Two poems: ‘Because they are no more’ and ‘I’ve had better days’

Two inter-related poems by Dr. Cathy Ross, on the Massacre of the Innocents told in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The text gives the context for the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt, told in the installation of this image of Mary and the Christ Child as refugees

 

Because they are no more

Soldiers.
Levi and Joshua rush in from outside
Excited, noisy, eager to tell me
Soldiers! Soldiers! They shout in unison.

 

Hush.
Quiet! I admonish them gently
You will wake up our sleeping baby boy
Asleep now after incessant crying.

 

Soldiers.
The boys pant again, more softly this time.
Jumping out of trucks. Striding into homes.
Nervous, I peer out the curtained window.

 

Pounding.
At the door. At the front door. At our door.
Sudden, Brutal. Insistent. Entitled.
Slowly, terrified, I open the door.

 

Baby.
Where is the baby? The soldiers demand.
Sleeping in his cradle, replies Levi,
Awe, fascination and fear on his face.

 

No.
No baby I insist, heavy in my heart
Sensing danger, cruelty and evil.
I move my body to block their entry.

 

Panic.
As they push me to one side, carelessly.
Invade my home, my precious sanctuary
Tracking my sleeping baby boy, Samuel.

 

Abruptly.
The soldier tears him from his small cradle,
Samuel awakes, gurgles, chortles softly
Locks his gaze onto this khaki stranger.

 

Whimpers.
Now Samuel sees the soldier’s troubled face
Quickly the soldier turns his face away
How do you kill a gurgling baby boy?

 

Herod.
He mouths. We just have to obey the orders given.
I scream. I leap forward to save Samuel
The other one pins my arms. Well practised.

 

Blood.
He quietly slits my baby’s throat.

 

Silence.
The silence of the entire universe.
Because they are no more. No more. No more.

 

 

I’ve had better days

 

I had good days
The camaraderie. Training. Purpose.
Join the army. Travel and see the world.
Taxpayer funded. All bills paid, this gig.

 

I had good days
I lacked nothing. My body fit and lean,
My hands not idle. My mind engaged, alert,
My soul, the padre to attend to.

 

I had good days
I enjoyed being useful, part of a team.
Our platoon always obeyed the orders,
We made a difference. Our presence noted.

 

I’ve had better days
The mothers, the bitches screamed and wailed,
They fought like mad she-devils, insanely
Desperate to save their infant children
From our murderous slaughter.

 

I’ve had better days
I am crazy now. The boys’ small bodies
Haunt me still. Boys under two years old
Murdered by psychotic command of a
Paranoid king. Herod, he was called
If I remember rightly.
Or wrongly.

 

I’ve had better days.

 

Nov 2017.
Iffley.

 

massacre innocents.jpg

 

 

 

Magenta

A poem by Dr. Cathy Ross

 

Magenta

I hold the large key, ancient, iron, trefoil,
Cold to touch.
It slides easily into the lock
Turns smoothly.
No creaks for this door. Well oiled.

 

A tiny chapel
Hidden on a rocky outcrop in north Wales.
Sunlight rainbows in reflected by the stained glass windows.
Seven of them.
Purple, yellow, blue, orange,
Green, red, turquoise, magenta.

 

Eight colours.
Seven stained glass windows.
Magenta is missing.
Where is magenta? worries my tidy mind.

 

Slowly I absorb the sound of the refracted colours.
Red for strength; green for healing,
Purple for longing, yellow for curiosity,
Orange for vitality, blue for tranquillity,
Turquoise for sheer beauty.

 

Magenta for completion.

 

Eight colours on the wheel,
Seven windows in this chapel.

 

Magenta for completion,

Wholeness.

 

Magenta is missing.

 

Magenta calls me on,
Out of the chapel,
Into the world.

 

 

St Beuno’s, 12 Aug, 2017.

 

Just a Cup

The Rev’d Morna Simpson, author of  tea and theology, reflects on preparations for ordination. 

