I am currently up in Scotland staying with my mother, who is ninety seven, and hearing from her again the wonderful stories of my forbears, wonderers, poets, preachers, artists, and dreamers of one sort or another. After I had given her my new book of poems Parable and Paradox, and read some of the poems to her, including some those about the present refugee crisis, we took from the shelves the book of poems her mother had published in 1922 which included this powerful poem written for a refugee child in Glasgow. My Grandmother taught English and History in a school which took children from the poorer districts of Glagow, and this powerful poem with its deep compassion and empathy for the refugee and the exile, came out of that experience. I post it now both because it is International Refugee Day and also because it is part of my hope that my own country will not forget itself and turn its back on the refugees and on our long tradition of welcome and hospitality. My Grandmother’s book contains poems with their own music, filled with passion and compassion, and includes a series of sonnets for the city she loved. Her’s is a tradition which I am, in my own way, seeking to continue.
The Gean-tree, I should mention is the Scottish name for the wild cherry.
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button:
We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King, hidden beneath the rags and even in the flesh of his poor here on earth.
This passage in Matthew is especially challenging to us now in the midst of a major refugee crisis triggered by the dreadful violence in Syria and Iraq. We can and should make a compassionate response, even though that response is shadowed by our fears of terrorist infiltration. It should be possible to be alert to and vet those malicious persons who might try to infiltrate themselves amongst genuine refugees. But it is clear that the huge numbers of widows and children in desperate need are no threat to anyone, but rather themselves threatened by the terrorists whom we oppose. There is no reason for a proper caution about infiltration to inhibit a genuine and generous response to crisis.I wrote this sonnet some years before the present Crisis, but Christ’s words, on which this poem reflects, seem more vital and more needed than ever.
Here is a sonnet written in response to the gospel reading for the feast of Christ the King.
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
September the 21st is St. Matthew’s day, so here, once more, is a sonnet for the Evangelist, drawn from my sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons. Like my sonnets for the other three evangelists, it draws on the traditional association of each evangelist with one of the four living creatures around the throne of God. As I repost this in the midst of the current refugee crisis the final couplet seems more pressing than ever, as one aspect or another of things unfolding around us bring some facet of the gospel into even sharper focus.
As always you can hear it by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. I am grateful to Rebecca Merry for the image above.
First of the four, saint Matthew is the Man;
A gospel that begins with generation,
Family lines entwine around the Son
Born in Judea, born for every nation
Born under Law that all the Law of Moses
Might be fulfilled and flower into Grace
As every word and deed in time discloses
Eternal love within a human face.
This is the gospel of the great reversal
A wayside weed is Solomon in glory
The smallest sparrow’s fall is universal
And Christ the heart of every human story
‘I will be with you, though you may not see
And all you do, you do it unto me’
I have been meditating on the sayings of Jesus for my new poetry sequence Parable and Paradox, and as I reflected on the astonishing story in Mark 7:31-37 about the healing of the deaf and dumb man I was struck by how powerful and resonant was Jesus’ command ‘Be Opened!’. Mark thought it so important that he gave it to us in Aramaic as well as Greek: Ephthatha! Be Opened’.
I believe that all the sayings of Jeus recorded in the Gospels are not only his words to those particular people there and then, but are also his words to each of us individually, and to all of us collectively as the church and, more widely, as humanity, words that come to us quietly sometimes, or suddenly in crisis, but we must have ears to hear. As the church closes ranks against the world, as the world divides and fights against itself, as the razor wires go up around the edge of europe and the borders of the comfortable close against the needy, I feel more and more the urgency of Jesus great command Be opened!
As always you can hear my sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
Be opened. Oh if only we might be!
Speak to a heart that’s closed in on itself:
‘Be opened and the truth will set you free’,
Speak to a world imprisoned in its wealth:
‘Be opened! Learn to learn from poverty’,
Speak to a church that closes and excludes,
And makes rejection its own litany:
‘Be opened, opened to the multitudes
For whom I died but whom you have dismissed
Be opened, opened, opened,’ how you sigh
And still we do not hear you. We have missed
Both cry and crisis, we make no reply.
Take us aside, for we are deaf and dumb
Spit on us Lord and touch each tongue-tied tongue.
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, August 27, 2015. Hungary made plans on Wednesday to reinforce its southern border with helicopters, mounted police and dogs, and was also considering using the army as record numbers of migrants, many of them Syrian refugees, passed through coils of razor-wire into Europe. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RTX1PU25