Ronald Blythe has to ration the number of hymns at a funeral



[Image: Carry Akroyd]

An early December afternoon, with slanting sunlight. The feast of Nicholas Ferrar, to be exact. Does he have a feast? So he left Little Gidding in Advent. Thinking of him, I see such a sun drawing long shadows from a group of elms that Vikram Seth and I noticed growing there. In a circle, but too close together.
Two horses on my meadow crop the muddy grass, and will soon be moved on. The sky is pink and yellow. Now and then, a handful of starlings pass in full flight. A few miles away, in both directions, high streets will be crowded with shoppers and plangent with canned carols. The white cat dozes among geraniums.
Girls call out from polished horses. "It is coming!" we shout - not Christmas, but the storm. Only it often misses its way, in spite of the forecasters' directions.
I take a funeral, and prepare two Nine Lessons and Carols. Winter is all departures and arrivals. The former is back to front as usual, the crem. preceding the service. An old friend, now with God, wanted ten hymns.
"You can only have three."
"Oh, very well."
A relation from the other side of the world would talk about her with tears. No flowers in church. And the Second Coming pushed to the back of our minds.
And the sweet scent of trampled grass, and the squabbling rooks in the near-naked trees. But youthful winter wheat in all directions, and the river is high. It tugs at the iron bridge that ties Essex to Suffolk, where the Saxon ford would have been. "No heavy traffic."
A summer boat has been hauled up, and lies meditatively in the rushes. Will we have snow? Who knows? "Don't forget the bell-ringers' service," Brian says at the door. "You don't have to do anything, just the welcome and blessing."
He does so much - they all do, and not only here, but in thousands of parishes. Such music, such words. Only don't rely on the organ at Mount Bures, which goes up when it should go down, or something like that. I actually delight when, in extremis, we sing unaccompanied.
We are to think of Samuel Johnson, my boyhood hero. His statue looks towards Fleet Street from St Clement Danes, where Mother went to Sunday school. He would walk from City church to City church, hoping to hear a decent sermon. But his ears failed him, dear, good man.
His prayers are self-reproving. His virtues were marvellously Christian. He housed a trying female, fed his cats on oysters, made a black boy his son, suffered from multiple aches and disfigurements, and confessed that the ultimate of human happiness was to ride in a swift carriage with a pretty woman.
I once carried Boswell's life of Doctor Johnson round the Hebrides, reading it wherever he went, not so much in his footsteps as in his complaining shadow. It was early summer, and I was youthful. It was my first glimpse of Scotland.
Pressed flowers, bog cotton, campion, and heather stain its pages. May on Skye! Bare feet in the burns. And the telling-off by my Wee Free landlady for swimming on the sabbath. And in my ears Dr Johnson's grand put-downs. Poor young Boswell. I'm not surprised that he got drunk.
But now Advent all over again. The coming of Christ. Its haunting language. Its bare altars. Its wheeling birds. It is heart-breaking music. Its fear and its glory. And all those names for Jesus - Adonai, Dayspring of Nations, Emmanuel. . . . (13th December 2013)

1 comment:

The Foggy Knitter said...

Thank you for posting these pieces on this blog, I always find them so interesting and they make me feel peaceful and anchored in the ancient eternity of faith.