The Calendar - 2023
The Dry Salvages (1941) - East Coker (1940) - Burnt Norton (1936) - Four Quartets - All Saints and All Souls -
The Practice of the Presence of God - Staying put -
Silence and honey cakes - Wisdom from the desert - Looking around -
Air fair - The Earth-our Land -
Fire and Ashes -
A burning and a shining light -
On Purpose -
Corpus Christi - Eternity in an hour -
Individually and Collectively -‘Tis good, Lord, to be here - Botanical Gardens -
The Church Floor -
Scientia and Sapientia -
A Wreathe - Low Sunday -
Neverwhere and Everywhere - Love Unknown -
The Word in the Flesh -
Anniversaries 2 -
Thaxted - Forty days and forty nights -
Lent - Periodicals - Midwinter Spring -
The Presentation of the Lord - Ronald Blythe (1922-2023)
- Other Calendar entries can be found here: Calendar 2021/22 & Calendar-2024 -
The Dry Salvages (1941)
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
The last lines of East Coker brought us to the sea, the realm of the petrel and the porpoise. The Dry Salvages, third of Four Quartets, opens on the Mississippi River at St Louis and at Cape Ann on the Massachusetts coast. During his childhood and adolescence, Eliot had spent long periods in both places, in contrast to short visits to the points of departure for the other Quartets. Perhaps as a result, he could make much of these waters, with time sensed as perpetual movement in one direction or as the ebb and flow of the unhurried/ Ground swell. …/… that is and was from the beginning. The river is within us, the sea is all about us, he says. People did not return from the ocean in 1941; they were gone beyond the sound of the sea bell’s/ Perpetual angelus. It had always been so for seafaring communities, and it became a daily experience throughout England and Canada. Spiritual equilibrium, the complacency of times like ours, had been upset by common death. In such a disturbed world, contemplation and stillness may have been out-of-place. Eliot turned, unexpectedly, to the Bhagavad Gita, one of the Sanskrit epics he had studied at Harvard. He was ten or fifteen years ahead of his time in recognizing the potential that experience in other traditions might have for illuminating our own existence. Wisdom, he said elsewhere, is common to all; we call it Logos, the Word. O Sapientia, we pleaded recently. In the Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna to Fare forward, to live unpreoccupied by fear or concern for the future but in the moment; to live out of time You shall not think ‘the past is finished’/ Or ‘the future is before us’; to consider our lives as journeys without preconceived destinations. Structured in prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action, Eliot added. That is the path which will be littered with hints and glimpses of God among us. That is Incarnation – the first specifically theological word he used in the poetry. That is Light in the midst of us. In 1941, meaning, though not purpose, was obscured by close chaos and destruction. We, he observed, are only undefeated / Because we have gone on trying; to nourish /… The life of significant soil. Fare forward he urges, several times. R.S. Thomas grasped a similar insight thirty years later, Circular as our way / is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted / garden, but onward to the tall city of glass / that is the laboratory of the spirit. One of those laboratories is a stable.
East Coker (1940)
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless
Burnt Norton (1936)
Although the Logos is common to all
We live as if by our own wisdom.
- Heraclitus (c. 500 BC)
This fragment from Heraclitus, written 2500 years ago, is one of two epigraphs for Burnt Norton, the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It is a poetical work that addressed what R.S. Thomas called the question of the soul, the nature and existence of God, and the problem of time in the universe. Eliot had begun to write about this in Ash Wednesday (1930) a poem that was composed in overtly Christian language. In the Quartets that vocabulary was veiled, if only thinly. It takes the question away from the sole purview of the Church and places it squarely in front of us all. Ecclesiastical language was unfamiliar to many even in the 1930s, for the Church of England had taken blows from its determined support of the state in the Great War, mixing up Golgotha and the battlefield. A secular language had wider comprehension. Burnt Norton is much concerned with an end. The word refers to a terminus or completion and, simultaneously, a purpose. Our purpose, one that Eliot seeks, is union with God. In our life this comes in glimpses, illustrated by analogy: a shaft of sunlight or flashes of light from a kingfisher’s wing in this Quartet. A poet cannot grant them to us. No one can. They occur in Time, but, curiously, Eliot points out, they are moments out of time as they are singular and unrepeatable by formula, practice, or context. All time is unredeemable, i.e., unexchangeable, he wrote. With our sight we look, but we can only see what we recognize or anticipate and interpret. The problem is to be alert, in Advent and all seasons, and ready to receive these flashes. Eliot ’s conversion meant that he believed in Truth. He invoked Heraclitus because he knew God is all around us. The Truth is not a malleable or personal truth, but one genuine, consistent, and steadfast reality wherein the world follows general principles. All science, natural or social, seeks to discern these guidelines, filtered through abundant biophysical, cultural, and historical variation. Nevertheless, we resist them infatuated as we are by self-importance that is reinforced, now, by our online lives. (H)umankind/ cannot bear too much reality, Eliot wrote.Instead, we are Distracted by distraction from distraction as the world moves/In appetency, on its metalled ways/Of time past and time future. (Appetency means driven by desire for things, i.e., materialism.) Penultimately, Burnt Norton describes a moment of illumination, but it ends lamenting the world’s lack of motivation to pursue our end: Ridiculous the waste sad time/Stretching before and after. It is Heraclitus, again.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present
- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, 46-48 (1936)
These three lines, in the first poem of Four Quartets, summarize the last major piece of poetry that T.S. Eliot published, and which became, perhaps, the most significant 20th century Christian verse. They describe how our accounts of the past blend fact and myth, while we require consistency to understand our existence. Eliot was grappling with our experience of time and our ability to encounter the presence of God. The Four Quartets is composed of four parts, each a distinct poem, and each difficult because they leave unsaid much that we may interpolate. Partly this is from erudition, for Eliot wrote with an enormous capacity for literary allusion,and partly because great poetry may spark unpredictable ideas and connections for its readers. Beyond that there is beauty in the precision and construction of the language, which is the poet’s art, even if he mentions several times that he struggles with the medium. Eliot wrote to set down components of the essence of our existence coherently. His context is Anglican Christianity, western literature, and eastern spirituality. This means that his predecessors, from the Greeks through Virgil and Dante and others find echoes in the poems but the poems are ultimately completely original, a product of the years just before and into the Second World War. The four poems are each named after places Eliot visited and are associated with the four elements: Burnt Norton, a country house and garden in Gloucestershire (Air); East Coker, the village in Somerset from which his ancestors set out for the New World (Earth); The Dry Salvages, rocks off Cape Ann, Massachusetts (Water); and Little Gidding, a hamlet in Cambridgeshire with a particular religious heritage (Fire). The Quartets take a consistent form, with three movements of blank verse separated by two lyrics. The title was chosen because the poems weave together several themes, as in music. The opening movement is commonly the easiest to read because it is anchored to the place that gives the poem its name. Throughout the poetry, Eliot is concerned with the nature of daily reality. Reality was very close during these years and he met it as an Air Raid Warden: Dust in the air suspended/Marks the place where a story ended (LG, 58-59). Part of his intention to consider time is realized by having us think of eternity on our own terms: at the rocks, the ground swell that is and was from the beginning,/Clangs/The bell (DS, 47-50); by having us look inward: We must be still and still moving/Into an-other intensity/For a further union, a deeper communion (EC, 211-213); and by paradox: Only through time time is conquered (BN, 92). We look forward to this this month, when we will celebrate Christmas.
