Rabindranath Tagore & Spiritual Poetry: Online service for 8th August 2021

Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet, died on 7th August 1941.

Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley


Opening Words Come as you are by Rabindranath Tagore, loosely translated by Michael R. Burch


Come as you are, forget appearances!
Is your hair untameable, your part uneven, your bodice unfastened? Never mind.
Come as you are, forget appearances!

Skip with quicksilver steps across the grass.
If your feet glisten with dew, if your anklets slip, if your beaded necklace slides off? Never mind.
Skip with quicksilver steps across the grass.

Do you see the clouds enveloping the sky?
Flocks of cranes erupt from the riverbank, fitful gusts ruffle the fields, anxious cattle tremble in their stalls.
Do you see the clouds enveloping the sky?

You loiter in vain over your toilet lamp; it flickers and dies in the wind.
Who will care that your eyelids have not been painted with lamp-black, when your pupils are darker than thunderstorms?
You loiter in vain over your toilet lamp; it flickers and dies in the wind.

Come as you are, forget appearances!
If the wreath lies unwoven, who cares? If the bracelet is unfastened, let it fall. The sky grows dark; it is late.
Come as you are, forget appearances!


Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning) words by Cliff Reed


We light our chalice

to celebrate our heritage of light:

the light of science and of art,

the light of story and of poem,

the light of nature and of reason,

the inner light of spirit and of truth.


Opening Prayer


Spirit of Life and Love,

Be with us as we gather for worship,

each in their own place.

Help us to feel a sense of community,

even though we are physically apart.

Help us to care for each other,

as we come out of lockdown,

keeping in touch however we can,

and helping each other,

however we may.

May we remember that

caution is still needed,

that close contact is still unwise.

Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have

and to respect the wishes of others.

May we hold in our hearts all those

Who are grieving, lost, alone,

all who are suffering in any way.



Readings two short poems to give you a flavour of RabindranathTagore’s joy in life.


The Stream of Life from Singing the Living Tradition


The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.


It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.


It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages, dancing in my blood this moment.


Joy is Everywhere from The Language of Happiness


Joy is everywhere;

It is in the earth’s

green covering of grass,

in the blue serenity of the sky,

in the reckless

exuberance of spring,

in the severe abstinence

of grey winter,

in the living flesh

that animates our bodily frame,

in the perfect poise of the human figure,

noble and upright,

in living, in the exercise

of all our powers,

in the acquisition of knowledge

… Joy is there everywhere.



Alternative Lord’s Prayer


Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,

May we be aware of your presence in our lives.

May our world be blessed.

May our daily needs be met,

And may our shortcomings be forgiven,

As we forgive those of others.

Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,

The inspiration and guidance to do right,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.

May we have compassion for all living beings,

And receive whatever life brings,

With courage and trust. Amen


Reading from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore


Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!

He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like him come down on the dusty soil!

Deliverance? Where is this deliverance to be found? Our master himself has joyfully taken upon him the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all for ever.

Come out of thy meditations and leave aside thy flowers and incense! What harm is there if thy clothes become tattered and stained? Meet him and stand by him in toil and in sweat of thy brow.


Prayer Give me strength by Rabindranath Tagore (adapted)


This is my prayer to thee, my lord—-strike,
strike at the root of penury in my heart.
Give me the strength lightly to bear my joys and sorrows.
Give me the strength to make my love fruitful in service.
Give me the strength never to disown the poor or bend my knees before insolent might.
Give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifles.
And give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.


May it be so, Amen





Reading A Hundred Years Hence by Rabindranath Tagore


A hundred years hence
Who it is
With such curiosity
Reads my poems
A hundred years hence!
Shall I be able to send you
An iota of joy of this fresh spring morning
The flower that blooms today
The songs that the birds sing
The glow of today’s setting sun
Filled with my feelings of love?

Yet for a moment
Open up your southern gate
And take your seat at the window
Look at the far horizon
And visualize in your mind’s eye —
One day a hundred years ago
A restless ecstasy drifted from the skies
And touched the heart of this world
The early spring mad with joy
Knew no bounds
Spreading its restless wings
The southern breeze blew
Carrying the scent of flowers’ pollen
All on a sudden soon
They coloured the world with a youthful glow
A hundred years ago.
That day a young poet kept awake
With an excited heart filled with songs
With so much ardour
Anxious to express so many things
Like buds of flowers straining to bloom
One day a hundred years ago.

A hundred years hence
What young poet
Sings songs in your homes!
For him
I send my tidings of joy of this spring.
Let it echo for a moment
In your spring, in your heartbeats,
In the humming of the bees
In the rustling of the leaves
A hundred years hence.



