I HAVE been thinking this week about all those references to stone in scripture. A long time ago, I wrote a little book to accompany some remarkable watercolours of the building of the new tower of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. The artist was Lillias August, and she had painted the tower from the start.
When it was halfway up, the Dean and I abseiled it in a swaying basket, talking to the masons en route. There were six of them, and it might well have been the 13th century. They chatted pleasantly, hanging on for dear life as they capped the pale sections into position, their jeans both incongruous and fitting in both senses of the word.
It was Clipsham stone from Northamptonshire, and it was being sandwiched with the same thin mortar that would have been used during the Middle Ages. The masons were finely powdered in Clipsham dust.
When the new tower was complete, topping-out took place. It was 140 feet tall, the highest tower in Suffolk, and was modelled on the Bell Harry tower of Canterbury Cathedral. The young men were not at all like Ibsen’s grim builder, but entertained themselves with pop music from a concealed radio.
The creation of mighty towers has preoccupied the Church. They belong to the world of Greek temples and Roman palaces. Jesus made Simon, his petrus or rock, the cornerstone of his Church. And Peter was blunt: don’t imagine yourself a part of Christ’s temple if your faith is uncertain. Without faith, you will be nothing more than a stone for other people to trip over. “So come to Christ, our living stone. The stone rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God.”
St Paul’s Cathedral and most of London’s parish churches are built with Portland stone, and Thomas Hardy wrote a story about the men, women, and children who were trapped in its dust, as were the horses that drew the stone to London, as were the dogs, cats, and birds of Portland.
During his isolation and hunger, his self-testing time, Jesus knew that he was, indeed, the choice cornerstone of great worth.
Jesus walked a stony land. Images of stone and barrenness invade his language. Two of his temptations involve the wrong use of stone. He was enthralled by stone possibilities, and stony answers to his questions. “What, then, of the man who hears these words of mine and acts on them? He is like the man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the floods rose, the winds blew and beat upon it, but it did not fall.”
Dizzy office-blocks take the place of medieval churches in cities, and would affront us, were they not humanised. But now, much of what is done in them might well be done at home.
Stoney Field is a short walk from my farmhouse. Flint, of course: there is no other stone in East Anglia. Our ancestors made everything from it: firelighters, towers, and roads. As boys, we split flint with hammers to find the toads which lived in them. In winter, you walked the fields to find Stone Age tools. Flint is calcified lime. In summer, the wool-church towers glitter with flint, and in winter my track shines with it.
Ronald Blythe’s new Wormingford collection, Stour Seasons, is now available from Canterbury Press, £14.99 (CT Bookshop £12.99).