Tag Archives: spirituality

On Reading the Commedia 6: Dancing Through the Fire

Botticelli illustrates Purgatorio 27, Dancing through the Fire Botticelli illustrates Purgatorio 27, Dancing through the Fire

‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated sprit proceeds/ unless restored by that refining fire/ where you must move in measure like a dancer’

These words from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding have always struck a chord with me. They allude, of course, to the moment near the end of the Purgatorio when the pilgrims ascend towards the Earthly Paradise, the garden of our origins and of our restored humanity, at the summit of the Holy Mountain. But Eden is surrounded by a circle of fire. The poet-pilgrims must pass through that fire, in which the last of love’s imperfections will be purified. Desire for the beloved must be redeemed from the possessive  lust which makes a person an object, and restored to that wholeness of love in which the beloved is desired and loved, body and soul, for herself as  person. It is only when Virgil reminds Dante that his beloved Beatrice is waiting for him beyond the fire that he has the courage to enter the flame.

This episode has engaged my life and writing in various ways over the years and it is the title and subject of my most recent cd Dancing Through the Fire. Now I engage with it again as part of this sequence, in the terza rima that Dante used for his great poem.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button and I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the image which illustrates and interprets the poem at the bottom of this page

Dancing Through The Fire

‘per te poeta fui, per te Christiano‘  ( purg 22:73)

Then stir my love in idleness to flame

To find  at last the free refining fire

That guards the hidden garden whence I came.

O do not kill, but quicken my desire

Better to spur me on than leave me cold.

Not maimed I come to you, I come entire

Lit by  the loves that warm, the lusts that scald

That you may prove the one, reprove the other,

Though both have been the strength by which I scaled

The steps so far to come where poets gather

And sing such songs as love gives them to sing.

I thank God for the ones who brought me hither

And taught me by example how to bring

The slow growth of a poem to fruition

And let it be itself, a living thing,

Taught me to trust the gifts of intuition

And still to try the tautness of each line,

Taught me to taste the grace of transformation

And trace in dust the face of the Divine,

Taught me the truth, as poet and as Christian ,

That drawing water turns it into wine.

Now I am drawn through their imagination

To dare to dance with them into the fire,

Harder than any grand renunciation,

To bring to Christ the heart of my desire

Just as it is in every imperfection

Surrendered to his sharp refiners fire

That love might have Its death and resurrection.

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DSC04828refiners fire

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On Reading the Commedia 5: Love-in-Idlness

Dante meets Belaqua from a Bodleian Maanuscript

Dante meets Belaqua from a Bodleian Manuscript

As he begins his ascent of the Holy Mountain, Dante runs into, indeed nearly trips over, an old friend called Belaqua, a Florentine lute-maker and musician. Dante is delighted to see him there as one of the redeemed, since in Florence he seemed, as many musicians seem to their friends now, to spend alot of his time just ‘hanging out’ with other musicians and not getting on with anything in particular. Then Dante is disturbed to notice that that is exactly what Belaqua still seems to be doing on the Holy Mountain, just lounging around, until Belaqua explains that this is actually his penance! He is obliged to hang around waiting for the exact amount of time he wasted on earth, before he can begin his true his ascent. What was previously just ‘time wasting’ is now being converted by grace into ‘otium sacrum’ that holy leisure, that pause and patience, that long wait in which at last we let God be God. It’s no wonder that Samuel Becket, who was to invest so much imagination into what it means to wait, was very drawn to this passage and that the hero of his semi-autobiographical short stories is called Belaqua. I wrote this poem over thirty years ago, influenced as much by Becket as by Dante, towards the end of an apparently fruitless period of lostness and indolence. Placing it now in this new sequence is itself a parable of what I understand redemption to be.

As usual you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title, and I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the lovely interpretative image which follows the poem

Love In Idleness

When I am bogged in indolence again

It’s purgatory for me, as for Belaqua,

Hanging around instead of getting on

With his salvation.  I can’t lift a finger.

The snow is falling heavily outside.

The earth gets lighter as the sky gets darker.