 

What does it mean to be a deacon or priest? Where does our time get used and what do we memorialise? This reflection is also based on the idea of salt and light; being in the world but not of it is part of the calling of all Christians…but what about when not being ‘of the world’ takes us so far from the world that we are seen as misunderstood misfits…?

 

 

A cup is only a cup, regardless of what it is made of or holds, surely? Material cannot drastically change something which we understand to have been made in our mutually accepted ‘cup’ form as Plato suggests in his Theory of Forms. Even a cup made of glass, if it has clearly taken on the form of cup with a handle and a wide rim, is not a glass, but is universally known as a cup.

 

There are cups of different colours, shapes and sizes, some might be more correctly termed as mugs, mugs which do not generally team up with a saucer as cups do; yet they so often find themselves posing in the widening ‘cup’ category. It does not seem to matter how much liquid they hold, or indeed what liquid they hold, whether it is hot or cold; regardless of all of that it is still just a cup.

 

Is it always just a cup though? It might be a cup of tea or coffee, or on a good or bad day (very much depending on the circumstance) it could be a cup of hot chocolate. On the odd occasion it might even be a cup of water or wine…or water mixed with wine even water turned into wine.

 

At what point would the regular tea cup become a precious reminder of the cup that Jesus had to bear?

 

At what point in our church history did the humble and well known household item of ‘cup’, the one that Jesus asked God the Father to take away…”yet, not my will but yours be done”; when did that become a ‘chalice’ which people may identify with far less than the good old fashioned tea cup? Who knew that a chalice is also a term for a cannabis smoking pipe? Talk about losing context!

 

I mean if we’re talking about context, real unadulterated context, the last supper was a meal with friends. It began with Jesus washing the feet of his friends, properly washing them as an act of loving service. The meal was then punctuated with bread which represented Jesus’ ‘body broken’ at the beginning and wine or ‘blood shed’ at the end. Then Jesus told them to do this in remembrance of him.

 

But which bit? How much of this has just got lost over time? Did Jesus really mean for us to take out two components from that whole meal and focus solely on those? Are we right to ignore the foot washing as loving service for 364 days of the year and only wheel out the bowls of warm water and towels for Maundy Thursday when for one day of the year we honour that meal fully?

 

And so we focus on the cup, but I am not convinced that we understand that cup of wine, the cup that Jesus drank, significantly enough as transformative. How can it be just a cup when it led Jesus to the cross to die that we might live? That is the cup of wine which in the words of George Herbert “my God tastes as blood, but I as wine”. It is surely never ‘just a cup’ is it, even if that’s all we have….

 

cup
image by Morna Simpson

Being Fully Human

A poem by Sorrel Wood

 

Perhaps the moment we are born:

Naked, screaming and messy

Completely dependent on the provision of the other for survival

Vulnerable, miraculous

As ordinary and extraordinary as snowfall and the stars,

Perhaps that is the moment we are most fully human.

 

As quickly as the breath in our lungs transforms itself

Into air for the trees,

Step by step, we forget our true humanity.

 

We forget that we deserve to be loved unconditionally

Before we have achieved or amassed anything

Because we are unique.

We refuse to acknowledge that our presence

Infinitely and irrevocably changes the lives of those around us.

We forget the terrifying truth

That each time another disappears from our vision (however briefly)

We may never see them again.

We forget how to scream the depths of our pain

With every atom of our being.

 

We pretend that we are insignificant,

We pretend that we are God.

 

We deny the truth that we are

Miraculous

Irreplaceable

Uninsurable

And that every other is as fully human as we are

No more, no less.

 

We shirk the weighty responsibility

Of treating every other

As intricately connected to our story

And equally worthy of love.

 

We forget that we are precious.

 

We forget that our brief, significant life

Is a journey of re-remembering every day

How to be fully human.

 

Instead, we run and hide from the fragility

The responsibility, the co-dependency

The spark of divinity

That characterises our humanity.

