With this fourth poem in my Dante series we leave behind the dark and stifled atmosphere of the Inferno and contemplate the holy mountain of the Purgatorio. Here souls already bound for Paradise are enabled to purify, strengthen and re-order their capacity for love so as to be ready for the love and joy of Heaven when they get there. In this book Dante shows how friendship, love, poetry and art are all means whereby God prepares our souls for the great ascent.Dante fills Purgatorio with tributes to friends and poets who have helped him. I open my own ‘readers pilgrimage’ here with a tribute to the teacher who first showed me how to read Dante, thus giving me the gift of a lifetime. This poem first appeared at the front of my book Faith Hope and Poetry.
If you missed he earlier three poems in this series they are here:
Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest! These five glorious verbs, deepening as they follow one another in intensity of engagement, come altogether in one of the most justly famous collects in The Book of Common Prayer; the collect for this coming Sunday; the second in Advent. Here’s the whole collect:
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is surely ne of the best, and most Biblically rooted prayers about reading the bible ever! here is a brief reflection on each of these petitions followed by a Sonnet for the Second Sunday in Advent:
When it comes to our reception of scripture this collect starts where most people, at the time of its composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else, and of course the King Jmes Translation was made to be read aloud and not a verse of it was passed until it’s phrasing had stood the test of being read aloud, until it was something sonorous and memorable.
But of course we go on from hearing to reading, as so many of those first auditors did, for the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains to day one of he great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.
But we cannot rest with reading, we must learn to mark. Mark here means more than simply ‘pay attention’. It means to make a mark, not only in the outward sense of marking up or underlining and annotation of passages, but inwardly to mark, to let the scriptures themselves underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us. We all know such passages, the ones that, in a given reading seemed to have been marked out for us particularly.
Marking, and being marked in turn, is of course the beginning of learning. Now learning by rote, done by itself for no reason probably does no good, but learning by heart can sometimes be a pathway to learning in and through the heart. I will never forget when, as a newly-ordained curate, I was called to the deathbed of a very old lady in one of those dreadful ‘care homes’ She was suffering equally from dementia and neglect and the nurse told me that she couldn’t speak three words of sense together. At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm, in the Prayer Book version. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong snse that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ were the last words on her lips.
But there is more than that, the last petiton is the deepest. The prayer that we should ‘inwardly digest’ the scriptures has roots in a profound and ancient way of reading, still preserved by the church in the name ‘Lectio Divina‘. You can see its earliest roots in Jesus words to Satan, themselves a quotation from Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.
After the prologue, the first sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian year, is called The Lectern, and it is essentially a hymn to scripture written in response to this collect and what the collect reveals about reading scripture in church. Here it is. As usual you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Some rise on eagles’ wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak. Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain. Be still the Lectern says, stand here and read.
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow… So you stand,
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.
Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written
In my last post I set out the overall plan for my sonnet sequence Sounding The Seasons. Now here, as promised, is the sonnet which will open the whole sequence, a sonnet which meditates on what we hope to achieve by keeping the seasons, keeping holy and memorial days. Of course the truths on which we meditate over the course of the liturgical year, from the mystery of Christmas to the all-transforming drama of Good Friday and Easter, are true all the time! But we do not remember or think of them all the time, for time itself, ‘the subtle thief’, can so easily take even the memory of truth from us. So it was a deep wisdom that led the early church to turn ‘Time the thief’ into ‘Time the messenger’, to make the very medium that might have taken the truth away from us become the medium that restores it, as Time brings round and renews each Holy Day.
Anyway here is my poetic reflection on these things. As always you can hear the poems by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or the title, and as always I m grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the images which accompany and reflect on aspects of the poem. Margot has kindly sent me the following comments on the two images she has chosen for this poem; the bell which you see above, and the shaft of light you will see at the end of the sonnet:
Margot writes: “In a comment on his blog Malcolm mentioned the title to a series of “sonnets for the whole ‘churchyear” “Sounding the seasons” the first image I saw in my head, was the bells calling, bells and seasons, bells and time. I was talking about it and then I thought “sounding” is also “sounding the depth” and I could see the lead weight. English is not my mother-tongue and words are not “mine” they are very much themselves.
So I looked for the most impressive set of bells I have seen, in Rostov, Russia. I so wanted to go and take a beautiful powerful picture. Then I remembered that I had been given 3 Russian bells, small but beautiful when I left Russia. They have accompanied every Easter and Christmas in my house. And I set this picture modestly in my kitchen, sounding the New Year in.
Malcolm sent me the sonnet and I then wanted to illustrate sentences which were not visual, those who touched me: “Sometimes the heart remembers its own reasons”. I also loved “We sometimes glimpse the Love that casts out fear,” and Malcolm suggested it as something visual, “glimpse”. OK, but we needed to see love and fear…
I browsed through month and month of my pictures without a clear purpose. Then this picture, which was a failed attempt or so I thought. I had kept it because that light, I wanted to remember how I had tried many small holes, the smaller the hole the brighter the light was, camera obscura effect. Still my camera was struggling with the contrast too much light and too much dark. Many attempts, many failures. I liked that sense of a passage, I tried readjusting the light and it brought back the “path” on the foreground and the sense of a cross in the webs. We had the fear and the light.”
