Tag Archives: Sonnets

An epiphany at Cana

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

The set readings for this Sunday in Epiphany tell the story of  ‘the first of the signs that Jesus did and manifested forth his glory’; the transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:1-11). I love this miracle, though John doesn’t call it a miracle, he rightly calls it a sign. It is a sign that points to so many profound and liberating things about the God whom Jesus reveals to us; His delight in and concern for our own personal life and loves, attested by His presence at the wedding feast, His abundant generosity in more than meeting our needs in the midst of everyday life, His call to us to move from the mere outward purity, symbolised by the water for ritual washing, to a transformation of inward joy, symbolised by the wine. But most importantly,  this sign points to the gift of His very self, His own heart’s blood, given once for all on the cross and received by us in communion. I have tried to bring out a little of the richness and depth of this first ‘sign’ in the following sonnet. This and my other sonets 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 sonnet by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or by clicking on the title of the sonnet itself

Epiphany at Cana

Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily  living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.

Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has.’

It cost our Saviour everything he has

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The First Sunday of Epiphany -Jesus’ Baptism

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many little ‘epiphanies’, glimpses of how things really are, which are vouchsafed us in the Gospel. Today, the first Sunday of Epiphany is a time to reflect on the moment when ‘the heavens opened’ at Jesus’ Baptism and we were given a glimpse of Father Son and Holy Spirit at the heart of all things. This sonnet is a reflection on that mystery. As always you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ sign or on the title of the poem. I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful photograph, taken at the river Jordan which says as much as, if not more than the poem. The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop.  After the text of the poem I have included links to the wonderful song Steve Bell wrote from it.

Epiphany on the Jordan


Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings
‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’

In that quick light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.

Also check out how Steve Bell reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song

You can hear the song itself on sound cloud here:

Epiphany on the Jordan

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A Sonnet for Epiphany

these three arrive and bring us with them

The Feast of the Epiphany falls on the 6th of January. Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the three wise men at the manger in Bethlehem has a special mystery and joy to it. Until now the story of the coming Messiah has been confined to Israel, the covenant people, but here suddenly, mysteriously, are three Gentiles who have intuited that his birth is good new for them too. Here is an Epiphany, a revelation, that the birth of Christ is not  one small step for a local religion but a great leap  for all mankind. I love the way that traditionally the three wise men (or kings) are shown as representing the different races and cultures and languages of the world. I love the combination in their character of diligence and joy. They ‘seek diligently’, but they ‘rejoice with exceeding great joy’! I love the way they loved and followed a star, but didn’t stop at the star, but rather let the star lead them to something beyond itself. Surely that is a pattern for all wise contemplation of nature whether in art or science. The last line of this poem is a little nod in the direction of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses

This sonnet is drawn from my book Sounding the Seasons, which is available from Amazon etc or by order from your local bookshop, should you be lucky enough to have one.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or by clicking on the title of the poem which will take you to the audioboom page.

Epiphany

It might have been just someone else’s story,
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A  pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice.

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O Virgo Virginum: a new sonnet set and sung!

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgo Virginum

Three years ago I was asked by the Precentor of Wells Cathedral if I would write an extra 8th Antiphon sonnet to go with the special 8th O antiphon, O Virgo Virginum, which was used in English churches and Cathedrals in the middle ages, as distinct from the usual seven on the continent. He explained that the Cathedral was reviving this practice and as they were also using my other seven sonnets it would help to have an extra eighth sonnet for the eighth Antiphon. It had its debut at the Cathedral Advent Carol service on 27th November 2016 but I am happy to share it here on the day O Virgo was traditionally sung.

Reflecting on the Antiphon O Virgo Virginum, whose text you can read below, in English and in Latin, I was struck by the way it is about seeing and marvelling, about the transformative power of vision, but I was also struck by the presence of other women in the antiphon: the vision of Mary as a ‘maid amongst the maidens’, the invocation of the ‘daughters of Jerusalem’. As I reflected on that, I thought of all those ‘maidens’, young girls and women of our own times, who, like Mary, have become refugees, vulnerable like Mary, scorned, or falsely accused as she was, and I wanted to remember them in my sonnet and to think of Mary as especially the carer and advocate for exploited and vulnerable women.

