Tag Archives: theology

Week 4: Know Thyself: John Davies and Tennyson

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

Last week we walked with Dante, and I want to develop this sense of our ‘companioned journey’ this week by drawing alongside two other poets who may help us with our reflections on the way. In particular I want to share with you some gems from their longer poems which, precisely because they occur in the midst of long poems, are very rarely anthologized, but which have a great deal to offer us. The twin themes which I hope these poets will open for us are self-questioning on the one hand and self-knowledge on the other. Anyone who has taken a long pilgrimage, or even just a long walk, such as we are doing through Lent, will know that there comes a time when, as other concerns subside, the big questions arise: Who am I? How much do I really know myself? What can I really know about God? How can I trust that knowledge?

but first we start with our Sunday poem, this time for Mothering Sunday, as always with al; these poems you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the play button

 

Mothering Sunday   Malcolm Guite

 

At last, in spite of all, a recognition,

For those who loved and laboured for so long,

Who brought us, through that labour, to fruition

To flourish in the place where we belong.

A thanks to those who stayed and did the raising,

Who buckled down and did the work of two,

Whom governments have mocked instead of praising,

Who hid their heart-break and still struggled through,

The single mothers forced onto the edge

Whose work the world has overlooked, neglected,

Invisible to wealth and privilege,

But in whose lives the kingdom is reflected.

Now into Christ our mother church we bring them,

Who shares with them the birth-pangs of His Kingdom.

 

Monday

 

Why did my parents send me to the schools?   John Davies

Why did my parents send me to the Schools,

That I with knowledge might enrich my mind?

Since the desire to know first made men fools,

And did corrupt the root of all mankind:

Even so by tasting of that fruit forbid,

Where they sought knowledge, they did error find;

Ill they desir’d to know, and ill they did;

And to give Passion eyes, made Reason blind.

For then their minds did first in Passion see

Those wretched shapes of misery and woe,

Of nakedness, of shame, of poverty,

Which then their own experience made them know.

But then grew Reason dark, that she no more,

Could the faire forms of Good and Truth discern;

Bats they became, that eagles were before:

And this they got by their desire to learn.

All things without, which round about we see,

We seek to know, and how therewith to do:

But that whereby we reason, live and be,

Within our selves, we strangers are thereto.

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,

And the strange cause of th’ebs and floods of Nile;

But of that clock within our breasts we bear,

The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint our selves with every Zone

And pass both Tropics and behold the Poles

When we come home, are to our selves unknown,

And unacquainted still with our own souls.

We study Speech but others we persuade;

We leech-craft learn, but others cure with it;

We interpret laws, which other men have made,

But read not those which in our hearts are writ.

 

Is it because the mind is like the eye,

Through which it gathers knowledge by degrees −

Whose rays reflect not, but spread outwardly:

Not seeing itself when other things it sees?

No, doubtless; for the mind can backward cast

Upon her self her understanding light;

But she is so corrupt, and so defac’t,

As her own image doth her self affright.

TUESDAY

 

What It Is To Be Human   John Davies

She within lists my ranging mind hath brought,

That now beyond my self I list not go;

My self am centre of my circling thought,

Only my self I study, learn, and know.

I know my body’s of so frail a kind,

As force without, fevers within can kill:

I know the heavenly nature of my mind,

But ‘tis corrupted both in wit and will:

I know my soul hath power to know all things,

Yet is she blind and ignorant in all;

I know I am one of nature’s little kings,

Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.

I know my life’s a pain and but a span,

I know my Sense is mockt with every thing:

And to conclude, I know my self a man,

Which is a proud, and yet a wretched thing.

 

WEDNESDAY

 

The Light which makes the light which makes the day   John Davies

That Power which gave me eyes the World to view,

To see my self infused an inward light,

Whereby my soul, as by a mirror true,

Of her own form may take a perfect sight,

But as the sharpest eye discerneth nought,

Except the sun-beams in the air doe shine:

So the best soul with her reflecting thought,

Sees not her self without some light divine.

To judge her self she must her self transcend,

As greater circles comprehend the less;

But she wants power, her own powers to extend,

As fettered men can not their strength express.

O Light which mak’st the light, which makes the day!

Which set’st the eye without, and mind within;

‘Lighten my spirit with one clear heavenly ray,

Which now to view it self doth first begin.

