ASH WEDNESDAY, and ashes indeed, with the countryside closed down, and pestilence apparently free to roam where it likes. Whether the disease is wholly airborne, or partly given a life on the unprecedented traffic that now engulfs today’s agriculture, coming to grips with foot-and-mouth, as one farmer said, is like punching the wind.
Although 1967 was afflicted with the same disease, there is now a great difference. Then the farm was smaller, more private, less on the road. Who of us would have imagined, as we gave our chops a ride in the supermarket trolley, that they may have already travelled the length of England?
Rustling through my book of petitionary prayers, I find none worthy of the tragic situation, none that touch its almost medieval reality or its human and animal helplessness. Meanwhile, as they must have done during the plague, when the village dropped its pennies in vinegar (boots are dipped in disinfectant at farm gates), the sweet spring birds sing, the maligned grey squirrels swing innocently in the trees, and “the first infolding leaves”, as the poet John Clare called them, point greenly from the ditches.
So all is well — and all is ill. And what can we do? Nothing, it seems. Except stay still. Lines from ancient prayers do not come amiss — “Have pity upon us, who are now visited with great sickness and mortality.” Better than those in my book written by someone who has never had to scrub his wellies with Lysol.
Thus the Great Fast, as it was once called, begins. Michael presses ashes from a little silver box on our brows as we kneel at the rail. I speak Joel’s passionate entreaty, and his words echo through the arches. The tower clock crunches into action in order to claim another hour of our lives. Forty days and forty nights lie ahead. But who is counting? Are we not on that threshold where the measurable and the immeasurable part company?
Our penitence “for all that is past” is signed on our foreheads. The candles gutter a bit, owing to the mysterious wind which vast walls fail to keep out of our sanctuary. Inside, the coloured windows are blacked out by night, and are best viewed from the churchyard. Those who have given up whisky for Lent are already wrestling with their souls, it being such a cold evening. Just a nightcap, nothing indulgent. And the News is so bad — terrible. Do those who love them give up soaps for Lent? How hard that must be.
I preach on George Herbert, a reasonable man in Lent. He says,
It’s true we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest.
Lent was Herbert’s season. He was born during it, married during it, died in it. For him, fasting was a way of “starving sin”. But then he was a nutritionist where both earthly and heavenly food were concerned. His day precedes Ash Wednesday, and brings balances to what follows.