Time of Stillness and Reflection Saint John’s Day: for the Wordsmiths by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth


Divine Word, who speaks in us for our re-creation

and salvation, we give thanks for the wordsmiths

whom your gift of words has inspired.

For those who reveal to us the secrets and strivings

of their souls, that we might better understand and

nurture our own;

For the poets whose words move, delight, and challenge us,

weaving webs in which are captured wonder, joy, and pain;

For the storytellers, bards, and skalds; the novelists

playwrights, and scriptwriters, who transport us to

other worlds that we might better understand our own;

For those who bring to us the arcane mysteries of

science in words that we can comprehend, and help us

in our striving to understand the universe;

For those who bring us news from our tumultuous world,

the information with which to make

our choices and our judgements;

For those whose skills is to translate the words

of others, reversing the Babel curse and restoring

the wholeness that was lost.




We give thanks for all the honest, healing wordsmiths

of the world.




Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley


Address Rabindranath Tagore and Spiritual Poetry


Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet whose beautiful words I have been sharing with you during the rest of the service, was born in May 1861 in Calcutta, into a Brahmin family. He was a Bengali polymath – not only a poet, but also a writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter. Wikipedia summarises his life as follows: “He reshaped Bengali literature and music as well as Indian art… Author of the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ (according to the Nobel Foundation) of Gitanjali, he became in 1913 the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. His poetic songs were viewed as spiritual and mercurial. … He is sometimes referred to as ‘the Bard of Bengal’.”


His talent bloomed early – he wrote his first poetry as young as eight and his first substantial poems were released under a pseudonym when he was only sixteen. Again, according to Wikipedia, these “were seized on by literary authorities as long-lost classics.” Before long, he was publishing short stories and dramas under his own name. The article goes on, “As a humanist, universalist, internationalist and ardent anti-nationalist, he denounced the British Raj and advocated independence from Britain.”


His life was not without controversy – he was awarded a knighthood in 1915 by King George V, but renounced it on political grounds four years later, in response to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Wikipedia quotes part of his repudiation letter to the Viceroy of the time, “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings.”


As an exponent of the Bengal Renaissance, his output was prolific – paintings, sketches and doodles, hundreds of texts and [more than] two thousand songs; his legacy also endures in the institution he founded, Visva-Bharati University.


In the last thirty or so years of his life, Tagore travelled widely, speaking, writing and meeting many of the luminaries of the time, including Albert Einstein, the poets W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost and authors H.G. Wells, Thomas Mann, and George Bernard Shaw. He also delivered the 1930 Hibbert Lecture, on the theme The Religion of Man, which (as you probably know) was one of an annual series of non-sectarian lectures on theological issues. They are sponsored by the Hibbert Trust, which was founded in 1847 by Unitarian Robert Hibbert with the goal of upholding “the unfettered exercise of private judgement in matters of religion.”


Wikipedia summarises Tagore’s artistic legacy as follows, “Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid, classical forms and resisting linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas and essays spoke to topics political and personal. Gitanjali (Song Offerings), Gora (Fair-Faced) and Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) are his best-known works, and his verse, short stories, and novels were acclaimed—or panned—for their lyricism, colloquialism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. His compositions were chosen by two nations as national anthems: India’s Jana Gana Mana and Bangladesh‘s Amar Shonar Bangla. The Sri Lankan national anthem was inspired by his work.” He died in August 1941, six years before Indian independence.




We may not be People of the Book, like the Christians, Jews and Muslims, but we are surely the People of the Word.  Our worship services, our books, our magazines, our Wayside Pulpits, are all examples of how important we, as Unitarians, find words. Words that influence us, words that inspire us, words that make us think, words that challenge us, words which paint pictures of the wonder and beauty of the world. I would guess that the most well-read issues each year of our periodical, The Inquirer, are the two ‘Faith in Words’ issues, which are compilations of original words by Unitarians all over the country.


Unitarian minister Stephen Lingwood wrote, in his anthology, The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and Present, that, “We can pay attention to a cloud of witnesses from many different countries around the world and many different times in history. We can delve deep into the traditions of our spiritual ancestors and listen to their voices. In doing so, we can create a ‘living scripture’: a loose, dynamic collection of texts which brings together essential insights from the past and present of our movement.”

This lovely quotation shows that we are not limited to readings from a particular sacred text – we are free to create our own “living scripture” of readings that speak to our condition and that of our hearers. And so we do – many of the readings and prayers in our worship services have been written by Unitarians, past and present. Unitarian worship leaders are also free to choose any words they believe will have spiritual significance for us, which relate to the theme of the service.


