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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

30 July 2021

As he leads a retreat at Mirfield, Malcolm Guite, although an amateur, cycles through the Psalms

I AM just back from a refreshing few days with the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield. I was there to lead a retreat, although giving retreat addresses to a seasoned and deeply committed religious community by whose prayers we are all continuously sustained does feel a little like taking coals to Newcastle.

Indeed, the temerity, if not the sheer absurdity, of such an endeavour was heightened further by the fact that I had chosen to give a series of reflections on the Psalms! As I said to the Fathers gathered there in the very chairs and under the very roof where, four times a day, they chant the great poetry of the psalter, and month by month that iconic cycle of poems turns and returns on the turning wheel of their prayer: “What possible insight can an amateur like me bring to the professional cyclists of the psalter?”

It is as though someone arriving on his wobbly and ill-maintained bike should presume to lecture a cycling club whose members had, between them, many a Tour de France under their belts. Except, with the cycle of the Psalms, it is not a Tour de France, but a Tour du Coeur, a Tour de l’Âme, a tour through the dramatic and vertiginous landscapes of the heart and the soul.

“A journey”, as I had written in the preface to David’s Crown, “that takes us from the first invitation to be rooted and fruitful, like a tree beside the waters, through all the twists and turns of human experience, the experience which Christ in his humanity shares with us: the visionary glimpses of heaven, but also the sense of hellish darkness and depression, the delight in the beauties of nature and the warmth of human friendship, but also the awareness of destruction and corruption in both nature and humanity, a journey that leads down to the nadir of despair in Psalm 88, and yet recovers and continues through thick and thin until we renew our courage and return to praise in the great doxology of the five final psalms, and, come, as we did in the opening psalm, back ‘to the place where every breath is praise’”.

“But perhaps”, I said to the community, “my discoveries, and even my mistakes as an amateur, may remind the professionals of beauties that they have cycled through so often, and remove, for a moment, the film of familiarity. Perhaps my very weaknesses might help.

“You sweep effortlessly up the hills of doubt and difficulty, and steer skilfully round the hairpin bends as a psalm of joy is suddenly followed in sequence by one of anguish and despair, only to open out again into a pleasing valley with still waters and green pastures. I come to the same sequence, wobbling slowly, and, when it comes to the steeps, I get off my cycle and push. But, even as I nurse my bruises and pause for a breather, I may see something the professionals miss.”

They were most kind, and told me when I left that there had, indeed, been something useful in my addresses and the poems that I shared.

But, as I packed my bags to come home, it was another image of a turning wheel which filled my mind: not the swift flashing wheels of athletic cyclists, but something like a great water wheel, slowly, beautifully turning, as it receives and passes on a living and flowing stream of power and love. I felt that I had come upstream to that house of prayer, and had been moved and changed, as we prayed the Office together, by the great wheel of the prayers of the whole Church, as it is filled and moved by the Spirit. I felt that prayer itself was no longer athletic effort, but sheer gift.

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