Spring, spring, spring!
Well I hope it very soon will be. Perhaps if we say it three times, it will be! The words remind us, of course, of the song in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, where Johnny Mercer’s quirky lyrics include such gems as “Ma Nature’s lyrical with her yearly miracle”! There are more clever rhymes, too…
“Each day is Mother’s Day; the next is some other’s day”. And yes, on 15th March it’s Mothering Sunday, when we give thanks to God for mothers everywhere, thank our mothers for all they mean to us, and thank mother Earth – with a focus on the new life we see each Springtime.
“Every field wears a bonnet with some spring daisies on it”. It’s traditional to present posies to mums in the Mothering Sunday service, and we’ll be doing that – and the flowers themselves are an annual reminder, not just that God provides, but of the miracle of life which we will never truly understand. We understand how to create life from living things, both on the farm and in the family, by obeying the Maker’s instructions; but not the true miracle of life itself. One day we will – but I doubt whether that will be on this earth!
“It’s all one supposes it’s a real bed of roses, wagging tails, rubbing noses”.
Hardly – even beds of roses have soil and thorns! Happy relationships need hard work with feeding and maintenance just as much as plants, as every mother knows. In fact, motherly love can be a model for all our relationships, so thank you, mums, for setting us God’s example of care and friendship. “Keeping company is tricky, it can get pretty sticky”, but mankind was made to be in relationship, so let’s keep on getting on! And we all know that feeling of joy and satisfaction from viewing a well-kept garden and the family photos on the sideboard. Let’s pray for peace and friendship everywhere.
So we hope to see lots of God’s glorious creations in Church this month – and some plant life as well!
Yours in Jesus,
Ronald Blythe remembers hearing hymns sung by Cornish fishermen
ST PAUL tells the Church to put on love as though it was a garment; to wear it so that the world can see it. As both a Jew and a Roman, he was entitled to wear the recognisable dress of both nationalities. In the same edict, he commands the followers of Jesus to “Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
There was a time when this order appeared to have been forgotten; it was then passionately restated by St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan who had not been baptised when he was made a bishop by acclamation. His “O Jesus, Lord of heavenly grace” was sung every Monday.
Ambrose is called the father of church music in Latin Christianity. St Augustine said: “How greatly did I weep in your hymns and canticles, how moved I was by the voices of your sweet-speaking church! The voices flowed into my ears, and the truth was poured into my heart.” This singing was imitated by almost all of its congregations.
We accept 18 Ambrosian hymns and four Ambrosian poems as authentic, but it was their combined sound and language that continued to add to make “songs of praise” the only aspect of Christianity known to most people.
Some hymn-writers possess a special reverence for many of us – a devotion that we hold on to all our lives. When I was in my twenties, the poets R. N. Currey, James Turner, and W. R. Rodgers, and I “spoke” hymns in the big, cold East Anglian churches, usually without so much as a by your leave. And I was 19 when I first heard the magnificent Methodist hymn-singing in Cornwall when, on a Saturday night, fishermen perched on the window sills of pubs to sing “O for a closer walk with God”, and St Bernard’s passionate “Jesu, the very thought of thee” – a hymn that, some believed, had helped to civilise the world.
George Herbert famously made little of his poems, and told his friend to burn them if they were no good. Sensibly, this friend had them printed by the best publisher in Cambridge.
“Our” local hymns are “Hills of the north, rejoice!” and “My song is love unknown” – the first set by Martin Shaw, and the second by John Ireland. Its author, a youthful curate in the 17th century, was deprived of his living, but still ended up as a dean. All that remains of his country church is a big stone and a wide view. My mother’s favourite hymn was “My glorious Victor, Prince Divine, Clasp these surrendered hands in thine.”
Hymns tumble in and out of the books, and Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) was “a task of much labour”, the preface confesses, not to mention much copyright, much cutting, and, eventually, much popularity. An old friend, Alan Cudmore, is my authority on hymns. I also love Thomas Hardy’s mention of them. Once, when his lovers were strolling past a Dorset church, they heard a new hymn being practised. It was “Abide with me”.
The Salvation Army’s all-conquering weapon was the band-led hymn. Unfortunately, there are hymn-book-makers who do not allow their ignorance of literature to stop them meddling with some great hymns.
The Jews’ peerless hymn-book is Psalms: all 150 of them carry the singing through the heights and depths of human existence. It was sung through the Holocaust. It is a pastoral one, but it never dates, and it is Christ’s own songbook. It is hard not to “hear” him and his family singing from it.
Ronald Blythe tidies up the garden and feels a new energy
THE artists John and Christine Nash called their inner circle “the dear ones” – not from any feeling of exclusivity, but of management. Over the years, they had taught and belonged to various art movements in East Anglia. They had taken a practical part in everything from the Wormingford Dramatic Society to the Aldeburgh Festival.
John Nash, too, had been a plantsman and a musician. Looking through the windows from which he would paint on a winter’s day, using its glazing bars to line up a drawing or a watercolour, I see more or less the same scene that he saw: a palette-shaped flower bed, my far neighbour’s hilly pasture, some bone-idle horses, and greening ash trees. No traffic, but Tom’s little plane might saunter past like the aeroplane in a child’s storybook, archaic yet up to date. Nothing happens, yet everything happens. The scene is restful, yet vital.
Alan, a friend from my boyhood, arrives. We don’t talk about our past but of this present, topping up a few mutual experiences of old age. We love the old liturgy, of course, but really know very little about today’s Church. It’s a mistake to try to keep up with trends where prayer is concerned: it must try to cope with those horrors of the world which are always with us, as Jesus said they would be; yet it must acknowledge that there is truth in the newness of love every morning.
