Tag Archives: spirituality

Week 5: prayer that pierces

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

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

The Incarnate One   Edwin Muir

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,

And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.

I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,

Christ, man and creature in their inner day.

How could our race betray

The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake

Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?


The Word made flesh here is made word again

A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.

See there King Calvin with his iron pen,

And God three angry letters in a book,

And there the logical hook

On which the Mystery is impaled and bent

Into an ideological argument.


There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,

And truer sight was theirs outside the Law

Who saw the far side of the Cross among

The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,

In ignorant wonder saw

The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,

Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.


The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,

Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,

The auguries say, the white and black and brown,

The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all

Invisibly will fall:

Abstract calamity, save for those who can

Build their cold empire on the abstract man.


A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown

Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well

The bloodless word will battle for its own

Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.

The generations tell

Their personal tale: the One has far to go

Past the mirages and the murdering snow.




Golgotha   John Heath-Stubbs


In the middle of the world, in the centre

Of the polluted heart of man, a midden;

A stake stemmed in the rubbish


From lipless jaws, Adam’s skull

Gasped up through the garbage:

‘I lie in the discarded dross of history,

Ground down again to the red dust,

The obliterated image. Create me.’

From lips cracked with thirst, the voice

That sounded once over the billows of chaos

When the royal banners advanced,

replied through the smother of dark:

‘All is accomplished, all is made new, and look-

All things, once more, are good.’

Then, with a loud cry, exhaled His spirit.




The Agony   George Herbert


Philosophers have measur’d mountains,

Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states and kings;

Walk’d with a staff to heav’n and traced fountains:

But there are two vast, spacious thins,

The which to measure it doth more behove;

Yet few there are that sound them, ‒ Sin and Love.


Who would know Sin, let him repair

Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see

A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,

His skin, His garments bloody be.

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.


Who knows not Love, let him assay

And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike

Did set again abroach; then let him say

If ever he did taste the like,

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.




Gethsemane   Rowan Williams

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.




I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day   G. M. Hopkins

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament

Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent

To dearest him that lives alas! away.


I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.




God’s Grandeur   G. M. Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs ‒

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.




Love’s as warm as tears   C. S. Lewis

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Seven Whole Days: The Seventh Day; Blessing and Rest

This is the gift you give, the day you bring
blessing and rest

Here is the last in my little round of seven Roundels for the primal week in Genesis Chapter One. Today we enter the Sabbath, the blessed rest in which God contemplates his own creation with delight and love and pronounces it good, a sabbath which he also graciously invites us to share with him. Sabbath is always a sheer gift whenever and wherever we keep it, a gift more and more need in our pressurised 24/7 world. So here is my roundel celebrating that blessing and rest. as before it is preceded by the verses in Genesis ( in this case chapter 2 verses 1-3) that inspired it and, as before, you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the Roman Numeral.

The Canadian artist Faye Hall has made a beautiful sequence of 63 paintings responding to my Seven Whole Days Sequence and we have published it as a book, which you can purchase from her web site here  or, in the uk from Amazon Here.  Faye has kindly allowed ne to include with each poem one or two of the paintings from the book, to give you a taste of it, and you can see these paintings for yourself at the MHC Gallery in Winnipeg from 16th March to 5th of May. I will be at the gallery on 15th April for a special book signing and launch event, full details here

These poems were originally published in ‘Parable and Paradox’   Canterbury Press in the summer of 2016

Chapter 2:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.

And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.



Blessing and rest, delight in everything

Sustained by your strong love and richly blest,

This is the the gift you give, the day you bring

Blessing and rest.


This is indeed the ‘gladness of the best’,

From first lines in the east where linnets sing,

To where the last light lingers in the west,


You lift the cares to which I used to cling,

As you yourself descend to be my guest

And show me how to find in everything

Blessing and rest.

to where the last light lingers in the west


Filed under christianity, imagination, Poems

Apostle! -a sonnet for St. Paul

Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany

Conversion of Saint Paul Artist Unknown Niedersaechsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, Germany

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.

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 viaAmazon, and I am vey happy to say that both this and my other poetry books The Singing bowl  and Parable and Paradox are now available in North America from Steve Bell who has a good supply in stock. His page for my books is HERE

As always you can hear the poem by clicking n the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title of the poem.


An enemy whom God has made a friend,

A righteous man discounting righteousness,

Last to believe and first for God to send,

He found the fountain in the wilderness.

Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,

A prisoner who set his captors free,

A naked man with love his only garment,

A blinded man who helped the world to see,

A Jew who had been perfect in the law,

Blesses the flesh of every other race

And helps them see what the apostles saw;

The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.

Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,

And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.

Caravaggio: The Conversion of St. Paul


Filed under christianity, Poems, Theology and Arts

O Sapientia an Advent Antiphon

Image by Linda richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The poem I have chosen for December 17th in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting 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.

Linda writes:

If you have never heard Malcolm talking about the O antiphons you are missing a treat. You can hear a recording of him speaking at St Paul’s Cathedral here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_w8ey2q28ZY&t=74s.

