The 17th of September is the feast day of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a remarkable and prophetic woman, who described herself as ‘a feather on the breath of God’, and whose many works in theology, music, visual art, poetry and drama are still inspiring people today. Indeed she is coming more and more into her own, as one of her key ideas ‘Viriditas’, or the greening and life-renewing work of the Holy Spirit, seems especially apposite for our time. See this page on her by a contemporary Benedictine.
Today is the the feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ), which is really a celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. In mediaeval times there used to be wonderful processions in which the consecrated elements were taken out of the church on this day and processed on the streets, showing that the Word made flesh was not just in a box labelled ‘church’ but in our midst, just as He was on the streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem. Rebecca Merry‘s lovely art work ( above) has the feel of those mediaeval ‘showings’ on Corpus Christi.
For my contribution to Corpus Christi I am offering here a trio of sonnets about the experience of receiving Holy Communion, each from a slightly different angle. The first two sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.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. The third sonnet, which is about the 16th Century Oak communion table in the church of St. Edward King and Martyr, is from my book The Singing Bowl also published by Canterbury Press
Margot Krebs Neale has reflected on my phrases ‘He does not come in unimagined light ‘ and ‘to dye himself into experience’ with an image not simply of a stained glass window but of that dyed and refracted light itself reflected in water. I am grateful both to Rebecca and Margot for the way their work reflects on and develops mine.
As always you can hear me read the poetry by clicking on the play button above each sonnet, if it appears, or on the title of the poem itself.
The centuries have settled on this table
Deepened the grain beneath a clean white cloth
Which bears afresh our changing elements.
Year after year of prayer, in hope and trouble,
Were poured out here and blessed and broken, both
In aching absence and in absent presence.
This table too the earth herself has given
And human hands have made. Where candle-flame
At corners burns and turns the air to light
The oak once held its branches up to heaven,
Blessing the elements which it became,
Rooting the dew and rain, branching the light.
Because another tree can bear, unbearable,
For us, the weight of Love, so can this table
Continuing 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..
A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael ‘s Bartley Green
Here, once more is my sonnet for Pentecost, posted on the eve of the feast in case anyone wants to use it in Church tomorrow.
Drawn from ‘Sounding the Seasons’, my cycle of sonnets for the Church Year, this is a sonnet reflecting on and celebrating the themes and readings of Pentecost. Throughout the cycle, and more widely, I have been reflecting on the traditional ‘four elements’ of earth, air, water and fire. I have been considering how each of them expresses and embodies different aspects of the Gospel and of God’s goodness, as though the four elements were, in their own way, another four evangelists. In that context I was very struck by the way Scripture expresses the presence of the Holy Spirit through the three most dynamic of the four elements, the air, ( a mighty rushing wind, but also the breath of the spirit) water, (the waters of baptism, the river of life, the fountain springing up to eternal life promised by Jesus) and of course fire, the tongues of flame at Pentecost. Three out of four ain’t bad, but I was wondering, where is the fourth? Where is earth? And then I realised that we ourselves are earth, the ‘Adam’ made of the red clay, and we become living beings, fully alive, when the Holy Spirit, clothed in the three other elements comes upon us and becomes a part of who we are. So something of that reflection is embodied in the sonnet.
As usual you can hear me reading the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears in your browser or by clicking on the title of the poem itself. Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image which follows the poem.
Sounding the Seasons, is 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..
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire,air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.
Here is a sonnet for Ascension Day, the glorious finale of the Easter Season. I’m posting it a couple of days in advance, in case anyone would like to use it in a service.
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.
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 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 .
Today is the feast day of St. Augustine of Canterbury, and I am drawn back to one of the most moving moments in the enthronement of the current Archbishop of Canterbury the 104th successor to St. Augustine, when he stood before the Canterbury Gospels and showed his love for the Gospel, which is itself God’s declaration of love for us, by kissing the sacred text. It was moving because the book he kissed was the very book that Augustine of Canterbury brought to these shores in the 6th century. Like the gospel it contains, it has stood the test of time, like the gospel it contains it has persisted fresh and beautiful through all the vicissitudes of our history, the wars and betrayals, the making and breaking of governments, the wrecks of empire, declaring in time and in timely ways, the redeeming Love that comes to us from beyond time. It embodies the extraordinary and miraculous continuity amidst change, the apostolic succession, that links the first and the hundred and fifth Archbishop of Canterbury.
