The Indomitable Seasons

“Once, the annual cycle of the season must have seemed eternal and indomitable. The year moved from the birdsong and flowers of spring through summer’s work of harvesting and husbandry to autumnal stock-taking and into the icy challenge of winter. Every year was different, but the pattern of the seasons was consistent – a consistency powerfully strengthened by a rich calendar of proverbial lore, annual rituals, and frequent festivities. Although the weather and the seasons actually had an element of unpredictability from year to year, they were nevertheless yoked to a calendar that marked their characteristics and their progress with absolute certainty.

But now everything is changing. The seasons are blurring, they no longer have such apparently distinctive beginnings and ends…Once common cultural references are forgotten, and twenty-first-century British society is becoming ever more remote from the social and economic realities of rural life.” Nick Groom, The Seasons: A Celebration of the English Year, p. 25

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It has been just over one year since I entered a life of parish ministry.

Lately, after noticing that this year has seemed to pass the fastest of any other year of my life, I have been reflecting on the passage of time and how this has changed for me in the last few years..

Before becoming the Rector of the parish I serve I spent 10 years in the post-secondary world as a student. There’s a great deal I miss about that life but what has been the most jarring is how much I miss the structure of the year and the passage of time as a student.

Perhaps my longing for this way of marking the passage of time exists because in my heart it reminds me of connections to friends and learning, communities in which I lived, and a time that was so quickening and beautiful for me. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if I long for it simply because it was a kind of regula and order imposed upon my life and by which I could mark the seasons.

Not only was I subject to the passage of the academic year, but I was being shaped by the rhythm of the liturgical through my involvement in the campus chapel.

There is something comforting about subjecting oneself to an external force like the seasons, there is something deeply comforting and harmonious about their indomitability and power.

A few times over the last year I have visited a friend’s family hobby farm and had a taste of life lived there and it has made me envious. There life is lived in complete subjection to powers beyond our control, like the weather and the seasons. The year is marked out by ritual tasks that must be done. Thanksgiving always brings with it the knowledge that the pigs will need to be slaughtered; December means the time of  Christmas tree harvesting has come; and at a certain point in the Spring it is time to turn the garden beds.

There is a great beauty in being governed by those forces and necessities, of the repetition and ritual that comes with the passage of each year.

The church has her own calendar and way of marking the passage of time, but the sad fact is that so much of the church suffers from a tragic amnesia about itself.

Modern lectionaries and church calendars have diminished, and in some cases destroyed, the inherent logic and beauty of the way that the church, for millennia, marked the passage of time.

Take for example the feasts of St. John the Baptist and St. Thomas the Apostle. It would have been very clear to people who lived in closer relation to the natural seasons that there was a reason why we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist at the Summer Solstice and St. Thomas at the Winter Solstice – John announces at the time when our days begin to darken that he, “Must decrease so that He may increase,” until we find ourselves on the darkest day of the year when St. Thomas is turned from the darkness of doubt and we begin our journey back towards light.

With modern calendars having moved the Feast of St. Thomas to July the subtle beauty and distinction is lost.

In my parish we use the modern calendar and lectionary but it means very little to anyone. We no longer have access to the church seasons like the -gesimas that bring so much more meaning to Lent, nor are we privy to the joys of Epiphanytide, or Whitsuntide, nor Rogationtide. Our church year has simply been parcelled out into large chunks of either Ordinary Time or something slightly less ordinary.

In the last year we have recognized church festivals such as Rogationtide, the Ember Days, and Lammas Day, even if only through little ways. We live in a heavily agricultural and rural province where most people are, at most, only one generation removed from farming so these are all parts of the church calendar that people connect with, but there is still so much left to rediscover.

 

Here in the Rectory we are trying to reclaim some practices and habits that will help us to live more in relation to that indomitable and governing structure of the seasons both natural and liturgic: we recognize and celebrate the daily offices from the old calendar and lectionary, we will be preparing our yard for growing food next Spring, we will be eating more seasonally, I allow myself to be subject to the natural rhythms and seasons of the fish in my fly fishing, and I will be brewing beer through the winter using flavours and ingredients fitting the seasons.