All Saints and All Souls
The deciduous trees are shedding their leaves. Deciduous, from decidere (Latin) – to depart. The leaves will soon be absent but they will not have gone. They are joining the mould, the mulch that supports next year’s life and the years’ after. Some of our friends and family members will also soon be absent but not gone. We will all go into the dark wrote T.S. Eliot; or into the world of light, said Henry Vaughan, three hundred years earlier. We are like leaves, vigorous and full in our early days, beautiful as we age, then mulching as we fall, which we will, into the divine Light. They say that memories of community members linger for 40 years, about a generation and a half. There are exceptions, of course, but, outside our families, it seems a reasonable figure. At school we had roll call every morning. MacPherson? – present, sir, Donald would say. MacPherson? – no answer but silence. He is in the dark; or the Light. Absent but not gone. Those who left in the 1970s are now disappearing below our horizon. I doubt we are below theirs. They have shares in us. From St Bartholomew right down to those whose great grandchildren were baptized or married in the sanctuary, we matter to them just as the people in 40 years’ time at St Bart’s will matter to us. In substantial but not exclusive ways our predecessors made us. Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future,/ And time future contained in time past wrote Eliot. The elderly are great rememberers. Their memories manufacture our community, often placing things in the right time and the right place. I’m sure we’ll remember for several years where Andy and Bonnie sat: near the front, on the right. One of the reasons why old people make so many journeys into the past is to satisfy themselves that it is still there, wrote Ronald Blythe in his oral history of old age, published when the elderly were the exceptions. That is a reason for All Saints and All Souls. The Saints may inspire us but we will be the Souls. Go to YouTube, ask for the Nunc Dimittis by Stanford in G, and listen to the Choir of King’s College directed by Boris Ord with the Canadian organ scholar Hugh McLean, both now departed. A recording from 1956. For a short time, we may be with the Souls. They are not far away. In November, especially, but, in fact, all the time.
The Practice of the Presence of God
Brother Lawrence is one of our most humble saints. He cooked for the Discalced (Barefooted) Carmelites at their monastery in Paris after he joined the order in middle age. He died, about 80 years old, in 1691. He had expected to spend his life in the order as an anonymous novice, such was his humility. His simplicity, calmness, and sincerity were such that people begged for his spiritual guidance. His holiness was recorded soon after his death by the Abbé Joseph De Beaufort in a short four-part book The Practice of the Presence of God. (Practice here means the conduct of activity, as in a medical practice.) Abbé De Beaufort may not have been trying to write a book. Instead, he probably wanted to conserve the unassuming and uncomplicated experience of meeting and living near Brother Lawrence. Lawrence, like the desert fathers and mothers, had been thoroughly aware of his own inadequacies and the barriers that separated him from God. But, patiently, he had come to live so that it was, he said, enormous self-deception to believe that the time of prayer must be different from any other. We are equally bound to be one with God by what we do in times of action as by the time of prayer at its special hour. When he entered the order, he had never been able to undertake the time of prayer by rule as the others did. At first he had used spoken prayer for some time but afterwards the habit passed and he could not say why. His prayer was simply the presence of God, unconscious of all else but love. Ours may be too. On Thursday we commemorated Alfred the Great, king of the west Saxons. He was 21 when Edmund, king of East Anglia was martyred by Viking marauders in 869. An account passed down and written about a century later by Alfric, The Passion of St Edmund, describes how Edmund refused to submit to the bellicose, pagan Norsemen. It was on account of his faith and his life of prayer. Ronald Blythe paraphrased the key conversation: the Dane says “Know you not that I have power to kill you?” and the King retorts in a “weak but firm reply” “Know you not that I know how to die?” Echoes of Good Friday. When the time came, Brother Lawrence also knew how to die. November approaches, the month when we mark the Saints, the Souls, and the great Remembrance. Those we will remember have no need to practice; they are in the Presence of God.
Earlier this summer, The Times (of London) conducted and commented on a broad survey of the state of the Church of England. The CofE has an existential crisis because gradually, over the last 50 years, the parish as its fundamental unit has been eroded in favour of more centralized operation. There are more diocesan officers while parishes are reorganized into larger groups for pastoral teams. For over a thousand years, the church has been based locally, with its ministry integrated into the rhythm of family and community life. The move to more centralized activity is a response to a time that Giles Fraser, Vicar of St Anne’s in Kew, has summarized as a period of unprecedented scepticism and indifference about the core message of the Church: that God exists, that God is love, and that He came among us to save a broken humanity from its self-destructive sinfulness. It stems from a suspicion that parish life can become moribund or eccentric, a desire to encourage successful expansion in some parts of the cities – the evangelical wing is relatively strong – and the struggle to avoid institutional collapse, driven by falling attendance. It is easier to pull such adjustment off in England than here because everyone is close together. Here, we barely know what is going on in the Anglican Church elsewhere in Canada, we are so far apart. It makes our parish identity more secure. Amma Syncletica, one of the desert mothers, told her monks and nuns: If you are living in a monastic community, do not go to another place: it will do you a great deal of harm. If a bird abandons the eggs she has been sitting on, she prevents them from hatching ….. She was driving at a couple of points, first we are called to be where we are and not to chase around for a community in which we settle for the image of God we like best, and second, that it is through all our neighbours that we meet Jesus, and not just the ones we like. She was urging people to take a mature approach to akedia – spiritual lassitude or apathy – that may develop over time, a problem several of the desert fathers addressed and parishes need to guard against. It is a condition we often approach today by moving on. Amma Syncletica did not mean that the communities of the desert should be static, but that everyone has responsibility to their community, for everyone is, in some way, sitting on a nest.
Silence and honey cakes
One of the stories we have from the desert concerns a visitor who came to see Abba Arsenius, the silent monk. His cell was some distance from the others, so they sent a brother with the visitor. Arsenius met them in silence, they sat down, and not a word was said. The visitor became uncomfortable, and motioned to his guide that they should leave. Outside, he asked if they could visit Abba Moses, the former highwayman. That visit was altogether different. The visitor enjoyed himself immensely. The guide asked him which monk he liked better. Someone who overheard this question prayed for an explanation as to how each monk might think they were following God’s will but in quite opposite ways. He was shown two large boats floating on the river. In one of them sat Abba Arsenius and the Holy Spirit of God in complete silence. And in the other boat was Abba Moses, with the angels of God: they were all eating honey cakes. The story is about diversity, not the superficial diversity that consumes public debate, but the recognition that all of us have different talents and gifts, none more significant than any other. We are persons, not individuals. Individuals are the units of our society, each being the result of choices made in conformity with our social system. Billboards beg us to make individual choices, to set us out from the crowd – but the same crowd and the same choices as everyone else. Part of being an individual is to develop self-sufficiency. I am a rock, I am an island, sang Paul Simon. A person is who we are before God, completely unique. The desert fathers and mothers were adamant that we can only become conscious of ourselves as persons through silence. A remarkable paradox of theirs is the search for the presence of God in silence, and the conviction that it is in our relationships with others that we meet Jesus. We cannot be self-sufficient, only dependent on Him through our neighbour. Accordingly, their approach to discipline was unjudgmental, recognizing the depth of our own inadequacies. It was a primary reason they left the organized church, with its hierarchies and regulations, to go into the desert. Those structures may, indeed, have been sincere efforts to establish and maintain a faithful community. But there is a difference between truth and sincerity. Helping people to find the Truth is what the desert monks meant by winning them.
(Silence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert by Rowan Williams was published by Lion in 2003.)
Wisdom from the desert
Renewal of the contemplative life in the modern church was led by the Benedictine monk John Main. His practice of meditative prayer was inspired by experiences he had in India. He then found that the practice had been fundamental for the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries. These holy people left their homes and churches in cities and towns and walked out into the desert, where they established remote communities. They felt that city life had too many distractions and diverted their attention from God. In the desert they built little one-roomed cells where they could be alone. They sought Silence. In 2001, Rowan Williams was asked to lead the John Main Seminar, an annual retreat of religious and lay people, centered on the contemplative and meditative tradition. His talks, prompted by the recorded sayings of the desert nuns and monks are published in a small book called Silence and Honey Cakes – I will explain the title next week. These remote hermits were clearly influential because they attracted visitors, who recorded a few parts of their conversations. Some of the monks found the solitary visitors so disruptive that they packed up and went further into the desert. Others handled visitors in their own way, for example one Abba Arsenius, renowned for not saying a word to anyone, sat with the Holy Spirit of God in complete silence. The earliest remarks we have from this tradition are attributed to Anthony the Great. Like the others, St Anthony was absolutely clear that our relationship with God, i.e., our spirituality, is inseparable from our relationships with our neighbours. He said Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ. By winning, he meant enabling people to find, for themselves, deep and fulfilling experience of God. An elaboration of this comes from Abba Moses the Black, a vivid character who was an Ethiopian highwayman before he joined his desert community. He said the monk must die to his neighbour and never judge him at all in any way whatsoever. He advocated great tolerance of diversity. It is remarkable that these people who left towns and cities to be alone were so focused on life in their community. They could not separate a life of prayer from life with their neighbours. They have prompted me, this weekend, to be especially grateful for our community. They might have distorted Sir Christopher Wren: Si gratum animum afficieris, circumspice. If you want to feel thankful, look around you.
