Tag Archives: Reflections

A Sonnet for Candlemas

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright

Though the 12 days of Christmas ended with Twelfth Night and Epiphany, there is another sense in which this season, in which we reflect on the great mystery of God in Christ as an infant, continues until February 2nd, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This feast came to be called by the shorter and more beautiful name of Candlemas because the day it celebrates, recorded in Luke 2:22-40, is the day the old man Simeon took the baby in his arms and recognised him as ‘A Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.’ It became the custom of the church to light a central candle and bring it to the altar to represent the Christ-light, and also on the occasion of this feast to bless all the ‘lights’ or candles in the church, praying that all who saw that outward and visible light would remember also and be blessed by the inner light of Christ ‘who lightens everyong who comes into the world.’

It had always been prophesied that God would one day come into the Temple that human beings had built for him, though Solomon, who built the first temple had said ‘even the Heavens are too small to hold you much less this temple I have built’. Candlemas is the day we realise that eternity can come into time and touch us in the form of a tiny child, that God appears at last in His Temple, not as a transcendent overlord, but as a vulnerable pilgrim, coming in His Love to walk the road of life along side us.

I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image above. She writes:

“This picture is of my first born on his first outing to walk to the station
with his grand-mother who was returning to France. he was four days old. On
the way back I stopped at the local bakers, whom I knew well and we were
both properly feasted. Was I proud and pleased! I choose it because
something of these lines was my feeling

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

He was a new little Temple of the Lord. There was definitely a sense of awe
for me. We chose his name for the Olive branch brought by the dove. I did
not like that shirt very much (it had been passed on) but for the dove…”

This and my other sonnets for the Christian year are published together by Canterbury Press as Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian Year.’ You can get this book in the UK by ordering it from your local bookshop, or via Amazon

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

Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

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For Our Lady of Guadelupe by Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe - given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

Our Lady of Guadalupe – given to me by the poet Grevel Lindop

For today’s poem in my  Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word we return to the poet Grevel Lindop with an honest meditation on a visit to Mexico entitled ‘For our Lady of Guadelupe’. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. After the Waiting on the Word anthology was published, for which Grevel had kindly given me permission to include this poem,  we met up and he actually gave me  the image he had bought on his visit and which is part of the subject of the poem and of my reflections on it. I was very moved by the gift and the little statue sits on my desk, so as Linda had not done an image for today I have included a photo of it here.  As I wrote about that statue in the commentary:

We know too, from this first verse, that this mind-changing journey is one the poet himself has to make himself. Those lines,

where I will buy her plastic image later

garish, I hope, and cheap,

are highly significant, implying that when he first arrived he might have disdained the stalls of plastic images. It is only after his actual encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe that he understands their value and comes back to buy one….What we learn on the journey of this poem is that the devotion of the poor may transfigure cracked and broken, even poor and shoddy material more effectively than the finesse and fine taste of the sceptical rich

You can find the whole of my 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

For Our Lady of Guadelupe

The taxi windscreen’s broken,

lightning-starred with a crack from one corner:

signature of a stone from the Oaxaca road.

It drops me by the shanty-town of stalls

where I will buy her plastic image later –

garish, I hope, and cheap,

for kitsch is authenticity.

A jagged rift of space

splits the old basilica’s perfect Baroque,

an intricately-cracked stone egg

atilt on sliding subsoil where the Aztec

city’s lake was carelessly filled in.

Crowds pass its listing shell without a glance,

heading for the concrete-and-stained-glass

swirl that mimics

Juan Diego’s cloak, where she appeared

and painted her own image on the fabric

to show sceptical bishops

how perfect love could visit a poor Indian

after the wars, and fill his cloak with roses.

Now the cloak’s under glass behind the altar.

A priest celebrates Mass,

but we walk round the side

to queue for the moving pavement that will take us closer,

its mechanical glide into the dark

floating us past the sacred cloth

and her miraculous, soft, downcast gaze:

not Spanish and not Indian but both,

lovely mestiza Virgin, reconciler

who stands against the flashbulbs’ irregular

pizzicato of exploding stars,

and while we slide on interlocking steel

opens for us her mantle, from which roses

pour and pour in torrents, like blood

from a wound that may never be healed.

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‘Every Idle Word’: What if we had to own up to what we say?

For different reasons we have all, on both sides of the Atlantic, been reflecting on the way our words can travel and unravel beyond us, on the need to care for the tenor of what we say. Back in 2011 I had already become uneasy about the coarsening of our discourse and particularly about hate speech, and I wrote this poem reflecting on Jesus’ warning to us about the consequences of the words we use, about the fact that we will be held accountable for them. I published that poem in 2013 in my book The Singing Bowl, but now, seven years later, it seems more urgent than ever.