They are small steps, but it is an attempt to reclaim that which has been lost through our distance from rural life, from the ancient rhythms of our church, and from allowing ourselves the felicity of having our lives governed by forces wholly external to us

The Finches – Wendel Berry

The ears stung with cold
sun and frost of dawn
in early April, comes

the song of winter finches,
their crimson bright, then
as they move into

and then against the light.
May the year warm them
soon. May they soon go

north with their singing
and the season follow.
May the bare sticks soon

live, and our minds go free
of the ground
into the shining of trees.

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We’re Getting Rid of the Internet

Yes, you read that right.

It’s been a thought I’ve been incubating over the last year and one that I have spent lots of time considering. A number of months ago I expressed my feelings to my wife and she agreed that it was time to cut the cord (so-to-speak).

Soon we will be moving. I will be taking my first parish and we will be leaving the apartment where we have been for two years and moving into a rectory somewhere else in the Diocese. When we get there we will not be installing internet (I have not had television for 6 years now, that also won’t be coming into the house).

Not only will we not be installing internet, but we will also be “downgrading” our smart-phones to flip phones with no data access.

We will have access to public libraries, coffee shops, and I will likely have an internet-enabled church office very near by, so we will still access the internet, but we are making a conscious choice not to make it part of our home life.

Computers have been a part of my life for a very long time, both of my parents’ jobs necessitated them having computers at home, even when I was in very early elementary school at a time when no one else had computers. Soon after, just as dial-up internet was being made available publicly, we had that enabled in our home. My fascination with computers was largely due to the tinkering side of my personality, and the internet opened up a whole new world of people, interests, knowledge, and fun that had before then been very different to access. From then on the internet was a household and daily part of my life.

 

In so many ways my access to the internet has led to good things: people I have met, access to incredible amounts of knowledge and things to read, games that could entertain for hours. It also does something though, that when unchecked, becomes quite insidious: it desensitizes, it makes disturbing imagery intimately close, and it skews ones desire such that there is an almost insatiable drive to keep browsing.

This desire combined with unfettered and intimate access means that the gritty and gruesome details of the latest ISIS massacres are welcomed right into our beds as we check our phones before we sleep, or right after waking up.

I once remember a journalism professor remarking to us that what makes radio unique above all other forms of media is that radio is with us where television and newspapers are not: a human voice that is with us in the shower, next to our beds, in our cars as we drive, in our ears as we walk, in our kitchens. Like phones, radio exists in those intimate places in our lives that other forms of media cannot penetrate; unlike radio, which is scheduled and finite, the internet provides an endless rabbit hole of fascinating and often depraved things to click and read.

Where once I sated my desire to get lost in reading with books, now I reach down beside my bed and pull up Google. Where once I could distract myself from reading books with day-dreams, now even that time has surrendered itself to my iPhone.

Now at this point you might be saying to yourself, “But Colin, this is your problem, not the internet’s. This is a problem of your self-control and discipline,” and indeed you are right, it is. It is extreme, perhaps, but there is something to be taken I think from a loose interpretation of Christ’s words in Matthew 5:30–it’s not my hand I will be cutting off, but rather the very thing that enables us to spend our time in a way that neither of us want.

It has been such a dependable routine for so long I know that there will be pains in the beginning, it will not be easy. Thankfully the excitement of starting a new job and setting up our home will help mitigate whatever difficulty we have and hopefully books, focus, and quietude will again become parts of our regular home life.

Sermon for the 5th Sunday After Trinity

St. George’s Round Church
June 26th,2016

Sunday by Sunday, year by year, our reading of scripture brings us through what Father Crouse called a programme of practical spirituality that contains within it the design of our salvation. That is to say, each year—each cycle of the prayer-book lectionary—we hear the story, even the guide, to our salvation.

And each season within our church year has its own place and part to play in this practical spiritual system.

If the first half of our year from Advent to Trinity is the telling of the glorious life and works and love of Jesus Christ through which our redemption and reconciliation to God is accomplished—then Trinitytide, the second half of the year, is what gives us the practical and moral example of how to live into the first half. Trinitytide is about our sanctification.
We need only look back over the last four weeks, beginning with the collect of the First Sunday after Trinity, to see that we begin this season with a recognition of our frailty and our reliance on God’s mercy for all things, “because through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee” says the Collect. And in the following weeks we pray to be protected by God’s mercy and providence—another recognition of our wills being insufficient without God. We ask for such things as protection from dangers and last week we prayed for God’s help to see us through this temporal world such that we do not lose those eternal things to which we are called.

