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"O Lord, open thou our lips and our mouth shall shew forth thy praise". (Opening words of the Book of Common Prayer service of Morning Prayer) It would seem that there are a growing number of people who are finding the current restrictions on movement difficult. Mental health charities are encouraging everyone to establish a healthy and regular pattern of daily life. A discussion on Radio 4, sought advice from contributors about what we might do to assist us in this process. Abbot Christopher Jamison OSB, the current Abbot General of the English Benedictines, suggested beginning each day with praise. He recommended that we should all try to start our day with an act of gratitude. Some fifteen hundred years ago, St.Benedict, the founder of his order, set out in his rule how the monks should begin their day. The Office of Lauds begins with Psalm 66.
"O be joyful in God all ye lands, sing praises unto the honour of his name, make his praise be glorious". (v.1)
and it ends,
"Praised be God who hath not cast out my prayer; nor turned his mercy from me." (v.18)
Amidst the worthy celebrations of VE Day last Friday, I heard an interview with a Scottish lady, recorded on the 8th May 1945. She was explaining that her own particular rejoicing at the end of the war in Europe was somewhat muted. Of her four sons, one had been killed, another had lost limbs, whilst two had survived. I was reminded that for many who lost loved ones in that conflict, the day when it ended would be a time of considerable poignancy. I was also reminded of John Betjeman's poem, "In memory of Basil, Marquess of Dufferin and Ava".
Basil Dufferin had been a student friend of Betjeman at Oxford before the war and subsequently died in Burma. Hearing the VE Day bells ring out, Betjeman writes,
"Stop, oh many bells, stop pouring on roses and creeper
Your unremembering peal this hollow, unhallowed V.E.Day,
I am deaf to your notes amid dead by a soldier's body in Burma".
About thirty years ago now, an advert appeared in the "Personal" column of The Country Landowner magazine, "Attractive, affectionate young lady, single, aged thirty five, having survived last winter in cold, draughty, inconvenient old home, seeks unattached farmer with super, new, detached and modern farmhouse. Please send photograph of farmhouse."
Having spent my working life, living in houses that belong to others, a home has been both a living and a working space. Some of those houses were more attractive than others, some we left with regret, others with gratitude. But I suspect that the last seven weeks has made us rather more aware of our homes and our immediate surroundings. We have become grateful for space, solitude, distance, familiar possessions and the time to enjoy them. Some, I know, have used this time to make changes; our sheds and garages have never been more tidy! As we are encouraged to move a little further afield, it would be good if we could look afresh at other aspects of our lives. What might we do about our travel, our use of resources, the needs of our neighbours and our relationships with those whom we love.
If we are, eventually, to return to "normal", I wonder how far it will have changed?
Yesterday, I wrote a little about to-day's gospel passage from the gospel according to St.John. Included in the reading are some of the most quoted words of Jesus. John Chapter 14. verse 6 reads, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life". We shall never know what Jesus meant by that saying. We may form some idea as to how and why John included it in his gospel. But we have come to assume that the "Way" of Jesus is something that is freely available to all. It is a choice that we can make. A direction for us to follow.
Dag Hammarskjold was Secretary General of the United Nations when the plane in which he was travelling was destroyed in 1961. Amongst his private papers was a "White Book", a collection of his written thoughts and feelings. This was published after his death under the title, "Markings". He was a Christian and wrote in 1955, "It is not we who seek the Way, but the Way which seeks us. That is why you are faithful to it, even while you stand waiting, so long as you are prepared and act the moment you are confronted by its demands"
Before even the vaguest idea of faith was planted in our souls, God was searching for us. His call precedes all else. Much of what we rather grandly call, "the life of faith", is spent in waiting and that is how God means it to be. But sometimes, His call requires us to act and then we must decide, what can we do to say "Yes" to God?
Tomorrow, May 10th is the 5th Sunday of Easter. The Gospel passage for the day is John 14 v1-14. It is probably one of the best known pieces of scripture as it is often read at funerals. It begins with some words of Jesus, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me." (John 14v1)
Central to the Christian faith is the belief that God is not a transcendent reality, unconcerned about those whom He has created. Rather, He is a personal God who knows our needs and loves us individually. Indeed, He positively invites us to put our trust in Him and place into His hands our cares and concerns.
Here are some words from Jean-Pierre de Caussade, the eighteenth century writer and Spiritual Director,
"Since God offers to take upon Himself the care of our affairs, let us once for all abandon them to His infinite wisdom, that we may never more be occupied with aught but Him and His interests." ("Self Abandonment to Divine Providence")
How often do our troubled hearts testify to our unwillingness to allow God to love us? All that is asked of us by God is that we hear and accept His invitation," to take upon himself the care of our affairs".
