John 12 1-8, which was also set for Passion Sunday this year, tells us of how Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus. I love this intense and beautiful moment in the Gospels, The God of the Cosmos enters as a vulnerable man into all the particular fragility of our human friendships and intimacy. I love the way Jesus responds to Mary’s beautiful, useless gesture and recognises it as something that is always worth while, something that will live forever, for all the carping and criticism of Judas, then and now.
This sonnet, and the others I will be posting for Holy Week are all 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. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these 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.
I’m grateful to Lancia Smith for the image above. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
Come close with Mary, Martha , Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,
The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.
As we continue our pilgrimage together through Lent, using my book The Word in the Wilderness I am once again posting recordings of me reading all of this week’s poems together with the texts of the poems themselves.
The image above is once again kindly provided by Lancia Smith
Now, in Passiontide, Christ becomes all the more visibly, our companion. We walk with him and see him face and overcome our own worst fears, we see him take on, in us and for us, the pain the frailty, the fear the failure, and the death itself that haunt and shadow our life. We stay with him through his Good Friday as he stays with us through ours, so that when Easter dawns we also share with him, and he bestows abundantly on us, the new life and light which death can never overcome and swallow for it, indeed has overcome and swallowed up death. In this section we will pay particular attention to Gethsemane and the agony in the garden, through a sequence of four linked poems, starting with Herbert’s poem ‘The Agony’, and moving then to Rowan Williams’ poem ‘Gethsemane’ which has the same setting and draws on Herbert’s poem. This is followed by two Hopkins’ poems that also seem to be in close contact with the Rowan Williams poem. All four poems turn on the press and pressure, of Gethsemane understood as an oil press, releasing God’s mercy into the world.
But we begin, on Sunday with Edwin Muir’e beautiful poem The Incarnate One
Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?
Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.
Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.
The reading set for this Sunday, the last before Lent, is Luke 9:28-36, the story of the Transfiguration, so I am posting again my sonnet on the Transfiguration for anyone who might like to read or make use of it in preparation for Sunday.
Although the Feast of the Transfiguration itself falls in August, I think that just before Lent is a good time for us to glimpse it too. I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ the disciples saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain them through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced this poem.
I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by some brilliant artist’s and photographers, and you may like to know that there is a Facebook group which has galleries of images inspired by my poems, you can find it by clicking on this link: ‘Sounding the Sonnets’. The painting above is artist Rebecca Merry‘s response to the poem. Rebecca is well known for her paintings in egg tempora and in responding to this ‘iconic’ moment in the life of Christ she has drawn on her training in icon painting. She writes:
I wanted to stay with the idea of the circle for an important event in the life of Christ, and the theme of cycle and circle that is a theme of your book – the changing of the seasons, the unchanging nature of God. Underneath is the circle and the cross, a symbol also in Egyptian hieroglyphs of the city but of course the cross (or crucifix) is the meeting point of two worlds, heaven and earth, and the division of the upper circle as light and the lower as dark also symbolises this. The red is a recurrent themes of all the illustrations but here it implies Christ’s blood (and sacrifice) but also the life blood and life giver that God/Christ is to us all, giving light to the world.
The photograph which appears after the poem is by the Photographer Margot Krebs Neale. Margot has responded to the idea in the poem that the light of transfiguration is also kindled in us a response to Christ’s light. She writes:
As a person and as a photographer I so wish I could catch “the Love that dances at the heart of things”, and to have seen it not its reflection but the very Love in a human face…Imagine.
Well it was immediately clear I could not count on my work. But then, the light in us that leaps to that light, that trembles and tingles through the tender skin, I believe I witness that.
I am not sure what brought this smile on my friend’s face but I believe it had to do with her being seen, valued, loved. A camera is a light-box, and if I concentrate on them some people feel that it is their light and the light which I try to crystallise and they let them shine together.
I am very grateful to both of them. As always please feel free to copy or use the poem in prayer or liturgy; you can hear me read the poem by pressing the ‘play’ button or clicking on its title.
For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
The 25th of January is the day the Church keeps the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. However often told or re-told, it is still an astonishing story. That Saul, the implacable enemy of Christianity, who came against the faith ‘breathing threats and slaughter’, should be chosen by God to be Christianity’s greatest proponant and apostle is just the first of a series of dazzling and life-changing paradoxes that flow from Paul’s writing. At the heart of these is the revelation of God’s sheer grace; finding the lost, loving the violent into light, and working everything through the very weakness of those who love him. Here’s a sonnet celebrating just a little of what I glimpse in the great Apostle.
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. This coming Sunday, 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. He has written a fascinating blog post about writing that song here: Steve Bell on his song.
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 Steve Bell’s amazing album Keening for the Dawn in which he reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song Keening for the Dawn
You can hear the song itself on sound loud here:
The poem I have chosen for December 17th in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, is my own sonnet O Sapientia, the first in a sequence of seven sonnets on the seven ‘great O’ antiphons which I shall be reading to you each day between now and the 23rd of December. 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 Waiting on the Word.
My response to the sonnet, ‘O Sapientia’, is a great ‘O’ of my own. The back ground of the painting is a photo transfer of a sheet of plainsong that the monks will sing every year at this time in Advent. I gave that a wash of gesso, and using a Chinese brush made a very energetic sweep in black ink and added some red too. Around the outside and inside I wrote out the words in Latin and in English, which are quite beautiful.
O Wisdom coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things. Come and teach us the way of Prudence (Wisdom). The words of this antiphon have a powerfully uplifting effect on me.
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
In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah, calling to him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key O Light! come to us! This is the first of them
Also check out the wonderful resources on the Advent Antiphons and aother mediaeval Wisdom on Julia Holloway’s beautiful website The Great O Antiphons
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
St. John of the Cross also has his day in dark December, just the day after St. Lucy in fact. So I am posting this ‘extra’ reflection and poem which I composed after Waiting on the Word was published, so it wasn’t included in my Advent Sequence.
John of the Cross is the saint who, more than any other, understood and dealt with the darkness that sometimes comes upon us, the saint who gave us the phrase ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. He encountered darkness not only spiritually and psychologically, but actually: both physical darkness and the darkness of human evil when he was imprisoned in a dark dungeon by fellow Christians and indeed, members of his own order! But he did not give in to darkness, rather he perceived that it might become fruitful, the darkness not of evil but of God, that the way down might become the way up, that hidden even in the deepest darkness was the promise of that light which the darkness can never overcome. So he wrote that beautiful poem ‘Although it is the Night’, which Seamus Heaney translated so movingly, opening with the line:
How well I know that fountain, filling., running,
Although it is the night.
The other deep element in his writing is the way he understands Christ as our true lover and is able to draw on the deepest language of human loving to give voice to his intimate relationship with Christ.
I have drawn on ‘Although it is the Night’, poem and on some of the elements in his story and his spiritual writings in making the following sonnet in his honour. My sonnet also reflects on the fact that his day falls in Advent when we are all waiting in Darkness for the coming of God’s marvellous light.
This sonnet has now been collected and published by Canterbury Press in my new book Parable and Paradox. As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play button’. There is a very fine meditation on St. John of the Cross and a song to go with it on Steve Bell‘s lovely Advent book in his Pilgrim year series which you can find Here