Tag Archives: spirituality

Holy Week, Wednesday: The Anointing at Bethany

Anointing at Bethany by Linda Richardson

John 12 1-8 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 and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell‘s Signpost Music. 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.

If you would like to join in a discussion go these and my other poems for Holy Week poems you can do so by joining the Literary Life Facebook Page

I am grateful to Linda Richardson who has given me permission to share with you her series of remarkable paintings, ‘The Faces of Holy Week’. These will be on display, together with my poems, in the resurrection chapel in St. Mary’s Linton throughout Holy Week, do look in and see them if you are in the area. You can also look at these paintings and others on Linda’s Webpage

Linda writes about this picture:

I think Jesus looks really tired in this painting, fully human and with everything that being human means. The story of the anointing is a beautiful and moving moment of deep love of a woman who has kept something precious for a very special occasion. But we know how the story continues and the anointing that will take place a few days later is the anointing of Jesus crucified body. I love this moment in Holy Week, knowing that Jesus had friends who loved him, touched and honoured his body, shared his life, his food, his laughter and his love. Touch the painting, touch Jesus face and imagine what you would say to him and as you smell the beautiful fragrance. What do you think he would say to you?


The Anointing at Bethany

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.

 

3 Comments

Filed under imagination

Mapping New Worlds: John Donne and the Power of Metaphor

John Donne 1572-1631

John Donne 1572-1631

Today (31st March) is the day the Church of England remembers John Donne, the remarkable priest-poet whose poetry and preaching still inspire so many people today. I owe Donne a personal debt, for it was while I was reading and studying his sermons (having loved his poetry all my adult life) that my own vocation as a priest became clear. as a way of celebrating his day I am posting here the interpretation of some of his poems which I gave in my book ‘Faith Hope and Poetry‘:

Mapping New Worlds, John Donne and the Power of Metaphor.

Donne’s intellect and imagination delighted in double visions and multiple meanings. He was fascinated by the representation of one thing within and through another, by the correspondences between inner and outer worlds, by the shifts in perspective and dimension which could be produced by moving suddenly, by means of metaphor between the many worlds of his intellect and imagination. It is not surprising to discover that he was fascinated by the reflections of the great cosmos in the tiny world of an eye or a tear-drop, by the mapping of the microcosmos of man onto the huge cosmos of the world and the heavens, and fascinated therefore by maps and mapping of all kinds. He saw especially in the new science of projection, particularly Mercator’s projection, whereby the round, three dimensional world could nevertheless be represented in two dimensions on paper, a real model for the way in which his art could re-present our this-worldly experience to include or suggest its hidden other-worldly dimension. This playful but concentrated fascination with representation and mapping extends through both his love poetry and his devotional poetry. Emotional, imaginative, sexual and spiritual insights are all integrated and interlinked in Donne in a way that is perhaps unequalled in any other writer.

Pursuing his inter-connected person/world/map metaphors first through two ‘secular’ and then through two ‘sacred’ poems can open up these powers and possibilities in Donne’s poetry. We will begin with ‘The Good Morrow’[1]

‘I WONDER by my troth, what thou, and I

Did, till we lov’d? were we not wean’d till then?

But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly?

Or snorted we in the seven sleepers den?

T’was so; But this, all pleasures fancies bee.

If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desir’d, and got, t’was but a dream of thee.

 

And now good morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room, an every where.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

 

My face is thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts doe in the faces rest,

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp North, without declining West?

What ever dyes, was not mixt equally;

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.’

The poem opens in a natural and conversational way, with direct language and the rhythms of natural speech (something which was to be lost from English poetry for most of the next century until Wordsworth and Coleridge recovered it in Lyrical Ballads). We are disarmed by the frankness of his opening exclamation and are expecting something very straightforward and literal, when at the close of the first stanza Donne introduces the first of his metaphors of a multi-levelled reality, of ‘worlds on worlds’ nested within one another:

‘If ever any beauty I did see,

Which I desir’d, and got, t’was but a dream of thee.’