Vere Hodgson, lived in London during the course of the Second World War. Engaged in welfare work in Holland Park, she had a reserved occupation. She kept a diary, a record of events between 1939 and 1945, largely to inform her cousin, Lucy, who had left England to live in Rhodesia. Published after the war under the title, "Few eggs and no oranges", she describes her diary as that of, "an ordinary commonplace Londoner". Her day by day accounts of bombing, privations and the steadfastness of the population are both a revelation and an inspiration. The diary ends on May 8th, 1945.
"Kit and I reached St.Paul's at about 11 a.m. One service was in progress, but another was soon to begin. All through, I continued to give thanks for our great deliverance.....The Choir sang "The Te Deum". All the little boys were back. We sang all three verses of the National Anthem with great firmness, confounding the politics with tremendous enthusiasm".
There were ten services in St.Paul's that day, so many were the people who wanted to attend and give thanks. How refreshing to discover that there was political correctness in 1945. And even more refreshing to learn that on that day of relief and gratitude, the congregation were enthusiastically prepared to "confound" it!
The travel writer, Eric Newby, served in the Special Boat Service before being captured in 1942. He escaped from an Italian POW camp before being helped to evade capture by local peasants. Eventually, he was recaptured and transported to Germany where he remained imprisoned until the end of the war. In August 1944, in Oflag 79, he and his fellow inmates found themselves bombed by American Flying Fortresses. One of them wrote to his friend in England,
Tell your mum (she was in some secret job in the War Office) to send us some anti-aircraft guns. What happened yesterday is beyond a joke. We're not prepared to put up with it. PS Don't show this letter to my parents, just tell your mum to STOP IT".
Unsurprisingly, the letter never arrived. It is good to recall that many can find humour amidst the limitations and dangers of confinement.
The Revd Alan Ecclestone and the parishes in which he worked, were at the heart of the Parish Communion and Parish Meetings movements. In his retirement, he wrote a number of remarkable books and compiled a "Book of Days", 365 quotations, one for each day, entitled "Gather the Fragments". May 6th is one of my favourites. It is some words from Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the great spiritual voices of the 20th century. "What is involved in authentic living is not only an intuition of meaning but a sensitivity to demand. A person is he/she of whom demands can be made, someone who has the capacity to respond to what is required."
What is most important in our lives is not what we have or what we do. Nor is it to do with our few successes and our many failures. Rather, It would seem to have something to do with an understanding of what it is that gives our lives meaning and purpose. In addition, it is an acknowledgement that we are people "of whom demands can be made". During the course of our lives, certain things will be required of us and how we respond will be a test of our authenticity. As true to-day, I think, as it was in May 1945.
Some thoughts this week as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day. During the course of most of World War 2, John Colville was Private Secretary to Winston Churchill. He kept a diary and in 1985 this was published under the title, "The Fringes of Power". On May 4th 1945, Colville was at a post Cabinet lunch and reported,
"it was pointed out that in former occupied countries, the underground organisations have necessarily been built up on a basis of lies and intrigue. It will be very difficult to ensure that this does not become the tradition of public life and on the children in particular, the effect may be very noxious."
I wonder what the effects will be on the children who have grown up in this present pandemic? I am not suggesting that there is much by way of "lies and intrigue". However, there will, inevitably be a sense of deprivation, confinement and in due time also a degree of fear. In the long-term, what might be the effect on healthy development, educational achievement and the prospect of future employment?
In the Common Worship Lectionary, May the 4th is the day set aside to commemorate "English Saints and Martyrs of the Reformation era". The sixteenth century was a time of considerable religious debate and divisions within the Christian community. Many men and women suffered and died for their convictions. Chancellor Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher were executed in 1535 by Henry the 8th for refusing to swear to the Act of the King's Supremacy. Bishops Latimer and Ridley were burnt at the stake for heresy in 1555 by Queen Mary. In the subsequent four hundred years, criticism has been levelled at those responsible; Henry condemned as a heretic and his daughter as "Bloody Mary". But this day reminds us that faithful men and women, whether Catholic or Reformed, were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. It also reminds us that it is unwise to use the deaths of others as a political or religious weapon.
This would also seem to be true, when countries and their leaders are being encouraged to see numbers of fatalities as a victory or a defeat.
To-day is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The gospel passage for to-day is taken from St John’s Gospel, Chapter 10. v 1-10. In it, Jesus refers to himself as "the gate to the sheepfold". It is one of the seven occasions in the gospel when Jesus describes himself in terms of "I am", (The Bread of Life, The True Vine etc). A shepherd, his sheep and the sheepfold, provide images of careful tending, protection and security. The gate not only allows unwanted visitors to remain outside, it also provides a boundary for those who are contained within. It would seem an appropriate gospel for a time when we feel some security within boundaries.
We have become used to some "careful tending and protection" of ourselves and others. But a time is approaching when we will need to begin to open the gate, albeit slowly and carefully. Amidst our natural concerns for our safety, we can be assured that “I am" is always with us and from Him we cannot be parted.
