JULY for St Benedict, whose emblems are a broken cup and a raven. He died at Monte Cassino, where his great abbey stood in the way of the victorious allies, and was shelled to pieces.
One night, praying by his window, Benedict thought that “the whole world seemed to be gathered into one sunbeam and brought before his eyes.” Window prayers — a looking outwards instead of inwards — became a lively discipline for many Christians, and were practised before bedtime and first thing in the morning. George Herbert struggled to the window on the day he died, his joy in Christ hurrying to meet his delight in the dawn.
It was pretty early, an hour or two ago, when I looked out at the nibbling horses to wonder if there had been a pause between yesterday’s and today’s grazing. Early Christians seemed to have been a bit panicky about dying in their sleep, whereas I find it the ultimate blessing.
But enough of these thoughts. As I write, July reigns. The old east-facing farmhouse lets in the first light. Its tiled roof is being warmed up for a summer’s day. The 12 mighty oaks susurrate, and the ponds glimmer with dragonflies. I hesitate to clear a path through the fiery St John’s wort. Let the gold go on!
Driving by the church in the late afternoon, I see them shaping the orange earth on the latest grave. “When at last the tired body lies with feet towards the west.” It was our churchwarden’s, and anything but tired. An elegant man, his voice and appearance go in and out of my consciousness all day long.
One of my duties has been to write forewords. This time to an account of an archaeological dig on a hilltop. It was the obvious spot from which to watch the hunt, or for seeing where St Edmund was crowned. Or for hearing the two-hourly rattle of the little Proustian train which begins the commuters’ journey to Liverpool Street. In my thoughts the train’s whistle and the huntsmen’s horns have become a kind of daily concert which varies as the wind blows.
Our village, which joins Essex to Suffolk, grew up on a riverbank with the result that two dioceses are both separated and joined — by water. Nobody owns a river. What lies either side of it, certainly; but not the river itself. Meandering on, twisting and turning, the Stour does what it likes all the way from Cambridgeshire to the sea.
When I was asked to launch a wonderful copy of its barges at Sudbury, and I went for a two-mile sail, it was to find its familiar banks, like the past, “another country”. A neighbour punted me along as I watched for roach, or even a pike. When I was young, a friend was challenged to cook our catch, a vast, prickly pike, and make it edible. We spent much of our dinner fishing pike bones from our teeth. There was lots to eat, even if it was famously dull. Old snapshots show us holding up our catch on the doorstep, but it might just as well have spent a further decade in the reeds.
The sun is now up with a vengeance. It would have been torrid at Monte Cassino, where Benedict was writing his Rule on how his followers could live together. It was strict — no festivalitis. Other rules exist on how the followers of Jesus should behave collectively.
Maybe he would have liked what is written on Jane Austen’s tomb in Winchester Cathedral: that she was against enthusiasm in religion. I expect she was thinking of Methodists.