As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

What If…

But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” Mathew 12:36-37

What if every word we say
Never ends or fades away,
Gathers volume gathers weigh,
Drums and dins us with dismay
Surges on some dreadful day
When we cannot get away
Whelms us till we drown?

What if not a word is lost,
What if every word we cast
Cruel, cunning, cold, accurst,
Every word we cut and paste
Echoes to us from the past
Fares and finds us first and last
Haunts and hunts us down?

What if every murmuration,
Every otiose oration
Every oath and imprecation,
Insidious insinuation,
Every blogger’s aberration,
Every facebook fabrication
Every twittered titivation,
Unexamined asservation
Idiotic iteration,
Every facile explanation,
Drags us to the ground?

What if each polite evasion
Every word of defamation,
Insults made by implication,
Querulous prevarication,
Compromise in convocation,
Propaganda for the nation
False or flattering peruasion,
Blackmail and manipulation
Simulated desparation
Grows to such reverberation
That it shakes our own foundation,
Shakes and brings us down?

Better that some words be lost,
Better that they should not last,
Tongues of fire and violence.
O Word through whom the world is blessed,
Word in whom all words are graced,
Do not bring us to the test,
Give our clamant voices rest,
And the rest is silence.

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‘In The Midst Of Thy Temple’: A Response To Psalm 48

Psalm 48 is a celebration of the city of Zion and the temple in her midst, a celebration of the covenant promise that God would faithfully meet his people there. For a Christian this psalm takes on a new significance. Firstly because we know that the Temple, the meeting place of God and his people was a archetype and foreshadowing of Christ, who would himself be the temple, the meeting place of God and the whole of humanity. And secondly because of the wonderful truth that when we are members of the body of Christ, whose body is the true temple, then we ourselves, both body and soul, become a temple of the Holy Spirit, that Christ himself comes into us to a abide with us and in us. No longer need we travel to some outer destination to meet with God, but need only turn inward to find that ‘in our hearts are the highways to Zion’. The temple is already there within us, and Christ is waiting, deep in the mystery of our own heart and soul, if only we will enter those depths and find him. And there, in the depth of our own being he will meet with us, to cleanse us and renew us.

This is especially good news for us as Covid tightens its grip and lockdown looms again. If we are self-isolating, or if our churches are closed again, we can find him in our own hearts and homes where there will be no social distancing, only spiritual intimacy.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVIII Magnus Dominus

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home

Not just the hill of Sion, but the whole

Round world. Call him from anywhere, he’ll

 

Come to you and make his dwelling. Hail

Him in any language, he replies

In your own mother-tongue. For now your soul

 

Is his true Sion, and each day you rise

Already in the city of your God.

So mark the towers and temples, and apprise

 

Again the beauty of your new abode.

Your soul is greater than you ever knew:

Walk round its walls, then take the holy road

 

That winds towards its centre, where the new

Temple of his spirit shines and stands,

Where Christ himself is there to welcome you.

 

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He Is The Great King: a response to Psalm 47

If there was a struggle in the midst of trials, that issued in the hard-won hope of psalm 46, then that hope and confidence flowers into a great hymn of praise and joy in psalm 47, a hymn that rings with greater assurance precisely because it follows on from the struggles of the preceding psalm. Psalm47 is often set by Christians as a psalm for Ascension Day, especially with its ringing line, so often set to music:

God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trump.

But to my mind the real joy of psalm 47 is not so much that he has gone up as that he has also come down. The great revelation here is that, though heaven is, in one sense, still to come, we can nevertheless begin rejoicing now because God has not abandoned us here on earth but has already come down to be our king and kindle our hope. So the key line for me is the second verse, which acknowledges that though the Lord is high and transcendent, the glorious king of heaven, he is also, ultimately, the king here on earth:

For the Lord is high, and to be feared: he is the great King upon all the earth.

Indeed psalm 47 begins a little sequence of psalms that anticipate the way that, in Christ, who is both fully God and fully human, heaven and earth can finally be brought together, and his will done on earth as it is in heaven. And that insight provided the key to my interpretation of this psalm.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVII Omnes gentes, plaudite

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease

He must be king of earth as well as heaven

We must invite him here, to make his peace

 

Within us and between us, that forgiven,

We may release forgiveness here on earth,

Working and spreading like a holy leaven,

 

A secret of the kingdom, heaven’s breath,

A kindling from the place where Christ is king

For he has triumphed and defeated death

 

And even now he calls our hearts to sing

Sing praises in the kingdom still to come

And in the one already here, to bring,

 

Ourselves, our arts and music, trumpet, drum

And tabor, all to make a merry noise,

For heaven’s king has made the earth his home!

