Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

This was a week of three thirds.  The first third was back in Durham and was a couple of days of more or less normal work. Right now that means winding things up, handing things over – generally preparing to leave. The second third was in Cambridge – a matter of generally preparing to arrive. And that meant a string of briefings with people who, just a month ago, had been interviewing me for my new job.  Now it was my turn to find our a bit more about what the issues are.  And then the third third – in Wiltshire meeting first with Philip Welsh, the ‘Fire Poet’, who is making a long barefoot pilgrimage to draw attention the billion children who live in shoeless poverty around the world today, and then a day helping a hundred and some clergy and lay ministers grow in Time Wisdom.

As this is a sabbatical diary I won’t say any more about the preparing to leave and the preparing to arrive work. But I thought I’d mention a talk I gave last Monday evening in Newcastle at ‘Cafe Philosophique’.  It was a very pleasant occasion and as my talk is now a podcast  you can listen to it if you like.  It is ‘Episode 29’ below.


The highlight of the week was the three and a half hours I spent on Friday in a pub in Avebury talking with Philip Wells.  Philip is not quite half way through his 1,000 mile walk. I had expected to share part of his walk with him, but this was a rest day, and he was manifestly in need of a rest.

So we talked and talked. We talked about the physical challenge of it all, which is as much to do with how the muscles, tendons and ligaments adapt as to how bare soles cope with their exposure to tarmac, grit, rocks, gravel, grass, thistles and goodness knows what else. I was particularly intrigued to learn that on one occasion he scrambled up a sheer cliff to find a route forward – finding that his bare feet gave him a good and secure grip on the perilous ascent.

Philip talked a lot about St Francis – about whom he has written a play, ‘Francesco’, and in particular the question of Francis’ solidity, toughness, and connectedness, but also the stigmata and his dependence on the spirituality of Clare.

He also spoke about the way in which children and schools are responding to his walk. Many children instantly and  naturally take their shoes and socks off in his barefoot company and feel an easy and direct solidarity with their barefoot siblings around the world.  500 schools from 65 countries have become involved in the ‘Barefoot Billion’ through the ‘children’s walk’.   There is much more about this all here:

We spoke too about writing and poetry and prayer. I only know Philip because he phoned me up having read my two books ‘Barefoot Disciple’ and ‘Barefoot Prayers’ and on that basis asked me to meet him on the way.  I am so glad he did. It was an inspiring and humbling pleasure. This was the first time we ever met, and he has already earnt a place in the acknowledgements for my next book.

After a while, our conversation turned to time. His experience on the walk was that the future seemed to slip away as a source of worry and concern. The fulness of the moment was abundant and rich – while yet simple and basic.  His is a long walk but also a slow one. He is averaging about 1 mph.

And that perhaps is a radical aspect of his challenge – to slow down to something like 1 mph. Certainly a great thought for a sabbatical, but I also shared it with the clergy and lay ministers I was with yesterday.

It was great to be with them and I am becoming more and more conviced that reflecting on time – especially the wierd psychology of time – can lead us into deep spiritual waters and refresh our aproach to the more important things of life – ultimately the things that are worth doing in and of themselves.  And these are the things, the activities, the events for which we were made, and about which the sabbath, and its cousin the sabbatical, are intended to remind us.

Tomorrow I head off to Hong Kong – knowing that no one knows what secrets that venture will reveal. But suspecting that it will reveal them slowly.

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From Barefoot Prayers: A Meditation a Day for Lent and Easter, SPCK 2013

‘May this day be blessed.’
I do not know what that means
in advance.

I am asking for happiness,
but not for anything superficial.

‘May this day be blessed.’
I hope it will be indeed.
But how?

I am asking for a visit of grace,
but not for anything disruptive.

‘May this day be blessed.’
If it is, it will not be by my effort,
but by my acceptance.

I am asking for openness,
the capacity to receive.

‘May this day be blessed.’
As was yesterday,
though I am not sure how.

Let my eye see backwards
and notice the blessing that was.

‘May this day be blessed.’
I am confident that it will be.

My prayer is not for anything more,
simply to see and feel and know.

‘May this day be blessed.’
Not in the anticipation but
in the living.

‘May this day be blessed.’
Not by what I give or receive,
but in what I see and feel.

‘May this day be blessed.’
And may I be part of the blessing.

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From Barefoot Prayers: A Meditation a Day for Lent and Easter, SPCK 2013

As the sun climbs above the hill, to show itself in blinding light and warming heat; so you appear in our heart after the long night of darkness.