Despite having a small garden, we are blessed with a number of mature trees. A Copper Beech, which has just come into leaf, an Oak and nearest the house, a Crabapple. The latter has just shed most of its spectacular blossom and is now offering shade from the warming sun. Traditionally, the blossom of the Hawthorn was kept out of the house. It was believed that its scent was reminiscent of death and decay. But many trees are welcomed for their healing properties. The fruit, bark and leaf of the Ash, Beech and Birch were used by our ancestors as remedies for ailments. The Crabapple was believed to assist with a range of illnesses from indigestion to gout. Devotional hymns and prayers for Good Friday, sometimes refer to the cross as "the glorious tree"; the crucified Christ, the fruit that heals. It is an image that would have resonated with the faithful.
May 1st marks the saint's day of not one but three of those canonised by the church. In an act of solidarity with labour throughout the world, to-day Roman Catholics celebrate "St.Joseph the Worker". In the Anglican Communion, May 1st is the joint saint's day of St.Philip and St.James. We are told in the gospels that they were both amongst the first twelve disciples. James was the son of Alphaeus and is sometimes known as "James the Less" to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John. But on this day, it is on Philip that I tend to reflect. In St. John's Gospel (Chapter 1. v43), we read that Jesus says to Philip, "follow me". And having decided to obey, Philip brings with him his friend Nathanael. I wonder how many of us have been introduced to the Christian faith through the influence of a friend? How many of us have made friends through the faith we have shared with others?
Difficult times remind us of the value of our friends and we use those times to nourish and support others.
Despite the fact that we are unable to meet together in church, we have been able to pray at home. I wonder what form those prayers have taken? It is quite natural for us, particularly at this present time, to ask God for things; help, protection, support, encouragement. It is also natural for us to ask for the same things for those whom we love. Despite the current situation or indeed because of it, prayer may also be an opportunity for thanksgiving, an appreciation of God's gifts to us. But there is also another form of prayer.
The poet W.H.Auden wrote, "To pray is to pay attention, or shall we say to listen to someone other than oneself". This "attention" means setting aside our concerns to listen to the voice of God. Amidst the tumult of our lives, this "listening to someone other than yourself", may create some space and some peace.
This morning, at first light, I watched as a hedgehog scampered with some alacrity across the lawn outside our kitchen window. In the past , we have failed to appreciate their significant contribution to our rural life. Flora Thompson, author of "Lark Rise to Candleford", tells that in her childhood, hedgehogs were mistreated. Youths would stone them to death or use them as footballs. Gamekeepers, believing them to eat the eggs of game-birds, systematically slaughtered them. Others were hunted for food, encased in clay and roasted in the embers of a fire. But to-day, they are acknowledged as the gardeners' friend. Relishing a diet of slugs and snails, they make the use of chemical pellets not only unnecessary but dangerous. As with many other species, they are unconcerned about threats to our health or the economy.
As a friend of mine observed, "it is good to realise that God has other interests besides men!"
The current crisis has illustrated the importance not just of good science but also good leadership. It has been instructive to observe the leadership qualities of those currently exercising political power. Those who were initially the most cautious about the virus would seem to be the most successful at containing it. In contrast, the leaders who dismissed its threat as a "hoax" or "fake news", now struggle to cope with the extent of infection. Most of us are led by those who sensibly, followed the scientific advice of the experts.
I was reminded of some advice of Bernard, the 12th century abbot of the monastery at Clairvaux. In true Benedictine teaching, he had been elected to the post by his fellow monks. Asked for his advice on how to exercise his authority and power within a community he wrote,
"Notice everything, correct a little, cherish the brethren."
I hope we might be blessed with leaders who follow his advice.
This year we will be celebrating seventy-five years since VE day. Our planned events and gatherings have had to be postponed, for a little while at least. On the 27th April 1940, Sir Alan Brooke was serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Northern France. Tom, a son from his first marriage, was also serving with his father and had been taken seriously ill with appendicitis and complications. Sir Alan wrote in his diary,
"I held a Corps conference at HQ to discuss suggestions that 11 Corps should advance on what has, up to the present,been 1 Corps front in the event of a move into Belgium. After lunch I went to see Tom. Surgeon said he was definitely not worse and probably better,"
I suspect that all crises, whether military or health, have both a national and a personal front. Whilst we try to come to grips with figures, graphs and trends, each casualty and each death is a loved member of a family with neighbours, colleagues and friends. Although Sir Alan was evacuated from St.Nazaire on the 17th June 1940, five years later as Chief of the Imperial General Staff he was at the side of the King and the Prime Minister to celebrate VE Day. On the 5th July 1945, Sir Alan took Tom to the theatre, " A disappointing play"!
