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Word from Wormingford

21 June 2013

Ronald Blythe is caught out in his gardening clothes

CALLERS. Expecting a solitary day, I look like the sort of person one should set the dogs on. Bedraggled in my second-best gardening clothes, I am about to mow and weed, edge and admire. First, wise Nigel, to give the boiler some attention; then, a high-born lady with tributes from Waitrose. After which something wonderful happens.

The wintry climate disappears, and, although the sky remains the colour of an old dishcloth, there is the beginning of June warmth. And never such roses! Gloire de Dijon on the house, standards everywhere else. And all out at once. The scent of lilacs. Commotion in the old kitchen. A blackbird beats against an inside window. The beat of its heart against my hand as I show it the door. This is an inside-outside day; a disturbed day.

After lunch, I write letters, and continue to devise a Songs of Praise for the festival of flowers at Mount Bures, from Hymns Ancient and Modern, New Standard Edition. The "mount" of this parish is the tree-covered motte of a castle. Or, more likely, an oaken tower above the River Colne from which to spy on strangers. We have put some nice steps up it, should you wish to see a fine view. Nothing to pay. Stone Age folk sleep in round graves below.

Mount Bures has long been a fine address. For 30 years or more, I have climbed up to it from the Stour valley to see the wildflowers in its high churchyard, and to touch the closing ring on the door.

I would have preached on Evelyn Underhill this week, but she warrants a preliminary lecture on mysticism. Her book Mysticism (1911) redirected the Church of England, and to its astonishment. Her guru was Friedrich von Hügel. They were near-contemporaries. She conducted mysterious retreats, and was one of those rescuers of long-forgotten things that, when found, were seen to be still marvellously bright. What is long unused is often our loss. It is certainly a mystery to me how tiny places, such as Mount Bures, remain permanently fascinating, igniting wonder the minute you step into them.

Rambling about in my books, I discovered, via Izaak Walton, the text of George Herbert's first sermon. It was "Keep thy heart with diligence," and he chose it from Proverbs 4.23. The sermon itself has long vanished, but I see the tall, sick young poet entering his pulpit, and announcing it in his elegant Cambridge voice to his rustic congregation at Bemerton, he himself having rung the bell for service.

He adored proverbs of any kind, and made a great collection of them. For him, they were concise truths, and things to live by. They cut through the verbiage of politics and religion, through class attitudes and downright ignorance, through legal humbug and sophistry, with their liveliness and deathless wit. He knew, like Jesus with his parables, that, there was no forgetting them, once heard.

Once begun on Proverbs, I could read them all day. The Church has notoriously "skipped" this scripture. Made small use of it - seen it, maybe, as glib. Proverbs in general cut through lengthy statements, and make short work of them. Discourse dreads them. Learning steps back from them. They have been allotted to wiseacres and common folk generally. But they delighted Herbert, the Church of England's finest poet.

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