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Word from Wormingford

04 January 2013

For Ronald Blythe, an Old Testament lament sums up his feelings


JOURNALISTS are proud of what they call "rolling news". But I am flattened by it. Thus this past two weeks in particular I have rationed its horrors, one blanched young father's face on the screen making it unnecessary to hear anything more.

I read the collect for Holy Innocents' Day at matins, but did not add my ha'p'orth of sympathy in the sermon. Rage, really. That such things should happen.

Quietness at dawn put the news in its place. The Gospel for this day is the flight into Egypt: "Arise, and take the young child and his mother," God tells Joseph, "and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word." A clumsy pottery image of this event stands on the old kitchen shelf. It is what was called a "fairing", i.e. a Victorian prize won at a coconut-shy. The Virgin rides; the father walks.

On the screen, the driven-from-home Syrian boys and girls, in thin cotton clothes, burn cardboard to keep warm. The conclusion of the Innocents' Day Gospel is unbearable; yet there cannot be a better lament for what I witness far off. "In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not."

It is mild. Springlike, even. Primroses bloom between the paving stones, and chaffinches bounce around in the crumbs. Streaky morning skies; the white cat's putting out a dark paw to test the temperature. I write out two Nine Lessons and Carols, one for Mount Bures, one for here. A farmer, a bell-ringer, a commuter, on I go. The aisles glitter, and smell of pine needles. All is well. The crib flickers. "Thanks be to God." Mulled wine. All this ritual worn to a frazzle by its annual repetition; yet it shines.

Joachim will be on his way from Berlin, with its Baltic cold, and Ian on his way from Norfolk, which could be windy. I must rake a path to the house as invitingly as possible. And bring in holly from the vast hedge. What does my old friend Richard Mabey say about this shiny plant? A huge amount.

Ilex aquifolium. Or hollin. A practical mystical tree. My neighbour will be making holly wreaths for the churchyard and front doors. I crown the oak post that holds up the entrance hall with it. Log fires will shrivel its leaves long before Twelfth Night. But holly trees will be left in the field-hedges for ploughing marks, although the dozen shares on Tom's plough monster, guided by remote control, have long done with them. Yet a reverence, even a fear, of holly, will guarantee its survival.

My holly hedge was reasonable enough 40 years ago, but now it scrapes the sky. Whippy thin boughs stretch from it in order to flourish. Few berries. The hedge needs a good trim.

It was planted maybe centuries ago, as part of the old garden hedge, to keep the stock from getting at the vegetables, but now its only use is Christmas. The wreath-makers carry it about in sacks. Their fingers are torn and reddened. It is surprising how, at Christmas, the hands of so many villagers become the hands of their ancestors, owing to holly.

I see these wounded hands at the communion rail. They take the chalice that was in use when Shakespeare was writing Twelfth Night, cuddling it carefully, candlelight on their hair. I don't like the way that these ancient cups, from which generations of parishioners have taken the sacrament, are put into cathedral museums. Some time ago, the cup that George Herbert used at Bemerton was kindly brought from Salisbury Cathedral for me to use - and has since permanently shed its glass case.

For Herbert, Christmas was for singing. He was a fine lutenist, and I like to imagine him singing in Bemerton Church at maybe the only two Christmases he spent there before death silenced him.


The shepherds sing: and shall I 

 silent be?

My God, no hymn for thee?

My soul's a shepherd too; a flock

 it feeds

Of thoughts and words, and  deeds.


He goes on to see each of us as Christmas candles, "a willing shiner":


Then we will sing, shine all our

 own day,

And one another pay:

His beams shall cheer my breast,  and both so twine,

Till ev'n his beams sing, and my  musick shine.


Herbert was at an inn, and not in church when he wrote this poem. An inn on Christmas Day: a country pub with people singing. And Christ singing alongside them. The poet adored his Lord in church, but almost preferred meeting him in his rectory, the Salisbury lanes, the Wiltshire fields. Jesus and music - and conversation - all came together in such places, naturally and intimately. And, since Herbert knew that his life here would be brief, he knew, too, that he must make the most of it, riding in the fresh air with his perfect friend - who, no doubt, was singing, too.


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