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On Reading the Commedia 7: Look Up!

image from Danteworlds image from Danteworlds

Having been through Hell (as it were), climbed together the steep terraces of the Holy Mountain of Purgatory and danced through the fire at its summit, back into the garden of our beginnings, we come now to the final section of my Dante Sequence. This is the first of my three poems responding to the Paradiso the poem in which, reunited with his beloved Beatrice, Dante ascends through the spheres of the heavens to attain at last a mystical vision of the God who is all in all, three in one and yet looks on us with a human face.

In some ways Inferno and Purgatorio are easier to read because they chart, with harrowing honesty, the familiar territory of our own experience, whereas Paradiso challenges us with a way of seeing reality, utterly itself, in all its variety and particularity, and bathed in the light of Love, which we have not yet attained. But the key I think is to recognise that just sometimes, and by sheer grace, we get a glimpse of the Paradisal or Beatific view of things, as the disciples did at the transfiguration, and from there we can begin to imagine, and so learn to love and grow into our paradise.

The key verbs throughout the Paradiso are ‘Look’ and ‘Love’; Dante is gradually transformed by learning to look at everything, himself and Beatrice included with the gaze of Love with which God beholds his creation and this prepares him gradually for the final look, the beatific vision in which he himself, together with the sun and the other stars becomes and is moved by the Love he beholds.

In this first poem I reflect on Dante’s ascent through the first three spheres of heaven, the Moon, Mercury and finally the third Heaven, Venus, the sphere in which our Eros is perfected by Agape.

The image above comes from the University of Texas’s excellent web resource Danteworlds and the image which follows the poem is by Margot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. If you have missed the other poems in this series i have put a list of links to them at the bottom of this page.

Look Up!

Look up at the resplendent lights of heaven

In all the glory of their otherness,

Within you and beyond you, simply given!

Let go your grandeur, love your littleness,

Begin a journey into clarity

And find again the love in loveliness,

The constant love in your inconstancy.

Reflected light you’re not yet fit to bear,

Pearlescent preface to eternity,

She glimmers through the veils you make her wear,

Delights and glories in each difference,

In every variation everywhere.

Now let love raise and ravish every sense,

Quicksilver scatterings of consciousness,

She makes you myriad-minded, you can dance

In her swift sway and swing, the suddenness

of ecstasy, third heaven’s heady swirl,

That lifts and flings her lovers into bliss.

Remember tenderly, you glimpsed a girl

Whose smile transfigured all without her knowing,

The tangles of your loving here unfurl

And find their freedom, every knot undoing,

Mistakes unmade, and unkind words unsaid

The spring released at last and freely flowing

As freely you forgive yourselves. The seed

of love, long-planted, breathes and blossoms here

Where you in-other one another, freed

And ensphered where love has cast out fear.

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She glimmersSM

Previous poems in this Dante Series:

Inferno:

1 In Medias Res

2 Through the Gate

3 Vexila Regis

Purgatorio

4 De Magistro

5 Love in Idleness

6 Dancing Through the Fire

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On Reading the Commedia A Celebration for Dante’s 700th

Dante and his Poem

Dante and his Poem

Readers of this blog will know that I have what one might call ‘a long term relationship’ with Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, returning to the story again and again at different phases and stages of my life and finding how different episodes and places in that poem, which might itself be described as a roadmap of the soul, illuminate for me, in new ways, what is happening in my life, and perhaps what is happening in all our lives.

In 2013, in my collection The Singing bowl I published a sequence of poems in terza rima called On Reading the Commedia which was a lind of prayer-poetry journal of my own journeys through Dante’s great poem. So as this year is the 700th anniversary of his death I thought i would post these daily, beginning on 14th September the anniversary day itself. May I also just say to my patient and long-suffering readers that I have not forgotten the David’s Crown psalm poems – we had reached 100 of the 150 – but i have been waylaid bu a house move and many other calls on my time. but after I have posted this Dante sequence I will resume regular recordings and commentaries on the David’s Crown poems and finish that sequence for you.

so here is the first of my Dante poems


In Medias Res

And so I start again, here in the middle,

The middle of a life I scarcely know,

How many guesses left to get the riddle?

The woods are dark and darker shadows grow.

I followed someone here, but lost her leading,

With nothing but my lostness left to show.

The voice that drew me on is faint and fading

But something else is creeping up behind

Over whose heart, I wonder, are we treading?

My shadow-beasts can scent, though they are blind

All three are here, the leopard, lion, wolf,

My kith and kin, the emblems of my kind.

They’ve come to draw me back across the gulf

Back from the path I wanted to have chosen.

Fall back, they call, you can’t run from yourself

Fall to the place where every hope is frozen…

But not his time, this time I choose to choose

The other path, path of the dead and risen,

To try the hidden heart of things, to let go, lose,

To lose myself and find again the voice

That called and drew me here, my freeing muse.

Begin again she calls, you have the choice,

Little by little, you can travel far,

Learn to lament before you can rejoice

Sing to the shadows, sing and do not fear

But sing them into love little by little

Begin the song exactly where you are.

