Review: Waiting on the Word, with the Word (and Malcolm Guite)

Malcolm  Guite, Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. London: Canterbury Press, 2015, 978-184-825-8006, 158 pp, £10.99.

In keeping with the spirit of the Advent season, Malcolm Guite has given another gift to the church. “One virtue of keeping the seasons of the sacral year is that they can help us to redress an imbalance, either in our own spiritual life or in the culture of our church or denomination,” Guite notes in the introduction (x). And so as he had previously done for the holy season of Lent and Easter—see his Word in the Wilderness (2014)—Guite has now done for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, by contributing to that vitally important restorative work Seamus Heaney called “the redress of poetry.” Part of the much needed redress is to be found in what is, perhaps surprisingly, “a profoundly countercultural and indeed subversive act”—the meditative reading aloud of poetry—toward a restoration of “that quietness, that inner peace, that willingness to wait unfulfilled in the dark, in the midst of a season that conspires to do nothing but fling bling and tinsel at us right through December” (xi).

The book collects 38 poems in all, each assigned to a day beginning with Advent Sunday and concluding on Epiphany (January 6). Many great names one would expect and hope to find are present: Spenser, Milton, Donne, Tennyson, Herbert, Keats, Coleridge, Blake. Chesterton and Belloc are also notable additions, along with other “unjustly neglected poets of the twentieth century, particularly Ruth Pitter and Anne Ridler” (x). However, Guite has not only turned his well-tuned poetic sensibility to the more distant past in selecting poems, but has gathered verse from his contemporaries as well. Thus, the reader will also encounter more recent poems by Scott Cairns and Luci Shaw, for example. And notably, a poem by ITIA’s own David Baird is found among these contemporary poets. Its title is “Autumn,” and Guite considers it a “playful poem” with “fine wordplays” from one “trying to hold the worlds of scholarship and poetry, of history and mythology, of reason and imagination, together in fruitful conversation” (57). If you want to know what a poem about autumn contributes to the theme of Advent, I encourage you to buy the book!

Guite does not restrict himself to only Christian poets either, hearing resonances in certain voices from outside the Christian tradition, such as the faithful anticipation which drove those ancient Eastern pagans on the long journey to lay their gifts in worship before the manger. “Pagan wise men following the star of their own best and highest learning were brought even by that to the stable,” though as Guite notes, “of course at the stable there was something new to learn” (x). And there is something new for us to learn too, from both the astrologer’s strange charts and quasi-magical learning as well as the “deep magic” of the Incarnation in which all restorative dreams and visions were ultimately and finally fulfilled.

To this interesting and careful thematic collection of poems Guite’s sensitive exposition is generously added, which is where the tremendous value of the book lies. Our wise and experienced guide knows personally what it is to wait on the Word through the cold and darker seasons of the heart, and is therefore trained to perceive the first in-breaking of its light into the darkness of the world which has yet to understand or “overcome it” (John 1:5). After reading Guite’s devotionally-rich and insightful commentary on each poem one will be further rewarded in all subsequent re-readings.

It is important to note, however, that though the book certainly rewards devotional use, it is not merely one of those take-it-or-leave-it seasonal gifts predestined for the literary purgatory of coffee tables or nightstands. It is itself a work of theology, “intended to be a contribution to that great enquiry through which faith seeks understanding” (xi), and may be seriously read alongside (and with the same spirit) as your Anselm. “It is my conviction that to do theology well we must bring the poets to the table along with the theologians, and listen carefully to what they say” (xi). In that sense this work and its predecessor may be seen as the continued flourishing of what the author began in his more academically-oriented (though no less sensitive or moving for that purpose) Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010). In this work, Guite pursues, in his own fashion, the hope expressed by C. S. Lewis in a pre-conversion poem that Christian faith might one day “reconcile in me” and “make in me a concord of the depth and height” that are “imagination’s dim exploring touch” and clear reason’s “intellectual sight.”[1] Guite’s words and particularly his own verse (judiciously added to this small anthology) are the poetically-sensitive insights of a generous sacramental and incarnational vision of reality, which perceives Christ as the “hidden Wisdom” which comes to us again and again “disguised as everything,” as Guite proclaims in his poem “O Sapientia” (66).

In his introduction Guite speaks of the sense in which the season of Advent may have for us “a triple focus”—between the inclusio of Christ’s comings in the Incarnation and the Parousia reflected in “the Prayer Book’s beautiful and familiar Advent Collect”[2] as “the in-between time in which we live” (ix). We indeed are those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11), but even as we sit waiting in the gathering darkness of the waning year, both remembering and anticipating that “great light” who was ever the hope of the prophets and the faithful remnant of God’s people (Is 9:2), we are repeatedly gifted with “many other advents” of Christ coming to us, as Guite says (ix). The addition of “the in-between” which forms the triple Advent focus of this book may be glimpsed in his poem “I Am the Resurrection and the Life,” where these six lines comprise Jesus’s response to the poet questioning him concerning the truth of this saying by Christ from John’s Gospel (John 11:25) in light of the great pain and brokenness characteristic of the world at present:

Begin in me and I will read your riddle
And teach you truths my Spirit will defend
I am the End who meets you in the middle,
The new Beginning hidden in the End.
I am the victory, the end of strife
I am the resurrection and the life.[3]

It is Christ who faithfully, lovingly, relentlessly “meets” us “in the middle” as the “Light within the light by which I see” and the “Word beneath the words with which I speak” (“O Sapientia,” 66) to which this anthology is meant to bear wider witness. Jesus not only came to his people once, long ago, to suffer as “a man of sorrows” (Is 53:3). Jesus is not only coming back to his people once again, to reign as “a son of man” (Dn 7:13; Mk 14:62). Jesus is God with us now—he is Immanuel (Is 7:14; Mt 1:23). The Word who was with God in the beginning, who was made flesh and dwelt among us, who ascended to heaven following his resurrection, promised to not leave us as orphans but to send his Spirit to be with us, making good on his promise to his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). So it is that “In our encounters with the poor and the stranger, in the mystery of the sacraments, in those unexpected moments of transfiguration surely there is also an advent and Christ comes to us” (ix). Picking up this slim volume of well-chosen and timely words and annually adventuring with Guite and these poets through Advent will provide a beautiful and needed reminder that even while we who sit in darkness are waiting on the Word, we are—even until the very end of the age—waiting with the Word, presently enjoying his light and warmth. It is a book filled with words and images which stoke the dialectical fire of memory, hope, and desire that characterizes Christian faith in our pilgrimage through the Shadowlands.]]

It is one of my Advent hopes that Guite’s work will be seen and received as a much needed and valuable contribution to advancing the poetic and sacramental vision which, as Lewis said so well, reckons that, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito”—an incognito that “is not always hard to penetrate,” Lewis adds, for “The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”[4] In light of Guite’s most recent and continued work, how entirely fitting that this reflection offered by Lewis is one of his Letters to Malcolm.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Reason,” in The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis: A Critical Edition, Don W. King, ed. (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2015), 238. Guite has referred to this redress as “the redemptive reintegration of reason and imagination” which the gift of poetry may help effect (“Poet,” Chap. 21 in The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, eds. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press], 308).

[2] This collect is to be repeated every day, with the other Collects in Advent, until Christmas-Eve: “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility: that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

[3] The poem will be published in Guite’s next book of verse, Parable and Paradox (London: Canterbury Press, 2016). It may be read on Guite’s personal web site.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1964/92), 75.

 

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