The birth we listen for

Published on 06 Dec 2017

Brian McClorry SJ introduces a selection of poems from his collection “Incarnations”, for the reader to reflect upon.

It seems that ‘incarnation’ varies with time, place, people and circumstances. Nonetheless the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This no doubt is what we often and rightly call ‘mystery’. However, mystery is not only what we can’t see through; it is also what makes good vision possible. Poetry can ‘hold’ mystery in images and word patterns which may help prayer; mystery itself can provoke poetry. 

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Go, go to the sea and the hill
And the small town nearby
With no map for the journey
To tell the way or what is there:
Go with wonder in your steps.
Listen to the woman by the table
Whose beauty has no tongue
To tell of her life in the town.
Listen to the man in the doorway
Whose wisdom finds no way
To take his boat to the sea.
Go, go to the sea and the hill
And the small town nearby.
Go the that pair in delight –
Take a gift to mark that day
You were taken aback by a child.

Poetry stumbles across connections between our inner and outer landscapes, places which are more experiences than abstractions. A poem makes space for these connections to hold together. So perhaps Hopkins’ ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’ describe a meeting between his perceptions and our common, shared world. Such connectedness may emerge out of sheer silence, or the silence that follows an insistent phrase – perhaps the opening line. Then there may be a flow of words, even if those words were hard to fit together. The eventual poem (if there is one!) may ‘get somewhere’, but what it arrives at is not so much a ‘conclusion’ as the completeness of the poem, a place or space held up for reader and writer to inhabit.

On Christmas Day provides a lot of space – no place (or person) is named. There’s an instruction (a command?) to go to a small town where two people (a couple?) can’t speak or do what they desire – but there is the command to listen to them, although they are not said to speak. The command is not simply to go, but to go ’with wonder in your steps’ rather than a map: wonder gives direction – how we travel matters. The poem does not describe the travellers (or traveller?) but they are told to ‘go in delight’. Perhaps it is also the ‘pair’ (are they really a couple?) who are also in a state of delight. The order is also to take a gift to ‘mark the day’ they were ‘taken aback’ by an unnamed child.

Of course it’s easy to know the names of the people in the poem: Mary, Joseph, Jesus. But that’s to fill the poem’s space with three people we may think we already know… So ‘taken aback’ is an opening for shock and surprise. In its origin – sails, ships and seamanship – the phrase may be a needed and deliberate manoeuvre or due to carelessness. Like the ‘pair’ we may well be ‘taken aback’ and find a need and opportunity to ponder and pray.


In this crib the animals
Are not domestic – no stable,
Manger, donkey ox or ass
With warm and smoking breath,
But wolverine and lynx and peregrine
(Eyes and blood and prey)
In a fierce and second innocence,
Oddly careful for the child
Who greets them all as the given
Wonders of a world where
Three Baboons walk west,
And history like prophecy searches
For a future where it is Herod
Who begins to believe.


‘Poetry’, said Nathan Koblintz, ‘does three things: it records; it communicates; and it creates a new thing in the world. In all three activities it can lead us closer to God. (‘The Sermon and the Whisper’, Thinking Faith, 21st March 2012). These three things are all deeply involved in discovery. We discover what is new, or see things as if for the first time, trip over what appears in an unexpected setting. This may also happen in prayer – one of the places where we attend in Ignatius Loyola’s words not to that that God looks on us but to how God does so – with love.

The poem emerged out of a conversation about our new Christmas crib. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were already there, plus a small lamb. More figures were on order and in transit – notably the Magi. It was all very ‘nice’ – too nice and reassuring for me. Moreover, the story of the Magi was bound up with the story of Herod and the killing of the children around Bethlehem. So I suggested that if possible we needed to get a figure of Herod for the crib. This did not go down well. However, the idea of a different kind of crib was born and the poem begun.

The ‘different crib’ is imaged by the predators in the poem and in the manger – ‘wolverine and lynx and peregrine’. But these creatures of ‘blood and prey’ turn out to be ‘Oddly careful for the child’, who greets them as the given wonders of the world. The Magi – three wondrous baboons – are also in place. All is as it should be and disconcertingly different.

Maybe the poem suggests that a different kind of crib might give a different sense of the birth of Jesus.  And one key difference is sharply evident in the last three lines. The incarnation – the birth of Jesus, the Word becoming flesh – isn’t simply for good people, it’s also and primarily for sinners, for the wicked. So if we share God’s desire that all be ‘saved’, then truly we ache, ‘For a future where it is Herod / Who begins to believe.’ Prophecy is not primarily about prediction, nor history only about the past. Both are concerned to contributing to a good future. Pray we may we do well.


God’s breath in man returning to his birth – George Herbert, Prayer (1)
It was not quite the Word made flesh
That came upon a cradle on that day,
More the grammar of making
Became itself, burbled, cried,
Heard lullabies, sang songs,
Discovered lullabies, sang songs,
Discovered metaphor and parable,
The strange square root of minus one,
Then epigrams, hate talk and endearments,
Equations held at ease in tensors,
Ambiguity, fumbled questions:
Our words stumble and stutter
From room to room, noise and music –
All heard now in the birth we listen for.

The epigraph comes from a famous poem by George Herbert, which ends with two words well-known to Radio 4 listeners: ‘something understood’. Much of Herbert’s poem is an exalted and very evocative list – as indeed Birth also has a list, rather more mundane and far less evocative. However, the epigraph, ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’, has the mark of persistent ambiguity: ‘his birth’ seems to touch man’s birth or origin in God, and also God’s birth in the incarnation, in the birth of Jesus – and indeed both at once. Birth tries to address, or hold, these ambiguities in place. All of my partial, fractured and uncertain list of human endeavours is ‘heard’ in the birth of Jesus – and yet that birth is also what we must listen for.

Listening is hardly straightforward. In the recent BBC 2 programme ‘My Country: A Work in Progress’, the grand Brexit Debate drowns in fierce cacophonous disagreement. A distraught Britannia cries out, ‘Listen! Can I hear you listening?’ Birth is about listening and being heard. There is, as the programme put it, ‘the sacrament of listening’. And we could add, ‘the sacrament of being heard’.

On this reading Birth is about making space, perhaps a new kind of space. No doubt it’s a space for listening, but it is also a space, as Rowan Williams remarked, for ‘discovery and recognition’. When this happens, poetry may be surprisingly similar to those doctrinal formulations we know as ‘creeds’. Both give space – and a place – to find out and welcome what we didn’t know we knew. It may be strangely instructive and hospitable to imagine creeds as poetry…

Brian McClorry, SJ

Image credit: a raven painted by Iona Reid-Dalglish in a response to a reading of one of the poems.


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