I shiver where I’m sitting (window wide

for snow-flakes to drop in and fade away)

And hide myself in something else’s hide.

Coat panther-black and shabby hat wolf-grey,

As my numb fingers wrap about my pen,

all I need is fire and something to say.

Belaqua’s lute speaks with the tongues of men,

The tongue-tied mind is loosened into praise

I slip the disc back in its sleeve again.

One side is columns stiff with turgid prose

About the quattrocento.  On the other

A sound-box holds the craftsman’s fretted rose

With Florence in the background.  What a cover

For the God who spoke through someone else’s fingers

When ours were still entwined with one another.

ages ago we heard the music linger

before this light had lost its  radiance

And cast on love the shadow of our Hunger;

We spoke of free-will and of innocence

And trod the pavements of the fourth cornice

Where Love is to be purged of indolence.

I write these verses pending my release

I write these verses pending my release.

I write these verses pending my release.

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On Reading The Commedia 2: Through the Gate

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

Dante and Virgil at the Gate by William Blake

Continuing my contribution to the Dante 700 celebrations,Today I am posting the second, ‘Through the Gate.’ Here is the commentary with which I introduced it in The Word in the wilderness and then the poem itself:

So Dante begins again, accompanied by Virgil and they come to the very gate of Hell, with its famous inscription ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’! But they don’t abandon hope, and that is the whole point. It is hope that leads and draws them on, hope inspired by love. For Virgil has revealed to Dante that it is Beatrice, the woman with whom he had fallen so completely in love as a young man, now in the bliss of Heaven, who has herself ‘ventured down the dark descent’ (to borrow Milton’s phrase) to find Virgil and ask for his help in rescuing Dante, so that she and Dante can meet again and rise together through the spheres of Heaven. Like Jesus, who went to the cross, not for pain in itself, but ‘for the joys that were set before him’, so we are to make this journey through the memories of pain and darkness, not to stay with these things but to redeem them and move beyond them. And the journey is itself made possible because Christ himself has gone before. ‘He descended into Hell.’ Throughout the journey into the Inferno we are shown signs that Christ has been this way before and broken down the strongholds. Dante is here alluding to one of the great lost Christian stories, which we need to recover today; ‘The Harrowing of Hell’. We, who build so many Hells on earth, need to know that there is no place so dark, no situation so seemingly hopeless, that cannot be opened to the light of Christ for rescue and redemption.

This is the theme I have born in mind in the following poem, which is my own ‘reader response’ to Dante’s journey. Throughout I have been mindful that the Inferno is really ‘in here and right now’ not ‘out there and back then’, and emphatically not, if we trust in Christ, some inevitable end awaiting us. In that knowledge we must have the courage to expose our own personal Hell’s to Christ and let him harrow them with us, and that is precisely what Dante’s great poem allows us to do. The great statesman and Dante enthusiast, W. E. Gladstone said: ‘The reading of Dante is not merely a pleasure, a tour de force, or a lesson; it is a vigorous discipline for the heart, the intellect, the whole man’.

For all of us, somewhere within, there is a threshold or a gate beyond which we feel we dare not go, but it is sometimes just past that threshold that our real healing and restoration needs to take place. Sometimes the best way to get through that gate, and let Christ in, is in a companioned inner journey, with a trusted ‘soul friend’, a spiritual director, or a priest to whom we can make confession in complete confidence. I have deliberately echoed the phrase, from the form of confession ‘All I cannot call to mind’ as a way of suggesting that this journey with Dante down the dark spirals; one sin leading to another, one wound inflicting the next, can itself be an invitation to confession, and so to absolution and release.

This poem is  from my collection The Singing Bowl  published by Canterbury Press and is also available on Amazon here

As before, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

Through the Gate

Begin the song exactly where you are

For where you are contains where you have been

And holds the vision of your final sphere

And do not fear the memory of sin;

There is a light that heals, and, where it falls,

Transfigures and redeems the darkest stain

Into translucent colour. Loose the veils

And draw the curtains back, unbar the doors,

Of that dread threshold where your spirit fails,

The hopeless gate that holds in all the  fears

That haunt your shadowed city, fling it wide

And open to the light that finds and fares

Through the dark pathways  where you run and  hide,

through all the alleys of your riddled heart,

As pierced and open as His wounded side.

Open the map to Him and make a start,

And down the dizzy spirals, through the dark

His light will go before you, let Him chart

And name and heal. Expose the hidden ache

To him, the stinging fires and smoke that blind

Your judgement, carry you away, the mirk

And muted gloom in which you cannot find

The love that you once thought worth dying for.

Call Him to all you cannot call to mind

He comes to harrow Hell and now to your

Well guarded fortress let His love descend.

The icy ego at your frozen core

Can hear His call at last. Will you respond?

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A Sonnet on the Transfiguration

Transfiguration by Rebecca Merry

I have been absent for a little as I am in the midst of moving house and have no internet, but I am now at a retreat house and can post, rather late, for the feast of the transfiguration, courtesy of their wifi!

I return to my series of sonnets ‘Sounding the Seasons’ of the Church’s year, to share a sonnet about the Transfiguration, when we remember how the disciples, even before they went to Jerusalem to face his trials with him, had a glimpse of Christ in his true glory. The Transfiguration is usually celebrated on August 6th, but is also sometimes remembered on this Sunday before Lent, which is a good time for it too, as I believe the glimpse of glory in Christ they saw on the mount of the Transfiguration was given in order to sustain the disciples through darkness of Good Friday. Indeed it is for a disciple, looking back at the transfiguration from Good Friday, that I have voiced the poem.

I am honoured to have had my work interpreted by two other Cambridge artists. 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.

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 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.

Transfiguration

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 blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

Photograph by Margot Krebs Neale

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A Sonnet for Petertide, and the 30th Anniversary of my Priesting

The 29th of June is St. Peter’s day, when we remember the disciple who, for all his many mistakes, knew how to recover and hold on, who, for all his waverings was called by Jesus ‘the rock’, who learned the threefold lesson that every betrayal can ultimately be restored by love. It is fitting therefore that it is at Petertide that new priests and deacons are ordained, on the day they remember a man whose recovery from mistakes and openness to love can give them courage. So I post this poem not only for St. Peter but for all those called to ministry who have been or are about to be ordained in this season. I also post it with thanksgiving for my own ordination as a priest at Petertide 30 years ago.

This poem comes from my collection Sounding the Seasons published by Canterbury Press. You can also buy it on Amazon Uk or US or order it in any bookshop.

As always you can her the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button, or on the title of the poem.


St. Peter

Impulsive master of misunderstanding

You comfort me with all your big mistakes;

Jumping the ship before you make the landing,

Placing the bet before you know the stakes.

I love the way you step out without knowing,

The way you sometimes speak before you think,

The way your broken faith is always growing,

The way he holds you even when you sink.

Born to a world that always tried to shame you,

Your shaky ego vulnerable to shame,

I love the way that Jesus chose to name you,

Before you knew how to deserve that name.

And in the end your Saviour let you prove

That each denial is undone by love.

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A pair of sonnets for St. John the Baptist.

So keep his fires burning through the night
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.

We pause for a moment in our poetic journey through the psalms, to mark an important moment in our other journey through the sacred seasons of the year. For now we have come to midsummer and the traditional Church festival for this beautiful, long-lit solstice season is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, which falls on June 24th, which was midsummer day in the old Roman Calender. Luke tells us  that John the Baptist was born about 6 months before Jesus, so this feast falls half way through the year, 6 months before Christmas!

The tradition of keeping St. John’s Eve with the lighting of Bonfires and Beacons is very ancient, almost certainly pre-Christian, but in my view it is very fitting that it has become part of a Christian festivity. Christ keeps and fulfills all that was best in the old pagan forshadowings of his coming and this Midsummer festival of light is no exception. John was sent as a witness to the light that was coming into the world, and John wanted to point to that light, not stand in its way, hence his beautiful saying ‘He must increase and I must diminish’, a good watchword for all of those who are, as the prayer book calls us, the ‘ministers and stewards of his mysteries’.