At their first and simplest level these lines are simply a combination of amorous boasting and apology. If ever any beauty I did see which I desired, might leave the emphasis on the if, and let the person to whom this poem is addressed guess she is the first, but the barely concealed pride in Donne’s little rider ‘and got’ leaves us in no doubt that at the very moment he appears to be apologising for his sexual experience he is actually making a boast of it. If, indeed Then comes the brilliant turn whereby he offers his past conquests up to his present love: ‘twas but a dream of thee.’

Suddenly, in the midst of this back-handed compliment we have one of Donne’s vertiginous shifts of perspective, what was the real world only half a line ago turns out to have been only a dream from which he wakes to and with his present lover, and all the former beauties of his life were like the shadows in Plato’s cave, images which beckon us beyond themselves to another and greater beauty from which they drew their grace. Our imagination is prepared in these lines for the worlds on worlds to be encountered by our ‘Waking Souls’ in the next stanza:

‘For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room, an every where.’

The power of making one little room an everywhere ascribed here to love is of course also the power of imagination working in and through both reader and poet.. The whole world can be re-presented recapitulated in a room and its furnishings (an idea Donne develops in ‘The Sun Rising’) or in the bodies of two lovers each representing and recapitulating the great world they inhabit as surely as a map. Donne summons the exuberance and adventure of his age of discovery and makes it also mean the adventure and discovery of his loving:

‘Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let Maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.’

The bodies of the lovers become the maps of worlds yet to be discovered, a conceit he developed in more detail in poems like ‘Love’s Progress’[2] and ‘On Going to Bed’[3], with a play on discover; ‘O my America, my new-found land… how blest am I in this discovering thee’[4] we move then (naturally) from discovery to possession. A lesser poet would have left it here probably with something very obvious about planting the flag, but Donne in another perspective shift moves us first from one possessing another to both possessing a mutual world through to being worlds themselves:

‘Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one’

(a variant reading has ‘let us possess our world’. It is not simply that their love makes a new world, which they share, but that each of them as a microcosm of the great world is a world for the other to know and explore.) Further, just as the great world of the macrocosm is re-capitulated afresh in the little worlds of Donne and his lover, so they are each in turn re-capitulated in each other, each carrying the others heart, an idea expressed under the image of their mutual reflections in each others eyes:

‘My face is thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts doe in the faces rest,’

This wonderfully detailed observation, like Heaney’s ‘ear of a raindrop’, is the outward image and expression of true lovers’ inward desire to be to be in some otherwise inexpressible way within one another. The curvature of the surface of the eye suggests the curvature of the hemispheres of the great world and we return for a second to that macro-level. But this time it is the inner-world of Donne’s imaginative fantasy that becomes greater than, and forms a critique of, the outward and visible hemispheres we inhabit:

‘Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp North, without declining West?’

The outer hemispheres of the visible world are subject to change and decay, the ‘sharp north’ representing the cold that might freeze the warmth of love, the declining west representing sunset; the end of loves day, and ultimately, as we shall see in the other poems, Death itself. Donne holds out to us as to himself and his lover the tantalising possibility that this world of change and decay might be only the copy, shadow, or dream of the real world of their love that transcends it. The imperfect mixture of the elements, in the macrocosm, the humours in the microcosm which make for change and decay, are perhaps re-ordered and perfectly mixed in the new and transcendent world Love makes, but of course in a last tease Donne makes it all hang on an ‘if’, a pretty big if, perhaps the same if with which he closed the first stanza:

If our two loves be one, or, thou and I

Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

 

The notion that love can make this little room an everywhere is developed at large in the Sunne Rising[5] another love poem, like ‘The Good Morrow’, in the tradition of the aubade:

THE SUN RISING

BUSIE old fool, unruly Sun,

Why dost thou thus

Through windows, and through curtains call on us?

Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide

Late school boys, and sour prentices,

Go tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,

Call country ants to harvest offices;

Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,

Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.

 

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong

Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them-with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long:

If her eyes have not blinded thine,

Look, and to morrow late, tell me,

Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She is all States, and all Princes, I,

Nothing else is.

Princes doe but play us; compar’d to this,

All honour’s mimic; All wealth alchemy.

Thou sun art half as happy as we,

In that the world’s contracted thus;

Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties bee

To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.