Because the cost of being fully human

Is too heavy a cross to carry in our fragile, human hearts.

 

 

hands

 

First Light

In this poem and reflection, Rev’d Vicky Barrett considers the paradox of the women’s silence after visiting the tomb and meeting Jesus, and the experience of reading in Mark’s Gospel, two thousand years later, of a resurrection which refuses to be silenced.

 

First Light

(a poem based on Mark 16:1-8)

 

They must do what they can
now the Sabbath is over.
Back to work.
Their oils are sharp and pungent,
Stripping dawn’s thin grey curtain.
Their steps, directed, urgent,
to soothe the scarred body,
move the lovely limbs
lying wound up and wounded
in the dank dark of a borrowed grave.

 

How? How? the doves cry,
an echo of their anxious words,
the weight of the stone
wedged between them and their love.
Pounding hearts:
as the oils glow like slow amber pools,
spices tease their nostrils.
Tick, tick. Birds shrill the alarm.

 

Breath snags on a barb.
Surprise? Confusion? Hope? Jealousy?
Has someone come ahead of them
to offer the rituals which are theirs?
Has someone stolen the precious freight
from this stony barque?

 

Who is this man in white?
What is his news?
Not here.
Their eyes trace the outline of the tomb.
Not here.
Not there, where they laid him,
Escaped, unbound, fetterless.

 

The sun rinses the mouth of the tomb,
A widening ‘O’ of light.
The spices fall to the ground.
Oil finds a new course.
The earth gleams and is fragrant.

 

They turn and feet flutter a fleeting path
like sparrows’ feathers.
Breath unravels in rags,
muscles shriek with exertion.
The burden of their news
lurches and sways and batters them
mad-eyed with joyous fear.
Teeth chatter riddling messages.
But who would believe these harpies
who say they have seen an angel?

 

Better to roll the stone back again,
be safe, familiar, silent.
Let the men
wrap the words like oilcloth round the carpenter’s tools,
stitch up the fishing nets
and not
dare to believe
in the terrifying mystery
who comes in majesty
to greet them.

 

Vicky Barrett Easter 2018

 

Reflection

 

Mark’s Gospel is full of silences, no more so than that of Chapter 16, verse 8:

 

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 

How is it then, that out of the women’s paralysis of terror and amazement, we find ourselves responding to the good news of the risen Christ today?

 

We may find ourselves silent, paralysed also by terror, amazement; scepticism or apathy too, perhaps. But the wonderful good news is that Jesus has done this thing anyway; that’s how much he loves us. Our Creator God is able to bring the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the world in spite of us. As Luke puts it when the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to be quiet, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

 

Mark’s Gospel account gives us the encouragement to explore our response, to fill in the narrative gaps and colour them in, to play in the shadows of this amazing message.

 

I found myself doing this as I prepared for Easter morning and ended up writing a poem.

 

How can you find your way of expressing a response to this Easter story?

 

empty tomb

Dinner Party; Perfume

Two interrelated poems by Dr. Cathy Ross

 

Perfume

Seated at table, the aroma of onions and spices

The sound of babies chortling, street vendors shouting,

Tangerine sun, low in the sky

My body sore and stiff; not used to resurrection.

Martha is in the kitchen,

I recline next to Jesus and hear

Serious talk.  The forthcoming Passover,

The fear of the Roman soldiers is a stench in the room.

Where is Mary?

Normally she is near Jesus.

She comes in, carefully cradling

An exquisitely decorated amphora.

She approaches Jesus at table

Lets down her hair, sensuously.

Shatters the beautiful amphora.

Pours perfume on his feet.

Her precious perfume.  Her treasure.

Her dowry.

She lowers herself to the floor

Caresses’ Jesus’ feet with her hair.

The scent of the perfume envelops us,

We witness her devotion,

The beauty of her love,

The depth of her worship,

The power of her sacrifice.

Perfume on her hair and on His feet.

 

The Dinner Party

 

An elaborate dinner party, this one.

Martha has been preparing for days,

Several deliveries from Waitrose

Despite the outside caterers.

Not sure how much more I can eat.

The dessert wines are rich and sweet,

My digestion is not the same

Since my three days in the tomb.

Jesus looks bored, tired, irritated

Conversations about Brexit, royal weddings

Pension deficits, interest rates and the NHS.

The worried well.

Mary absents herself.

The conversation continues.

Desultory.  A kind of lethargy

Descends.

Jesus makes as if to leave

But is stopped by Mary

Who rushes in and falls at His

Feet.

She unlaces his shoes.

Removes his socks.

Shocked silence.  Awkward.

Shared and knowing looks.

Jesus seems remarkably at ease.

Mary has her essential oils.

Slowly she unstops the many bottles

And pours them, precisely, slowly, over Jesus’ feet.

The disapproval is palpable.

The embarrassment tangible.

The tension unbearable.

The scent overwhelming.

The carpet is a mess.

Tenderly she massages his feet.

She even stoops to kiss them.

The dinner party is ruined.

The guests take their leave

Horrified at this naked devotion

At this flagrant waste.

Mary remains curled at Jesus’ feet.

Her extravagance exposed,

Her love revealed,

Her fealty pledged,

Her sacrifice offered.

 

Ripon College, Cuddesdon

30 November, 2017.

God of Restoration and Repair

Rev’d. Caitlin Carmichael-Davis reflects on the resurrection life in Christ through the poetry of Philip Larkin, the scripture of Isaiah, the prose of Marilynne Robinson, and the paintings of Stanley Spencer. 

 

I was once told that you don’t get back what you lose. Lost is lost. Your childhood, your children’s childhood, those who have died, those long summer days of happy completeness before the photographs become pain.  Life is a process of learning how to lose, as life shrinks and reduces and more and more is lost and disappears.

 

Truly, though our element is time,

We are not suited to the long perspectives

Open at each instant of our lives.

They link us to our losses: worse,

They show us what we have as it once was,

Blindingly undiminished, just as though

By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Phillip Larkin, Reference Back

 

If this is the lesson life teaches us, it seems unlikely that the afterlife will be about getting things back. Lost is lost. Our resurrection, our heaven, will be something new.

 

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?.

Isaiah 43.19

 

Yes, I thought, that seems true. Christianity cannot be about making those holiday photographs complete again, those Christmas tables whole. If being ordained has taught me anything it is this — sorrow is weaved into the very fabric of our lives. Under the cheerful ordinariness of Sunday morning coffee, grief lurks unspoken. That wish could easily become the whole of one’s religion. Some sort of destructive spiritualism, a religion of the dead.

 

So I lived for many years with a sketchy, figurative, amorphous vision of the afterlife, a non-interventionist God, an ephemeral Jesus. Christianity was difficult to grasp, I said. Part of its very strength is its shifting oddness.

 

And then I read this:

 

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it. God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes. And while He was on earth He mended families. He gave Lazarus back to his mother, and to the centurion he gave his daughter again. He even restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest him — a fact that allows us to hope the resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail. Yet this was no more than tinkering. Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like. He is known to have walked upon water, but He was not born to drown. And when He did die it was sad — such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. There is so little to remember of anyone — an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

 

There is an oddness, of course, to all these stories. Those distant words “Talitha koum!”, the Jesus who passes through walls and disappears at will. And yet, distracted by strangeness, I’d missed the consistency and the domesticity. While Jesus was on Earth he mended families, resurrected he returned to eat supper with his friends.

 

Memory is part of resurrection — part of a God who is greatly moved, greatly troubled, groaning inside at our grief for those we have lost. Restoration of our relationships is part of resurrection — Thomas’s doubts and Peter’s denials healed by the energy of God’s love. In so many of the stories, incomplete tables are made whole —Jesus returns to eat, to fill the space and the loss and the memory he had left.

