Read Poems As Prayers

As if the prisms of the kaleidoscope
I plunged once in a butt of muddied water
Surfaced like a marvellous lightship

And out of its silted crystals a monk’s face
That had spoken years ago from behind a grille
Spoke again about the need and chance

To salvage everything, to re-envisage
The zenith and glimpsed jewels of any gift
Mistakenly abased …

What came to nothing could always be replenished.

‘Read poems as prayers,’ he said, ‘and for your penance
Translate me something by Juan de la Cruz.’

Returned from Spain to our chapped wilderness,
His consonants aspirate, his forehead shining,
He had made me feel there was nothing to confess.

Now his sandalled passage stirred me on to this:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
Although it is the night.

That eternal fountain, hidden away
I know its haven and its secrecy
Although it is the night

But not its source because it does not have one,
Which is all sources’ source and origin?
Although it is the night.

No other thing can be so beautiful.
Here the earth and heaven drink their fill
Although it is the night.

So pellucid it never can be muddied,
And I know that all light radiates from it
Although it is the night.

I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
Nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
Although it is the night.

And its current so in flood it overspills
To water hell and heaven and all peoples
Although it is the night.

And the current that is generated there,
As far as it wills to, it can flow that far
Although it is the night.

And from these two a third current proceeds
Which neither of these two, I know, precedes
Although it is the night.

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.

I am repining for this living fountain.
Within this bread of life I see it plain
Although it is the night.

~Station Island XI by Seamus Heaney/ St John of the Cross

Malcolm Guite reads today’s poem

Today is Shrove Tuesday.  Most people don’t know the meaning of “shrove” which is related to confession, and this is our point of departure on the journey to Easter. Lent begins with a fresh start.  Shrove Tuesday is a day of reflection, prayerful confession and a renewed commitment to our God of grace.

In his book The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite writes the following:

This is the day we think about being ‘shriven’ – confessing our sins and receiving the cleansing and release of forgiveness. The word ‘shrove’ drives from an Anglo-Saxon word, ‘shrift’, meaning to hear someone’s confession, or ‘shrive them’. So Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, when he makes it to land and needs to be released from the burden of his guilt, says to the hermit: ‘O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy Man.’ It was the duty of priests especially to hear the confession and grant forgiveness and give spiritual counsel to those who were facing execution; when prison chaplains failed to do this properly, with time, care and attention, there was a complaint that people were being ‘given short shrift’, which is where that phrase comes from.

Today’s poem by Seamus Heaney speaks of this renewal.  As Dr. Guite writes,  it is “about confronting the past, letting it go in order to be released, freed and unburdened for the journey of life.”

In what ways does confession lead to renewal and why is this important?

John 4:4-14

But He needed to go through Samaria. So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”


D i g  D e e p e r

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Justin Heaney, (born April 13, 1939, near Castledàwson, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland—died August 30, 2013, Dublin, Ireland) Irish poet whose work is notable for its evocation of Irish rural life and events in Irish history as well as for its allusions to Irish myth. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
After graduating from Queen’s University, Belfast (B.A., 1961), Heaney taught secondary school for a year and then lectured in colleges and universities in Belfast and Dublin. He became a member of the Field Day Theatre Company in 1980, soon after its founding by playwright Brian Friel and actor Stephen Rea. In 1982 he joined the faculty of Harvard University as visiting professor and, in 1985, became full professor—a post he retained while teaching at the University of Oxford (1989–94).

Heaney’s first poetry collection was the prizewinning Death of a Naturalist (1966). In this book and Door into the Dark (1969), he wrote in a traditional style about a passing way of life—that of domestic rural life in Northern Ireland. In Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975), he began to encompass such subjects as the violence in Northern Ireland and contemporary Irish experience, though he continued to view his subjects through a mythic and mystical filter. Among the later volumes that reflect Heaney’s honed and deceptively simple style are Field Work (1979), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), and Seeing Things (1991). The Spirit Level (1996) concerns the notion of centredness and balance in both the natural and the spiritual senses. His Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966–1996 was published in 1998. In Electric Light (2001) and District and Circle (2006), he returned to the Ireland of his youth. The poetry in Human Chain (2010) reflects on death, loss, regret, and memory.

Heaney wrote essays on poetry and on poets such as William Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Elizabeth Bishop. Some of these essays have appeared in Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968–1978 (1980) and Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971–2001 (2002). A collection of his lectures at Oxford was published as The Redress of Poetry (1995).

Heaney also produced translations, including The Cure at Troy (1991), which is Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, and The Midnight Verdict (1993), which contains selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and from Cúirt an mheán oíche (The Midnight Court), a work by the 18th-century Irish writer Brian Merriman. Heaney’s translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf (1999) became an unexpected international best seller, while his The Burial at Thebes (2004) gave Sophocles’ Antigone contemporary relevance.


St John of the Cross

St John of the Cross (1542–91), mystical Doctor and joint founder of the Discalced *Carmelites. The son of a poor family, he entered the Carmelite monastery of Medina del Campo in 1563, studied theology at Salamanca (1564–8), and was ordained priest in 1567. Dissatisfied with the prevalent laxity of his order, he considered becoming a Carthusian, but was dissuaded by St *Teresa. Then with her aid he brought her Reform to include friars. He was Master of the Discalced Carmelite College at Alcalá de Henares (1571–2) and from 1572 to 1577 confessor of the Convent of the Incarnation at Ávila, where St Teresa had returned as prioress in 1571. After the anti-Reformist General Chapter of the Calced Carmelites (i.e. of the Mitigated Observance) held in Italy at Piacenza in 1575, he was seized at the order of the Visitor General, taken to Toledo, and imprisoned in their monastery there (Dec. 1577). After nine months of great hardships he escaped to a convent in Toledo and thence to the monastery of El Calvario, in Andalusia. The separation between the Calced and Discalced Carmelites was soon to be effected (1579–80). From 1579 to 1582 John was rector of the college which he established at Baeza; in 1582 he went to Granada as prior. From 1588 he was prior at Segovia. Having incurred the hostility of Nicolás Doria, Vicar General of the Discalced Carmelites, inter alia by resisting his wish to impose the observance of additional detailed rules on the Discalced Nuns, he was banished to the province of Andalusia, in mid-1591, and after severe illness and great suffering died at Úbeda at the end of the year. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared a ‘*Doctor of the Church’ in 1926. Feast day, 14 Dec. (formerly, 24 Nov.).


Sources & Resources

Art: The Samaritan Woman At The Well by Annibale Carracci, 1597

Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 894–895.

Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page. You can read more about him on this Interviews Page   

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Rick Wilcox

Rick is voraciously interested in the holistic transformation of people individually and in an organizational context - enabled by technology, educated continuously through multi-channel systems and informed by the wisdom of history's greatest thinkers. He is a Ph.D. student at Faulkner University, focusing on the appearance of the Logos in English Literature. He earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Science in Management from Sam Houston State University. His undergraduate studies earned a BA with double majors in Sociology and Theology from Houston Baptist University. Rick is an ordained minister who leads the Parenting Teens Adult Community at Faith Bible Church in The Woodlands Texas.