I have written two sonnets,  one for St. John’s Eve reflecting on the lighting of the fires and another for St. John’s day in which , in honour of the Baptist, I reflect on the mystery and grace of baptism itself.

I am very grateful to the artist Rebecca Merry  for her beautiful interpretation of this feast and these poems.

Both these sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in stock on bothAmazon 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.

As usual you can hear the poems by pressing the ‘play’ button if it appears, or else by clicking on the title.

St. John the Baptist: 1 St. John’s Eve

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill

Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:

‘He must increase and I diminish still,

Until his sun illuminates my night.’

So John the Baptist pioneers our path,

Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,

Unlatches the last doorway into faith,

And makes one inner space an everywhere.

Least of the new and greatest of the old,

Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,

He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold

The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”

So keep his fires burning through this night,

Beacons and gateways for the child of light.


St. John the Baptist: 2 Baptism

Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,

A wide womb floating on the breath of God,

Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift

Lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,

And under-girded with an unheard song,

Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,

Calling us to the life for which we long,

Yearning to bring us to our birth again.

Again the breath of God is on the waters

In whose reflecting face our candles shine,

Again he draws from death the sons and daughters

For whom he bid the elements combine.

As living stones around a font today,

Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.

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Corpus Christi: Three Sonnets on Communion

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.


1 Love’s Choice

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,

A little visitation on my tongue,

A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.

This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung

A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,

Even its aftertaste a memory.

Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread

Love chooses to be emptied into me.

He does not come in unimagined light

Too bright to be denied, too absolute

For consciousness, too strong for sight,

Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;

Chooses instead to seep into each sense,

To dye himself into experience.

He does not come in unimagined light…


2 Hide and Seek

Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!

And so I know I’m hiding, and I know

My hiding-place is useless. You will come

And find me. You are searching high and low.

Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,

Below the sunlit surface others see.

Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.

And here you come and here I come to you.

I come to you because you come to me.

You know my hiding places. I know you,

I reach you through your hiding-places too;

Touching the slender thread, but now I see –

Even in darkness I can see you shine,

Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.

3 This Table
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

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Hidden Joys: A Sonnet for the Visitation

The feast of the Visitation usually falls on the 31st of May. It celebrates the lovely moment in Luke’s Gospel (1:41-56) when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also, against all expectations, bearing a child, the child who would be John the Baptist. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon them, and that the babe in Elizabeth’s womb ‘leaped for joy’ when he heard Mary’s voice, and it is even as the older woman blesses the younger, that Mary gives voice to the Magnificat, the most beautiful and revolutionary hymn in the world. There is much for the modern world to ponder in this tale of God’s blessing and prophecy on and from the margins, and I have tried to tease a little of it out in this sonnet. I am grateful again to Margot Krebs Neale for her inspiring image, and , as always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.

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..

The Visitation

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

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A Sonnet for Trinity Sunday

20110619-000808.jpg

Returning for a moment to 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..

Trinity Sunday

In the Beginning, not in time or space,

But in the quick before both space and time,

In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,

In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,

In music, in the whole creation story,

In His own image, His imagination,

The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,

And makes us each the other’s inspiration.

He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,

To improvise a music of our own,

To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,

Three notes resounding from a single tone,

To sing the End in whom we all begin;

Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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Our Mother-tongue Is Love; A Sonnet for Pentecost

A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael ‘s Bartley Green

Here, once more is my sonnet for Pentecost.

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..


Pentecost

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.

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And here, an a little bonus is the outline of a Pentecost Sermon, using this sonnet, by my good friend Cathy Michell:

Meditation on Malcolm’s poem: Pentecost

5 This is the feast of fire, air, and water

6 Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.

The 3 elements:

1) WIND

1 Today we feel the wind beneath our wings

3 Today the church draws breath at last and sings.

7 The earth herself awakens to her maker
8 And is translated out of
death to birth.

Acts 2 ‘Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house’.

The wind blowing yesterday and today – its roar and its visible effects – powerful, exciting/dangerous.

