It being too good to be inside, I check the oil tank, walk the muddy paths, and survey the snowdrops, which are legion. They clothe the rises and the hollows in their thousands, with their matchless whiteness and their sudden appearance. One day it is sodden undergrowth, the next this purity of flowers.
The birds rustle around; the sky shines. Four young horses race around the field, their coats flying. In church, I have to make up my mind whether it is after the Epiphany, or before Lent. I preach on the showing of Christ.
Religion can be neither darkness nor light, just cloudy. And there is this fading away of the brightnessas the years gather. Amos - a favourite of mine - cried: "I may not be a theologian, but I can see that things are not what they should be!" But who was going to take notice of a noisy young fruit-farmer out in the sticks? But I love his voice. It is new and non-liturgical. And beautiful. Very clear.
In mid-Epiphany, we have
on his restless travels, church-founding, magisterial. Confident - St Paul bred men of
letters. It was on the old caravan route from Asia to Tarsus Europe.
Tent-making in such a city was a profitable trade. We read about him during the
Epiphany because the blinding light of his conversion meets the greater light.
He was on the road because his deliverer had said: "I am the light of the
On his way, Paul had met Timothy, a man of mixed race, with his Greek father and Jewish mother. So they walked on, the pair of them, teaching what the friends of Jesus had taught them.
When Paul reached
Troas, he had a vision - more light.
Someone in his head was begging him to "come over into , and
help us." Leave your native east, and come to Macedonia Europe.
Why not? He had a Roman passport. First, he and young Timothy made for Philippi, where Paul founded perhaps his favourite
church: "I thank my God for every remembrance of you," he would say
in his letter.
His first encounter with a Philippian was near the water's edge. Walking to it on the sabbath, he had found a women's prayer-meeting in progress. He and Timothy sat down and took part. This was
St Paul's first
Christian activity in Europe. One of the women
was a businessperson named .
Having heard Paul preach Christianity, she is the first named European to
become part of the Church: this woman who sold purple cloth. Lydia
His next encounter was with a girl who had been forced into fortune-telling because of her profitable madness. Along with the gospel came the light of reason. "Be affectionate with one another," Paul told the infant Church.
He foresaw the multiplicity of behaviours that must enter a universal faith - it takes all sorts to make a world - and yet "Be kind to one another." The Church must not be monolithic, but various. Because
ran a house church, she could be described as the first Christian priest in Europe, if one might be fanciful.
On a spring-in-winter day, with the
its banks, a formlessness takes over the familiar landscape; something
uncontrollable is in power. Pretty rivers swell into terrible giants. Water,
water everywhere, although no rain to speak of. My ditches roar. And all these
snowdrops! And the wild duck wherring over. (28th February 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 12:14
“DEVOTION” is not a word one would use religiously without some care these days. Instead, we talk of the, to me, unpleasant occupation of “churchgoing”. “Worship” is also much used. But when the old door closes and the bell stops, we will not be said to be at our devotions.
Yet now and then something happens which sweeps past mere attendance and worship, and takes us into the unguarded area of a one-to-one love of Christ. Here we are, the worshipping collective, all on our own with him. A service barrier has fallen. And all this because I had begun matins with “Jesu, the very thought of thee” to Metzler’s Redhead, in which no tongue nor pen can describe what we at this moment feel and understand. That the love of Jesus, what it is, none but his loved ones know. And this individually, not collectively.
Old ghost stories often tell of meddling antiquarians releasing malign forces into the present. What Edward Caswall did when he translated the 12th-century “Jesu, dulcis memoria” was to release something from long ago, something in abeyance, yet untouched by time, but simply waiting to invade the individual experience. He had joined J. H. Newman at Edgbaston Oratory, where “devotion” was the rule.
Some of us politely puzzle our non-churchgoing friends when we attend services. “I mean”, they say, “he is just like us in most ways.” Meaning: not obviously holy. And, indeed, we frequently puzzle ourselves, intelligent beings that we are, when parish meetings and endless other activities become the inescapable concomitant of our religious life — indeed, can almost submerge it. These spread from the pleasantly practical to the downright miserable. But, then, the washing up and the book-keeping had to be done at Edgbaston, as at
Yet spare a thought for the beauty and passion of holiness. Give them time. Caswall’s hymn pierces through all this, and our worship, this wet Sunday, could have silently concluded after the last verse, our having this only joy, this prize, and this not congregationally, but one-to-One. But, of course, we talk and pray and sing on. Yet the Jesu hymn won’t leave our heads.
Shelley spurned the Christianity of his day. He wrote of
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.
The old song that Caswall found is a love letter to Jesus. Its purity and its tune make us shed all our churchgoing inhibitions. I preach on George Herbert and his all-week friendship with Him. So, more and more entirely personal letters. There they are, hand in hand, walking through the
water-meadows, exchanging love and advice, God and man enjoying companionship.
