George Mackay Brown on Poets

GEORGE MACKAY BROWN IN STROMNESS LIBRARY (9275790292).jpg

Yesterday was the centenary of GMB’s birth so to mark that occasion, here’s a poem he wrote about the art, craft, graft and spirituality of poetry:

Four Kinds of Poet

1

‘Here, now. A new time, a new place. Write something. This
is expected by publishers, readers. Try to render both actuality
and soul of the place, look, and write. Quick. Time passes. The
place is changing as I look and write. I wither. The place ingath-
ers in a mesh of words. Words, keep me, keep all, now: a poem.

2

‘This place is boring, like most places. There’s nothing I feel
inclined to say about it. When (out of boredom) I try to find
equivalent words, the place changes: a fog shifts, lifts. There are
the stones, piers, windows, chimneys, children of light and water
that once he saw in a good dream – long forgotten: a poem.

3

‘What happened here? congregate, ghosts, among the
weathered and cracked stones. Take my mouth, speak. dance.
There was nothing but ritual on earth once. I imagine cere-
monies. I will make masks: among those shadows buying and
selling: a poem.

4

‘Creation of a word, this place. What word? The word is
streaming across time, holding this place and all planets and all
grains of dust in a pattern, a strict equation. I am always trying
to imitate the sound and shape and power of the unknowable
word. Dry whisperings: a poem.’

While the last stanza reaches a mystical depth, the first three are not to be despised. For GMB, there was work, effort involved in the making of a poem. It did not only flow when the Muses stirred but was also the result of patient abiding, well-honed craft, willingness to attend to the particularities of place and the endurance of fabled memories.

For a Christian reader of this poet who was a Catholic Christian, this all makes perfect sense: ascesis yields to insight; patience paves the way to theoria, myth and ritual hold eternal meaning, and who could fail to see The Word in ‘the word’ of that last stanza?

Thank you, faithful interrogator of silence, for your many and beautiful imitations of the sound and shape and power of the unknowable W/word!

Heaven Underneath Your Hand

Little grebe - Wikipedia

Thomas of Celano tells of a moment in St Francis’s life when he is crossing the Lake of Rieti. A fisherman offers the saint a little water-bird ‘so that he might rejoice in the Lord over it.’ Francis took the bird gently in his hands and invited it to fly away freely. The bird was content to rest in the saint’s hand and Francis ‘remained in prayer’. Here is how Ann Wroe reflects on that story in her wonderful book of ‘songs’ about Francis:

A water bird, he says it is,
as he draws on
his slapping oar to get across
before day’s gone;
a water bird, light as a shell,
whose rainbow sheen
breathes heaven underneath your hand,
intact, serene;
a water bird whose opaque eye
half-closed in sleep
contains this lake, this mountainside,
snowed height, black deep.
trembling you guard this being now,
warm as coal,
just-held, as by the dipping prow
your life: your soul.

This moment of utter simplicity seems to me to be a perfect icon of Francis’s way of being in the world – a chosen fragility whose strength is compassion. It is Christ’s way of being in the world – as fragile and as nourishing as broken bread.

In its freedom, the bird chooses to rest rather than to fly, just as the contemplative chooses to sit with the reality of the world in clear-sighted trust rather than to turn away towards the lure of any distraction that offers its momentary sparkle. In contemplative awareness, the bird ‘contains’ the lake and the mountain – no separation, no distance.

If the church were to offer only one gift to humanity in its struggle to restore nature’s fragile balance, it might choose to offer this contemplative way: holding all of life gently; choosing to abide with all that challenges us; open-eyed in contemplative awareness; seeing ‘heaven in ordinarie’; seeking the way of peace and rest.

Having Nothing to Offer

What do people of faith have to offer to this world?

Nothing.

No technique.

No prescription.

No theory-of-everything.

No answer.

No blueprint.

No clever fix.

No solution.

No concept.

So what?

On having nothing, we offer only silence.

Only possibility.

Only space.

Only the emptiness that awaits fullness.

Only humility – the wisdom of the earth, of dust.

Only a heart broken open to receive.

Only a willingness to abide, not knowing.

Only longing.

Only a naked intent, reaching out.

Abiding in the True Vine – Easter 5

Last week, the winners of a food photography award were announced, and the overall winner was a stunning picture by a Chinese photographer called Li Huaifeng. It shows a mother and father with their daughter making dumplings in a vaulted front room, the sunlight pouring in smoky shafts through old and patched windows and the ill-fitting front door. The camera angle shows the family from above; the father on the left cooking over a very hot wok, heated from below with a simple wood stove; the mother seated on the rights folding dumplings which are being neatly arranged in their dozens on large trays. Her daughter looks at her with a smile of complete delight, lit by one of those sunrays. It is an arresting picture and its appeal lies in the combination of a location that is fascinating in its particularity and unfamiliarity to us, and the complete familiarity of a universal image of food preparation, with its promise of nourishment, taste, togetherness and sharing.

