WHEN the Lord and his friends “took the cup”, it would most likely have been a clay cup, not the glorious vessel of the Arthurian legend. But beautiful all the same, like Brenda Green’s pottery. Her work fills the church, as does her voice. The cup in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is a loving cup, which tells us to drain its contents to the dregs, meaning life itself, because its contents are all that we have.
I knew this wonderful poem by heart when I was a boy, and was fascinated to find the poet’s grave just a mile or two from my house when I became a writer, and I would stand by it frequently. Edward FitzGerald discovered the original soon after he lost his faith in Christianity and was looking for a philosophy to replace it. A local scholar was teaching him Persian, and had recommended this ancient poem to him to help him in the language.
The FitzGeralds were Anglo-Irish gentry who came to live in Boulge, a village near Woodbridge; but their fine house was pulled down long ago. All that remains is Edward’s resting-place, and some rose trees from Omar’s tomb in Iran. The roses were decimated by tourists who picked them. The last Shah, hearing of this, sent some more, and the Persian ambassador and I replaced them.
It was one of those lightless afternoons when the rooks complained in the trees, and the Rector, Mr Braybrooke, and I waited and waited for the ambassador to arrive. When the electricity failed in the little church, it had to be replaced by paraffin lamps and candles. We were about to go home when a Rolls-Royce crept towards us, and our grand visitor got out. He had stopped for lunch at Newmarket, on the way, he explained. He pulled out a Persian rose and heeled it in; then we all had tea in the rectory. “You English,” he said, “you are so prompt.”
This Sunday, Brenda’s pottery reminded me of a potter in the Rubáiyát, “For some we loved, the loveliest and best That from His rolling vintage Time has pressed, Have drunk their glass a round or two before, And one by one crept silently to rest.”
Chapter 4 of the book of Numbers contains the furnishings of the temple: “And upon the table of shewbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and covers to cover withal,” God tells Aaron. The Christian altar is a long way off. The only bells are on Aaron’s robe, but we hear them down the vast distances of time. As for the cup, it is already on its way to become the one that Jesus held when he said, “Drink this in memory of me.”
The 17th-century lid of our cup is worn thin by worshippers who spoke when Shakespeare was alive. As for spiritual sustenance, there will always be more than enough to satisfy us all.
Our local pots were made for wine or ashes, and were created by the same movement as Brenda makes: she spins the clay in her hands, as life spins in ours, the most philosophical thing that humanity can put its hand to.