The rationale of the Trinity season readings, Father Crouse tells us, is that we begin with purgation, and are moved to illumination and finally to union with the divine. We hear this desire for purgation in our collect today in which we pray for this disordered world to be set straight, that war may be turned to peace, that noise may become quietness, and that the Church in all its parts may serve God truly. Put in another more fitting way given the octave we are in: we are praying that every valley may be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, that the crooked will be made straight and that rough places will be made plain. The collects we have been hearing and will continue to hear for a few weeks remind us that above all we are yearning for that highway in the desert to be made straight, as the prophet Isaiah foretold regarding the forerunner John the Baptist.

These recent Sundays call us to no easy task: to purge ourselves of those things which cause disorder within our soul. It is exactly these things that Paul is wants us to consider in today’s Epistle, “be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing.” Paul so calls us to love as brethren and be courteous and pitiful, because even the smallest acts of discourtesy or moments of uncharitableness are as much a violence against neighbour as any physical violence we could commit.

So often these acts go unnoticed by us and are more a result of the disorder of our fallen natures and our susceptibility to the powers and principalities that occupy this disordered world than they are intentional ill will. St. John Cassian, a 5th century monastic, speaks to the seemingly irrational ways we can behave to one another out of the disorder of our interior selves. He writes:

But sometimes without any apparent reason for our being driven to fall into this misfortune, we are by the instigation of our crafty enemy suddenly depressed with so great a gloom that we cannot receive with ordinary civility the visits of those who are near and dear to us; and whatever subject of conversation is started by them, we regard it as ill-timed and out of place; and we can give them no civil answer, as the gall of bitterness is in possession of every corner of our heart.

Cassian and Paul, speaking of the same despair and disorder, offer us the same path to and ordered soul. Paul tells us that we must do good, rather than bad, refrain from speaking guile or lies and, perhaps most importantly, we must suffer this disorder, “But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye…” indeed our answer to the oppressors’ terror is not to be afraid nor to meet it with our own violence, but simply to praise and sanctify God in our hearts and suffer with patience whatever is done to us, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers.” And Cassian likewise says:

And so God …commands that we should not give up intercourse with our brethren, nor avoid those who we think have been hurt by us, or by whom we have been offended, but bids us pacify them, knowing that perfection of heart is not secured by separating from men so much as by the virtue of patience. Which when it is securely held, as it can keep us at peace even with those who hate peace.

The fruit of such patience, the fruit of desiring and seeking after order within ourselves even in the midst of a disordered world is what our Gospel shows us today. Jesus, at the lake of Gennesaret, gets into Simon’s boat and gets him to cast off into the lake first teaching the people on the shore for a while and then going farther out into the water where he instructed Simon to cast his net. The dejection and violence that arises from our disordered souls, the same that Cassian spoke of, is heard in the cry of Simon when he at first complains to Jesus about having fished all night but caught nothing and reluctantly tries again. The ensuing miracle of the draught of fishes turns Simon Peter not to rejoicing at the size of the catch, but to repentance at Jesus’ knees. Jesus then tells Simon Peter and the other fishermen that they are called to be something greater than simply fishermen; the fruit of this ordered interior life that we so much need and desire, and for which this part of Trinitytide calls us to prepare, is the capacity for deeper love and deeper union with both Christ and others, such that we, like Simon Peter and the Disciples, may rather become “fishers of men.”
And so we pray may God grant that our hearts may be peaceably ordered so that our Church may serve Him with one mind, that every valley will be exalted and rough place made plain. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Thursday in Lent I

Maps Holly Ordway

 
Antique maps, with curlicues of ink
As borders, framing what we know, like pages
From a book of traveler’s tales: look,
Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.
No-nonsense maps from family trips: each state
Traced out in colour-coded numbered highways,
A web of roads with labeled city dots
Punctuating the route and its slow stories.
Now GPS puts me right at the centre,
A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.
Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself. I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

Holly Ordway’s contemporary sonnet brings us back from the seventeenth century to our own fast-moving, wi-fi, online times, and calls us sharply to look up  from our screens and be more truly oriented. …