Food is always both universal and particular, global and local. Something as Scottish as haggis is also a staple food in Serbia and elsewhere, and what use would it be without a decent amount of pepper, a spice so familiar that we forget its distant origins and its need for the kind of sun we just don’t see here. And I think there is something of that universal and particular nature of food when St John the Theologian takes the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine, of grain and grape, and meditates on them in passages like the one we’ve just heard. Vines, of course, are famously responsive to their particular place, their terroir, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had a tour of a French vineyard and endured the long chat that separates you from the tasting session. But their fruit has a long reach, and the symbolism that St John employs also hints at the rich complex of meanings evoked by wine as a festive and ritual drink, the stuff of weddings and libations, of weekly shabbat and annual Pesach, of gladdened hearts and warmed faces.

But the universal dimension is also concerned with the very matter of the vine itself, root and fruit, branch and trunk, and here St John gives us one of his most enduring metaphors, which is that of abiding. I am glad that the NRSV retained this rich word, which is the same word asked by Jesus’s first disciples in chapter one when they ask him where he is staying, where he is abiding. In the light of the way the word is used in this passage, they might as well have been asking, ‘where are you rooted?’ or ‘what is your sphere of operation?’. It’s an existential question which is not restricted to a question of geographical origins – a first century equivalent of the deadly Edinburgh question, ‘what school did you go to’ – but is much more concerned with where we find our true centre of gravity, the place we are rooted and at home, secure and nourished, most freely and fully ourselves without the superficialities of status, achievement, wealth or exterior characteristics.

Where do you abide? Abiding is also, I think, a perfect word to describe contemplative prayer. I don’t mean the stuff we say to God, but the sense of being still in one place, of squarely facing reality with open eyes and hearts, of commitment to the discipline of remaining close to the source of our life, the True Vine, in silence and in trust. How do we abide in Christ? By choosing to remain in his presence, again and again, without expectations or theories, programmes or techniques, simply conscious of the miracle of being alive.

But I think there is also a particularity about this abiding, which mirrors the commitment to regular contemplative prayer, and that has to do with choosing to dwell fruitfully in our particular place. The story goes that a pilgrim asked an old monk, ‘what do you do?’. His reply was ‘I live here.’ In a time of ecological crisis, it has never been more vital to understand what it means to live here. And for a church community like ours, that means not only the locality where we live, but also the part of God’s creation where we choose to gather to celebrate the mysteries of our new life in Christ. This church, this holy temple, is a meeting place with the divine, a portal between earth and heaven, but it is also in one particular place. And our calling to abide here has specific implications. What is our impact on this part of God’s earth? What are we emitting into the atmosphere here? How do our lives touch those of the people who live in, work in and visit this part of our city? What are our most pressing concerns as a church community? Are they to do with our own needs and convenience, or those whose lives are rooted in this place?

As the sharp impacts of this pandemic begin to retreat for us, it may be time for us to take up this question with ever greater focus. And our experience of this last year has offered us insights into the many dimensions of our own abiding as a church community. As so many aspects of our church life have been constrained, we have been led to seek once more the place of our own deepest abiding. And as this cruel disease has shown us so much about our global connections and about our local inequalities, we have also been led to seek once more the practical implications of the life we choose to live in this place.

Jesus said, ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’ We are always becoming, always learning more fully how to abide in Christ, so we need not fear the scale of the challenge. We seek nothing more and nothing less than to live here, to be alive in this place, to be life for others, to become disciples, grafted onto the True Vine who is the source of all our strength and inspiration.

Easter Vigil Homily

File:Anastasis fresco (Chora Church).jpg - Wikimedia Commons

What is there to see in the darkness of this night? What does this rising look like, of which we have sung? Well the Gospel writers don’t give us much of a clue. They knew better than to try to describe what happens in a deep but dazzling darkness like the darkness of this most luminous night. There is no spectacle to see, no big reveal, no pyrotechnics. It’s almost as if to say that this resurrection, of which we have heard the first rumours, is something that takes place deep in the ground, shielded by a darkly bright cloud of unknowing. It’s as if the triumphant Lamb of God stands astride a chasm as deep as death, reaching down into that gloom to pull out those imprisoned there. It’s as if he stands upon shattered prison doors, doing the mighty, hidden work of liberation with his own bare hands, his own pierced hands, his own outstretched, searching hands with a grip as firm as love demands and as gentle as mercy’s soothing caress.