And so I start again here in the middle

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A Sonnet on the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

I have been absent for a little as I am in the midst of moving house and have no internet, but I am now at a retreat house and can post, rather late, for the feast of the transfiguration, courtesy of their wifi!

I return to my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, to share a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials with him, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but is also sometimes remembered on this Sunday before Lent, which is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. 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.

This sonnet is 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.

Transfiguration

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 blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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Mary Magdalene: A Sonnet

noli_me_tangere-fra-angelico1The 22nd of July is Mary Magdalene’s day, and, returning to my sequence of sonnets written in response to the church year, I post this for her. As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on its title or on the ‘play’ button.

This sonnet is 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 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 me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.


Mary Magdalene

Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to  cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.
But one man set you free and took your part
One man knew and loved you to the core
The broken alabaster of your heart
Revealed to Him alone a hidden door,
Into a garden where the fountain sealed,
Could flow at last for him in healing tears,
Till, in another garden, he revealed
The perfect Love that cast out all your fears,
And quickened you  with love’s own sway and swing,
As light and lovely as the news you bring.

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A Sonnet for Trinity Sunday

20110619-000808.jpg

Returning for a moment to my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year, here is one for Trinity Sunday which I am posting the day before, in case people would like to make use of it tomorrow.

By coming to us as the Son, revealing to us the Father, and sending to us the Spirit, Jesus revealed the deepest mystery; that God is not distant and alone, but is three in one, a communion of love who comes to make His home with us.

The Rublev Icon, above, shows the Three in One inviting us to share in that communion. If, as I believe, we are made in the image of God, as beings in communion with one another in the name of that Holy and Undivided Trnity whose being is communion, then we will find reflections and traces of the Trinitarian mystery in all our loving and making.

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

Readers who are interested in my use of the word ‘coinherent’ will find out more by watching the video of my talk about the British theologian Charles Williams, a friend and fellow inkling of CS Lewis which can be found here.

This sonnet is 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 this, and my other 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..

Trinity Sunday

In the Beginning, not in time or space,

But in the quick before both space and time,

In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,

In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,

In music, in the whole creation story,

In His own image, His imagination,

The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,

And makes us each the other’s inspiration.

He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,

To improvise a music of our own,

To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,

Three notes resounding from a single tone,

To sing the End in whom we all begin;

Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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A Sonnet for Ascension Day

 Here is a sonnet for Ascension Day, the glorious finale of the Easter Season. I’m posting it a day in advance, in case anyone would like to use it in a service, either on the day itself or else this Sunday.

In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in the Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon Him. And since His humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with him.”For you have died”, says St. Paul, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God”. In the Ascension Christ’s glory is at once revealed and concealed, and so is ours.  The sonnet form seemed to me one way to begin to tease these things out.

This sonnet is 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 this, and my other 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 always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem.

I’m grateful to Oliver Neale for the image above, the image below was taken as we launched rockets to celebrate Ascension day at Girton College:

We have lift off!

Ascension

We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place
As earth became a part of Heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted
He took us with him to the heart of things
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we our selves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light,
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed .

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Finding Christ in Isolation: A Sonnet for Julian of Norwich

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 life as an anchoress, finding Christ in isolation, and then finding that Christ transfigured that isolation into a communion of love, has been an inspiration for many in the current lockdown. 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.


Mother Julian

Show me O anchoress, your anchor-hold

Deep in the love of God, and hold me fast.

Show me again in whose hands we are held,

Speak to me from your window in the past,

Tell me again the tale of Love’s compassion

For all of us who fall onto the mire,

How he is wounded with us, how his passion

Quickens the love that haunted our desire.

Show me again the wonder of at-one-ment

Of Christ-in-us distinct and yet the same,

Who makes, and loves, and keeps us in each moment,

And looks on us with pity not with blame.

Keep telling me, for all my faith may waver,

Love is his meaning, only love, forever.

1413

From the Amhurst Manuscript of Julian’s showings

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A Sonnet for St. Mark’s Day

A winged lion, swift immediate

The 25th of April is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist, but the Church of England is celebrating it on the 26th this year as the 25th falls on a Sunday.  So I  am posting again my sonnet on St. Mark’s Gospel, one of a set of four sonnets on each of the four evangelists. As I re-read it during this lockdown, as we too make the shift ‘from grand to intimate’, I am struck afresh by the transition in Mark from Christ’s action to his passion, from doing to suffering, from being in control to experiencing with us and for us what it is to depend, patiently, on the actions of others.

For each of these sonnets I have meditated on the traditional association of each of the evangelists with one of the ‘four living creatures’ round the throne, and how that helps us to focus on the particular gifts and emphasis of that Gospel writer. For a good account of this tradition click here. Mark is the lion. There is a power, a dynamic a swiftness of pace in Mark’s Gospel, his favourite word is ‘immediately’! and that suits the lion. His Gospel starts in the wilderness and that suits it too.

