hadn’t seen service in years (though there was just such a plough in the barn). The plough we were blessing meant business! It was a great long apparatus of paired bright sharp circular blades, capable of churning through the earth as efficiently as the old ‘screw steamers’ churned the ocean, and yoked behind an enormous modern tractor.
Yes, there had been a sense of tradition and continuity in the service; I had read Heaney’s poem ‘The Follower’, with its lovely opening:
My Father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow
and the farmer himself had a display in one of his barns of relics and artifacts from the continuous human flourishing on his acres since Roman times, but for now we all stood in the muddy farmyard in our wellies, ready to bless today’s hi-tech farm machinery, the present labour, the contemporary human flourishing. And just before she came to bless the plough itself the priest asked everyone gathered there to bring forward and hold beside it the implements of their own work; and gardeners came with trowels, a man who had been coppicing the woods and laying hedges that morning came forward with a bright-bladed axe and the other fascinating tools of his trade, children held out model tractors, and, taken by surprise, I held out my pen.
‘Let us each offer to God in our hearts our own work’ she said,
‘God Speed the Plough!’ and ‘God Speed the Plough!’ was our response.
Afterwards I read them my sonnet ‘Daily Bread’ which remembers
The ones who plough and sow
Who pick and plant and package as we sleep
With slow back-breaking labour, row by row
And send away to others all they reap,
We know that these unseen who meet our needs
Are all themselves the fingers of your hand…
What if we glimpsed you daily in their toil
And found and thanked and served you through them all?
I don’t know what the theologians and the philosophers would say had happened there, how they would discern the difference a blessing makes, but I do know that somehow that farmer would turn the soil of God’s good ground with a renewed sense of blessing, and the gardeners return to their gardens with a new awareness, for I felt it too. When I had come home, washed the mud from my boots, and was sitting at my desk, that plough-blessed pen poised in hand, I had some sense of a difference made, some sense that with this pen, like Heaney before me, I might dig a little deeper.
As today is Tolkien’s Birthday I thought I’d post this poem which was inspired by my memory of having once seen a grainy photograph of Tolkien leaning back into a tree contentedly and smoking his pipe, – something I quite often do myself. The memory of that image led me on to a reverie about life and leaves and Tolkien’s tree of tales. But when I came to look for the photo, to illustrate the poem here, I found that no single image answered to my remembered photo – but these two are closest – perhaps I had fused them together in my mind. At any rate here is the poem, which I included in my book ‘The Singing Bowl, published by Canterbury Press
As usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
Tolkien is leaning back into an oak
Old, gnarled, distinct in bole and burr
As, from the burr and bowl of his old pipe,
Packed with tightly patterned shreds of leaf,
The smoke ascends in rings and wreathes of air
To catch the autumn light and meet such leaves
As circle through its wreathes and patter down
In patterns of their own to the rich ground.
He contemplates again the tree of tales;
The roots of language and its rings of growth
‘The tongue and tale and teller all coeval’
And he becomes a pattern making patterns,
A tale telling tales and turning leaves,
From the print of thumb and finger on his pipe
To the print and press and pattern of his books
And all their prints and imprints in our minds
Out to this grainy patterned photograph
Of ‘Tolkien, leaning back into an oak’.