At this time of year, they’re all around us; in Wormingford and Mount Bures, we’ve just had yet amazingly successful Flower Festivals; the Wormingford Family Fun Day wasn’t called a Festival, but was one; and we’re currently planning the Three Churches Apple Fest which takes place on Saturday 26th September.
So I thought I’d try to get back to basics and find out what a festival is, was or is supposed to be! Definitions boil down to “an event ordinarily staged by a community, celebrating a unique aspect of its nature or traditions, often to meet specific purposes, a thanksgiving or commemoration”. The oldest recorded festivals celebrated nature, such as the seasons of the year, and then we read of festivals commemorating major events in history. Some of the earliest of those are recorded in the Bible, where the Israelites held many annual festivals – and were required to journey to Jerusalem for at least three major festivals each year.
The verb for celebrating a festival is “feasting” and let’s face it, a get-together isn’t a good one without lots of food! In the Christian Church there are several festivals, including Christmas, Easter and Harvest of course – celebrating the major events of Jesus’ life as well as the fruitfulness of the world around us. Jesus’ disciples set the pattern (Acts 2:46): “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” It’s no surprise that food is important whenever we meet, because the one event which unites a family or a community is to sit down and eat together. I can’t work out why that should be, but it’s true – everywhere in the world people meet and eat on every occasion from birthdays and anniversaries to conferences and funerals. Perhaps, as eating is something we all do, it’s more enjoyable when it is a shared experience.
Festivals these days are often planned for a very specific purpose, such as to publicise something or to raise money. Though money is often vitally needed, and we’re so grateful that it is raised, festivals work best (and most money is raised!) when the prime purpose is to celebrate together as a community, whatever the reason. “Any excuse for a party” we might say!
So what lessons can we learn from that? Well, if we want more unity in community, let’s feast together more. If we want to be closer to neighbours, to family or a group, then find something in common and celebrate it together. And do so regularly!
Let’s thank everyone in our villages who has planned or has been a part of our festivals, and look for every opportunity or excuse to have more!
Yours in Jesus
Ronald Blythe thinks of a Scot who led prayer in the South Sea islands
THE Collect being the one which asks the Lord to keep us under the protection of his good providence, and the second lesson being the one about St Paul and his nephew, I remember Robert Louis Stevenson and his mother on Samoa, ruling the natives with a Scottish rod of iron. The wonderful writer had gone there to seek a climate which might add a few more months to his life. He was 44, and had written some 40 books. What they had not expected was to have to rule the roost.
But these were the days when the British Empire unblushingly saw “lesser breeds as children”, thus in this instance summoning the Samoans to family prayers. Young and old, men and women, boys and girls, bathed, put flowers in their hair, sang Scottish hymns, and worshipped God the Edinburgh way.
Many years after her husband’s death, Mrs Stevenson published the prayers which Stevenson wrote for this Edinburgh worship on a South Sea island. In it, she likens it to the prayers which a child says at his mother’s knee.
“The average Samoan is but a larger child in most things, and would lay an uneasy head on his wooden pillow if he had not joined, even perfunctorily, in the evening service. With my husband, prayer, the direct appeal, was a necessity. . . After all work and meals were finished, the ‘pu’, or war conch, was sounded from the back veranda and the front.
“I don’t think it ever occurred to us that there was any incongruity in the use of the war conch for the peaceful invitation to prayer. . . The Samoans, men, women and children, trooped in through all the open doors. Once, the Chief left the room suddenly – “I am not yet fit to say ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.'” Stevenson’s last prayer was for the renewal of joy. “Look down upon the dry bones, quicken, enliven; create in us the soul of service, the spirit of peace; renew in us the sense of joy.” He calls God “our guide and our angel.” They called him Tusitala – storyteller – and buried him on a hill where he had walked to see the setting sun.
In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson novelises the dual nature of man: its goodness and its evil, although there was nothing in his own existence that justifies the latter. His brilliant output made him too busy to be bad. Forty on the whole wonderful stories, an American wife and her son by an earlier marriage, an Edinburgh mother, and some of the best letters in the English language, a physical restlessness which kept him walking, sailing, and those collapsing lungs which cried for more and more air, kept him amazingly on the go every minute of the day. Thus his evening prayer.
“Prolong our days in peace and honour. Give us health, food, bright weather, and light hearts. . . Let us lie down without fear and awake and arise with exultation. . . Let us not lose the savour of past mercies and past pleasures; but, like the voice of a bird singing in the rain, let grateful memory survive in the hour of darkness.”
Later on, he asks God to “teach us the lesson of trees and the meaning of fish”. When I was a child, I was given his Child’s Garden of Verses, with its poem “The Lamplighter”, and I can just remember such a person cycling round our small Suffolk town, touching a gas-jet here and there, but leaving a mile of darkness to our house. Stevenson’s father built lighthouses – including the Eddystone lighthouse.