There they are, singing Tallis in the quire. There they are, at table,
tirelessly talking, passing the bread. Salisbury
Halfway through my sermon, I realise that it has become a literary lecture; but there is no going back. And, anyway, who can take in a word of it with “sweeter sound than thy blest name” still filling our heads? Our devotions over, we drive home. Small lakes lie in lanes, and our wheels make fountains. They brush escaped garden flowers, and often have to be braked when we pass walkers. These know us — the churchgoers.
(21st February 2007)
Posted by Arborfield at 08:18
The farm track lurches along from puddle to puddle. The unseen brook below me is a village Tiber. The air is soft, the sky low and colourless. But the catkins - never such pollen ropes! They swing like censers, rocking the blackbirds. We are to remember the apostle Matthias and George Herbert: the first by the luck of the draw, the second by his poetry. And still they promise rain. But the rain is a treat, being so soft and languid. Now and then, a little wind troubles the bare trees.
We await a priest and some shuffling of the benefice. Each vicar is a little reign. We say: "In Arthur's time. . ." or "In John's time. . .". So far, not in a woman's time, although we would be glad to say this. Our only stipulation is that an incumbent should enjoy what is here, the tremendous view of the Stour valley, the unstoppable flood by the church gates as an ancient waterway breaks cover.
Water is an imperious element that insists on its own ways, and this is all part of the most celebrated river in English art. John Constable splashed his way through miles of it. And I remember the water meadows further upstream, how they turned into seas in late winter, with gulls flocking over them and ditchers busy in them. Sodden toil. Wet feet - no wellingtons, army greatcoats, and a sense of uselessness as the floods did whatever they liked, year after year.
Below the village, old cuts and solutions are evidence of attempts to manage the flow. But nothing like the Somerset Levels, where the inhabitants blame the authorities, knowing in their hearts that nothing can be done.
It is the time to stare at flint towers. Bar a few granite boulders dragged in our direction during the Ice Age, all we have is flint, and this in abundance. It became our jewellery. Rich men wrote their names in it on the churches they created. It was a mineral blackletter which did not weather, but which stayed sharp and glassy. And never so polished as in a wet Lent.
Tramping around my old Suffolk village the other day, there,on the foot of the tower, was the indelible flint homage to the Virgin Mary, bright as a button. Some unknown stone artist made it - set it - centuries before the Reformation. Neither man nor winter could rub it out.
Adrian will soon tidy up the garden for the spring. It will take its shape once more. At the moment, it is all hellebores - "showy flowers and poisonous parts", the dictionary says, primly. And fine they are. Best not to walk any-where other than on a solid path. The underlying squelch speaks of a garden floating on lakes.
And Ash Wednesday looms. Like a good Christian, I read T. S. Eliot.
Midwinter spring is its own seasonSempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
(14th February 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 14:48
This year's first day's gardening. Mostly mulchy raking. Robins for company, of course. Clouds like serial duvets overhead. A wintry serenity, and everything still. In the village, "We'll pay for this." What with? Being a devotee of the "now", I pass on.
I clear the gravel moat that I dug round the old house ages ago to dry it out once and for all. What a success! It is snug down under. I am reminded of my friend John Nash's delight in painting inside gravel pits and similar abandoned workings, and of his tenderness towards rusty machinery, flywheels, cogs, boilers, corrugated iron - cast-off things which once sprang into life, and which shelter below the landscape. His was, on the whole, a pre-plastic universe.
Endless snowdrops, each one so pure, so perfect. Candlemas bells was what they used to call them. The Gloire de Dijon roses will bloom from year to year without ceasing. But a good time for mud, which is everywhere. It, too, is rich, in its way.
Haphazardly, in one of those drifts of daydreams where one thing leads to another, I find myself back in Coleridge's cottage at Nether Stowey. Having just thrown a sheet over my geraniums, I am sitting in the small room where he rocked his baby son with one hand, and wrote "Frost at Midnight" with the other. He was writing as he would never write again.
His youthful friend Wordsworth, up the road, was doing the same. They were making a book, Lyrical Ballads, which would change English poetry. Walking about at night instead of in the daytime, they caused scandal. They could not pay their bills. Who were they? Call the police! So much of our greatest literature was fashioned on the hoof. Or in the extreme opposite, prison.
St Paul might not have written his Letters if he had been allowed to preach. John Bunyan's preaching was all too dangerous; so they put him in a cell to stop it. So he wrote endlessly, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Heavenly Footman, intoxicating walk-books. They were long walks through Bedfordshire.
Alan and I once followed in Bunyan's steps, and noted where he had translated his native county into a route to God. For instance, the far-off Chilterns were the Celestial Mountains; and the mansion where Bunyan had to mend the pots and pans became the House Beautiful. We stood in its tragic wreckage, imagining its music, its talk, the paintings on its walls, its flowers, its boys and girls. Its life.
