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.




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.



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.




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.




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.




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.




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.




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.


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.


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.’


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.


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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On the Feast of Stephen

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood

Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood

There is something telling about the fact that the very day after Christmas the Church celebrates the Feast of Stephen, the first Martyr. Martyr means witness, and Stephen witnessed that the Babe born at Bethlehem was worth dying for, and more: he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus and in that resurrection the promise of resurrection to humanity, for whom Christ died. The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church, and the seed Stephen sowed bore almost immediate fruit.  I believe it was the witness of Stephen’s martyrdom that opened the way for Christ into the life of St. Paul. Even as he held the coats and was consenting unto Stephen’s death he was witnessing in Stephen’s face the risen life and love of Christ, and Paul’s road to Damascus led past the very place where Stephen died.

As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or on the ‘play’ button. This poem is taken from my collection ‘Sounding the Seasons; Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year’ published by Canterbury Press and also available from Amazon UK, US, and Canada

St. Stephen


Witness for Jesus, man of fruitful blood,

Your martyrdom begins and stands for all.

They saw the stones, you saw the face of God,

And sowed a seed that blossomed in St. Paul.

When Saul departed breathing threats and slaughter

He had to pass through that Damascus gate

Where he had held the coats and heard the laughter

As Christ, alive in you, forgave his hate,

And showed him the same light you saw from heaven

And taught him, through his blindness, how to see;

Christ did not ask ‘Why were you stoning Stephen?’

But ‘Saul, why are you persecuting me?’

Each martyr after you adds to his story,

As clouds of witness shine through clouds of glory.

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A Sonnet for St. Luke’s Day

St. Luke accompanied by his ‘creature’ the winged ox

This Wednesday, 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. 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.


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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St. Clare: a Sonnet

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

August the 11th is the day the church remembers with thanksgiving the life and witness of St. Clare.  She was the friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the Poor Clares. Her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts a soul-guide, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime and still a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.

Clare wrote:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”

So here is my sonnet in her honour reflecting on how the meaning of her name, ‘light and clarity’, was also the meaning of her life. This sonnet is taken from  The Singing Bowl my most recent volume of poems, which is published by Canterbury Press and available through Amazon etc.


Santa Chiara, lovely claritas

Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,

Shining through you as Holy Caritas,

Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection

The girl whom Love has called to call us all

Back into truth, simplicity and grace.

Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,

Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.

Christ holds the mirror of your given life

Up to the world he gives himself to save,

A sacrament to keep your city safe,

A window into his eternal love.

Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,

Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.



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