Tag Archives: Sonnets

Nathanael’s Epiphany

You will see the Heaven opened

The Gospel reading for this second Sunday of Epiphany (John 1:43-51) takes us to one of the most mysterious and beautiful moments in the New Testament. As the disciples begin to gather around Jesus, Philip finds Nathanael and says “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45) Nathanael’s unpromising response is ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Nathanael is not alone in having this kind of bigoted and prejudiced attitude to ‘other’ places and people, as we have seen from the recent shameful outburst by the president of a great nation, but Phillip gives the best possible reply that anyone sharing the mystery of their faith can give; ‘Come and see’. and that ‘come and see’ sets a theme of ‘seeing’ and vision which culminates in the amazing exchange between Nathanael and Jesus that follows.

Before Nathanael has uttered a word Jesus says ‘Behold an Israelite indeed’ and turns the tables of ‘vision’ onto Nathanael himself, and in that moment Nathanael suddenly knows that he is ompletely known by this man he has never met. ‘Whence knowest thou me?’ he asks, and Jesus’ reply is again about vision and seeing: ‘Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.’  Something amazing happens here, Nathan, who was scoffing at Nazareth a minute before, has a sudden leap of understanding, outpacing reason or teaching, leaping ahead of all the other disciples to an undertanding and certainty that even Peter would not attain for another three years, and declares ‘Rabbi thou art the Son of God, thou art the king of Israel!’

An Epiphany has taken place, something whole and complete has been disclosed in a single glance, to see and be seen is enough! This is an example in the Gospel of a sudden ‘awakening’, a direct pointing to reality, which some people think is only associated with Buddhism, but here it is. And then Jesus, alluding subtly to Nathanael’s mention of Israel, promises that this is just the beginning of a greater epiphany. Nathanael is ‘an Israelite indeed’ and Jesus points to the key epiphany in the life of Israel, when he was still called Jacob, the epiphany in which he saw the ladder connecting heaven and earth:

‘Verily, verily I say unto you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man’

Here is one of those thrilling moments when a mysterious image from the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New! The ladder was a prophetic image given in a dream to Jacob of what is to come, now it has come true! I am the ladder, Jesus is saying, the true connection, the true gate of Heaven. And in this intimate exchange Nathanael has seen with his waking eyes what his ancestor had seen only veiled in dream and symbol!

I have tried to embody something of these reflections in the following sonnet. I am grateful again for Margot Kreb’s Neale’s beautiful photograph, itself a comentary on this same mystery. The poem itself is from my collection Sounding the Seasons, published by Canterbury Press and available on Amazon or from your local bookshop. As always you can hear this poem by clicking on the ‘play’ buton or on the title.

Nathanael’s Epiphany

A fugitive and exile, Jacob slept,
A man of clay, his head upon a stone
And even in his sleep his spirit wept
He lay down lonely and would wake alone.
But in the night he dreamt the Heavens parted
And glimpsed, in glory, as from Heaven’s core,
A ladder set for all the broken-hearted
And earth herself becoming Heaven’s door.

And when the nameless Angel named him Israel
He kept this gift, whose depth he never knew;
The promise of an end to all our exile,
For now a child of Israel finds it true,
And sees the One who heals the deep heart’s aching
As Jacob’s dream becomes Nathanael’s waking.

And here also is a link to the podcast of a sermon inspired by this story and concluding with this poem:

Jacob, Nathanael and You

An extraordinary Sculpture of Jacob’s Dream at Abilene Christian University, Texas.

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In Praise Of Decay (and against plastic)

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge

Once again our headlines and our conversation have turned to the scourge of discarded plastic packaging and bottles, littering our landscape and choking our oceans. The question is whether we have the collective will to do something about it.

I am reposting this cri-de-coeur from three years ago, the poem ‘In Praise of Decay’ has now been published in my book Parable and Paradox:

I walk each morning in some woodland near my home and especially savour in this late autumn, early winter season, the damp carpet of fallen leaves, now decaying and forming  rich mulch that will feed the soil for future growth. Even in their decay, losing edge and shape, melding and blending together there is in this carpet of leaves, a kind of grace and beauty. The other morning though, these meditations were interrupted by a sudden intrusion. There amongst the gold and mottled leaf mould, like some harsh alien excrescence, was a discarded plastic bag. It was totally out of place and told its own tale of indifference and carelessness; not just the carelessness of the person that dropped it, but the carelessness of the culture that produced it. The trees shed their leaves, and in that fall and letting go  achieve a new grace, the leaves themselves let go of shape and colour and in that change and decay become something rich and nurturing. That plastic bag will just persist in unchanging ugliness, and we who make and discard that plastic will continue to be maimed and made ugly by our accumulations, we who might have learned from the trees something about the grace of  diminishment and renewal.

But the plastic in our lives does much worse than just disfigure the occasional patch of woodland, it literally chokes the life out of other living things and then returns, in the food chain, to poison us from within. The morning’s Guardian has a harrowing piece about how prevalent and deadly discarded plastic is in the world’s oceans. you can read that here. One of the most distressing consequences of this plastic accumulating in the seas is being fed to young albatrosses by their parents as a result of which the birds, their bellies full of indigestible plastic cannot retain enough real food and starve to death. This has been chronicled with great power and pathos by Seattle Photographer Chris Jordan, one of whose pictures I have included after the poem. You can read more about that and see his film about it Here.  As so often, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was prophetic when he made the destruction of an albatross a sign of our wanton indifference to other life and our disturbance of a balance in nature which will eventually wreak havoc on us.

My morning walk, and the wider awareness of the damage caused by plastic’s bleak persistence led me to write this sonnet in praise of decay and praying for a return to older and wiser ways of living. As usual you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title. Do feel free to share this with other people.

In praise of decay

So much is deadly in the shiny new,

Persistent plastic choking out our life,

The landfill of each ego’s empty stuff,

Where poison and possession still accrue.

So praise Him in the old and mouldering,

In pale gold leaf-fall losing shape and edge,

In mottled compost rustling and rich,

From which the stuff of life is still unfolding.

 

Change and decay is what our plastic needs

To break the bleak persistence of our waste.

Pray that we learn the lost arts of our past,

The arts of letting go and sowing seeds,

That secrets of the lowly and the least

Might save us from the dreadful things that last.

 

 Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan's bleak picture


Persistent plastic choking out our life Chris Jordan’s bleak picture

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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 and I am posting this sonnet of mine as a little extra in addition to the extracts from my Advent anthology Waiting on the Word which I have been posting each day.

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 audioboo 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

I have already posted a Christina Rosetti poem for Christmas Eve, but here, also, is one of my own that perhaps suits both the 4th Sunday in Advent and Christmas eve, which fall on the same day this year! Last year 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 a new one. It had its debut at the Cathedral Advent Carol service on 27th November 2016 but I am happy to share it here on Christmas Eve.

Reflecting on the Antiphon itself 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: 

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:

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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