It may be a coincidence that the last major feast in the Season of Creation, which ends with St Francis, is for St Michael and All Angels. Not all the angels, but all angels. Angels bring us messages from God. Teach me, my God and King/ In all things thee to see wrote George Herbert. He was looking around. About 250 years later, Gerrard Manley Hopkins wrote similarly that The world is charged with the grandeur of God. Grandeur is not a word we use often now but it was in the scientific lexicon back in 1859 when Darwin wrote the closing sentence in his great book There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; …. from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. Hopkins would have known that sentence, written when he was 15, and he would have known what Darwin was writing about. Grandeur is in the coherence of the creation across distances from the astronomical down to the atomic and in our ability to understand it at each level. We may be more familiar with grandeur in an unobscured sunset or now in the brilliance of fall leaves on a bright day. Hopkins knew, like Darwin, that the creation is unfinished but unlike Darwin he knew that it was not left alone, for the poem ends the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. St Francis recognized the brooding in his kinship with animals and there, we, too, may be touched; when a cat kisses the tip of my nose; or a horse befriends an autistic child. Or two animals sleep in the same basket. St Francis called our nearest neighbours Brother Sun and Sister Moon. They are all agents of God. Right here. The creation may be awe-some but it is filled with love and revelation. St Michael was on Friday and St Francis will be on Wednesday. Together they close the Season of Creation. It may be a coincidence, but it is not an accident.
Our society’s fundamental unit is the individual and when it comes to sin, the church thinks so too. Some churches emphasize salvation as a personal matter; being saved is a crucial event in life and leads to a state of grace. The need to be saved comes from the Fall in the Garden of Eden. There we were asked to be stewards of the creation (Gen. 2:15). Before the Fall it was Paradise; after the Fall people, outside Eden, were in trouble. The world had changed and it was our fault: we had succumbed to temptation. Titania, Queen of the Fairies, reminds us of this in Act II of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream as she wails about the climate. In Shakespeare’s day it was the cold that was the problem. For Titania, bad weather, failed harvests, and floods were, ultimately, all our fault. Our actions caused them, just as they had caused our ejection from Eden. The Reformation, still in progress at the time the play was written (~1595), took the emphasis for sin off humankind and placed it on the individual. It was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, the movement in the 17th century that separated us as individuals from the natural world we live in. Today, when things go wrong, it is down to a person, not society. Yet we seem to need organizations like the Fairtrade movement to address systemic inequity. Entrenched injustice is called structural sin. It is sin, i.e., departure from what we understand to be God’s way, that is intrinsic to our society. We have recognized the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a structural sin, but many didn’t at the time. Normally we barely notice such faults because they are not down to individuals but we all participate in them. It comes from being outside Eden. Climate change is now generated by society; the greenhouse gases we have added to the atmosphere have reached a level not experienced on our planet for 3 million years. We have trapped solar energy in the atmosphere equivalent to a 100 W bulb shining day and night over every 30 m2 of the Earth’s surface. Three or four are, in effect, alight around the clock above our church and three more in the hall. The extra energy does not disperse evenly and we see the results. Hardly stewardship. So, from Titania:
The spring, the summer
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension:
We are their parents and original.
- A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene ii, 52-58
The Earth - our Land
To Moosonee and Moose Factory, until the early 20th century Moose Fort, founded 350 years ago and now one of the oldest formal settlements in Ontario. It is the place of Mushkegowuk, the Cree people of the swampy lands on the west side of James Bay. Also of the Mocreebec Eeyoud, people from the east side who have made it their home. The hospitality and friendliness of people whose custom is to share what they harvest amends some stereotypes of Indigenous people, nurtures respect, and opens the door to reconciliation in action. St Thomas’s Church built by John Horden in 1864–85, is now run by a ministry team of Indigenous deacons. They all meet in a different building, the original church being in a bad way. They sing hymns and read the epistle in Cree. Grace Delaney, the warm, kind, and friendly leader, preached about Easter. Easter comes in the spring with Canada geese, well fed on grain, flying in their thousands to their breeding grounds. Now they are beginning to return, but “we don’t hunt them now, they taste like seaweed.” The first hunt leads to a feast, a goose for the hunter, a goose for his wife, and a goose for the children. A stuffing after the hungry days and nights of winter when people starved and some died. If they made it until the geese returned, they had new life. “The year would begin again,” said Grace. Not at Christmas, but at Easter. Ours could do too. Grace had confidence that the land would provide for them, not always in abundance, but enough. Earlier we had plucked and eaten ducks and gobbled up moose meat sausages with Sonny and Florence Morrison. The family said grace and prayed for everyone at the table in turn. Florence knew there was more to our meeting than simply time and place. The Creation and Creator are inseparable. It must have been similar in Galilee. The church service started late. The police were there as the basement of the building had been ransacked overnight. Grace asked us to forgive the burglars, for she is painfully aware of the drugs in the community and the desperation to satiate addiction. The intruders had left the sanctuary alone. It was a stark contrast between a land with things perhaps as they were meant to be and another in the desperate situation we have created for ourselves.
If we were not so preoccupied with ourselves, we might have called our planet Water, not Earth. The oceans cover nearly three-quarters of our world. Less than half a per cent of all the water on Earth is accessible to us and usable, although the additional quantity stored in ice caps and glaciers is slowly and apparently irreversibly being released into our rivers and lakes. Water is so ubiquitous that we take it, in abundant and clean supply, for granted. And have forever recognized it as essential to life. The simple water molecule, just an oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, has many strange properties when it is found in aggregate. We might wonder if they are purely coincidental. The hands that made nature were those of a chemist as well as a physicist and biologist. It is an odd substance, for it expands when it solidifies and the molecules move, on average, further apart. Then it floats. The energy released upon freezing is so great that in our frigid winters barely two feet of ice may form. Fish survive the winter in the water below as a result, dormant beneath their protective covering. In spring and summer, it is found in the soil well above saturated ground, its surface tension holding it in tiny pores. There it touches plant roots, nourishes our crops, and gives us our daily bread. Its ability to dissolve many substances, particularly minerals in certain rocks it passes through, can give it medicinal powers recognized at villages called Holywell in England, Wales, and Ireland. In other places its purity, springing from the ground, sustains settlements. It has mysterious, sacred properties, seen by Coleridge in a dream as representing the imagination: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree:/ Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea. Perhaps most remarkably it reflects light, at low angles of incidence almost all of it, but head on enough to see ourselves. Probably it was in a pool that someone first caught sight of themselves, thousands of years ago. Imagine their reaction when they realized what they saw. We are told people met Jesus near the lake, on a riverbank, and at several pools and wells. In Creation Time we can wonder about water. It did not evolve. Its properties were there in the beginning. Just like the Word.
Fire and Ashes
Today is the first Sunday in Creation Time, a period reserved relatively recently for the natural world. It might normally celebrate majestic land- or seascapes, fall colours, and cool evenings, and will culminate in appreciation for the companionship of animals and Thanksgiving. This is comfortable Nature. There is an academic subdiscipline on the Construction of Nature, with roots in Goethe and Wordsworth on the literary side and Humboldt and Darwin on the scientific. Landscape, colours, and climate are examined through two eyes. Theologians emphasize nature as a gift. But this summer, near Kelowna and Yellowknife we have seen nature red in tooth and claw. Nature uncontrolled, nature from which to flee. In Inuvik, on August 10th, it was raining ashes and we had to leave. We can manage much of nature for our own convenience – humankind now moves more earth annually than any natural process – but we can do little about the extreme events. Fire is the case in point. Domesticated, it gave us light and a central place in our lives. Focus is Latin for a hearth. Uncontrolled, it is a different story, even today. It brought us the burning bush and it brought us Pentecost. This summer it gave us fear and obliteration, which the Old Testament associates with God. In our boreal forest, like death, fire is an uncertain certainty. It must happen, but when? And it leads to new life. The cycle takes 200-500 years from one fire to the next; more than double or triple the human timescale. They say it is essential to a healthy forest: in opening pinecones dormant for many years, providing space for early colonizing plants, and changing its long-term, climate-controlled complexion. It is reality. Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality, Eliot wrote. It is an agent of the Resurrection in the natural world. No one said Good Friday was comfortable. Or that we should control God’s gifts.