In darkness I have slept, and in the cold shivered; I know my ignorance and fear, I am alone in the cosmos.

Before the dawn the birds were roused; calling to wake the earth, singing hope, insisting on the coming of day.

I heard them not; I rested long in my fear. I trembled to be alone.

The stars returned to their place, invisible beyond the heavens; driven back by the coming of the sun.

The beasts retired to their lairs; their fear was of the coming day, to be exposed by the coming of the light.

Within plants the sap began to flow; the first light of dawn touching the green to life.

With the full light of sun the green is bright; the air cleaned by the growing.

How happy are they who see the dawn; those for whom night is gone.

How happy are they who feel the warmth of the sun; those who know its strength will sing.

How happy are they who greet the day, with faith and health restored; they will do your will.

Dawning God, dispel all the thoughts and fears of night, and give us, with your creation, refreshment and renewal, that we might this day reflect your light into the lives of others.

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 A Poem Prayer for the Evening of Christmas Eve.

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.

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Ancient tradition connects each of the days before Christmas with a biblical image. These are the basis of a special prayer used at the evening service each day as an ‘antiphon’.  Today’s is ‘O King of the Nations’ or in Latin, O Rex Gentium.

What follows is a poem-prayer in three parts which reimagines this for today.


They treat us as clay indeed, the desire-makers:
we are plastic in their hands,
softer than putty or warm butter.

They fire us as earthenware pots that can
never be filled:
not transparent but porous, riddled with
pin-pricks through which contentment
runs out in rivulets.


The unwanted, odd-angled stone embarrasses the mason:
impossible to use in a foundation or wall. Undesired,
it waits on imagination and necessity:
the bridge, the strengthening arch, once
conceived, demand and prize the angular
one making curve, construction and
connection possible.


O Thou, offering order and purpose to all:
come touch my imagination,
come transform my longing,
come transfigure my desire.

Let us be bridges, not walls,
and let our awkward angles be your
brightening materials.

The Original Aniphon


O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.


O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

For a different re-imagining see:

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I have just learnt – via Twitter – that Sharon Olds has won the T.S Eliot poetry prize for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’.  I did not realise it was being awarded this evening and I have to say, my heart leapt.

I think it’s the first book of poetry that I have ever read through from cover to cover – though if I remember rightly, it was over two sittings. It’s a sad book, telling the story of a divorce from the inside. And, of course, from one side. But it is not saddening. Rather the insights are enlightening and in places elating – not because of their pleasantness but because of their bright inventiveness and plain truthfulness.

It was the deep empathic engagement with the other that really caught me: she says how her heart leaps when anyone escapes. ‘Even when it is me who is escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.’

It reminds me of a day in Durham a few years ago when a prisoner escaped from a van.  Passers by, probably as tough on crime as any other random sample, shouted ‘go on, run!’ Bad ethics – but a truth about the living heart.

There is a poem about a miscarried child which is as raw, and as painfully replete with forgotten yet remembered pain and hope, as any other lines I have read.

The previous one in the collection about the agony of continuing to love and desire, even when it is too late, and the conscious mind is trying to learn indifference towards the one who did the leaving. It makes me think of the way frozen shoulders can be ripped apart in treatment. That happens under anaesthetic. There’s no analgesic for divorce.

Her ‘Poem for the Breasts’ is an extraordinary account, not of the need to be loved, but of the desire to love. ‘They seem, / to me, like a gift I have to give…. All year long they have been crying to my departed husband, / singing to him, like a pair of soaking / sirens on a scaled rock.’

It’s a beautifully humanizing and enriching collection, born of loss and sadness and a determination to transcend pain by embracing its awful complexity with candour and a twinkle of persistent hope.

It’s about love, of course. But its one book of love poems you really can’t give your lover.

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This is the name of a wonderful project at Witton Gilbert Chruch just outside Durham. Read more here:

This poem of mine was read at a special serivce there this evening to commission the project Officer, Mrs Pamela Barmey.

Breath of God

Breath of God,
be my life this day;
be my compassion.

Breath of God,
flow where you are not expected;
flow where there is hurt and hatred.

Breath of God,
flow where life is coming to an end,
flow into the place of death.

Breath of God,
flow into me, through me, from me:

Breath of God,
be grace, be Spirit, be life, be love.

Breath of God,
breath of God,
breath of God:

Breathe on me,
Breathe     with      me.
Breathe                              me.

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