The Community of the Sisters of the Love of God, have their main house in Oxford. They live a largely hidden life of contemplation and silent prayer. Sister Jane SLG was a member of the community for over forty years and for fourteen of those years its Mother Superior. When she died, a collection was made of her correspondence and edited into a small volume. "Loving God Whatever", manages to convey Sister Jane's humility, faith and distinctive spirituality. On April 26th, towards the end of her life and living for much of the time apart from the daily life of the community she wrote, "When God is no longer received through liturgy, common life and observance, the essence of Him and His love and fun, comes bubbling out of very mundane, secular sources and even the awfulness doesn't manage to have quite the last word."
We can no longer, for a while at least, apprehend God in the life and liturgy of our churches. But what Sister Jane calls His "essence", can be perceived in secular events and won't allow the present "awfulness" to triumph.
On the Sundays after Easter, the gospel passage is one of the stories of the risen Jesus and his encounters with his disciples. Tomorrow, the third Sunday of Easter, the passage is taken from Luke chapter 24. v 13-35. It tells the story of two, otherwise unknown disciples, walking and talking with a stranger on a seven mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It is only when the stranger shares a meal with them that they recognise their risen Lord. Like many of you, I have spent more time than usual walking in the glorious spring weather. Fewer cars on the roads make that experience more enjoyable and there have been more people with whom to talk. The gospels tell us that Jesus spent most of his time out of doors. He attended the synagogue on the Sabbath and would occasionally have visited the Temple. But most of his ministry, his teaching and healing were away from a building or a particular place of worship. We can be with the risen Christ on our walks and in our fields and on our footpaths.
"Jesus, unrecognised, travels with his church on its pilgrimage and in its perplexity". (Eric Franklin)
I suspect that this has been a good year for Wild Garlic. It grows well around here and with the exception of roadside verges, it is good and safe to eat. We have already had some of the flowers in a salad and enjoyed the broad leaf blades in casseroles. It has an ancient place in our countryside and it was traditionally called "Ramsons". Some British place names; Ramsden, Ramsey, Ramshope and Ramshorn, all bear witness to the growth and use of wild garlic.
Where Ruth and I lived in Kent, there was a similar profusion of the plant. Eighty years ago, evacuated children would send bundles of wild garlic back to their parents in London where they were suffering the deprivations of rationing. As Richard Mabey reminds us in "Flora Britannica", the absence of plastic bags did not make the children popular with the postman!
To-day is St.George's Day and the first reading at Morning Prayer came from the Book of Joshua. On the brink of the Israelites entering the promised land, their leader, Moses had died. His successor, Joshua is reminded by God,
"Be strong and of good courage, do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go". (Joshua 1. v9)
As I read these words and was reassured by them, I was reminded of the late, great Rabbi Hugo Gryn. He had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and came to Britain in 1946 as part of the Kinder-transport. He trained as a rabbi in the USA and eventually worked in the West London Synagogue for over thirty years. When he was interviewed by Sue Lawley on "Desert Island Discs" in 1994, he chose, as his final record, the musical setting of some words from Reb Nachman of Breslov, a 19th century Jewish mystic.
"The whole world is a narrow bridge (he wrote) and the important thing (Hebrew IKAR: "essence") is not to be afraid".
I found myself listening to Radio Four's "To-day" programme earlier this week. A captain of industry was being interviewed about the record low price of oil. He was asked if this might be a long-term consequence of Covid 19 and his answer surprised me. He considered that the long term consequences of the virus would be twofold. First, we will have recovered an awareness that the most important thing in life is our individual and collective health. Any and all environmental threats to our health and this will clearly include the use of fossil fuels, will have to be re-assessed. Secondly, we will once again have come to the conclusion that "we can't mess around with nature" (his words). BSE taught us that herbivores should not be fed the carcasses of animals, however well processed.
Covid 19 will drive us to reconsider the animals we consume, their rearing, slaughter, sale and consumption. I sat and applauded this particular contributor; a sadly rare occurrence when listening to "To-day"!
The Twenty first of April marks the birthday of both my wife and Her Majesty the Queen. It was announced some time ago that there would be no flags flown or salutes fired. For everyone whose birthdays have fallen during this critical time, celebrations will have been muted. This will be particularly true for those who are self-isolating, those in hospices, nursing homes and hospitals and for all those who care for them. But the Twenty first of April is also the feast day of St.Anselm. Anselm travelled from his abbey at Bec in Normandy, to succeed Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He had a very difficult sixteen years as Archbishop, often in conflict with his kings, William and Henry and with the Norman barons. In addition, his church largely comprised conquered and subjugated people who resented his translation. Exiled twice, Anselm's life was characterised by faithfulness and constancy. Perhaps this is all that God requires from us in times of difficulty and uncertainty?
I called at the Stawley shop on Friday afternoon, purchasing only "essentials". However, I am not sure if cider, crisps and smoked salmon are what Her Majesty's Government has in mind! Sitting in the corner, suitably socially distanced, I managed to encounter five parishioners in the course of half an hour. Even without the current restrictions, this is a much greater success rate than visiting people in their homes. We are tempted to think that we are only effective if we are busy "doing" things. We feel frustrated if our busyness is constrained and we feel somehow redundant. But there are opportunities available to us if we choose, or are forced, to remain in one place.