A burning and a shining light
Yesterday was St. Jean Baptiste. The gospels record very few of Jesus’s opinions about other people; there are comments about groups, such as the Pharisees, but few about individuals. His cousin, John the Baptist, was an exception. When He heard of John’s execution, Jesus said that the Baptist was a burning and a shining light (John 5:35). John was as real as they come. A number of manuscripts survive of texts by Aurelius Josephus, the Jewish historian adopted by the Romans, who mentions John’s execution in his work. The passage is not particularly interpretive of who John was thought to be, and so it is considered to be exactly or very nearly exactly what Josephus wrote. It comes in a discussion of the war that destroyed the governance of the quasi-autonomous Judea in which John and Jesus had lived. Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man... Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion... Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. This is the only reference to John outside the four gospels of the New Testament and the gospel of the Nazarenes, an obscure document written for Jewish Christians. The Greek word used by Josephus, translated here as a good man, is dikaiosyne, which means a righteous preacher. It suggests that John was put to death for political reasons that focus on his moral stance. Both the gospels and Josephus tell us that John attracted a considerable following, but they differ in the precise assessment of Herod’s motivation for executing him. Groups of his followers were very loyal and remained together almost as Jewish sects long after his death. There are about 75,000 left, who belong to a tradition known as Mandaeism. They were concentrated in Iraq and Iran, but after the US/UK invasion in 2003 they have dispersed and now Australia and Sweden have the largest communities. There are about 1,000 Mandaeans in Canada. John attracted people to his message because they sensed that it was the truth, and they respected that he was willing to die for it - because his message was imperative. In the more minor, less focused, and diverse lives we all lead, it is commonly effective always to speak the truth, as John did, but to remember that we don’t have to speak.
We are now in Ordinary Time. There will be green in the sanctuary, and for the next five months or so we can drift. There are, of course, regular commemorations, but we are not tied for now to the great festivals of our community that have anchored us for the past six months. We may drift but we do not need to be aimless. This month is Pride month, and the bishop has entered the lists. I had my own conundrum two weeks ago. Some of us know that for the next year, stuck in professional purgatory, I will steer an organization representing my field – permafrost science and engineering. We have had our challenges, most recently from the Russians, who are now parked in Limbo until, at least, the war ends. The association was founded in 1983 to foster better international connections and discussion about research and technical matters. The Soviet Union was a founding nation. The organization was then, of course, almost all male. Now lots of women are involved. A request came in to switch the association’s logo from the light blue of Manchester City (their championship not yet assured) to the colours of the rainbow. The founding fathers would have found the request incomprehensible. I put it off, urging momentum closer to home before going international. Then, later that week, when reading George Herbert, I came across two of his verses that struck home. First, about the purpose of our work and then about the overriding motivation. Herbert probably met Francis Bacon and was well up on the natural philosophy (science) of his day. Herbert’s arrows pierce our materialism and, fresh from our Pentecostal celebration of diversity, his view on the logo might well have been more generous than mine. In prose and on the same theme, T.S. Eliot warned us against confounding the contingent with the essential, the ephemeral with the permanent. Herbert and Eliot both address why we are here and what we are to do: Love God and love our neighbour.
Indeed man’s whole estate
Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:
He did not heav’n and earth create,
Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.
Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sun-beam I will climb to thee.
Several of our festivals are tied to Easter: the Ascension after 40 days, Pentecost after 50, and Corpus Christi after 60. The last is to us the least well-known. Its intention is to commemorate the miracle of the Eucharist; the mysterious transformation of bread and wine into Jesus’s body and blood. It is a powerful feast, formalized in the mid 13th century. In several countries, including southern Germany, for instance, it is still public holiday. It was one of the few days bishops were required to be in their dioceses. Its specific origin is from the devotion, visions, and witness of St Juliana of Liège. We celebrate the Eucharist’s institution on Maundy Thursday, as others did then, but there is a lot more going on that day, and it detracted from the focus Juliana felt called to concentrate upon. Thomas Aquinas took up Juliana’s commitment and, partly as a result, Pope Urban IV, formerly Archdeacon of Liège, instituted the commemoration for the whole church. It was intended as a joyful feast, celebrating the presence among us of the Lord. Nevertheless, the Eucharist became one of the symbols of contention during the Reformation and Corpus Christi suffered, perhaps due to excessive veneration of the sacraments in a manner verging on idolatry. Luther didn’t like the ceremonials, but held to the integrity of the eucharist, but Calvin, preoccupied with selection of the elect, had little time for what we cannot predict or comprehend but might happen to people in the presence of God. In our tradition, the focal point of every church is an altar. It is a carefully chosen word, associated with sacrifice. Some of the 16th century reformers were wary of sacrificial language, not of atonement nor the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, but of what occurred during the prayer of consecration regularly said or sung at the altar. They called the altar a holy table. And thought of it as just that. We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, the Prayer of Humble Access, a helpful preparation immediately before we receive communion, is in the red prayer book. Ultimately, the Eucharist is about the presence of God in us, both individually and as a community. George Herbert recognized this in The H. Communion:
Not in rich furniture, or fine array,
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who from me was sold,
To me dost now thy self convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sin:
But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast;
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sin’s force and art.
Eternity in an hour
Listen to an audio version of Eternity in an hour read by Chris Burn
To the Land of the Midnight Sun and of the natural silence. Voiceless but not noiseless. Last Sunday was Pentecost: Whitsun. Let all the world in every corner sing, / My God and King, wrote George Herbert. Spiritus is breath, breathing is an instinct. The Spirit, flowing in and out, rhythmically, throughout our lives. Today is the Trinity. For God around us, God beside us, and God within. The Trinity - the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier. God the Creator, seen through a window in the coiled leaf buds just emerging on the balsam poplars, in water melting from still-floating ice, in the everlasting snow shrouding Canada’s highest mountains, and in fresh sandbars of rivers now dropping from the spring flood. God the Redeemer, the Word in words of friendship and reconciliation extended between Indigenous inhabitants and visiting scientists who would rarely have spoken eight years ago. The Word challenging notions about possession: of land, of ideas, of authority. God the Sanctifier, urging a simpler life and smaller footprint, love for my neighbour, and time to be alone or apparently so. Herbert’s Trinity Sunday has three, three-line stanzas, illustrating the Trinity in straight-forward and domestic images, not complex literary exegesis. Calendar readers have seen it before, more than once. William Blake was still more succinct, with creation in geology and botany, the Word in our hands, and silence to be infused with the Spirit for what lies ahead:
To see the world in a grain of sand
And all heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
- From Auguries of Innocence (1803)
Individually and Collectively
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At Pentecost, they say, the church was born. Not at Christmas, nor Easter, nor the Ascension, nor even the Annunciation, but at Pentecost. History began again. The Incarnation is the completion of history as told through incidents and intentions in the Old Testament. T.S. Eliot used the word Satisfactory to describe it, not in the sense of sufficiency but fulfillment. For people who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah history has not ended, but for us the world changed in the 52 days between Good Friday and Pentecost. The kingdom had come, not of the world but in the world. Jesus’s message is fundamentally about a community. Love God and love our neighbour, everything else springs from this. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to all the community, not just a selected few leaders. The Acts and St Paul’s letters describe the capacities or gifts, each distinct, given to the Christians to make the community whole. It was more than the sum of its parts. The image given is a body, corpus in Latin. We use its verbal derivations every day. We even have a corporation, administratively distinct from the rest of us, sometimes categorically, as a result of history. Curiously, perhaps, we did not use self- words, self-awareness, self-assurance, and so on until about the 13th century. And since without words there is no thought, it seems our individuality became emphasized relatively recently. Of course, the Reformation, especially the Protestant concentration on an individual’s salvation, emphasized the personal, often strictly. The Enlightenment – the success of knowledge born from demonstration or experiment – symbiotic with the Reformation, similarly emphasized the individual and their particular insights. I think, therefore I am. We separated personal responsibility and community responsibility to develop our liberal society and make the individual the focus of our common life. It was a way to make our worldviews simply lifestyle choices. We eliminated meaning. Secularism we call it. Peter’s preaching was not about the individual, it was about the community, because that is where we find meaning. Recognize Jesus and join us, he said. It can be the other way around. His witness was to offer a community with remarkable gifts, and a desire to work out the challenges of the day. Dietary restrictions, for example. The governing principles were simple. Love God and love our neighbour. They are universal and they are local. They are as difficult and as easy then as now. But they can become …… entirely Satisfactory.
