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.

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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

Lenten Wisdom in Verse: Saturday after Ash Wednesday

We continue today with another poem and commentary from Malcolm Guite, this being his poem on the third temptation of Christ.

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.

 

And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
(Luke 4.9-13)

If the first two temptations in the wilderness were in some sense ‘obvious’; the temptation to mere physical satisfaction of appetite, and the temptation to worldly success and power, then the third temptation is subtle and dark, all the darker for pretending to a kind of light, or enlightenment. The third temptation takes place on the ‘pinnacle of the Temple’ on the height of religious experience and achievement. What could be wrong with that? But the best things, turned bad, are the worst things of all. A ‘religious’  or  ‘spiritual’ life can be riddled with pride and a sense of distinction, judging or looking down on others , despising God’s good creation! Such a twisted religion does more damage in the world then any amount simple indulgence or gratification by sensual people.   One of G.K. Chesterton’s wonderful Father Brown’s stories. “The Hammer of God”, explores this theme with his usual combination of acuity and humour.  In the story a curate who has constantly taken to “praying, not on the common church floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires” is tempted to deal justice to his sinful brother by flinging a hammer down on him from those same heights.  It is Father Brown who sees and understands the temptation and brings the curate down to earth, to a proper place of repentance.  Here’s a fragment of their dialogue before they descend:

I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray,” said Father Brown. “Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.”
“Do you mean that one may fall over,” asked Wilfred.
“I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,” said the other priest…
After a moment he resumed, looking tranquilly out over the plain with his pale grey eyes. “I knew a man,” he said, “who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime.”
Wilfred’s face was turned away, but his bony hands turned blue and white as they tightened on the parapet of stone.
“He thought it was given to him to judge the world and to strike down the sinner.  He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.”
“I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t,” said the other priest.

I was remembering something of this story when I wrote my sonnet on the third temptation, but thanks be to God that Jesus, in resisting this temptation to spiritual loftiness and display, shows his solidarity once and for all with all of us, trusting himself to our flesh and blood so that we can trust our flesh and blood to him. He does not look down on us but looks up with the humble eyes of the child of Bethlehem.

 

Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Thursday and Friday after Ash Wednesday

What Lenten discipline would be complete without falling off the wagon after the first day? I offer this afternoon the poems for yesterday and today, both poems are written by Malcolm Guite, chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge.

