Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

16 November 2018

Malcolm Guite celebrates the lives of “ordinary saints”

I RETURNED recently from a weekend retreat, which included the first “performance” (though that’s not quite the right word) of “Ordinary Saints”, an event combining image, poetry, and music, including the sequence of “ekphrastic” poems that I composed in response to a set of portraits by the American artist Bruce Herman, about which I wrote briefly in an earlier Poet’s Corner (17 August).

It was a remarkable experience. We gathered in a gallery with all 26 portraits, and heard the poems and music — sometimes separately, sometimes combined — which the portraits had inspired. These were not portraits of the rich or famous, or necessarily of people who had achieved great things. They were paintings of “ordinary people”: the artist’s family and friends, but all created with loving attention, meticulous detail, and, most of all, an eye for the inner person; for the singing soul, shining through the skin; for the image of God, shimmering for a moment through the dark glass of our seeing; hinting, the artist hoped, at transfiguration.

My title poem for the sequence, introducing the themes all three of us — poet, painter, and composer — wanted to explore, asked the questions:

. . . Who can truly show
Whilst still rough-hewn, the God who shapes our ends?
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold
That is and always was our common ground,
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound
From which the light we never noticed fell
Into our lives?

The aim was not simply to focus on these particular paintings, or the people who had sat for them: rather, it was to enable those who had spent time with the portraits to see one another in a new way.

In one sense, we were seeking, in Herbert’s great phrase, to see “Heaven in ordinary”; but, in another, we were responding to an insight of C. S. Lewis’s, in his celebrated sermon “The Weight of Glory”: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way; for in him also Christ vere latitat [truly hides], the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

So, after we had seen the portraits, and seen them again in the light of the poetry and music, we finished the retreat with a eucharist; and, just before we exchanged the peace, we turned and faced one another as I read the final poem in the sequence:

And now we turn our eyes from wood and paint
To contemplate the saints in flesh and blood,
The ones who’ve seen these pictures with us. Faint
Traces of God’s image, and his glad
Presence in humanity, have shone
Awhile for us in paintings on a wall,
The dark glass brightened, and the shadows gone.
How shall we know each other now? Will all
That we have seen recede to memory?
Or is our sight restored, and having gazed
On icons in this place, will clarity
Transfigure all of us? We turn, amazed,
To see the ones beside us, face to face,
As living icons, sacraments of grace.

In Every Corner Sing: A Poet’s Corner collection by Malcolm Guite is published by Canterbury Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer price £12.99); 978-1-78622-097-4.

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