‘Tis good, Lord, to be here
Listen to an audio version of ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here read by Chris Burn
Joseph Robinson’s unaltered words in our Transfiguration hymn 167. The Transfiguration, as close as Jesus came before the Resurrection to His Ascension. We celebrated the Ascension at Evensong, our most familiar office; more contemplative than busy Mattins and less final than Compline. At that time, the fever of life may be over and our work done. It used to be one of the last activities of each day, when light came from the Sun and little else. Things changed mightily with the electric switch. These days the light lingers into the time that was our darkness as we hurtle through space towards the solstice. The twilight lengthens beyond the soft evening, no longer cut short by the cold. We came to Evensong to worship in spirit. Worship tends to be familiar, for if it is novel our minds are preoccupied as we move from one apprehension to the next. Evensong has stood the test of time. We sit, we stand, we kneel. We listen, we sing, we speak, we pray. From time to time, we dream as light flickers in the windows, as music flows through the air, as words set off our imaginations. And we wonder. Wonder what is going on; wonder about the stories we hear; perhaps be struck by wonder. The miracles and Transfiguration were matters of awe. The Ascension is a matter of wonder. We know what happened next on Earth, but in Heaven? Religion would be stale and lifeless without wonder, without uncertainty, without mystery. There are many springs at the moment, each in its own way wonderful, individually and collectively. And some of them are taking root in our little church. ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here. From Malcolm Guite:
We saw his light break through the cloud of glory
Whilst we were rooted still in time and place,
As earth became a part of heaven’s story
And heaven opened to his human face.
We saw him go and yet we were not parted,
He took us with him to the heart of things,
The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and heaven-centered now, and sings;
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light;
His light in us, and ours in him concealed,
Which all creation waits to see revealed.
- Ascension Day in Sounding the Seasons (2012)
Listen to an audio version of Botanical Gardens read by Chris Burn
It is spring and gardening has returned. Our domestic gardens are mainly ornamental, but in some food and a few herbs grow. In George Herbert’s day, gardens were a principal source of medicine, and even today some of us prefer herbal remedies to biochemical technologies. Botanical gardens, like those in Burlington, are scientific places. The earliest that is still in its original location, at Padua, was laid out in 1545. The Rev. John Stevens Henslow (1796–1861), Professor of Botany at Cambridge from 1825, moved its garden to the present site in 1831, the same year he recommended his student Charles Darwin accompany Robert Fitzroy to South America on H.M.S. Beagle. His wife talked him out of going himself. Henslow was very interested in collecting and cataloguing, naming the plants he found in and near Cambridge and organizing them in their classifications. Without a name we cannot identify anything, including ourselves. Naming nature was one way of praising God, something Henslow was keen to do, bridging his professions. Organizing the species was thought to be part of recognizing the divine structure that underlies the world, one that had been present in the first garden at Eden. Every garden has a gardener. Henslow created the new garden because he wanted to display parts of the Creation and he knew time was needed to study plants and trees. Some of the trees standing now on the Mount of Olives were there with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. There is theology in botany. Every spring we know the creation is unfinished because we see it begin again. Neither Henslow nor Darwin thought a voyage would shake Christianity, but it did. To its foundations. Some aspects of botany, such as the species, we then thought were permanent but now we know are transient. Henslow was offered the parish of Hitcham in Suffolk in 1837 and moved there two years later to live out his life in the rectory. He kept his professorship. He found a rather unhappy village and set about doing something for it. By the time he died there was a good school, sports clubs, allotments for vegetable gardens, and business initiatives that transformed life in the area. He found some sedimentary deposits with abundant coprolites (fossil faeces) and convinced two of his farmers to harvest them and turn them into phosphate fertilizer. Their successful business, founded in 1843, lasted until 1995. He took his village on railway outings, the most well-known being to his Botanical Garden in Cambridge by 247 parishioners. When he died, on May 16th, he was buried in Hitcham churchyard, and they erected a monument in the church. It cites Job 29: 11 - 13. He was ahead of his time, looking after the environment and his community.
11 When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me:
12 Because I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him.
13 The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me: and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy.
The Church Floor
Listen to an audio version of The Church Floor read by Chris Burn
We take the floor for granted. Our floors are of wood or composite materials or carpets that do not conduct and keep our feet warm in winter. Only in domestic bathrooms and commercial kitchens do we lay tile. In warmer lands there is tile in the kitchen and other rooms, to keep bare feet cool. Tile and bricks are made from clay, just as Genesis says we were. The tiles in a floor are commonly the same shape but may show different characteristics. Malcolm Guite recently wrote about pamments, terracotta tiles made from local sand and clay near his home in Norfolk. They contain “imperfections”, shining pieces of quartz or even intricate, tiny fossils. And those that are made by hand have other minor irregularities, and yet to form a flat floor the angles at the vertices of each tile must multiply by a whole number to make 360 degrees. There are rules to bind them together. In the end all the tiles go into making one floor, and each individual piece is no more important than any other, but when one is missing there is a hole in the whole. All a bit like us, really. George Herbert renovated, more accurately reconstructed, the church of St Mary the Virgin at Leighton Bromswold including a tiled floor. A wall now holds a memorial to Hugh Brawn 47th Battalion (Canadians) killed at Passchendaele in October 1917. Hugh binds a village to a new country. Herbert’s other church, St Andrew’s at Bemerton near Salisbury, also has a tiled floor, this one in black and white. Its patterns lead from the door to the altar, where Herbert was buried. Often in his poems we find metaphorical connections between this world and the divine. Perhaps the best known are in the purpose and meaning of windows to provide sight lines into another world. 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, from The Elixir, our hymn 496 that unfortunately omits this verse. In The Church-floor, he identified characteristics upon which the Church is built. They are, of course, human, but not imperfections or irregularities. Sometimes we think of them as gifts. Herbert knew his Church was not a building but a people.
Mark you the floor? That square and speckled stone,
Which looks so firm and strong,
And th’ other black and grave, wherewith each one
Is checker’d all along,
The gentle rising, which on either hand
Leads to the Choir above,
But the sweet cement, which in one sure band
Ties the whole frame, is Love
Scientia and Sapientia
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Scientia is Latin for knowledge and sapientia for wisdom. More commonly we hear of Sophia, the Greek for wisdom, a feminine phenomenon. It is one of the root words, with philia (friendship love, also Greek), for philosophy. The Hagia Sophia is the great mosque of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul, restored to its original function in 2020. It was created from a cathedral of the same name. Orthodox Christians make much of the Word being Wisdom from the beginning. Perhaps they have been less concerned about gender in divinity than the western church has been. There are three categories that our education system is meant to distinguish: information, knowledge, and wisdom. Knowledge, derived from information, is what we know to be true. There is a fine line between some knowledge and belief. Last week, on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and the other disciple had information but it was the breaking of bread that turned it into knowledge. These days we have lots of information, but much is contested and so then is knowledge. Fortunately, the knowledge upon which we build our faith has changed little outside the realms of our personal experiences. It seems as though it is up to us to create or discover knowledge, using the rules of inquiry most formally presented in science, hence her Latin name. That is what the disciples did; they saw with their eyes and they believed. We hear much about the Resurrection regarding our knowledge, contested in the realm of Reason. Reason is one of the Greek meanings of the Word. Wisdom is more elusive. The author of Proverbs knew that The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (9: 10) - fear, here, meaning respect not fright. We normally think of wisdom in terms of insight and the making of judicious choices. It cannot be taught; it needs experience, so is more easily described in poetry than prose. Like our own experiences of the Resurrection. Malcolm Guite’s sonnet O Sapientia reflects its many dimensions. The Resurrection was an event, but its meaning appears through Wisdom:
I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken;
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Nor break the bread except as I am broken.
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O Word beneath the words with which I speak,
O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me,
O Memory of time, reminding me,
My Ground of being, always grounding me,
My Maker’s bounding line, defining me:
Come, hidden Wisdom, come with all you bring,
Come to me now, disguised as everything.
