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)

Are we enjoying God’s world as we should, asks Ronald Blythe

The spring has come. It floods the church. A divine hand is at work in what we call our “local ecology”: that careful relationship between organism and environment. Recent disasters and mishaps have reminded us what occurs when we take too distracting or greedy a hand in agriculture, and upset this relationship.
There is a now a new reverence for nature that is no longer religious — or not entirely so, as it was in St Francis’s day. He has revealed things above and below which his and later generations could never have imagined.
But, still, the Benedicite manages to cover them, if not to show them as we are now accustomed to seeing them. Science and holy song fit together. What I want to emphasise is the continuing sacredness of the countryside.
What is St Francis saying in his natural catalogue of love? It is relate, relate. That great creation poem, Genesis, if you read it early in the year, speaks of something quite different. It speaks to us as lords of creation. In Genesis, human beings rule nature. Digging in his Italian garden, and near to leaving it, St Francis, aged 44, sees only family, and connections, including Sister Dead.
Just below my old farmhouse, visible in March through the bare trees, is Wiston Church, with its flashing weather-vane. I often walk to it across the river, and stare at the Norman wall-paintings. My favourite is on the north wall, above where the pulpit used to be. St Francis is preaching to the birds, who all turn to the east, paying attention. They say that this picture was painted only 20 years after St Francis’s death, which proves how swiftly legends fly about the world.
Generations of village folk, as they listen to their priests, would recognise not a saint talking to blackbirds, but a lesson on infinity. They might have well walked home saying: “Good day to Brother Lake, Brother Oak, Sister Moon.” They might well have told themselves “We are all in it together.” But in what? In life on earth.
There were times in the history of the Church when an appreciation of nature was condemned, and the blessings provided naturally by the plants were forbidden, and those who understood them were persecuted. Of course, the Church was scared of pantheism, or the recognition of God in mountains, rivers, woods.
Yet some of the greatest saints saw God in nature — saw him more clearly there than anywhere else. Had not Christ himself told his followers that he would be present in his natural food of bread and wine? Did he not walk on real earth, put up with real bad weather while sailing? Did he not watch foxes, sheep, fish, birds?
The earthiness of the Lord’s teachings is often so pungent that we can almost smell rural Palestine. In our day, we talk of what we call the real world. Jesus was entirely within the real world of his day, and he loved it and valued it. When he had to explain “his Kingdom” to his friends, he did not use unearthly analogies: he said that his Kingdom was like mustard seeds, weeds to garden, or a vineyard.
We do not need to be taught to love our native scene. It is as natural a part of our affection as our families. Although there were periods when it was dismissed in favour of the life to come, and called a vale of tears, we know now that it is nothing of the kind. It is, as Traherne said, a world “to be delighted in, to be highly esteemed”.
I’ve often thought that some of the big questions that God puts to us might include, “Why did you not enjoy it more, my beautiful world, my wonderful creation? Why did you not praise where I put you, that spot which you called your environment? Why did you so often spoil it? Why did you sometimes think that you were above it? Why did you spend so much of your short life ‘in getting and spending’, as Wordsworth said, and so little time in just looking?”
Jesus and his friends were lucky to have that marvellous handbook of nature-praise the Psalms, in which gratitude for the world about them spills over into an appreciation of everything they saw. Including, of course, the night sky; for it was those watching shepherd-poets who named the stars. Our good earth is the gift of God. His incarnation brought him into his own gift, to feel it, smell it, and touch it. The old writers called nature “God’s handiwork”, which is a holy name for it.  (7984)

Will the old farmhouse survive the wild wind, wonders Ronald Blythe

When I was a child in Suffolk we knew an old man, a retired miller, who still called the storm “a tempest”. “Did you hear the tempest last night?” he would ask. I did indeed, and, to a wild accompaniment of roaring trees as the wind got up and the deadwood came down, I would feel again that blissful sense of protection which an old house provides.
Would the pin tiles slide from the roof? Would the mighty chimney-stack, with its whirling cowl, still be there in the morning? How long would brick and mortar, beam and plaster, hold together in such weather? Centuries was the answer.
Long ago, the original roof had been carried over the extended dairy, and had created a “cat slide”, although I had never witnessed a cat sliding down it; mossy pillows would have made a bumpy ride. But torrential rain often sounded as if it would wash the entire place down to the river.
The lectionary surprised me as usual. Passion Sunday. Already! The Roman Catholics seem to have suppressed this recent feast. Its hymns are sublime: one of them, Samuel Crossman’s “My song is love unknown”, was written in a village near here. Unimaginable cruelties made endurable by music.
Bach’s St John Passion, 1723, and his St Matthew Passion, 1729, descend from plainsong to fill a village church. Passion from passio —suffering — and from gladness. It descends via his St John Passion, to his St Matthew Passion, and then to us. It was first set in German. These Passions are sung in the vernacular language of the Christian universe, in cathedrals and parish churches, and in Scottish chapels, and sometimes in private, when we are gardening.
In Suffolk, potatoes were set on Good Friday — “The better the day the better the deed.” I search for a dib among the garden tools. One is the handle of a broken fork, which is hiding away in a clutter of things which might come in handy.
The greenhouse had once belonged to the artist Eric Ravilious, when he lived in Sible Hedingham. During the war, he flew from Iceland, and was never seen again. Eventually, after various adventures, this greenhouse, which creates a modest design in many of his paintings, was given to John Nash, who left it to me. I tended it lovingly until it tottered, then removed the glass. Some panes of the panes can now be admired in the Garden Museum at Lambeth. It is worth a pilgrimage.
The Museum is in the redundant Lambeth parish church, where those famous Tradescants, father and son, are buried. Suffolk folk, they lie gloriously by the Thames. Once, in some battle, John Tradescant saw a rare plant, and stopped fighting to pick it. Visitors to the Garden Museum can see Miss Jekyll’s gardening boots, and my greenhouse.
The first flowers of the year are browning. Neighbours arrive to take up clumps of snowdrops for next year. William Wordsworth’s wild daffodils are bright under the greengages and big trumpet-blowing monsters in the lanes. Soon there will be celandine, the rare double-petalled variety, which flourishes at the back of the house where the cat-slide roof slopes almost to the ground. My butterbur flowers bloom before they leaf. “Are they lettuces?” the postman asks.
Thomas Gainsborough, who was young near here, married a Miss Burr, and liked to paint this plant in the foreground of his portraits — to fill up the space, they said round here. (7983)