Oh yes, I truly believe that – but in its original meaning! You see, charity is quite an old word, which like many others in our language has changed its meaning over the centuries. It’s all about our true nature, deep inside (character) becoming our outgoing, attractive nature (charisma) showing everyone that we really do care – it’s a matter of loving deeply from the very heart of our being (cardiac!).
Let me put it another way – love begins with you. And me. You’ve heard of the Biblical phrase ‘faith, hope & charity’? Well, more modern translations go back to the original meaning. ‘Now, these three remain – faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love’ (1 Corinthians 13:13).
March is an interesting month for showing the depth of that love. Firstly, Lent begins on 1st March, and we often talk of giving things up for Lent. Notice how not doing something is described as giving things up, not storing things up! Being charitable (loving to others in many ways, including being generous with money) is a wonderful Lenten discipline, and what better way to respond to God’s sacrificial love for us than by developing and living out our loving nature in the community.
Secondly, March 26th is Mothering Sunday, and there are many traditions surrounding the day. For instance, when people had moved away from home, this was the day they went back to their mother village, and to their mother Church. When girls were away from home in service, as maids or cooks in a large house, they were allowed to go back to their mothers on this day. In the early days of the industrial revolution, young workers had a rare Sunday off to go home, and they picked flowers from the roadside to take to their mothers – the source of their love. The mother Church helped by giving flowers to the children to present to their mums – and we still do!
So why not continue the old tradition – come to Mother Church on Mothering Sunday, honour mothers and all who have sustained us over the years, and show our loving, charitable nature as a matter of course. Yes, charity (love) ‘begins’ at home, not ends there; where love is shared, opportunities are endless!
Yours in Jesus
Did you know that February is the only month of the year named after the weather? In Anglo-Saxon times, the month was known as Solmonath, which translates as ‘mud-month’. We all know why! But February is named after the Roman purification rite of Februalia which was performed at this time of year and can be best described as a kind of Spring-cleaning. It took the form of a ceremonial washing of everything, because that’s what nature is famous for doing – in the month which we also know as ‘February fill-dyke’. Those people saw that the early spring rains were cleansing the earth, and preparing it for the new year’s growth.
For thousands of years, Baptism has been a form of ceremonial washing, too – in fact, long before Jesus, new members of many ancient organisations were totally immersed in water as a sign that they were washing away one area of their lives to be replaced by another. So perhaps now, more than at any other season of the year, is a good time to reflect then refresh and rebalance our lives to ensure the fruitfulness of our year to come.
How can we do that? In prayer or reflection, go through every ‘room’ of your life – family, work, faith, leisure, friendships, diary – and remind yourself of what you have. You know how often we blow the dust off something and say “I’d forgotten I had that!” – so there’ll probably be quite a few blessings in our lives we’ve forgotten about! When I find things I haven’t used for a while, I need to make the decision – do I bring it back into use, give it away or throw it away? Then what’s the last task of a good spring-clean? We often decide to re-arrange things, perhaps the furniture in the lounge, or which photographs to have on display. Do we need to rearrange our lives, so that what is most useful or most valuable to us is closest, and always in view?
As ever, a good chat with the Lord will help us decide. As one Biblical writer put it:
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse our conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). May you be refreshed in body, mind and spirit this month – and enjoy February without being a ‘stick in the mud’!
Yours in Jesus
All over the country, fitness centres will enjoy the New Year as people will be using their new memberships – either given in their Christmas stockings or taken out as a New Year resolutions. Some of us will set a target of losing a few pounds; others will be trying to bulk up and get fit for the year ahead.
I should really do the latter. I will indeed try to get & stay strong and fit physically, and I also want to develop my Spiritual strength. So I thought I’d share with you a few of my resolutions in that area, which you might like to try too!
Keep a diary, not a dairy. Farmers know the relentless round of tasks which just must be done for those in their care and to provide sustenance for others. So do we; but vow to maintain a balanced diet of time, so that we are sustained whilst we build up others.
Keep a colander, not a calendar. As you fill up each day/week/month, put in the large worthwhile things, and allow some to drain through. Leave plenty of holes, so that there’s room to add things as time goes on.
Do nothing you can’t offer to God. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). If there’s any activity in your life you couldn’t offer as a gift to God, doesn’t that suggest you shouldn’t do them for you?
Before assembly, read the manual. Part of my preparation for each day is to read the Bible and often a chapter of a Christian book – it’s often remarkable how relevant those words are, as I go through my day. And what they say about machinery is very true about ourselves…. obey the Maker’s instructions!