- From Sounding the Seasons (2012)
Listen to an audio version of A Wreath read by Chris Burn
Sometimes it is tempting to think that we are independent individuals. In fact, our society is built upon this premise. But just before Easter, I saw geese again beside the river and last week I heard the dawn chorus for the first time in a long while. Signs that we are now on the flight routes of thousands of birds, great and small, whose paths are invisible ecological threads binding our hemisphere together. Even as far as Antarctica, the seasonal destination of Arctic Terns. We are not independent in space. The same holds for time. We are not the only ones who count, as G.K. Chesterton observed: Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. Here in church, tradition plays a greater role than in many places. It is its rhythm that matters. The circling year carefully knits together many phases of our Lord’s life, now in the period of especial praise and wonder about His resurrection. George Herbert’s Christianity was an interdependence with the Lord. O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine, / And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine concludes The Altar, the first of his poems inside The Church, later titled The Temple. A Wreath follows The Elixir (Teach me, my God and King) in his book. The Wreath is a continuous series of word strands, each binding one line into the next. It describes the interweaving of our response to Jesus’s resurrection with His presence. It is like the conversation on the road to Emmaus, the disciples wondering why their companion was so strangely familiar. The Wreath is circular, and the last line echoes the first, just as for the disciples, whose eyes were opened with the breaking of bread, things fitted into place, and their life could begin again. In principio erat verbum - In the beginning was the Word. The Word had a new beginning at Easter, to be praised and revealed in a way never seen before. We are woven together with the Word in the warp of space and the weft of time.
A wreathed garland of deserved praise,
Of praise deserved, unto thee I give,
I give to thee, who knowest all my ways,
My crooked winding ways, wherein I live,
Wherein I die, not live: for life is straight,
Straight as a line, and ever tends to thee,
To thee, who are more far above deceit,
Than deceit seems above simplicity.
Give me simplicity, that I may live,
So live and like, that I may know thy ways,
Know them and practice them: then shall I give
For this poor wreath, give thee a crown of praise.
Listen to an audio version of Low Sunday read by Chris Burn
The name Low Sunday contrasts the second Sunday of Easter with the High feast of the week before. In some parts it was the day the newly baptized changed into more seasonal colours from the white they wore all of the week before. Often it is the Sunday we hear about St Thomas and his need for evidence of Jesus in His human body to believe the Resurrection. Evidence-based reasoning is commonly considered superior to ideology and is regularly cited, condescendingly, as the antithesis of religious faith. The trouble is that it is based on what has happened, not on what we want to happen. Arguments over climate change focus on evidence and its interpretation and have been adjusted in light of experience during the last 20 years, for instance. John Polkinghorne (1930 – 2019) physicist and priest, one of the brightest lights of the early 21st century, defined natural science as the construction of well-motivated belief. On that basis he advocated for the friendship, even partnership, of science and religion. His position was, fundamentally, that we have provisional, imperfect knowledge of the natural world and the cosmos but persons of intellectual integrity will always maintain coherent worldviews consistent with our observations until new evidence causes them to revise their ideas. We know of scientific beliefs, subsequently discredited, that were widely held and even the basis of public policy, such as eugenics. But the vast majority of scientific work concerns reconciling observations with existing theories, usually by testing summary statements of the theories against observations. Noticeable progress in science occurs when claims (hypotheses) that seem to be incompatible with our ideas, or outrageous hypotheses, are supported by our observations because then we have to revise our worldview. That was what St Thomas was doing, testing an outrageous claim by his friends, that Jesus had risen, against the evidence. It changed his worldview. My Lord and my God, he exclaimed. Normally, the story is told to illustrate Thomas’s weakness. We interpret Jesus’s words Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe as an admonishment to Thomas. But it can only be read that way if taken literally and narrowly. Very few of us have seen Jesus in His body, but we see signs of Him all around us when we look for them. Faith seeking understanding - Fides quarens intellectum – was how St Augustine put it. John Polkinghorne would ask us what is the motivation for our faith? Just being told is not enough. He would have expected us to reply with a degree of innocence and with experience.
Neverwhere and Everywhere
Listen to an audio version of Neverwhere and Everywhere read by Chris Burn
One of the poems by Les Murray in our collection for Lent considers the events and forces of history that never happened. They are things that might have happened if the world had turned out differently. They are in Neverwhere, a land that has much more in it than our world ever will. A land where potential is snuffed out by contingency. Murray was specifically wondering what would have happened but for the church. We will never know, of course, because those things did not happen. It makes accounting of the value of the church difficult. Perhaps we are not meant to do that. There was no church on the first Easter morning. Just demoralized and distraught disciples, of whom some women, because of love, went to tend to His body. We know they had an unexpected and marvellous encounter, and the others did so too in the following days and weeks. Then the disciples, uneducated, disorganized, and impoverished began to change the world. They had no apparent resources or might, no administrative experience, no powerful personal networks, no theological prowess. They all said they had seen Jesus risen and had met Him in a new way a little while later. And some new disciples, like St Paul, saw Him too, and so have others, in different places the world over. And the persecutions began. Only St John died of old age, we think, the other disciples martyred because they could not deny what they knew to be true. The church grew from a rudimentary and powerless beginning to spread throughout the world. Gamaliel, the wise councilor, warned his colleagues (Acts 5:38) to let the Christians be: if this work be of men, he said, it will come to naught. But if it be of God you cannot overthrow it. Many think the Resurrection is in Neverwhere. But our experience and our history show it is Everywhere.
Then rise, all Christian folk, with me
And carol forth the One in Three
That was, and is, and is to be,
By faith, the shield of heart and mind,
Through love, which suffers and is kind,
In hope, that rides upon the wind.
- 16th century German
Translated A.H. Fox-Strangways
Listen to an audio version of Love Unknown read by Chris Burn
Samuel Crossman’s poetic lyric My song is love unknown is inseparable from John Ireland’s tune Love Unknown. The haunting verse is an unforgettable part of many Passiontide services. Each time we realize it is the next hymn there is almost a ripple of anticipation in the congregation. A short meditation on the hymn opens Diarmaid MacCulloch’s monumental History of Christianity to summarize the focal point and mystery of our faith. During the Commonwealth, Crossman was the dissenting parson of Little Heney, a village on the eastern border of Essex marked then and now by the River Stour. The border is shared with Suffolk. It is the country of the artist Thomas Gainsborough. Further downstream, the river flows past Dedham, in the heart of the landscapes painted by John Constable. Crossman served at Little Heney until 1662, and his church is now gone. His poem first appeared in 1664, so he must have spent time in and around the village working out his rhyming scheme and the voice of Joseph of Arimathea that brings us the verses. He would have meandered along the lanes that still traverse those parts, now almost too small for a car, but then muddy and bounded by hedges. The paths and tracks would have been suitable for quiet thinking, necessary in those troubled times. Crossman had George Herbert’s poetry at hand; he took some phrases from him and modelled his first line on Herbert’s Love Unknown, not one of the poems we read often these days. It is a dream in which the poet’s foul, harsh, and insensitive heart is treated through washing, softening, and unsettling it. It is a dream of rejuvenation effected by the ever-attending love of God.
The Font did onely, what was old, renew:
The Caldron suppled, what was grown too hard:
The Thorns did quicken, what was grown too dull:
All did but strive to mend, what you had marr’d.
Wherefore be cheer’d, and praise him to the full
Each day, each houre, each moment of the week,
Who fain would have you be new, tender, quick.
Almost exactly opposite Little Heney, on the east bank of the Stour, is the Suffolk village of Little Cornard. It gives its name to the tune composed by Martin Shaw for the Advent hymn Hills of the North, Rejoice! The two hymns, attached to two banks of the same river, mark the beginning of our Redemption and its focus. Love unknown in its abundance, presence, persistence, and perseverance, waiting to be revealed.