I have always found ruins perfect for putting together what no longer exists. Houghton House, ruined, speaks as it never could if it was whole.
Bunyan's prison cell was close to the river where, on the bridge at curfew, a trumpet sounded to put Bedford to sleep. For him, it would suggest "the trumpets sounding on the other side" of the Lethe. Does anyone read Bunyan now? Whenever I ask, it is: "Oh, we did it for A level." Set books are necessary, but those we discover for ourselves are more important.
Our ancestors read the Bible, the Prayer Book, and Bunyan, and little else. They lived by allegory and storytelling, by what they understood to be the literal truth. Their journey was with the Comforter in The Pilgrim's Progress.
Bunyan was a strong man, who had to shoulder an anvil wherever he went. His genius was to correlate the walking Jesus with his walk to work - with everyone's walk to work. Today's Christian, no doubt, accompanies him on the commuter train. A large part of the day is in getting to the workplace; so it has to be more than this. (07th February 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 15:12
A sepia, half-lit day. Wild duck fly over, squawking and honking. I am desultory: reading a bit of this, writing a bit of that. I could have gardened, I tell myself. The white cat is a blur against the window.
On Sunday, Christ is being presented at the
He is 40 days old. They used to call it "the Meeting", i.e. of the
child with aged Simeon. They used to sing Lumen ad revelationem. Not much lumen on the ancient farm at
this moment, but always plenty of revelation. Temple
A friend has brought me the Akenfield chair, a mighty piece of furniture, lugging it through the wet garden. It is made of various woods from the trees where I used to live. Tim made it, and Jason set it down on the brick floor, where it at once became part of the old house. It is pale and heavy, and very hard. Could it bear a cushion? Its puritan beauty might flinch from such indulgence.
Jason returns to his old farmhouse, where he is a wonderful drawer of animals. Portraits of his ewes and cows look down on us in the pub. Furniture-makers used to be called joiners. I must not place the new chair near a radiator, or else what Tim has joined together will come apart.
I observe it lovingly after he has driven away, thinking of how it will outlive me, how it will fade and become worn, how a woman will call her husband to move it. It has a small drawer at the back in which I have put a card which says: "Tim Whiting made me, 2014."
Bloomfield honoured his gate-legged table with a poem. I see him bent over it,
pushing his pen. He is the first writer I ever wrote about - this when I was
15. His famous work was The Farmer's Boy, a Georgian idyll,a blissful
view of life on the land, shorn of its hardships. He received a fortune for it,
but died penniless. Suffolk
His long poem became an agricultural party-piece. Young men would stand up in the pub and spout it by the yard. Or sing it. There were singing pubs and non-singing pubs. Vaughan Williams, collecting folk-songs before the First World War, asked a young man to sing him a song so that he could write it down, but they were both thrown out of the bar by the landlord because it wasn't a singing pub.
Now and then, I take a non-singing funeral. "Immortal, Invisible" I announced the other day. A full church, but hardly a sound. I could hardly say "Sing up!" with the coffin in front of me.
Various reasons are given for these packed non-singing funerals. Some say that the abolition of school assemblies has produced a hymnless population. Gareth is doing his best, of course. But what a loss. No "Immortal, Invisible, God only wise" - yet Nine Lessons and Carols only a month ago, and in full voice.
But tears. Such tears from those who had not expected to cry. Usually the mourners are worn out with hospitals and drugs, with the ferocity of loss. The practice of religion brings philosophy as well as faith. All these things fill the wide spaces of an old country church for a funeral. The congregation is perfectly sad. "And afterwards at the White Horse." And afterwards the expense - £10,000, they reckon.
But enough of these wintry thoughts. A woman mounts the
steps. She is holding a child. (31-Jan-2014) Temple
Posted by Arborfield at 20:53
It is one of those not uncommon April-in-January mornings. Cirrus clouds rinsed with gold, animals wearing haloes - which they should, of course. The white cat, spread out on a radiator below the window, like a Roman at dinner, invites the winter sun to warm her. Birds idle above.
A long time ago, standing in the school playground and looking up, I heard a little boy say: "They don't know it's Thursday." Now and then, I don't know it's the 14th, or whatever. Someone knocks and says: "You are expecting me, aren't you?" "Yes, yes, of course, come in." I reach for the coffee/tea.
Jason has brought the Akenfield chair, a handsome descendant of the Arts and Crafts movement. It takes up its position in the ancient room with aplomb. I sit in it, and am at once enthroned. Tim, the wonderful craftsman, has made it out of oak, and maybe fruit woods. I must ask him. I sit in it apologetically, like the unworthy inheritor of a crown. It had pride of place at the Alde Festival.
