Category Archives: winter

13 January: now you see him.

Mrs Turnstone, whose birthday this is, loves the fact that on 13 January the sun is visible in Greenland for the first time since the winter’s darkness took over. Let’s pray that we might be ready to observe the light we are given and to rejoice this day and every day.

And Happy Birthday to Mrs Turnstone!

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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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25 December: Through Angels’ Eyes

Through Angels’ Eyes

This dusty angel is in York Minster with his improbably long-chained censer. Strength to your arm, Angel!

The winter night knows many a star,
But the Angels have found one brighter far
Than any that ever has shone before;
They float and fall through the silent snow
Like birds of God, to settle below;
To find our earth the Angels go.

A poor little planet, a poor little town,
A poor little cradle, not lined with down,
A particular absence of all renown;
Angels must be peculiar things,
Who float and fall with wheeling wings
To seek in such for the King of kings.

If we were heaven-taught we should know
That what we think high God might yet think low,
And straight to Bethlehem singing go;
For this earth of ours is still the Star
Whither the Angels flew from far,
Where the Christ-child and His Mother are.

More bright than the star that Wisdom led,
To Angels’ eyes shone the cattle-shed,
Where the little Christ once laid His head;
And ‘twixt the tapers, just the same
As when to Bethlehem once they came,
To Angels’ eyes must the altar flame.

Father Andrew

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21 December, Advent Light XXI: The Dayspring

After Father Tom yesterday, here is another Franciscan, Father Andrew this time, reflecting on the O Antiphon for today: O Oriens, O rising dawn, or as the English hymn has it, O come thou dayspring!

The Dayspring

The dawn drives off the dark, and day doth come
Queening away the fearsomeness of night;
But all the world is blessed Mary’s home,
Nor any hour can lack for her its night
While He, our hearts’ one Home, curled cosily,
Can even straw and stall and stable raise
To throne and palace by His royalty;
For perfect Love hath come Who casts out fear –
Now doth the Dayspring from on high appear.

Father Andrew

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

And let us sing, Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel! Let us be joyful this Christmas; He can raise our homes to palaces with his Kingly presence.

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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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6 October, Little FLowers XCIV: A Cold Night

Francis gets under way again, accompanied by Brother Leo. Once Francis would have walked but his condition, after a rigorous life and the suffering he was now enduring from the stigmata, meant that he had to ride on a donkey, and the donkey’s owner came to look after man and beast.

Jesus had walked through Palestine for three years before he took to riding on a donkey as he came to Jerusalem for the last time. I am sure we are meant to see the parallel with Francis’ last journey to Assisi. He, too, knew that he was riding to his death.

Image from Strasbourg Cathedral.

Saint Francis departed Città di Castello, to go unto Santa Maria degli Angeli with Friar Leo, and with a good man, who lent him his little ass, whereupon Saint Francis rode. 

Now, it came to pass that, by reason of the bad roads and the great cold, they journeyed all day without being able to reach any place where they might lodge; so being constrained by the darkness and by the bad weather, they took shelter beneath the brow of a hollow rock, to avoid the snow and the night which was coming on. And, being in this evil case and also badly clad, the good man, to whom the ass belonged, could not sleep by reason of the cold; wherefore he began to murmur gently within himself and to weep; and almost did he blame Saint Francis, who had brought him into such a place. Then Saint Francis, perceiving this, had compassion upon him, and, in fervour of spirit, stretched out his hand and touched him. 

O marvellous thing! as soon as he had touched him with that hand of his, enkindled and pierced by the fire of the Seraph, all the cold left him; and so much heat entered into him, both within and without, that he seemed to be hard by the mouth of a burning furnace; whence being presently comforted in soul and body he fell asleep; and, according to that which he said, he slept more sweetly that night, among rocks and snow until morning, than he had ever slept in his own bed. 

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Two winter moments

The other day when I walked into the greenhouse it was the first time this year that it felt appreciably warmer than outdoors. A spring moment even in February and worthy of a mention in the blog.

When I was looking for a picture to mark the moment I came across this snap from exactly a year before. The snow was such a blessing to all who like snowmen and sledges. There was not enough for cross country skiing, and the sledgers were spattered with as much mud as snow. But that was a moment of pure joy for many people who had been locked down by the corona virus. A heartfelt Deo Gratias!

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18 February: Changeable Skies and Uncertain Seasons.

Winter’s Afternoon, Old Ruttington Lane.

Another visit to the eighteenth century in the company of Doctor Johnson and James Boswell.

In The Idler, No. II, Johnson shews that ‘an Englishman’s notice of the weather is the natural consequence of changeable skies and uncertain seasons… In our island every man goes to sleep unable to guess whether he shall behold in the morning a bright or cloudy atmosphere, whether his rest shall be lulled by a shower, or broken by a tempest. We therefore rejoice mutually at good weather, as at an escape from something that we feared; and mutually complain of bad, as of the loss of something that we hoped.’

Boswell for once is quoting from Johnson’s written words rather than conversation. I found this text on the same day in winter that I took the photograph. My father called the piercing of clouds by sunbeams such as we see here ‘The Gate of Heaven’. A saying worth recording, as Boswell would no doubt have agreed.

I am reminded of the line of Chesterton: ‘The gates of heaven are lightly locked.’ But do we look up to see them? Dare we set a toe over the threshold, pausing even for a moment, to catch a glimpse of glory? What does the voice from the cloud tell us? I found myself hurrying the next moment, as my grandson’s school bell had rung and he would soon be out, scanning the playground for his adults. But the moment stayed with me.

From “Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784” by James Boswell

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13 February: A Motto to live by.

317px-Philip_Doddridge.jpg (317×479)
Philip Doddridge D.D.

How are you doing with those New Year’s Resolutions? Read on for some encouragement!

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell are in Skye, made very welcome by a local chief, but unable to move on because the weather was too bad for sailing or rowing, and of course Calmac steamships had not yet appeared. Here is Boswell describing one of their conversations. Doctor Doddridge was a non-conformist minister and hymn writer who died in 1751, 22 years before the friends’ tour of Scotland. More of Boswell’s idiosyncratic spellings.

Dr Dodridge being mentioned, [Johnson] observed that ‘he was author of one of the finest epigrams in the English language. It is in Orton’s Life of him. The subject is his family-motto, Dum vivimus, vivamus*; which, in its primary signification, is, to be sure, not very suitable to a Christian divine; but he paraphrased it thus:

  Live, while you live, the EPICURE would say,
  And seize the pleasures of the present day.
  Live, while you live, the sacred PREACHER cries,
  And give to God each moment as it flies.
 
  Lord, in my views let both united be;
  I live in PLEASURE, when I live to THEE. 

(from The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell)

*While we are alive, let us live!

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