I suspect that this is also true of our spiritual lives. We think that God expects us to be always spiritually active; attending services, saying prayers, serving others, doing good. The Abbe de Tourville, writing to a penitent in the nineteenth century, encouraged simply resting in the knowledge of God's love.
"You are the object of God's mercy. Be satisfied with that and think only of that".
We may now have an enforced opportunity to think more of God's activity than our own.
"On the eighth day, you shall hold a holy convocation and present an offering by fire to the Lord" Leviticus Chapter 23. verse 36.
To-day is the eighth day of Easter, commonly called Low Sunday, probably after the highs of Easter Day. In the Old Testament and Judaism, the eighth day of some feasts had particular significance. When the feasts of the Tabernacles and the Dedication of the Temple were celebrated, certain ritual functions took place on the eighth and final day. This practice was taken over by the early Christian Church. Easter and Pentecost both had Octaves, perhaps as an extended period of reflection and prayer by the newly baptised.
To-day, we tend to continue our celebrations both of Christmas and Easter for a longer period, forty days rather than just eight. It tends to encourage us to think of both Christ's birth and resurrection as events that influence our lives each and every day, rather than on only one day of the year. Instead of thinking that Easter is over, we may want to reflect on it just beginning.
I wonder if you listened to Easter Sunday's "The Reunion", on BBC Radio 4? It brought together Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Waite, who together and apart had shared the experience of being hostages in Lebanon between 1985 and 1992. They discussed how a sense of humour had kept them sane in their years of captivity. From time to time, each of them were moved to a new location, often by being tied in a large bag and locked in the boot of a car. After Keenan's release, McCarthy began one such journey in a car boot alone. He was luxuriating in the new experience of extra space when the boot was opened and a large bag dropped on top of him. "This is a big boot", said the muffled voice of Terry Waite. "Well it was before you got in", replied McCarthy.
I think it was Harry Williams who observed, "laughter reminds us that there is a future". For those three hostages, kept in darkness and chained to radiators, the future remained real.
Many of my earliest memories in childhood are related to sport. Playing games at school and watching my favourite teams in the holidays occupied much of my time. I must have been only about thirteen, when I first went to Elland Road to support Leeds United. We travelled on the train from Ripon to Leeds and spent our pocket money on a match programme. It was with great sadness therefore that I heard to-day of the death of one of my boyhood heroes, Norman Hunter. He played 726 times for Leeds in fourteen years at the club, winning four trophies. In addition, he was capped twenty eight times for England.
He died in hospital, fighting a characteristically tough battle against Covid 19. Each evening, numbers of those contracting the disease and those dying from it are published by the Government. It seems difficult to make sense of numbers; even the names of people we do not know, fail to bring home the reality of death and disease. But the felling of a hero, with its sense of diminishment and loss tends to remind us of the fragility of life. Not that there was much that was "fragile" about dear old Norman!
Yesterday, I found myself listening to Choral Evensong on Radio Three at 3.30 p.m. As I was late into my seat in the congregation, it was only at the conclusion of the service that I was told that it had been broadcast from an Episcopalian church in Dallas, Texas. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the traditional words of The Book of Common Prayer, sung and read in an American accent, but totally familiar and unabridged. I recalled, with a sense of relief, that Texas is one of the states least affected by the outbreak of Covid 19. But it also set me searching in my ancient 1928 version of The Prayer Book, for a prayer that I have never used either privately or publicly in forty six years of ministry.
"Grant, we beseech thee merciful Lord, help and deliverance unto us, who are visited with grievous sickness and mortality. Sanctify to us this our sore distress and prosper with thy continual blessing those who labour to devise for mankind protection against disease and pain; through Him who both healed and hallowed pain, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
Deliver us from this sickness.
Help us to find holiness within it.
I have just returned home from officiating at the funeral of Joan Fudge. Due to the current restrictions, the service took place in the churchyard and it was attended by a dozen or so members of the family and close friends. Some of you who knew Joan, will have been disappointed not to have been able to join us. Although we were not inside St.Bartholomew's, the funeral service was otherwise unchanged and there was, I think, a sense that being outside on a lovely sunny spring day was entirely appropriate.
Watching the images from New York, where some coffins have been placed in mass unmarked graves without the company of those whom the deceased knew and loved and without prayers, commendation, or words of committal, made me aware of the scale of the death toll in just one state in the USA. In addition, the fact that to-day we were able to lay a loved one to rest after completing a long and fulfilled life, surrounded by those who mourn her passing, was the source of re-assurance and comfort.