The River Alde flows vaguely towards the Aldeburgh marshes, and thus to the
North Sea. I lived by it when I was young. Now I live by
the Stour, and in fine company: Thomas
Gainsborough and John Constable. Slightly in flood, it glitters through my
When I was young, it poured through the low-lying cottages at Burs, just down the road. No electrics and fitted carpets in those days; so the wooden furniture was hauled up the narrow stairs until the water went down, and was swept out. Seeing today's flood victims in Gloucestershire, my heart goes out to them. Water right up to the telly, boats outside, belated insurance, no dove to announce God's forgiveness.
Constable loved rainbows. He painted one above Stoke by Nayland a few miles from here - knew how to merge the seven colours, all in their prismatic order. There could be a rainbow today, I think.
The Epiphany continues another showing. Another "Brightest and best of the sons of the morning", among which count me. I'm not very bright in the evenings. "Wake up, that boy at the back there!" Fragments of old protests try to stir me into action. What a hope.
On Sunday mornings, before Meriel or Mike arrives to drive me to church, I listen to the radio service, unreasonably disappointed by the thin singing, longing for that glorious full congregational sound. A priest overcomes all the techniques of broadcasting with her prayerfulness. It is very beautiful. I read George Herbert on this programme, and my friend Canon Judy Rees officiated.
I was with my friend Vikram Seth, a Hindu who comes to evensong. It was at Bemerton, near
, where Herbert
was rector for a little more than two years - and changed the face of the
Church of England. Should you go there, you will hear the bell that he tolled,
and open the door that he opened - and not only to his parish church, but to
aspects of believing which remain transforming. He was tall, young, and ill.
Coughing, singing to his lute. Writing poems that no one knew about. Vikram
Seth has absorbed them, even continued them. Salisbury
I was with my friend Vikram Seth, a Hindu who comes to evensong. It was at Bemerton, near
At the Epiphany, we continue in the light. What would we see without it? (24th January 2014)
Posted by Arborfield at 09:52
Walking with mother long ago, lopping the heads off flowers as we went, I was told what a pity it was to have given birth to such an unkind boy. As Mary and I drove to church, we slowed down to see a fine patch of snapdragon in
Barn Hall Lane. Why didn't I join the
Wild Flower Society, she said. This I did, and became immensely learned. Only
the learning, like the snapdragon (Linaria vulgaris), stays patchy.
A few years ago, I listed all the plants that grew on the once 70 acres of Bottengoms Farm, walking them before breakfast and after supper, and carrying a notebook. It was the tie of set-aside, when fields went untouched for three years; so I hoped I would find some ancient flower from the Middle Ages. But all I discovered was what used to be called the aftermath - the growth that softened and coloured the land after harvest. Poppies, pimpernels.
The Wild Flower Society sent me its register. Yesterday, mid-January, I found that primroses at Bottengoms bloom all the year round, that catkins are showing in the track, that the grass is sodden in a kind of livid green, and that the hellebores (Christmas rose), both white and pink, need to have their muddy leaves clipped for their full glory to be manifest.
Pottering about in the winter warmth, I prayed for the flooded, for New Yorkers, for those without winter flowers - botanical and spiritual. "You are sheltered down here," visitors say.
There was a John Bottengoms who perished in 1375. I see him taking shelter from the cold - the plague, maybe - judging the weeds, crossing himself as he prays to St Benedict (12 January), plodding two miles to mass, bothered by purgatory, envying his betters their ability to pay for a short stay in it.
As one grows old, aspects of belief wither and fall away like petals, leaving a stout centre. Prayer becomes Herbertian, "something understood", and not a religious bothering. Best of all is holy quietness. And then there is gratitude.To have got this far!
Benedict for January. He did wonders in the north, until the last three years made him an invalid. His faith and his creativity wore him out. But what a life! A librarian, a singer, a builder, a traveller, gifted with restlessness and inspired by Christ, he perished in winter, leaving behind him a wonderful warmth. He taught Bede, the first known writer of English prose - and, they said, a light of the Church. Bede is also the only Englishman in Dante. Benedict would have applauded.
When I read these old writer-saints, I hear music in snowstorms.I feel that they would have been uncomfortable with my present winter - and horrified by my central heating. As for the new radiators in Little Horkesley Church, words would fail them. My Georgian ancestors in
put straw in their box pews, and fastened themselves in for long sermons. Suffolk
The parson in his lofty pulpit stared down. There they were, his flock. There stood he, their shepherd. Breath floated around the church when they sang - possibly a hymn by Bede which hadn't got lost. "Sing we triumphant hymns of praise." But more likely slow, droning psalms.
An old neighbour, now with God, lacked patience with those who expected to be warm in church - "Put more clothes on!" Archaeology reveals arthritic bones in the monastery garden. Some years ago, I discovered a fitted carpet round a Tudor font. (17th January 1771)
Posted by Arborfield at 12:02