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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

14 January 2022

Malcolm Guite finds religious echoes in the plunges of wild swimmers

I HAVE a great admiration for “wild swimmers”: those courageous souls who fling themselves into rivers and lakes, and reclaim — indeed, proclaim — for all of us, our natural affinity for these waters and our right to revel in them. I swam a little in the Cam myself in my Cambridge days, and earlier still in the lakes and rivers of Ontario, as a teenager in Canada; but these days, I must confess, I would rather be coddled in the warmer waters of our local spa.

Nevertheless, I am always impressed by the pictures and video clips that we are shown every January of intrepid swimmers out on New Year’s Day, sometimes breaking the ice to plunge into the freezing waters of lochs and lakes and tarns. Even on the screen, even from the warmth of your couch, you can almost feel the courage, the excitement, the exhilaration of the leap, the plunge, the immersion, and then the emergence of spluttering, happy, slightly shocked, and yet radiant, faces in this annual ritual.

I have heard some of these folk talk about this experience in ecstatic, sometimes spiritual or religious, language. And, in a way, they are right. It is surely an echo, a kind of mimesis, a parallel enactment of the great immersion and recovery, the plunging and renewal of baptism. “I come up fresh and tingling,” they say, “refreshed, renewed, reborn into the new year.”

Baptism is, after all, the great ritual of death and rebirth, in which we are plunged with Christ into the “the deep waters of death” to emerge “born again of water and the Spirit”. Indeed, the size and shape of our old church fonts makes it clear that infants were once immersed in them rather than politely affused, and the birth imagery of the baby drawn dripping from the waters and placed in her mother’s arms must have been unmistakable. This was why Lancelot Andrewes, in one of his many pithy apothegms, said: “The font is the womb of the church.”

There is a beautiful 14th-century font in St Edward King and Martyr, in Cambridge, whose great stone bowl appears to be supported effortlessly, almost to float, on the wings of the angels carved beneath it. I loved conducting baptisms there, and out of that experience came a sonnet in which I drew on Andrewes’s insight, as well as recalling Hildegard of Bingen’s beautiful saying that she was “a feather on the breath of God”. It’s good to recall it now, as every baptism is renewed in the renewal of the year:


Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,
A wide womb floating on the breath of God,
Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift
Lightning of praise, with thunder over-spread,
And under-girded with an unheard song,
Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,
Calling us to the life for which we long,
Yearning to bring us to our birth again.
Again the breath of God is on the waters
In whose reflecting face our candles shine,
Again he draws from death the sons and daughters
For whom he bid the elements combine.
As living stones around a font today,
Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.

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