Tag Archives: Religion

Morning Ritual

Morning Ritual

Whey-faced, hollow-eyed,
the Penitent stumbles
into the kitchen; musters
faltering forces, begins
preparations for the ritual.

He wrenches his mind away
from endless recycling
of sins the previous day.

He sips chilled water,
through parched lips
into arid throat,
to wondrous effect.

He detects the first faint flickers,
the incipient signs
of salvation.

Penitent becomes Supplicant.
He intones a prayer;
focuses his belief
in the alchemy
of the ritual into each
methodical movement.

He sprinkles the first drops
of freshly-boiled,
purified water
onto coffee grounds;
watches as they
absorb the moisture,
begin to bubble into life.

He inhales
the hallowed,
holy fragrance.

The blackness of the brew
is befitting;
from darkness came light
in the beginning.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew seeps
into his soul,
burns away
the bleakness,
bites into
the bitterness
of self-blame.

Sip by startling sip,
the black brew infuses
new spirit, scours away
suppurating sins
of the previous day.

Mesmerized by the miracle,
he mutters a prayer
of thanksgiving.

The journey from penitence
to salvation ends.
The ritual is complete.
The day begins.

I was a callow youth, living away from home for the first time, when I first started experimenting with coffee.  I remember I was on the verge of buying a percolator, which was quite a trendy appliance at the time, when an older, wiser female friend pointed me in the right direction.  “You don’t want to get a percolator” she said “They actually boil the coffee, which detracts from the flavour.  No, all you need to get is a simple jug with a filter; that’ll give you much better coffee.”  I followed her advice, and started to fall in love with the whole process of coffee-making.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with different concoctions at breakfast-time, but I’ve ended up with a process of the ultimate simplicity: three spoons of ground coffee, into a coffee filter, in a cone placed on top of a pint mug.  Water is then poured from a kettle – just off the boil – directly onto the coffee, which drips directly into the mug.  Sheer heaven!  I can’t imagine life without my morning coffee ritual. 

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Holy Brewing

HOLY BREWING

The Scottish super-lager I am drinking
has a golden logo on the can:
the fierce visage of a hawk.
In a gold band along the bottom
of the can, it states: “This beer
is Crafted in Scotland, using
the Holy Brewing method.”
Glasgow Cathedral and the Sabbath
are also mentioned.

And who am I to pooh-pooh this
as holy baloney?   The Ancient Greeks
had their Dionysian dances,
Dervishes whirl in ecstatic trances,
and here I sit, sipping my holy super-lager.

When those first two pints of Barnsley Bitter
went down, at that gloomy pub,
in my gloomy home town, I found myself
floating, above the everyday fug.
This was my transport to a higher realm;
my elixir, and – admit it – my drug.

We are now besieged by a spate
of spiteful, threatening information:
the damage done by alcohol. The front page
of the newspaper proclaims the awful truth,
in bold headlines; conclusive, scientific proof:
drink alcohol – any alcohol at all – the risk
of inducing cancer goes through the roof.

But here I still sit, solemnly sipping.
Ominous warnings cascading
all around me. The sun on the
horizon, slowly sinking.

I was provoked into writing the above poem by reading the headlines on the front page of The Indy newspaper.  Quoting the results of recent scientific research, it claimed there was now “conclusive proof” of the “deadly risks” of drinking alcohol.  The overall message it gave was simple: drink alcohol – any alcohol at all – and you may as well be signing your own death warrant.  What particularly irritated and provoked me was the hysterical, overbearing note of the article.  There has recently been a growing escalation of negative news concerning the effects of alcohol, and this newspaper front page seemed to bring it all to a dramatic climax.

I have always found the pleasant, relaxing effects of alcohol to be one of the indispensable pleasures of life, but if this wave of negative news continues, it won’t be long before I start feeling as if I am one of a persecuted minority – like smokers are nowadays.

 

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Cathedral

CATHEDRAL

Here it stands;
a monument to time
(which doesn’t
actually exist,
by the way;
or so the particle
physicists say).
Imposing edifice,
coated in grime.

Admiration and wonder
are compelled;
how medieval
masons understood.
The cavalcade
of blood and thunder
it has withstood.

Symbol of what
still, stubbornly, persists;
Larkin’s “brocade”:
patterns of belief,
transcending mortality,
love and grief.
All for something else
that doesn’t exist.