This beautiful blank sonnet takes us on a journey through history, embodied in three maps, and then brings us abruptly to ourselves in the present, with an implicit word of challenge. We begin with the antique maps, with their ‘curlicues of ink’, and little drawings of ships, evocative of a bygone era, a different view of the world, perhaps going back to a time when the world was thought to be the centre of all things, or even to be flat, with the seas pouring off its edges. Then she brings us into the twentieth century with the road maps  that most of us can remember, ’no-nonsense maps from from family trips’, quietly evoking the sense of shared conversation and storytelling in the family car and the way the map itself is like a keeper or an index of memories: ‘with labeled city-dots punctuating the route and its slow stories’.

Then comes the ‘volta’, or the ‘turn’. There is a strong tradition in the making of sonnets to see the transition from the first eight lines (the octet) to the final six (the sextet) as a point of transition, offering a turn in the meaning, tone or development of the poem. The early Italian pioneers of the sonnet form called this the ‘volta’, and some of the most famous sonnet rhyme schemes, such as the Petrarchan form, are designed to emphasize this moment of turning, which is often indicated by a shift in the writer’s perspective. So at her ‘volta’, Ordway shifts from the past to the present tense, announced with the opening word ’Now’, and in every sense introduces a profound shift of perspective. Suddenly we have come out of the world of maps and into the twenty-first- century world of satnav! Even though many centuries may have separated the ‘antique maps, with curlicues of ink’ from the ’no-nonsense’ road maps, they still have more in common with each other and belong, as it were, to the same era, in comparison with the new world in which every map is reconfigured to suit the perspective of its user:

Now GPS puts me right at the centre,
A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.

The term ‘Ptolemaic shift’ involves a wonderful paradox. We are familiar with the great ‘paradigm shift’ that occurs when we moved from the ‘Ptolemaic’ view of the universe, with the earth at the centre and the sun and stars moving around it in great crystalline spheres, to the ‘Copernican’ view of the universe with the sun at the centre and the earth and other planets orbiting around: this is referred to as the Copernican revolution or Copernican shift. But here Ordway is suggesting that ironically the invention of hi-tech satnav has resulted instead in a Ptolemaic shift, in which we have put ourselves back in the centre of all the maps!
There is also a telling wordplay in her use of the word ‘pinned:

Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turn
And turn to orient myself.

Users of handheld GPS systems on their smartphones will be familiar with the idea of ‘dropping pins’ to mark their location or the location they are looking for as an aid to navigation, but ‘pinned where I am’ also carries the sense of being pinned down or trapped. We are accustomed to the sight of people whose eyes are fixed and pinned down on their smartphones as they walk, bumping into others and missing both the beauty and the clear landmarks of the world around them, and this is where the final ‘turn’ or ‘volta’ of the poem comes:

I have
Directions calculated, maps at hand:
Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.

‘The map is not the reality,’ as the old Zen Masters used to say. We can get lost in our representations, we can mistake the image for the real thing; sometimes we just need to look up and be where we are in order to see where that is. This certainly applies to our Christian pilgrimage. …

Perhaps this is a good stage in our journey through Lent to look up and take stock, to keep to hand and use what is clear and helpful and to leave behind what is confusing or disorientating in the maps we have been given. Playing again on the idea of the turn or ‘volta’, Ordway offers us the image of someone turning and turning to orient themselves. But of curse the word ‘turn’ has a deeper Christian resonance. The true turn, the real ‘volta’ is the turn we turn at the beginning of this journey, on Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, the turn of metanoia or repentance, when we turned away from sin and turned to follow Christ. Every so often we should look up; if we have inadvertently turned and gone astray, we need to turn again and be ‘oriented’ to face again the true east of our rising sun.

Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Tuesday in Lent I

Today’s poem, or piece of a poem, comes to us from John Donne. The commentary comes, once again, from Malcolm Guite.