And for both men this same gospel book, and this same Gospel is a vital source of hope and inspiration, the story of strength made perfect in weakness, of Love triumphing against the odds. ‘Apostle to the English’ was a tough assignment then and it’s a tough assignment now. In fact St. Bede tells us that after Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to our shores he got cold feet on the way (literally I expect as well as metaphorically) and Bede tells us he wrote to Gregory asking if he could be allowed to turn back and have an easier posting somewhere else! Bede quotes the letter back from Gregory in which he strengthens Augustine’s resolve and says, ‘you’ve put your hand to the plough, go on in faith, Christ and his gospel will see you through.’
‘Oh loving Lord don’t send me to the English,
Boorish and brutal pagans that they are’
You prayed, you wrote to Gregory in anguish
But he replied ‘since you have come so far,
Your hand is on the plough, you must continue,
And reach them on their rain-drenched island shore
There’s something in the English that will win you
And Christ himself will open up the door.’
And so the gospel came to Canterbury,
The very gospel book we still possess,
Weathering the storms of history
In all its splendour and it’s hiddenness.
We bless you for that gospel you proclaim,
Bless your successors as they do the same
It is St. George’s Day and as the feast day comes up my thoughts turn again to Hatley St. George. If St. George, as our patron saint, inspires English patriotism, then I’d say my own patriotism is not about wrapping one political party or another in the flag,it is certainly not about ‘Brexit, whichever way that goes, but rather it is about loving the little particularites of my native land. Not the big nationalist rhetoric or the aggrandising imperial history, but the patchwork of little parishes and quiet shires. That’s one of the reasons why I love little mediaeval church dedicated to St. George in the village of Hatley St. George, not far from here.
Though the church goes back to the fourteenth century , in the late sixties it suffered the apparent misfortune of a collapse in its sanctuary which was declared unsafe and taken down. A new east wall was built but the architects had the wisdom to set in the new east window an arch of clear glass. For beyond that window, across the still sacred space of what had been choir and sanctuary, stands the most beautiful beech tree, which church-goers can see now in all its glory , through the changing seasons, simmering above their altar.
It’s a magical place, but like many such, struggling for survival and recognition. I originally wrote this poem both to celebrate the church and to help raise funds for its mantenance. Do visit it if you can and support those who are working for its upkeep. One of the congregation has written this poem out in beautiful calligraphy and it is hanging on the wall there, and each summer I go and read it aloud for them as part of their summer fete. This poem is in my book The Singing Bowl which you can buy on Amazon or order from any good bookshop.
You can listen to me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button. As you listen you will also hear the scatter of bright birdsong which lifted the early April morning where I read the poem in my little writing hut ‘The Temple of Peace’
Stand here a while and drink the silence in.
Where clear glass lets in living light to touch
And bless your eyes. A beech tree’s tender green
Shimmers beyond the window’s lucid arch.
You look across an absent sanctuary;
No walls or roof, just holy, open space,
Leading your gaze out to the fresh-leaved beech
God planted here before you first drew breath.
Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
You cannot stand as long and still as these;
This ancient beech and still more ancient church.
So let them stand, as they have stood, for you.
Let them disclose their gifts of time and place,
A secret kept for you through all these years.
Open your eyes. This empty church is full,
Thronging with life and light your eyes have missed.
Stand here awhile and drink the silence in.
Shields of forgotten chivalry, and rolls
Of honour for the young men gunned at Ypres,
And other monuments of our brief lives
Stand for the presence here of saints and souls
Who stood where you stand, to be blessed like you;
Clouds of witness to unclouded light
Shining this moment, in this place for you.
Stand here awhile and drink their silence in.
Annealed in glass, the twelve Apostles stand
And each of them is keeping faith for you.
This roof is held aloft, to give you space,
By graceful angels praying night and day
That you might hear some rumour of their flight
That you might feel the flicker of a wing
And let your heart fly free at last in prayer.