A costly resin reminds Ronald Blythe of smells from his childhood
“BRIGHTEST and best of the sons of the morning”, we sing, and the pale Epiphany sun shines on us. Reginald Heber was part-Cheshire and part-Oriental, and his hymn fills the church. A little file of myrrh from the forest lies among the debris of the kitchen shelf. It is a gum resin which is produced from several plants, and is one of the ingredients of incense. But it is not cheap.
“Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion, Odours of Edom and offerings divine? Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean, Myrrh from the forest or gold from the mine?” The British Empire was in full flood, and its religions became increasingly exotic. Jesus had become the Star of the East, although “vainly with gifts would his favour secure”.
That marvellous perfume would vie with, in our case, the smell of a farm. For Marcel Proust, it would be the delicious scent of a little cake; for myself, it still was the nice smell of our childhood pigsty, and that of our greengages, which would vie with Bishop Heber’s incense.
The enclosed smell of East Anglian churches seems not to have altered an iota since I was a boy. A dedicated historian of their architecture and literary associations, I would push open the doors and immediately be engulfed in that riotous mixture of hymn books and furnishings, altar flowers and carpeting, robes and things like this which haven’t changed a bit since my boyhood.
Except, of course, the faint, deadly whiff of gas, which has never quite gone away. And, of course, Sunday-best clothes, although it is a long time since they gave up their special fusty grandeur. My first primroses vie with the Epiphany scents. And my first encounter with religious uncertainty was when the neighbour of a shopkeeper in a little town made the then shocking confession that there lived more faith in honest doubt . . . than in half the creeds.
I remain a philosophical believer. Multiple faiths of the Raj were unable to supplant Bishop Heber’s worship of Christ: in fact, they appeared to strengthen them. He was a poet whose certainties remain acceptable to us. They lie alongside these “odours of Edom”. They are starlit, like my clean East Anglian fields. Across which, in a certain light, I can see Stoke by Nayland church tower.
Blackbirds scuffle for old Christmas cake on the uncut lawns, and so Christmas departs, and the Epiphany remains, and Lent lies ahead.
A funeral leads Ronald Blythe to reflect on our mortality
I AM sure that you will have noticed how, when we are in church — or, indeed, when we are alone — we continually dwell on some things, and never on others, if we can help it. It is not always that certain subjects are too painful or awkward to be thought about and analysed, but that we no longer quite know what to make of them; so we leave them alone. We say that, of course, we believe in them, but they are all a bit of a mystery; so please do not ask me to explain them.
During its long history, our faith has gone through periods when all the talk was of heaven or hell or sin or love or guilt or conviction or doubt, etc., and now and then, when all the talk is of immortality and immortal love, we sing “Immortal, invisible”.
Long ago, some of you will remember that there used to be little glass cases filled with porcelain flowers on graves. They were called immortelles — wrongly, of course; for they eventually corroded and fell to pieces under the wind and rain, although they certainly lasted much longer than real flowers. Among the porcelain flowers there would sometimes be porcelain hands, crossing each other in an everlasting grip, and porcelain texts about eternity. Although fragile, these sad, pretty grave ornaments often lasted as long as the inscriptions on the gravestones themselves.
At the Easter sepulchre, the angels said: “He is not here, he is risen.” When I take the funeral of a friend, as I did the other day, I tell myself, “He is not here.” This poses a question: where is he then? The formal answer is, in heaven. Not quite understanding what heaven is, I tell myself that my friend is with God, who certainly is in heaven, but it is here that everything to do with death and funerals becomes somehow irrelevant. Because they are part of mortality.
I am thinking of immortality. I and each one of us may dodge the implications captured in this brilliant tantalising word “immortality”, but the Bible never does. It is most explicit where this subject is concerned. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” St Paul says — a man who once boasted that he was a citizen of no mean city, meaning Rome.
Paul the Jew was proud of his dual nationality, but we, too, have dual nationality: our earthly land and our heavenly land, which is not a land at all, but is a mysterious country of the redeemed. Our mistake is to believe that our immortal life begins when our mortal life ends; when, in fact, these two states of our being, the temple and the eternal, run side by side.
The thought of death — that is, the annihilation of time — is the most painful of all our most painful thoughts, and it makes us miserable. We think of eternity as endless, a state in which there are no years, no centuries, no time. The Lord himself is timeless. Once, like us, he lived within time. He was born, he grew up, he worked, he was killed, and all within a few years. Young men and women are experiencing similar fates at this very moment. We hear about it on the news.
Then Christ entered timelessness, which he called “My father’s house”. It was the abode of truth and love. When his critics demanded further particulars of this other life, by questioning him about what would happen to certain earthly partnerships, he replied: There is no giving in marriage there.
Our concept of the eternal has been much confused by poets, and by our finding it so hard to imagine ourselves where time does not exist. Today is springlike, a day of joy of being alive, a day which men and women have celebrated long before the coming of Christ.