Since last year this poem and the antiphon which inspired it have also been set to music  by David Solomons and performed by a choir in south Africa and you can watch and listen to a youtube recording of it here:

As usual you can also hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button below.

O Virgo Virginum

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?

For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.

Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?

The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Who are the daughters of Jerusalem,

Who glimpse you still as you transform their seeing?

Whom have you called to this mysterium,

And bathed in the blithe fountain of your being?

Daughters of sorrow, daughters of despair,

The cast-aside, the overlooked, the spurned

The broken girls who scarcely breathe a prayer

The ones whose love has never been returned.

O Maid amongst the maidens, turn your face,

For when we glimpse you we are not alone,

O look us out of grief and into grace,

Lift us in love made stronger than our own,

Summon the spring in our worst wilderness,

And make us fruitful in your fruitfulness.

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?

Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.

Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?

Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

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O Emmanuel; a final antiphon and more music

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson


In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,we come to the last of the Seven Great O Antiphons, which was sung on either side of the Magnificat on Christmas Eve, O Emmanuel, O God with us. This is the antiphon from which our lovely Advent hymn takes its name. It was also this final antiphon which revealed the secret message embedded subtly into the whole antiphon sequence. In each of these antiohons we have been calling on Him to come to us, to come as Light as Key, as King, as God-with-us. Now, standing on the brink of Christmas Eve, looking back at the illuminated capital letters for each of the seven titles of Christ we would see an answer to our pleas : ERO CRAS the latin words meaning ‘Tomorrow I will come!”

O Emmanuel

O Rex

O Oriens

O Clavis

O Radix

O Adonai

O Sapientia

I have also tried in my final sonnet to look back across the other titles of Christ, but also to look forward, beyond Christmas, to the new birth for humanity and for the whole cosmos, which is promised in the birth of God in our midst.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson. she Writes:

Within the ‘O’ I painted today there is a still point. Here the Virgin holds her Son Jesus, face to face. I imagine the sweet small breath of the newborn, the quickened little wick so tightly curled’, as he is held tenderly by his Mother, Mary.

The inspiration for this ink drawing came from a wood or lino cut. It is a simple image, quite different from the image of yesterday and reminds us to be simple when we come to God. How prepared are we to be emptied, to let go of our self stuffed fullness and cleverness? How radically are we willing to let God chisel off our pride so that we are open to the ‘Other’ who is God, who is our neighbour. Until we are emptied of our perceived ‘riches’ we will not be able to hear God or our neighbour who may be asking us for ‘spare change’, who may be from a different religious tradition, who may be our ‘enemy’. These are the thoughts I have as I look at this simple image. If we stubbornly cling to our own views and opinions, we can’t see a different perspective. Rumi, the Sufi poet says, ‘Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.’

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

Once More Jac Redford has kindly agreed to share the recording of his excellent setting of this sonnet, which you can find on his record Let beauty be our Memorial You can hear his setting here: 

The second ‘play’ button is the antiphon sung on either side of my reading of the poem.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

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O Rex Gentium a Sixth Advent Reflection

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson


In my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,The sixth great ‘O’ antiphon, O Rex Gentium, calls on Christ as King, yet also calls him corner stone and pictures him getting his hands dirty and shaping us with clay, wonderfully incongruous combination!  But he is the king who walks alongside us disguised in rags, the true Strider! In this Sonnet I also reflect on on how God shapes us through all that happens to us in our living clay. He hasn’t finished with us yet!  You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Linda Richardson for her book of responses to my book Waiting on the Word. Linda Writes:

The great ‘O’ of this poem spoke directly to me about prayer and meditation. We can only truly know God through love, and passion for God arises through prayer. When God takes hold of us we are expanded and broadened, and this expansion is always creative. It reveals the light beyond our darkness, the gold that gleams through our rags and the latent life within us. It is a burgeoning of praise and wonder from within us but this is all drawn out by God. Our part is to want God and to give to God whatever of our wills and time we can manage each day.