Shine here to us, and thou art every where;

This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Coleridge said of this poem that it showed a ‘Fine vigorous exaltation, both soul and body in full puissance’[6] and certainly one feels the bliss of love fulfilled filling the language with a kind of careless glory, a happy splendour before which even the sun in his glory is only a busy old fool. Love fulfilled has filled the present moment with an experience of such intensity that the passage of time outside that love seems poor and ragged

‘Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.’

Donne is here celebrating secular, erotic love, but he was well aware that such ecstasy, in which time itself and the world are for a moment transcended, was a type of that greater awareness of the eternal which arises when the soul is wood by God. Indeed he was not afraid, in a later sermon when he was Dean of Saint Paul’s to take up again his great phrase about the rags of time in relation to God’s mercy:

‘We begin with that which is elder than our beginning, and shall overlive our end, the mercy of God…The names of first and last derogate from it, for first and last are but rags of time, and his mercy hath no relation to time, no limitation in time, it is not first nor last, but eternal, everlasting.[7]

In his second verse Donne plays with the analogy between the sun and the eye which we saw was so strong in Davies, introducing a characteristically playful reversal of perspective whereby the sight of the sun, the great eye of nature depends on our eyes and not the other way round. In the poem Donne and his Lover are the centre, the  fons et origo of a new world and every outer reality depends on them. He has only to blink and the corresponding eye of the sun is closed:

Thy beams, so reverend, and strong

Why shouldst thou think?

I could eclipse and cloud them-with a wink,

But that I would not lose her sight so long:

In the normal world the light of the sun might blind our eyes, but in the poem the eyes of Donne’s lover shine so brightly that she might blind the sun, Donne then shifts perspective and from being luminaries themselves he makes the lovers and their bed into an entire world, reversing the usual microcosm/macrocosm analogy. We are the macrocosm, the great world Donne is saying it is the so-called real outer world that is the tiny and pale imitation:

‘If her eyes have not blinded thine,

Look, and to morrow late, tell me,

Whether both the’India’s of spice and Mine

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.

Ask for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,

And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay’.

Donne maps the great world onto his lovers body, in bed with her he has explored the two Indias of spice and mine. (The detail of this nice analogy is made more explicit in Loves Progress[8], a journey across the body; here it is just a hint). One little room has indeed become an ‘everywhere’, and he can boast:’Nothing else is’. He delights in the power of imagination to incarnate the vast into the tiny, a kind of shadow of the incarnation, the worlds ‘contracted thus.’ Of course he is playing, impishly and in a kind of glad wantonness with powerful ideas whose truer meaning and proper application he also knew and revered, the answering poem to this conceit of the world contracted to a lovers bed is in the beautiful line on the incarnation in his sonnet to Mary:

‘Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.’[9]

That lovely line from ‘Nativity’ in Holy Sonnets brings us to consideration of two sacred poems in which Donne continues to explore the possibilities in the triple vision which overlays world/body/map. We will look first at his ‘Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness,’[10]:

    Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before.

 

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

 

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

For, though their currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.

 

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,

All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,

Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

 

We think that Paradise and Calvary,

Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

 

So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;

By these his thorns, give me his other crown;

And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,

Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:

‘Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.’

This poem opens with a metaphor drawn from music making; life is a tuning of the instrument before we enter the holy room of heaven

‘Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before.’

This verse almost stands alone like an opening chord in a composition as for the rest of the poem Donne turns not to music but to map-making and cosmography for a key to transfiguring his experience. For transfiguration is what this poem is all about; glimpsing the possibility of renewal in the midst of sickness and death, catching a phrase of the music ‘you would never have known to listen for’ in the ‘fall of grit and dry seeds’ which is Donne’s approaching physical death. After the first stanza’s glimpse of heaven by way of prelude the poem returns to the grim insistence of Donne’s present experience as a fevered patient, flattened and sweating on his bed, being pored over and prodded by his doctors as though he had already ceased to be human and had become a mere object, hearing their diagnosis of steady decline and death by fever. Can poetry and the transfiguring power of imagination release any hope from that?