Tramelled in time, we live with hints and guesses
Turning the wheel of each returning year,
But in between our failures and successes
We sometimes glimpse the Love that casts out fear,
Sometimes the heart remembers its own reasons
And breathes a Sanctus as we tell our story,
Tracing the tracks of grace, sounding the seasons
That lead at last through time to timeless glory.
From the first yearnings for a Saviours birth
To the full joy of knowing sins forgiven
We gather as His church on Gods’s good earth
To share an echo of the choirs of heaven
I share these hints, returning what was lent,
Turning to praise each ‘moment’s monument’.
Today, on the exact anniversary of his Martyrdom by fire in 1555 I stood in the very Pulpit from which Latimer had preached, to preach a sermon celebrateing his memory and re-affirming the gospel for which he died. On this aniversary therefore I am posting again the Sonnet I wrote called Latimer’s pulpit. It is part of a sequence of St. Edward’s sonnets you can read here, but I republish it on its own, for Latimer’s day.
Here first is a preliminary note about the pulpit:
Ours is known as Latimers Pulpit, for Hugh Latimer the great Saint and Martyr preached there often, and it was in this pulpit that he preached the famous sermon of the card, to which my sonnet alludes.
In that sermon he imagines that we are losing a card game with the devil. One after another he lays out the black suit of our sins, he holds all the cards and is ready to take the ‘trick’ of our souls, but Christ leans forward and lays on top of all those sins the trump card that wins us back; the king of hearts, for in a universe where God is love, then love is always trumps. At the end of the sermon he exhorts his hearers to do for others what Christ has done for them. When people deal you cards of malice, hate, or envy always and only reply by trumping hate with love. His great love, even of his enemies, shone through when he was burned at the stake for his faith in 1555. It is an extraordinary experience to touch the wood, and to stand in that pulpit and preach as I do each week.
And here is the poem, as always you can hear it by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title:
Latimer’s pulpit, you can touch the wood,
Sound for yourself the syllables of grace
That sounded and resounded through this place;
A quickened word, a kindling for good
In evil times; when malice held the cards
And played them, in the play of politics,
When knaves with knives were taking all the tricks,
When Christendom was shivered into shards,
When King and Queen were pitched in different camps,
When burning books could stoke the fire for men,
When such were stacked against him –even then
Latimer knew that hearts alone are trumps.
He gave the King of Hearts his proper name,
He touched this wood, and kindled love to flame.
In drear-nighted December,
Too happy, happy tree,
Thy branches ne’er remember
Their green felicity…
“Drear-nighted December” Keats’s felicitous phrase sums up the way many of us feel in the dreary darkness of encroaching winter. But, much as I love his poetry, I think in this case Keats is wrong about the tree. Indeed, it is just because those bleak rain-lashed December branches do ‘remember their green felicity’, and still retain, hidden within themselves, the patterns and energy of all their former green-ness that they will unfold into leaf again in spring and be able, as Larkin said, of trees in May, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.
It can be the same with us, we manage to get through the winter, and also through the heart’s severer seasons, because we carry the memories of spring and we are sustained by a kind of parley between memory and hope. So George Herbert, trying to cope with severe experiences of depression and loss, writes in his poem “The Flower”:
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
But Herbert knew, even in the depth of winter that “grief melts away/like snow in May/ as if there were no such cold thing” and so in this great poem of recovery he writes: And now in age I bud again,/After so many deaths I live …
And what about us? I think that we too, in drear-nighted December need to remember our ‘green felicity’, and surely that is just what we do at Christmas. In the darkest time of the year Christ, The Life within us and the seed of light is sown. The root of Jesse, the stock of that True Vine from which we all spring, is planted in our hearts, just when for many of us our hearts feel at their darkest and most ploughed up. So through the dark days of advent I pray for Him to come so deeply and quietly into our hearts that, as Lancelot Andrewes said: “He may with one word make all green again”.
A while ago I wrote a poem about a beautiful empty shell. It was a meditation on memory, on fullness and emptiness, but I was also trying to catch the light in the shell itself, or catch a gleam of it in the mirror of my words. Then just the other day I came upon this brilliant painting by Anna Todd, she catches just thel ‘opalescent shimmering of pearl’ I was trying to descrbe. She has given me permission to post her painting here alongside my poem. check out her amazing site through the link on her name.
shell with marbles Anna Todd
I am alone, my fingers touch this shell
Of memory. I trace a graceful swirl
Of green and blue, like ripples on the swell,
Catching the light before they lapse and spill
And spend themselves on sand in soft caresses.
And I remember slowly savoured kisses,
Like moving in slow motion through deep water
That clarifies and washes us with light,
A light that burnishes this empty shell
With opalescent shimmerings of pearl.
Here’s a little reverie on Love, Latin, and Learning
You were indeed my teacher, more than that,
Sole Magistra amidst the magisters,
I conjured you that I might conjugate.
Summon me now, and the whole register
Of love and loving answers to your call.
I lift my lines like water from a well,
Spilling in sound, amo, amas, amat,
A puer’s poor libation, at your feet.
My thankless muse, I meditate you now,
Your quick dark eyes still piercing my defence,
Your untouched hand touching the golden bough.
My mistress in the school of eloquence,
Strict arbitress of sentences and fines,