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Word from Wormingford

15 April 2016

Like St Francis, Ronald Blythe finds delight in Nature’s gifts

I LIVE in bursts of extravagance, and what I believe is wild generosity, and in moments of stinginess. Whenever that is concerned, I am reminded of my friend Dennis, a cellist, who, cleaning out his aunt’s house, found a box labelled “Little bits of string too short for use.”

How moved I was, visiting an Australian Brother, to see him cooking bubble and squeak for breakfast. “Waste not, want not,” he said. Never a mention of creating something delicious from what might be thrown away.

For no reason at all, a rainy day is behind these parsimonious thoughts. Mornings at seven, and Duncan’s field is not dew-pearled: it is gently grey. The horses shine in the rain. The lawns are being raked so that the mower can have a clear run. I am looking for my engagement book before starting work. The ancient farmhouse is breathing its own quiet. The orchard grass is decorated with yellow flowers, and the whole parish with fresh floating leaves.

At matins, I preach on Brother Nature, St Francis’s friend. Just before he died in 1225, St Francis sat in the garden of his little chapel at Assisi to write a hymn in praise of God as he is revealed in nature. He called this hymn “Brother Sun and all his Creatures”, deciding that he himself was brother to the wind, brother to the trees, brother to the flowers, the birds, the animals, and to all living things.

Making this famous connection is exhilarating, just as it exhilarated Robert Browning to get up early to find “The lark’s on the wing; the snail’s on the thorn.” I stand on the cold terrace listening to the leafy world. Like Jesus, St Francis had moved away from the idea of the natural world as a kind of larder for himself and other people to that of a shared existence. Christ experienced the countryside in his work and delighted in all that he saw: corn, the trees, the natural scenery, and the great, unsafe universe.

When the artist John Nash taught botanical drawing, he would pick a single flower from his garden to be the model for his pupils, and afterwards he would give it to the best pupil. When he himself painted flowers, placing each one in a half-pint milk bottle, he would not throw it away.

It is springtime. I can smell wild garlic. The ditches run from here to the river. At church, we sing Psalm 23 to Crimond. It seems necessary to lift certain praises out of the sadness where convention has set them. On the way home, like the churchwarden, I see the polished green stumps of bluebells in my tracks.

It could be a nice day to call on St Francis at the church at Wiston, where an artist painted him on the wall, centuries ago. He is teaching blackbirds Christianity. “O brother birds, praise ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him for ever.” To think that there was a time when an acknowledgement of nature was frowned on, when those who understood its sacredness were regarded with suspicion!

George Herbert was among the sacred gardeners who helped to return nature to religion, although there was, alas, no cure for his illness. Just a handful of spring flowers for him.

What will happen to us eventually? God will say to us: “My lovely world — why didn’t you enjoy it more?”

We will wonder why we didn’t.

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