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Word from Wormingford

06 June 2014

Ronald Blythe recalls waking up in France, on Ascension Day

MY TRIPLE calendar comes into use, although I hope not into repetition. It consists of the lectionary, my diary, and my dreams. A kind of knitting together of the days. Thus, on the Ascension, I was young and in Vézelay, but getting on a bit in Wormingford, and in my imagination once again in Dedham Church, staring up at John Constable's gloriously ascending Jesus, which is skied above the north door.

The model was most likely a farm labourer from the Suffolk-Essex border, whom Constable hadhelped to get a job as doorman at the Royal Academy. Soon, the doorman became a model for the students. He had fought with Wellington, and then, like so many soldiers at that time, would have been left destitute, had not Constable rescued him.

These homeless, hungry men appear in Dorothy Wordsworth's Journals. This one, because of his beauty, became the Christ of the Ascension.

I vaguely recall having the restof the day off after the Ascension service. But what I vividly remember was waking up in Vézelay all unsuspectingly to a kind of Ascension riot in the street below. Such shouts, such songs, such clamorous bells! Vézelay was the Burgundian hilltop church where St Bernard notoriously preached the Crusades.

We had arrived there in the dark, so that I was amazed when the shutters were opened wide the next morning to reveal a swallow-soaring heaven and a sacred uproar below. L'Ascension! Youthful, laughing priests-to-be lifted their skirts as waiters-to-be watered the flagstones. And there was this urgent calling to prayer from the gold and grey basilica; for, as Mrs Alexander rightly said: "And ever on our earthly path A gleam of glory lies."

There is no denying this. Today, as I get started, it takes the shape of a hungry white cat. "There is no reason to look so glorious," I say. She has been locked in the larder all night, for some errant reason. The larder was a Victorian pantry, and has a scrubbed brick floor, and a window which squints on to the valley, and enough jam for an orphanage. And wine, maybe, from the slopes of Vézelay. For every-thing moves on - feasts and songs, recipes and cats.

I preach on the Ascension at another hilltop church, St Mary's, Stoke by Nayland. Constable wreathed it in a rainbow, a sign of harmony, when he painted it during the agricultural riots. Its south doors are thrillingly "ascensional", in this instance with silver-grey angels in perpetual movement towards God on high.

They crossed my mind as I ascended the pulpit. Godfathers ascend the font here, and make vows on dizzy little platforms: young men, on the whole, who may not have to cling to the font.

A "cloud of unknowing" took Christ from our earthly sight. When a woman asked Dr Johnson why he had got something wrong in his dictionary, he replied: "Pure ignorance, madam." But unknowing is not ignorance, but something contemplative. An unknown medieval author wrote an entire book about it.

He/she said: "All rational beings, angels and men, possess two faculties, the power of knowing, and the power of loving. To the first, to the intellect, God is for ever unknowable; but to the second, to love, he is completely knowable, and that by every separate individual. This is the everlasting miracle of love."

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