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle. You can also hear Jac Redford‘s beautiful setting of his poem here: 

 

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one

Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay

Here is my reading of the poem:
O Rex Gentium

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

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O Oriens A Fifth Advent reflection with music

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The fifth ‘great ‘O’ antiphon in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word calls on Christ as the ‘Oriens’, the Morning Star, the Dayspring, and it comes as an answer to the sense of darkness and captivity in the fourth antiphon, O Clavis‘ I find the idea of Christ as rising light in the East very moving, for he is Alpha, the ‘Beginning’. The Translation which gives ‘Dayspring’ for Oriens I especially love, both because ‘Dayspring’ suggests at one and the same time, both light and water, two primal goods in life which I love in combination, especially light reflected on water, and also because ‘Dayspring’ was the name of a ship my great grandfather built for Scottish missionaries and also the name of the little gaff cutter, from whose deck I saw the dawn rise after a long period of darkness. Many of these senses of ‘Dayspring’ are at play in the sonnet I have given below. I should also mention that the line from Dante means “I saw light in the form of a river’ another touchstone moment for me in the Paradiso You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

How often do you hear the word ‘Dayspring’ used in common parlance? It is such a beautiful word meaning ‘dawn’. Here it is in Luke 1:76-79: ‘And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways… whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (King James Version)

I laboured over this small painting using acrylic paint, ink and watercolour to try to get that ephemeral light that only a very few astronauts have ever seen with their own eyes. The great blue Earth turns away from the darkness of the void and is lit by the Sun, the archetype of God, and Malcolm’s poem is so full of expectant joy and peace – ‘the darkness was a dream’. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says, ‘ We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience’.

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

I am also glad that Jac Redford has given me permission to share his beautiful setting of this poem. So the first of the ‘play’ buttons below gives you JAC’s choral setting and the second gives you the plainsong antiphon, and me reading the poem.

O Oriens: 

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis

O Dayspring,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O Oriens

E vidi lume in forme de riviera Paradiso XXX; 61

First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water
As though behind the sky itself they traced

The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.

Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream…
So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling;
“Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking”.

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Oh Clavis; A Fourth Advent Antiphon Sonnet and Jac Redford’s music!

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The poem for today in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word is Oh Clavis, Oh Key!

Of all the mystic titles of Christ, this is the one that connects most closely with our ‘secular’ psychology. We speak of the need on the one hand for ‘closure’ and on the other for ‘unlocking’, for ‘opening’, for  ‘liberation’. The same ideas are also there in the lines from O Come O Come Emmanuel that are drawn from this antiphon, which could easily be part of anybody’s work in good therapy:

“Make safe the way that leads on high,

and close the path to misery.”

I see this antiphon, and the sonnet I wrote in response  to it, as the ‘before’ picture that precdes the beautiful fifth antiphon O Oriens about Christ as the Dayspring and  when l wrote this sonnet I found that I had at last written something clear about my own experience of depression. I hope that others who have been in that darkness will find it helpful.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. she Writes:

As I made this drawing, the words ‘huddled in misery’, were my starting point. The figure sits in something like a cave, but if the figure would only turn towards us, it would be able to rise, step through the doorway of the ‘O’ and walk free. Instead the poor naked figure hides its face and covers its head in shame. We can spend years ‘huddled in misery’ forbidding ourselves the freedom we crave, literally being miserly because we are captive to a way of thinking that has imprisoned us. We believe we can only be loved if we are perfect, or at least a lot better than we are, but a key only opens. It takes our action to walk out.

