How many of us could live up to high ideals, Ronald Blythe wonders

Some years ago, I was invited to re-edit a famous little book, George Herbert’s The Country Parson, because it was more than 300 years old and full of words that would puzzle today’s readers. It is a famous book, written in 1631 — very soon after its youthful author had been appointed Rector of a tiny Wiltshire parish, Bemerton.
The rural clergy have, over the centuries, written a vast number of books, on botany, local history, devotions, poetry, gossip, travel — every subject under the sun — and this with rarely leaving their livings. As for diaries, theirs are among the best in the language. Who can live without Francis Kilvert?
But Herbert’s The Country Parson remains special. For one thing, it is alarmingly strict. He had famously given up being a rather grand academic at Cambridge University, and had chosen to look after the tiniest parish imaginable. He was tall and thin, and ill. It was the fenny ague, or consumption. He was newly married, and the greatest poet of the Church of England, although no one knew this.
He was an excellent musician, and his parishioners would have listened to him playing the flute, probably in the church porch. He was a very good gardener, and a lover of old proverbs. His household, of about a dozen relatives and servants, walked across the busy Salisbury road several times a day to sing psalms and say their prayers, while he would often walk on to sing with the Salisbury Cathedral choir.
Disconcertingly for Bemerton, their new priest knew a lot about farming, gardening, and housekeeping, and far too much about village life. Generally, his hospitality included having the Lord Jesus to dinner, laying a place for him, or riding beside him in the Wiltshire countryside. So they began to call him “Holy Mr Herbert.”
When he died, aged 39, and his poems were published and became a best-seller, the Church of England had to re-evaluate itself. Something extraordinary had happened to it. It was no longer merely reformed, it had become sacred in its own way, inspired and confident. Although, how many of its ministers could live by the rules of The Country Parson, heaven alone knew.
One of the requirements of all faiths is that we should try to live according to the perfected self. Herbert, being such a great religious writer, was able to find a language for this — a wonderful domestic language.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and th’ action fine.
Herbert was, of course, teaching the servant Christ, the Saviour who washed his friends’ feet after they had tramped around Palestine. Herbert’s clergy were to cover both themselves and the sanctuary with snowy linen, yet enter the filthiest cottage; they were to teach the poorest children to read and write, and the parish to eat from its fields, orchards, and gardens, and to cure its ailments from its own medicine chest — the one which grew outside. They were not to dress up when they came to church, but walk in just as they were, in their field clothes.
They still drink from the chalice he used, ring the bell he rang, sing the songs he sang, go to Salisbury Cathedral to join “the singing men” there, as he did. His parson must never forget that he was Christ’s deputy: he was to be of his people, yet set apart.  (7991)

A young man reminds Ronald Blythe of Dickens’s Marley

When Jesus told the rich young man to sell all he had, and give the proceeds to the poor, he was dealing with two kinds of hunger. One of them was the young man’s hunger for what we call “a life”. “Get a life,” we say. Jesus saw that the main impediment to the young man’s getting life in all its fullness was money. Alas, what he was told to give to receive such a love was too great a price to pay; so the young man went away, sad.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t already invested heavily; for he had said his prayers, he said, and remained virtuous, he said, which would have been enough for anyone. But Jesus sees a trapped soul, a young person already unable to move because of possessions — someone who spent what life he had looking after his money.
Charles Dickens had him in mind when he created Jacob Marley, whom, you will recall, ended up as a ghost hung about with ledgers and safes so that he could hardly walk; which is what we must do occasionally, to be able to fly towards God. Today, Marley would be dragging around computers and investments, mortgages and offshore profits, and a garage full of cars.
Christ’s anti-materialistic law is a hard law for us — almost the hardest. It hits us cruelly. The Gospels are crammed with every kind of giving, from the widow’s mite to the Lord’s all; but all this giving would not be there if a tremendous purpose did not lie behind it. We know that one of the best gifts which is within our giving is not money, but time.
Friends and neighbours in want are often not saying “Spare us a pound,” but “Spare us an hour, or a day.” We look at our watch or our diary and mumble something about “I can manage a visit on the 25th at four in the afternoon, if that will do.” Whereas Jesus is advising us: give this person yourself, for an unmeasured period; free yourself from all this busyness.
The blind man halted the healer by demanding mercy. Just before this exciting event on the Jericho road — on that same road on which a Samaritan showed mercy to someone of another faith — Christ and his little band had met after a solemn journey to Jerusalem to come to grips, as it were, with what would happen. In Luke’s words, the son of man would be spitefully treated, and executed.
But, scripture says, they understood none of these things. They were beyond their vision. Sometimes, he was clear as daylight; sometimes, as obscure as midnight. They could not see what he was getting at; so they walked on, as they always did in his company. Walked on and on, listening, half-grasping what he said.
George Herbert remembered to say “Thank you” for the insights that God gave him. “Thou that hast given so much to me, Give one thing more, a grateful heart. See how thy beggar works on thee By art.”  (7990)

