Category Archives: poetry

8 January: As it was.

It has to be as it was,
Of course I didn't understand!
It has to be as it was,
Well, almost:
Dark, cold, restless, waiting 
And lonely.

It has to do with loneliness,
And I am rarely lonely.
But, yes, 
It has to be as it was ...
Waiting, cold,
Dark in my warm, well lighted room.

That's not as it was,
No renaissance nativity,
No Christmas card crib,
Just loneliness and the need for warmth and preparation.
Wondering what tomorrow might bring,
Stars and rest and the smell and placid breath
Of animals.

But shelter,
That's as it was!
                                                                                                        Sheila Billingsley.

'Dark in my warm, well lighted room'. Who has not felt that way? How many will be feeling that way this Christmas, how many more are without even the warm, well-lighted room? Let us pray for all who are exiled and homeless this Christmas time, and support those who are organising shelter for them. Our first photograph was taken by volunteers seeking out homeless people on the streets of Canterbury, in order to offer shelter.
Winter and warm, well lighted rooms.
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4 January: The Spotless Rose.

A spotless Rose is blowing
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter
And in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
For through our God’s great love and might
The blessed babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.

——————————————————————-

Another Christmas poem, this time from Germany. The poem takes us back to King David’s father, Jesse, thirty-times great-grandfather to Jesus. The Jesse tree picks out some of the ancestors for art works in stained glass, sculpture or painting, including Ruth, the foreigner from Moab, who was to become the grandmother of Jesse (Matthew 1:5). So much for any idea of pure Israelite blood in David’s line! In fact, the book of Ruth celebrates this foreign woman’s loyalty and goodness down through the ages and generations.

Mary, even more so than Ruth, stands as a Good Woman. ‘Spotless Rose’, like many of the titles given to Mary, may not appeal to your imagination. This lovely Scottish rose, sprung in a canal-side hedge, did not set me thinking about Mary. But when I wanted a photograph for the Spotless Rose, I knew where to find it. And maybe the next time I look at rose, a bell might ring in my mind.

Traditional German carol, translated by Catherine Winkworth.

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3 January: An old Scot remembers.

Weeping Willow, Westgate Gardens, Canterbury.

At New Year 1873, William Allingham, the Irish Poet, was in London and called on his Scottish friend Thomas Carlyle, as he told his diary.

London, January 1, 1873. — Carlyle’s at 3. He gives me a book. We walk out.

This morning he said, ‘ after midnight, as Mary and I were sitting together, we heard a chorus of male voices outside the window singing Auld Lang Syne. We peeped out, and saw five or six figures on the other side of the street. I was really touched. I put up the window and said ” Good-night ! ” one of them eagerly replied ” Good-night ! ” and then they all vanished silently away.’

Then with a laugh he added, ‘ Truly the songs of Judah in a Babylonish land ‘ ! and afterwards quoted Burns’s burlesque lines : — We hung our fiddles up to dreep*. He spoke of ‘Hogmanay ‘ in the streets of Edinburgh, hot punch and kissing.

*Nae mair by Babel's streams we'll weep,
To think upon our Zion;
And hang our fiddles up to dreep,
Like baby-clouts a-drying:
Come, screw the pegs wi' tuneful cheep,
And o'er the thairms by trying;
Oh rare! To see our elbucks wheep,
And a' like lambs' tails flyin'
                                        Fu' fast this day!

In Psalm 137 the poet sings of the people of Israel refusing to sing in exile, instead hanging their musical instruments on the willows beside the rivers of Babylon. This willow was just coming into leaf in Spring. Carlyle was not a conventional Christian believer, more of a life-long enquirer, but he enjoyed the tribute of being serenaded with song from the first-footers – who vanished silently away rather than expect their dram of whisky. Hogmanay seems to have been carnival time in Edinburgh 200 years ago, when Carlyle was a young man there.