     Whilst my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

Once more the body is a map of the world, pored over and read, this time not in the joy of love-making but in the anxiety of diagnosis. The cosmographer/physicians make a ‘South-west discovery’. In the common symbolism in which this poem participates south stands for heat, the heat of Donne’s fever, and West, the quarter into which the sun declines, stands for decline and death. The cosmographers and explorers, Donne’s contemporaries in the outer-world, had been searching for a southwest passage, some narrow straight through which they could sail west into the pacific. The cosmographers of Donne’s body have found that south-west passage those narrow straights of fever through which he will pass into death ‘per fretum febris’, by the streights of fever.

But having by this metaphor expressed the worst, Donne, by the same metaphor begins to redeem the worst. For the outer cosmographers what lies beyond the straights of their ‘south-west discovery’ is not annihilation but the new and unimagined world of the Pacific Ocean, and in a round world the mariner who sails west into night and declination far enough finds he has arrived in the east, the east of morning and resurrection. So Donne having closed his second stanza with those two hard words ‘to die’, goes on:

‘ I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

For, though their currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.’

For Shakespeare death was ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’, Donne had read in mariners’ tales of  narrow straights whose currents were so swift that any vessel caught and borne by them could never hope to win a way back against them. So in his metaphor the strait of death is par excellence the straight ‘whose current yields return to none.’ But Donne knows from those same tales that eastern riches and pacific promise were never reached except through narrow straights as he says in a later verse:

‘Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,

All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,’

And so he says of the narrow straits of death

  ‘I joy, that in these straits I see my west;’

For in this brilliant metaphor he sees how in the flat Mercator projection the extreme points of east and west, appear to be separated at opposite edges of the map but the line of extreme west and the line of extreme east represent the same line and the same space in the real three dimensional world of which the map is a two dimensional image. So equally death seems the extreme edge of the map in the two-dimensional world of our physical experience, but in the three dimensional world of God’s reality the ‘west’ of death curves round to touch the ‘east’ of resurrection. Our bodies are only the deceptive flat maps of our true selves and when we stand in the true dimensions of heaven then we will know how ‘death doth touch the resurrection.’

This fruitful paradox leads him beyond the map-making metaphor to develop in the rest of the poem  a whole range of paradoxes on the identity of death and resurrection, paradise and Calvary, Christ’s cross and Adams tree until he reaches this complex poems simple and powerful conclusion:

‘Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.’

If the ‘Hymne’ mirrors and answers the map metaphors of ‘The Good Morrow’, transposing them from a secular to a sacred key, then it is equally true that the play with worlds and spheres and time which makes up ‘The Sun Rising’ is revisited and transformed by Donne in ‘Good Friday 1613 Riding Westwards’[11]

GOOD FRIDAY, 1613. RIDING WESTWARD

LET mans Soul be a Sphere, and then, in this,

The intelligence that moves, devotion is,

And as the other Spheres, by being grown

Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,

And being, by others hurried every day,

Scarce in a year their natural form obey:

Pleasure or businesses so, our Souls admit

For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West

This day, when my Soul’s form bends toward the East.

There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endlesse day beget;

But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all.

Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for me.

Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die;

What a death were it then to see God die?

It made his own Lieutenant Nature shrink,

It made his footstools crack, and the Sun wink.

Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,

And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

Could I behold that endlesse height which is

Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,

Humbled below us? or that blood which is

The seat of all our Souls, if not of his,

Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn

By God, for his apparel, rag’d, and torn?

If on these things I durst not look, durst I

Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,

Who was Gods partner here, and furnished thus

Half of that Sacrifice, which ransomed us?

Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,

They’re present yet unto my memory,

For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards me,

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;

I turn my back to thee, but to receive

Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

O think me worth thine anger, punish me,

Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,

Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,

That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.

