Tag Archives: spirituality

A Sonnet for Ash Wednesday

Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s Cross

 

I am reposting this Ash Wednesday Sonnet from  Sounding the Seasons, with a new sense of urgency. It was eleven years ago that I wrote the lines:

The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.

Since then the destruction has increased, and more recently I wrote Our Burning World, set as an Anthem by Rhiannon Randle.

So here again is the sonnet and the little introduction I wrote for it a decade ago:

As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares. So some of those themes are visited in this sonnet, which is also found in my new book The Word in the Wilderness which contains these and other poems set out so that you can reflect on a poem a day throughout Lent. If you’d like to pursue the Lenten journey further the book is available on Amazon both here and in the USA and is also available on Kindle. 

As before I am grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the remarkable commentary on these poems which she is making through her photographs. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the Play Button

Ash Wednesday

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow,
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross.
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands
The very stones themselves would shout and sing
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their Lord and king.

He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please,
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

And here, as a bonus track is a recording the singer-songwriter Bob Bennet sent me of a sung version of this poem which he composed minutes after hearing the poem for the first time. This is a rough ‘field recording’ taken whilst the song was still forming but he’s allowed me to share it!

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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 via Amazon.

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.

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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. Today, 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.

Epiphany on the Jordan


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 how Steve Bell reworks this sonnet into a beautiful song

You can hear the song itself on sound cloud here:

Epiphany on the Jordan

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O Sapientia an Advent Antiphon

Image by Linda richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

The poem I have chosen for December 17th in my Advent Anthology from Canterbury Press Waiting on the Word, is my own sonnet O Sapientia, the first in a sequence of seven sonnets on the seven ‘great O’ antiphons which I shall be reading to you each day between now and the 23rd of December. You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above, was created by Linda Richardson for her book of responses to Waiting on the Word.

Linda writes:

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

My response to the sonnet, ‘O Sapientia’, is a great ‘O’ of my own. The back ground of the painting is a photo transfer of a sheet of plainsong that the monks will sing every year at this time in Advent. I gave that a wash of gesso, and using a Chinese brush made a very energetic sweep in black ink and added some red too. Around the outside and inside I wrote out the words in Latin and in English, which are quite beautiful.

O Wisdom coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things. Come and teach us the way of Prudence (Wisdom). The words of this antiphon have a powerfully uplifting effect on me.

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

In the first centuries the Church had a beautiful custom of praying seven great prayers calling afresh on Christ to come, calling him by the mysterious titles he has in Isaiah, calling to him; O Wisdom. O Root! O Key  O Light! come to us! This is the first of them

Also check out the wonderful resources on the Advent Antiphons and aother mediaeval Wisdom on Julia Holloway’s beautiful website  The Great O Antiphons

O Sapientia

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

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


O Sapientia

I cannot think unless I have been thought,

Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.

I cannot teach except as I am taught,

Or break the bread except as I am broken.

O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,

O Light within the light by which I see,

O Word beneath the words with which I speak,

O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,

O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me,

O Memory of time, reminding me,

My Ground of Being, always grounding me,

My Maker’s Bounding Line, defining me,

Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,

Come to me now, disguised as everything.

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Launde Abbey on Saint Lucy’s Day

Image by Linda Richardson

Image by Linda Richardson

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

Linda Writes:

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

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

 

You can find you can find a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

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

Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s day

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

In round cupped dew ponds shallow waters freeze,

Delicate fronds and rushes are held fast,

The low sun brings a contrast to the trees

Whose naked branches, dark against the skies

And fringed with glory by the light behind,

In patterns too severe for tired eyes,

Burn their bright beauty on the weary mind.

Saint Lucy’s sun still bathes these abbey walls

And in her garden rose stalks stark and bare

Shine in a frosty light that yet recalls

The glory of the summer roses there.

Though winter night will soon surround us here,

Another Advent comes, Dayspring is near.