Ronald Blythe is struck by the abilities of the clerics whom he is addressing
“SWEET day, so cool, so calm, so bright.” The white cat sleeps on the piano stool until it warms up. The horses breathe like dragons. The trees hang on to yesterday’s heat. I must talk to the Clerical Society, a Victorian foundation, to tell it what I hope I haven’t told it before – and in 25 minutes, after which there will be lunch. But first I am asked to say Grace.
Just up the hill, St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, carries the true cross on the top of the town hall. A chilly wind from the east coast blows the birds about. Young and elderly priests listen to me, none of them familiar to me. As always, I marvel how they minister to three or more parishes at once, each with its own culture. Long ago, we would race from church to church, me giving the bell a toll or two, lighting candles, filling up registers, passing on; the wild verges waving to us as we passed.
This Sunday, I read the banns. “Both of this parish.” But strangers. “If ye know of any cause or impediment,” I add. Never in my life has anyone known any cause or impediment. Banns were a drama in old novels. Part of this drama was the bridegroom’s possessing the bride’s fortune the second he placed the ring on her finger.
But then came the Married Woman’s Property Act. And now comes what often seems to me the near-eternal bondage of the mortgage. They do things differently in France and Germany. You pay rent if you like. It is an unpossessive way to live.
When we are old, we have to give everything we own to somebody else. Long ago, I knew an ancient neighbour whose declining years were made joyous by the expression on his children’s faces when they found out that they had been left nothing. But then came a law which prevented a “dead hand” from interfering with life. “How much did he leave?” the rich old lady asked as the car swept into the cemetery. “He left it all,” said her companion.
Christ asked a young man to leave it all. It was too much. The Kingdom of Heaven is a long way off when one is young. I suppose that most of us watch the faces of elderly millionaires on television with perplexity; for, like the sweet day, so calm, so bright, they must die and leave every penny to others.
But it is easy to moralise. We are to condemn, not money, but the love of it. I loved my first half-crown with a vengeance. Held it in my child’s hot hand for at least a week, and could not bear the spending of it. There is an old table in my library with a drawer in which my brother hoarded his Saturday pennies. When I opened it yesterday, I thought I heard a chink.
And there was the collection. “Nothing rolls as far as a penny in church,” they used to say. But I like the wicked blacksmith’s son we used to sing: “He put a penny in the bag, and took a sovereign out.”
And now they say we are coming to the end of coins and arriving at the age of cards. Loose change will soon be lost change. Old coins frequently turn up in the garden. I wash the faces of Queen Victoria and, once, George III, and put them on the sill. They are in profile, and take turns to look right and left.
Roman Colchester, up the road, has great boxes of coins with emperors’ portraits on them, all of them left behind after 400 years of imperial government. So that is what Hadrian looked like!
The Lord’s short life was full of coins which he returned to Caesar, and it was bought and sold with Temple funds.
Ronald Blythe ponders immortality, and the unemployed horse
IMMORTALITY is a word that has a fine ring to it. It rolls round the tongue like a song. Once upon a time, all the talk was of it. When I was a boy, poor folk who could not afford gravestones made do with clasped china hands, and unfading china flowers under a glass dome in the churchyard.
When an Italian family included a photograph, we didn’t know where to look. It was so intimate, so obviously un-immortal. To look into the usually youthful face could be upsetting – and it was no relation of ours. Instead of reassuring us of life everlasting, it seemed to speak frankly of decay. For, in no time, the white hands stained, and the white petals became brown, and the entire memorial was obviously due for the bumby-heap.
Does the Churchyards Handbook allow for “Immortelles”? Has it even heard of them? They belong to the glass-domes era, when clocks ticked away beneath shades, and artificial flowers were believed to be the immortal answer to a wreath. In Ancient Greece, the victor’s laurels hung from his tombstone until its leaves dropped, one by one, to the earth. No one took its tattered honours away.
My favourite immortality poem is William Cory’s “Heraclitus”. What lasts about our lives is the talk of those who lived it with us. When St John was very old, the young would plead with him to tell them how Jesus spoke, and what he looked like. Only to be answered with, “Little children, love one another.” Which must have been irritating.
But, in “Heraclitus”, death cannot silence a once heard voice:
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
Christ’s friends pestered him about the afterlife. Might her sons sit on either side of him in heaven, a mother asked. And there was the inevitable question about remarriage, and which marriage stood in paradise.
All in all, Christ’s message is “Live this life” for all you are worth. Don’t look back, and don’t look forward. Live today. Live it in its entirety. Family and friends, although their bones may be as white as porcelain hands, remain warm flesh and blood within us. As for their voices, who can silence these?
And, as for Jean’s horses on the hill, why do their muzzles touch? Why do they stand motionless by the hour? Haven’t they anything to do? The answer is no. For the first time in centuries, horses never do a thing – and these on a farm! On a Sunday morning, en route to church, you might meet one carrying a girl – never a boy – or standing still as a glittering pack of cyclists pass.
Now and then I dig up a horseshoe lost during ploughing, and hang it on the fence. And, talking of pleasant voices, I think I hear horses swigging at the pond in the mid-afternoon, when the day’s work is done. Huge, grateful gulps. The horseman standing by. For horses came before humans then. Precedence on earth, precedence in heaven. And men and beasts in conversation. And toil and rest.
