Mary, at your feet – the first time

A few years ago, in May, when everything was rich and green, I was reading in my garden, imagining myself into the story of Mary and Martha as told by Luke.  I was thinking of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, how that was an expression used elsewhere in the New Testament for receiving teaching as Paul did from Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

I could not recall reading this story in the other gospels, but as my memory searched, I remembered how John writes of this family.  Into my mind came powerful pictures of Mary at Jesus’ feet in those stories – firstly I  imagined her as she ran to Jesus after her dear brother Lazarus had died, and I saw her in black speaking from her knees before him. I heard her voice as heartbroken, perhaps with an edge of disappointment, or even accusation.  Then, I thought of the feast they had to celebrate Lazarus’ renewed life, and how once again Mary was at Jesus feet, this time in extravagant thanksgiving.

Such different occasions, with such different emotion about them, but all springing from the depth of love and relationship between Mary and Jesus.  She shows Jesus, and us, who she is and how she reverberates with the sadness and joy of her life.  She comes across to me as a rich and spontaneous character, fully alive.  So in some ways it is strange that we celebrate her, in Luke’s story, for her stillness.  How hard it is for us to sit and listen, and I suspect it would have been hard for Mary too, had it not been the desire of her heart, had not that stillness have been active, charged with love.

It is a good poem to read for Sabbath rest.  It reminds us that all are welcome at the feet of Jesus, and that it is a high good to be as we are and receive.  I do not always desire this as Mary seemed to.  My mind is often scattered by worries and things which, in the end, are of little value. We are so distracted, so pulled by so many things. We can end up feeling that those things are what define us. That it is what we do, or think, or believe, or  how people view us that makes us who we are. Just being doesn’t seem enough, but our efforts to be more or different or better than we are can be life-sapping.
Acceptance can be hard to accept!

I am attempting to learn to be still, and that love, however thin it may be on our side, is enough.

God’s love is enough.

In writing this poem, I hoped to create a place of stillness. The kind of place where contemplative prayer begins.  A place where we can open up a little to love, and light. A place where we know we are welcomed.

I read early versions of these poems at a local Christian festival, Alive, and as the festival time of year comes around again, I find I am remembering them, and going back to those thoughts.  I share the first one with you today.

The photograph is taken in the Chapel of St Peter on the Wall, Bradwell on Sea, Essex.

IMG_0366.JPG

Mary, sister of Martha, at your feet for the first time

You came in search of rest
away from the road,
that bright, shadeless road,
where so many came,
and you gave so much.

You came and sat down
in the cool room,
the shutters pulled
against the heat,
and Mary sat, too,
and it was enough.
Just sat, quietly, at your feet,
her face turned up to
yours as she listened.
And you saw how the light
fell across her,
as if for the first time.

And this is what you want,
what you long for.
Not the elaborate
preparations we would make,
not ourselves swept and
scrubbed to perfection,
our acts and our
thoughts impeccable
in lifeless rows,
but to be,  here in this light,
to be, here at your feet,
Luke 10:38-42

You can read the second poem here

and the third one here

Edit: 19th July 2022

The last stanza of this poem was quoted by the inspirational Diana Butler Bass in her Sunday Musings this week.  If you don’t know her work, I’m finding it’s helping me a great deal. She combines deep scholarship with passionate lived experience.  You can find a link to this work, and her reference to my poem, here.

Sunday Musings – by Diana Butler Bass – The Cottage

https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/sunday-musings-e24

I’m so delighted to have one of my poems included in the wonderful Diana Butler Bass’ blog. I love her work and am currently feeling quite excited! It’s almost like I’m participating in the Wild Goose Festival from my rather hot garden.

Here’s a link to the whole poem – the first of a series.

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – One

I was thinking of the small, wind-carried seeds that now fill the meadow patch of our lawn, and how we never know where our words will blow to, how they will land, or what future flowers they may bear.

Edit: 19th July.
I’ve just listened to Diana Butler Bass’ sermon on All the Marys. Wow. It’s extraordinary. Some astonishing new scholarship and some powerful rethinking of the Mary and Martha texts. I’ll do some pondering, and find out more, but here it is. If you have access to Substack, listen and be astonished.
What if this is a valid interpretation?

https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/all-the-marys?utm_source=podcast-email&utm_medium=email#details


Peter the Rock, Mary the Tower.

Poem: Midsummer Daisies

Sitting in the garden in the late afternoon today – the Summer Solstice – I watched the daisies in the sun and the breeze. Here they are.

