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Posts Tagged "R S Thomas":

The Glory of God: Thought for 20th Sunday after Trinity (Proper 24)

Whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God1 Corinthians 10:31

Today’s theme of glory is such a deceptively familiar concept – so many of our prayers and hymns are about the glory of God that the word ‘Glory’ can very easily become just part of the church wallpaper, like the stained glass in the windows. We’re so used to saying it liturgically that it hardly occurs to us to analyse it theologically. But the idea itself has multiple layers of meaning.

The Hebrew word for glory comes from a verb – kabed – which means ‘to be heavy’. And there are a string of contexts where the word is used with various overtones of heaviness, where it is used with connotations of wealth and substance and permanence and severity… And then, connected with the images of wealth and gold and so on, there is the dimension of visible splendour and magnificence: the glory of Solomon; the glory of God that descends on the tabernacle; or the glory that shines from Moses’ face. As well as heaviness there is that second element of radiance and brightness. And thirdly, there is the more metaphorical use of the word, to mean something like honour or reputation.

But glory is a dangerous concept. Martin Luther said the basic problem with Medieval Catholicism was that it was not a theology of the cross but a theology of glory:
This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general good to bad. These are the people whom the apostle calls ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’, for they hate the cross and suffering, and love works and the glory of works‘Heidelberg Disputation’, 1518 

Summarised from an address given by David Starling

However beautiful the cathedrals we build or the music that we write, we cannot make God more glorious than He already is and always has been. When we are told in the bible to magnify the Lord, we are meant to acknowledge, declare and value the glory that is already there…

You can magnify with a microscope or with a telescope. A microscope magnifies by making tiny things look bigger than they are. A telescope magnifies by making gigantic things (like stars), which look tiny, appear more as they really are. God created the universe to magnify His glory the way a telescope magnifies stars. Tom Ascol

For most of us, we feel the reality of the glory of God when the glory of his world breaks through into our lives:

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
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all 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 ‘The Bright Field’

In September 1941, in the darkest days of the war, Pilot Officer John Magee made a test flight of the new model of the Spitfire. Once back on the ground he wrote a letter to his parents, saying he had started the poem at 30,000 feet and finished it soon after he landed. He was killed just three months later.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God
.
John Gillespie Magee, Jr., ‘High Flight

These are moments of exhilaration. But there are also quieter, more reflective times. Many of us learnt the next poem at school, but its sheer wonderment at God’s creation stays with us down the years:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder and what ar
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee? 
William Blake

But we also need to look at ourselves in wonder and awe: we need to remind ourselves that the Divine is within us in all his glory. In his ‘Confessions’, St Augustine complained:

 

Men go abroad to wonder at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the sea,
at the long courses of the rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars:
but themselves they pass by without wondering

.

Finally, remembering Arthur Campbell Aigner‘s well-known hymn:

Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea,

Let us pray:
O God, great and wonderful, who hast created the heavens, dwelling in the light and beauty thereof, who hast made the earth, revealing thyself in every flower that opens; let not mine eyes be blind to thee, neither let mine heart be dead, but teach me to praise thee, even as the lark which offereth her song at daybreak. Amen
St Isidore of Seville

O holy God, we behold thy glory in the face of Jesus Christ: grant that we may reflect his life in word and deed, that all the world may know his power to change and save, though Christ our Lord, Amen

 

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Grateful thanks to the Revd. David Starling for permission to quote him as shown.

Celebrating National Poetry Day: Chris Fewings

Today is national poetry day. Anglicans have much to celebrate – our liturgies old and new are loaded with poetry; there’s poetry in any translation of the Bible, not least in the Psalms; there’s poetry in our hymns. Two Anglican priest-poets spring to mind: George Herbert who died of TB in 1633 after a few years as a country parson, and R.S. Thomas, a Welshman with a cut-glass English accent who died in 2000, bequeathing (along with poetry on other themes) many, many poems which question the nature of God and our relationship with him as a scalpel questions flesh. Both were consummate craftsmen and were highly innovative in their use of line and rhythm and metaphor. Both searched their own hearts.

