Adversity and restriction have been birthing points for some of our most beautiful works of art. The history of humanity is filled page to page with examples of this. As evidenced throughout the vast catalogue of art created out of suffering, it is in our nature to resist despair through defiant acts of beauty. In his magnificent essay “Learning in a War-Time,” C.S. Lewis wrote,
[Human beings] propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec… It is not panache; it is our nature.”
We have opportunity to witness this phenomenon in many new works of art around the world this year. I want to bring to your attention, however, to one in particular. This year, during the lock-downs that have affected so many of us world-wide in response to COVID-19, English poet Malcolm Guite, saw a glimmer of something beautiful embedded in another name the disease is known by – the corona virus. A corona is a kind of halo of light around moon during a total solar eclipse, or a kind of crown.
In response to reading the psalms as part of his meditative practice, Dr Guite, has written a series of short poems in response to each of the 150 psalms contained in the Psalter – the Psalms of the Judeo-Christian Scripture. The Psalms comprise the most enduring and transformative collection of poetry in literature. They were written in response to the full range of the human condition, much of it defined by adversity. Dr Guite gives readers an introduction to this new work saying, “I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic.”
The result is not only a magnificent series of reflective poetry for us to follow as Dr Guite releases each individual poem on his website, but this work will be compiled into a new book with an expected release in January or February of 2021. Anyone who is already familiar with Dr Guite’s work will recognise the title Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year. This new the book will be aptly titled ‘David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms’. Dr Guite decided on the subtitle ‘Sounding the Psalms’ because it not only conveys what he is doing in writing this new series, but it makes a perfect pairing with Sounding the Seasons, a book widely used and much loved by pastors and preachers who use it as a liturgical resource, and by lay readers who use it in their own private devotions.
Regarding this new poetic series responding to the psalms, Dr Guite has said, “‘My aim is not to produce a new translation, or metrical version of the psalms or anything like that, but to keep a kind of poetic prayer diary of the actual experience of praying them now, letting the poems reflect some of the thoughts, and even debates that go on in one’s head as one reads and prays them now, especially as one reads them in a devotional cycle, i.e. so many psalms a day, where you are reading them sequentially, not thematically so you keep getting these strange transitions and juxtapositions from psalm to psalm, which sometimes have quite beautiful or provocative effects. That’s partly why I’ve chosen the Corona form, in which the last line of a meditation on one psalm forms the first line of a meditation on the next. The other thing I would broadly say about my ideas about it so far is that mine, for this purpose, is an unashamedly Christian reading of the text, in the sense that, devotionally I am reading it in the spirit first of its having been read and prayed by Christ, and second as in some sense inspired prophecy of his inner experience, and so of mine in him, and his in me. But of course I also want to keep my awareness of original context and meaning…’.”
Dr Guite has generously given permission to include three of these new poems here in Cultivating. These three psalms also are among my own personal favourites. They are places in Scripture that have held me steady in seasons of storm and deep soil to anchor my own soul. May these good words be a blessing and a ballast to you as well. You can click on the highlighted title of each poem and be taken directly to Dr Guite’s website where you can read more about the individual psalm, an intro to each poem, and listen to Dr Guite reading each poem.
Come to the place, where every breath is praise,
And God is breathing through each passing breeze.
Be planted by the waterside and raise
Your arms with Christ beneath these rooted trees,
Who lift their breathing leaves up to the skies.
Be rooted too, as still and strong as these,
Open alike to sun and rain. Arise
From meditation by these waters. Bear
The fruits of that deep rootedness. Be wise
In the trees’ long wisdom. Learn to share
The secret of their patience. Pass the day
In their green fastness and their quiet air.
Slowly discern a life, a truth, a way,
Where simple being flowers in delight.
Then let the chaff of life just blow away.
Then help me, step by step, my guide and friend.
Preserve me O my God in whom I trust.
My other goods are nothing in the end,
How quickly they decay, how swiftly rust,
But through it all you stay and comfort me,
My one abiding joy, when all the rest
Have flown so suddenly. For now I see
My true inheritance, now I look up
And find you still beside me, showing me
The path of life. In your right hand the cup
Of blessings full to overflowing, your
Left hand upholds me still, gives me hope.
I have a goodly heritage! You pour
On me your graces, undeserved, you raise
And comfort me until I fall no more.
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.
The featured image titled “Still Waters” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.