Satire III – John Donne

… though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

Monday’s poem, ‘The Pilgrimage’ by George Herbert, introduced a Lenten theme of journey and search, reflecting the journey of the children of Israel through the wilderness, and Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness. Our poems this week develop that theme further, beginning with this extract from one of John Donne’s Satires. This poem uses the same image of truth on a hill; indeed it may be one of the sources for Herbert, who knew Donne well as a family friend. The wider context of the ‘Satire’ is Donne’s difficult and perplexed search, amid the many controversies that vexed the Church in his day, for a clear understanding of where Christ is to be found. Here he realizes that a round-about method, considering the same thing from different places and angles, may be the only way to ascend to truth, but he also recognizes the need for resolve, deliberation and energy in the search. This is a dense and complex poem; I have chosen this particular passage because of its two clear, striking and helpful metaphors of the hill and the sun.

But first let me explain a little context. Earlier in the ‘Satire’ Donne conjures up caricatures of various contemporary religious ‘types’: an extreme Roman Catholic besotted wit ritual and all things Roman, an extreme Calvinist who believes nothing unless it’s come straight from Geneva, and a lazy indifferentist who blithely assumes that all faiths probably end up to the same thing but doesn’t actually bother to enquire. In the course of the poem Donne shows how each of them might be mistaken or simply carried away. Then, seeing this variety, Donne confronts the possibility of never finding any truth or certainty. Finally, we come to the point in the poem where our extract begins, in which he realizes that however difficult, or tentative, he must begin to make serious enquiries. Truth and falsehood may be, as he says, ‘near twins’, so like each other that it’s hard to distinguish, but truth is ‘a little elder’ and she’s still worth seeking.

That truth ‘a little elder is’, is itself a statement that carries a great truth. Truth can exist without falsehood, but to discern anything as actually false we have to have a prior standard of truth; every falsehood points to, and depends upon, an ‘elder’ truth. Earlier in the ‘Satire’ he may have mocked those who ‘adore, or scorn an image, or protest’, but that does not absolve him of responsibility to seek truth for himself. Then comes one of the great phrases of this poem: ‘doubt wisely; in strange way to stand inquiring right, is not to stray’. The Church would do well to learn from this. The serious doubter, the sincere enquirer, the person who hesitates a long time on a threshold, these are all people to be honoured and encouraged, not, as is so often the case, either demonized or cajoled. Donne put this even more succinctly in one of his great sermons at Lincoln’s Inn. ‘To come to a doubt and a debasement in any religious duty is the voice of God in our conscience. Would you know the truth? Doubt and then you will enquire …’ (Sermons 5.38)

Then comes the justly famous metaphor of the hill:
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Some things are too great to come at directly. Just as we may weave back and forth as we climb a hill, and appear to be going around in circles, yet all the while are coming closer to the summit, so in our religious and spiritual life things may seem circuitous; we may think we have come back to the same spot, but always, if we press on, it is a little higher, a little closer to the truth.

Donne follows this image with a reflection on light. Perhaps the metaphor of an arduous climb suggested the desire to reach the peak before twilight; then comes the direct allusion to John 9.4: ‘We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night comes when no one can work.’
And that leads on to the beautiful image of the sun, ‘dazzling, yet plain to all eyes’. C.S. Lewis would have been very familiar with this poem, and I wonder if these lines of Donne’s are the distant ancestor of one of his famous and illuminating sayings: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else’ (‘Is Theology Poetry’).

Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Monday, February 15th

I have this week off from school as a study break. My wife and many friends are in a week-long retreat and icon writing workshop with a wonderful iconographer named Symeon van Donkelaar. I would that I could join them, but the last two months of seminary demand so much and I remain chained to my desk. I beg your prayers for the 12 participants as they write their icons of Christ this week, it is one of the most important parts of participating in icons.

Today’s poem is one by George Herbert:

The Pilgrimage (1633)

I Travell’d on, seeing the hill, where lay
My expectation.
A long it was and weary way.
The gloomy cave of Desperation
I left on th’ one, and on the other side
The rock of Pride.

And so I came to phancies medow strow’d
With many a flower:
Fain would I here have made abode,
But I was quicken’d by my houre.
So to cares cops I came, and there got through
With much ado.

That led me to the wilde of Passion, which
Some call the wold;
A wasted place, but sometimes rich.
Here I was robb’d of all my gold,
Save one good Angell, which a friend had ti’d
Close to my side.

At length I got unto the gladsome hill,
Where lay my hope,
Where lay my heart; and climbing still,
When I had gain’d the brow and top,
A lake of brackish waters on the ground
Was all I found.