Ronald Blythe reflects on St Paul’s words on loving and giving

George Herbert notes how “close, reserved and dark” we are when God asks for our heart. It came suddenly to mind when I remembered that it was on Quinquagesima Sunday that his coffin was placed on the floor of the little church at Bemerton which I know so well. The spring birds would have been singing in the rectory garden opposite.
It was a time when we had St Paul looking through a glass darkly, and speaking of tongues ceasing. Herbert understood: “A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; or if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heav’n espy”.
Both the Epistle and Gospel for Quinquagesima Sunday, in the Book of Common Prayer, are about giving — two very different kinds of giving. In the first, St Paul writes about giving without love. Doing anything without love, he says, is worthless. Because he has seen showy philanthropists. Then he writes, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing”.
It means that those that can afford to, sometimes give in order to buy salvation. And such givers do not love the poor. They dislike them the more for their having to be the kind of people who exist to give the wealthy the necessary leg up towards honours and respect.
There is a story about Jesus giving a blind man sight — the thing which the man wanted most in all the world. Jesus could have given him a kind word, or a coin, which is what the blind man usually received. But no, the great healer on his way to Calvary gave the blind man what no one else could give: his sight. He was ecstatic.
He made such a din when he heard that the healer from Nazareth was passing his begging pitch just outside Jericho that he was told to be quiet, hold his peace. But what peace could he hold in his state? Jesus forced him to say what it was he wanted from him, in as many words. There was a huge silence; everyone heard the request: “My sight.” Then the giving of the gift. “Receive your sight, your faith in me makes it possible for you to do so.” The blind man — now the seeing man — does not thank Jesus, but God: he who gave him the gift to give sight. The giver then walked in the direction of Jerusalem to give his life.  (7989)

Listening to the sounds of nature, Ronald Blythe is never lonely

The other day, I was asked to write a little introduction to a guide to “E. M. Forster country”: that quiet fragment of Hertfordshire where the novelist lived, and where he placed Howards End. I have lived most of my life in “Constable country”, that part of the Stour Valley which John Constable said had made him an artist. “The handsome miller” the locals called him, and he would have strode past my old farmhouse on his way to visit relations in Wormingford.
As a youth, he made pencil drawings on the way. An older artist had recommended that he do this; so he filled out chubby sketchbooks of these little journeys; they are in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The intimacy of their recordings is greatly moving. I think of him passing our church, our vicarage, our barns, and my house.
A later artist, John Nash, called the landscape here the “Suffolk-Essex highlands”. The scenery is not at all like East Anglia, although the skies could not be more so. Until Turner and Constable, and the Norwich school, the climate of paintings around here had more to do with human moods than the weather. And, of course, Constable’s father was the miller. To think that wind and water — and horses, of course — provided all the power needed for British agriculture at that time.
I often dig up horseshoes in the garden, and the track down to my “dwelling house”, as the deeds call it, was created by hundreds of years of carts. It would have been two miles to church, two miles to school, two miles to anywhere.
Few neighbours from the village walk past my house these days: no children, no pensioners, no one on the way to work. About twice a year, the hunt gallops past; and now and then a crocodile of what I must politely call “tour walkers” pass. There is no one to shout “Hi” through the tall hedges; and yet there is no feeling of loneliness. Something of the old rural neighbourliness prevents it.
I once listed all the grasses, all the wildflowers, the birds, the trees, and everything, and I walked the fields to find flint arrowheads from the Stone Age where there was supposed to be an earlier village. Cleaning the old brick floor at the house, I find stud marks where the farmers came clumping in, and sometimes fragments of blue glass on the old windows, one of which said “IHS”.
The sound of water never ceases. I lie in bed, listening to it, and now and then to flocking birds. I have all around me nature, geography, and agriculture. But a young voice? Maybe now and then; and, in the distance, the footballers on the green, shouting on Saturday afternoons. And sometimes bell-ringing practice, if the wind is right. And the postman, putting letters in one of those mailboxes you see in American films, a long way from the house.
Sometimes, I hear the scratch of rambler roses on the window panes, and the small screams of little animals outside, and the loud cries of rooks. And always the sound of the Stour Valley, in its different forms.  (7988)