I am aware that some are finding difficult the enforced solitude placed upon us. Although we are blessed here to be able to enjoy the natural world, whether it be in our gardens or on our walks, very many people are not only alone but also indoors for much of their day. Inevitably, it will mean a sense of loss and deprivation. The company of others and sharing their concerns is important to us. But our aloneness, without distractions may help us to learn more about ourselves. It may also help us to sympathise with those who find themselves confined or restrained against their will.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor who opposed the Nazis and sided with the Confessing Church. He was arrested in 1943, held in solitary confinement and executed in 1945. After his death, his "Letters and Papers from Prison" was published in which he wrote, "Each morning is a new beginning of our life. Each day is a finished whole. The present day marks the boundary of our cares and concerns. It is long enough to find God and to lose him. God created night and day for us so that we might not wander without boundaries".
"April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain".
"The Waste Land", 1922
Mr Eliot was certainly right about April. Yesterday was too hot to sit out and today too cold. We shouldn't really be surprised. Writing in the seventh century, The Venerable Bede, sometimes called "the father of English history", tells us that the word "Easter" originates in Anglo Saxon. EOSTRE was an Anglo Saxon pagan goddess of spring and the word, Eostre means "east wind".
When Christianity was finally established in Britain, it ordained that this pagan feast of spring would be an appropriate, if often chilly opportunity to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. April, like Easter, is a time to attend to new life emerging from the darkness of death and the victory of hope over despair; truly a time of the "mixing of memory and desire".
Archbishop Rowan Williams has reminded us that "recognition" is one of the themes of the Resurrection stories of Jesus. In John's gospel, Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ but thinks he is the gardener. Later, in Luke's gospel, disciples meet and talk with a stranger on the road to Emmaus and only realise that it is Jesus when he sits with them for a meal and they recognise Him in the breaking of the bread.
These moments of recognition and realisation are all part of being human. The circumstances and patterns of our lives are all too often taken for granted without a great deal of consideration or understanding. It takes a momentous event, sometimes a severe illness or the death of someone we love to remind us of the reality of our lives. Although at present our daily life is full of apprehension and uncertainty, I sense a growing recognition that our lives will never be the same again. It is as if we have realised that things we have taken for granted for so long must be recognised, acknowledged and treasured afresh. Whether this be our public services or those who feed us and protect us, our neighbours and members of our family or simply the delicate fabric of our existence, we have recognised that there is such a thing as "society" and we are a part of it. How much and how far this will be a lasting legacy for future generations we shall have to wait and see.
With my blessings and best wishes for a very happy Easter,
I am afraid that the current situation brought our Lent course to a grinding and premature halt. I had hoped that we might consider five works of art but only managed three. The fourth was to be 'Holy Saturday" by Mark Cazalet, painted in 2010. It presents us with a picture of a silent and deserted forest clearing. Some trees are standing, others reclining and all prepared for the imminent arrival of spring.
To-day, in the life of the church, our lives are silent and deserted. Jesus rests in the tomb and the whole creation with him. But we know that tomorrow will bring the new life of the Resurrection and however empty to-day may seem, we have time to prepare ourselves for its arrival. We hope and pray that in these dark days, when our lives may seem deserted and empty, we find something of God's everlasting and unconditional love, revealed to us in Christ's victory over death.
When I was a boy, the route from my father's place of work to our home took me past our local Roman Catholic church. Outside, there was a life-size Pieta; the figures of Mary, the mother of Jesus, cradling in her lap the body of her dead son. Each day, as I cycled past, I noticed it and rode on. I recognised the figures, I knew the story, but it failed to nurture within me any seeds of faith. To-day, that Pieta is one of the images that I carry with me each and every Good Friday.
This poem by R.S. Thomas is entitled "Pieta".
Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Of the still scene.
And in the foreground
The tall cross.
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid's arms.
To-day is Maundy Thursday, from the Latin "mandatum" or "command". "A new commandment I give unto you that you love one another". John 13. v34. They are the words of Jesus at the final meal which he shared with his companions just before he was arrested and the day before his death. The word "companion" also has a Latin derivation and means literally, "someone with whom bread is shared". This sharing of a meal with friends is at the heart of the Christian faith and manifest in The Eucharist.
To-night we were to celebrate this particular evening in the life of the church with our own Eucharist in St.Nicholas", Kittisford. Sadly, we are unable to do so. But we are able to share a meal with those whom we love and in so doing imitate the actions of Jesus. It is love that binds us together and love that we celebrate over the course of the next three days.
Between 1981 and 1985, I served in the Diocese of Exeter as The Bishop's Domestic Chaplain. His name was Eric Mercer and he was one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. He had served as a tank commander in World War 2, fought at Anzio and suffered the privations of the Italy campaign. One year, I asked him what he was planning to do on Good Friday after his official engagements were completed. "What I do every Good Friday...my annual Holy Week act of penitence", he replied. I enquired further, expecting some strict religious observance; he was a Bishop after all. "I clean out the freezer", he answered.
Holy Week and particularly Good Friday is a time for penitence. It is a time to consider our lives and our faults and failings. This year, we may not be able to do this in our churches, but it is a worthwhile task nonetheless. Once completed, we can perform an act of contrition; a particular task that confirms our regret and also our intention to try and do better.