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

I am delighted to say that the composer Jac Redford, who set all these antiphon sonnets to music on his excellent CD ‘Let Beauty be our Memorial’ has kindly given permission for me to share those recordings with you. Here are the first four including today’s:

O Sapientia:

O Adonai: 

O Radix: 

O Clavis: 

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Clavis

Even in the darkness where I sit
And huddle in the midst of misery
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intricate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard,
Particular, exact and intimate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
I cry out for the key I threw away
That turned and over turned with certain touch
And with the lovely lifting of a latch
Opened my darkness to the light of day.
O come again, come quickly, set me free
Cut to the quick to fit, the master key.

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O Radix, A Third Advent Reflection and Sonnet

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The third Advent antiphon,in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word,  O Radix, calls on Christ as the root, an image I find particularly compelling and helpful. The collect is referring to the image of he ‘tree of Jesse the family tree which leads to David, and ultimately to Christ as the ‘son of David, but for me the title radix, goes deeper, as a good root should. It goes deep down into the ground of our being, the good soil of creation. God in Christ, is I believe, the root of all goodness, wherever it is found and in whatsoever culture, or with whatever names it fruits and flowers, a sound tree cannot bear bad fruit said Christ, who also said, I am the vine, you are the branches. I have tried to express some of my feelings for Christ as root and vine more elliptically in my song the Green Man, but here I do it more directly in my sonnet on the third advent antiphon. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She Writes:

This is the last of my attempts with the Chinese brush, but once again the original text is visible behind the great ’O’. Malcolm invites us to imagine the Root of Jesse as ‘the stock and stem of every living thing whom once we worshipped in the sacred grove’, and I wonder if you too hear our ancestors, calling us back to a vision of the earth as being our sacred home. I hear an invitation to reconnect to our roots, to know ourselves as part of the great Creation.

 

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

Tree of jese

the tree of Jesse a carving in the Louvre

O Radix

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing
as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer

O Radix

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,

Rose from a root invisible to all.

We knew the virtues once of every weed,

But, severed from the roots of ritual,

We surf the surface of a wide-screen world

And find no virtue in the virtual.

We shrivel on the edges of a wood

Whose heart we once inhabited in love,

Now we have need of you, forgotten Root

The stock and stem of every living thing

Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,

For now is winter, now is withering

Unless we let you root us deep within,

Under the ground of being, graft us in.

 

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O Adonai, a second Advent reflection and sonnet

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson


The second of the Advent Antiphons,in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, O Adonai, touches on the ancient title of  God himself, who was called Adonai, Lord, because his sacred name, the four letters known as ‘The Tetragramaton’, could not be uttered by unworthy human beings without blasphemy. But the Advent Hope, indeed, the Advent miracle was that this unknowable, un-namable, utterly holy Lord, chose out of His own free will and out of love for us, to be known, to bear a name, and to meet us where we are. The antiphon touches on the mysterious and awesome manifestations of God on the mountain in the sign of the burning bush. For early Christians this bush, full of he fire of God yet still itself and unconsumed, was a sign of the Lord Christ who would come, filled with God and yet in mortal flesh unconsumed. I have tried to pick up on some of these themes in the sonnet I wrote in response to this antiphon. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. she writes:

O Adonai! This is the plural of the word Adon, meaning Lord or Master. These wonderful ‘O’ antiphons surge into our Advent consciousness, bringing with them all the weight of our Christian tradition. The joy of what is coming resounds in our ears as it has done for Christians down the centuries, connecting us with those who first encountered YHWH, those early tribal refugees in Egypt.

Keeping tradition in mind you will see behind the ‘O’ the Latin plainsong and I imagine that it is still chanted in many places.

You can find you can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,

qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,

et ei in Sina legem dedisti:

veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,

who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm

O Adonai

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,

Unseeable, you gave yourself away,

The Adonai, the Tetragramaton

Grew by a wayside in the light of day.

O you who dared to be a tribal God,

To own a language, people and a place,

Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,

If so you might be met with face to face,

Come to us here, who would not find you there,

Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,

Who heard no more than thunder in the air,

Who marked the mere events and not the myth.

Touch the bare branches of our unbelief

And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

For a wonderful site about the Advent Antiphons and the wisdom of the meadiaeval mystics see Julia Bolton Holloway’s great site Umilita

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