Word from Wormingford

21 February 2007

Ronald Blythe suggests that a service is more than ‘going to church’

“DEVOTION” is not a word one would use religiously without some care these days. Instead, we talk of the, to me, unpleasant occupation of “churchgoing”. “Worship” is also much used. But when the old door closes and the bell stops, we will not be said to be at our devotions.

Yet now and then something happens which sweeps past mere attendance and worship, and takes us into the unguarded area of a one-to-one love of Christ. Here we are, the worshipping collective, all on our own with him. A service barrier has fallen. And all this because I had begun matins with “Jesu, the very thought of thee” to Metzler’s Redhead, in which no tongue nor pen can describe what we at this moment feel and understand. That the love of Jesus, what it is, none but his loved ones know. And this individually, not collectively.

Old ghost stories often tell of meddling antiquarians releasing malign forces into the present. What Edward Caswall did when he translated the 12th-century “Jesu, dulcis memoria” was to release something from long ago, something in abeyance, yet untouched by time, but simply waiting to invade the individual experience. He had joined J. H. Newman at Edgbaston Oratory, where “devotion” was the rule.

Some of us politely puzzle our non-churchgoing friends when we attend services. “I mean”, they say, “he is just like us in most ways.” Meaning: not obviously holy. And, indeed, we frequently puzzle ourselves, intelligent beings that we are, when parish meetings and endless other activities become the inescapable concomitant of our religious life — indeed, can almost submerge it. These spread from the pleasantly practical to the downright miserable. But, then, the washing up and the book-keeping had to be done at Edgbaston, as at Bethany.

Yet spare a thought for the beauty and passion of holiness. Give them time. Caswall’s hymn pierces through all this, and our worship, this wet Sunday, could have silently concluded after the last verse, our having this only joy, this prize, and this not congregationally, but one-to-One. But, of course, we talk and pray and sing on. Yet the Jesu hymn won’t leave our heads.

Shelley spurned the Christianity of his day. He wrote of

The desire of the moth for the star,

Shelley spurned the Christianity of his day. He wrote of

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.

The old song that Caswall found is a love letter to Jesus. Its purity and its tune make us shed all our churchgoing inhibitions. I preach on George Herbert and his all-week friendship with Him. So, more and more entirely personal letters. There they are, hand in hand, walking through the Salisbury water-meadows, exchanging love and advice, God and man enjoying companionship. There they are, singing Tallis in the quire. There they are, at table, tirelessly talking, passing the bread.

Halfway through my sermon, I realise that it has become a literary lecture; but there is no going back. And, anyway, who can take in a word of it with “sweeter sound than thy blest name” still filling our heads? Our devotions over, we drive home. Small lakes lie in lanes, and our wheels make fountains. They brush escaped garden flowers, and often have to be braked when we pass walkers. These know us — the churchgoers.

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