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All Hallow’s Eve; a sonnet of reclamation

The dark is bright with quiet lives and steady lights undimmed

As we come towards Hallowe’en, its worth remembering that the word Hallowe’en itself simply means ‘the eve of all Hallows’, and All Hallows is the Christian feast of All Saints, or All Saints Day’, a day when we think particularly of those souls in bliss who, even in this life, kindled a light for us, or to speak more exactly, reflected for us and to us, the already-kindled light of Christ!,  It is followed immediately on November 2nd by All Souls Day. the day we remember all the souls who have gone before us into the light of Heaven.  It is good that we should have a season of the year for remembrance and a time when we feel that the veil between time and eternity is thin and we can sense that greater and wider communion of saints to which we belong. It is also good and right that the Church settled this feast on a time in the turning of the year when the pre-Christian Celtic religions were accustomed to think of and make offerings for the dead. But it was right that, though they kept the day, they changed the custom. The greatest and only offering, to redeem both the living and the dead, has been made by Christ and if we want to celebrate our loving connections we need only now make gifts to the living, as we do in offering sweets to the ‘trick or treaters’ in this season, and far more profoundly in exchanging gifts at Christmas.

Anyway, given that both these seasons of hospitality and exchange have been so wrenched from their first purpose in order to sell tinsel and sweeties, I thought I might redress the balance a little and reclaim this season with a sonnet for All Souls/All Saints that remembers the light that shines in darkness, who first kindled it, and how we can all reflect it.

If your church is marking all saints or all souls day do feel free to print the words or use the recording.

The image which follows this poem, and takes up one of its key lines, is by Margot Krebs Neale. As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button if it appears, or on the title.

This sonnet are  from Sounding the Seasons, the collection of my sonnets for the church year, published by Canterbury Press,

As always you can hear me read the sonnet if you click on the player button or the title of the poem

 

All Saints

Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards

Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,

It glances from the eyes, kindles the words

Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright

With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,

The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.

Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing

He weaves them with us in the web of being

They stand beside us even as we grieve,

The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,

Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above

The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,

To triumph where all saints are known and named;

The gathered glories of His wounded love.

‘Each shard still shines’ image by Margot Krebs Neale

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On Reading the Commedia 9:The Rose

a white rose opens a white rose opens

I come now to the final part my sequence of nine poems reflecting on the exprerience of reading, and re-reading Dante’s Commedia. By the end of the Paradiso Dante has taken us to the very limits of human thought and expression, to the brink of a reality which is beyond language, and yet which is the true source of all reality. That source is Love, ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, and the whole purpose of the poem is that we learn and choose also to be moved by, and find our peace, in that Love.

To describe his journey, Dante used the astronomy of his day, but the truth of his message does not depend on one scientific model, or another, but on what lies behind the reality they model. In this poem I have tried to hint at the exprerience of reading Dante with our own, equally marvelous and mysterious cosmology in mind.

GuiteCommedia3If you have enjoyed reading these poems you may be interested to know that a Special Edition of them has been printed and bound in Florence by Aureo Anello Books. Printed in William Morris Troy Font, in a numbered limited edition of 250, these little chapbooks, with parchment covers, are being offered for a suggested donation of €15,00, to help the work of Anchoress and Dante Scholar Sister Julia Bolton Holloway who helps look after the famous ‘English Cemetry’ in Florence, where Elizabeth Barett Browning and other poets are buried. For Julia’s wonderful suite of web resources for Dante, Mother Julian, and mediaeval theology, start exploring here.  The special page telling you how to obtain Aureo Anello’s limited editions including my Dante poem is here.

I am Grateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the beautiful image of the rose, as usual you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play button.

9 The Rose

A white rose opens in a quiet arbour

Where I sit reading Dante, Paradise

Unfolding in me, opens hour by hour,

 

In sunlight and amidst the hum of bees

On a late afternoon. I think of how

Everything flowers, the whole universe

 

Itself is still unfolding even now

Sprung from a stem of singularity

Which petals time and space.  I think of how

 

The very elements that let my body be

Began and will continue in the stars

Whose light and distance frame our mystery,

 

And how my shadowed heart still loves, still bears

With every beat that animates  my being,

Eternal yearnings through the turning years.

 

I turn back to the lines that light my seeing

And lift me to the limits of all thought

And long that I might also find that freeing

 

And enabling Love, and so be caught

And lifted into His renewing Heaven.

Evening glimmers, and the stars come out,

 

Venus is shining clear, my prayers are woven

Into a sounding song, a symphony,

As all creation gives back what is given

 

In music made to praise the Mystery

Who is both gift and giver. Something stirs

A grace in me beyond my memory

 

I close the book and look up at the stars.

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stars1

If you missed the earlier episodes, here are the links to the other poems in this sequence:

Previous poems in this Dante Series:

Inferno:

1 In Medias Res

2 Through the Gate

3 Vexila Regis

Purgatorio

4 De Magistro

5 Love in Idleness

6 Dancing Through the Fire

Paradiso

7  Look up

8 Circle Dance

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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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