Malcolm Guite: Church with poetry enshrined at the heart
Poetry opens up imaginative possibilities and offers “phrases that feed the soul.”
July 21, 2009 | To hear an excerpt of the interview with Malcolm Guite, click the play button on the audio player at the lower right of this screen.
Most job descriptions for institutional leaders don’t require proficiency in poetry. But for the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite, a love of poetry is a prerequisite to leading well. Guite, a priest in the Church of England, is chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, and teaches for the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges.
He is a poet who has published two chapbooks: “Saying the Names” and “The Magic Apple Tree,” and is the author of “What Do Christians Believe?” He also is a singer/songwriter with the band Mystery Train.
Guite spoke with Faith & Leadership in June 2009 while teaching at Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute: “Shaping the Beloved Community.” Guite discusses the work of writers close to his heart, including Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot and his beloved George Herbert.
Q: How do you describe what you do for a living?
I’m a poet first of all. That’s a conversation killer. I’m a poet, priest, rock & roller, in any order you like, really. I’m the same person in all three.
Q: You’ve talked about [17-century poet and priest] George Herbert’s poem “Bitter-sweet.” Why does it mean so much to you?
“Ah my deare angrie Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
and all my sowre sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.”
What means a huge amount to me is the sheer honesty. Some Christians think you have to have already purged out all your doubts and difficulties and complaints and live already now as though you were in heaven. But I don’t see that in the Bible, and I don’t see it church history, but I do see it sometimes in church culture. I felt a need for a church (mine is Anglican) with poetry enshrined at the heart of it.
The poem shows what we might call a “both/andness,” an inclusivity, an honesty in refusing to let go of either side of a balance. The other thing about that poem is that the last word is love. The tension of holding things together is how it is now. But that doesn’t mean that we think it’s God’s last word -- God’s first and last word is love.
The poem is embroidered and hung on the wall of the chapel, the little 17th-century chapel in Little Gidding, which is a place that’s very sacred to me. I came to it, like so many people, through T.S. Eliot’s great poem “Little Gidding,” the last of the Four Quartets.
Q: The history of Little Gidding is one of hospitality -- which always comes from a place of fragility, doesn’t it?
Little Gidding was hospitable to people of all persuasions. It was famously hospitable after the king [Charles I] was defeated at the Battle of Naseby and he was on the run. He was a refugee -- the most wanted man in England. And he didn’t know where to go. And he remembered a visit he’d made to Little Gidding, this tiny little place in the back of beyond. He remembered when he’d in the earlier days before this tragic war came upon us.
T.S. Eliot says in the poem he came at night in disguise, as a broken king. And they took him in, and literally bathed his wounds, and received him with hospitality.
When he was arrested and brought to his execution in London, they found everything out; then they sent troops to trash the place, and they came in and wrecked the chapel.
But it’s very curious how God works. The soldiers threw the beautiful baptismal font into the village pond. It just sank; nobody knew it was there. Later a revival began in the late 19th century, a sense that the church needed to be as true to its Catholic roots as it was to its Protestant ones. People began to be interested in this experiment in living in Little Gidding again.
Eventually somebody found the font in the pond. And of course baptism is this sense of death and resurrection: you know we have to go down in the waves. I find it extraordinarily moving that the font itself was baptized! That seems to be the story of that place. It has made itself vulnerable, and has died several times, and then been revived.
It was revived in the 19th century through a book called “John Inglesant” by J.H. Shorthouse. T.S. Eliot’s mother had that book. So T.S. Eliot kind of half-knew the story, and then when he came to Cambridge in the 1930s somebody drove him there.
As he was finishing the greatest work of his life, and the fire was falling all over England in the Blitz, Eliot didn’t leave. He had American citizenship and could have left -- lots of American writers did. And when he needed a location for his sense that this bombed-out country was not going to die, and that there is another fire, apart from the dark fire that was falling from the sky: “We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire.” That would need to be a different kind of Pentecostal fire. He located all of that in Little Gidding, which had been burnt.