“I THINK I could turn and live with animals,” Walt Whitman wrote. “They’re so Placid and self contained, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition. They do not lie awake in the dark, and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.
“Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”
“Is this true?” I ask the white cat.
No answer. She lies in the sunshine on a quern-stone, which was a hand mill for grinding corn which the artist John Nash brought from his native Buckinghamshire, and carried from house to house. It is planted with bulbs, and weedy with milkwort. I let them flower together.
My friend Ronnie Carless arrives. His father featured — glamorously, compared with my somewhat stay-at-home activity — in a great book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Ronnie and I drive across the Stour to visit St Francis of Assisi’s portrait, high up on the north wall of Wissington church, and to keep faith with the boy who was organist here, and whose brief music ended in the Western Desert.
He was 24, a schoolmaster’s son, and would have seen Professor Tristram washing the whitewash off St Francis and the blackbirds to whom he is preaching. “O all ye Fowls of the Air, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him for ever.”
At matins, I had preached on “the nine states of blessedness” from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It was Matthew who called it this. Luke called it the Sermon on the Plain. In Matthew’s version, only the Lord’s followers heard it. In Luke’s version, all the world hears it. Matthew has the bereaved comforted. Luke has weeping turned to laugher. Both apostles present a thrilling account of the teachings of Jesus, whether from the classic heights or from the human level.
To be blessed means that an individual or a place or an activity is the recipient of God’s gift. Those who recognise their need of him are blessed. But the affluent, the powerful, and the great can be disconcerted to realise that they are not. And so Jesus, standing on a rise, preaches his lengthy sermon, his congregation ill at ease.
He said that those who knew that they needed God were blessed; that there was a blessing for sorrow but not always one for ambition. It would be the meek who would inherit the earth. And then, most wonderfully, he said: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” For they would see God. It was spellbinding, his topsy-turvy catalogue of blessings.
The natural human longing for a vision of God remains timeless and intense. The haj, with its disasters and aspiration, as it crowds towards the eternal, is nothing less. A handful of old friends in a Suffolk church may not search all that hard to find him, but each of us, every now and then, is surprised how near to us he is.
Medieval wall-artists tell us to look up. Seeding plants in the churchyard’s humps and bumps tell us to look down. At matins, we heard a very natural tale. Jesus has put his fingers in deaf ears, and his spit on a tied tongue. “Ephphatha” — be open.
We shut the church door, and I buy, amazingly, the biography of the translator of Proust — 10p.