Thursday

Stones into Bread
 
The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here
The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.
When darkness speaks it seems so light and clear.
Now He must dare, with us, to make a choice.
In a distended belly’s cruel curve
He feels the famine of the ones who lose
He starves for those whom we have forced to starve
He chooses now for those who cannot choose.
He is the staff and sustenance of life
He lives for all from one Sustaining Word
His love still breaks and pierces like a knife
The stony ground of hearts that never shared,
God gives through Him what Satan never could;
The broken bread that is our only food.
There are three days between Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent, the first day of the first week of our six-week pilgrimage. Since Christ’s own primal Lent, his sojourn as the Word in the Wilderness, is prefaced by his three temptations, by his confrontation with just those corruptions of the good that confront us every day, it seems good to spend these three days reflecting on these three temptations, which will themselves form the readings and subject for reflection in many churches this coming Sunday. I have chosen to follow the order of the three temptations as they are set out in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4.1−12). His order seems to me to make most spiritual and psychological sense. We start with the most straightforward, (and often most insistent!) of temptations, those generated by our bodily appetites and needs: the temptations to serve first our own creature comforts, to tend to our obsessions and addictions before we have even considered the needs of others. But then we move on to the deeper temptations to serve and feed, not just the body, but its driving ego, with its lust for power, the temptation to dominate in the kingdoms of this world. We may have overcome the first temptation only because we are captivated and driven by the second. We diet, and discipline our flesh in gyms and health-clubs, we submit our appetites to the dictates of personal trainers and three-month fitness plans, but only because we hope thereby to sharpen our image so as to shine and succeed in the world!
And then comes the last, the subtlest and worst temptation of all: the temptation to spiritual pride. We may rise above worldly ambition only to congratulate ourselves on how spiritual we have become, how superior to our fat-cat neighbours! The very disciplines and virtues designed to bring us closer to our saviour, to make us more available as ambassadors of his love become instead the proud possessions that separate us from the one whose strength is made perfect in weakness.
But this is to anticipate, let us begin at the beginning with the temptation to turn stones into bread. Jesus meets this temptation with the profound reply ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. A word which certainly needs to be heard by Christians living in affluent Western societies dominated by consumer culture. I believe that Jesus underwent this ordeal on our behalf, to break open the ground of the heart and make real choice possible for us.
In this and the other sonnets on Christ’s temptations I have born in mind two essential, but easily forgotten truths. The first is that because Jesus is both fully human and fully God there is a double aspect to each of these temptations. On the one hand Jesus experiences these temptations exactly as we do, in a fully human way, feeling their full force and yet showing us both that it is possible to overcome them and also, the way to overcome them. As the letter to the Hebrews says: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are but without sin’ (Hebrews 4.15 NRSV) But at the same time He is God and his action in defeating the Devil in resisting the temptation, casting back the tempter and creating, and holding a space in which right action is possible is done not just privately on his own behalf but is done with and for all of us. In the old Prayer Book litany there is a petition that says ‘By thy Fasting and Temptation, good Lord deliver us’. If Jesus were simply set before me as an example of heroic human achievement I would despair. His very success in resisting temptation would just make me feel worse about my failure. But he is not just my exemplar, he is my saviour, he is the one who takes my place and stands in for me, and in the mystery of redemption he acts for me and makes up, in his resistance to evil what is lacking in mine. I have emphasized this double aspect of the temptations by beginning the first sonnet with a series of paradoxes that turn on the truth that it is God himself who feels and suffers these things for and with us:
The Fountain thirsts, the Bread is hungry here,                                                     
The Light is dark, the Word without a voice.
And I have tried to bring out the way he endures these temptations both with us and for us. We ‘must dare with him to make a choice’, but at the same time ‘he chooses for the ones who cannot choose’.
The second essential truth is that we should not see the temptations in entirely negative terms. The Devil is no substantial being. A shadow himself, all he can do is cast shadows of God’s substantial good. All good things come from God and those things which the Devil pretends to offer, but in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons, are cheap imitations of the very things that God does indeed offer and that Jesus himself receives, enjoys, and crucially, shares. He refuses to turn stones into bread for himself at the Devil’s behest, but later, in the very same wilderness he takes bread, gives thanks, and breaks it, and feeds five thousand with all they want, and twelve baskets full left over! This was the substantial good from God, in light of which, and to gain which, it was necessary to refuse the shadowy substitute.
CS. Lewis evokes this truth very well in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Everything that the White witch pretends she can offer to the children is a stolen and corrupted version of something that Aslan fully intends them to have in its true substance. She pretends that she will share the throne of Narnia with Edmund and then leave it to him, and yet the whole story is about how Aslan will truly and substantially crown all four children kings and queens of Narnia. And this holds true in the smaller things too, even down to this matter of personal appetite. If Edmund had turned down the Witch’s Turkish delight he would have come sooner to Aslan’s feast!
Friday
All the Kingdoms of the World
 
So here’s the deal and this is what you get:
The penthouse suite with world-commanding views,
The banker’s bonus and the private jet,
Control and ownership of all the news,
An ‘in’ to that exclusive one per cent,
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.’

A symptom of this amnesia, of this serious spiritual malaise that afflicts our culture, can be found in our extraordinary use of the word ‘exclusive’ as a positive term! The liberal West is allegedly the most inclusive culture there has ever been and we deploy a great deal of rhetoric about including the marginalized, and take care that everyone should use politically correct and ‘inclusive’ language. But this is of course just a fig leaf. One look at the advertising in any magazine or website, one glimpse of the commercials that saturate our airwaves tells a different story. Every Estate agent advertising their residential properties (or ‘homes’ as they like to call them- as though a home was something you could sell) reveals that their favourite word is ‘Exclusive’. Come and view these ‘exclusive’ flats, come with us on this luxurious and ‘exclusive’ holiday! And nobody asks, just who is being excluded. Nobody responds to these ads with a letter to say: ‘I am interested in your product but perhaps I am one of those unfortunate people whom you and your exclusive clientele would like to exclude! No one asks themselves, as they read these ads, ‘Just what is it in me that is being roused and appealed to here?’ For it is not our generosity, our courtesy, or our sense of community that is being worked on and developed in this appeal. Rather it is the worst in us; the desire to be considered ‘special’ and ‘better’ and ‘superior’ at the expense of other people that is here being inflated and inflamed. In his chilling essay ‘The Inner ring’ C. S. Lewis lays open this fallen desire in all of us to belong to exclusive clubs, cliques, and circles, to be someone who is ‘in’; ‘in the know’, ‘in the right circles’, ‘in on the real knowledge and power’ among ‘those who really count’, and to look down on those who are ‘out’, excluded, not part of the magic circle. So much of the consumerism that is choking our society and bringing misery, alike to the haves and the have-nots, is driven by this desire to have and to wear, and to drive, the status symbols, the ‘exclusive’ signs of belonging. Time and again goods and services are offered by their manufacturers not for their intrinsic virtue, the beauty of their design, or the genuine pleasure that might be had from owning or using them, but for their ‘exclusive’ cachet, their ‘exclusive designer label’.