It’s as if he stands above the detritus of ruined captivity: burst bolts, shattered manacles, redundant locks, snapped chains, useless keys, deconstructed mechanisms. All the apparatus of our imprisonment lies futile, powerless against the might of one whose love does not rest until every constraint is unbound. Look carefully through the inky dark and see, amidst that pile of broken pieces, the dismantled shackles of our many imprisonments: destructive greed overcome by grateful generosity, discrimination undone by humble fraternity, resentment displaced by gracious forgiveness, fear neutralised by inner peace, pride replaced by joyful self-abandon, violence and abuse dispelled by the power of tenderness, falsehood withered in the face of truth’s steady light.

The Lamb of God, who on Friday was stripped naked in the face of death, is now dressed in white, as if for a banquet. That’s the whole purpose of this hard-won victory, to bring us to a feast, to share in the wedding banquet of a world united in love with its creator. So, in the words of St John Chrysostom, ‘Enter the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: receive ye the riches of loving-kindness. For Christ is risen and life reigns!’

Tree of Life – Good Friday Sermon

This wooden Ethiopian hand cross is my most precious devotional object. It has many associations for me from my time in that beautiful land, with a Christian story that is both ancient and vibrant. And Ethiopians have a very deep intuition about the mystical connections between trees and the life of faith. Churches are often surrounded by sacred forestry and, in more recent years, these little forests have been rediscovered as having a key role in fostering biodiversity and topsoil protection. Of course they do: God’s creation is a wonderful and complex unity that exists in startlingly diverse forms. And this little cross speaks to me of that unity with a beautiful interlacing pattern with floral motifs formed of the wood of a tree. It speaks also of a unity in faith with its resemblances to the early Christian crosses of these islands, similarly organic and looping in form.

But on this day of all days, its greatest eloquence for me is in its resonances with the fertile paradoxes that come from the Christian language about the Cross as the Tree of Life, a thing of beauty and of ugliness, of glory and of shame, fashioned from the material of creation for the most cruel ends and yet also a tree whose leaves are for the healing of all. This language is abundant in the hymn, Vexilla Regis, which we will hear later, and in that other ancient song of praise to the wood of the Cross, Pange Lingua.

Even more striking is the language we hear in St John Chrysostom’s sermon for this most holy day: ‘This Tree is my eternal salvation. It is my nourishment and my banquet. Amidst its roots I cast my own roots deep; beneath its boughs I grow and expand; as it sighs around me in the breeze I am nourished with delight.’ For St John it is food, clothing, shelter, ladder, and ‘the foundation of the universe … the binding force of all creation.’ Extraordinary language with which to refer to one particular instrument of execution, one among very many thousands, whose footprint on the written histories of the empire under whose crushing boot this poor body was broken was barely visible. What can we make of this paradox? How do we claim as an event of cosmic importance this single instance of casual brutality of the powerful against the poor that has been repeated too many millions of times through history?

St John Chrysostom goes on to describe how, in St Matthew’s account, all things shuddered and were shaken when Jesus breathed forth His divine spirit on the Cross. The breaking of this fragile body is accompanied by the breaking of the very rock on which creation stands, the very rock in which the tree of the Cross is planted. All creation is ruptured. But as the Spirit of Jesus is commended to the Father, filling all things with life, the Creation stands firm once more.

We see this very same rupture all around us in polluted seas, melting ice, parched land, disappearing species. It is the same rupture we see in emaciated bodies, bomb-devastated apartment blocks, polarised communities. How does this singular tree offer healing to such deep wounds?

The reason St John could speak so warmly of this blood-stained wood is that the one whose life-creating death took place there opened a new way to life for all creation. Life is no longer a question of my survival which is sustained by what I can take for myself, but of genuine freedom gained through giving ourselves fully and joyfully in generous love. We look upon the crucified one and see on that tree one who is victor over death. Chrysostom sees him as stripped, not in humiliation, but in readiness for battle. He has defeated all the powers of destruction and greed by the one thing that is stronger than death: love – unbounded, unflinching, freely and lavishly given love.

Prayer of St Ephraim – Idle Talk

When it comes to the four corrosive spirits identified in St Ephraim’s prayer, surely the fourth – idle talk – is the one that resonates most in our context. If you read the texts of the desert monastics – remember that this prayer comes from that tradition – you will be struck by the number of times the elders have nothing to say when approached for a word by their disciples. This comes from a place of humility: who is to say that the words we are formulating here and now are the right ones for this moment? Should we open our mouths if we are uncertain about what we are about to say? Indeed, there is much to be said for a little more uncertainty in our public utterances. And, although some of the few words they did use found their way into the collections we now treasure, they were not intended for broadcast, but were spoken into a very specific situation that was discerned for the edification of the disciple. You could say that the ‘word’ spoken by the spiritual mother or father was the polar opposite of a social media post, which is more likely to be designed to say something about the author than to edify the seeker.

