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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

26 October 2018

Fed up with the scoffers, Malcolm Guite writes them a sonnet

WE ALL have to put up with an occasional jibe or scoff from our friends among “the cultured despisers of religion”, as Schleiermacher generously called them, though some of them are not so cultured as they imagine.

Most of these jibes and scoffs are so shallow and inane as to be scarcely worthy of a response, but respond we must, and with as much courtesy and grace as we can muster.

My current least-favourite of these sneering dismissals is: “Oh, you Christians, you think you’ve got God in a box!” I actually heard someone say that in Ely Cathedral once, and naturally I was tempted to gesture upwards into the numinous blent air of that spacious temple of light, to glance at the delicate tracery of its arches and windows, and say: “Well, at least it’s a better box than the windowless warehouses and big-shed superstores where you keep all your little gods.”

But, of course, I said no such thing. I made a silent prayer for patience and charity, and tried instead to explain that we have never claimed to keep God in a box; that even at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon had exclaimed: “Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” and that likewise all the shapes and containers we have made with words, or even with thoughts, can never contain the fullness of God’s mystery, and no Christian has ever claimed that they could.

Even C. S. Lewis, who is just the kind of Christian these cultured persons like to despise, had said:

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.

I also tried going on a positive tack, and giving a fuller account of what a sacred building really is. I pointed out that, while life and beauty are everywhere around us, it sometimes takes a particular lens to bring them into focus.

Sacred architecture, I explained patiently, is a little like a lens, made by people wiser than we are to help us at least to glimpse what we might otherwise miss, of the God who is everywhere. Prayers, scriptures, and religious rites are a little like that, too.

I have been called to account by the scoffers so often that I ended up trying to crystallise and condense my response to this particular jibe into the 14 lines of a sonnet. It seemed marginally better than simply biting my tongue.

A Lens

Not that we think he is confined to us,
Locked in the box of our religious rites,
Or curtained by these frail cathedral walls,
No church is broad or creed compendious
Enough. All thought’s a narrowing of sites,
Before him every definition fails,
Words fall and flutter into emptiness,
Like motes of dust within his spaciousness.

Not that we summon him, but that he lends
The very means whereby he might be known,
Till this opacity of stone on stone,
This trace of light and music on the air,
This sacred space itself becomes a lens
To sense his presence who is everywhere.

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