The other word which worldliness loves and has in turn subverted is the word ‘Dream’. We are to have ‘dream homes’, ‘dream holidays’, ‘dream wedding days’. As though all dreams were to enmesh us deeper in the tangles of getting and spending, not to lift our vision, change our perspective and give us glimpses of Heaven. I have tried to highlight some of these issues in the following poem, and here I see Jesus taking the worldly ‘dream’ on its own terms and calling us instead to wake up to the fullness of life. Perhaps only then can we, in Eliot’s phrase ‘Redeem the unread vision of the higher dream’.

Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Ash Wednesday

Each year, in addition to fasting during Lent, I try to take on the habit of reading from a handful of edifying works each day. Here are some of the things that I will be reading and meditating on this Lenten season:

  • Encounters with Silence by Karl Rahner
  • The Lord’s Prayer by Alexander Schmemann
  • On the Priesthood by St. John Chrysostom (also in preparation for my impending ordination to the Diaconate)
  • Acedia: Enemy of Spiritual Joy by Jean-Charles Nault (a paper)

Last year as well I ran a near-daily series on this blog entitled Lenten Wisdom from the Desert through which I shared a quote from the Desert Fathers each day, sometimes with my commentary and sometimes not. Last Spring was a very busy time for me and my posts were abruptly cut short when my father died very suddenly and unexpectedly, I never finished the series.

I noted in that post from last year that the sayings of the Desert Fathers were being sent to one of the church communities where I am involved each day and I was merely sharing them here. This year it is not sayings of the Fathers being shared, but poetry. Sometimes the poems will be by members of our community but most often not.

The first poem I share in this series is one written by Malcolm Guite. Included below the poem are some of Guite’s own meditations on 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.

It is a curious thing that we should use ash as a sign of repentance and renewal; surely it is nothing but the detritus of destruction!  And yet it is so much more.  The origins of the Ash Wednesday ash lie, of course, deep in the Bible, especially in all those Old Testament passages that speak of ‘repenting in dust and ashes’. Sprinkling ashes on one’s head was a sign of mourning and grief – the opposite of the oil of gladness – and went with ‘rending’ one’s garments, a rejection of all those sleek tricks of self-presentation with which we seek to disguise our true selves from God and from others.  And there is wisdom in that.  I sometimes wonder whether instead of a ritual ‘ashing’ we shouldn’t use Ash Wednesday as a day to rebel against our culture’s obsessive concern with body image, presentation, clothing and appearance.  Fashion models could be encouraged to dress as dowdily as possible, and we could all be invited  to eschew the pressures of those ‘photo-shopped’ images of the impossibly thin and glamorous, resting instead on the inner beauty of simply being loved, at last, and in spite of all, by the maker of the cosmos.  But there is deeper wisdom still in the tradition of ashing.  For the ash that is left after purging fires is itself a fertilizer, a life-enabler, a source of new growth; we place these unpromising leavings on the garden and new things bloom.  The cross of ash becomes a deeper symbol still, for what is destroyed in that emblem of all our destructiveness id sin itself.  In a daring and beautiful creative reversal, God takes the worst we can do to him and turns it into the very best he can do for us.
In our own days of ecological crisis, the ash has perhaps acquired another layer of symbolic truth.  As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash that will bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which he also cares.  Some of those themes are visited in today’s sonnet above.

Please join me in praying through these poems each day through Lent.