It brings me to the Christian concept of joy. If we find the word “immortal” hard to take at this time, so we do the word “joy”. Yet those who have experienced glimpses of heaven, as it were, have always done so in a state of joy. Joy is the climax of happiness. In both the Old and New Testaments, joy is a quality grounded on, and derived from, God. It is the mark of the individual Christian, and a mark, too, of Christian fellowship.
St Peter writes of a joy unspeakable. He means a happiness so great that words fail him. Each one of us has had our moments of unspeakable joy which seem to come upon us from nowhere. It is then that we glimpse the eternal. The poets strive to put this experience into words, perhaps acknowledging that, even when they were most successful, they still fall short of telling their readers what they actually saw and felt at this critical moment.
Jesus had no interest in Jewish family trees, says Ronald Blythe
THERE is a second child in the Epiphany story, which is why it is used to celebrate the first child’s baptism — but only when he was grown up. That Jesus should accept baptism shocked his cousin, John.
John was preaching national renewal down by the river, the washing away of the soil of society, the rising out of the water, the cleansed people. But who strides towards him but Christ? Soon, they are in each other’s arms, and Jesus is taken under, although there is nothing to wash away. All three Evangelists record it: how Jesus came to hear what John was saying, which meant to hear his own herald, and to be like other men, although he was God.
The Jews liked to know their own history. Their national and personal past was very familiar to them. How special they felt! How hard it was to live up to this closeness. Their preoccupation with history made it impossible for them to be free of it, and the fact that they knew about themselves both uplifted them and dragged them down.
But always acknowledging the great men in Jewish history, and reminding his countrymen of how they had sometimes been treated, Jesus would now and then show a harsh irreverence towards the old customs and ways of looking back. “Let the dead bury their dead”; “Give us this day our daily bread.” Christ is the teacher of daily-ness, of finding nourishment in the present.
When St Paul took Christianity out into the non-Jewish world, he often found people who had no knowledge of their ancestors. Jews were most careful to know their family trees. Although all those “begats” through the Lord’s own family tree were meticulously placed at the beginning of the Gospels, he seemed indifferent to them. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He was, as John said, Word made flesh: Light, which was our life; someone who possessed human ancestry, and someone who was beyond it.
The authorities could not see what was so clearly manifest in John the Baptist; so they sent a deputation to question him. “Who are you? Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah, or Elisha, perhaps?”
Instead of answering “I am John the son of Zechariah,” this strangely dressed young man said that he was a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord. They said “Who gave you permission to baptise?” It was then that John pointed to Jesus, who was coming towards him, and said “There standing among you is someone you do not recognise. Someone whose shoes I am not fit to remove.”
It’s a great moment: the presence of Jesus in a crowd waiting for renewal, a queue of men and women longing to be seen in a better light. They would have removed their clothes and sandals at the river’s edge and Christ would have done the same. The Word steps towards John, like everyone else, and asks for baptism. Poor John is aghast. He says: “It is you who should baptise me.”
Coming out of the water, Jesus did what everyone else did: he knelt in prayer. His father acknowledged him and said “You are my beloved son.”
Ronald Blythe says farewell to a friend from the past
THE Epiphany is when Christ is shown to the world. He gleams in the January half-light. And harpists sing a new song. On my ancient mantelpiece, a porcelain carpenter carries his tools and makes for Egypt and safety, his pregnant wife riding side-saddle on a donkey. On the television screen, countless people leave the same land, carrying very little.
George Herbert turns St Luke’s swaddling clothes into “night’s mantle”. They are not a cosy protection for the new baby, but his future shroud.
My old house darkens early, and each room has its own shadows. I water hyacinths, and watch robins dancing against the glass. We sing Reginald Heber’s exotic “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning”. The Christmas cards topple on the piano. The cats sleep and sleep. I rake black leaves on the sodden grass. It isn’t a bit cold — not at all wintry. Just a time of sepia movement, and intentions.
Not the least part of the New Year’s best intentions is to rid that blight that threatens my ash trees, which is not so terrible but still rather worrying. And so is the fate of the Christ-child, now called Emmanuel, which means “Christ with us” — and not just for Christmas, but for evermore. Herbert used to say that “childhood is health”, thinking of the lack of health which attacked his grown-up years.
I read him especially at this time of the year, when, although the nights shorten, you would need to be clairvoyant to witness it: a kind of static half-light wanders about in the old wooden roofs.
It was in this half-light that intellectuals needed to be guided to Christ by a travellers’ star, and shepherds by a song. As for Jesus, he takes a long leap from his first birthday to adolescence. Only his mother understands what he is saying.
I take Ramon’s funeral. He died on his birthday. A set feast in our diary for many May mornings was breakfast among the nightingales. He and his wife, Marit, and I would set off with hot rolls and coffee to where they sang among the estuary streams near Colchester. It was none too warm, but it was a mellow kingdom for birds.