And often, these words are poems. Someone once defined poetry as “the best words in the best order” and I have to agree. Poetry seems to be able to reach parts of people’s hearts and souls in a very special way, which prose does not generally share. The poems of John O’Donohue, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Denise Levertov and others are frequently used in Unitarian worship services, as are the poems of more classical poets – Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Blake and so on. We are not limited to poems originally written in English either – thanks to the skills of contemporary translators. We find both wisdom and spiritual nourishment in the words of Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, in those of the Sufi poets Hafiz and Rumi, in the poetry of the Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke and, of course, in the words of Rabindranath Tagore, whose life we are celebrating today.


Most of us know how incredibly moving religious and spiritual poetry can be. My first experience of this was reading Gibran’s The Prophet as a student, but during Unitarian Summer School in 2010, I was introduced to the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic and to that of Rainer Mari Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, who wrote in the early 20th century.


They both absolutely blew me away. Only when reading the poetic prose of The Prophet had I encountered anything like it. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of their words, which pointed to a new way of connecting with the divine, which had never before occurred to me. Most of the religious poetry that I knew up till then was by the metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert, from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, or the grand and austere stanzas of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Some of it beautiful, but oh so very orthodox.


We are very fortunate in the 21st century, to have gifted translators and editors, who are able to convert the Persian of Hafiz, the German of Rilke and the Bengali of Tagore into wonderfully lyrical English, without losing the sense of the original. Daniel Ladinsky for Hafiz, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy for Rilke and Michael R. Burch for Tagore (among other translators; Tagore also translated much of his own work into English). Their translations are masterpieces and contribute hugely to the enjoyment and pleasure I have received from reading them. These modern translators have enabled ordinary people like us to access the wonderful poetry of these poets and to walk with them on their own spiritual journeys.


I find all three wonderful, but each is very different in what they have to say. The concept of God or the Divine (however you like to refer to Her/Him/It) as the Beloved, the object of the worshipper’s love, is central to the poetry of Hafiz. His relationship with his God can only be described as intimate. His God is not some remote, cold, judgemental Being in Heaven, but a warm, loving, teasing Presence. The companionship of this Beloved God is a matter of joy and happiness – much of the poetry speaks of laughing and dancing and singing and playing music. Sometimes he is talking about his own relationship with God and sometimes offering advice to the reader, in the guise of a guide, who can lead him or her to “the Beloved’s tent”. There is much gentle good advice in Hafiz’s words. Reading them has taught me that religious poetry does not have to be solemn and serious, and that loving yourself and others is the straightest route to the Divine.


Rilke is more overtly serious in his approach to God than Hafiz, but in my favourite book of his, Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, there is the same intimacy, the same longing for union with the Divine and the same belief that this is possible, for human beings, here and now. A warm connection between the poet and God runs through all the poems – sometimes it is God speaking, sometimes the poet. But, like Hafiz, there is a closeness, a familiarity with the Divine in Rilke’s words, which is so delicious to read. Rilke too has a personal and close relationship with God. There is no sense that God is Up There, or Over There or Somewhere Else. God is Here and Now and Everywhere. It is a relationship based on love, rather than judgement.


Finally, Tagore’s poetry is written from a Hindu perspective. The website e-notes.com says, “It is the positive implications of Hindu belief that Tagore develops in his poetry. For example, his imagery—dwelling on sunrises and sunsets, flowers and their scents, songs and musical instruments, the beautiful deodar tree (deodár meaning “divine wood”), the majestic Himalayas—is a constant reminder that creation is charged with divinity: Beauty and majesty are concrete manifestations of Brahman. Change, natural disasters, and death are necessary for renewal, which will come. All people have divine souls, so they should tolerate, respect, and love one another. The advantaged should help the disadvantaged; thereby, they both rise toward Brahman. The individual should strive to live in such a way as to throw off impurities and achieve the essence of divinity within the self.”


Whichever flavour of spiritual poetry you enjoy, there is little doubt in my mind that reading these poets (and others) can nourish our souls. To quote Cliff Reed, let us “give thanks for all the honest, healing wordsmiths of the world.”


May it be so.


Closing Words


Spirit of Life and Love,

open our hearts and minds

to the beauty and richness

of spiritual poetry –

may it nourish our souls.

May we return to our everyday world refreshed,

may we share the love we feel,

may we look out for each other,

and may we keep up our hearts,

now and in the days to come.



Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley