Heart Speaks to Heart


botticelli madonna

In these moments of his silence
there is something the like of which I have never known;
yes, a realisation of a precious gift,
a contentment (not without worry)
and quite a simple relief,
but more:

My silence speaks to his,
our hearts meet at a point of sheer simplicity,
we rest together in a moment out of time
that transforms time,
we know something of each other that had not before been known
and I dare not try to name it
for speech would fill
that gracious, overflowing no-thing
with unnecessary noise.

But I will speak a word or two,
because the overflowing desires to be spoken:

A fragile rose
An embracing mantle
A profound rest
A tiny breath
A winding-sheet
A life

Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (c.1490) is in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Unrecognisably Recognisable


Looking upon you
I ought to recognise you
But the line of your face is hidden
Sharded by colour
Disrupted, broken, obscured.

But as I look I see you
Still there,
There in a new way
There in your essence
Present vividly, surprisingly, persistently, joyfully, simply.

Present through any brokenness
I might feel,
Cradling, gazing, holding.

Mother of God,
Tenderly present in fractured disruption,
Pray for us.


Mother of God of Tenderness, by David Grossart, is in the Lady Chapel of Old St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh, with thanks to the artist for his permission and his insightful creativity.

A Mother’s Magnificat


Easy contentment, innocent curiosity,
For one, untroubled slumber,
For the other, a word puzzle.

Yet the signs are painfully immediate:
The yarn-winder empty now,
Later to be draped with a passioned love;
The scroll offering a rhyme to learn –
‘Lamb of God, Lamb of God, Lamb of God’.

What lies between these three
And a desert resonating a prophet’s voice
And a mountain where the meek are blessed?

Perhaps the woman’s waiting-song
Is sung to them again and again
That its words may take root in each heart:
The mighty humbled, the starving feasted,
The cowed emboldened, the haughty turned.

With each generation, then, we bless you, Mother,
For bearing the pain
Of what you know you will see of these two
And for rejoicing in spirit
At the liberty their words bring near.

Guercino’s Virgin and Child with John the Baptist (c.1615) is in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Prophet’s words stand as stately and as monumental

as the summit of which he sings:

a craggy beacon to all nations;

a plateau-table for feasting on rich food and vintage wines;

the rocky anvil on which mutilating weapons

are beaten into the farmer’s harvest tools.

And then some strange words:

‘On this mountain he will destroy the veil which used to veil all peoples.’

What is hidden now that longs to be seen?

What knowledge lies always beyond our unstoppable ingenuity?

Surely we can see clearly already from up here?

The Prophet’s words burn back the hazy veil that mutes the Light

and we begin to see a dawn unlike that of our daily expectation.

This Dayspring from on high is a Light that is

love beyond our keenest desiring

hope beyond our sorest longing

truth beyond our wisest knowing

life beyond our fullest living

comfort that exceeds our direst hurting

peace that drops


into the most vigorous turbulence.

South Western View from Ben Lomond by John Knox (c1834) is in Glasgow City Council’s collection at the Kelvingrove Gallery. Isaiah’s words are chapter 2:1-5, for Advent 1, and 25:6-8 from today’s Eucharistic readings.

Joseph’s Journey


Passersby might be forgiven for considering me to be a little, well, composed
given the terror from which we flee.
But inside I’m all turmoil;
unsure where this road will take us,
not daring to think of those who might suffer in our stead,
worried to death about this little one and his mother.

For she, too, must be feeling more than she shows.
I know that her pondering heart will be storing all this up,
mulling over what it is that my choice to run will mean for us all,
wondering what sort of life we can make in a new place.

But resting here in the shade of this cool palm,
I find my troubled soul a little more at ease.
Who knows whether our time among strangers
might do something for the lad.
This is not the life we might have planned for him
but his is a life – we have discovered –
that we cannot plan in any way.
His is a life we can only know as gift
and I receive it with as much joy
as the simple flowers he tenderly presses into my calloused hands.

[Raphael’s Holy Family with a Palm Tree is in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh]

Madonna of the Bass Rock

Bass Rock Madonna

Walking along this anonymous, clinical corridor,
I don’t quite know what it is I am looking for,
except that I would be glad to see a little light,
a sign that something glimmers when this road has been so hard.

And then I see two familiar things:
A madonna and child,
and that dark, bird-frosted rock,
that almost-island with its history
of prisoners and hermits,
of castles and prisons,
a dark place, and yet a place of some kind of light.

That century-old lighthouse could offer some kind of glimmer to my dark place,
but it is not this light of warning and concern that fixes me in its beam,
but a different light.
It is the light of that child’s gaze.
He fixes me in his steady, contemplative look
and bids me stand awhile and look back.
I look and I recognise.
I look and I hear;
‘I am here. I am life. I am.’

[John Bellany’s Madonna of the Bass Rock of 1997 is on display in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, courtesy of Art in Healthcare. I thank them for placing this image in my way when things were hard.]

Get you up into a high mountain

Caspar David Friedrich The wanderer above the sea of fog

When I need to see clearly, I go up high.
It’s not that I feel above it all in any way,
more that I need to see more;
I need to see how it all fits together,
how the parts relate, how the details find place in the unity.

When the voices around me tell me that this is all there is,
I want to say; ‘No, there’s more.
There’s more possiblity than you dream of,
a more generous future than any manifesto can supply,
a richer life than can be delivered by budgets and brokered deals.

When I stand up here
I hear once more the voice of another seeker of lofty viewpoints,
one who dared to proclaim that people
who feel as scattered as a a dispersed flock
will be

As I stand here,
even the obscuring mist cannot suppress that voice.
Strangely, this cloud of unknowing serves only to instensify the promise
and to draw me closer to the unknowable one
who does not seek to convince me with his well-costed plans,
but beguiles me with his dizzying words,
speaks a truth beyond reason,
seizes my heart and lifts my eyes.

[Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog of 1818 is in the collection of the Hamburger Kunsthalle]