 

And if the raising of the widow’s son, the centurion’s daughter, Martha’s brother describes Jesus’s resurrection, and Jesus’s resurrection describes our own, then this will be a resurrection of domesticity and relationship. These are stories which endow the small importance of our homes, lives and memories with all the power and wonder and oddness of this God of undefeatable life. Judaism had always understood the power of memory to create reality, that memory and loss have a creative as well as a destructive power. In these stories that intimation reaches its fulfilment. For out of memory and death God brings into being wholeness and life.

 

spencer - reunion

Stanley Spencer, Reunion of Families

This is what Stanley Spencer showed in his Resurrection paintings. There is a physicality of joy and hope and reunion, Jairus’s daughter become real for all creation. The promise of that distant, chaotic, heat filled day is heard in the familiar greenness of the Oxfordshire countryside, “Talitha koum!”. The beautiful strangeness and physical domesticity of resurrection suddenly visible.

 

As I stand, hand resting on a coffin, commending the departed to God, I believe “That memory will fulfill itself, that the missing, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long”. That our God is a God of restoration and repair. That the lost will be found.

 

 

The Gypsy Nun

A translation of Federico García Lorca’s ‘La Monja Gitana’ and reflection by Lyndon Webb

La Monja Gitana

Silencio de cal y mirto.
Malvas en las hierbas finas.
La monja borda alhelíes
sobre una tela pajiza.
Vuelan en la araña gris,
siete pájaros del prisma.
La iglesia gruñe a lo lejos
como un oso panza arriba.
¡Qué bien borda! ¡Con qué gracia!
Sobre la tela pajiza,
ella quisiera bordar
flores de su fantasía.
¡Qué girasol! ¡Qué magnolia
de lentejuelas y cintas!
¡Qué azafranes y qué lunas,
en el mantel de la misa!
Cinco toronjas se endulzan
en la cercana cocina.
Las cinco llagas de Cristo
cortadas en Almería.
Por los ojos de la monja
galopan dos caballistas.
Un rumor último y sordo
le despega la camisa,
y al mirar nubes y montes
en las yertas lejanías,
se quiebra su corazón
de azúcar y yerbaluisa.
¡Oh!, qué llanura empinada
con veinte soles arriba.
¡Qué ríos puestos de pie
vislumbra su fantasía!
Pero sigue con sus flores,
mientras que de pie, en la brisa,
la luz juega el ajedrez
alto de la celosía.

The Gypsy Nun

Silence of lime-wash and myrtle.
Mallows among the culinary herbs.
The nun embroiders wallflowers
on cloth the colour of straw.
Within the grey spider soar
seven birds of the prism.
The church groans in the distance
like a bear, paunch to the sky.
How well she sews! Such grace!
Across the straw-coloured web,
she longs to embroider
the flowers from her dreams.
O sunflower! O magnolia
of sequins and ribbons!
O crocuses and moons,
for the altar cloth!
Five grapefruits are ripening
in the nearby kitchen.
The five wounds of Christ
cut in Almería.
Before the nun’s eyes
two horsemen gallop by.
A soft and final whisper
slips off her blouse,
and seeing clouds and mountains
in the rigid distance,
it breaks her heart
of sugar and lemon verbena.
Oh! the soaring plains
with twenty suns overhead.
What rivers begin to run
in her dreams!
But she continues with her flowers,
whilst standing overhead, in the breeze,
the light plays the high
chess of the trellis.

Federico García Lorca, 1928
from the ‘Romancero Gitano’ (Gypsy Ballads)

 

Training for ordination during LBGT history month and the current political climate, Lorca’s voice speaks with a particular freshness, and an unsettling urgency. His nun is unaware of the nationalism which will sweep over Spain in the coming decade, drawing the country as tightly behind the Pyrenees as she is drawn behind the lime-washed walls of the monastery. Already she feels the repression of her gypsy heritage, a common mallow among the ‘fines herbes’ of the other nuns. That repression will tighten and tighten under Franco, whose regime will murder Lorca in less than ten years for being too colourful himself. He was executed in 1936 at the ‘Great Spring’ for ‘homosexual and abnormal practices’.

