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Word from Wormingford

16 August 2013

Ronald Blythe chooses stillness over liveliness, in order to hear God

"TWO can play at that game," I tell the white cat. Perfectly still, and in perfect profile, she is observing existence. Not so the young blackbird trapped between my palms as I prevent it from braining itself against the pane. Pure terror must be its brief lot.

Stillness is much advocated in Christianity, although one would never guess it. As the years pile up, one tends to withdraw from parish "liveliness", and, whether one wants it or not, into a degree of contemplation. "Ye watchers and ye holy ones". Thomas Hardy's favourite scripture, and a favourite of mine, is from 1 Kings 19, when God is not in wind or earthquake or fire, but is "a still small voice". The quotation is on the memorial window in Stinsford church.

I suspect that this is how most of us hear God; although George Herbert listened to Christ conversationally. The temple boy heard God telling him what to do via a priest, and a discredited one at that. In our day, more and more of us listen to him talking via nature. I hear him in poetry, philosophy, and natural noise, harmonic or otherwise. Although, like cheerfulness, scripture will keep breaking in.

The old friend from Athens is here. Like me, she is a chronic reader. There was an American literary critic who confessed: "They tell me that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."

"One more chapter, or one more page," I would beg at bedtime. I know people who prefer reading to eating. They look quite good on it. I frequently find the Lessons too abridged, not to say cut to the bone, and do not always obey the lectionary. Also, I love the varied voices. Long ago, an old farmworker was so transported with what he found on the lectern that he would look up to declare in his rich Suffolk voice: "That was very fine - I'll read that again." And he did.

The old churches are full of recitations, full of tales that had to come to an end. They were our portion. Lodged in our head, they tend to float about, although often there is no escape. God's still small voice is never raised - although, heaven knows, it should be, sometimes.

My water supply must be cleansed, tested, drained. Many of us are not on the mains, but on a medieval system. The water table of the Stour allows us a bath and a cup of tea if we ask politely. No rates, of course, just free flow. I dress for this ancient gift. I visit the springs in the wilds, then rake the ditch. Then I clamber into a kind of mud chamber to bale out its silky contents. So far, a bishop hasn't called.

This task is followed by various grand neighbours, none of whom descends into the black depths, owing to their possessing a ram. I'll go no further. Sufficient to add that if you have not progressed from turning on the cold tap, our advanced hydraulics will be beyond your grasp.

Not that I envy you. Clothed annually in pure mud, then in sparkling stream water, such as Chaucer or the Wife of Bath might have used, who could envy what falls from a shower? Mudlarks are at a premium these days. Mind you, it puts one's fingernails into mourning. And one is apt to carry a rivery smell for a day or two, which makes the clean cat look up.

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