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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 October 2023

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea in the Middle East, asks Malcolm Guite

IN THESE days, when the news is so unremittingly awful, and when, understandably, there is so much raw anger on the airwaves, I am haunted by that question that Shakespeare asks in Sonnet 65: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”

In the first images that came after the attacks in Israel, it was clear that neither beauty nor innocence could hold a plea with such rage, but were slaughtered without mercy; and now — it seems, inevitably — we see the images of equally innocent victims, their pleas also unheard, suffering in Gaza.

The peacemakers, whom Christ calls blessed, must all feel helpless at this moment — must feel, indeed, that their “action is no stronger than a flower”; and yet act they must. And perhaps there is more hidden in that phrase “no stronger than a flower” than meets the eye. We have all seen the green shoots that seem miraculously to have grown up through cracks in the concrete, cracks that they themselves have quietly been making, silently been widening, cracks through which the light gets in. We have all seen how something as weak as water can still wear away and reshape the hardest stone.

The clear and lucid stream of Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and especially those Beatitudes that seem so contrary to the ways of this world, especially when the world is at war: the blessings on the meek, and the poor, and the peacemakers, and, most astonishingly, the blessing on those who mourn — that teaching still flows into the world, still holds its plea with rage, still wears away the hard stones of wrath and vengeance.

In the midst of the unspeakable horrors that this war, and that in Ukraine, respond to and perpetuate, what can one do but stand again in the stream of Christ’s teaching, lift his Beatitudes back up to him, set his lantern once more on a hill, and pray again and again, “Lord, make these words come true, show and give those blessings of which you speak”?

I read again the poem I wrote on the Beatitudes, and can scarcely hope, although I still believe, that this present darkness is, indeed, a darkness before dawn, before the coming of that light and that day when those who mourn will be comforted, when the meek will inherit the earth, and when, at last, we will recognise the peacemakers as the children of God:

I bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,
And set this lovely lantern on a hill,
Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt
By lifting for a little while the veil.
For longing is the veil of satisfaction,
And grief the veil of future happiness.
I glimpse beneath the veil of persecution
The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss.

Oh make me pure of heart and help me see,
Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning,
The promised Comforter, alive and free,
The kingdom coming and the Son returning,
That even in this pre-dawn dark I might
At once reveal and revel in your light.

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