To the people of the Bible wind, breath and spirit were blended ideas (see M’s wind/breath in vv 1 and 3), all closely related in God who was seen to be all these things and therefore ‘gave ‘ all these things. The rush, roar and obvious effects of wind in nature, where paralleled by the equally obvious effects of breathing. In turn the spirit, the life in all creatures, was present because of the presence in them of breath.

In Genesis, when what ever existed or did not exist, was formless, void and dark, it is God who brings life, ‘a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’. Likewise in Genesis 2 we see God creating humans from the dust and then breathing into their nostrils the breath of life. Wind and breath are the same. They are of God and they bring the world and humans life, not just in the beginning but always. Just listen to the roar outside. Just listen to your own breath as it reanimates you over and over.

The prophet Ezekiel experienced the same in the valley of the dry bones. God tells the prophet that the bones will be brought from death to life (as M’s v8, ‘translated out of death to birth).

God says to the prophet, ‘I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live’. Ezekiel is instructed,‘Prophesy to the Breath..and say……’come from the 4 winds., O Breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live’.

In this passage all 3 meanings of the words ‘ruach’ (Heb) or ‘pneuma’ (Gk) (breath/spirit) are found overlaid upon each other. So Jesus in John’s gospel is seen to breath on his disciples when he appears to them one evening as they are locked inside a house after the crucifixion. John tells us that Jesus breathed on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit.

And then there’s that other account in John’s gospel about what Jesus said to the pharisee Nicodemus as they spoke about being born again. Here Jesus likens the nature and presence of The Spirit to the wind, saying,

‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of The Spirit.’ (Jn 3:8)

So we have looked at the key words here, wind and breath, but see also the word ‘awakening’ that Malcolm uses in v7. The Spirit awakens the earth, the disciples and us as from sleep. The Earth is awoken at its Creation by God. Each Spring is a new waking up from winter; we are woken by God’s loving spirit from our own deadliness, to a renewed eternal life (reborn as with was Nicodemus). And at our mortal, our actual death, we wake up to resurrection Life.

In Acts it is the Church that is reawakened and given ruach, breath and Spirit at Pentecost. It’s the scared, cowed, lost and grieving disciples in their lock-down who were miraculously given life again. And it was this that sent them out to ‘sing’ as Malcolm puts it – to preach their joyful gospel to all.

And how we are longing to do the same. To draw breath, as if for the first time, to sing again. But more than that – to speak new things, hope and joy; be heard and come alive again in this community. We want to be ‘translated out of death to birth’ again and to be agents of that Life that is Christ, to others. For this breath of God is also what inspires (inspire and expire!) us, what a lovely play on words. It is the life that is found in every creative act, every leap of the imagination, clear intuition, or innovative plan. There in art, music, song, study, craft or kitchen, in theatre or church. It sings out, it patterns our life in vibrant colour. It is what the Church is in constant need of, if it will let that wind blow through its dark, dusty and often closed down ways.

We need the wings Malcolm refers to in v 1, as he speaks about the wind blowing where it will. Wings allowing us to take flight and glide on the breeze carried aloft by the Spirit. These wings are also there to remind us of the hovering dove, balancing, held up by the air. The Spirit comes to us from God. It descends upon us and always hovers over the Church in blessing and protection. It reminds us of Jesus himself receiving God’s Spirit at his baptism. And we think of our own baptism and the life it has given us as we have journeyed a long time perhaps, in the company of Jesus. And this is why Malcolm’s second verse brings in our next element or image of Pentecost, and it’s…..

2 WATER


2 Today the hidden fountain flows and plays. (‘poured out’)

Water. Yes it is about baptism, but more than this, as water takes us back again to the Creation stories; the great sea over which God brooded; the rivers, lakes and streams emerging, even the great flood as it swept the earth clean of human sin yet led to new life, a new start – God’s promise to Noah through the rainbow sign, that He would establish an everlasting covenant of love with all humanity. And under that covenant (renewed on June 6th at the service in the chapel) we still stand.