Although this is one of Donne’s most subtle and complex poems, packed densely with allusions to the science and theology of his day, its basic scenario is clear; Donne Travels west on business in the outer world, whilst his soul turns eastward in devotion, and out of the particular moment of journeying which is the poem’s occasion Donne brings out and develops dilemmas and paradoxes of universal significance. As with all Donne’s poems we are invited to see with a double-vision both an outward and visible journey over the earths surface and an inward and spiritual journey, a journey of humanity towards God and God towards humanity. In the outward and visible world Donne, constrained by business, is riding westward, a direction which symbolises the journey of all our bodies towards sunset, decline and death, westering away from the eastward moment of our morning and birth. The business that forces Donne’s body to journey west also stands for the mortality which forces all our bodies along the long day’s journey into night. But Donne is constrained, he doesn’t actually want to journey west, anymore then any of us want to journey away from our morning into death. Whilst Donne feels outwardly constrained to journey west, in heart and soul he wants to turn east, to turn and face towards the place, outside Jerusalem where the great drama of all our deaths and resurrections takes place. Just as the heavenly bodies are deflected by ‘foreign motions’ from their true course, so likewise the business of this world diverts us from our true priorities and sets up a conflict between what carries us outwardly and where we are inwardly yearning to be:

‘And as the other Spheres, by being grown

Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,

And being, by others hurried every day,

Scarce in a year their natural form obey:

Pleasure or businesses so, our Souls admit

For their first mover, and are whirled by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West

This day, when my Soul’s form bends toward the East.’

We may have changed the specifics of our astronomy but we can still relate to Donne’s account of how our souls allow pleasure or business to become so much our first mover that our whole life gets out of kilter, as we are carried out of our true course. Donne’s personal dilemma riding westward while his soul’s true form bends towards the east, is a good picture of our whole culture. We are ‘hurried every day’ away from our true course, away from the deep springs of truth, away from vision and purpose and love, hurried into triviality, until we are as Eliot would later put it, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction.’[12] But in the midst of his hurried westering the poet’s soul yearns towards the east and there his imagination embraces a series of paradoxes which prepare us for the great paradox of God’s death which forms the poems climax:

‘There I should see a Sun, by rising set,

And by that setting endlesse day beget;

But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,

Sin had eternally benighted all’

Then comes the admission that although he longs to turn back from his ‘business’ and seek God’s face he is in fact afraid to do so. It may be that his ‘business’ like our everyday hurriedness is something we choose as a way of hiding from God. From here the rest of the poem turns on images of seeing and being seen:

‘Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see

That spectacle of too much weight for me.

Who sees Gods face, that is self life, must die;

What a death were it then to see God die?

It made his own Lieutenant Nature shrink,

It made his footstools crack, and the Sun wink’.

 Here the conceit, in ‘The Sun Rising’ of eclipsing the sun with a wink is re-visited as the sun darkens and the earth gapes at God’s death on the cross. Donne’s imagination of a body which could be all kingdoms, of one persons passion affecting the whole cosmos, whose body is mapped out against the stars, and yet crushed to the ground by human malice is here made real by the creators endurance of a passion within his own creation:

‘Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,

And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

Could I behold that endlesse height which is

Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,

Humbled below us? or that blood which is

The seat of all our Souls, if not of his,

Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn

By God, for his apparel, rag’d, and torn?’

Then, after his reflection on the terrible figure of Mary standing by the cross, comes the paradox of present absence and piercing vision which is at the very heart of the poem and forms the transition from the speculation with which it begins to the impassioned prayer that ends it:

‘Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,

They’re present yet unto my memory,

For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards me,

O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;

The line ‘For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,’is the hinge upon which the whole poem turns. Up to this point the poem has been about Donne’s looking, or failing to look, towards the East where the crucifixion takes place, but suddenly the tables are turned. Just as Donne thinks he is contemplating an image of something distant and in the past in his own memory, he finds the image he contemplates is neither distant nor in the past, but close and present. He finds that it is not he who looks, or fails to look, upon Christ but Christ who looks upon him. In this as in other poems, Donne shows how a human gaze, looking intently on an outward scene could pierce through it veils and in that piercing glance transfigure it. So he discovers at this crux of the poem that the gaze of his saviour looking back at him from his imagined image of the cross is ready to pierce and transform him.  Suddenly he realises that for all his protestations, he still has his back to God.  Here is a profound revision and reversal of the Old Testament archetype of man’s encounter with God.  There Moses climbs the mountain searching for God and finds that he can only glimpse a God whose back is turned to him so great is the barrier of human sin. But with the coming of God into human flesh in Christ the world is indeed turned upside down. God descends from the mountain to seek for humanity and this time it is humanity whose back is turned. Just as Moses was afraid to see the face of God, now Donne is afraid to turn and let God see his face and so he prays instead that even with his back turned, the piercing gaze of the crucified will begin to transform and purge him to make him able even to begin to turn and show his face.  His fear is that he has lost himself so utterly in the entrustment and deformity of sin, that he will no longer be recognisable to the God whose image he is to bear. Yet he longs to be known and so he begins with the fearful image of punishment and correction, the back turned to receive blows but even as he writes the word ‘corrections’ he discovers in those corrections God’s hidden mercy and prays for a burning-off of rust and deformity so that the lost image can be restored.  When the last line of the poem comes the word ‘turn’ has acquired the fullest sense of metanoia, repentance understood as a complete turning around of oneself and so also of one’s perspective.