With that abash’d and struck with many a sting
Of swarming fears, I fell, and cry’d, Alas my King!
Can both the way and end be tears?
Yet taking heart I rose, and then perceiv’d
I was deceiv’d:

My hill was further: so I flung away,
Yet heard a crie
Just as I went, None goes that way
And lives: If that be all, said I,
After so foul a journey death is fair,
And but a chair.

We are considering Lent as a journey, or a pilgrimage, like Israel’s or Christ’s journey though the wilderness. Poetry can help us be honest about how round-about and sometimes tiring that journey is, and how the goal itself seems to shift. I love this poem by George Herbert; it makes me feel that when I’m tired and disoriented he has been in that place too, so at least I am in good company!

Although he often uses emblems and little allegorical vignettes, it is rare that Herbert writes such direct and sustained allegory, and some scholars believe that this sustained account of life as a pilgrim journey, passing between ‘the gloomy cave of Desperation’ and ‘the rock of Pride’, dallying in ‘Fancy’s meadow’ and getting through ‘Care’s copse’, may well have been the inspiration for john Bunyan’s more famous Pilgrim’s Progress. Here we have that book in advance and in miniature, as it were, but it may be that Herbert’s mapping exercise will help us to orient ourselves, and guide us a little on the way.

The poem starts without preamble, in medias res, right in the midst of the journey (like Dante), with the words ‘I travell’d on’; Herbert, like us, has already been some distance on a long and weary way. There is real psychological and spiritual insight in his pairing of the ‘rock of Pride’ and the ‘cave of Desperation’. Both pride and despair are forms of self-absorption and the Christian must try to steer between them, hard though it is. The second verse again shows his clarity and common touch. Like most of us he would like us to stay and stray, and make his abode in ‘Fancy’s meadow’, those places in lifethat seem rich with leisure and variety; like most of us he finds that he is ‘quicken’d by my houre’. Time hurries on, the next appointment calls, things have to be done, and more often than not even a brief dalliance in ‘Fancy’s meadow’ is followed by a hard slog through ‘Care’s copse’; the anxieties and difficulties of our life are likened to a close-grown and entangling thicket of woodland. No sooner have we ‘got through’ that with ‘much ado’ then there is another potential danger and diversion on our way.

In the third verse, in describing ‘the wilde of Passion’ Herbert avails himself of a series of wordplays that may not be clear to us in modern English. In Herbert’s day spelling was not fixed, and ‘wilde’ and ‘willed’, ‘wold’ and ‘would’ could all be spelled the same way! So Passion is described as a ‘wilde’ place or a wilderness, but the word ‘wilde’ then modulates to ‘wold’, an elevated tract of open country, but punning on ‘would’. The passions drive us to do what we ‘would’, just as for Herbert ‘wilde’ also puns on ‘willed’. The ‘wilde wold’ is described as both ‘a wasted place’ and yet also ‘sometimes rich’. This ambiguity is absolutely true to its subject. We all know about the waste and devastation, in broken marriages and broken lives, that result from uncontrolled passion, but also recognize our states of heightened emotion as being ‘sometimes rich’. Running deep under all these careful ambiguities is that of the word ‘Passion’ itself, which means both powerful human feeling and, in the older sense, ‘suffering’: what happens or is done unto us, and supremely the Passion of Christ. Perhaps Herbert is showing that while there is much to be lost, there is also much to be learned – even a kinship with Christ in all our Passion. Certainly he seems to hint at this in the final pun or wordplay of this verse, which turns on ‘Angell’. The Angell was the name of a gold coin in Herbert’s day, which bore the image of an angel.

Here I was robb’d of all my gold, Save one good Angell, which a friend had ti’d Close to my side.

Herbert seems to be pointing both to the truth that we may be ruined or impoverished by uncontrolled passion (or addiction!), and to the fact that somehow through it all we may be companioned by Christ, the true Friend, tied to us as the guardian angel of his accompanying love from which we will not be parted. For all its antiquated English, this verse speaks directly into modern life.

