maggi dawn

St Brigid’s Lake of Beer

Early February sees the conflation of a number of feast days: tomorrow is both Candlemas and (in the USA) Groundhog Day; soon it will be Lunar New Year, but today, on February 1st, it is St Brigid’s Day.

St Brigid’s day is a time for purification and the rediscovery of creativity. Most of Brigid’s miracles had a maternal quality, often involving milk.  But she is also known for the poem attributed to her longing for a lake of beer to share with women, men and God.

One should, perhaps, bear in mind that ale, in Brigid’s time, was far weaker than it is today, and that as water was not always safe for drinking ale, for those who could afford it, was the drink of choice. So her prayer is not so much a Dionysian dream, more a vision of safe food and nurture for all. Still, an eternal party without a hangover is a pretty nice image of church. And, as it coincides with the Super Bowl this evening, I think one or two celebratory beers may be drunk.

I wish I had a great lake of ale for the King of kings,
and the family of heaven to drink it through time eternal.
I wish I had the meats of belief and genuine piety,
the flails of repentance, and the men of heaven in my house.
I would like vats of peace to be at their disposal,
vessels of charity for distribution,
caves of mercy for their company,
and cheerfulness to be in their drinking.
I would want Jesus also to be in their midst,
together with the three Marys of illustrious renown,
and the people of heaven from all parts.
I would like to be a tenant to the Lord,
so if I should suffer distress,
he would confer on me a blessing. Amen.

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January 1, 2015

A Happy New Year, late, and with soft edges

Last night my son and I, with a crowd of friends, saw the Old Year out in style at a gig in a nearby neighbourhood of New Haven. The small theatre, beautifully restored to its former glory, was filled with local people from overlapping social circles, so the atmosphere was as much a big local party as a gig. By 11.45 the band was rocking, but having begun their set a bit late, midnight was approaching too quickly for them to finish their set on time. The lead singer, funny and entertaining as well as a fantastic singer, suddenly took inspiration to grab the huge clock sitting on the front of the stage and turn it back 10 minutes. “No one is going to mind, are they?” she said. “Let’s finish the set, and then do the countdown.”

But they did mind. Suddenly a tangible sense of consternation filled the room. How can you do the countdown after midnight has already passed? So the singer turned the clock to the correct time again, and the audience enthusiastically endorsed the idea that the set would continue after the countdown. Which is, more or less, what happened… except that, as my son pointed out to me after consulting his smartphone, the big analog clock hadn’t been 100% accurate to begin with. He clinked his glass to mine as midnight arrived, and a few seconds later the room began the countdown, and New Year came in a few minutes late. Read the rest of this entry »

November 23, 2014

Stir Up Sunday


Stir Up Sunday is an old tradition in the UK.

The name comes from the first line of the Church of England collect (prayer) for the Sunday before Advent: “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people…”

but is neatly re-applied to stirring up cakes and puddings for baking ready for Christmas – five weeks being just the right amount of time to “feed” the cakes and puddings with brandy so they are suitably rich and boozy when the feast arrives.

The whole prayer goes like this:

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by you be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I like the spirit of this collect. It captivates something of an active spirituality, on the one hand praying for inspiration to take care of the world; on the other hand acknowledging that our own efforts are never going to be enough, and whatever spiritual help is on hand, we need it!

October 17, 2014

Emmaus and the vanishing God

A few have asked for the homily I gave in Chapel today – as I did it without notes, I can’t give you a script, but I think this is roughly what I said:

Even after he died – even after he came back in those curious days of resurrection – Jesus still seems to have showed up most of the time when it was just about time to eat.

“Come and have Breakfast,” he said, on the beach.
“Have you got anything to eat?” he asked, in the Upper Room.

One of my favourite stories about Jesus and food is another resurrection story, when he joined two disciples who were walking out of Jerusalem on their way to dinner.  I’m talking, of course, about the supper at Emmaus. The two disciples walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus—a decent length walk, Luke tells us it’s around seven miles—and along the way Jesus falls in with them, but they don’t recognize him at all.

Isn’t this strange? – they are talking about Jesus, with Jesus, and they don’t realize it’s him. Then they start discussing the scriptures, maybe even arguing back and forth about what Jesus meant when he used to talk about the scriptures. So now here they are, standing in the dust, arguing about the word of God with the Word of God. And still they don’t recognize him.

Eventually they arrive in Emmaus, and invite him to stay for supper. And we know from what Luke tells us that it’s when he blesses and breaks the bread that they recognize him. Of course we can see why they would – suddenly the immediacy of the Last Supper three nights earlier is right in front of their eyes.

Let me ask you this: have you ever wondered why they didn’t recognize him in the washing of the feet? I mean, Luke doesn’t tell us that they washed their feet, but they must have done. That was the culture. They had walked some seven miles, and you don’t walk anywhere in Jerusalem without getting your feet dirty. The desert loess gets in between your toes, and that dust sticks to you. You wash your feet when you arrive home, like we wash our hands before dinner.

So they sat side by side with Jesus washing their feet: why didn’t that remind them of three nights earlier? No, it was the blessing and breaking of the bread that did it. This sacrament thing. This moment when, in the middle of the ordinary and the mundane you suddenly realize: Locus Iste! God is in the Room!

