The Moses I Love

For National Poetry Day, something from ‘Barefoot Ways’.



This is the Moses I love.

Not the impetuous rebel.

Not the heroic liberator.

Not the angry law-giver.

Not the leader without a compass.

All these I respect, admire,


but none do I love.


This is the Moses I love:

The man at the burning bush,

turning aside, the captive

captivated by a great sight,

stopped in his tracks, stooping

to shift his sandals



This is the Moses I love:

Looking and listening,

arguing that he has no words,

lacking irony as well as

confidence and courage.


This is the Moses I love:

The man at the burning bush warming his heart

with mystery, boggling his mind

with truth, feasting his eyes on

unfuelled flame.


This is the Moses I love.

I will follow him as he stops.

I can see where Facebook is coming from with its plan to add the ‘dislike’ button. It’s a pity that one can’t express condolences or sympathy with one click. But think about it. You simply can’t do empathy with click.

Clicking ‘dislike’ when hearing of a bereavement is like raising your eyebrows across a meeting in the direction of someone who has recently received a terminal diagnosis.

It’s the wrong idiom.  If you want to express empathy you have to feel empathy and you have do do something that costs a bit of time and effort. You have to take some trouble to show that you know what it feels like to be in trouble.

The point that the dislike button will be gift to trolls and bullies, and a curse to those on the receiving end, is also important. There’s vulnerability in even the most annoying Facebook friend, and a sudden rush of dislikes could feel like a good kicking.

The worst aspect of the dislike button however is that it is pandering to our increasingly rampant desire to use our overdeveloped critical faculties.  Michael S. Roth argues that our education system today has become seriously out of balance and that we have created a generation of ‘self-satisfied debunkers’ who seek not to marvel at the achievements of writers and artists but seek to find their one fatal flaw, inconsistency, contraction – the one reason why they can be dismissed.

There is no problem with well-rounded critical faculties, which will help us grow wiser through a process of attentive study, informed conversation and the careful formulation of opinion.  But this has nothing to do with sharpening up your philistine tendencies of knowing what you don’t like and finding reasons not to give art, or people, the respect or time they deserve.

Michael Roth’s blog is here

Here is a brief excerpt from my book just published today, Barefoot Ways – Praying through Advent, Christmas Easter and Epiphany. SPCK


Christmas Eve is a strange day. Unique in atmosphere and meaning, it doesn’t belong in the 12 days of Christmas. Yet it is not properly part of Advent either. Perhaps it needs to be divided: the morning given to Advent – for final preparations, the last minute shopping or some wrapping, and the afternoon and evening to Christmas itself.

During the twentieth century the idea developed that Christmas begins at 3.00pm on Christmas Eve. All over the world, radio sets were tuned to the BBC, often via local radio stations or the World Service. And from a silent chapel in Cambridge comes the trembling voice of a boy treble “Once in Royal …”

Inside the chapel a thousand people are standing in quivering silence. They are uniquely aware of time, it is time at last, after all that queueing; and supremely aware of space – the sound is going out to all lands. People know that for the rest of their lives, wherever they might be, when they tune into this particular broadcast they will recall having been there. And when they tell others they will share stories of the remote spots in which they have heard this service, and the days of dark sadness which it has illuminated. My own memories include hearing the first part of the service on a car radio while driving to do some hospital visiting in a stoke ward when I was a curate, and then hearing the last part on the way home. The sadly incapacitated and soon-to-die stroke victims I visited being enfolded, as it were, in the generous spirituality of that great and mysterious service. And so it is that the throng in the chapel will cast their minds to those listening across the world in places remoter, hotter and colder than we can normally manage to imagine.

What matters about Christmas Eve, of course, is the ‘Eve’; the time when light at last falls away and the darkness arrives. The cloak of darkness being precisely where the Christ child will be born, not for reasons of secrecy or protection, but because the true light is gracefully drawn not to places which are pleasantly illuminated, but to the deepest darkness.

The Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, is remarkable in many ways, not least for its famous and distinctive acoustic properties – its sound is unique. But for the few who attend this service in the chapel itself the play of light is even more affecting and significant.

The stained glass windows of the chapel are huge, and if the day is sunny the chapel will be bright and beautiful at 3.00pm. An hour or so later the windows will be dark. Natural light will have departed. The flickering candles around the choir will appear much brighter, and they will form a pool of light which might pass for a huge cradle. And it from here that the final resounding lesson (John 1.1-13) is read, from which the title of the next meditation is a quotation.

