One is important. Whether it’s a leter in a word, a in a sentence, a petal on a flower, an ingredient in a cake, one missing can make a big difference.
I can imagine flower arrangers searching for the perfect blooms, then making sure the arrangement is photogenic and balanced – and that there’s not a ledge or square foot of space in Church without a floral arrangement at the Flower Festivals coming up in Wormingford and Mount Bures! I’m looking forward to them immensely, especially as we know that the theme of both Festivals is to be the ninety years of Her Majesty The Queen’s life.
One is important. One could imagine our Queen saying those words – except that it would be out of character, as she has devoted her life to the service of others. Yet each of us is indeed important, as we will show at the polling booth this month and next. Our elected representatives are wise to remember that they do not just affect whole Boroughs and countries; they affect individuals – the life of each person who elects them. And we will have the opportunity to affect the whole of Europe next month! But isn’t it a shame that we individuals can convince ourselves that one vote won’t matter? Let’s make sure we use our votes!
One is important to God, too. The Bible is packed with the accounts of people who stood out against the crowd, lone people whose actions changed whole communities, and God seeking out individuals demonstrating His love and care for each as well as for all. For instance, read about Esther, Ruth, Jeremiah, Daniel; remember Jesus telling of the lost son, lost sheep, lost coin; and over 100 times in the Gospels, Jesus says “anyone”. If we don’t care about individuals, we can’t care about people.
The trouble is, our eyes and minds often only see what’s there, not what’s missing. In a strong community, though, we do notice when we haven’t seen a neighbour out and about – and when someone’s not in Church on Sunday. That’s because there’s a gap in the pattern, like the missing petal above, plus a gap in our lives because we care.
If we accept that we’re an important part of the community, uniquely placed and valued, we’ll know that our Village is imperfect without us. And as we care for one another, we’ll want to draw everyone into our circle of friends – and will miss them when they’re missing!
So here’s a list of things to remember:
One. You’re important!
Yours in Jesus
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.
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.
Like St Francis, Ronald Blythe finds delight in Nature’s gifts
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.
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.