The freezer awaits.
Sister Jane SLG was the Mother Superior of the Community of the Sisters of the Love of God for fourteen years. After her death, a small volume was published; a collection of extracts from her letters. Archbishop Robert Runcie said of her, "There is a streak of natural scepticism in her character which makes her words of faith and fortitude still accessible to those who find it difficult to believe".
On this day, April 7th, she wrote to a friend, "Now I am looking out on sunny Sussex countryside, having had a lovely, lazy, yet-more-holiday time here. It seems somewhat obscene to be so idle, but nevertheless I manage it very well." I wonder how we are managing with our enforced idleness? Many of us are unable to work as normal, meet colleagues, travel abroad or even, like Mother Jane, go on holiday. But there are opportunities for joy in our idleness. Whether it be our appreciation of the natural world, the reading of long anticipated books, the invitation of our gardens or the return to a neglected pastime, there are things for us to enjoy. We may even be able to find renewed consolation in the company of those whom we love.
Seemingly, Coronavirus and Brexit together have discouraged many seasonal workers from coming here in the summer. It has been suggested that those laid off in the entertainment and leisure industries, might find alternative seasonal employment in agriculture. However, apparently this is not as easy as it might seem. Many agricultural jobs, although low-paid are not unskilled. Bringing over the same workers to carry out the same task year by year saves time and resources otherwise spent on training inexperienced staff.
It has led me to reflect upon the value of low paid work and the contribution made by the so- called "unskilled". Those who grow food, stack shelves, clean wards and empty bins provide so much of what we really need for our daily life. There would be a detrimental effect on the quality of our lives if their valuable contribution were lost.
When it comes to the common good, surely the supposedly unskilled and the low paid are the equal of us all?
To-day is Palm Sunday. Traditionally it is the day that begins Holy Week and recalls the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, five days before his death. I am always struck on this day by a suspicion that many in the crowd who to-day proclaimed Jesus as The Messiah, will be the same people who on Friday will be calling for His execution.
It leads me to ponder two things. The first is the transience of popularity. World leaders tend to see their approval ratings rise in times of crisis but it would be dangerous to take that popularity for granted. The second is the identity and power we feel as a part of a crowd. Belonging to a large group of like-minded neighbours and friends is uplifting. It can also be persuasive. Social isolation may allow us greater independence of thought and action; some time apart to form our own opinions and act upon them.
In 1652, "A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson" was published. It was the work of the poet and priest George Herbert who had died in 1633. It is the definitive guide for those who aspire (and fail) to be good parish priests. In Chapter eight he writes,
"The Country Parson, as soon as he awakens on a Sunday morning, presently falls to work and seems to himself so as a Market-man he is, when the market day comes or as a shopkeeper, when customers used to come in."
This is the second Sunday when we find ourselves without church and its services. Our "market" is suspended, our "shop" closed. Some will find consolation in being able to pray at home. Others might find helpful services broadcast either nationally or locally. Here are the details of just four for tomorrow (Palm Sunday, April the 5th).
BBC TV 1100 Sunday Worship from Hereford Cathedral.
1315 Songs of Praise from Glasgow.
Radio 4 0810 Sunday Worship, "Walking in the company of Jesus"
Local 10Radio 105.3 FM 1000 "The Home Service" with The Revd Tim Treanor
I was a little uncertain about standing on our doorstep last night, participating in our appreciation for those hard at work in the NHS. This had nothing to do with any lack of gratitude on my part or an unwillingness to express it. Rather, it was because one of our not too distant neighbours is a young hospital doctor at Musgrove Park Hospital and I didn't want to interrupt an early night or disturb her time-off.
It would seem that many of us have re-discovered our awareness of the debt we owe to many, on whom our lives depend. These include not just doctors and nurses but all those who work in the NHS, Care Homes, and Hospices. It also includes those who deliver and sell our food, dispense our prescriptions and keep us safe. Taking others for granted is something that I do all too easily. This current crisis might serve as a reminder to live more appreciative lives and to express our gratitude in an appropriate manner.
"Do not be afraid about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" Philippians 4 v 6.
If you believe in God, I hope that now is a time for prayer. With our churches closed for the time being, prayer is something we can do wherever we might be. That prayer may sometimes be characterised by gratitude, a sense of thanksgiving for all that we have received. Often our prayer will be a prayer of petition or intercession; prayers where we make specific requests of God. We will be asking God to care for His world and all those whom he has created.
I have never believed that God will change His will or permission in response to any of my requests. But intercession is the way in which we place God's world and ourselves into His hands. It is the way in which we remind ourselves that our cares and concerns are known to God and that He is in charge of our lives.
Finally, prayer may help us to manage those cares, concerns and fears but primarily it will reassure us of God's loving presence in them.
When I was a boy, April the 1st, with its opportunities for making others appear foolish, was a day to which we looked forward.