Many people who flirt with George Herbert seem to stick with one poem, ‘Love bade me welcome’, which is a pity. What about the flight of Easter Wings? What about ’God’s breath in man returning to his birth’? Or the spring resurrection in The Flower:

Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse?

Maybe it’s the hospitality of ‘Love bade me welcome’ which attracts. Poems can invite us in: the author may have included more than one interpretation for us to explore, or we may bring our own. We might uncover new riches in a well-loved poem many years after we first met it. (In a similar way, when I visit an Anglican church I feel welcome, and sometimes I’m aware of a rich feast: I might help myself to something from the architecture, from the light at the window, from a hymn, from a smile or a kind word. I often feel myself pulled further in towards some undefined second course, some intangible gift.)

So here it is:

LOVE

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey’d love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here;

Love said, you shall be he.

I the unkinde, the ungratefull?

Ah my deare, I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?

My deare, then I will serve.

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert

The last four lines are incredibly compressed. Insert at least one long dramatic pause (after ‘blame’) and imagine what the eyes of guest and host are doing there. After that, like the prodigal son, the guest offers to serve, but instead is offered an outstretched hand to lead him or her to the feast.

But the poem’s yours to read as you wish, George Herbert’s gift to you. In his book The Contagion of Jesus launched on his 90th birthday, the Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore delights in telling us the story of a young friend with no religious upbringing coming across this poem for the first time, aged 17. He thought it described a good sexual encounter, overcoming all his inhibitions. Sebastian writes “Herbert’s poem registers at every level, from the nervous adolescent having his first sexual experience to the divine.”

I keep coming back to the shame/blame lines – Love takes the blame, but we are always trying to claim it back! I’ve used one of the lines in this short poem on my website.

There’s recently been a discussion on this site on whether it’s legitimate to rewrite hymns. The general consensus was that it’s not – still less, then, a revered poem. Yet sometimes I need to tweak or rewrite poems, prayers, Bible verses, creeds to enter more deeply into them. (Wendy Cope has added to my appreciation of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land by rendering it brilliantly in five limericks!) Sometimes it’s a single word I change. It’s a round trip – I end up back at the original, with a deeper appreciation.

So for what it’s worth here’s my moustache on the Mona Lisa (see Marcel Duchamp). It goes a bit hippy at the end.

SURRENDER

To George Herbert with love

Life bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Unwilling to engage.
But quickfoot life, observed me grow slack
From my first entrance in
Drew near to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here.
Life said, That’s you baby.
I, the undead, the ungrateful?
Ah my deare, I cannot dance with thee!
Life took my hand and smiling did reply
Who made thy feet but I?

I see your point, but I’ve messed up.
I think I’ll just sit this one out and have another drink.

The music came over me in waves. I shut my ears and it seeped into my soul. The room fell away; the sun warmed my cold bare feet on the dewed grass. Life’s hand was still in mine, and catching the dawn of hope in my eyes, pulled me to my feet, towards her, away again, jiving, twirling, swirling, jumping. The music was in the ground, and the dance never ends.

Chris Fewings

For some, church is inaccessible and poetry (or other arts) does some of the job that religion once did: words serve as sacrament, as I wrote on the last national poetry day. Others might approach church as if it were a poem or an anthology. For those whose faith is in prose, a little of the power of poetry to subvert words and juggle them joyfully might not go amiss.

 

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The Church of St Andrew, Bemerton, is known as George Herbert’s Church. It is in the parish of Bemerton. In George Herbert’s day the other little church in the area was St Peter’s Fugglestone which now comes within Wilton parish although in Herbert’s day there was the one parish of Bemerton-cum-Fugglestone. On the 14th June, 1934, the stained glass in the West window, as shown here, which had been given by admirers of George Herbert, from all over the world, was unveiled by the Bishop of Salisbury (Dr St.Clair Donaldson). It depicts the Poet and his great friend Nicholas Ferrar. Caroline Townshend and Joan Howson were responsible for the window’s design and execution.” Photographed by Weglinde, and downloaded from Wikimedia under CCL

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