Malcolm Guite "Lifting the Veil" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family. Because we’re new to the world of podcasts taking time to give us a review or a thumbs up will mean a great deal to us and will help us extend our reach to more people.
This week my guest is best-selling English poet-writer, Malcolm Guite. Malcolm has sold over 40,000 volumes of his poetry. He’s also a singer-songwriter, Anglican priest, and an academic. Malcolm Guite is a Life Fellow of Girton College at Cambridge. He also teaches for the divinity faculty in Cambridge and lectures widely in England and North America on theology and literature. I first saw Malcolm Guite in action a few years ago, here in Toronto at a gathering for Image magazine. Malcolm filled the room with poetry, wit and wisdom, all the overflow of his own rich and dynamic spiritual life. It was an inspiring and uplifting event. Today we’re going to look at three of Malcolm’s books: Sounding the Seasons: 70 sonnets for the Christian year; David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms and his newest book, Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God.
Malcolm Guite: Thank you. Well, I was very glad you drew my attention to that lecture because although I’d read some of Nouwen’s books, I’d never actually heard his speaking voice. So just to start with, it was so moving to hear this warm human voice and to see indeed and hear rather how he warmed to his task, how he began in some ways, quite quietly and hesitantly, and then as he moved forward and particularly when he talks about the move from fear to love, about the way love casts out fear. I mean, his theme was whether we make our home in the house of fear or whether we make our home in the house of love and how love comes to us. I just felt his voice itself warming and it was a very powerful experience to listen to it. In a sense now, if I go back and look at, say, The Return of the Prodigal Son, I’m going to hear that voice which is wonderful.
I think it struck me particularly that he gives quite early on in that lecture, a very close reading of the opening chapter of John’s gospel. And particularly on the question to Jesus, “Master, where are you staying? Where’s your home?” and Jesus saying, “Come and see.” And then he builds that up, takes into John that sense of welcoming and homecoming. But the paradox is astonishing that God comes and makes his home in and with us. Even when we feel homeless, he can still find a home with us. And that paradox I thought was beautifully articulated in my own book, Lifting the Veil. I make parallels between the incarnation and the way poetry tries to make, to body forth the former things then to make, as Shakespeare says, of every nothing a local habitation and a name. So, I found all kinds of consonances with that lecture. But I suppose right at the core of what I felt there– and I know this is what’s attracted so many people to Henri Nouwen– is that although he’s fully versed in psychology and depth psychology, and he’s really interested in, you know, he understands quite a lot of secular wisdom about the working of the human psyche, but all of that is at the service of Jesus. The figure that you feel is right at the heart of what he has to say is the compelling figure of Jesus himself.
Karen: You’ve grasped that very well. I’ve always said myself that I almost feel like it’s a plumb line in Henri, that he has this Jesus at the very center and out of that comes what he creates. I see the same in you. I see a great similarity here in terms of the two of you. Here you are both priests and writers. And I wonder if you, like Henri, have had a lifetime of processing your world, your faith, your thoughts, through your pen?
Malcolm: Well I mean I suppose one of the things that makes you a writer is the realization that it’s the very act of bodying forth and writing that makes you discover what you know and discover what you believe. That you have these half-formed thoughts. You have this sense of insight, but it’s not really there in the world until it’s articulated. And sometimes particularly with the art of poetry, I find if I already know absolutely before I’ve written a poem what the poem’s going to be about and how it’s going to work and how it’s going to conclude – if I know everything about it before I write it, then it’s not a poem. It’s just a note to self. Whereas if I feel entranced by an image or led forward by the musical sound of certain lines and I write them there’s always a point where the poem, like a living thing, sort of quickens and pushes back. I mean, to borrow an image from the visitation, it sort of leaps in the womb, you know, it leaps for joy. It has its own life.
And then when a poem is born that way what it does hopefully, has rich things to say to other people, but it has them to say to me as well. I learn something from the poem, the poem becomes something, something more. And I think that that power of a work of art, whether it’s a poem or a piece of prose writing or a painting to quicken with a life of its own and to have more than, as it were, you put into it; to make more available than you thought was available, when you start to write it. That seems to me to be a sign of the work of God, the Spirit in the world. And that’s the sort of over plus-ness of God himself. And so, writing has been not so much expressing absolutely what I know, as exploring and discovering what I half know and still need to learn.
Karen: I’m going to start with David’s Crown, which I really love. I have to tell you, I thought, what a wonderful book, I’ve got to get my copy out too. And just say, I found it so fascinating, the structure of this book and how you put it together and how it becomes a crown. Would you tell us just a little bit, I mean, this to me was so imaginative.
