BEMERTON still has its original doors, the ones that George Herbert opened. And so has Stoke-by-Nayland, the ones I opened as a boy. No two sets of doors could be more different: the first so simple, the latter so grand, with their princes and angels and apostles and saints, and the Virgin herself, their pinnacle. I expect the Puritan reformers thought twice about ridding them of their heavenly carvings.
Centuries of Suffolk weather have polished them a grey-silver. John Constable would often have unlocked them. The church itself he painted, together with Salisbury Cathedral, and he consecrated both paintings with a rainbow. The latter was his hopeful tribute to the cessation of the agricultural riots, which were a country version of what has occurred this month in Paris.
They said that Constable’s favourite word was “placid”. For the artist, it meant tranquillity. This Christmas, his Suffolk-Essex countryside lies motionless — just shoppers’ cars finding their way home through the steep lanes. Bell-ringers open weathered doors, and, on Christmas Eve, a boy will sing into the black interior, and Mrs Alexander’s “Once in royal David’s city” will be heard once more.
She took the words from the Creed: “who was conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary”. And then Christmas will begin. And it will be like every other Christmas, yet different. For this is what happens on birthdays, particularly when one is old. Ritual brings them out, wears us out, and at the same time keeps us going. And then the white cat flattens the cards before Twelfth Night.
One of the things I most remember about my boyhood Christmas was the command to “Shut the door,” and “Were you born in a barn?” No, not quite, but very near, and it’s never seemed anything but sensible for Mary to have had her child among sweet-smelling animals rather than a lot of smelly strangers on polling day in a pub. Only why did she come at all in her condition?
We had what used to be called “fairings” — a pottery model of the Holy Family, on the kitchen mantelpiece, on which is painted the Flight into Egypt. The Virgin and Child are seated on an ass, and Joseph, carrying his carpenter’s tools, walks beside them. The Christian story is in motion, and will remain especially so at this moment.
How Joseph would have admired the amazing doors of the church at Stoke-by-Nayland. He would have run his hands over them, and in so doing would have touched his own family tree. There was a time when people did not trust their descent to a paper tree, but to the real thing: that is, a tree made into a door. Or a stone turned into a fireplace, where everyone could read it.
Music was different. “My song is love unknown” was composed by a young curate a few miles from Wormingford. It got lost for ages, then flew back into living comprehension. Only ice and snow, gales and flood, would have kept people from toiling at this time of year when I was young. But they would not have missed a boy singing at the church door for anything.
I wouldn’t miss visiting the lantern-like church sailing above the river, and also the crump of our feet through the snowy churchyard, and the notorious slip of ice by the church gate. The midnight is precarious; morning is what you make it. As is prayer.
Herbert ran the gamut when he tried to define what prayer was. He said it was a kind of tune, or church bells beyond the stars, or the soul’s blood, the land of spices, and something understood.