The Word in the Flesh
Listen to an audio version of The Word in the Flesh read by Chris Burn
Discussion about each poem in our Lent poetry series has been led by three people, one who read the verse, one who opened the conversation, and one who presented a reaction to Rowan Williams’s comments on the piece. The discussions following these introductions have been supportive, peaceful, and reflective. Almost all of the poems have been new to our eyes, but one, Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi, was familiar. That poem opens with a quotation from the Nativity sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes at Whitehall in 1622. Eleven years earlier the text for Andrewes’s Nativity sermon was from St John (1:14): And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth. Andrewes quotes the Latin Et Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis …plenum gratiae et veritatis. He points out that (while in English, dwelt can be singular or plural,) the Latin habitavit is singular. The Word and the flesh were not two things, they were one. The Word was not cloaked by the flesh, the Word was not hosted by or in Jesus’s body, it was the same thing. It is difficult for us to grasp, accustomed as we are to separation of our minds from our bodies. I didn’t mean to do that is a common denial of responsibility. Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am – separates us from our environment as well. Last Saturday (March 25th) was the Feast of the Annunciation. It was when the Word became flesh. It is a moment of joy, rather different from Lent. Most identify its date as nine months before Christmas, but some believe it was chosen, after calculation, as the date of the Crucifixion, tidily completing the circle. Much of our post-Reformation preaching has attached our bodies to our sins, but in Holy Week the body is the focus: for adulation; for weeping; for anger; for embalming; for anxiety; for death. Each at a specific place: the streets; the city; the temple; Bethany; Gethsemane; Golgotha. Nevertheless, the events are drenched in faith, hope, and love. The best poetry conveys truth, likely in ways we have not recognized before:
Listen to an audio version of Anniversaries 2 read by Chris Burn
Sir Christopher Wren died just over 300 years ago in 1723. We remember him primarily for St Paul’s Cathedral, an icon that survived the blitz undamaged. Its then prominent, shadowy dome against the night sky an image that helped to sustain a nation in its darkest hour. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice – if you need a monument, look around you – is inscribed beneath the dome and on his tomb in the crypt. St Paul’s is not alone. Wren, not originally an architect but an applied mathematician, designed 51 other churches in London all rebuilt out of the ashes and rubble of the Great Fire of September 1666, only a year after severe plague. They both depressed the economic prospects of the Restoration, so that St Paul’s could only be reconstructed after it was made beneficiary of a tax on coal. Twenty-three of his churches still stand, survivors of the blitz that took 19, and various other attempts to pull them down. He strove to design a perfectly symbolic church fusing arrangements for listening to preaching, so fervently emphasized by the Puritans and Presbyterians, with the sacramental Anglo-Catholicism of the Restoration that gave us the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The view of the pulpit and altar are equally unobstructed. There is commonly a cross in the building’s plan and baroque fascination in his ornaments and gilding along with open space and high ceilings. His congregations looked up and looked forward. They were in places designed for the beauty of holiness that left the austere Commonwealth behind. Wren served six monarchs and their foibles as Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, but had begun as a scientist, being elected President of the fledging Royal Society in 1680. There was no artificial separation then between science and religion. He was born in a rectory and his uncle, Matthew Wren, was bishop of Ely. He held that mathematics conveyed truth and he became expert in geometry. His ecclesiastical architectural colleagues included Robert Hooke – who identified elastic properties of materials – and Robert Boyle – an early exponent of thermodynamics. All three came from a tradition that looked for the laws that govern the universe as the handiwork of God. They thought about why the natural world is structured and intelligible rather than simply dismissing both as fortunate coincidences.
Listen to an audio version of Anniversaries 1 read by Chris Burn
Anniversaries are the way we mark time, bound as we are into its cyclical trajectory. Days are ubiquitous, weeks govern our routine, months are stepping stones, but years dictate our development. The church’s everlasting year is packed with anniversaries, some of which are ingrained in our own lives. They can be as much cultural as clerical. Our own anniversaries are agents of memory. The first anniversary of a loved one’s death is especially difficult, more so than the week before or a few days afterwards. It is the unit of time that does it, reminded as we are of a loss that seems to have become complete. There is no turning back the clock, and yet it always returns to the same point. Our digital clocks treat time as an arrow, suggesting that once it passes it is gone, but our traditional clocks – analogue is their adjective now – treat time as a cycle. We need cyclical time in order to start again, a particularly Lenten practice, forgiveness being at the fresh beginning. But we also need it to share anniversaries across generations, friendships, and cultures. Historical anniversaries may be occasions for celebration and, with the passage of time, analysis. This year is the 400th anniversary of William Byrd (c. 1540-1623). He is a common visitor to St Bart’s, most recently on Ash Wednesday and the first Sunday in Lent. We listen to his polyphonic anthems and services as they were composed and originally sung, edited only slightly. His art lifts our worship, uncloaked by later development of his craft. We do not adjust his music to be more popular or fashionable. Literary, visual, and aural art endures unchanged while science is rapidly adopted and extended. Byrd began in the new Anglican church but in the 1570s became a Roman Catholic. Under Queen Elizabeth, priests were martyred, but lay people largely only fined for recusancy – avoiding attendance at their parish church. Byrd took a risk in following his conscience, but I expect his genius, well known to Elizabeth, saved him, along with payment of his fines.
Listen to an audio version of Thaxted read by Chris Burn
Last week I visited Thaxted Parish Church with Martin Rose, our former parishioner. It was built in the English Perpendicular style during the 14th and 15th centuries. Its original 14th century rafters form a high ceiling, with beams supported by angels. The first vicar on record is Thomas, but the list didn’t indicate when he started his incumbency. The second was William, vicar from 1314. John Puysaunt, appointed in 1546 served Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, staying in his living through all those oscillations. There was a Puritan vicar in the Commonwealth, James Parkin, who replaced an Anglican and was himself expelled in 1662 when the church returned to the good old way. Gustav Holst lived in Thaxted and composed The Planets there. Holst and the Red Vicar, Conrad Noel, began the Thaxted Music Festival in 1916, bringing choirs and orchestras to the church, into which over 1300 people can be packed. Noel was Vicar 1910-1942. He flew the hammer and sickle and the Sinn Fein tricolour in the church until a consistory court told him to stop. Frightening gargoyles decorate the outside, their mouths being conduits for rainwater that they pour away from the foundations. The walls are of flint stones held in mortar, but on the inside they are whitewashed. There is little stained glass, but many, many, small clear panes in the main windows and a clerestorey, flooding the place with light. Anyone can see the angels, watching us from on high. The memorial listed over 40 men, including three pairs of brothers, who had served in the Great War and did not return. There were faded poppies and hand-sized crosses for each of them. Too many for such a small town. Noel would have consoled the families, doubly deprived of their sons and the ability to bury them. In the 1970s, Peter Elers came out and then blessed the union of two women. It is a progressive place. Jacquetta Hawkes’s astonishing, poetic account of the geology of Britain, A Land, mentions: Britain without volcanoes or Alps or forests, is in general a gentle and domesticated land that seems to be wholly under our control. Yet it is not really controlled. Lie awake at night even in our composed Britain and think about how the land about you is changing every hour, as surely as your own body and as irresistibly. As Martin and I bent over almost double to leave through the medieval door and enter the evening twilight, I thought we could substitute church for land, and not just in England. The tune of our hymn 575 is Thaxted, composed by Gustav Holst.
Forty days and forty nights
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Forty days is a biblical time frame. Forty days and nights of torrential rain floated Noah’s ark; forty days on Mount Sinai gave Moses time to receive the commandments. There are forty days between Christmas and Candlemas, and from Easter to the Ascension. And, of course, Jesus’s sojourn in the wilderness after his baptism lasted 40 days. This is the principal model for Lent, with its forty days, excluding Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day. As Easter moves around, so does Ash Wednesday. We practice 40 days, but they are figurative. The period may have been literal in some cases, but the key is that the length is sufficient to effect a transformation. There is a before and an after. During Lent there is time for us and for things to change. Preparation for Easter is a purpose of Lent. A time for self-examination, penitence, and study. Self-denial is popular, but if practiced merely as a hiatus, a temporary interruption, then there is no difference before and after. Significant change occurred in all of the biblical 40 days; the world began again after the deluge wiped it clean and the animals came out two-by-two. In the Early Church, Easter was the most common day for baptisms, the sacrament that acknowledges membership in the Christian community. Before you were out; after you are in. It is a profound change for which everyone underwent preparation. Nullius in verba is the motto of the Royal Society of London, Take no one’s word, or as I heard recently, Don’t let anyone tell you what to believe. Becoming and being a Christian is a decision and path we must reach for ourselves, though sometimes the journey is bumpy. We can all renew our baptismal vows at Easter, quietly or with a flourish.
Now is the healing time decreed For sins of heart and word and deed
When we in humble fear record
The wrong that we have done the Lord.