Water, like breath, is essential to us. Just like our breathing, it is Life, it is God. And of the many Bible passages we might think of, it’s the story of Jesus’s meeting the woman at Jacob’s well that rings true here (John 4); their complex, subtle discussion about being thirsty, and about where to source a water to quench not only the thirst of the body but the craving and deep need of the soul.

‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water……those who drink of the water that I will give them, will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

This water carries the Spirit within it, as Jesus rather enigmatically refers to again, when he and the woman go on to speak together about worshipping God.

John 4:23-24

‘the hour is coming’, says Jesus, ‘when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth………..God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in truth.’

There is so much here for us to reflect on – the meaning and impact of our own baptism; our own heart and soul longing to be refreshed and washed by Jesus the Living Water of our Life; how God’s Holy Spirit flowing through our lives may be known and listened to. And what might it be calling us to as individuals and as church in this place?

And so to our 3rd element…………….

FIRE (kindled)


4 As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.

12 All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace.

Acts 2 ‘Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each one of them.’

Look how cleverly Malcolm has used the double meaning of ‘tongues’ in his poem (and in the final line as well) to make us think, and to place this element of fire alongside what the Acts account says later about the disciples, that they were filled with the Holy Spirit and so praised God as if drunk on his good wine – with very loosened tongues!

If we were to think of just one Bible narrative of many that speak about God as fire, we have to turn aside, as Moses did, to the miracle of the burning bush. (Ex 3)

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

He is told by God in no uncertain terms, “Do not come any closer, Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. ……..At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God’.

The elemental power, glory, and beauty of fire – yes and its holy danger too – is one with the nature of God himself. The Spirit is not only God’s breath upon us, God’s living water pouring down into out hearts, it’s the fire of his energies, passion, love and desire, burning within us and lighting all around. This is what energised those fragile disciples in their cold, closed dispirited house. This is where we too may source our own energy and only by noticing and waiting on this Spirit of fire as Moses did, can we hear God’s voice and his will for us as Christians and as Church.

——————————–

And it’s to the Church and its mission that Malcolm turns at the end of his poem, by taking us back again to our Acts reading.


9 The right words come today in their right order

10 And every word spells freedom and release

11 Today the gospel crosses every border

13 Today the lost are found in His translation.

14 Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

Pentecost is about words – and how appropriate then that Malcolm chose poetry, the craft of words, to express its truths in ‘right order’. The wind, the breath and the Spirit of God descends on the disciples, where God’s breath becomes God’s Word – that Word with a capital W which John tells us was at the beginning with God, ‘and the Word was God’. This Word becomes translated into human speech, into the disciples’ praise and preaching, into Peter’s sermon given to the crowds. And of course this translating power of the Spirit is understood by everyone, just as all humans understand wind, fire, water and spirit. This is the reverse of the OT’s Tower of Babel, an incomprehension wrought by human arrogance and sin. God’s Spirit makes all things clear, its wind blows away the chaff, its waters enliven and purify, its fire burns away impurities and forges new strengths.

These gospel words spoken now, cross every border. In them ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ as St Paul says (Galatians 3). These Spirit – inspired words embrace all those whose experiences of being human have breathed sorrow, hurt, illness, rejection, poverty, captivity, death. For them the Spirit speaks of freedom and release.

As Jesus says according to Luke’s gospel (Lk 4:18)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

And as the hymn writer John Bell puts it so beautifully,

To the lost Christ shows his face,
to the unloved he gives his embrace,
to those who cry in pain or disgrace
Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.

This is the Spirit’s work. And Her or His work is, finally, nothing more or less than LOVE – ‘whose mother-tongue is love, in every nation’ as Malcolm says. What more is there to say?

This Pentecost, let’s turn aside again to stand before the love of God, to hear again for ourselves love’s invitation and allow ourselves once more to enjoy its dove-like tenderness in our lives. Let’s sing again, ‘Come down O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine’. And pray that by God’s generous grace and through the Spirit’s life-giving power, we too, like those disciples, can be given the words and the energy that will send us out to live that great love in the world.

Amen

Cathy Michell may 2021 (Toft St Andrews)

Whose Mother-tongue is Love in every nation

 

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