My views on the immense subject of belief in God could be summarised as essentially atheistic, with a tinge of agnosticism.  I am basically convinced by the scientific, rationalist explanations of the workings of the universe, without the necessity for the idea of a God, and am not convinced by the arguments of any religion I have so far come across.  There remains, however, a vestigial sense of awe and bafflement; a feeling that we simply don’t know the answers to the “how?” and “why” of the universe, and that anything is possible.  Also, of course – as Professor Joad* used to say – it all depends on what you mean by “God”.

All this came into play in the composition of the poem “Cathedral”.  Living in Peterborough I have always had, at the back of my mind, the need to write a poem about the cathedral, but have lacked the particular inspiration to do it.  I finally got around to it – curiously enough – due to a combination of a reinvigorated interest in local history and some recent books on particle physics.  Lovers of Philip Larkin will recognise the line “Larkin’s brocade” as a reference to his wonderful poem “Aubade”, where he compares religion to a moth-eaten brocade.

(* Professor C.E.M. Joad was a prominent member of The Brains Trust: a highly popular programme on BBC Radio in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He became famous for prefacing his answers to almost any question with “Well, it all depends on what you mean by . . . “, which became one of the first modern catchphrases).   

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Woman in a Hijab

WOMAN IN A HIJAB:

The young woman in the house opposite me
has changed her appearance, radically.
She formerly wore jeans, normal attire;
coloured her hair, regularly.
She now conceals her body and head
In anonymous robes; the once-bright
hair now covered by a hijab.

I watch her, this morning, in bright sunlight.
I watch, as she spends an hour or so
pushing her little girl, on a bike, to and fro;
carefully watching her child’s transition
from three wheels to two. Almost as vital,
this transition, as the one from crawling
to first, unsteady steps. Those miraculous
first steps, that no robot can replicate.
For each time a foot is thrown forward
into mid-air, it is supported, enveloped
on its way there. Unconscious expression
of self-belief, on which we depend,
providing relief. A silent, invisible,
benevolent breath, sustaining us all,
from birth to death. I watch the young
woman gazing down at her child,
encouraging her bravery; giving her
the necessary invisible breath
of support, enabling the miracle
of walking, of unsupported cycling.

The same benevolent emanation of love
she believes she receives from her deity above.
On-going now; continuing after she’s dead,
beaming down on her radiant, covered head.
She pictures herself receiving a nod
of affirmation, from her new-found God.

I’ve been enjoying watching the Channel 4 TV series “Humans”, which ended last week, apparently having become one of the channel’s most popular-ever series.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it was a science-fiction/fantasy tale involving android robo-servants called “synths”, and the characterisation and acting was so well-observed that you really believed these androids had human consciousness.  Despite the appealing nature of the story, however, I remember reading recently that no robot has been invented so far that can replicate the way we humans walk.  Apparently, the simple act of walking is a kind of miraculous event, defying all probability.  I was thinking of this a few days ago, while I was watching a neighbour pushing her young child on a bicycle.  It was this, combined with the fact that the neighbour is a young woman who seems to have undergone a recent religious conversion, that led to the above poem.

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Please God

 

 

 

 

PLEASE GOD:

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What are you really saying?

An unhappy schoolboy; eight years of Hell
at Catholic grammar school. I remember so well
that daily bus journey, a mobile prison cell.
Sealed within its confines for an hour each way;
a dreaded entrance, blessed exit to each day.
Increasing terror, mounting desperation,
as the bus approached its termination.
Like Dostoevsky in front of the firing squad,
willing to do anything; promising God
a life of devotion, forsaking all doubt.
Only God could save me, show me the way out.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!

Bitter irony in this fervent plea;
my heartfelt plea to God.
This desperate plea, to save me
from the very emissaries of God:
the sinister, black-robed “brothers”,
who did not spare the rod.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What does it mean? Are you praying?

It was thanks to the late lamented British writer/philosopher Colin Wilson that I first came across the story of Dostoevsky and the firing squad.  In one of his philosophical essays, Wilson recounted how the Russian writer, sentenced to death for anti-Tsarist activities, had been lined up in front of the firing squad, then reprieved at the last minute.  Wilson was using the story to illustrate his ideas about how we routinely undervalue our existence, allowing our “robot” to take over, and only being shaken out of our passive boredom by experiences like the one that happened to Dostoevsky.  In my case, it reminded me of an unhappy period in my youth when I had dreaded going to school, and would have given anything to escape it. 