‘I turn my back to thee, but to receive

Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.

O thinks me worth thine anger, punish me,

Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,

Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,

That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face’.

 

[1] In The Poems of John Donne edited by Sir Herbert Grierson (Oxford 1949) p.7 I have modernised the spelling

[2] The Poems pp.103-106

[3] Ibid pp.106-8

[4] Ibid p.107 lines 27-30

[5] Ibid pp.10-11

[6] Samuel Taylor Coleridge Marginalia vol.II edited by George Whalley (Princeton 1984) p.219  volume 12 in CC

[7]Preached Christmas 1624. collected in The Sermons of John Donne edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson (California 1953 re-issued 1984) volume VI p. 170

[8] The Poems pp.103-106

[9] Ibid p.290

[10] Ibid pp.336-337

[11] The Poems pp.306-308

[12] TS Eliot The Four Quartets (Faber London 1944) ‘Burnt Norton’ section III line 101

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under imagination, literature

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.

 

MONDAY

 

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.

 

TUESDAY

 

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.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

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.

 

THURSDAY

 

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.

 

FRIDAY

 

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.

 

SATURDAY

 

Love’s as warm as tears   C. S. Lewis

Leave a comment

Filed under imagination

The Beatitudes: a little lifting of the veil

beatitudes wordcloudI was reminded of this poem when someone quoted it today on Facebook, saying she found it helpful for the dark times we are living through, so I thought I would post it again here. In this sonnet, which is from my last poetry book Parable and Paradox, I am reflecting on The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 verses 1-16, and on the beautiful series of  beatitudes, or blessings with which it begins, as well as on the image of a hidden light, taken out and set at last on a hill which follows these blessings. It seems to me that one way to understand how it is that the poor, and those who mourn, the persecuted, and those who keep yearning and hungering, in spite of everything, for a righteousness we do not yet see, are all nevertheless, even now, somehow blessed, is to see in the beatitudes a little lifting of the veil, a little glimpse into the coming kingdom. We can so easily feel defeated by the darkness of this present age and the apparent defeat of goodness at every turn, but in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lifts the veil and gives us hope! The Cross, his cross and ours, is not the end of the story! The kingdom is coming and one day His Easter, his glorious resurrection will also be ours! The beatitudes are an invitation to live from and for that coming day, even now, to take the hidden light of his love and goodness and let it shine through us into the pre-dawn darkness of our world.

As well as writing the sonnet I have also focused some of these reflections into the final sermon of a six sermon sequence, also called ‘Parable and Paradox, which I preached this term at Girton. The whole sequence is online now and can be found here.

As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-16

 

We bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,

And set this lovely lantern on a hill

Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt

By lifting for a little while the veil.

For longing is the veil of satisfaction

And grief the veil of future happiness

We glimpse beneath the veil of persecution

The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss

 

Oh make us pure of heart and help us see

Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning

The promised Comforter, alive and free,

The kingdom coming and the Son returning,

That even in this pre-dawn dark we might

At once reveal and revel in your light.

8 Comments

Filed under christianity, Girton, 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.

Apostle

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

6 Comments

Filed under christianity, Poems, Theology and Arts

The First Sunday of Epiphany -Jesus’ Baptism

The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings

The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many little ‘epiphanies’, glimpses of how things really are, which are vouchsafed us in the Gospel. 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:

Epiphany on the Jordansteve-album

Leave a comment

Filed under imagination, Poems, St. Edward's

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.

 

10 Comments

Filed under christianity, imagination, literature, Meditation, Poems