The following verses take us deeper and deal with one of the constant experiences of our life: disappointment. When, after all this trouble and coming through all these dangers he finally surmounts ‘the gladsome hill, where lay my hope’ he finds nothing but ‘a lake of brackish waters on the ground’ – no more than the saltiness of his own tears and sweat. He’s ready to give up, but still, even in this disappointment, he cries to God: ‘Alas my King’. He gives voice to his complaint, something we don’t always do. And then, out of this very disappointment, and from its new perspective, comes a renewal of vision, the pilgrim takes heart, and sees that there are greater heights, and the true hill is further off.

Then comes the final twist in the plot, and turn of the poem, seemingly bleak but full of hidden grace. As the pilgrim sets off afresh he is reminded of his mortality by a seemingly forbidden voice that cries, ‘None goes that way and lives’, but the pilgrim turns the warning around in two senses. The first, seemingly downbeat, in which he calls death ‘a chair’, might seem to be saying no more than ‘well, at least I’ll have a break from all this long slog’. But in the seventeenth century ‘a chair’ could also mean something more than that: a litter, or even a carriage, a means whereby we not only rest but are carried forward. Indeed, some commentators think that Herbert may have been thinking of the chariot of fire in 2 Kings 2.11, that will lift the pilgrim, like Elijah, beyond the low hills of his expectation into the true mountain country of heaven.

Lenten Wisdom in Verse – First Sunday in Lent

So often the enemy of our spiritual disciplines is busyness, or at least the appearance and spectre of busyness, which convinces us we have no time for what is most important so that we can distract ourselves with what is least important.

Today I offer a poem by one of my favourite poets, Welsh writer and Priest, R.S. Thomas. What follows is commentary on the poem by Malcolm Guite, who has been leading us through these poems for the last number of days.

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

–  R.S. Thomas
Properly speaking, all Sundays are exceptions to Lent, for every Sunday is a commemoration of the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, and so really part of Easter.  We should see Sundays as little islands of vision in the midst of Lent, or perhaps a little oases or pools of reflection and refreshment on our Lenten journey … So to celebrate the first of them here is R.S. Thomas’ famous poem, ‘The Bright Field’.  This beautiful little poem brings us to the heart of a gospel paradox and also takes us deep into the mystery of time. The paradox is about losing to find, giving away to gain, giving everything up  only to find it given back in a new and more beautiful form.  Jesus came again and again to this paradox in his teaching, and R.S. Thomas has responded in his poem to two parables told in quick succession in Matthew’s Gospel:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.   (Matthew 13.44-46)
The beauty of these parables is that they fill out the positive form that redeems what might seem to be the pure negativity of ‘giving up’ and ‘selling all’ which informs our Lenten abstinence.  The gospel is not about giving up and going without for its own sake; it is about making room for something wonderful.  It is about clearing out the clutter, not only making the space but taking the time for the kingdom that might seem tiny as a mustard seed but will prove, in due course, to be the great branching tree in whose canopy we all find a place. But we must glimpse the seed, buy the field, take the time, and lose it all by ‘hurrying by’.
It is fascinating  to see what Thomas has done with these parables, how their familiar terms are refracted in his poetic imagination, and represented, glowing anew and fused now with that other archetypal moment and glimpse of heaven, the story of Moses and the burning bush.
He wins us, to begin with, by confession of what we have all done.  These are not the proud words of some exclusive mystic who has ‘got’ the vision when others haven’t; rather he confesses that he too has ‘seen the sun break through’ but also, like us, ‘gone my way and forgotten it’. But, paradoxically, he has not really forgotten it.  The very writing and sharing  of the poem shows that, and if he too, even in the making of this poem, can find it again then so can we in reading it.  As the poem moves from from the past to the present tense, from ‘I have seen…’ to ‘I realize now…’, we are called, even as we read it, into the present continuous, to that ‘turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush’. Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her long poem Aurora Leigh also brings us to such a moment; indeed, she takes it further, suggesting that these glimpses of glory are not just a wistful one-off in an otherwise empty desert but are richly available to us always and everywhere, if only we have eyes to see and time to stop:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
(Aurora Leigh, lines 61-3)
Thomas concludes his little free verse sonnet (even its form is a paradox!) with a further paradox about time that is perhaps the most beautiful and hopeful thing in the poem.  He points to
a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Here we discover that what we thought was lost and receding is in reality still ahead of us; we are not declining towards a sunset, but travelling toward the dawn!
Monday