Finally – just as joining a gym and exercising with others can encourage us to keep up with our targets, so meeting with others can strengthen us spiritually too. I know the ideal place in the Village, where lots of us in a similar situation meet for a regular spiritual work-out – why not resolve to join us on Sunday mornings?
Whatever your plans, however you’re placed, may you live with purpose, pleasure and peace in a happy and healthy New Year!
Yours in Jesus
Ronald Blythe pays tribute to George Herbert’s love of proverbs and botany
THE greatest poet of the Church of England, George Herbert, loved proverbs.
A cake and its contents must be broken.
Love and a cough cannot be hid.
Everyone stretches his legs according to his coverlet.
Of all smells, bread; of all tastes, salt.
Milk says to wine, “Welcome, friend.”
I wept when I was born, and every day shows why.
It is a great victory that comes without blood.
The best mirror is an old friend.
God comes to see without a bell.
The charges of building and making of gardens are unknown.
Good friends find good.
Prettiness dies first.
Living well is best revenge.
Thursday comes, and the week is gone.
Nothing lasts but the Church.
When a man is on horseback, he knows all things.
It is good to have some friends both in heaven and hell.
Woe to him that reads one book.
Soldiers in peace are like chimneys in summer.
A man’s destiny is always dark.
There also flooded into Herbert, during his Cambridge years, all his lifelong passions, which ranged from the need to possess a Christ-centred artistry in words and music to dieting and gardening — the latter interest having for him certain essential connections. As well as faith, Herbert is the singer of alternative medicine, and botany.
It was not only his young stepfather who taught him the excitements of the aesthetic and practical uses of English plants, but also his philosopher-poet brother Edward, who confessed to him that he “delighted ever in the knowledge of herbs, plants, and grass, and . . . the history of nature”. Our Saviour made plants and seeds to teach the people; for he was the true householder “who bringeth out of his treasure things new and old”.
Herbert loved balsam, garlic, rhubarb, roses, crown imperials, plantains, St John’s wort, adder’s-tongue ferns, hyssop, valerian, shepherd’s purse, knotgrass, elder, comfrey, and yarrow, and trees, particularly: all the secrets and scents and colours and tastes of both cultivated and wild plants. He also loved the ever-changing English weather — the latter so much so that Aldous Huxley saw it as a force within Herbert himself.
One of the reasons for Herbert’s passion for flowers was that he was influenced by one of those recipes for a long life which advocate vegetarianism: in this instance, a book by an 83-year-old Italian, Luigi Cornaro. This poet was able to cure himself of a severe attack of ague by giving up meat and following a spare diet.
Other people, including the Ferrer family at Little Gidding, were reading Herbert’s translations of Cornaro, and eating balanced vegetable diets, too; and, when one connects this recovered awareness of healthy eating with the intense new interest in gardening, which regarded, in the early 17th century, the many examples of plants as divine components, the utilitarian and the beautiful in Herbert’s work can be more fully appreciated.
A walk through Herbert’s England is a contemplation of gardens as well as God.
Ronald Blythe thinks of lamps, and the light that friendship brings
“ENDLESS noon-day, glorious noon-day From the Sun of suns is there.” Thomas à Kempis was a German monk who came from a poor village family near Cologne, and belonged to an order called the Brethren of the Common Life.
His life was dedicated to imitating Christ. He lived to be over 90, and wrote some beautiful poems, including “Light’s abode, celestial Salem”. He is describing a place where light lives. Jesus once called himself “the light of the world”.
There is a famous Victorian painting by Holman Hunt, The Light of the World. The original hangs in Keble College, Oxford, and a later version in St Paul’s Cathedral; but when some of us were young, copies of it hung everywhere; for it was enormously popular. One hung in my bedroom, but I didn’t like it much; the figure was so tall, so strange. It wore a shining robe, carried a shining lantern, and wore two crowns: one of shining gold, and one of thorns. I later discovered that it was painted in a London garden, and that the river that flows in the background is the Thames.
“Lead, kindly Light” was written years before Holman Hunt painted this picture. John Newman was far from home at this time, geographically and spiritually. Have you ever heard of the world going dark because some friend has gone away? You see them off and on, then you return to the house, and all the light which you both helped to create has drained away.
It is not only bereavement that causes this darkening of the scene: it can be the close of a holiday. You feel drained, and pull yourself together, give yourself a drink, and might switch on a favourite programme. The light is almost gone altogether, or dipped.
