Gethsemane

Who said that trees grow easily
compared with us? What if the bright
bare load that pushes down on them
insisted that they spread and bowed
and pleated back on themselves and cracked
and hunched? Light dropping like a palm
levelling the ground, backwards and forwards?

Across the valley are the other witnesses
of two millennia, the broad stones
packed by the hand of God, bristling
with little messages to fill the cracks.
As the light falls and flattens what grows
on these hills, the fault lines dart and spread,
there is room to say something, quick and tight.

Into the trees’ clefts, then, do we push
our folded words, thick as thumbs?
somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba, and left it to be collected by
whoever happens to be passing, bent down
the same way by the hot unreadable palms.

Gethsemane by Rowan Williams



When a man is truly desperate he will cry out to God.  The circumstances will vary but the hard fact will not.  Perhaps it is the moment when his life is threatened, or it could be the grave illness of a child, or the prospects of facing career ruin or the end of a marriage.  When nothing else is there, our hearts cry “abba“.

The pressure of life and circumstance takes us to our core.  We first will cling to the props and scaffolds we credit to our efforts, but when they begin to collapse around us, we reach for our Father.

Writing of today’s poem in The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite says:

And so the poem turns, coming suddenly upon its heart and meaning, finding Christ’s own prayer, still being uttered in the heart of the tree:

somewhere inside the ancient bark, a voice
has been before us, pushed the densest word
of all, abba,

And ‘abba’ that densest word of all, packed intensely in that agony with both Christ’s love for his Father and his sense of abandonment, is also the word that truly links the two scenes of the poem, the Wailing Wall ‘witness of two millennia’ of exile and abandonment’ and the Garden of Gethsemane, witness of the God who entered into and experienced that abandonment with humanity.

 

Have circumstances ever caused you to cry out to God?

 

Mark 14:36

And He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”

D I G  D E E P E R


Rowan Williams

The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Rowan Douglas Williams was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as a noted theologian and poet. He was born in Swansea, Wales, on 14 June 1950 to a Welsh-speaking family. He was educated at Dynevor School, Swansea, and later attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, reading theology. He received a DPhil from Wadham College, Oxford, in 1975, writing about twentieth-century Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir *Lossky. He held a number of academic posts at Mirfield Theological College, the University of Cambridge, and Oxford University until in 1991 he was consecrated Bishop of Monmouth, then in 1999 Archbishop of Wales. In 2002 he was announced as the successor to George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams stood down as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2012 in order to take up the position of Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University.

Rowan Williams’ theological publications are extensive, including historical works such as Arius: Heresy and Tradition and Teresa of Avila and theological works such as On Christian Theology and The Wound of Knowledge, which is a history of Christian *spirituality. He has also published socio-critical essays, works of poetry, reflections on icons and collections of sermons. His writing and sermons demonstrate an appreciation of the rich diversity of the Christian tradition. He eschews simple oppositions, arguing that the complexities and ambiguities to be found in fiction, drama and poetry are often more accurate accounts of cultural realities. Williams also has a highly nuanced approach to theological writing, reflecting a wide range of influences. These include his study of the early Church Fathers, Russian Orthodox theologians such as Sergei *Bulgakov and philosophers such as Gillian Rose (1947–95).

These diverse influences inform his belief that theology takes on celebratory, communicative and critical forms. None of these modes is dominant and must be continually considered in the light of Scripture, Christian tradition and experience. When Christians disagree, he advocates the practice of Christians reading the Bible together. Doctrinal themes, including creation, the incarnation and the Trinity, play an important role in his interpretation of ethical, political and social issues. Nevertheless, for Williams Christian orthodoxy is less a doctrine than a method of continually evaluating what we know of Jesus from the Christian life he initiated, and what in turn we learn of living a Christian life through the models put forth in Scripture. This way of thinking influences his approach to many ethical debates, including, most controversially, sexual ethics. In this context there is a tension between the thinking of Williams the theologian and Williams the church leader, which can be seen clearly by comparing his scholarly writing and his leadership as archbishop. For Williams, all human activity ought to be viewed in the light of the self-giving love of the Trinity, which models both giving and receiving.

Sources & Resources

Selected Works: The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (London, 1979); Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London, 1982); The Truce of God (London, 1983); Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London, 1987); Teresa of Avila (London, 1991); Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (London, 1994); Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (London, 2000); Lost Icons: Reflection on Cultural Bereavement (Edinburgh, 2000); On Christian Theology (Oxford, 2000); Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin (Norwich, 2002); Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11th September and Its Aftermath (London, 2002); Poems of Rowan Williams (Newent, 2002).

Studies: M. Higton, Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London, 2004); T. Hobson, Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on Church (London, 2005); R. Shortt, Rowan Williams: An Introduction (London, 2003).

J. P. Mitchell, “Williams, Rowan (b. 1950),” ed. Martin Davie et al., New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (London; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; InterVarsity Press, 2016), 963–964.

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.

For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.

Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.

Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane Paolo Veronese 1583 – 1584 Palazzo Brera, Milan, Italy

Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life