But Thou which didst man’s soul of nothing make,

And when to nothing it was fallen again,

To make it new the form of man didst take,

And God with God, becam’st a Man with men.

Thou, that hast fashioned twice this soul of ours,

So that she is by double title Thine,

Thou only knowest her nature and her pow’rs,

Her subtle form Thou only canst define…

But Thou bright Morning Star, Thou rising Sun,

Which in these later times hast brought to light

Those mysteries, that since the world begun,

Lay hid in darkness and eternal night;

Thou (like the sun) dost with indifferent ray,

Into the palace and the cottage shine,

And shew’st the soul both to the clerk and lay,

By the clear lamp of Thy Oracle divine.

 

THURSDAY

 

Death as Birth   Sir John Davies

The first life, in the mother’s womb is spent,

Where she her nursing power doth only use;

Where, when she finds defect of nourishment,

She expels her body, and this world she views.

This we call Birth; but if the child could speak,

He Death would call it; and of Nature plain,

That she would thrust him out naked and weak,

And in his passage pinch him with such pain.

 

Yet, out he comes, and in this world is placed

Where all his Senses in perfection bee:

Where he finds flowers to smell, and fruits to taste;

And sounds to hear, and sundry forms to see.

When he hath past some time upon this stage,

His Reason then a little seems to wake;

Which, though the spring, when sense doth fade with age,

Yet can she here no perfect practise make.

Then doth th’aspiring Soul the body leave,

Which we call Death; but were it known to all,

What life our souls do by this death receive,

Men would it birth or gaol delivery call.

 

In this third life, Reason will be so bright,

As that her spark will like the sun-beams shine,

And shall of God enioy the real sight.

Being still increased by influence divine.

 

Acclamation

 

O ignorant poor man! what dost thou bear

Locked up within the casket of thy breast?

What jewels, and what riches hast thou there!

What heavenly treasure in so weak a chest!

Look in thy soul, and thou shalt beauties find,

Like those which drowned Narcissus in the flood:

Honour and Pleasure both are in thy mind,

And all that in the world is counted Good.

And when thou think’st of her eternity,

Think not that Death against her nature is;

Think it a birth: and when thou goest to die,

Sing like a swan, as if thou went’st to bliss.

 

FRIDAY

 

Faith in Honest Doubt   Alfred Tennyson

You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.

 

I know not: one indeed I knew

In many a subtle question versed,

Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,

But ever strove to make it true:

 

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,

At last he beat his music out.

There lives more faith in honest doubt,

Believe me, than in half the creeds.

 

He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,

He would not make his judgment blind,

He faced the spectres of the mind

And laid them: thus he came at length

 

To find a stronger faith his own;

And Power was with him in the night,

Which makes the darkness and the light,

And dwells not in the light alone,

 

But in the darkness and the cloud,

As over Siniai’s peaks of old,

While Israel made their gods of gold,

Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.

 

Saturday

 

Strong Son of God, Immortal Love               Alfred Tennyson


 

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,

Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

By faith, and faith alone, embrace,

Believing where we cannot prove;

Our little systems have their day;

They have their day and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of thee,

And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

 

We have but faith: we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow.

 

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before …

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Shriven, Ashed, and ready for Action

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

image courtesy of https://lanciaesmith.com

This is the first of the weekly series I am posting throughout this Lent in which you can hear me read aloud the poems I have chosen for my Lent Anthology The Word in the Wilderness. In the book itself you can read my commentary on each poem but I thought that, as with my advent anthology, you might like to hear the poems read. Where copyright allows I will also post the texts of the poems themselves here. Once more I am grateful to Lancia Smith who will be providing  specially made images for these weekly posts. Lancia has told me that today’s image of the shell suggests a sense of our  being ‘cleansed and emptied of what we once carried now waiting for a new day of our own’. But there is also of course the other sense in which the scallop shell is a symbol of pilgrimage, and pilgrimage is very much the central theme of this book.

Speaking of images that arise from this poetry you might like to know that there is now a Facebook Group Sounding the Sonnets which has some lovely galleries of art they have made in response to the poems in this and my other books.

If you would like to join an online reading group to follow this book through Lent then you might like to join the Literary Life Facebook Group run by Rick Wilcox

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

Today’s post takes us from Shrove Tuesday through to Saturday, the next post in this series will be on the first Sunday in Lent.