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

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
Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

O Sapientia

I cannot think unless I have been thought,

Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.

I cannot teach except as I am taught,

Or break the bread except as I am broken.

O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,

O Light within the light by which I see,

O Word beneath the words with which I speak,

O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,

O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,

O Memory of time, reminding me,

My Ground of Being, always grounding me,

My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,

Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,

Come to me now, disguised as everything.


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Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Meditation, Poems

Launde Abbey on Saint Lucy’s Day

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

December 13th is St. Lucy’s day and the poem I have chosen in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, is ‘Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s Day’. I wrote this poem whilst leading an Advent retreat at Launde Abbey, a beautiful place hidden away in the soft folds of Leicestershire. This particular morning, on Saint Lucy’s day, whose brief brightness is dedicated to the martyr saint who found the true dayspring and whose name means light, I walked in the abbey grounds. As I watched the bright low winter sun rise dazzling through the bare bleak leafless trees and light at last the Abbey’s sunken rose garden this sonnet came to me.You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above, which anticipates the ‘great ‘O’ Advent antiphons, was created by Linda Richardson in her book of artwork responses to Waiting on the Word.

Linda Writes:

I made this great ‘O’ on St Lucy’s, as a foretaste of the ‘O Antiphons’ that will begin on the 17th. Here in the dark days of winter Malcolm describes a frozen pond, winter skies and ‘frosty light that yet recalls the glory of the summer…’ The ground of the painting is a chilling white and blue, the ‘O’ is frosted with streaks of white but there is too, beneath the layers of paint and gleaming through, a recollection of summer light, even though ‘winter night will soon surround us here…’.

Nothing much is happening in this painting just as it seems that nothing much happens in the dead of winter or in the dark night of the soul. It is at such times that we might discover with a great ‘Oh’,that it is Jesus who is praying within us, Jesus who understands, and that the song of His love for the Father can always be heard within us, even in the dark depths of winter.


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

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s day


St. Lucy’s day is brief and bright with frost,

In round cupped dew ponds shallow waters freeze,

Delicate fronds and rushes are held fast,

The low sun brings a contrast to the trees

Whose naked branches, dark against the skies

And fringed with glory by the light behind,

In patterns too severe for tired eyes,

Burn their bright beauty on the weary mind.

Saint Lucy’s sun still bathes these abbey walls

And in her garden rose stalks stark and bare

Shine in a frosty light that yet recalls

The glory of the summer roses there.

Though winter night will soon surround us here,

Another Advent comes, Dayspring is near.


Filed under imagination, literature

A Rondeau for Leonard Cohen

You chant again the telling charm

You chant again the telling charm

Today, on the anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s death I am reposting the poem I composed for him last year.

King David is the archetypal sacred singer, the psalmist in whom and through whom every passion can be lifted into poetry, and lifted through that poetry to God. His psalms sound Praise and Lament together, the wounds and glories of Eros and the wounds and glories of  Agape. It has often seemed to me that Leonard Cohen was a latter day David, as he too addressed the Lord and said

‘From this broken hill,

all your praises they shall ring

if it be your will

to let me sing.

I composed this poem about his passing in the mediaeval Rondeau form. The Rondeau is also the form used in the poem In Flanders Field and it seems a fitting form for this occasion. As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the play button.

This poem, originally posted on this blog last year, was published in February of this year in The Christian Century.

A Rondeau for Leonard Cohen


Like David’s psalm you named our pain,

And left us. But the songs remain

To search our wounds and bring us balm,

Till every song becomes a psalm,

And your restraint is our refrain;


Between the stained-glass and the stain,

The dark heart and the open vein,

Between the heart-storm and the harm,

Like David’s psalm.


I see you by the windowpane,

Alive within your own domain,

The light is strong, the seas are calm,

You chant again the telling charm,

That names, and naming, heals our pain,

Like David’s psalm.


Filed under Music, Poems

Hildegard of Bingen: A Sonnet

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

Tending the tree of Life by Hildegard of Bingen

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. Appropriately for Hildegard’s day, I will be taking part in a service at Ely Cathedral this evening at 6:30pm called Dark Reflections: Poetry Environment and Lament

Do come along if you can.

The photo below is by Margot Krebs Neale

I wrote this sonnet at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire where I shall be giving an Advent retreat next year. It is published in my new volume of poetry The Singing Bowl, Canterbury Press,  available on Amazon in both the US and the UK

As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the play button or the title.

Hildegard of Bingen

A feather on the breath of God at play,

You saw the play of God in all creation.

You drew eternal light into each day,

And every living breath was inspiration.

You made a play with every virtue playing,

Made music for each sister-soul to sing,

Listened for what each herb and stone was saying,

And heard the Word of God in everything.


Mother from mother earth and Magistra, 

Your song revealed God’s hidden gift to us;

The verdant fire, his holy harbinger

The greening glory of viriditas.

‘Cherish this earth that keeps us all alive’

Either we hear you, or we don’t survive.


Photo by Margot Krebs Neale

Photo by Margot Krebs Neale


Filed under christianity, Poems