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Word from Wormingford

16 January 2015

Ronald Blythe finds inspiration in the prayers of a writer from the past

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 borne."

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 prayer."

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.

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