Midsummer daisies

Midsummer –
and the tall daisies
are full of light,
nodding and glowing,
glowing and nodding,
saying yes, it seems,
to all that is.

Simplicity –
to receive the light and
shine out in turn.
To have roots in the dark earth,
in the damp earth
and to shine like this –
with a purity
of brightness,
and such depth
of yellow,
while swaying, like this,
in the breeze.

Perhaps it is so –
simply to be
is holy,
to receive and
to give is enough,
this longest of days.

Alchemy –
for surely it is a glory,
and a wonder,
to turn earth and damp
and light into
this brightness,
this daily beauty,
shining like the
distant sun here,
in this shady place,
beneath my apple tree.

Poem: Peony

From Farmer Gracy – a perfect peony

I’m with Mary Oliver – each morning I get up and hurry over the damp grass to see what has begun to open in the morning light. I love her poem Peonies, and this poem of mine pays tribute to it.

My peony did not open with the morning. This beauty waited, waited until the sun was high and warm before unwrapping itself.

And I had waited for two years since planting. And waited while the bud was closed. And then, in the space of a few hours, everything changed.

Peony

Today, I watched
as a new peony opened –
I had planted a row of them,
and now, after two years, this –
the wondrous first flower
unwraps itself. Slowly.

And oh, how dark,
how perfect.
Red velvet cake,
chocolate,
a rich eggy heart
of soft anthers
waiting for the
already waiting bees.

Three hours ago it was bud,
and now, this heart is open,
warming in the golden sun.
And still, others wait
to put out their own flowers
for there is more, still more,
to come.

And each day, then,
the question –
What astonishing thing
will unfold for you today,
and unfold in you today?

What gift can be given,
and received?
For all the world,
and you within the world,
is full of such wonders –
sweetness for ants,
clover in the unmown grass
thick with the darkness of bees.

And this flower, now,
with its beauty both
before you and within you –
for they are the same,
know they are the same –
glowing deep in the
ripening light.

Experimental mowing/unmowing pattern, beloved of bees.

Poem: Two crows in an April gale


I have no picture of the particular crows who caught my attention, and prompted this poem, but I thought I’d share this lino cut with you – I did it a few years ago now, and its good to remember the pleasure I took from carving away at the surface.

But this poem, a little later than I’d intended due to a bout of covid, came about only a few weeks ago, on a wild and unpredictable day. The way the crows stayed together as they flew was remarkable – they held a bond, they held their distance, tumbling together, despite the unpredictable blustering of the wind. It brought to mind all the things that we find hard to measure in our systems of measuring – the bonds between us, the gifts of attention and intent, the power of belonging. In this poem, the question of hope came to mind. I have not resolved it. I was thinking about hope in the face of all the pains of the living earth, including ourselves – the disruption and destruction of networks of life that have been in place for aeons.

Perhaps the question is one I can let go, learn to live with. And another, perhaps more useful question is can I continue to turn my attention to these strange, immesurable qualities of love, belonging, gratitude, which can shift our attention, and therefore our action.

In any case, here are some pictures from the garden, and a poem for you.

Two crows in an April gale

And as the wind blows
slant across the patched
and mottled sky,
I watch two crows tumbling
and twisting sideways
through the cold air,
keeping together

As if each is the other’s fixed
point, their north star,
dark as they are against
the darkening clouds,
in this sudden, unfamiliar
cold, as the wind veers north,
then south, then north
while the day’s unease lengthens.

And these two birds
floating through so much
turmoil, an upended sky,
remain, strangely, together –
paired, equidistant, invisibly tangled,
gyring like lost kites with
sinuous strings.

Is there any hope?
I know not.
Facts singe and darken with fire.
Even Spring seems provisional
as the wind shifts strangely.

Do I hope? I know not.
And yet this bond between
the birds speaks of much
that is not counted
in our counting of facts.
Our reckoning speaks not
of the loves between us,
the urgency of our
turning, the efforts we bear
to remain close, all things
holding together in strange union.

Now, a lull, the crows are gone,
and the blackbird sings
still, and yet, and

Oh I cannot bear that he
should sing in vain.
So sing into being
a new, ancient world,
brother bird, dear one,
sing on, calling to another,
calling to life,
and who knows
where this bleak
wind will carry our songs.


Who knows the power
of these loves,
of that sweet melody,
of the tumbling
together of crows.

The lino cuts at the top of this post were done to go with some poems which I posted before. If you would like to read them, you can begin here.