 

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God Is Our Hope And Strength: A Response to Psalm 46

Today we come to Psalm 46 which is is a firm favourite with many people and for good reason. Its opening line sets the theme of God’s reassuring strength and presence:

  1. GOD is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble.

It is in the context of that reassuring strength and confidence that we can face our fears and deal with what the prayer book calls ‘ all the changes and chances of this fleeting world’ and 2020 is certainly a year in which we have seen more than our fair share of those changes and chances. And so the psalm continues:

Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved: and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof rage and swell: and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God: the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest.

God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed: God shall help her, and that right early.

And then, towards the end comes the wonderful prophecy of peace, and the vision of God as peacemaker:

He maketh wars to cease in all the world: he breaketh the bow, and knappeth the spear in sunder, and burneth the chariots in the fire.

It was through Mary’s obedience that the Prince of Peace was born into this world, so I pick up the thread of the final line of my poem on psalm 45 to begin this poem, a poem for strength and encouragement written in the midst of this appalling year in which it seems, as I say in the poem, that ‘everything around us falls apart’. Everything except our loving God.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLVI Deus noster refugium

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation,

For God was in the midst of her, and now

We too are called, in every generation

 

To find in him our hope and strength, though

Everything around us falls apart,

And all our towering schemes have been laid low

 

Now is the time to take his truth to heart

And to be glad within the holy place

That he himself has made in us. To start

 

Each day with him, abiding in his grace

As he abides with us. To know his peace

To turn towards his light and seek his face

 

And let his flowing spirit find release

And flow through us into his weary world

That wrongs may be redressed and wars may cease.

 

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‘Hearken O Daughter’: a Response to Psalm 45

After another brief break, this time for a pilgrimage to Canterbury and beyond, I resume the love-worn thread of the time-worn psalter, and we come now to psalm 45. In making my response I was tempted, of course, by its famous phrase ‘My tongue is the pen of a ready writer’ to write about writing itself and make a poem about poetry. But there is an older and richer tradition of interpretation for this psalm and I was drawn to that instead. That older tradition is to draw from this psalm some phrases and images that help us appreciate and bless Mary, the mother of our Lord. The scripture tells us that all generations will call her blessed and rightly so. Scholars think this psalm, with its image of the kings daughters, the handmaidens, the queen in a vesture of gold, may well have been set for a royal wedding, but from early on Christians found themselves thinking of Mary when they read it, and so I have taken occasion of this psalm to write another poem in her honour. I was brought up in the reformed tradition, which tended to ignore Mary in reaction to what they thought was Catholic ‘mariolotary’ but anyone who venerates Jesus must stand in awe of the one through whose obedience and courage he came into the world, the one to whom God entrusted his upbringing, and who, in Luke’s gospel, is filled with the spirit and speaks prophetic words. There is a deep sense in which every Christian must be like Mary and say to God ‘ Be it unto me according to thy word’, and like Mary, try to bear Christ fruitfully into the world and bring others to him.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLV Eructavit cor meum

And still we live as if we have forgotten

But someone keeps all these things in her heart.

Who bore for us the only one begotten,

 

The Son of God. And now she takes our part

And calls us to remember all his mercy

Calls us with all our skill, and all our art

 

To magnify his name, for it is holy

For now she dwells with him, in joy and gladness,

The Mystic Rose of heaven, once so lowly

 

Whose heart was also pierced, who feels our sadness

And shows us how to pray. Each generation

Has known her help and presence, heard her witness

 

The great things done through her. In every nation

She nurtures those who bear Christ to the world,

Through her our saviour came, Love’s revelation.

 

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Smitten Into the Place Of Dragons: A Response to Psalm 44

After a much needed holiday, internet free in the remote parts of the Norfolk Broads, I am back and taking up again, the poetic thread of my journey through the psalms. We come now to psalm 44, a psalm at once of despair and hope, and a challenging psalm for  Christians to read. It speaks to our moments of despair because it describes the experience of feeling that God is ‘far off’ or even absent, and it laments the experience of defeat that we often endure in the world:

But now thou art far off, and puttest us to confusion: and goest not forth with our armies.

