HAVING wheeled barrow-loads of mulch from the so-called back
lawn - a rich kingdom for snowdrops - so that the mower can have
its way, I begin to shape the summer. Snowdrops and snowflakes for
Candlemas onwards, and both for the feast of the Purification.
It is a mild, bright January afternoon, and the horses opposite
break into little gallops every now and then. Yesterday, all three
parishes ate great piles of food in the old village school, where
above our talk I could hear the chanting of the alphabet and the
seven times table, the stamping of winter boots, and the singing of
the morning assembly hymn.
At today's weddings and funerals, those under 50 embark on them
with much uncertainty. Now and then I go to Robert Louis Stevenson
for prayers - those that he wrote to his Samoan household. I
imagine his Edinburgh accent becoming fainter and fainter as his
tuberculosis fed on him.
His widow said: "With my husband, prayer, the direct appeal, was
a necessity. He was happy to offer thanks for that undeserved joy,
when in sorrow or pain, to call for strength to bear what must be
I don't know about undeserved joy. Like grace, joy is there for
the taking. We all deserve a bit of it, and if we miss it, it is
mostly our own fault. Mrs Stevenson said: "After all work and meals
were finished, the pu, or war conch, was sounded from the
back veranda and the front, so that it might be heard by all. I
don't think it ever occurred to us that there was any incongruity
in the use of the war conch for the peaceful invitation to
I found Stevenson's little book in a tumbledown shop where a big
dog lived. An unattended bookshop on the other side of the road was
filled with treasures, and customers dodged the traffic to buy
them. Then another copy arrived; so they sit together with my
sermons, and Samoa and the Stour Valley make common prayer.
Long ago, when our faith was young, the Epiphany was celebrated
as Christ's baptismal time. Four hundred years later, it became the
feast of the Manifestation of Jesus as the Christ or redeemer of
the Gentiles. A flood of divine light poured through the universe
to make him plain to us. St Paul found it all rather a puzzle, this
light which lightened every man. This light that began as a star,
and continues to illuminate everything we do or say.
And then there are the words that Thomas Hardy loved more than
anything else in the Bible, and which are written on his memorial
window in St Juliot's, Stinsford. He was probably flinching from
noisy preaching and the pulpit generally when he heard that the
Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake or the fire, but in
the still small voice.
It is often in silence that God speaks to us. At the same time,
we must not hide away like Elijah in a cave, but stand on a
mountain top. Listening is a very grown-up thing to do. To be a
good listener is wonderful. Poets and novelists have their ear to
the ground - and to the skies. And maybe especially at the Epiphany
illumination of so many mysteries. During it, we read one of the
most beautiful of all stories, a boy being called by his name,
Samuel, by his God.