But then he vanishes.

Isn’t it frustrating that it always seems to be that moment when you suddenly feel the reality and the presence of God, that he vanishes again. Like red tail-lights on the horizon, you can see where God has been, but you can never nail him down.

This vanishing at Emmaus: it reminds me of what Gregory of Nyssa wrote about the Life of Moses. Gregory pointed out that in all of Moses’ life there were three special, extra-significant moments where Moses had a close encounter with God’s presence.

The first one was in the crystal-clear clarity of the light of the burning bush. He was clueless and knew nothing of God – and how easy it is to see clearly when you don’t know anything yet. The next time, he’d been walking with God a while, and this time he met God in the misty, slightly foggy cloud. Not quite so clear this time. But the third time, when Moses got really ambitious and asked to see God face-to-face, it says he met God in the impenetrable darkness.

Impenetrable darkness.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the longer you walk with God, the clearer it would all become, the easier it would come to you. But Gregory tells us it’s quite the other way about. The closer you get to God, the harder it is to see anything clearly.

But here’s the thing: God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock, and then passes by, so Moses sees God’s back. He doesn’t see God face to face, but he sees where he’s just been. Kind of like Emmaus. He’s there, and there and there, and you don’t see it. And then you suddenly do see him and realize God is here – and he vanishes again.

And maybe that’s why Emmaus teaches us something about Holy Communion, this Eucharistic meal. Because we have all manner of ways to try to capture and enhance and honor the moment when God is here with us, tangibly present. We’re an ecumenical gathering here—and I know some of us capture and honor the moment with great ceremony, an aural and visual feast, incense and robes and candles and music. And others of us wrap it in great strings and showers and webs of words. And others aim for maximum simplicity—as if keeping it as uncluttered as possible will let the meal speak for itself. But whatever we do, however we style it, we can’t nail God down in this moment. As soon as we have meet God here, he’s off again: and the only choice we have is to follow after his disappearing back.

The Eucharist is never complete here in the room. The Eucharist takes us back outside – back to the world, back to work and families and life, back to following God’s spirit wherever that may lead us.

Bread is blessed and broken. God is present. And then he’s off again – red tail-lights on the horizon. But listen carefully, and you’ll hear his laughter in the breeze.

September 24, 2014

Nicodemus: under the cover of darkness

“You must be Born again!”   It’s a phrase that, ripped from its original context, is more associated with demanding preachers than kind friends, more with overnight conversions than of secret conversations. Many a preacher has waved a finger in the air, insisting that you *must* be born again – right now, without delay, and *you* must decide to do it.

But the story itself has none of this conversion pressure. Read it from start to finish, eliminating any preachers’ rhetoric from your mind, and you find a conversation, not a conversion.

The story hangs on two main metaphors.  The first is darkness: Nicodemus came to Jesus “under the cover of night”. Why? Perhaps Nicodemus was simply thinking that he needed a one-to-one with Jesus; he was always surrounded by crowds, and Nicodemus had serious questions he wanted to ask.  Or perhaps he was afraid of the consequences of being seen with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and according to John’s gospel, his colleagues were pretty antagonistic towards Jesus. The “darkness” imagery does suggest an element of covert activity – but it also alludes to the idea that Nicodemus is “in the dark” in the sense of not understanding what is happening to him. And despite what preachers often make of this story, the conversation ended with Nicodemus disappearing, still under the cover of night, still confused, still not understanding.

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September 21, 2014

Liturgy – it’s *not* the work of the people

There is a prevalent popular saying that liturgy is “the work of the people” – based, it is claimed, on the meaning of the original Greek word. But the current popular application of the word is often used to reinforce the idea that worship should be planned and executed by the people, according to their own taste, without any regard to liturgical tradition, doctrinal concerns, or church order.

This may sound like one of those moments when the etymology of an ancient word brings about a radical re-think of how we enact our faith.  But when it comes to this particular pop-phrase on liturgy, it’s application is not nearly radical enough, and its translation isn’t accurate enough. “Litourgeia” did certainly connect “work” and “the people”, but its meaning is lost if we use it merely to demand that the congregation gets to design their own worship.

What did litourgeia really mean? A litourgeia, in Greek usage, typically referred to a piece of work initiated by patronage for the purposes of the public good. So, for instance, if a wealthy person or group of people wanted to sponsor something for a town, they might initiate the building of a town hall – the work was initiated by some people who had the means to make it happen, and executed by others who had the skills and expertise to deliver the structure, but the result was something that existed for the benefit of all the people – and really, that meant all. It meant public – so that its benefits were available to everyone.

Anyone who knows my work knows that I am fully subscribed to including the community in the design and performance of liturgy. But that is with the caveat that such work takes place in the context of exploring the history, riches, expertise, theological wisdom and scriptural foundation of our faith. To say “liturgy is the work of the people” as an argument for doing away with tradition entirely, or for the unskilled to design worship, or more particularly to reinforce the idea that worship is something we do to satisfy our own tastes, or as a mandate to shift the balance of power inside the four walls of the Church, we have missed the point entirely. The really radical stuff begins when we understand that a liturgy – a work of worship – is supposed to be a work supported by proper expertise, and to have public benefits, not just personal satisfaction.