Malcolm: I’m going to say also, extraordinary challenge. Well, like many people I found the experience of our last really serious lockdown, which started back in March of 2020 for us, concentrated the mind. Of course, we could only go out once for an hour each day. It was really quite severe lockdown here and so we loved the hour we had out in nature. But I found that my daily reading was Psalms, which I have to say, sometimes becomes a little bit on automatic. You’re kind of familiar with, and it ticks over – suddenly the Psalms commanded my attention. They seemed to speak from the heart and for the heart and they seem to speak directly into this crisis. So, I kind of knew I would like to write a sort of prayer poetry – a kind of diary of my journey through the Psalms in the form of poetry. But it remained a vague idea until I found this structure. Each of the poems has 15 lines; it’s in five/three say because it’s in pentameter. That’s like a little model of the Psalter in the sense that is therefore about 150 syllables in each one. And they’ve got 150 Psalms, which are also divided into fives and threes. Then that is to say that there are five books of the Psalter. So that was all there, but I still didn’t have it. And then I was rereading the poetry of John Donne, the great late 16th and early 17th century poet-priest. And he has a very beautiful little sequence of seven sonnets called La Corona, and this was obviously before we knew about the Corona virus. La Corona was called Corona because it means crown. I mean, the word Corona and the word coronation, it’s the Latin word for crown. There is a beautiful piece of music by Tallis called the Missa Corona Spinea, the mask for the crown of thorns. So, the way it’s a crown for Donne is that the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the next one. And the last line of that one is the first line. And so they’re linked, like you might link chaplets of flowers, and then as you would guess, the final line of the final sonnet is the first line of the first sonnet so it says it makes a crown or coronet. And he actually opens it and closes it with the lines, addressed to Christ, “deign at my hands, this crown of prayer and praise.”
And it’s quite a delicate thing to do that with seven sonnets. So a crazy thing occurred to me. I thought to myself, what if I did that? But instead of doing it with seven sonnets, I did it with 150 poems. And it would mean, of course, that the whole thing would be a corona. And I began to feel that perhaps this Corona virus, you know, that there might be a hidden crown in some of it, it might be part of the Corona Spinea or the crown of thorns. So it began to make sense. And what it did was it drew my attention to the links between the Psalms, the sequence. You can go into the Psalter and read it for themes, but part of the ordinal as we call it, the lectionary, particularly for priests and deacons in the Church of England, you say a set number of Psalms. You know, you go through the Psalter, a set Psalms each day and you don’t do it because you’re in this mood or that mood, you just go through. And that really made me think, gosh, I’ve got to know when I’m reading Psalm 22 I need to know that 23 is coming. When I’m reading 23, I need to look at 24. And of course, to begin the whole thing, which begins, you know, with the [unclear], before I could write the first line, I had to know what the last line of the whole sequence would be. So I started, even though we were in dire straits and the country was in a perilous state and we were all in fear, but I started, I prepared myself by reading Psalm 150, the complete explosion of joy and praise. And I got the line “come to the place where every breath is praise”, which I thought is the final invitation of the Psalm is into the realm of praise. And I thought that can be a welcoming line. That can be the first line. And then after that, it, it began almost to write itself.
Karen: I was absolutely amazed at it, this beautiful crown, this linking, this, this little tricky job you set for yourself, but you’ve executed so beautifully.
Malcolm: I love form, I think form actually helps with poetry. So, the form of the rhymes came and the nature, as well as all part of helping me, not just to splurge on the page, but to make something formed and beautiful I hope.
Karen: It had particular meaning for me. And it goes way back in my life, probably almost 50 years now, – 45 years ago. I created a wall hanging that is a crown in the hands of God. And it was interesting because at that point I was a starving young artist and someone wanted to buy it and they did. And then I felt God’s rebuke. He said, this was for you. This is what you look like in my hands; a crown in my hand. And it happened to be because we were all together praying so it wasn’t just me alone, but it was what we look like when we joined together. And interestingly enough, the person who had bought it sent me a note and said, I have this strange feeling this is not for me, but it’s for you. What an amazing confirmation. And I still have it hanging in my home. I’ll have to send you a picture of it. It’s not grand, but it was that message of this crown in the hands of God. And I look at this beautiful work of art that you created in David’s Crown. And I just see it resting in God’s hands. And it’s a kind of fresh and imaginative way to tell people the marvelous and incredible beauty of the Lord. I found it fabulous. Is there a poem within it that you would read to us – one or two?