Like St Francis, Ronald Blythe finds delight in Nature’s gifts

[Image: 'Garden' by John Nash]
I live in bursts of extravagance, and what I believe is wild generosity, and in moments of stinginess. Whenever that is concerned, I am reminded of my friend Dennis, a cellist, who, cleaning out his aunt’s house, found a box labelled “Little bits of string too short for use.”
How moved I was, visiting an Australian Brother, to see him cooking bubble and squeak for breakfast. “Waste not, want not,” he said. Never a mention of creating something delicious from what might be thrown away.
For no reason at all, a rainy day is behind these parsimonious thoughts. Mornings at seven, and Duncan’s field is not dew-pearled: it is gently grey. The horses shine in the rain. The lawns are being raked so that the mower can have a clear run. I am looking for my engagement book before starting work. The ancient farmhouse is breathing its own quiet. The orchard grass is decorated with yellow flowers, and the whole parish with fresh floating leaves.
At matins, I preach on Brother Nature, St Francis’s friend. Just before he died in 1225, St Francis sat in the garden of his little chapel at Assisi to write a hymn in praise of God as he is revealed in nature. He called this hymn “Brother Sun and all his Creatures”, deciding that he himself was brother to the wind, brother to the trees, brother to the flowers, the birds, the animals, and to all living things.
Making this famous connection is exhilarating, just as it exhilarated Robert Browning to get up early to find “The lark’s on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn.” I stand on the cold terrace listening to the leafy world. Like Jesus, St Francis had moved away from the idea of the natural world as a kind of larder for himself and other people to that of a shared existence. Christ experienced the countryside in his work and delighted in all that he saw: corn, the trees, the natural scenery, and the great, unsafe universe.
When the artist John Nash taught botanical drawing, he would pick a single flower from his garden to be the model for his pupils, and afterwards he would give it to the best pupil. When he himself painted flowers, placing each one in a half-pint milk bottle, he would not throw it away.
It is springtime. I can smell wild garlic. The ditches run from here to the river. At church, we sing Psalm 23 to Crimond. It seems necessary to lift certain praises out of the sadness where convention has set them. On the way home, like the churchwarden, I see the polished green stumps of bluebells in my tracks.
It could be a nice day to call on St Francis at the church at Wiston, where an artist painted him on the wall, centuries ago. He is teaching blackbirds Christianity. “O brother birds, praise ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever.” To think that there was a time when an acknowledgement of nature was frowned on, when those who understood its sacredness were regarded with suspicion!
George Herbert was among the sacred gardeners who helped to return nature to religion, although there was, alas, no cure for his illness. Just a handful of spring flowers for him.
What will happen to us eventually? God will say to us: “My lovely world — why didn’t you enjoy it more?”
We will wonder why we didn’t.  (7987)