(Latin, before the 12th century, from Exeter Cathedral)
Listen to an audio version of Lent read by Chris Burn
To Kingston, our Kingston, with its everlasting limestone academic halls, church bells, and an unusual climate. A ubiquitous carpet of green grass and last year’s unraked leaves covered the ground. Isolated mounds of dirty snow and ice crystals were the impoverished remains of formerly grand piles or drifts. Lent is from the Old English lencten, meaning spring. It follows our reading of the Transfiguration, a pivotal half-way point in the gospels. In the first full week of Lent we commemorate George Herbert (1593–1633). He was born in Lent (3 April), married in Lent (5 March), and died in Lent (1 March). His legacy is the poetry that set a standard for the spiritual verse that succeeded his. It was published late in the year of his death (1633) and has not been out of print since then. It is a witness to the primacy of love over theology, and the poetic imagination over analytical thought. Poets are primarily observers, who see beyond the visible spectrum. A man that looks on glass, we sometimes sing, On it may stay his eye; / Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, / And then the heav’n espy. Lent is time set aside for reflection on ourselves and our condition. It should not be hurried. It used to be preoccupied with sin, the evil we practice and participate in, however unintentionally or unavoidably. Herbert’s witty sonnet Sinne (I) describes all the rules, practices, and activities we may take to protect ourselves from sin, and Yet all these fences and their whole array / One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away. Herbert knew our fallibilities but urged us in his poem Lent, although We cannot reach our Savior's purity; / Yet are bid, Be holy ev'n as he. / In both let 's do our best. Returning on the train with its comforting, poetic rhythm of muffled eighth-note couplets, we arrived twenty minutes early, announced often with palpable pride by the running crew. Spring is early in Kingston and perhaps will be here, but Lent is on time.
Listen to an audio version of Periodicals read by Chris Burn
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament showeth his handy-work
Psalm 19 (BCP), 4th Day, Morning Prayer. Caeli enarrant
We used to take periodicals, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. They were especially welcome on long winter evenings when it was blowing outside. We would read and listen to a ticking clock. Not any more. Now we have the internet, its immediate news, analysis to fit our palettes, streams of entertainment, and precise, atomic time. The dailies have evolved with technology, but many periodicals have gone the way of letter-writing, overtaken by Zoom and Whatsapp. When they were around we would dive into them, heading for a favourite writer or cartoon, knowing where to find it. A friendly neighbour gives me his Spectator and I pass it on in turn, once a fortnight if the mail is regular. We value good writing and good argument, and we needn’t agree with it. For many of us the Bible has become a periodical, with a weekly or, perhaps, monthly visit. Very few attend daily Mattins or Evensong, where the Lectionary winds its way through the New Testament twice a year and the Old once. Instead, we hear the carefully selected weekly readings of years A, B, and C, and barely touch its breadth. Unpalatable passages come up only occasionally. Accidently, I imagine, the Psalms are repeated more than most of the Gospels. In 1662, the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer kept the translations of Myles Coverdale printed in England in 1537. We retained them again in 1962. It is a musical language, rhythmic and carefully scanned, in places genius. Dominus regit me – The Lord rules over me – we receive as The Lord is my shepherd. The original Preface of the Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, described how important it is to read or hear the Bible daily. It needed saying to the backsliders of the day. Archbishop Cranmer insisted on the revolutionary notion that we should hear the Word in our own language. He laid out a scheme – a Calendar he called it – to transit the scriptures once a year and the Psalms every month. The readings were lessons, to be absorbed. It would be ambitious to read the whole Bible in Lent, but not the Psalms. We could follow a pattern that has been continuously woven every month for nearly 500 years.
O how lovely are thy dwellings, thou Lord of hosts!
My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord:
My heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
Psalm 84 (BCP), 16th Day, Evening Prayer. Quam dilecta!
Listen to an audio version of Midwinter Spring read by Chris Burn
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding (1942)
This week, on Wednesday, came our midwinter spring. It was hardly tinged with fire. That we experienced last week at 30 below. Cold that gnawed, and burned our cheeks or ungloved hands. Eliot visited Little Gidding in May 1935. He imagined the transitory blossom of snow on the hawthorn hedges foretold their white blossom in May. Voluptuary sweetness, he called the spring blossoms. At choir practice this week, the snowbird tenors promised to desert us en masse, bound in their separate ways to their midwinter springs, travelling in space, not time. Other birds will vault over the North Atlantic and land in balmy Europe. The hardy will be left behind. Some places we visit will be as we imagined, others will not. Most will have changed, perhaps only a little. But the thin places - there we will be at home. Familiar views, familiar smells, familiar stone and familiar wood, all at familiar angles. Only the graveyards adjusted with a few fresh stones. Eliot said that at Little Gidding It would always be the same. He knew much of Nicholas Ferrar and delighted in George Herbert, both integral to the tiny chapel of St John where Ferrar worshipped day and night. Our hymn tunes sometimes transport us too. This week it is Cwm Rhondda, to the valleys of south Wales with their rugby and their rain. The Methodist revival took hold there and chapels flourished. There was lots of singing.
We could do with a revival or something to overcome the overbearing administration of our little world.
We must not fall into the dark; we must rise to the Light. Pray for us all, wherever you go.
Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord
Listen to an audio version of Candlemas, The Presentation of the Lord read by Chris Burn
This week was Candlemas, February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas. It marks the end of the Christmas season and focusses on Mary, mother of Jesus. There are six feasts for Mary; the next is the Annunciation. Oddly uncharacteristic of Lent, it marks the start of a new world order. We have two classic images of her: a new mother, just delivered of her Son, and the Queen of Heaven. The accounts we have span her pregnancy and her presence at the Crucifixion. We rarely touch on her home life. Yet both St Matthew (13: 55-56) and St Mark (6: 3) name Jesus’s four brothers and mention that He had sisters, the language suggesting at least three (all His sisters, says St Mark, not both). We do not contemplate her teaching or showing Jesus how to be God in a human body. God has no hands but ours, and He chose hers. She must have taught Him all the usual habits, to eat up His dinner and to comb His hair, and then the others, to be open and receptive, discerning of the Word, to listen and to pray, and to live by love. All this as one of at least eight children in the household. Perhaps Joseph helped too; he probably did. St Matthew recognises him in the large family. And perhaps Jesus helped with those who arrived after Him. Can you imagine he didn’t? Could you imagine Him as your brother? At Candlemas, the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, Mary and Joseph met Simeon, who recognised her baby and gave us the Nunc dimittis. He had seen the Messiah. He could depart in peace. Candlemas is a day for those who have just come into the world and for those who will soon leave it. It is a time to remember those who look after us, even if now from a distant shore.
Ronald Blythe (1922-2023)
Listen to an audio version of Ronald Blythe read by Chris Burn
The Calendar is back, but in mourning. Ronald Blythe, 100 last November, has gone to God and to join his friends and neighbours. His weekly diary from the rural Suffolk parish of Wormingford, published for 25 years in the Church Times, inspired The Calendar. His national stature, though, was from Akenfield (1969), the oral history recounting village life between the wars. It illuminated a different world, perhaps a foreign country where so much of what we take for granted – health care, spacious housing, sufficient food, central heating, cellular telephones, electric light – was unavailable; horses pulled the ploughs. I, born in 1959, had no idea. He went on to a prescient account of old age, The View in Winter, published in 1979 well before we became concerned about the elderly. But it is the Word from Wormingford column that many people looked forward to each week. It fused together rural life, a literary heritage, and the church year. Not piously, but observantly, accepting time’s passage in the long scheme of things. He knew those now in the churchyard are as much a part of the world as those we meet in the street; and those whom we can read are as alive among us as our friends on the coffee rota. He notices an aircraft overhead before the early morning twilight that reminds him of the Epiphany star moving brightly and deliberately to its rightful destination while the January frost is as Coleridge saw it outside his window: The frost performs its secret ministry/Unhelped by any wind. The best summary description of permafrost I’ve ever read. Then, at 8 on the dot, the sunrise cascades over the barn roof like a fireworks display, yet still another little boy lies sleeping, as intellectuals as well as ordinary folk peer down at him. A young clergyman writes an Epiphany hymn in his son’s exercise-book. It is “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning”. It is Bishop Heber in 1811 but it could be any one of us looking on our child or grandchild.