*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Word from Wormingford

15 February 2013

Ronald Blythe goes back in time while reading a poem

ASH Wednesday, with rooks being blown about the sky any old how. The sky itself is dove-grey, with blotches of gold. So I read Joel, and should weep between the porch and the altar. As a compromise, I read the whole of George Herbert's The Church-porch, something I have not done before, and in which I have to be a youth again. But I grow older as the poem runs on, and soon I am Herbert's age, late 30s, and a Wiltshire Lent encloses me. So long ago.

But the chalk breaks through the landscape, and the cathedral spire gathers up the local meditation just as it does this minute. Herbert was very Lenten. So many things happened to him then: birth, marriage, death, and this long "entrance" poem. Joel criticises the ritual fast. We are to rend our hearts, not our garments, and to be "taught how to behave ourselves in church". To fast is to "starve sin". It is Herbert who adds these injunctions.

It's true, we cannot reach Christ's fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
 Is better than to rest;
We cannot reach our Saviour's puritie;
Yet we are bid, be holy ev'n as he.
In both let's do our best. 

Pages and pages of Lenten advice and commands. Yet they do not make me squirm. Somebody has to say these things; so why not our finest Christian poet? He is bewilderingly undated. Neither modern nor old. But he hands it out, as they say. Do this, do not do that. At the least, there is a Lenten etiquette; at the most, a cleansing of the religious palate.

The Vicar has told me not to forget that "thou art dust"; but Herbert does not. As I pass through the church door on Ash Wednesday, he tells me to remember many other things that I am, and they are far from dusty. Otherwise, would he not have ordered me to "Shine like the sunne in every corner"?

Herbert's Lent is a far cry from the one that would have rung out in some of his neighbouring churches when the curses of A Commination were cried. Spring cheers his fast.

Hark, how the birds do sing,
 And woods do ring.
All creatures have their joy: and
 man hath his.

Divide these joys if you can. "Lent, did you say?" the horses opposite ask. And they dance about and roll on the muddy grass. "Lent, did I hear you say?" the starlings repeat, and they flock in a kind of winged quadrille Nayland way. "Lent?" asks the white cat, and she falls off the radiator into the Whiskas. "Lent?" the garden says: "When are you going to make a start?"

I seem to have left my Prayer Book in some vestry or other. The one I have found here tumbles about in my hand, which is how it opened at the Commination curses. It was given to John, it says, in November 1910, when he was 17. And he wore it thin in a country church in the Chilterns; but only I would know this now. For such is the history of devotion or use. It cracks the cover, muddles the pages, and leaves a Commination wide open.

But there are red, red rubrics, and, surprisingly, a letter from Winston Spencer Churchill - a non-faster if ever there was one. I close it to watch the morning birds wheel over the hill. And to think what more I can say at a Lenten matins.

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)