File:El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) - Christ Blessing ('The Saviour of  the World') - Google Art Project.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The warning to pay heed to our speech comes, of course, from the conviction that it is a powerful medium. It has the capacity to heal and encourage as well as to wound or belittle. In the context of spiritual discernment, a well-placed word can open our eyes to the divine or reveal us to ourselves. So the concern about idle talk is partly the need to avoid a careless word that may inadvertently cause harm but it may also be expressing a more general sense that speech per se may be devalued by trivialising it. This is most notably the case when it comes to a disregard for truthfulness in our speech but we might also ask if the sheer volume of unimportant chatter might have a devaluing effect on this precious gift of speech.

More positively, truthful, moderate and edifying speech might be nurtured within us by a more careful attention to silence and to a certain relishing of the life-giving words of scripture that form the basis of our meditations.

Prayer of St Ephraim – Lust for Power

In reflecting on this wonderfully compact and challenging Lent prayer, it’s tempting to skip over this phrase and see it as referring only to those who are actually in a position to wield power. This would, of course, be to ignore the fundamental truth that power is always relative and there are far too many instances of those with little formal power in the bigger scheme of things who have used the power they do have negligently or abusively: men over women, adults over children, clerics over laypeople, majorities over minorities. To pray that the Master of our life take from us all lust for power is to pray that our eyes are opened to the way our power or influence is experienced by others so that we use whatever power we do have constructively and compassionately, for the wellbeing of all and in the pattern of the One who emptied himself. Jesus used his power to heal and forgive, and to teach in a way that invited response from his disciples rather than handing down fully-formed teachings. Parables are an example of teaching that empowers the student in the search for the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.

Even if we do not feel ourselves to be people with any significant power to exercise, it may be that we subconsciously strive for a different kind of power – the power of knowledge. We might imagine that the world is what we think it to be, that it conforms to our theories or concepts about it. In this way, we control the world by our preconceptions, potentially closing our mind off to different views. This is also a temptation in the world of faith, where we might conflate our thoughts about God with the reality of God, who is beyond all conceptuality. There is a lovely story in the Apophthegmata Patrum that addresses this problem:

One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said,. ‘You have not understood it.’ Las of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How will you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do no know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said “I do not know.”‘

p.4 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo 1975

One of the ways in which we learn to allow the Master of our life to wean us off our lust for power is to find ourselves more ready to say ‘I do not know’.

Prayer of St Ephraim – Sloth and Despondency

The Prayer of St Ephraim(see previous post) is a reliable and concise companion for Lent, an embodied act of penitence and faith and a simple guide to the ascetical life. It puts its finger on some of our most stubborn problems and offers for their healing some of the most life-giving virtues. So I’m going to offer some reflections on these problems and remedies over the next few weeks.

Today, we visit the first two problems identified in the prayer – sloth and despondency. They are the noon-day demon of akidia – listlessness or torpor – and my guess is that, if you’re anything like me, it’s a demon that’s been hanging around rather a lot recently. I think that the combination of constant, low-level anxiety, much reduced social interaction, disrupted routines and lack of access to so many of the things that nourish us that are the result of a pandemic and its necessary mitigating measures can be the breeding-ground for the sluggishness and inertia that characterise akidia. As well as inertia, akidia can manifest itself in restlessness, a desire to be anywhere but here, an inability to sit still, as Evagrius points out in his Praktikos (ch 12). St John of Sinai, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, described it as one the the deadliest of all vices and that it seems to set in whenever we begin the work of prayer, which is particularly tricky as prayer is one of the chief remedies he recommends against it! Alongside prayer, he recommends the singing of psalms, manual labour and, above all, ‘a firm hope in the blessings of the future’. I suppose that one of the causes of this despondency is a narrowing of our horizons, a turning in on oneself, so the ability to see beyond the current circumstances begins the process of lifting us out of our listlessness.

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St John also describes the root causes of this affliction as lying in our disobedience, or lack of commitment to the path we have chosen. As a spiritual affliction, the remedy then lies in the regular remembrance of our fundamental choice to follow in the way of prayer. We can do this by offering short but regular moments of prayer in the course of a day, perhaps requiring only the recitation of a line from the Psalms at frequent intervals. This may then pave the way for longer times of prayer as the despondency begins to leave us. We will know when it passes because we will feel energised, not exhausted, by being just where we are, drawn once more to the stillness in prayer that we know to be life-giving.

The Prayer of St Ephraim

Lord and Master of my Life:

Take from me the spirit of sloth,

Despondency, lust for power, and idle talk. (bowing low)

And give your servant instead

A spirit of chastity, humility, forbearing, and love. (bowing low)

O Lord my King,

Grant that I might see my own shortcomings

And not judge my fellows:

For blessed are you to the ages of ages. (bowing low) Amen.

Text from John McGuckin’s Prayer Book of the Early Christians