IT IS April in January. The snowdrops by the stream are mere slivers of green and white, but in a week or two’s time they will flood below the greengage trees. Now and then, I will give visitors a spadeful of them. Those in a Suffolk friend’s garden, reported to have been planted by the poet George Crabbe, will be in full bloom. I often think of my garden and the surrounding gardens as becoming one at this time of the year. Meanwhile, there is a lot to be done: a bonfire, for example. Once it starts, even with sopping wet wood and dead plants, it is amazing how it blazes.
I preach on Dr Johnson’s first meeting with the useful James Boswell in a London bookshop.
”Oh, please don’t tell him that I come from Scotland,” the young lawyer said, Scotland then being in the doghouse because of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne.
”Mr Boswell — he comes from Scotland,” the wicked bookseller said.
In no time at all, however, the elderly — at 54 — Johnson was off to the Highlands with his future biographer, and thus began my own useful adventure with these ancient writers, one which would last me all my days.
The Collect for the last Sunday in Epiphany says that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright, and I tell myself that it’s not for this moral failure alone that we climb the pulpit stairs with great care. A 17th-century parson here died while preaching in Wormingford pulpit. As my brother would have said: “It makes you think.” In Australia, he took me to see the ocean crashing against the rocks, and he said: “It makes you think.” A young man wanting to join a religious community such as Little Gidding said it made him think.
Everything makes a writer think — usually of happenings such as matins and evensong in the village church. For one thing, they are so poetic and perfect in their way. This week’s epistle made me think of the Oxford Movement, and part of it comes from St Paul’s last words to the Romans: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” The great spreader of the teachings of Christ is both worldly and saintly.
Not for the first time, a youngish middle-aged man came to ask me about the monastic life. Was it possible these days? He meant in the Church of England. My only experience of it was with the Cowley Fathers at Oxford, and that only for a weekend.
I was writing a book about Christian old age, and I thought that an old Cowley Father might be able to describe it. At Oxford, with the Cowley Fathers, we ate in silence with just a smile as we passed the potatoes; we could talk in the library, but not at meals. I admired the Alice in Wonderland attitude.
There was a young artist who, for some strange reason, had to work in the freezing glasshouse while the Cowley Fathers proper had radiators, and a parquet floor. They spoke beautifully about old age.
Fr Luke, for example, said: “All that I feel now is that I give God what I have to give him, and give him what he has to give me, and that is that, and I am thankful. Sometimes it is nothing, but one has to learn to use the nothing.” He had spent hours in prayer for nothing at all, he said.
St Paul said to give thanks for all things, and so you learn how to use nothingness, and this is what I have to do these days. This is what I have to know: that I am old. I have to be honest and say that I fear I feel nothing, often. Then I have to make it something. The alternative would be despair, and I would never choose that.
Fr Luke’s problem, I thought at the time, was that he didn’t have much to do; but I was young and judgemental, and now I am old, and I am lighting a bonfire, and listening to Poetry Please while cleaning the cooker.
St Paul’s last Epiphany words are about listening to music. The language of Jesus should be set to psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, he says. We do our best here in our village church.