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Word from Wormingford

20 May 2016

Ronald Blythe recalls a religious experience involving coffee

SOFTLY drenching spring rains. In spite of them, I must mark where the honeysuckles cross the path: otherwise the mower will do its deadly work. There is nothing like getting soaked for a good cause. Geese whirr over from river to lake. Rhubarb is fit to pull. Laburnums have that jazzy, budding look. Like some merciful tyrant, I allow a weed here and there to flourish.

And still it rains, and still the young weather forecaster apologises for what he has to tell us. How I long to hear him say: “A lovely wet day, and more to come.”

By way of a sermon, I tell the congregation about going to Vézelay when I was young, for Ascension Day. Not that this was intended. A French doctor friend drove us to a mysterious hill, about 90 miles from Paris, where we awoke to the clamour of some great feast. Bells, children, dogs, monks, tourists, everyone and everything with a tongue cried that “Christ is risen!” And there was a procession like Christ’s walk to the Mount of Olives, where his ascension to heaven took place.

At school we sang “See the Conqueror mounts in triumph”, a thrilling hymn by Christopher Wordsworth, the poet’s brother, and then rushed to change our clothes and go for bike rides.

But in Vézelay it was not like this. The white-and-gold church, from which the Crusades had been taught — and which rose from a mountain of vineyards — seemed to possess an ecstatic quality; this, fired, as it were, by Stravinsky’s music, felt as though it would leave Burgundy and become planetary.

Also, a chambermaid entered my bedroom with coffee, then in my dazed state appeared to take away a wall, leaving me open to the universe. L’Ascension! And all this in a supposedly not very religious country.

Here in Wormingford, we read of St Paul’s friend Theophilus, who always sounds to me like the apostle’s publisher. And then that thrilling cloud of unknowing, which is itself a way of seeing, the vanishing of Christ, and the confidence of those who are able to see him, then and now.

Most wonderfully, Christ’s earth-dwelling spirit is called “the Comforter”. When I was in Vézelay, a row of young men sat on a wall, waiting to be ordained. Flocks of doves were released around them. St Peter told them to minister to one another, but they looked too shy to say a word.

Brief excursions into one another’s beliefs shake up one’s convictions and, I suppose, freshen the soul. It is a lifetime since I prayed in the white and gold of Vézelay on Ascension Day.

The ascension marks the solemn close of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. And then came his exaltation to the heavenly life. He left his earthly friends during an act of blessing on the Mount of Olives. St Luke’s account is brief. Our questioning nature leaves so much in the air. To which St Paul replies: “Now you see as through a glass darkly — but then face to face.”

At Vézelay, there was nothing which was not as bright as day. But, then, we were young enough to have seen it all.

I see that the guttering behind the house needs a clearing hand. It is low enough for me to clear without a ladder. How many times have I done this? Everything runs away. But swallows and this summer’s flowers are about to return. And they are sowing the Big Field with something, although I can’t see what. I am too low down.

What was either dormant or dead rises. But my pear blossom — what a treat! And the little dog from the Pyrenees, and the horses from goodness knows where, how they race on our small hills!

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