Malcolm: Well, thank you. Yes. One of the things that really came through to me, this goes back to our talk about Henri Nouwen and then the idea of Christ is the plumb line or the connection or the heart. I really felt I came closer to Jesus through the Psalms. I really read them in the spirit that not only he himself had prayed them, and obviously Psalm 22 was on his lips when he was dying and he was fulfilling therefore Psalm 22 and so on, but also that many of the Psalms seem to look forward to him. He seems to be there, both in the suffering figure and in the royal figure that we see in the Psalms. Let me just read you – I’ll perhaps read you a couple. I’ll read you one, which is the one where I specifically asked Christ to come and offer him the crown, as it were, and say this is the thing I’ve woven for you, it’s number 86.
So, what I did was I read the Psalms in the Coverdale translation, and then I made my poem and you can read the book two ways. You can either read it straight through as a book of poems that takes you on a spiritual journey or you can read it with the Psalms in your hands, and you can read a couple of Psalms and then read the poems, and then you see the conversation going on. But anyway, here’s my Psalm 86:
That we may flourish in your tenderness
Bow down and hear the whispers of our fear
Our restless misery, our emptiness
Without you. Christ come close to me and hear!
Come close and comfort me in troubled times,
I need your mercy now for I despair.
Of any other help. The telling chimes
Of every passing bell might be my own.
Lift up my soul, and breathe through my poor rhymes
That I might lay these lines before your throne
A frail corona wreathed of fading flowers
To set against the gold of David’s crown,
Wrought in the pattern of my passing hours.
Oh you, who raised me from the depths of hell,
Kindle these lines with all your quickening powers.
So it’s a sort of prayer and maybe just if I read you one more. One of the things about the whole experience of the lockdown was I think we came back to nature in a new way – the skies were clean and clear of all the airline traces and silent. We heard the bird song more. Life was precious and every dewdrop seemed extraordinary. And I had several experiences of that sense of almost coming to the brink of things and getting something glimmering through them. You know, George Herbert puts it very beautifully when he says, “a man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye, or if he pleases through it pass and then the heavens espy”.
So, I’d like to read you my take on Psalm 27, which is the famous Dominus Illuminatio, lighten lighten us. And it has one of my favorite verses anywhere in the Bible, which is, “my heart has said of him seek his face, your face Lord, I will seek”, which is amazing when you think of it coming in the Old Testament like that. And Moses could look on, I mean, ‘no man sees my face and lives’ and yet what can I do, but I ask to see your face. So this is a poem about vision, about looking, about looking with new eyes and it’s Dominus Illuminatio my poem on Psalm 27:
Oh let me see with his eyes from now on
Whose gaze on beauty makes it beautiful,
Who looks us into love and looks upon
His whole creation with a merciful
And loving eye. My heart has said of him
Seek out his face, I’ve sensed his bountiful
Presence shimmering behind the dim
Veil of things. That presence calls to me
Calls me to tremble at the brink and rim
Of lived experience, and then to free
Myself of fear, to trust him, and to dive
Right off that brink, into his mystery
Into that deep and holy sea of love
In which the living worlds all float and swim
To dare each moment’s death, that I might live.
Karen: Lovely, lovely. You know, I read in Sounding the Seasons on the cover there’s a lovely comment from Rowen Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, “Malcolm Guite knows exactly how to use the sonnet form to powerful effect. These pieces, have the economy and pungency of all good sonnets and offer deep resources for prayer and meditation. In his own words, brevity, clarity, concentration, and a capacity for paradox are typical of the best sonnet sequences. And all these qualities are to be found here.” This is on the front page of Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year. I took your advice. I picked this up and I read it from cover to cover. I wept at different points. I found fresh meaning for different moments within the church year. It was delicious. What can I say? It was just a lovely, lovely treat.
Malcolm: I’m glad you said delicious there, because I think poetry should be a sensual experience as well as poetic or spiritual one. I think you should taste poetry on the tongue. So, so that will do very well. Very good.
Karen: I just thought that I would ask you know, within this, I would say I hear your double vocation. You are a priest and a poet. What is it like to have that? And who inspires you? Because I think there are many throughout time, but also just tell me a little bit about that double vocation that you have.
Malcolm: I now feel that it is a double vocation in the full sense that I feel that the priest and poet as it were are two sides of the coin; that they are the same thing in me, but I didn’t always feel that. I mean, partly because of course, when I first began to want to be a poet which was when I sort of fell in love with the poetry of Keats as a teenager and wanted to sort of sound like that. I was not at that point Christian. I’d been brought up in a Christian household, but I’d sort of done the classic moody teenage rebellious thing and said, I don’t believe any of that. And eventually of course, got called back and I became a much fuller believer in a sense, than I had been before.