So here, first is the poem set for Shrove Tuesday, Seamus Heaney’s beautiful eleventh poem in the sequence Station Island:

Station Island XI Seamus Heaney/St. John of the Cross

And here is my sonnet for Ash Wednesday
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.

From Thursday to Saturday I have chosen each of my sonnets on the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness. You can read my commentary on these in the book.

Thursday:

Stones into Bread

 

The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here

The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.

When darkness speaks it seems so light and clear.

Now He must dare, with us, to make a choice.

In a distended belly’s cruel curve

He feels the famine of the ones who lose

He starves for those whom we have forced to starve

He chooses now for those who cannot choose.

He is the staff and sustenance of life

He lives for all from one Sustaining Word

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife

The stony ground of hearts that never shared,

God gives through Him what Satan never could;

The broken bread that is our only food.

 

His love still breaks and pierces like a knife (image courtesy of Margot Krebs Neale)

Friday:

All the Kingdoms of the World

 ‘So here’s the deal and this is what you get:

The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,

The banker’s bonus and the private jet

Control and ownership of all the news

An ‘in’ to that exclusive one percent,

Who know the score, who really run the show

With interest on every penny lent

And sweeteners for cronies in the know.

A straight arrangement between me and you

No hell below or heaven high above

You just admit it, and give me my due

And wake up from this foolish dream of love…’

But Jesus laughed, ‘You are not what you seem.

Love is the waking life, you are the dream.’

Saturday:

On the Pinnacle

‘Temples and Spires are good for looking down from;

You stand above the world on holy heights,

Here on the pinnacle, above the maelstrom,

Among the few, the true, unearthly lights.

Here you can breathe the thin air of perfection

And feel your kinship with the lonely star,

Above the shadow and the pale reflection,

Here you can know for certain who you are.

The world is stalled below, but you could move it

If they could know you as you are up here,

Of course they’ll doubt, but here’s your chance to prove it

Angels will bear you up, so have no fear….’

‘I was not sent to look down from above

It’s fear that sets these tests and proofs, not Love.’

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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 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

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Bible Sunday: Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest!

Book_of_common_prayer_1552Hear, 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:

Hear:

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.

Read:

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.

Mark:

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.

Learn:

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.

Inwardly Digest:

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.

The Lectern

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

Geoffrey Barnes about to read the poem ‘The Lectern’ at the lectern for which it was written

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A Sonnet for St. Luke’s Day

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.

 Luke

His gospel is itself a living creature

A ground and glory round the throne of God,

Where earth and heaven breathe through human nature

And One upon the throne sees it is good.

Luke is the living pillar of our healing,

A lowly ox, the servant of the four,

We turn his page to find his face revealing

The wonder, and the welcome of the poor.

He breathes good news to all who bear a burden

Good news to all who turn and try again,

The meek rejoice and prodigals find pardon,

A lost thief reaches paradise through pain,

The voiceless find their voice in every word

And, with Our Lady, magnify Our Lord.

Thanks to Margot Krebs Neale for this image

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A Sonnet for St. Francis

st-francis-of-assisiSt. 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

My sonnets for the Christian Year are available from Canterbury Press Here and on Kindle here

This sonnet for Francis is taken from my book The Singing Bowl, published by Canterbury Press. It is also available from Amazon UK Here, and USA Here and in Canada it is kept in stock by SignpostMusic


‘Francis, Rebuild My Church’; a sonnet for the Saint and for the new Pope

‘Francis rebuild my church which, as you see
Is falling into ruin.’ From the cross
Your saviour spoke to you and speaks to us
Again through you. Undoing set you free,
Loosened the traps of trappings, cast away
The trammelling of all that costly cloth
We wind our saviour in. At break of day
He set aside his grave-clothes. Your new birth
Came like a daybreak too, naked and true
To poverty and to the gospel call,
You woke to Christ and Christ awoke in you
And set to work through all your love and skill
To make our ruin good, to bless and heal
To wake the Christ in us and make us whole.

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Thank God for ‘Doubting’ Thomas!

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

St. Thomas the Apostle

 

“We do not know… how can we know the way?”

Courageous master of the awkward question,

You spoke the words the others dared not say

And cut through their evasion and abstraction.

Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,

You put your finger on the nub of things

We cannot love some disembodied wraith,

But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.

Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,

Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.

Because He loved your awkward counter-point

The Word has heard and granted you your wish.

Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine

The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

 

oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
the wounded God whose wounds are healing mine

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