December 24 (Christmas Eve) ‘And the Darkness Comprehended it Not’

As the sun slips the horizon

it barely transcended:

degree by degree,

inch by inch.

As the darkness rises

to black the great windows:

colour by colour,

pane by pane.

As the hoarfrost gathers

to glisten creation:

blade by blade,

twig by twig.

Let my prayer rise before you

as tranquil as incense:

cloud by cloud,

plume by plume.

Let my hands be uplifted

as gift and acceptance:

finger by  finger,

palm by  palm.

And let this night fall

with seismic thud

to be vanquished and healed

by the flint-flash of God.

Today SPCK have published my second book of prayers and meditations – Barefoot Ways. I gather it’s already in the shops and know its available from the SPCK website, Church House Bookshop, Amazon and so on.

I paste below the introduction to the book – and will follow this blog up immediately with the introduction and meditation for Christmas Eve.  Here is the introduction to the book:

In the northern hemisphere, December and January are the darkest months of the year. Yet they host four Christian festivals of light: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas. Like all good festivals, these are not over in a day, but are short seasons which, in the case of Advent and Epiphany, can helpfully be subdivided.

In this collection offer a meditation, poem or prayer for each day of the two month period. The style of the pieces reflects the poem-prayers gathered in ‘Barefoot Prayers: A Mediation a Day for Lent and Easter’[1]. That collection was subdivided into even weeks. The Advent-Candlemas cycle doesn’t map onto the calendar in the same way, and so the subdivisions are necessarily uneven.

Advent is divided into three periods. The introductory few days explore the fundamental Christian idea that God calls out to ordinary people who are part of the real world, and who sooner or later come to realise that they are sinners in need of a friend. The second sub-division explores the spirituality of time. There are good theological reasons for this – the Advent season reminds us that time belongs to God, but there are practical reasons too. For many of us this can be such a busy time that the things that take time and require patience can all too easily be squeezed out in the rush. There then follows a sub-seasons of eight days based on an ancient liturgical practice, which I explain in the introduction to that section.

Christmas is just around the corner, but before it comes Christmas Eve. In have taken the view that this is a unique day, and so give it a whole subsection of its own. The twelve days of Christmas follow – and what days they are, moving quickly on for the humble joy of the word made flesh to the remembrance of the martyrdom of Stephen the deacon and the massacre of all the young boys in the Bethlehem district at the hands of the murderous Herod. The celebration of the turn of the year has become such an important secular festival that it is, I feel more important to explore its spirituality than to refer to the ecclesiastical calendar on those days.

Epiphany is a longer, less intense season than Christmas, and one which gives more scope to the creative imagination to make a new map. So I have divided it into three sub-seasons, the first focus is on ‘Seeing’ – an obvious Epiphany theme, but then suggest the theme of ‘Caring’ followed by ‘Flourishing’. My intention here is to offer a simple narrative shape to a form of Christian development which begins with seeing, leads on to caring and ends in flourishing.

Candlemas brings the collection to a close, but that beautiful celebration is also disturbing. And so just as we end any naïve optimism an=bout pleasantly flourishing is removed and we are left, not enjoying the wonder of a church filled with candles but nursing the wound in our hearts caused by old Simeon’s words to the young mother, Mary. And so it is that we come not to closure, but to a reorientation to the mysteries that will unfold at Easter.

[1] SPCK 2013

One of our hundreds of visitors came up to me today in College and asked (I was wearing a clerical collar) whether I had anything to do with what would be happening later in the cathedral (sic) and would the service be musical.  The short answer to both questions was ‘yes’.

Every year the choirs of King’s and John’s get together for the ‘joint evensong’ and every year it is a special occasion. But this year was an ultra-occasion as we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the completion of the stonework of King’s Chapel. As it happens, both choirs were on tremendous form and the whole was certainly greater than the sum of the parts.  

There was a lot of Herbert Howells – the ‘Collegium Regale’ setting of the evening canticles, and the Te Deum, which was  the liturgical icing on the celebratory cake, as well as the organ voluntary.  ‘Coll Reg’ is perhaps the most beloved of modern settings.  Choirs just love to sing it and congregations are swept along by it – or rather up and up by it. It was written for King’s (obvs) and is the perfect music in the Chapel’s unique acoustic.  It struck me today that it’s hard not to luxuriate into what Howells does with the word ‘glory’ whenever it appears.