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Sacraments

SACRAMENTS:

My “First Communion”; lost, in the mists of time.
“The Body and Blood of Christ Our Lord”
made little impact on me, apparently.
What remains, strongly, in my memory
is “The Holy Sacrament of Confirmation”.
Not the ceremony itself, just the walk back home.
My white-clad form, cradled in sunlight;
the footpath, devoured by my eager tread.
We were “Soldiers of Christ” now; armed for the fight
with missals, and little red catechisms.
But no martial thoughts in my ten-year-old head.
No conflicts of belief, religious schisms;
just a haze of effulgence, confirmatory light.
We’d been let home early; I should be there by three.
I wondered what Mum had got for my tea.

My poem “Sacraments” is, I think, pretty much self-explanatory.  My mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and did her best to inculcate a similar devotion in me.  She was, however, always fighting a losing battle in this.  Apart from a juvenile flirtation with the idea of becoming a priest, in my early ‘teens, I never expressed any serious interest in Catholicism, and became a “lapsed” Catholic in my late ‘teens.  The sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation were supposed to imbue us with spiritual sustenance, but sustenance of a more corporeal nature always had a greater interest for me.  The line from The Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread” was obviously more relevant to me at the time.

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Sun-Salutation

As we approach Christmas, with the weather becoming inexorably chillier and more wintry, this post takes a fond look back at the height of the summer.

I’ve never been much of a “sun-worshipper”, but last summer was exceptionally hot and sunny, and I spent quite a few leisurely lunchtimes “soaking up the rays”.  My poem “Sun-Salutation” was inspired by – and describes – a particular location, in the city where I’ve lived for the last twenty-five years.  Although the location is specific, the activities I observed there are, I’m sure, enacted in towns and cities throughout the world.  The juxtaposition of a busy market-place and a beautiful cathedral generated my reflections at the end of the poem.

Sun Salutation: (Heat-Wave, July 2013):

At Laxton Square, a pattern of stones
radiates out, in concentric circles,
like rings around a planet,
at a slight incline, from a central grate.

Here, the Helios-worshippers gather,
sitting on metal benches, at the perimeter.
You can spit, you can shout, let it all hang out.
You can slurp a skinful of scrumpy.
All is permitted, in this transitory temple.

Stunned into submission, by savage rays from above,
The worshippers settle in, to a slow
annihilation of the senses.
Sitting, sweating, staring into blue nothingness.
Skin burning, browning, nicely crisping.
All thoughts and feelings oozing, trickling,
sucked into the oblivion of the central grate.
Minds becoming as blank as the blue vastness above.

From the Identity and Passport Offices, close by,
workers emerge, blinking, dazzled by brightness;
anxious to spend their precious lunch hours
submerging identities, in salutation
to the omnivorous power of the
merciless, monstrous orb in the sky.

On one side of the square, market stalls
seethe and thrive, as minions minister
to the worshippers of Mammon.
On the other side of the square stands
the cathedral, hidden by office buildings.

Overwhelmed by these faiths: Helios and Mammon
–       which are vapid, valueless, misbegotten –
its own servants now seen as corrupt and rotten,
the cathedral seems forlorn, subdued,
entirely forgotten.

 

 

 

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The Garden

Gardens are a fairly popular subject in poetry.  They lend themselves to a variety of metaphors and imagery; The Garden of Eden, for example, often referred to in poems by Andrew Marvell, John Donne, George Herbert and other “Metaphysical” poets of the seventeenth century.  The changing seasons of nature and the life-cycles of plants also figure prominently in many such poems.  Although not immune to the various charms offered by gardens, I must admit to an almost complete ignorance of plants and flowers, and my own poem “The Garden” relates to the only garden I’ve ever got to know really well – the one created by my mother.  The main subject of the poem is, in fact, not so much the garden itself as the way she created, then re-created it.  It is, essentially, one of a whole stream of poems – inspired by my memories of her – that I’ve found myself writing since her death a few years ago.

