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Word from Wormingford

01 March 2013

Ronald Blythe ponders the trials of Christ in the wilderness

MID-LENT. Stony imagery that contrasts with the spring. The Essene boys - the pious ones - make their way to the desert. "Now don't overdo it," their mothers say. Jesus is old for this kind of test. Nor will it end when he returns from the wilderness both of landscape and decision.

George Herbert, who is about his age, steps into a wrecked church. More wild behaviour. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he has taught them "how to walk". Their difficulty could be that they live in a lovely plain, not on stony ground.

My Stour-side land is not conducive to harsh religious behaviour at this moment, being flooded with flowers and much visited by birds, and softened by low skies. I read of Christ's illness from that ex- treme self-testing in the Palestinian wastes with wonderment, as should we all.

Richard Mabey comes to lunch. I suppose we could count each other as the oldest of our friends. We have lamb's liver, onions, potatoes, baked parsnips, and a glass of champagne because it is his birthday. And sit by blazing willow logs, each having finished our latest books: his about Flora Thompson, mine about Benjamin Britten. The white cat sleeps on us in turn.

We talk about Roger Deacon, a marvellous writer who had been given a perpetual young man's view of the countryside, and who swam wherever there was water: in the sea, in his pond, in the river. He was somehow mature, although he had never quite grown up - a great achievement.

In church, I talk of St John of the Cross, someone I save up for Lent. If the South African poet Roy Campbell had not managed to save his papers during the carnage of the Spanish Civil War, this St John might have become nothing more than yet another vague person on the calendar. Instead, he is startlingly vivid on account of his Christ's being the bridegroom of the Gospels.

When a woman told St John of the Cross that her prayer consisted of "Considering the beauty of God and rejoicing that he had such beauty", he found the imagery he needed for his poetry. It was that of the seeking lover - the seeking lover on both sides. The scenes in which the Lord and his friend search for one an-other are in the wild landscape of Toledo. These craggy solitudes are filled with their love and desire for each other.

Cathedrals can be Toledos when the services die away, and especially when the doors close and the sightseers' footsteps fade away, and the arches speak their stony language. It is then that they might have something non-architectural to say.

St John of the Cross was not popular. He worked too hard. He was also, they complained, a crony of St Teresa of Avila. And he was, as some poets are, very accusatory at times. Like the desert. So they put him in prison to shut him up. But whether in prison, or in his cell, or by his favourite spot, the River Guadalimar, the blessed solitude was there, and he heard:

The music without sound,
The solitude that clamours,
The supper that revives us and
    enamours.

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