Thou makest us to turn our backs upon our enemies: so that they which hate us spoil our goods.

Thou lettest us be eaten up like sheep: and hast scattered us among the heathen.

And yet it also renews our hope for it invokes the very presence whose absence it laments:

Up, Lord, why sleepest thou: awake, and be not absent from us for ever.

But it is challenging because its context is battle and warfare, and we are rightly wary of invoking God to be partisan in our own bloody and sinful conflicts. One way for a Christian to read these battle psalms is to see them in the context not of our partial conflicts but of the ultimate struggle between good and evil whose front line runs through the centre of every human heart. In that ultimate and cosmic struggle Christ has already won the victory, and won it, not by bloody conquest, shedding the blood of others, but by shedding his own heart’s blood for all of us on the cross. The psalmist here complains that we have been ‘smitten into the place of dragons’ and ‘covered with the shadow of death’, but it is Christ who can really pray that line, for he entered death’s abode and fought with the devil, ‘that old dragon’ for all of us, and so my psalm ends with the passion and victory of Christ, which is, and always was, our only true hope.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLIV Deus, auribus

The living fountain whence I drink my fill,

Must rise in me before I sing this psalm

How could it ever be God’s Holy will

 

To raise an army, to inflict the harm

The special horror of a holy war

How could we ever conquer in his name?

 

Oh Jesus, did you sing this psalm before

You girded strength to brave your agony,

To fight the only holy battle for

 

The world you loved, and heal the misery

Of all mankind? As for us you were smitten

Into the place of dragons, victory

 

Was won for all of us, as it is written

And so in Christ shall all be made alive

And still we live as if we have forgotten.

 

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Living Streams: A Response to Psalm 42

Like as the hart desireth the water brooks

Psalm 42 is one of my all time favourites, I love its opening line:

  1. LIKE as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

In English, though not in Hebrew, this translation offers us that other sense of the deepest desires of the heart, which is, of course what the psalm is all about. And I love the image of the ‘water brooks’ the ‘living streams’ the ‘fontes aquarum’ as it was in the old Latin translation.

So it was a pleasure to make this response to the psalm, and to remind myself that though I am also an author of ‘dusty books’ and my words too have ‘rung from pulpits’, in the end it is not the words about God that we want, but God himself.

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XLII Quemadmodum

You are my heart’s desire from first to last

Like as the hart desires the water brooks

So longs my soul towards you, so I thirst

 

For living streams, not for the dusty books

They write about you, nor the empty words

That ring from pulpits, nor the haughty looks

 

Of those who market you. These are the shards

Of broken idols. I long for the deep

In you that calls the deep in me, the chords

 

That sound those depths and summon me to weep

At first with tears of grief and then with tears

Of joy, that I may sow those tears and reap

 

A timeless harvest, that the ripened  ears

Of grain may shine as clean and clear as gold

Shucked of the husk of all my wasted years.

 

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The Shell Is Breaking: a Response To Psalm 39

‘Take thy plague away from me: I am even consumed by the means of thy heavy hand.’

This verse from psalm 39 will resonate with all of us in the midst of the covid crisis, and so perhaps will those verses about our mortality and the frailty of things in this world, verses calling us to set our hope more firmly on God:

‘Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long: and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity.

For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.

And now, Lord, what is my hope: truly my hope is even in thee.’

For a Christian of course that hope is rooted in Christ, in his death and resurrection. This was all in my mind as I composed my poem in response to psalm 39, but so were those lines of Leonard Cohen’s, that it is just when you begin to perceive the ‘crack in everything’ that you also perceive that that is ‘how the light gets in’!

This present plague has prompted me, like many, to reflect that we must not return, afterwards, to our old ways, but must take this kairos moment as an opportunity to strengthen the things that remain and renew our true hope in Christ

As usual you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title. For the other poems in my psalm series type the word ‘psalm’ into the search box on the right.

XXXIX Dixi, Custodiam

Deliver me and raise me from the dead

For I have walked in shadows. Nothingness,

The vanity of things fills me with dread,

 

The sheer inanity, the pointlessness

Of how we used to live – we can’t go back

To that – the rush that masked our emptiness,

 

All the pretence that covered what we lack

When what we really lacked was always you.

I held my tongue, but I could see the crack

 

In everything we build and say and do.

And now the crack is widening. I pray

That we will turn and see a light break through

 

These fissures that so fill us with dismay.

The death we fear is birth, the shell is breaking:

The stone itself will soon be rolled away.

 

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