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


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.

Malcolm Guite reads today’s poem

In today’s reading from 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.

Just as we no longer use the word “shrieve”, we likewise have cast aside the need for confession and cleansing.  The journey of Lent must begin with a fresh start.  Shrove Tuesday is a day of reflection, prayerful confession and a renewed commitment to our God of grace.

The 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.”


Dig Deeper

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

Literature & Liturgy: Seamus Heaney and St John of the Cross

Seamus Heany
Seamus Heany

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.

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


St John of the Cross
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.).

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 and The Word in the Wilderness

Malcolm Guite
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

Photo: Lancia Smith


The Word in the Wilderness

A poem a day for Lent, Holy week and Easter 

51vg-xoskvl-_sy346_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.

Julian of Norwich, A Very Brief History by Janina Ramirez

RickShe was, by her own description, a simple creature.  Shy and adverse to attention, she was a recluse of self-imposed sequestration. Her room was a cell from which she had limited contact with the outside world and though her writings were virtually unknown during her lifetime, she is a towering pioneer of English literature.

Emily Dickinson?  Yes, but 500 years ahead of her, the same description could be applied to a much more anonymous person – Julian of Norwich.

Unlike Dickinson who apparently wrote continuously, Julian’s writing is limited to a single known book which has come to be called Revelations of Divine Love.  She just called it Showings.  The book is based on sixteen visions she experienced at thirty years of age: fifteen on May 8, 1373 and another on the following day. She saw visions of the sufferings of Christ and of the Trinity and then meditated on these visions for twenty years.  Her book contains the visions and her interpretations.

So why has this obscure little book from a reclusive woman so greatly impacted literature and liturgy?  For one, it is the earliest known writing of prose by a woman in the English language.  More significance lies in the power of her words.


A recently published book by Janina Ramirez has given fresh momentum to Julian’s renown.  Dr Ramirez is an Oxford scholar and a BBC commentator on the Middle Ages.  Her new book Julian of Norwich, A very brief history is a concise weekender with a refreshing tone on a story worthy of broad attention.

In his work Seeds of Destruction, Thomas Merton wrote

“Julian is without doubt one of the most wonderful of all Christian voices. She gets greater and greater in my eyes as I grow older, and whereas in the old days I used to be crazy about St John of the Cross, I would not exchange him now for Julian if you gave me the world and the Indies and all the Spanish mystics rolled up in one bundle. I think that Julian of Norwich is with Newman the greatest English theologian.”

Beyond her theological impact, her life has influenced literature as well, including T.S. Eliot.  Eliot found Julian’s hopeful, simple view of the power of God’s goodness to be a microcosm of the church at large.  In Julian the rituals of the devotional life were extensible to the redeeming power of God’s love.  His masterwork Four Quartets cannot be fully understood absent an understanding of his references to Julian and others (including John of the Cross and the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing.)

Janina Ramirez has provided great service to both clergy and the lay reader alike.  We would all be well served to spend a couple of days enjoying her highly readable book, and then likewise devoting several weeks to a slow, deliberate mediation with Julian and her single, essential masterpiece.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.