THE GARDEN:

In the beginning were the stones, the clay, the weeds;
unforgiving materials, unlikely seeds.
Then, transformation; beginning to mould
form and function.  Her vision took hold.
Grass planted, soil smoothed, first sprouting of lawn.
Then a cricket pitch, a tennis court; her sons were born.
Later, the rockery, bushes, flowers, trees.
Hours spent digging, churning earth, on her knees.
Pouring devotion, her love, in diverse ways;
as fervent, here, as at church on Sundays.
Feeding the garden, as she did her family,
instinctively, tirelessly, selflessly.
Plants rotated, recycled, instilled with life anew.
Meanwhile, the Giant Redwood just grew and grew . . .

 

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And Now I Lay Me Down

A radio programme I listened to a few days ago, about the life of Blaise Pascal, reminded me that I had written a poem in which “Pascal’s Wager” makes an appearance.  Pascal (1623-62) was a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher, chiefly known, these days, as the author of the “Pensees” – an acknowledged literary/philosophical classic.  His “Wager” is a metaphysical argument that goes, briefly, as follows: We don’t know if God exists or not.  Nevertheless, we can ask the question “Is it better to believe in the existence of God, or not?”  Pascal’s answer: “If God exists, then it is clearly better for us to have believed in God; infinitely better, given the prospect of eternal bliss for believers, and eternal damnation for non-believers.  If God does not exist, then we lose nothing by our mistaken belief.  So belief is the dominant strategy; it can win, and cannot lose.  The wager is infinity to nothing.”

There are, of course, many criticisms of this argument, which I do not intend to discuss here.  My poem “And Now I Lay Me Down” came about when I started asking myself why , on going to bed at night, I had started remembering the prayer my mother had taught me to recite, as a child.  The “Wager” is alluded to because it deals with primary thoughts and fears that I had categorised and parcelled-up as “child-like” and presumed I had forgotten about long ago.

AND NOW I LAY ME DOWN:

And now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray The Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray The Lord my soul to take.

“Now I want you to listen.  Say after me . . .”
I whispered it, dutifully, every night.
Like confessing sins; obligatory, right.
Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
A way to avert an unnameable fate.
An incantation; a magical spell.
As long as I uttered it, all would be well.
Later, much later, scales fell from my eyes.
Holy baloney!  A tissue of lies.
The scorn, the arrogance, of teenage years.
No longer a child; no more childish fears . . .

Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
Osiris assesses the soul by weight . . .

Fifty years or more, lying dormant in my brain.
Now, unbidden, they rise up again.
The rough magic of childhood has been abjured.
But Pascal’s Wager: shouldn’t one be insured?
Lame joke; dark humour, pitched against my plight.
Child-like again, in the dwindling light;
fearing the impending, unending night.

 

 

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Food for Thought

I’ve written quite a few poems about the pleasures of food and drink, and I’m quite unapologetic about that.  Poetry can address the most mundane subjects, just as it can the most high-flown, spiritual musings.  Occasionally, you come across a subject that has potential for combining the material and the spiritual, as in my poem “Food for Thought”, where a humble fish supper is the starting point for nostalgia and thoughts about religion.

John Donne wrote some of the greatest poems on the subject of religion; one of them being his Holy Sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’s God”.  Towards the end of “Food for Thought”, there is a blatant reference to Donne’s sonnet.  My apologies to the shade of John Donne, but I just couldn’t resist it!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

Fish supper tonight; I have been enticed.
The Chinese chippy; its friendly hubbub,
wafting aromas, glowing bright lights.
I stand in the queue; people come and go.
Memories of childhood flicker and flow. . .

I knew, every Friday, going home from school,
what awaited me, glistening, on a plain, white dish.
Week in, week out, an unbroken rule.
Unwritten, understood: it would be fish.
Cooked by my mother’s fervent, Catholic hands;
pure, white fillets of haddock or cod.
As clean, as virtuous, as Sally Army Bands.
Wholesome, nutritious; an offering to God.
Jesus and fish, I could understand.
The disciples, fishermen of Galilee.
Peter and the others, harvesting the sea.
Loaves and fishes fed the five thousand.
But bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood;
(the priest got the wine, to savour and taste;
we got “The Host” of cardboard and paste.)
that was a problem, never understood.
In no way did this artifice fill my need.
“Transubstantiation”, indeed!
When Host met tongue at communion rail,
all faith and belief would begin to fail. . .

Will it batter my heart, this oleaginous cod?
I anoint it with condiments; can of beer for
libation.  Insert a mouthful; await revelation.

It tastes of grease and salt; but what it tastes of most
is paste and cardboard: it tastes of The Host.

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