The Provost of King’s read the first lesson and the Master of John’s the second. The retiring Chaplain of King’s, Richard LLoyd Morgan, sang the Radcliffe responses; Philip Radcliffe having been a fellow of King’s until his untimely death in a motor accident in France. Richard was a professional opera singer before being called to the ministry and his singing is uniquely powerful – not least in the closing responses at the very end of the service.

It was down to me to find some prayers – and I chose the famous one of Benjamin Whichote, Cambridge Platonist and Provost of King’s in the seventeenth century, and one about truth by Brooke Fosse Westcott. Westcott is most famous for having been ‘the miner’s bishop’ in Durham but was also the first ever Professorial Fellow of King’s (choosing to come to us rather than take up an offer from St John’s as it happens – not that I mentioned that on this happy occasion.)

The Chapel was heaving with people and extremely warm. I was astonished that no one fainted, and hugely impressed by the way the great team of chapel staff coped with the scale of the occasion.

The anthem was Parry’s ‘I was glad’ – a magnificent show-stopper that expressed the sentiment of every person packed into that glorious space.  We were all so glad to be there.

And you might be glad to know that you can hear the service in BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 8th July at 15.30hrs BST.  Enjoy!

Details of the service.

Introit: King Henry VI’s Prayer (Ley)
Responses: Radcliffe
Psalms 42, 43 (S. Wesley, Anon)
First Lesson: 1 Samuel 2. vv 12-26
Canticles: Collegium Regale (Howells)
Second Lesson: Luke 20 vv 1-8
Anthem: I was glad (Parry)
Hymn: Glorious things of thee are spoken (Abbot’s Leigh)
Te Deum: Collegium Regale (Howells)
Organ Voluntary: Psalm Prelude Set 2 No 3 (Howells)

Directors of Music: Stephen Cleobury and Andrew Nethsingha
Organ Scholars: Tom Etheridge, Richard Gowers, Edward Picton-Turbervill and Joseph Wicks.

‘It is in the context of the Chapel that many outside the University experience the humane and liberal values for which the College stands’. These words come from what for me at least is a very important document – the papers written eighteen months ago to explain the College and its Chapel to candidates for the post of Dean.

Anyone who has lived and studied in the College for three or more years in entitled to have a view as to whether or not the College deserves its reputation for liberalism and tolerance. My hope is that you will feel that you have been treated with fairness, kindness and generosity, and that you have been well supported as you have had to deal with the many pressures and stresses, objective and subjective, that are an inevitable part of Cambridge life today. (No, it wasn’t just you who was going through all that.)

‘Humane and liberal values’. If these words possibly have a slightly quaint ring to people today, it is because such values have not become so widely accepted in our society that many are looking for more challenging ones. That quest for values can go in one of two directions – either towards values that are stricter and more exclusive, or those which are broader and yet more inclusive. This is perhaps one of the dynamics we see being played out in public, professional and personal life today; it is certainly an issue that will, over the coming decade, tease the minds and tug on the heart-strings of the young people graduating this week.

As you leave the College I want to suggest to you that the liberal and human aspirations of this place are grounded not in the ideological preference of a few influential fellows in the second half of the twentieth century, though those days of heady and liberalising vision did and do matter, but in events of much longer ago.

Way back in the fifteenth century Henry VI literally imagined this place – this very place – on this amazing scale, and for purposes of education, community and religion. Henry was a hopeless King if the criteria for success are winning battles and maintaining dominance over rivals. And yet here we are – inhabiting his legacy and being inspired by his inspiration – and learning, learning, learning – all the time learning.

And in the middle of the fractious seventeenth century, it was a Provost of King’s, Benjamin Whichcote, who opposed the doctrinaire and oppressive religion of his day – scholastic Calvinism – and offered an example of kindness, gentleness, and generosity that began to turn the tide and lead to a religious and spiritual sensibility that was life affirming and empowering, rather than domineering and diminishing.

It would be wrong to suggest that you could tell the story of our College simply as the triumph of humane values over inhumane ones. Or to suggest that we have done so well that we can now relax and enjoy our own excellencies and perfections. Nothing could be further for the truth. But if the College has infected you with the good bacteria of liberal humanism it will have done you and the world a favour.