As I was thinking about all that binds us together, these words from the New Testament came to mind. They help me. Colossians 1:15-17

Poem: River Haiku – April 2022, Updated to include Save the Deben event.

Our beautiful river, the Deben in Suffolk, is in trouble. Testing of the water has revealed that untreated sewage is being dumped. The estuary is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, rich in wildlife, and yet still this is happening. The river is the economic lifeblood of the community, with sailors and walkers, canoeists and birdwatchers all making a vital contribution to the towns and villages by its banks. Wild swimming has also become increasingly popular since the pandemic. We solved these problems long ago – having dirty, unhealthy rivers – and yet, here we are. Economics seems to be a good servant of humanity, and an exceptionally bad master. That can change. The water company – here as elsewhere – can be held to account. Reform of practice is more than possible.
You can read more about the situation and our local response here.

There was a rally and march on Saturday 23rd April, the National Day of Action for Water Quality.

You can see a report on Channel 4 News here.

I was very sorry not to be able to go, stuck in the garden with covid – although I couldn’t have a nicer spot to be stuck in. Counsillor Caroline Page (Lib Dems) asked if I felt up to writing a haiku that she could share on my behalf. I’m delighted to be asked and have had a go through the brain fog.

A poet herself, she read it out at the beginning of the rally.

Photo by Charmian Berry

It then joined the march…

Photo by Ruth Leach
Photo by Ruth Leach

You can see more pictures, and video clips, on twitter here

I’m very proud to be part of this fantastic community, who love their place, and seek to protect it.

Photo by Ruth Leach

River Haiku – April 2022

The river breathes life
for fish, otter, bird and us:
Now death flows, we speak.

It’s such a wondrous river. Let’s treasure our places, and care for them.

Updated 24th April 2022 to include coverage of the Day of Action.

Easter readings and poems

Over the past few years, I’ve gathered and shared with you links to various readings here on the blog that tell the Easter story. Whether you are joining together with many others, or perhaps staying within a smaller household group, or a gathering of friends, I hope you will find here something that supports you, whatever you are doing..

I notice that two posts are proving particularly helpful at the moment. I’ll share links to these at the beginning, and then go through everything in a Holy Week sequence.

Do please feel free to use any of these resources, acknowledging me and this blog. It’s always good to hear about that, though, so do let me know if you can!

These are the most popular links here on the blog at the moment:

Mary of Bethany, at your feet a third time.

Seven Sentences from the Cross

The House at Bethany, the Raising of Lazarus

Many spend time with this Gospel story in Holy Week.  It’s a story that means a great deal to me.  You can find some links below.

Sunday Retold – Lazarus raised from the dead

Here you will find the readings, and some things to ponder, as well as one of my Mary at your feet poem.  If you would like to focus on the poetry, you could go here:

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Two

The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Three
This last post also contains a contemplative prayer/writing exercise.

There are readings, things to do, things to reflect on, in the I Am series which draws on another of my books.

Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 5, the Resurrection and the Life

mary-anoints-the-feet-of-jesus-by-frank-wesley
Artist – Frank Wesley

Other Holy Week stories – You can find these in Chapter 11 of my retelling – both editions:  The Bible Story Retold, and The Lion Classic Bible, which share the same text.  The second of these has lovely illustrations by Sophie Williamson.

Prayers and Verses also has a section in Chapter 11 called The Road to Good Friday, which you might find useful.

Maundy Thursday – The Last Supper, Jesus washes their feet.

Retold –
Retold: Maundy Thursday

Poem- Poem: Jesus washes Judas’ feet.

We also find two of the great I Am sayings in this narrative:
Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 6 – I am the way, the truth and the life.

Jesus said, I Am – For Lent. Chapter 7, Vine

Later in the evening, when Jesus is arrested, there is a further I Am moment:

Lent: Jesus said I Am …… Holy Week, I am he – Jesus betrayed

Jesus Washing Feet 11
Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905) chalk and grisaille on paper 58×47 © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden Finnish, out of copyright

Good Friday

Retold: Good Friday Retold

Now, we come to the new poems I’ve written for Good Friday – based on the seven sentences Jesus spoke from the cross. I’ve put them together with some readings, music, and art, to give you a Good Friday Meditation. 

The poems themselves: Poems – Seven Sentences from the Cross

The meditations: A Good Friday Meditation – including 7 new poems

Here is the meditation on YouTube

Francisco_de_Zurbarán_Angus Dei
Angus Dei  Francisco de Zurbaran

Easter Sunday

A simple retelling: Retold: Easter Day!

If you are following in my books of Bible retellings and prayers, Chapter 12 moves us into New Life.