Ronald Blythe compares and contrasts the faith of two public figures
TRINITARIAN days. Very cold. I think of poor Bishop Heber. I say poor, because they sent him off to convert India, instead of leaving him in an English country living, which he would have much preferred. But saints can’t be choosers. “Holy, holy, holy,” we sing. Sudden winds and brief showers are our lot. Between them, I tie up fallen roses: John Clare and Duke of Wellington. The latter was once accosted by a woman in the street with, “Mr Smith, I believe.”
“Madam, if you believe that, you will believe anything.”
I have always believed that to carve the Trinity was an act of great daring. But a medieval sculptor did as much at Blythburgh, my favourite Suffolk church, a masterpiece that dominates the marshes. High up on the eastern gable sits God with his Son on his lap, and the Holy Spirit, a dove, on his head. There it reigns, the Trinity, beyond Reformation or later interpretations. At its feet, the River Blyth makes its way to the North Sea. It is “Holy, holy, holy” every mile. Gulls scream above it.
Benjamin Britten once sent me there to seek permission to hold a concert in the church. Mr Smith, the Vicar, was puzzled.
“Is it a band?”
I went with Yehudi Menuhin to try the church for sound. It was perfect. He stood on the chancel step, and the angelic notes went up to the angelic listeners in the roof. There is sung evensong once a month, which is worth a long drive. Very beautiful and holy, holy, holy.
The readings for Trinity Sunday could not be more contrasting. One concerns a furtive, nervous, enquiring faith, that of a public figure, Nicodemus; the other reveals a confident, declaring faith – that of John the Baptist. One is about a person who is prudent about what he is coming to believe, and who, because of his position, does not wish to be identified with the latest messianic craze, and who, in Jesus’s own words, was a true teacher, and not someone likely to disturb the peace of Jerusalem.
The Roman peace, of course. The occupying army tolerated the strangest religions, though not if they disturbed this peace. Nicodemus, as a member of the Jews’ Grand Council, and a Pharisee, or arch-conservative, would not do this. So he went his own radical way – but by night. He lacked all imagination, and when Jesus told him that he must be born again, he asked about wombs, etc. This strange teacher’s captivating language and metaphor muddled his lawyer’s brain.
“You ought not to be astonished by it,” he was told. “The wind blows where it wills. You hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from, or where it goes.” So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, which is the living breath of Christ. House-shaking, mind-shaking, and accompanied by those tongues of fire which turned into bishops’ mitres, the third person of Trinity Sunday appeared among us.
The last reference to the remarkable Nicodemus is when he organised the funeral of Jesus, giving up his own fine tomb in the process. He covered the poor mangled body with rich spices, dressed it in fine linen, and set a rock at the entrance to keep out the animals. We still have flowers at funerals to cover the decay.
That all these things should run through my head as I tie up fallen roses in an English garden is odd.
I look up Reginald Heber. Dead at 43; a poet who was overworked by the Church. Destroyed, like so many, by the Raj.
If you have the time to read this, you’ll find it’s about time!
Time was when the world was ruled by the seasons; after the invention of the calendar, by months, weeks & days; then when the clock was invented, by the hour and minute. Even the stop-watch has had its day, as we find more accurate ways of managing the moments!
Time is money, it’s said – and we talk about it in similar terms, such as spending time and saving time. We would agree that is a valuable and finite commodity for each of us, and unique too, in that we have to spend it because we cannot store it. So there’s logic in using it wisely.
Time is mentioned over 1,000 times in the Bible. King David said (Psalm 31:15) “My times are in your hands”, vowing to be obedient to God’s guidance so that his life would go well. Jesus once said (John 7:6) “My time is not yet ready, but for you any time is right”. In Ecclesiastes chapter 3 we famously read that “there is a time for every purpose under heaven”, meaning that there’s a right time for everything, which also infers there’s a wrong time too! But notice that it says “every purpose”; and sometimes our purpose is not an activity. It’s easy to assume that we have to be active, rushing between jobs to make sure every moment of time is filled and used, but it ain’t necessarily so, and I need to learn that lesson as much as anyone! Do you pride yourself in being able to multi-task? After how many seconds when the lights go green do you toot the car in front? When you watch TV, is your laptop on and your mobile in your hand, while you eat supper? How many times a day do you look at your watch?
But time spent in thoughtful preparation is as vital as the action we prepare for – and time spent with our eyes closed is often the most developmental – whether asleep as we renew energy, or evaluating the day, or in prayer. Time with those we love is always well spent, whether the Lord, a partner, our families, or the countryside and the pastimes we love.
How are you going to spend your time today, tomorrow, all the time you have? Perhaps it’s a matter of balance, blending our doing with our being, in work, rest and play, and spending quality time in planning our time! May I invite you to stop for a while, take stock of where you are, see what’s happening around you, notice what truly needs to be done, who and what deserves the best of your time, then place your times in the Lord of eternity who invented time.
Yours in Jesus