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.
Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest! These five glorious verbs, deepening as they follow one another in intensity of engagement, come altogether in one of the most justly famous collects in The Book of Common Prayer; the collect traditionally set for the second in Advent, and now used, in the new common lectionary for this Sunday, the 23rd October: Bible Sunday Here’s the whole collect:.
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is surely one of the best, and most Biblically rooted prayers about reading the Bible ever! here is a brief reflection on each of these petitions followed by a Sonnet about reading the Bible:
When it comes to our reception of scripture this collect starts where most people, at the time of its composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else, and of course the King Jmes Translation was made to be read aloud and not a verse of it was passed until it’s phrasing had stood the test of being read aloud, until it was something sonorous and memorable.
But of course we go on from hearing to reading, as so many of those first auditors did, for the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains to day one of he great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.
But we cannot rest with reading, we must learn to mark. Mark here means more than simply ‘pay attention’. It means to make a mark, not only in the outward sense of marking up or underlining and annotation of passages, but inwardly to mark, to let the scriptures themselves underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us. We all know such passages, the ones that, in a given reading seemed to have been marked out for us particularly.
Marking, and being marked in turn, is of course the beginning of learning. Now learning by rote, done by itself for no reason probably does no good, but learning by heart can sometimes be a pathway to learning in and through the heart. I will never forget when, as a newly-ordained curate, I was called to the deathbed of a very old lady in one of those dreadful ‘care homes’ She was suffering equally from dementia and neglect and the nurse told me that she couldn’t speak three words of sense together. At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm, in the Prayer Book version. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong snse that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’ were the last words on her lips.
But there is more than that, the last petiton is the deepest. The prayer that we should ‘inwardly digest’ the scriptures has roots in a profound and ancient way of reading, still preserved by the church in the name ‘Lectio Divina‘. You can see its earliest roots in Jesus words to Satan, themselves a quotation from Scripture: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.
After the prologue, the first sonnet in my sequence Sounding the Seasons; seventy sonnets for the Christian year, is called The Lectern, and it is essentially a hymn to scripture written in response to this collect and what the collect reveals about reading scripture in church. Here it is. As usual you can hear it by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title.
Some rise on eagles’ wings, this one is plain,
Plain English workmanship in solid oak. Age gracefully it says, go with the grain.
You walk towards an always open book,
Open as every life to every light,
Open to shade and shadow, day and night,
The changeless witness of your changing pain. Be still the Lectern says, stand here and read.
Here are your mysteries, your love and fear,
And, running through them all, the slender thread
Of God’s strange grace, red as these ribbons, red
As your own blood when reading reads you here
And pierces joint and marrow… So you stand,
The lectern still beneath your trembling hand.
Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written
St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox
This Tuesday, the 18th of October, is the feast day of St. Luke the Physician and Evangelist and so I am reposting this sonnet in his honour, especially as, in our lectionary, this is the year when all our Gospel readings are taken from his gospel. This poem comes from Sounding the Seasons, my series of sonnets for the church year. My sonnets, in that series, present the four Evangelists together and the imagery in those sonnets is influenced by the images of the four living creatures round the throne of God and the tradition that each of these creatures represents both an aspect of Christ and one of the four Evangelists.
‘...since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. ‘ St. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 120-202 AD) – Adversus Haereses 3.11.8
For a good account of this tradition click here. I am drawing my inspiration both from the opening page image of each Gospel in the Lindesfarne Gospels and also from the beautiful account of the four living creatures given by St. Ireneus, part of which I quote above. As well as being himself a Physician, and therefore the patron saint of doctors and all involved in healing ministry, Luke is also the patron of artists and painters. His gospel seems to have a particular connection with those on the margins of his society. In Luke we hear the voices of women more clearly than in any other gospel, and the claims and hope of the poor in Christ find a resonant voice.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking the ‘play’ button if it appears or clicking on the title of the poem. The photographer Margot Krebs Neale has again provided a thought-provoking photograph to interpret the poem, in this case one taken by her son Oliver. The book with these sonnets was published by Canterbury Press and is available from all the usual Amazons etc.
St. Francis Day falls on the 4th of October so I thought I would repost this sonnet which reflects the way Francis responded to Christ’s call by casting away the rich trappings he had inherited and embracing holy poverty.The sonnet, which I wrote shortly after the election of the new Pope, is also a prayer that Pope Francis the 1st will enable the wider church to do the same! As always you can hear the sonnet by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title
July the 3rd is the Feast of St. Thomas the apostle. Sometimes known as ‘doubting Thomas, but maybe honest Thomas, courageous Thomas, even Tenacious Thomas would be nearer the mark!
I thank God for St. Thomas, the one disciple who had the courage to say what everyone else was thinking but didnt dare say, the courage to ask the awkward questions that drew from Jesus some of the most beautiful and profoundly comforting of all his sayings. “We dont know where you’re going, how can we know the way”? asked Thomas, and because he had the courage to confes his ignorance, we were given that beautiful saying “I am the way the Truth and the Life” Here is the poem I have written for St. Thomas, and also a sermon I preached on St. Thomas called ‘Touching the Wounds’.
As I repost this poemI am glad to know that my editor at Canterbury Press Christine Smith will be ordained priest this weekend and will be celebrating her first communion on St. Thomas’s day, so I wish her every blessing.
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 and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. The book is now also out on Kindle. Please feel free to make use of these sonnets in church services and to copy and share them. If you can mention the book from which they are taken that would be great.
I am greateful to Margot Krebs Neale for the thought-provoking image above, you can hear the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button below or on the title of the poem and you can hear the sermon on my podcast site by clicking here: Touching The Wounds
Continuing my cycle of sonnets for the Church year. Here is one for Trinity Sunday which I am posting a few days 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. I have tried to suggest this throughout the poem and especially in the phrase ‘makes us each the other’s inspiration’ and Margot Krebs Neale has taken this idea of mutual and coinherent inspiration and remaking in the remarkable image she has made in response to this sonnet which follows the poem, an image which involves the mutually -inspired work of three artists and is one picture woven of three images. She writes to me about this image:
the picture of the infinite is by an artist i don’t know
the composition is by me
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 and physical copies are now available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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..
A Pentecost Banner at St. Michael ‘s Bartley Green
Continuing in ‘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.
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 and physical copies are shortly to be available in Canada via Steve Bell. 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..
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.