But partly because I had rejected my faith and there was a big gap in my life, poetry filled that gap. And because I didn’t believe again yet, I still couldn’t accept that it was actually the case – the faith. So I wanted to be a poet first then when I did return to faith and when rather to my amazement within that faith, having become an adult Christian and being confirmed in a service in 1980 gradually over the course of the eighties, I began to feel this call to priesthood. And I wasn’t really sure about it, but eventually I began to test it. And I was ordained a deacon in 1990 and a priest in ’91. Now I hadn’t published much poetry at that point, but I was writing it. And I found my priestly vocation in itself so fulfilling and so demanding, particularly the pastoral side of it, so much to learn and to do, that for a while I put poetry aside.
And what I discovered when I did that – this wasn’t like Gerard Manley Hopkins being told by superiors you cannot write poetry – but there was about seven years, my first seven years, as a way of sort of toiling in the vineyard where I might’ve written the occasional poem, but the priest side of it was really full. And what I discovered of course, was that the very thing I was trying to do in poetry, not very well, but trying, which in poetry, I was trying to make a shape of words, to bring people into a house of words, take them on a journey and send them out from the house of words, the poem transformed and blessed with a rich language that had entered into their selves. That’s what I think was my strategy. Well, of course, I got to do that with far more success because it was the beautiful liturgy. Every week I invited people into the house of God. We celebrated the rich and beautiful liturgy. I was able to pronounce the words of Jesus himself, and together through that, the poetry of liturgy, we were transformed. Also, in poetry you’re listening to the music behind the words, and you’re trying to respond line by line. And I found that pastorally my poet’s ear tuned to hear what’s really going on behind the set of words actually worked quite well pastorally, trying to listen to people, tell me their trouble. And often I would be able to find a phrase for them and say, is it like this, might this be what you want to say? And they’ll go, oh God, that’s it. So then, so in a weird way, some of the poetic part of me was coming out and being fulfilled in the priestly part. But, and this is really is quite significant I think, after seven years of very intense work as a priest in two different parishes, I actually got quite close to burnout. I was overdoing it. And I also found that my springs were running dry. I wasn’t still in touch with the deepest things. And partly I was on too many committees, but there you go. So, my Bishop kindly saw my distress and he kindly gave me three months of sabbatical and said, you can do what you like. You know what you need to do. And I suddenly thought, golly, I really need to read poetry. I need to go back to the wellsprings. I need to go back to the poets I love most and just read them again, not to write essays but just to let that word soak into myself.
And I did that very intensely for three months. And I found it completely renewed me. And what I found then was that the other vocation, the poet’s vocation, kind of came swimming across and joined hands with the priestly vocation and said, ‘look, we’re on the same team here, write poems, make the time in your life to do this. And the person who in the poetic canon, but also in the kind of, if you like, canon of the saints of the church of England who became for me the exemplar of what that is and how to do it and the very example that it was possible, that person was George Herbert. So, George Herbert, 17th century priest-poet whose poems weren’t published till after he died, but he faithfully served his parish and this little church in Bemerton, but he also wrote these incredibly honest poems, mostly addressed directly to Christ, often a dialogue format kind of back and forth. And the more I read Herbert, the more I felt encouraged equally in my poetic and priestly vocations. So, he remains a kind of a patron saint for me. I wrote a sort of poem for George Herbert in tribute to him. And I also wrote a whole book or a whole sequence called After Prayer, which was just poems, responding to one George Herbert poem.
Karen: He’s clearly woven his way through. I could see that as I was reading Lifting the Veil. I mean, I could see the various influences. But how wonderful this particular book, Sounding the Seasons, which is the sonnets. Why did you choose sonnets? You are good at limiting yourself…
Malcolm: I am good at limiting myself and it’s necessary because as you may have noticed, when I have given you slightly longer answers than you might be expecting to shorter questions. I have a tendency to go on a bit, you know, I have flow. Now that’s fine, but you can have too much of it. You know, my mother used to say to me when I was a boy, she said, you have the gift of the gab, very galloping, but she also used to say your tongue will get you hung. Anyway, I discovered the discipline of form – the whole point about a sonnet is it’s only 14 lines. You can see the last line on the page before you read the first one. If you’re writing a sonnet, you know, where you have to stop. That concentrates things. I mean, there’s a line, I think it’s in A Winter’s Tale, where one of the characters in Shakespeare says, “Poetry is a current, which flies each bound it shapes.” So that’s the image of a river flowing, but it’s flowing in a channel and part of the force and flow of the river is the channel. And you get when the bank of the channel turns and the water hits it, you get this fine spray, but that’s what makes the river exciting to look at as it moves around. Now, if you didn’t have the banks, but you had the well, just springing up, and there was nothing there and no slope and no channel it would just be a long, big splurgy lake or a muddy puddle. It needs the channel. So, I particularly find that the form gives force to the flow and contains it and gives it all.