I sometimes try to imitate a Jewish friend who returns to his room after breakfast to say his prayers, only I say mine washing up. And sometimes in the garden. And particularly now that I have cleared the grass of sticks and black leaves and debris, and step gingerly between purple saffron and the tracks made by badgers, trying, as always, to make up my mind whether it should be a wild garden or a proper garden – one that doesn’t attract concern about my age, and its being too much for me.
As far as I can tell, nothing is too much for me, although I rule out the annual farm walk. But don’t I walk to fetch the milk? To fetch the post? To fetch anything? Many years ago, this would have been a house of endless errands, of children bred to fetch and carry. Of never going empty-handed.
But how many of them, over the centuries, wouldn’t have been struggling down the stairs at this hour of the day to feed stock before feeding themselves. How many would have crept from their beds in this very room where a typewriter clicks.
A long time ago, two youths arrived to fix the telephone, and one of them said, wonderingly: “Listen, Tony. A typewriter!” – a then rare Olympia. The parish, the diocese, the Church, print a library every day. And to think there was a time when it took a week or a month to draw a capital letter.
Outside, everything is energised – including myself. But also free. Even the silvery Saviour and his angels and apostles, carved on the church doors at Stoke by Nayland by some contemporary of Chaucer, have a spring glitter.
George Herbert was strict when it came to opening a church door. At Bemerton, we open the same door as he opened, and we drink from the cup from which he drank. At Wormingford, we step down into the interior, each worshipper letting a little of the spring in, a fragment of birdsong which joins our psalms.
Ronald Blythe reflects on those whom we live and travel with
“I THINK I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,” the American poet Walt Whitman wrote. And placid was a word for the English countryside which John Constable loved.
Having seen it in riot when the farmworkers rose against their starvation wages, with rick-burnings and protest, he looked back at the peaceful Suffolk scenes of his boyhood when they were called peasants, and there seemed to be a God-given order between the classes.
Some years ago, when I was staying with my brother in New South Wales, we drove along the shore of Botany Bay, and we spoke of all the poor people, men and women, who had been shipped there from our own Suffolk world on the hulks that had brought African slaves to Bristol. Such journeys were equivalent to a flight to the moon.
Meanwhile, on my right in the plane sat a fault-finding woman for whom nothing was right. “Isn’t it amazing that we can now cross the world in a day,” I said. She looked at me as if she was about to report a lunatic. So I went on reading Barbara Pym, and looking out of the window. What she wanted was an ally, but I sank myself in the passing clouds, and said no more.
Literature is filled with dreaded fellow-travellers. Now and then they are prophetic. Returning to London from Suffolk, John Constable said “How do you do?” to the person sitting opposite, remarking on the beauty of the countryside, who answered, “Yes, sir. We call it the Constable country.”
On the whole, I like looking out of the window in trains, especially en route to Cornwall, which once took five enchanted hours from Paddington. Or en route to Edinburgh, looking up especially at Durham on its mighty rock, and then across the sands to Lindisfarne, seeing saints all the way.
Walkers past my farmhouse are quite an event, and a human voice is a rarity. But the great trees – ashes, chestnuts, fruit trees – are already begin to sound with birds. February is upon them, a miserable month in books, but far from it during our current seasons.
The trouble with those popular poems of the seasons is that they no longer say what is happening now. Certainly, almost none of the traditional tasks. In fact, living in what must have been for hundreds of years a “tay”, or “tigh” (Suffolk-Essex border language for some stranded farm), I often feel the landscape itself asking to be ploughed and sown when the green tips are a mere hint on the trees.
But the bulbs are up, thousands of them, and have certainly gone forth and multiplied. So now there has to be the last great clear-up, the final raking of the grass, the first tidying of the beds, the noting of the dead among the living, and, best of all, the promise ahead.
Unimaginably, Lent is in the offing. Sometimes, I think how relaxing it would be to live near a cathedral, and to have the Church’s year all worked out, beautifully and professionally, and laid before me, although our parish magazines present each village with its distinct personality and liturgy almost miraculously, and fine creatures as well as fine folk are liveable-with in all three.
“Where am I on Sunday?” I sometimes ask. Where, indeed? At this moment, having held back for as long as it dare, the sleet rattles down in frozen rain-rods.
Yes, February is “the month of love”. We’ll be celebrating St. Valentine’s Day – I hope you find an exciting way to do that! And 7th -14th February is also National Marriage Week. But there are more kinds of love than the kind that can result in marriage.
“February brings the rain”. We’re obsessed with the weather, aren’t we? Maybe that’s why we have so many words in the English language for drizzle, haar, fret, mizzle, shower, downpour, torrent… rain! Eskimos are famous for having lots of words for snow – and the Greeks have lots of words for love. What does that say about Greek people? What does it say about us, that we have only one word for love? We love sprouts, the Stour Valley, golf, Downton, snowdrops, friends – and use the same word!
Of the many Greek words for love, there’s Eros. Well, we all know about that; let’s say it’s not to do with our relationship with sprouts! Then there’s Philia – that’s brotherly love, which we’re called to show to everyone – family, friends and community. But the toughest word is Agape, which is in common use but relates to sacrificial love – loving when it’s easier not to, and loving when it hurts us to do so. It’s the word in used in the Bible when Jesus said: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 12:34), and when St. John wrote: “This is how we know what love is; Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).
St. Paul tried to define that kind of love. He wrote to the Church in Corinth: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Does that sound like the love you have for others?
Maybe this month we can test our relationships for that kind of love – and let’s make it a month when we thank others for showing love to us!
Yours in Jesus,