Ronald Blythe recalls seeing plough horses drink from his pond

The artist John Nash, who lived in my old farmhouse, was famously addicted to ponds. There are two of them here, one fore and one aft. “Never pass up a pond,” he would say to me. There are many black-and-white photos of the cleaning out of the ponds at this time of year, disturbing the frogspawn and tadpoles. This was not a good thing to do. They were centuries-old horse ponds, surrounded by willows.
Every afternoon, at about 3.30, the weary plough horses of the farm, who had been at work since 7.30 in the morning, would come back from the fields to gulp down gallons of this fresh spring water before going back to their stables or to their meadow. It had gone on since time immemorial. Sometimes, I imagine I can still hear them, their great feet sploshing about in the mud, their soft mouths running with silver liquid.
The ponds are the overflow of the stream which descends to the valley and helps to create the River Stour. Both Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable painted this river, making it one of the most celebrated riverscapes in English art. Constable’s Haywain shows the axles of a timber wagon being cooled in it. The artist himself called this picture “Noon”.
As a boy, he walked along the Stour bank to visit his uncle and aunt in our village; I pass their imposing tombs on the way to church every Sunday. The horse chestnuts that a Victorian priest planted are beginning to bud.
Not much has changed since, except that there is nobody about. The countryside, once filled with toil, is now a place without a worker in sight. No man or woman or child anywhere. But I sometimes stare at the iron bridge that joins Essex and Suffolk in our village, and watch the carp and dace swimming beneath me, and the current pulling the surface of the river from Cambridgeshire to the North Sea.
Today is different. It is spring. Rabbits mate with impunity, and a gorgeous pair of pheasants are walking together. Apart from a telegraph pole or two, and birds strolling in my direction from Duncan’s farm, it might be 1850. There can never have been, in all the long history of rural England, a time like the 21st century, when the farming is perfect without anyone at work.
But April smells as sweet as ever, and in the Epistle of St Peter we are called strangers and pilgrims. Once, I found a young man with a scallop shell on his shoulder in the church porch. He was a pilgrim on his way to Walsingham; and again, in my imagination, I take a few steps towards Emmaus, that wonderful journey.
The orchard has been scythed early, and so has come up with Wordsworth’s daffodils: the little wild ones, which his sister Dorothy pointed out to him; and it seems — although it’s not true — that the birds are nesting already, and that everything is very forward.
The house itself seems warm and comfortable for this time of year. And the services go on, with small congregations making a pattern of life — the kind of life I’ve seen and lived all my life. And the house is isolated, so I don’t know what goes on; but now and again I can hear the bells if the wind is in the right direction.  (7986)

Ronald Blythe finds delight in the writings of Julian of Norwich

Mother Julian’s revelations of divine love remind me a little of those bones that emerged from a council car-park and on which a pile of later belief has been heaped. They had to be translated to be understood. She comes to my mind as I leave the garden and it’s springtime. She lay dying, just when she wanted to be the first woman writer in English. Such is life. And God was holding out to her “a little thing, the size of a hazelnut”.
It was the Cornish climate that held out life to a sick woman I knew long ago. We went to see her in what was really a kind of furnished cave under a waterfall — an unconsidered place littered with library books and nice food. She sold camomile lawns to make a living, and advertised them in a magazine, The Countryman, which was edited by John Cripps, the son of Sir Stafford Cripps. A deep brook flowed past her to the sea.
Julian gave sensible and holy advice to Norwich. What would England have done without these wonderful women? “And he showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer came ‘It is all that is made.’
“I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not disintegrate, it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer. ‘It exists, both now and for ever, because God loves it.’ In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God.
“In this ‘little thing’ I saw three truths. The first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; and the third is that God sustains it. . . We have got to realise the littleness of creation and to see it for the nothing that it is before we can love and possess God who is uncreated.”
And then she saw, which I always love, God as a gardener, and Christ as his servant. God was a gardener, and his servant was digging and banking, toiling and sweating, turning and trenching the ground, watering the plants all the time.
Gradually, by great labour, the servant and the master are to be discovered neither in deserts nor in nature, but at rest and peace in their own city — not the countryside, however well cultivated it is. In the years before this, St Augustine had seen the Church as the city of God, and St John had seen heaven as a new Jerusalem.
You don’t have to read very far into Julian’s revelations to realise that its author, who had lived a long life in this world, saw everything in it with a delight and comprehension that are unparalleled in devotional literature.
However reticent Julian is on the beauty and wonder of what had been created, it is impossible to read her without recognising that her joy and vitality, her sanity and her spiritual energy, were partly a response to the physical world. Like most recluses, she treasured every minute of sunshine, the tenderness of bindweed finding its way into her soul, the ways of her famous cat, and the contrasting sense of the winter and summer fields in Norfolk.
That single view of the outside was due to the seasons and her own trained gaze, which did, indeed, become “all that is made”.  (7985)