I think the form of the sonnet itself is simply a very beautiful form and I love the traditional bit. So when I write a sonnet, I know that George Herbert writes sonnets and John Donne writes sonnets. And of course, supremely, I know that Shakespeare writes sonnets. And I know that Shakespeare writes a sonnet sequence in which certain themes recur again and again, and are taken from different angles. And so I became aware not only of the sonnet, but of the sonnet sequence as a form which is a tradition in which I could participate, which I could illuminate a little bit, to which in my own small way I could add some little branch to the great unfolding tree of it. So, all those things made it attractive.
But I remember when I first started to write these sonnets in Sounding the Seasons they arose in and through and out of a church community. I mean I dedicated it ‘to the glory of God and for the household of faith at St. Edward King and Martyr, Cambridge, among whom these sonnets first lived and breathed.’ And what happened was that I was a priest there -I was an assistant priest there -and we had a tradition of a secular reading. So, we had two scripture readings and the sermon was always from the scripture, but we had a secular reading from the world of literature, which we would just put in by way of a comment or a sidelight or a kind of reference that the preacher might want to make so that the sermon might be a conversation between the traditionally received gospel and something more contemporary. And it was my job in the church to find these readings and put them together and reflect them on the gospel.
I did that for a year or two, and then I began to run out of them and I began to think, well, maybe I could do this. Maybe I could write something, you know, it’s Pentecost, or, you know, it’s Epiphany or whatever. I’ll look at the readings. And these poems began to emerge. They got to the point where sometimes I said in the sonnet, what I really wanted to say in the sermon. So occasionally on our more formal eight o’clock service, you know, Book of Common Prayer service, after the readings, which had inspired the sonnet in the first place, I would just read the sonnet. And one of the congregation I remember, taking me aside and saying Malcolm, he said, all right, now, why didn’t you tell us sooner that you could do it in just 14 lines?! They’d been enduring these 25-minute sermons from me, so I began to feel that brevity may indeed be the soul of wit.
Karen: I love that. There’s a lot of congregants out there that say, I wish that somebody would bring it down and do something condensed like that. I have a few favorites in here. Can I request a reading? I’ve had many favorites, but I loved O Emmanuel on page 13, I loved Cleansing the Temple on page 34. Would you read a couple of them Malcolm?
Malcolm: Sure. I’d be happy to do that. O Emmanuel is the seventh in a little mini sequence within it of the Advent antiphons and the last of them – they’re all calling on the Christ with terms that as it were come out of the Old Testament world, but show who he is. He’s a light, he’s a key, he’s a king, he’s a flame, he’s a root – all of those things. But then finally on the last one, Oh, Emmanuel, we get his name we get God with us. And this poem sums up all the other images in the antiphons and comes to Christ so, Oh Emmanuel. But of course, it’s got the Advent theme. Advent means come. Adventus is the Latin for come. So, come, come, come, Lord is what all these things say. O Emmanuel:
Oh come, oh, come and be our God-with-us,
O long-sought with-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name,
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven, beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.
Karen: I love it. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I also said page 34. Am I asking too much? I just, you know, I’m going to be greedy…
Malcolm: The Cleansing of the Temple. This is part of a sequence for Holy Week and the whole heart of it really, this particular bit of the poems is the idea that although we read in the gospel about the events of Holy Week and Jesus coming to Jerusalem and coming through on this particular day in Holy Week cleansing the temple, we read in one sense about what happened out there and back then as we would with any historical figure. But of course, the difference is that the person we’re reading about is alive and present to us right now and is God as well as man and therefore, whatever Jesus did out there and back then, he can and should do in here and right now. You know, one of the church fathers said, ‘what he has done for us, he must do in us.’
So that’s the idea behind this and the other poems in this particular bit of the book where I’m saying, ‘come here, come to this town. You know there’s a temple here that needs to be cleansed. There’s a Jerusalem here. So, Cleansing the Temple:
Come to your Temple here with liberation
And overturn these tables of exchange,
Restore in me my lost imagination,
Begin in me for good the pure change.
Come as you came, an infant with your mother,
That innocence may cleanse and claim this ground.
Come as you came, a boy who sought his father
With questions asked and certain answers found.
Come as you came this day, a man in anger,
Unleash the lash that drives a pathway through,
Face down for me the fear, the shame, the danger
Teach me again to whom my love is due.
Break down in me the barricades of death
And tear the veil in two with your last breath.
I was thinking, as I wrote that poem about this ‘out there, and back then’ is also ‘in here and right now’. But it suddenly occurred to me that, of course, when we get the story in the gospel of Jesus cleansing the temple and overturning the tables and, you know, making a space, taking away the barrier that stopped people from getting through, that wasn’t his first visit to the temple. And of course, I thought, do you know, let me just think about this. He comes as a little baby in his mother’s arms at the circumcision and the dedication. And then he comes as a little boy when he stays behind and they lose him and they find him in the temple, asking questions. Then he comes to do this big job of cleansing the temple.
And I thought, is that it? And I thought no, there’s another thing. And I suddenly remembered that astonishing detail in the gospels that when Jesus breathed his last and breathed the breath of life back into God we’re told that the veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And that was the veil between the sanctuary and the Sancta Sanctorum, the Holy of Holies. You remember in the temple law, only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, only once a year on the Day of Atonement with the blood of the lamb on his body. That was a curtain that nobody could pass through. And when the gospel tells us that when Jesus died, that veil was torn in two from top to bottom, they’re telling us that we are going through into the Holy of Holies with Jesus. And of course, that’s picked up in Hebrews, ‘seeing we have a great high priest who is passed into the heavens Jesus, the son of God’ – so it was wonderful just sitting down to write the poem itself, made me suddenly see how all these different parts of the gospel work together.
Karen: Oh, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Well, Lifting the Veil. This is a truly wonderful book. I loved it. I’m going to recommend it to everybody. Imagination and the Kingdom of God – this is the new one. May I read a little portion here that you wrote? I think it’s sort of the purpose that you state, “In this book. I want to make the case for a recovery and reintegration of the imagination together with the reason as modes of knowing. And further, I want to affirm that the healing of that split, the reconciliation of that division is to be found in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He comes not only to save us from our sins, but also to heal the tragic fracture in our ways of knowing”. I love this book. It pronounces a ‘yes’ to creativity. It pronounces a ‘yes’ to the imagination where we meet God. Tell me about how this has come about. It’s obviously deep in you.
Malcolm: Yes, it’s very much. Thank you for reading that passage, that’s really from the heart. And in a way the passage you chose is very much the core of the book, how reason and imagination can come back together. But actually, they come back together in and through Christ and in our approach to Christ. It’s a book about imagination and creativity, but it’s a Christocentric book about him. It’s very much my heart stuff. Now it came about, in a sense, it’s got a long story and a short story. The long story behind it is my own awareness, really growing up that I was living in a split world. There was, supposedly, these cold objective scientific facts out there in the world of objectivity, but they were all quantities and mathematical rules and particles were whizzing about in space, but there were no values. There was no love or care. So, when I look for the things that actually make life worth living –love and insight and beauty and music– they said, well, that’s fine you can have that Malcolm, but that’s all subjective. That’s all just private, subjective. And of course, we had this split in the ways of knowing where we have only objective knowledge was privileged for total reality. But so-called subjective knowledge, which was just regarded as mainly private and with no actual purchase on the facts. And I just thought that can’t be right. I experienced it actually as a school boy, when I came into the English school system quite late and had my first chemistry lesson and we did the experiment with alkaline/acids. You dip a little piece of litmus paper in and it changes color according to if there’s acidity. I had never done chemistry; I’d never been in chemistry lab. I was astonished. I thought the whole thing was beautiful. I loved the Bunsen burners and the glass tubes. And when we dip the paper in and it changed color right there before our eyes, I thought it was magic. Now I did the experiment, just like we were told to do. And I wrote up that I got the right results and I wrote all the little calculations and exactly how many, you know, I did all that. But instead of writing it just in the form I later discovered you’re supposed to, I wrote a little essay. I said, this was a great day in my life, this is astonishing. I was amazed when I saw the color. Anyway, we handed the homework in. The next lesson the teacher called me up and I thought he was going to say, you did a nice homework. But on the contrary, he called me up to mock and shame me.
He took my piece of work and showed it to the class. And every time I had used the word ‘I’ and there’s a subject doing this, he crossed it out. And he said, you never use the word ‘I’, you never say what you feel. None of these things are real. The only thing that is real is this substance. You have to say the litmus paper was dipped into the thing, but it was observed that… you don’t say who did it. And I said, so are you telling me that I must write about this as if they were nobody in the room doing it? And he said, yes, that’s what science is. And I thought, well, there’s something wrong there. So, I had experienced this split as a painful thing. And I later discovered that some of my heroes like C.S. Lewis had experienced it.
I mean, Lewis writes about his own time when he was an atheist. He’s saying, you know, the two hemispheres of my mind were in sharpest contrast. On the one side “many I did see of poetry and myth on the other, a dull concatenation of facts about a dying universe. Nearly everything I loved, I believed to be imaginary, nearly everything I believe to be real I thought grim and meaningless’. Now that split was healed for Lewis in coming to Christ. When he found that the world of imagination had been bodied forth in reality, that both sides of the mind could come together. So that had made me feel someday I need to think about healing these things, or just witnessing to the fact that they are being healed in me in Christ.
And I started off by writing quite an academic book. I wrote a purely academic book called Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination. Then it sits there on… I hope it’s fairly readable, but it’s the sort of thing that sits on the university library shelf and people refer to it in their PhDs and you kind of have to do that. That’s part of the gig. But having done it, I thought, although that book is about reason and imagination being brought back together, because it was an academic book, it had to be more reason than imagination in a way. And I thought I want the opportunity a bit later in my life where I’ve moved more and more into the realm of poetry to write the same thing in a way, but with different examples and to write it from the heart and then specifically not to appeal to bespectacled students, who’ve got to write an essay on it, but to appeal, to write the book to creative people. I was thinking of all these young creatives that you see all over the place who are making music and soundtracks and mosaics and films and you know, writing their own poetry.
So where did this beautiful thing come from? Is there a God that makes it valid? Well, how could you know? And I was thinking both about creatives who don’t have a faith, but also, I was thinking about those people who’ve perhaps come out of quite highly regulated and in some respects, legalistic churches that perhaps because of their own theological background have been very mistrustful of the imagination or have kind of marginalized it. And I think some people brought up in churches like that find it so crushing that they rebel against it. And they actually throw out the baby with the bath water. They lose their faith. Now there’s a lot of prejudicial junk that might’ve been in their churches, which they would do well to lose, but they can’t lose Jesus. So I want to say to them, look the Jesus you love is on the side of your imagination and not against it. And here’s why.
Karen: I found myself going, Malcolm you want to renew the awe in all of us. I give it back by permission. And that’s what makes his books such a treat to read. I would say to our listeners right now, don’t miss it. You will love it. It will enrich your life deeply.
When you talk about baptized imagination, and I think that came probably from Lewis, the artistic imagination, the yes, to the fullness of all of that, which I just really enjoyed. I would love if you would read one of the poems from here. I was thinking about The Transfiguration. Would that feel right? Do you want to set that up a little bit?
Malcolm: Yes, I’ll do that. The Transfiguration is one of those very central moments in the gospel. I remember when I first was reading when I went to study theology – I originally studied English literature at Cambridge. And then when I experienced my vocation to priesthood, I came back to Cambridge and studied theology. And I think it was a great help to me having studied literature first. It gave me a different way into the Bible. But I remember reading one of those annoying, rather debunking kind of commentaries, I think on Luke’s gospel where the high-minded commentator, the high-handed commentator – reading about the account of the transfiguration and Jesus’ shining light and the glory on the mountain and Moses and Elijah, he says, well, this is clearly a misplaced resurrection narrative, which I thought was rather astonishing. He said like as though St. Luke had just made an accident with the cut and paste. So I was annoyed by this commentary, but I thought, wait a minute, this is something. It is a resurrection narrative. There’s something about the full glory of the spiritual body. And yet Jesus hasn’t died yet. It’s like a glimmering. It’s like a hint. It’s like a lifting of the veil of what the glory is to be in a Christ in you, the hope of glory. And then I thought it’s not misplaced. It’s not misplaced at all. It’s there because when they come down from that holy mountain, he’s going to set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem. And Peter’s going to say, ‘oh, heaven forbid’. And he’s going to say, ‘get behind me’. I’ve got to go. He’s going to take them in. They’re going to see this man, utterly scorned, shamed, humiliated, stripped, beaten the flesh torn off his back.
They’re going to see him exposed on the cross and everybody who does that to him is going to be telling them, see, there’s nothing in him. He’s just another miserable sinner like the rest of you, there you go. You hope for the wrong thing. And maybe their faith is going to break as they do that, but what God does before the time of trial, he gives them the glimpse of glory. You know, we’re told for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross, just for a minute they see it. And I came to feel more and more that God gives us those again and again. I mean, one day I really believe the veil will be lifted completely, the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
As Jesus says, you won’t need to point and say, look there he is, there he is, because the coming of Christ will be like lightening from the east to the west. One day, it’s going to be abundantly clear but that day is not, has not yet come. We’re in a kind of pre-dawn dark, but to keep us going, God has given us in all kinds of ways, little moments of transfiguration. The burning Bush is one that has the glory shining out yet it’s still a bush. And I began to feel that perhaps in God’s divine Providence by the gift of imagination, which is part of his image in us, the particular job of some poets and writers might be to give us those glimpses to keep us going. So that was all kind of going on. So my poem on the transfiguration is kind of voiced for one of the disciples, either Peter, James, or John, you know, who’ve been up on the mountain and are now actually looking at the cross and the sky is dark, darkness covers the whole sky. At the end of the poem it says this blackened sky is dark and stark -that’s what he’s going to see in front of him. But what he can remember is this joyful glimpse of how things really are. So here’s the poem, Transfiguration:
For that one moment ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
Tthe daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
Karen: Oh, lovely, lovely. I came across something and I couldn’t quite sort out whether you had written it or your friend wrote it about your poem, but I thought it was such a great description. It said your poetry jostles the soil of the imagination. I loved that phrase. And I think you have jostled the soil of our imagination as you read to us. I’m absolutely thrilled. I have loved the opportunity. There’s much more that I would like to talk about, but I don’t know whether you have more time that you can give…
Malcolm: Perhaps we should do one more poem. The jostling the soil of the imagination story by the way, that’s a phrase I borrowed from a very, very fine contemporary Irish poet called Micheal O’Siadhail who’s just published his masterpiece called The Five Quintets. But he once described poetry as jostling the soil of the imagination so that it becomes good ground, you know, into which the seed can fall. Well maybe if I were to read one poem, it’s obviously – the very fact that we’re doing this remotely, I mean, at one point I was hoping to come to Toronto and be with you all at the Henri Nouwen conference and everything. And that happened because of the pandemic and I do think there’s both crisis and opportunity for us in all of this.
And you know, the breakdown is sometimes breakthrough. So if I may, I’d like to read the poem I wrote called Easter 2020. We were locked down completely in March 2020 – suddenly everything closed, including all the churches. Nobody could go to church. And I, like many people, found this particularly painful on Easter day because Easter is supremely the day one makes one’s communion and receives Christ in the bread and wine and when one proclaims to one’s neighbor, ‘The Lord is risen, He is risen indeed, hallelujah.’ And we embrace one another because he’s not only risen in the bread and wine he’s risen in us and in each other. And we greet each other in Christ and Christ in each other. So to be at home on that morning of all mornings was going to be a kind of very strange thing. So late on the Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, I sat up and wrestled with this in my mind. And I asked the question where is Jesus this strange Easter day? And I suddenly found a whole poem came in response. And it very much embodies my sense that although I love to write about my beloved Christ in poetry, and I love to see paintings and music, and I love to go to church and all of those things, they’re all very helpful expressions, but Jesus is alive. He’s not a timeline. He’s where he wants to be. He’s doing what he needs to do. He breaks through every barrier and he becomes new in the world in all kinds of ways. So this is my poem Easter 2020:
And where is Jesus, this strange Easter day?
Not lost in our locked churches, anymore
Than he was sealed in that dark sepulchre.
The locks are loosed; the stone is rolled away,
And he is up and risen, long before,
Alive, at large, and making his strong way
Into the world he gave his life to save,
No need to seek him in his empty grave.
He might have been a wafer in the hands
Of priests this day, or music from the lips
Of red-robed choristers, instead he slips
Away from church, shakes off our linen bands
To don his apron with a nurse: he grips
And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands
The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,
Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.
On Thursday we applauded, for he came
And served us in a thousand names and faces
Mopping our sickroom floors and catching traces
Of that corona which was death to him:
Good Friday happened in a thousand places
Where Jesus held the helpless, died with them
That they might share his Easter in their need,
Now they are risen with him, risen indeed.
Karen: He is risen indeed. Thank you, Malcolm. Oh my goodness. This has been a feast for me. It’s been an absolute feast for me. You wrote at the very end of Lifting the Veil, “When the poetic imagination removes the film of familiarity, when it rinses and cleanses the source of our seeing and reveals breathtaking beauty in Christ and the world he loves, we respond to beauty with a longing for goodness; the poetic imagination that does not simply rouse, the moral imagination it becomes it.” Thank you for your gifts, for your obedience to these gifts. Thank you for sharing with us how Henri has been friend to you through your life too. That means a great deal to us. And I thank you for this time. I’m really honored. And I want to tell the people that are listening, do by all means go to our website. We will make sure that there’s links to everything that we’ve talked about today. This has been a treat, and you’re going to want to read more. I know that. Thank you so much for being with us and thank you, Malcolm Guite, what a treat this has been for me to talk with you today.
Malcolm: Thank you very much it has been a great pleasure.
Karen: I hope you come away from this interview with Malcolm Guite filled, inspired, and challenged to really know this very talented artist and experience the fullness of the gift of his creativity. We will post the links in our notes to Malcolm Guite’s website and to the books we discussed today.
If you enjoyed today’s podcast we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give us a stellar review or a thumbs up or share it with your friends and family. Be sure to take time to visit our website where you’re going to find links to any content, resources or things discussed in this episode. Check on the link, ‘Books to get you started ‘in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. And thanks for listening – until next time.
© Henri Nouwen Society
Praise from our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!