 

As he stood in that final place, I wonder whether Lorca thought of the rivers which sprung up at his gypsy nun’s feet as she too dreamt of a more colourful world; I wonder whether some church stood idle nearby, paunch to the sky; I wonder whether he thought of the outrageous cerise of grapefruits, and the wounds of Christ, another man too colourful for his climate. I hope the church of the day had not whitewashed Christ into one more oppressive figure at that moment; I hope in the crucified and risen one, Lorca saw a friend for the seven bright birds of his indecent imagination, which dared to remind Spain about the earth and sex and the strength of women – who invariably take centre stage in his works, alongside men of the fields and the road, in protest against the fragile masculinities of Francoist Spain.

 

I look forward to being sent out of this place, in the name of the indecent Christ, Son of the Creator who dared to embroider the flowers of Her dreams across the straw-coloured earth; I can’t wait to call out the colours in other people’s lives.

 

gypsy

Nautilus Shell

A poem by Claire Carruthers.

 

Claire Carruthers lived at Ripon College Cuddesdon while her spouse trained for ordained ministry from 2015-17. The poem below was written following a bible study, as Claire reflected on the works of Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault in relation to nuance and mystery in biblical interpretation. The image of the Nautilus shell came to her: “so accepting of everything, and not judging anything. It has helped me going forward to cope with the times like that and also when I feel so far behind in my spiritual journey. So I offer it to you!”

 

Nautilus Shell

 

Old Ken woke at sunrise

on winter mornings to

collect nautilus shells

before the seagulls

tore them apart.

I was transfixed

by his rows of shells:

each one utterly perfect

and completely whole

whether large or very tiny.

 

The growing nautilus

creates new chambers to move into

whilst retaining earlier ones.

At every moment and at

any time, it remains

completely, mathematically whole –

whether a simple coil

or a multi-layered ancient.

And none of its work is

ever lost; long vacated chambers

exist as beautiful

logarithmic spirals within its

pearlescent heart, always

part of the whole, always completing the pattern.

 

And it is so with our own inner work –

whether we are a many-whorled ancient or

just starting out.

Our present growing, along with every chamber

from which we have

expanded, forms part of an

organically perfect whole

that is at every moment

and at any time, always

complete.

 

 

The Iona Chicken

 

A Poem by Sorrel Wood

 

 Jacob woke up and said, “The Lord is here! He is in this place, and I didn’t know it!”

Genesis 28:16

 

The wind swirled and pummelled the thick morning rain

And the pale sheaves of corn swayed to its music.

The sea was a charcoal chasm

Rippling out towards purple islands:

Islands beyond islands, blurring into mist.

Iona Abbey crouched, squat, on the hillside-

Old stone booming with the loudest silence.

I fretted. Where was my holy moment

In this monastic place? Beside the road,

A fat, brown chicken pecked amongst the stones

Scratching around round dark puddles in the grey dirt.

It strutted, puffed up with feathery importance.

Beyond it- the abbey, beside it- the bins:

Black for ordinary, green for recycling,

Exactly the same as at home. I worried:

Was I the chicken, bothering at worms,

Oblivious to majesty and depth?

But no, that wasn’t it, it wasn’t that.

It was that dirt, chicken, abbey, worm

Recycling- all were holy in this place.

I was as holy as the island, alive as the wind,

Significant as Saint Columba’s bones

Imagining the light beyond the blurred mist.

Surely, God was in this place and I did not know it.

 

I scrambled to capture the poem

Before the wind cast it out to the waves.

The island was alive with whispered song

And I reached out to catch it like butterflies,

But it was like grasping at rainbow light

streaming through glass. And all I knew

As a clear stream babbled past the abbey

down to the sea, was that the spaces between

words are as important, as weighted with meaning,

as the inky scratches from the biro;

as much as the water stretching between islands

as much as the breaths between words,

and that my holy moment

was silence.