I am publishing here the first of a sequence of seven sonnets which were commissioned to go with a sequence of paintings by the artist Adam Boulter on the theme of Wilderness. They will form part of the exhibition ‘In the Wilderness: Preparing for Public Service which will be installed for the whole of Lent in St. Margaret’s Westminster. The paintings and poems are a series of meditations on key turning points in Biblical and Church wilderness experience. The way Adam and I worked on them was this: First he sent me the scriptural or patristic point of inspiration together with a sketch he had made, in situ, of the wilderness episode, for he is a chaplain in Amman in Jordan and has been able to journey through the desert himself and visit these sites. Then I composed the poem, drawing on both the scripture or church history and the sketch, and sent him the poem. Then he completed the painting having in mind both the initial sketch and the poem. It has been a remarkable and I think fruitful long distance collaboration, and I can hardly wait to see the paintings themselves when he and I meet for the opening night on the 17th of this month.
In the meantime though he has given me permission to share with you the initial sketch book images I worked with, as well as the sonnets, so I am going to post them in a series over the next week. If you want to see the finished paintings then do come among to the exhibition which is open 9-4 every day in Lent, at St. Margaret’s just next to Westminster Abbey and across from the Houses of Parliament.
All but two of the sonnets are completely new. For two of the wilderness moments his Bible readings, and indeed sketches, came so close to what I had already written that we agreed to use earlier sonnets with some revision, but they seem to take a new life in the new sequence. As in other posts I have also read these poems aloud for you and you can hear them by clicking on the title or the play button.
So we begin with Genesis 3 chapter 18, with Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre in what is really, in both poem and painting, a meditation on Hospitality in the wilderness, a theme to which we will return with contemporary force in the final sonnet of the sequence. It is in the very act of going hospitality that Sarah and Abraham receive a blessing which confirms their true vocation. Their hospitality to the strangers has unlocked something in them and the power of God’s promise to bless us all through Abraham is released.
They practice hospitality; their hearts
Have opened like a secret source, free flowing
Only as they take another’s part.
Stopped in themselves, and in their own unknowing,
But unlocked by these strangers in their need,
They breathe again, and courtesy, set free,
Begets the unexpected; generosity
Begetting generation, as the seed
Of promise springs and laughs in Sarah’s womb.
Made whole by their own hospitality,
And like the rooted oak whose shade makes room
For this refreshing genesis at Mamre,
One couple, bringing comfort to their guests,
Becomes our wellspring in the wilderness.