Back in 2011 I wrote in an article,

“… liturgy might legitimately be said to be work that is first for God, that also transforms our world and benefits people. But liturgy isn’t mine or yours. And it isn’t a mandate for “the people” to do whatever they like in church, regardless of tradition or order. In short, it’s not about me….

…the work of the people” is easily misused to imply that anyone and everyone has the right to have worship be the way they like it. And while I’m absolutely subscribed to inclusivity in worship, the second you cross that line to say “worship is about me”, worship disintegrates into an unholy mess. It’s not about me, or about you. It’s not the work of the people, it’s work in service of God that benefits the people. It’s FOR the people, but not OF them.”

I still think so.

August 9, 2014

How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual – by Pamela Spiro Wagner

First, forget everything you have learned,

that poetry is difficult,

that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you,

with your high school equivalency diploma,

your steel-tipped boots,

or your white-collar misunderstandings.  


Do not assume meanings hidden from you:

the best poems mean what they say and say it.  


To read poetry requires only courage

enough to leap from the edge

and trust.  


Treat a poem like dirt,

humus rich and heavy from the garden.

Later it will become the fat tomatoes

and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table.  


Poetry demands surrender,

language saying what is true,

doing holy things to the ordinary.


Read just one poem a day.

Someday a book of poems may open in your hands

like a daffodil offering its cup

to the sun.  


When you can name five poets

without including Bob Dylan,

when you exceed your quota

and don’t even notice,

close this manual.


You can now read poetry.


Pamela Spiro Wagner

From We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders by Pamela Spiro Wagner.

Copyright © 2009 by Pamela Spiro Wagner.

June 24, 2014

I just like cake…“So how does it feel to be home?” people keep asking me. “What do you miss the most abut home when you are in America?” Well, I say. I would miss decent tea, but that is so important that I actually have good tea sent over regularly. But in the last four days I have tasted, for the first time in 3 years: toast and marmalade a proper bacon sandwich a real anglo-Indian curry English beer cadbury’s chocolate fruit cake And coming soon: a Greggs pie, real fish and chips, and a cream tea. These are tastes that I missed.  But these are not the things that are most striking coming home.

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June 8, 2014

Veni Creator

This poem by Czeslaw Milosz (and translated into English by Milosz and Robert Pinsky) has been my Pentecost meditation. ( “I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction”. I love that line: 10 layers of meaning right there. ) 


Come, Holy Spirit,

bending or not bending the grasses,

appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,

at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow

covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.

I am only a man: I need visible signs.

I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.

Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church

lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.

But I understand that signs must be human,

therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,

not me—after all I have some decency—

and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.


Berkeley, 1961


From Collected Poems 1931-1987 (Harper Collins Publishers Inc, 1988)

May 5, 2014

So little time. We have to hustle God.

U. A. Fanthorpe is one of my favourite poets. She manages to get right under the skin of a subject, or a person, or a narrative, and make it luminescent.

Here is a clip from a poem from her “Safe as Houses” collection. It’s called Tyndale in Darkness, and each section of the poem is an imagined musing of Tyndale himself, exiled into Europe, writing his bible translation by day, and worrying, moaning, missing home, in the dark of the evening.

So little time. We have to hustle God 
 Who, in His unhorizoned sphere of time, 
 Can hardly know how short our seasons are. 
 And I pray too for resurrection in the word. 
 This shall be written for those who come after. 
 And still, these tedious Chronicles waiting for me, 
 These kings and priests and rulers of this world, 
 These Jeroboams and Jehoiakims, 
 Between me and beatus vir, the happy man, 
 Whose leaf shall not wither. Unlike mine. 
 And look, whatsoever he doeth it shall prosper.
 Et omnia quaecumque facies prosperabuntur.
 Prosperabuntur? God's teeth, what a word
 For Christian tongues to wrestle with. Language for liars! 
 Our dear and patient English shall rip out 
 The rubbish Jerome stuffed in the Church's mouth. 
 I must get on. Day and night. Instantly. 
 The Psalms are waiting. So are the English. 
 Vile the place is, but still my Father's house. 
 Lampless or not, He lights it.

Here Fanthorpe has Tyndale disagreeing with — God? the Scriptures? — no, with Jerome’s Latin interpretation of them. Tyndale, translating the tedious Chronicles, imagines that if only he had light at night, he could already have got past this and be in the Psalms – those joyful lines, which he may not live long enough to enjoy. Oh yes, the Psalms where that “man who prospers” appears – and so Tyndale’s angst focuses on the fact that he is unlikely to prosper, and more likely to be dead before he gets to the Psalms (earlier Fanthorpe gives us a wonderful line: Tyndale, musing on what will happen if he can’t complete the task, asks himself, “will Miles be up to it?”). And so his anxious working against the clock emerges in this brilliant lines where he goes against conventional wisdom (there is time enough for everything in God’s economy) and notes instead that God couldn’t possibly grasp how desperate the situation is when time is running out.

Wonderful stuff.