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Word from Wormingford

21 March 2014

Ronald Blythe reveals the source of his knowledge about the Holy Land

THIS delectable springtime continues. Lunch in the garden on Sunday after matins. All the birds operatic. The horses on the sloping meadows benign. The Wordsworthian daffodils under the budding fruit trees making a show. "They make a show," an elderly woman said as she planted asters. But no show in church. Lent is plain fare.

I must remember to see the hares' boxing-match over my horizon. Sparring would be a better word to describe their activity. Meanwhile my badgers hump and trundle themselves through the orchard to the cold-running stream, leaving a highway through the shooting grass. As for daffodils, they have lost all sense of proportion, and wave everywhere, trumpeting their worth to the skies.

At the poetry society, Andrew and I pay homage to Mrs Girling, a Georgian lady who founded our school 100 years before the 1870 Education Act. Where would we have been without her? I think of John Clare being taught to read and write in the vestry, and of boys such as Thomas Bewick who were encouraged to draw on the smooth surfaces of the stone floor in church. Or, much earlier, the women who taught themselves to read from chained Bibles. I got the hang of the Holy Land as I pored over the maps at the back of Revelation during Canon Hughes's sermons.

William Hazlitt wrote tenderly about such things as he saw his old father, a man who had suffered greatly for his radical stance, "withdrawn from the world of all of us".

He goes on: "After being tossed about from congregation to congregation [he was an Irish Unitarian minister] . . . he had been relegated to an obscure village, where he was to spend the last thirty years of his life, far from the only converse that he loved, the talk about disputed texts of Scripture, and the causes of civil and religious liberty.

"Here he passed his days . . . in the study of the Bible, and the perusal of the Commentators - huge folios, not easily got through, one of which would outlast a winter! . . . glimmering notions of the patriarchal wanderings, with palm trees hoveringin the horizon, and processions of camels at the distance of three thousand years . . . questions as to the date of creation, predictions of the end of all things; the great lapses of time, the strange mutations ofthe globe were unfolded with the voluminous leaf, as it turned over. . .

"My father's life was comparatively a dream; but it was a dream of infinity and eternity, of death, the resurrection, and a judgement to come."

I have always loved this passage by Hazlitt, a young man who no longer believed what his father believed. The most honest and inits way shocking example of this dilemma is, of course, Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. One needs to be brave to read it.

Turning to the altar, I say "I believe", thankful for the formula but never analysing it. Credo. Somewhat lost in it, like old Mr Hazlitt's camels, is my love of Christ as it journeys on from year to year, expanding, narrowing, leading ahead. Liturgy takes me over deserts. And then there is George Herbert's "dear prayer", with or without words.

"Let us pray," I say to the familiar faces which look towards me, and they gently acquiesce. The other Sunday I said Robert Louis Stevenson's prayers - the ones he said in Samoa - and they suited us very well, talking as they did to God and his "household".

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