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Thank you for joining me.  I hope you find these things help.
Keep safe and well.
Bless you.

Woodbridge Climate Action Event

I was so delighted to be asked to be involved in this local event. Our town council has a thoughtful and dedicated Climate Emergency Committee, who invited a range of speakers and exhibitors who could talk about what they are doing, and what we could do, to work more harmoniously with nature to tackle the double and linked emergencies of biodiversity loss and climate change.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you may recall that last autumn I gathered a community poem, November Leaves, and read it out at a council meeting. You can find out more about that here and here. It was following on from reading that poem at a council meeting that I was invited to begin each of the two days with a poem. As I looked through the programme, and wondered what to share, I was struck by the breadth and depth of the experience covered by the speakers.

I’d just like to briefly share with you the poems I read.

Waldringfield Saltmarshes – Seal

This thin strip of solid ground
turns away from the shore,
snaking through saltmash –
sea lavender, sea purslane,
samphire glowing
in the fading light,
the saltsmell of algae –
until we are far from
ploughed earth,
far out on this wide,
flat, dizzying
land-water-scape.

Pools of infinite grey mud,
the hiss of water receding,
we walk just as the tide
turns to ebb,
this winding path our
thin line of safety,
draped with a strand-
crust of drying weed,
studded with hundreds
of tiny white crab-shells,
oysters, mussels.
How fragile I feel myself
to be.  How quick to be lost.

After many turns further,
and further out,
we come to the place
the path stops.
On the other bank,
we can see the woods
where great white egrets nest.
At my feet, the red of a
spent cartridge hurts
my eyes
as I hear oystercatchers,
and sweet skylarks,
and water,
and wind scuffing the water.

There, at the end,
the limit of where we could go,
we saw, in the water,
the seal –
a low flat head,
intelligent eyes,
sleek and fat,
as grey and rounded
as the mudbanks –
swimming.
We crouched, concealing
our profiles from the
luminous sky,
we held our breath,
and watched its dive,
and breath, dive,
and breath.

And as it swam upstream,
we turned to go back,
retracing our steps exactly,
watching its joy,
its contentment,
as we grew closer to solid
ground, the smell of ripe
barley after rain,
and mallows,
and sweet chamomile
carried on the breeze,
welcoming us.

But the taste of the saltmash
sustained us,
sustains us,
the peace of the seal
stayed with us,
stays with us.
And the cry of the curlew
remains.


 
 

One hundred and ten years

Despite this cold
there is a shimmer
of life in the air above
the beds, where bluebells
begin their opening.

Tiny flies, and larger,
and bees, and the
occasional, beautiful,
butterfly – look, just there.

I watch them in awe,
all these tiny specks of life.
Each small thing part of
The garden’s constant dance,
each being knowing
their own irreplaceable steps.

I wonder what it was like,
over a hundred years ago now,
before the house was built,
when all this was orchard.
Did butterflies rise in dense
bright clouds as you walked
through the long grass?
Could you lie down softly
and hear the loud hum of bees
in the speckled blossom above?

Perhaps, like
Tom’s Midnight Garden,
that rich place is still here,
in the shadows.
And perhaps, I hope,
it is becoming
less ghostly, more embodied,
more visible, humming
in this shimmer of life in the air.
Growing stronger
after so many years,
as if seen with eyes
as clear and sure
as a dreaming child’s.

As the emphasis of the weekend was on action, and in particular localism, I came away feeling greatly encouraged to keep doing the apparently small things I am doing. To shop locally and seasonally, to allow the garden to grow with the aim of increasing its abundance of life, to buy less and what I buy to be as thoughtful as I can, to connect to others who are seeking to support nature and create networks where life can flourish.

The news about the climate emergency is pretty dire, but I’m trying to look at what I can do, and what we can do, and seeking to add my voice to those who are calling for change.

Poem: Winter seedheads

Out in the cold, damp garden, I have been holding my nerve and not cutting things back. Just this week, I’ve snipped a few old stems above the primroses getting ready to flower – and indeed flowering already. I am seeing how long I can sit on my hands and wait as things flop under frost and rain, thinking of the life held in piles of leaves, and the hollow stems of perennials.

Where I have cut back, I have left things in piles near where they grew, giving time for the things that live there to move before I compost them.

As I have left this old growth, and quietened the voice in my head reproving me for untidiness, I’ve noticed real beauty in these seedheads, and fading leaves and flowers, and an increase in the hum of aliveness I’m noticing in the garden.