But the great paradox in Mark is that the Gospel writer who shows us Christ at his most decisive, powerful, startling and leonine is also the one who shows us  how our conquering lion, our true Aslan, deliberately entered into suffering and passion, the great ‘doer’ letting things be done unto him. In this sonnet, I am especially indebted to WH Vanstone’s brilliant reading of this aspect of Mark in his wonderful book The Stature of Waiting.

For all four ‘Gospel’ sonnets I have also drawn on the visual imagery of the Lindesfarne Gospels, as in the one illustrated above.

This sonnet is 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.

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the title.

Mark

A wingèd lion, swift, immediate

Mark is the gospel of the sudden shift

From first to last, from grand to intimate,

From strength  to weakness, and from debt to gift,

From a wide desert’s haunted emptiness

To a close city’s fervid atmosphere,

From a voice crying in the wilderness

To angels in an empty sepulcher.

And Christ makes the most sudden shift of all;

From swift action as a strong Messiah

Casting the very demons back to hell

To slow pain, and death as a pariah.

We see our Saviour’s life and death unmade

And flee his tomb dumbfounded and afraid.

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WEEK 2 Deepening the Life of Prayer

WEEK 2

Deepening the Life of Prayer

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.

SUNDAY

Postscript Seamus Heaney

MONDAY

Prayer (I)   George Herbert

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.

TUESDAY

Homecoming   Gwyneth Lewis

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won

by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home

to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found

in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.

WEDNESDAY

 

Prayer/Walk   Malcolm Guite


 

A hidden path that starts at a dead end,

Old ways, renewed by walking with a friend,

And crossing places taken hand in hand,

The passages where nothing need be said,

With bruised and scented sweetness underfoot

And unexpected birdsong overhead,

The sleeping life beneath a dark-mouthed burrow,

The rooted secrets rustling in a hedgerow,

The land’s long memory in ridge and furrow,

A track once beaten and now overgrown

With complex textures, every kind of green,

Land- and cloud-scape melting into one,

The rich meandering of streams at play,

A setting out to find oneself astray,

And coming home at dusk a different way.

THURSDAY

 

How I talk to God   Kelly Belmonte Read more about Kelly Belmonte on her great poetry site All Nine

Coffee in one hand

leaning in to share, listen:

How I talk to God.

“Momma, you’re special.”

Three-year-old touches my cheek.

How God talks to me.

While driving I make

lists: done, do, hope, love, hate, try.

How I talk to God.

Above the highway

hawk: high, alone, free, focused.

How God talks to me.

Rash, impetuous

chatter, followed by silence:

How I talk to God.

First, second, third, fourth

chance to hear, then another:

How God talks to me.

Fetal position

under flannel sheets, weeping

How I talk to God.

Moonlight on pillow

tending to my open wounds

How God talks to me.

Pulling from my heap

of words, the ones that mean yes:

How I talk to God.

Infinite connects

with finite, without words:

How God talks to me.

FRIDAY

 

The Pains of Sleep   S. T. Coleridge


 

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,

It hath not been my use to pray

With moving lips or bended knees;

But silently, by slow degrees,

My spirit I to Love compose,

In humble trust mine eye-lids close,

With reverential resignation

No wish conceived, no thought exprest,

Only a sense of supplication;

A sense o’er all my soul imprest

That I am weak, yet not unblest,

Since in me, round me, every where

Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

But yester-night I prayed aloud

In anguish and in agony,

Up-starting from the fiendish crowd

Of .

shapes and thoughts that tortured me:

A lurid light, a trampling throng,

Sense of intolerable wrong,

And whom I scorned, those only strong!

Thirst of revenge, the powerless will

Still baffled, and yet burning still!

Desire with loathing strangely mixed

On wild or hateful objects fixed.

Fantastic passions! maddening brawl!

And shame and terror over all!

Deeds to be hid which were not hid,

Which all confused I could not know

Whether I suffered, or I did:

For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,

My own or others still the same

Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.

So two nights passed: the night’s dismay

Saddened and stunned the coming day.

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper’s worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child;

And having thus by tears subdued

My anguish to a milder mood,

Such punishments, I said, were due

To natures deepliest stained with sin,

For aye entempesting anew

The unfathomable hell within,

The horror of their deeds to view,

To know and loathe, yet wish and do!

Such griefs with such men well agree,

But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?

To be loved is all I need,

And whom I love, I love indeed.

SATURDAY

 

Batter my heart   John Donne


 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

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A Sonnet for George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials

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

George Herbert

Gentle exemplar, help us in our trials,

With all that passed between you and your Lord,

That intimate exchange of frowns and smiles

Which chronicled your love-match with the Word.

Your manuscript, entrusted to a friend,

Has been entrusted now to every soul,

We make a new beginning in your end

And find your broken heart has made us whole.

Time has transplanted you, and you take root,

Past changing in the paradise of Love,

Help me to trace your temple, tune your lute,

And listen for an echo from above,

Open the window, let me hear you sing,

And see the Word with you in everything.

If you would like to encourage and support this blog, you might like, on occasion, (not every time of course!) to pop in and buy me a cup of coffee. Clicking on this banner will take you to a page where you can do so, if you wish. But please do not feel any obligation!

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