You – because while being a liberal humanitarian doesn’t necessarily make for an easy or happy life, it does make for a worthwhile one; a life in which, if I can put it this way, the causes of anguish, concern and suffering are the right ones. For the point is not whether we find life difficult or not, but why we find it difficult. If we do so because we are motivated by kindness and the empowering of others our suffering will be okay.

And the world – because all of you will be of exceptional influence, and some of you will be of very great influence indeed both on other individuals and on whole communities, maybe whole cultures. And it is good when the most influential people are the most humane and kind people: if only that were more often the case.

So in the future, whenever you catch a glimpse of this place, or hear Cambridge or King’s mentioned in the media, by all means allow yourself a moment of nostalgia, and think about your friends and teachers here. But I also invite you to call to mind those liberal and humane values that lie behind a King’s education, and ask yourself whether they are still core to who you are, still a defining part of your identity. For it is by being true to the legacy of the likes of our Founder and Provost Whichote, and many other of our forebears, women and men, that we will be, each in our own idiosyncratic, individual and inimitable ways, people who care about both truth and kindness, both justice and generosity, and who do the very rare thing of judging success not in terms of short term victory but long term influence for good.

Dear Papa Francesco,

Thank you for the letter you sent us all. Even if just a few of your intended recipients reply you will be inundated, so I will keep this relatively brief.

It really was a great delight to read your letter. The way you start in poetry and go on to embrace politics and end in prayer struck me as a perfect example of what we should hope for from our spiritual leaders. My own view has long been that Christianity goes most badly wrong when three related things happen. First, when people get preoccupied not with the practical contingencies of bodily life but with issues of control of others. As a person with huge leadership responsibilities you must know what it is like to feel so anxious about things that you wish you could just get more power and take complete control. But I also think that your position is one in which that is such an absurd prospect, and such an obviously dubious one given some of the things that have happened in the past, that you appreciate that true leadership comes not from supercharged control-freakery but from deep influence and sustained partnership.

The second thing that corrupts Christianity is the loss of the aspiration for humility and simplicity. Of course no one can achieve these virtues, but they are certainly evangelical values, definitely part of the Christ-like package. I think you have shown us that you believe this both in the way you have approached your role and in your choice of name. Christianity which isn’t in some sort of way Franciscan is at best a paradoxical project, and is often perceived as mere hypocrisy – perhaps because it is.

The third reason that Christianity goes wrong is that its adherent and leaders concern themselves with the abstract formulation of propositions more than with the practical contingencies of life.  I wonder whether this is one of the reasons why people like you insist on the importance of the poor. There is something about the condition of poverty which disinclines people to worry about the kinds of dispute that can never be resolved.  And you are right – we must listen both to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. You have convinced me that they are the same cry.

I love the way in which your letter draws so many issues to the surface.  As I started to read it I was expecting something more focussed on the description of our environmental crisis and the need for a political response.  What you gave us was much more interesting as it was so thoroughly about relationships – not in an abstract way, but in a concrete and yet universal and multi-dimensional way.

Your letter is a genuine challenge to us to connect, think, relate and live differently. Not only do you challenge the way we too often see things and make decisions – through the lenses of the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – but you also invite us to delight in the simple things, to relax and enjoy what is, and to re-imagine happiness; indeed, to discover joy.

I said a few things along these lines in book I wrote a few years ago called ‘Barefoot Disciple’. In fact the last chapter was called ‘Bodily Spirituality’. I now realise that I was just scratching the surface of these issues. Anyway, if you don’t mind I am now going to think of you as the Barefoot Pope.

One of the most common questions that I get asked after services I conduct at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, is why, in an Anglican Chapel we say, in the creed, that we believe in the ‘catholic’ church. I always answer that this is because we believe in the universality of the church; that it potentially embraces all and that there is unity deeper than our historic divisions.

If I may say so your letter reads to me like one from the leader of a catholic church in this sense. No capital letter, no ‘Roman’ to qualify it: the universal church of all who are both dissatisfied and distressed with the way we live today and its consequences, and yet not inclined to drift into despair or despondency, as if God doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, or can’t ultimately redeem.

The letter is firm but generous-hearted, and spot-on in its critique of the absurdity of the free market destruction of both values and environments through the elevation of greed to the status of a virtuous necessity. And it reaches out far beyond the dominion of your many dioceses and parishes, schools and institutions to the heart, mind, conscience, politics, ethics, and spirituality of all people. I do hope that by writing to you like this I will encourage a few others to read it for themselves.

With my thanks – and prayers for your ministry,



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