Burns was not the man to indulge for long in melancholic reflection; rather he looked forward to the fiddlers’ elbows whipping the strings and getting people to dance. Perhaps the exiles’ songs of Judah contributed greatly to the fellowship, friendship and community of the Chosen People.

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30 December: Blake’s Cradle song

A Cradle Song

Sweet dreams, form a shade
   O'er my lovely infant's head!
   Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
   By happy, silent, moony beams!
 
Sweet Sleep, with soft down
   Weave thy brows an infant crown
   Sweet Sleep, angel mild,
   Hover o'er my happy child!
 
Sweet smiles, in the night
   Hover over my delight!
   Sweet smiles, mother's smile,
   All the livelong night beguile.

 Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
   Chase not slumber from thine eyes!
   Sweet moan, sweeter smile,
   All the dovelike moans beguile.

 Sleep, sleep, happy child!
   All creation slept and smiled.
   Sleep, sleep, happy sleep,
   While o'er thee doth mother weep.
 
Sweet babe, in thy face
   Holy image I can trace;
   Sweet babe, once like thee
   Thy Maker lay, and wept for me:
 
Wept for me, for thee, for all,
   When He was an infant small.
   Thou His image ever see,
   Heavenly face that smiles on thee!
 
Smiles on thee, on me, on all,
   Who became an infant small;
   Infant smiles are his own smiles;
   Heaven and earth to peace beguiles.

From "Songs of Innocence"

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December 26: How should we know?

Deus Absconditus*

Behind each mystery a greater lies,
The kind soul looks upon us through kind eyes,
Yet both are mysteries;
And once, beneath the silver of a star,
There knelt three Travellers who came from far,
And humbly laid great gifts upon the sod,
Before a human Babe Who yet was God.

How should we know our God if He should come?
Where seek Him if He made this earth His home?
The angels knew, the prophets greatly guessed,
He should be found among the lowliest;
And lo, in stable straw He maketh nest.

Father Andrew

Is Father Andrew writing about the hidden God or the revealed God? Both, surely. This is a time to remember the revelation that is Jesus, the kind soul that looks upon us with love, as human babes do to this day.

Here is the Holy Family, hidden away in Egypt, Joseph working away, Mary home-schooling Jesus, who is concentrating hard on the text he is learning. Joseph’s income enables this to happen. How many children today miss out on education because parents cannot afford the fees or other expenses?

Let us keep our eyes and ears open for news of the hidden God, who wants to be found, in the Scriptures, in nature and in other people. The next two posts look at God, hidden but revealed in people at the margins of society.

* The hidden God

Window at The Sacred Heart and Saint William, Saddleworth.


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18 December, Advent Light XVIII: Yet more.

Yet more,

Yet further,

Fun

In the searching.

Be there.

Fr Hilary Costello of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey was a long-standing family friend. These lines are from a poem he shared with my mother that turned up among her papers when she died. The poem seems to veer from one speaker to another, one hearer to another. Here is God talking to the reader, or the writer to God? either makes sense. They also reinforce the idea of enjoying being a Christian. The shepherds and the Magi surely had fun in the searching; so, too, let us go unto Bethlehem!

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13 December, Advent Light XIII: The bell strikes one.

The bell strikes one. We take no note of time 
But from its loss. To give it then a tongue 
Is wise in man. As if an angel spoke, 
I feel the solemn sound. If heard aright,
 It is the knell of my departed hours: Where are they? 
With the years beyond the flood.  
It is the signal that demands despatch: 
How much is to be done? My hopes and fears 
Start up alarm’d, and o’er life’s narrow verge 
Look down—on what? a fathomless abyss; 
A dread eternity! how surely mine! 
And can eternity belong to me, 
Poor pensioner on the bounties of an hour? 


How poor, how rich, how abject, how august, 
How complicate, how wonderful, is man! 
How passing wonder He who made him such!  
Who centred in our make such strange extremes! 
From different natures marvellously mix’d, 
Connexion exquisite of distant worlds! 
Distinguish’d link in being’s endless chain! 
Midway from nothing to the Deity!" 