And now here I am, in church, with Ramon’s coffin on the chancel step, and our familiar picnic laid near the font, and our nightingale rite somehow appended to the Epiphany language.
The language is: “O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do.” Follow a star? Breakfast with nightingales? Allow hyacinth to scent the room all night? Do the accounts? Ramon and Marit had been married for 55 years — a good many of them shared with us.
I carry the Christmas holly in from the garden, and set fire to it. I read Twelfth Night. King James came to the first performance of this Shakespeare play. It was the year when my house was built. And it was about that time of the month when everything, in those days, had to be eaten up; when nothing could be kept except faith in God. When the farm horses steamed in their stable, and all the other creatures huddled together — the cats and dogs by the hearth, the children and the grown-ups in their beds.
But the ducks flew in perfect patterns from river to moat, knowing no better. Then, of course, on every New Year’s Day there was a resolution. I remember what Herbert said: “Why should I toil so perversely to be famous When I could stand in silence for nothing?”
Ronald Blythe recalls Christmases spent in Cornwall, years ago
MY OLD friend Charles Causley used to show me “his” Cornwall at Christmastime, when we took the long train journey from Suffolk to Launceston. He taught in a school where he had been a pupil, and was ungrudgingly fixed to this spot all his life, having to look after his invalid mother. It was the home of that engaging lad Timothy Winters.
On Boxing Day, I would escape from the old house for a walk above the crashing Atlantic on a disused path — perhaps the dizziest footpath in England — although not too far, because soon the day could develop into a version of a London pea-souper. But there would be Christmas days of clarity, when Cornwall seemed to put all my confusions to rights.
Our neighbour was an elderly lady who had been sent to Cornwall to die when she was 20, and thought beyond all recovery. Her house had been a home for two wicked brothers straight out of a Daphne du Maurier novel.
Daphne, too, had come to Cornwall for a brief space and never left. We would sometimes talk on the telephone. But, no, Rebecca and Manderley did not begin their existence in Cornwall, but, she told me, somewhere else. I once had a long conversation with her about the folly of renting a house without a properly drawn-up lease. She asked whether I had got a lease, and I said, no.
My Cornish Christmases were spent wandering in Thomas Hardy’s Cornwall, he being a useful architect in the heyday of Victorian church restoration, when, it was said, more damage was done to medieval buildings than during the Reformation. Used to the magnificent East Anglian churches, I was moved by the interiors of Cornish shrines: by their sturdy pillars and barrel roofs. Now and then a whiff of incense as well as a hint of the Wesley brothers was apparent. I was surprised by the Cornish singing. It was loud and glorious. Pubs closed at 8.30 p.m., and young men would sit outside on the window sills singing Wesley hymns.
Cornwall would show its two faces: that of the tin miners, and that of the fishermen. Somewhere in between there was the exciting presence of the artists who had gone there to paint pictures, the Newlyn School. I actually met Lamorna Birch, who was the leading light that helped to found this school, and I once met an elderly lady who, as a little girl, had modelled for these artists.
Padstow was a very different story at Christmas. Its traditions seemed to have escaped the Reformation and the Wesleys, and reached back to some pre-Christian source. I would sit by its harbour, a scene of perfect idleness: the herring boats bumping against each other, and the western sky alternating between dawn and sunset — although it was the middle of the afternoon — with gulls screaming, and, again, that constant sound of a great hymn.
We went year after year, and my friends moved there, and tried to persuade me to move there, but I was very East Anglian. There was, in Cornwall, in Christian terms, at Christmastime, an extraordinary mixture of the long ago, and the presence of the two brothers who went there to convert the people.
It was an extraordinary thing to spend Christmas in another land, as it were, but I did it year after year, bringing a brace of pheasants from Suffolk. Once, on Paddington Station, a little boy saw their beautiful tail feathers, and stroked them, and withdrew with shock because they were dead, and he hadn’t realised.
John Betjeman’s Cornwall was a little place called Daymer Bay, where he had been going since he was a boy, and he was protective about it. My friends were cross because he wouldn’t meet them, but he didn’t want to meet anyone: he just wanted to walk by Daymer Bay and think of his childhood and his Cornwall.
John, Ray, Ronnie, your Churchwardens and Deputies would like to wish you all a very
To find service times, readings, prayers and NEWS, click the image below to open the Benefice Bulletin for Christmas 2016.
Services for Christmas Eve
3 p.m. – Nativity @ the Farm, Mount Bures
4:30 p.m. – Crib Service, Little Horkesley
6 p.m. – Crib Service, Wormingford
10 p.m. – Early Midnight Mass, Mount Bures
11:30 p.m. – Benefice Midnight Mass, Little Horkesley
Services for Christmas Day
9:15 a.m. Family Communion, Mount Bures
10 a.m. Family Communion, Wormingford
11 a.m. Informal Family Communion, Little Horkesley