We had oil lamps when we were children, and one of Mother’s sayings was that she couldn’t bear what she called a dirty light. The lamp, a swan glass chimney, had to be polished and kept bright and the wick properly trimmed so that it didn’t flame or go into points. When you carried the lamp from room to room, you turned the wick low so that the draught didn’t make the flame blacken the chimney; so the light travelled from room to room, illuminating them and then leaving them black.
Why did Newman write “Lead, kindly Light”? For one reason, he was cast down, as the little holiday party he was with in the Mediterranean was broken up and he was left on his own. He had known that this would happen, because it was all planned, and at a certain point his young friends would go on, and he, the young Anglican clergyman, would make his way back to Oxford.
But no sooner had they left than all kinds of miserable things began to happen. He felt ill; he couldn’t get a passage on a boat; and a journey that would take us four hours took him several weeks. He wrote on the way “The night is dark, and I am far from home.” The night was dark because he and some other Oxford priests were in doubt whether they were on the right path. Soon after this, they would go into retreat, and he would go to Rome to find what he believed was the source of Christian illumination. He became a Roman Catholic in his searches, and shook off the Church of England. He took its beautiful liturgy into Roman Catholicism, and a marvellous poem, The Dream of Gerontius, about being old, emerged from this remarkable poet.
I think of him in these February days of drifting light, greyness and sudden streaks of sunshine, and the mists and the quietness of the Stour Valley.
To think of small things is the work of a writer, says Ronald Blythe
IT IS April in January. The snowdrops by the stream are mere slivers of green and white, but in a week or two’s time they will flood below the greengage trees. Now and then, I will give visitors a spadeful of them. Those in a Suffolk friend’s garden, reported to have been planted by the poet George Crabbe, will be in full bloom. I often think of my garden and the surrounding gardens as becoming one at this time of the year. Meanwhile, there is a lot to be done: a bonfire, for example. Once it starts, even with sopping wet wood and dead plants, it is amazing how it blazes.
I preach on Dr Johnson’s first meeting with the useful James Boswell in a London bookshop.
”Oh, please don’t tell him that I come from Scotland,” the young lawyer said, Scotland then being in the doghouse because of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne.
”Mr Boswell — he comes from Scotland,” the wicked bookseller said.
In no time at all, however, the elderly — at 54 — Johnson was off to the Highlands with his future biographer, and thus began my own useful adventure with these ancient writers, one which would last me all my days.
The Collect for the last Sunday in Epiphany says that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright, and I tell myself that it’s not for this moral failure alone that we climb the pulpit stairs with great care. A 17th-century parson here died while preaching in Wormingford pulpit. As my brother would have said: “It makes you think.” In Australia, he took me to see the ocean crashing against the rocks, and he said: “It makes you think.” A young man wanting to join a religious community such as Little Gidding said it made him think.
Everything makes a writer think — usually of happenings such as matins and evensong in the village church. For one thing, they are so poetic and perfect in their way. This week’s epistle made me think of the Oxford Movement, and part of it comes from St Paul’s last words to the Romans: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” The great spreader of the teachings of Christ is both worldly and saintly.
Not for the first time, a youngish middle-aged man came to ask me about the monastic life. Was it possible these days? He meant in the Church of England. My only experience of it was with the Cowley Fathers at Oxford, and that only for a weekend.
I was writing a book about Christian old age, and I thought that an old Cowley Father might be able to describe it. At Oxford, with the Cowley Fathers, we ate in silence with just a smile as we passed the potatoes; we could talk in the library, but not at meals. I admired the Alice in Wonderland attitude.
There was a young artist who, for some strange reason, had to work in the freezing glasshouse while the Cowley Fathers proper had radiators, and a parquet floor. They spoke beautifully about old age.
Fr Luke, for example, said: “All that I feel now is that I give God what I have to give him, and give him what he has to give me, and that is that, and I am thankful. Sometimes it is nothing, but one has to learn to use the nothing.” He had spent hours in prayer for nothing at all, he said.
St Paul said to give thanks for all things, and so you learn how to use nothingness, and this is what I have to do these days. This is what I have to know: that I am old. I have to be honest and say that I fear I feel nothing, often. Then I have to make it something. The alternative would be despair, and I would never choose that.
Fr Luke’s problem, I thought at the time, was that he didn’t have much to do; but I was young and judgemental, and now I am old, and I am lighting a bonfire, and listening to Poetry Please while cleaning the cooker.
St Paul’s last Epiphany words are about listening to music. The language of Jesus should be set to psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, he says. We do our best here in our village church.
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.”