From "Night Thoughts" by Edward Young.


Edward Young was a contemporary of Samuel Johnson so did not know the mixed blessing of electric lighting! George Gilfillan, his editor of 1853, described,'his lonely lamp shining at midnight, like a star, through the darkness, and seeming to answer the far signal of those mightier luminaries which are burning above in the Great Bear and Orion.' Surely he had a few sleepless nights. We can turn to Saint Paul for further comment.

But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.

 But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:2-10)

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3 December: Advent Light IV. Contracted light.

XVII Century German window at Patrixbourne, Kent.
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,        
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;        
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:        
Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have        
A better lodging then a rack or grave.
From Christmas by George Herbert.

George Herbert was an Anglican priest who died in 1633, during the reign of Charles I of England, those were troubled times. This is an extract from his poem, Christmas. That little star we looked for on Sunday is now a glorious, but contracted light, powerful enough to transform a dark soul into a better lodging for Christ – a better lodging than the rack which in Herbert’s time had replaced the Cross as an instrument of torture; a better lodging than the grave that only held Christ until the third day. Christmas and Easter are parts of the same story.

Lord, do not be a stranger to me. Shine your light into my soul. Help me to follow the star this Advent, however many distractions get in the way.

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30 November: Blest Fishers

For so our Lord was pleased when  
He Fishers made Fishers of men;  
Where (which is in no other game)  
A man may fish and praise his name.  
The first men that our Saviour dear  
Did chuse to wait upon him here,  
Blest Fishers were; and fish the last  
Food was, that he on earth did taste.  
I therefore strive to follow those,  
Whom he to follow him hath chose.  

W. B. (from "The Complete Angler 1653" by Izaak Walton)

Today is the feast of Saint Andrew, fisher, Apostle, missionary, martyr, patron of Scotland. Izaak Walton was the first biographer of George Herbert, whose poetry we read yesterday. Jesus also chose a civil servant in the person of Saint Matthew, and he 'hath chose' you and me as well, so let's enjoy the light-heartedness of this verse!

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13 November: A poet on a poet.

by Atkinson Grimshaw

On this day in 1907 died Francis Thompson, aged 47. He had been in poor health after years of sleeping rough and addiction. Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, writers themselves, took him under their wings, found writing work for him and helped him get published, but TB had already claimed him.

This poem is by W. H. Davies, his younger contemporary, who had himself known life on the streets of London and of American cities. He knew of what he wrote.

Francis Thompson

Thou hadst no home, and thou couldst see
  In every street the windows' light:
  Dragging thy limbs about all night,
No window kept a light for thee.

 However much thou wert distressed,
  Or tired of moving, and felt sick,
  Thy life was on the open deck—
Thou hadst no cabin for thy rest.
 
Thy barque was helpless 'neath the sky,
  No pilot thought thee worth his pains
  To guide for love or money gains—
Like phantom ships the rich sailed by.
 
Thy shadow mocked thee night and day,
  Thy life's companion, it alone;
  It did not sigh, it did not moan,
But mocked thy moves in every way.

In spite of all, the mind had force,
  And, like a stream whose surface flows
  The wrong way when a strong wind blows,
It underneath maintained its course.

Oft didst thou think thy mind would flower
  Too late for good, as some bruised tree
  That blooms in Autumn, and we see
Fruit not worth picking, hard and sour.
 
Some poets feign their wounds and scars.
  If they had known real suffering hours,
  They'd show, in place of Fancy's flowers,
More of Imagination's stars.
 
So, if thy fruits of Poesy
  Are rich, it is at this dear cost—
  That they were nipt by Sorrow's frost,
In nights of homeless misery.

From "Foliage: Various Poems" by W. H. Davies.

See also another Welsh Poet, R. S. Thomas, who also observed the difference between the surface and the depths. 

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