Even moving a few leaves to clear space for primroses has revealed fat caterpillars, and many tiny creatures unknown to me. There is beauty here, too. All this decay from last year is full of life, full of what will be needed by the bluetits investigating the nest box, the blackbirds turning over leaves.

Winter seedheads

I’ve left it wild – left seedheads
and leaves – and the leaves
lie piled up in heaps in borders,
against fences, swept from paths.

And I find I love the colours of
the fading aster leaves,
colours I have not seen before,
new to my eyes, uncut as they are.
And the pale seedheads – like stars –
of the alliums, and the dark eyes of
rudbeckia, how they sway together
as the wind whips round, mingling,
full, and darkly shimmering.

I watch the birds as they eat
red berries  – dark holly,
the vivid bright cotoneaster,
as the squirrels lope inquiringly
over the lawn, looking for what
they buried.

There is so much life in
the few brief hours of daylight,
while the night lingers in the
sharp musk of fox,
the delicate deer paths
deepening in the soft earth.
And I feel how precious this space is,

How, now it is cold, the garden is
sanctuary to many more than me.
And I love to be host to such guests.
There is much joy in noticing
their need, and in opening my hand
to offer what they lack, quietly,
invisibly.

Even now, in the darkest days
life stirs, life comes through
the slick dripping trees,
through frost and fog,
and finds shelter here,
and makes a home.

Christmas Retold – at the darkest time of year, there are lights shining

Once again, we’re having a strange time of preparation for Christmas. With so much uncertainty about the virus, and some confusion about plans, and travel, I’ve been finding it hard to think I’ll really be able to see loved ones this year…. but so far, it’s looking like it might all still be possible.

And as I woke up this morning, I thought about how uncertain, and bewildering, Mary and Joseph’s situation was at that first Christmas. How much it was, in the end, about God being with us even in the most unpromising situations. For them, it was hardly shining tinsel all tied up with a bow, but the gift of a child born far away from their home was the most profound blessing, after all.

So, whatever ends up happening, I’m trying to hold on to that thought, to steady myself and ready myself as best I can.

May you have a peaceful and blessed Christmas, wherever you are.

Caravaggio Adoration of the Shepherds.jpg
Caravaggio – Adoration of the Shepherds

From The Bible Story Retold

The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, had ordered a census throughout the whole empire, when all the people would be counted, and taxed.  The orders spread along straight Roman roads, and were proclaimed first in the white marble cities and ports, and then in the towns and villages of the countryside.

Even quiet Nazareth heard the news, and Mary and Joseph began to gather together their belongings, ready to travel to Bethlehem.  That was Joseph’s family home:  he was descended from King David, of Bethlehem. They set off south on the crowded road, for the whole empire was travelling.  But, for Mary, the journey was especially hard, and the road seemed never ending. It was nearly time for her baby to be born.

At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles.  The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night.  The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable.  There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay.  Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.

There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago.  The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch.  Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful.  All was well.

Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness.  The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!”  The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light.  “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place.  In the town of David, a saviour has been born.  He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for.  And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”

The shepherds watched as light was added to light, voice to voice, until they were surrounded by a dazzling, heavenly host of angels, all praising God and saying
“Glory! Glory to God in the highest,
And on the earth be peace!”

And then, in an instant, the angels were gone, and the shepherds were left in dark night shadows, listening to the sound of a distant wind. But their eyes still shone with heaven’s light.
“Let’s go and see for ourselves!” they called to one another as they raced over the dark, rocky fields to Bethlehem.  There, they found Mary and Joseph, and, just as the angel had said, they found the baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands and lying in a manger.  They saw him with their own eyes, and spread the angel’s message to all they met.
“The Promised One has come! The Christ, the Anointed One, has been born!” The angel’s words were on everyone’s lips that night in Bethlehem.  And, as the shepherds made their way back to their sheep, bursting with good news, Mary kept their words safe, like treasures, in her heart.

And from Prayers and Verses

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894

Also from Prayers and Verses, a poem I wrote as a child.

The dawn is breaking, the snow is making
everything shimmer and glimmer and white.

The trees are towering, the mist is devouring
all that is in the reaches of sight.

A bell is ringing, the town is beginning,
slowly, gradually, to come to life.

A candle is lighted, and all are excited,
for today is the ending of all man’s strife.

5b Walter Launt Palmer (American painter, 1854-1932) Winter's Glow

The light is coming into the world.

Please feel free to use the extracts, saying where they are from.

The picture at the top of the post is taken from my children’s book, The Little Christmas Tree