But in history, a fool was not simply a person who had been tricked. In Shakespeare's "King Lear", possibly written shortly after London was devastated by Plague in 1603, The Fool plays a central role. It is The Fool who is not just the King's faithful companion but also and more importantly, the person who speaks truth to power. It is The Fool who attempts to enlighten his master about the true motives and actions of the King's family and court.
Perhaps at this time, however difficult and disappointing it might be, what we need most from those in government is the truth. We can manage our own concerns and anxieties but we do require accurate information upon which these are based.
I can recall the first time I saw a field of rape. It was in 1978, shortly after I had moved to Wiltshire. Rape was then far too exotic to be sown in my home territory of Yorkshire or Northumberland. Some people find rape a little too garish, but I am fond of it. Its vivid yellow seems to mirror on a large scale the colour of our hedgerows with their dandelions, daffodils and primroses. Many trees and hedges are also beginning to adopt a lighter shade as their foliage returns to life. It was Martin Luther who observed,
"The truth of the resurrection is written in every leaf of spring".
In February 1820, The Reverend Sydney Smith was in correspondence with his friend Lady Georgiana Morpeth.
She had written to him complaining of "low spirits". Sympathetically, he suggests twenty practical steps that might be helpful. Some of these, I try to follow myself.
"First....live as well as you dare.
Fourteenth...be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue."
But my favourite and the one that would seem particularly appropriate at the present time is:
"Fourth...take a short view of human life, no further than dinner or tea."
In the life of the Church, to-day is Passion Sunday. It marks the beginning of Passiontide; a two week period of preparation for the celebration of Easter. In some churches, it is the day when the full account of Jesus' betrayal, suffering and death is read as the gospel passage at The Eucharist.
The word "Passion" comes from the greek word "pasko" which means "to be done to". It is, of course, also the origin of the word "patient". As Jesus allows himself to be taken, to suffer and to die, so patients place themselves into the hands of others. Patients allow themselves to be treated, healed and restored thanks to the skill and devotion of medical staff.
To-day, therefore, is a an appropriate day, not just to think about all of those who find themselves patients but also those who care for them.
Regarded by many as his masterpiece, P.G.Wodehouse's, "Joy in the Morning", was published in the U.K. in 1947. It was begun whilst the author was under house arrest in Le Touquet after the invasion of France in 1940. Later he was sent to an internment camp in Upper Silesia where he wrote to his wife, "If this is Upper Silesia, heaven knows what Lower Silesia is like".
"Joy in the Morning" opens with these words, "After the thing was all over, when peril had ceased to loom and happy endings had been distributed in heaping handfuls, and we were driving home with our hats on the sides of our heads....I confessed to Jeeves that there had been moments during the recent proceedings when Bertram Wooster, though no weakling,
had come near to despair."
I hope and pray that we will, in the words of the Psalmist, find that joy despite the perils of the present time and the temptation to despair.
I have lost count of the number of people who have commented on the weather. We are "lucky", "fortunate", "blessed" to be enjoying the first extended dry and sunny spell of the year. The wind is drying the soil and the farmers and gardeners can get back onto the land.
We are thankful that restrictions on movement and association are not being enforced in the winter. We are also appreciative of the space afforded by living in the country with gardens, lanes and footpaths for exercise. Despite uncertainties and anxieties, a sense of gratitude should be a part of the outlook of every Christian. It was the medieval Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart who once observed, "If the only prayer we say in our lives is 'Thank you", then that is enough"
I understand that about a third of the food produced in this country goes to waste. This may occur between the time it leaves the farm to its processing and delivery to the shelves of our shops. Other waste occurs when food remains unsold and is destroyed or bought and unconsumed.
Much of what we buy is eaten but sadly some cooked food is thrown away. In the present situation, Ruth and I have become more aware of the way we buy food and how and when we use it. Others have commented to me about how often they now shop and the self imposed limits they place upon the buying of their food.
We are certainly encouraged to give more thought to what we need and to refrain from buying too much. The current situation may be a warning to us about food production, distribution, purchase and consumption. It certainly reminds us that what we have and what we think we need is not unlimited.
It is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day when the church recalls the visit of the Angel to Mary, announcing that she will be the mother of her Saviour. It is not coincidental that the feast falls exactly nine months before we celebrate His birth on Christmas Day. Traditionally, to-day was called "Lady Day" and it was the first of the days on which the quarterly agricultural rent was due.
"Lady Day" always reminds me of the interconnection between rural life and the worship of its church. Over the centuries, this rural life and the agriculture that underpins it has seen its fair share of plague, famine, floods and blight and the misery that they cause.
To-day we are faced with another threat to our way of life and there is a considerable amount of uncertainty and anxiety.
However, I have no doubt that this current crisis will be born and ultimately overcome by the resilience of our communities.
By the time we reach the second quarter payment day, which is, June the 24th, I hope and pray that things may be a little clearer.