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Diary: John Wall

09 August 2019


Time and eternity

I RECENTLY heard a talk by the historian and television presenter Bettany Hughes — and very good it was, too. At one point, talking about myths and history, she observed that some neuroscientists believed that we could not, as individuals, have a future thought without accessing a memory. In other words, in our minds the past not only roots the present, but, in a concrete way, embodies the possibilities of the future. This resonated with me, especially in terms of prayer life.

Prayers — particularly repetitive, formal things such as morning prayer, evening prayer, and the psalms — accrete layers of meaning when we recite them, which spark off associations and memories, which, in turn, can speak to where we are in the present. They are like a palimpsest: a thing of lost strata and accretions.

A palimpsest is primarily a medieval (or older) manuscript, with writing and illustrations that are later scraped off to make space for other layers of writing; so layers are built up, and older texts sometimes show through like lost memories. My favourite palimpsest is actually an ancient fresco, which I saw when I was on sabbatical three years ago, in Santa Maria Antiqua, in Rome.

Originally part of a guardroom and temple complex, built and decorated by the Emperor Hadrian at the foot of the Palatine Hill, it was, in the fifth century, turned into a church. Over the next three centuries, another five or so layers of paint were built up, before the church was lost in an earthquake in 847.

The “palimpsest wall”, as it is called, is a beautiful but uncanny thing: an image of the Virgin Mary shown as Queen of Heaven (the oldest example of this image in existence), looming out of the painted strata like a spectral Byzantine empress, lost in time. In a similar way, fragments of texts, scripture, and liturgy float in and out of focus as we pray, the past making its claim on — and giving form to — the present.

So it is, for example, that whenever I say the BCP matins third collect, for grace (“O Lord, our heavenly Father . . .”), I am momentarily taken back to when, as a small boy sitting in the front row of the choir stalls in the early 1970s, I learned the ancient words by heart as part of my introduction to church life. With the Magnificat, I am a teenager, going to evensong because I was riding horses on Sunday mornings (every time I cantered, I fell off; so I eventually decided that it was safer going back to church — how wrong I was!). When I say Psalm 130, I’m in my twenties, on the roof of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, sunbathing and memorising scripture, because I felt that I should be doing something worthy, and not just having a nice time.

These resonances crowd round while I pray, making prayer personal — but also informing the present moment with meaning and intent. It’s a benign form of haunting, these encounters with my younger selves — but it’s also, I feel as I grow older, all part of the fun.

Swords to ploughshares

I HAVE just bought a sword — as one does. We used to have one in the family, from a relative in the dim distance who was an officer in a cavalry regiment that pulled field guns. I remember, as a child, going to the (late lamented) Royal Tournament and loving the complicated choreography of the teams of horses weaving in and out in the arena, and being told that, many years ago, it was what my great-great-grandfather used to do. I was hugely intrigued, especially as my grandfather still had the sword in his keeping.

Alas, on a whim, he gave it away to a visiting cousin (my mother was hugely miffed, saying that it should have come to me). At any rate, it left a sword-shaped gap in my psyche, and, over the past few years, I have left a number of bids at Gorringe’s (an auction house near me) to no avail. But, at last, I got one. Having Googled it, I discovered that it was an infantry officer’s sword, dating from c.1895-97. Its handle is corroded; and it has no serial number, maker’s mark, or owner’s name (all of which explains why I could afford it), but I don’t care: I’m hugely pleased.

I know that an enthusiasm for steam trains is seen as a more appropriately clerical pursuit (I love the — probably apocryphal — story of a residentiary canon of York Minster who, every morning, dressed in a cassock and signalman’s cap, would walk across a flower bed planted up as a railway track in his garden, first looking each way to make sure no trains were coming, to change a signal that he had erected on the other side); but maybe an interest in swords speaks more to my inner Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones geek.

Arms and the man

THEN again, it might be something in the water. I am, among other things, the Rector of Horsted Parva, a delightful hamlet of some 200 souls with a 14th-century church and breathtaking views across the South Downs; in the 16th century, it was a centre of the international arms trade.

John Levett, a resident of Little Horsted in the 1530s, was a pioneer of the Wealden iron-smelting industry. When he died, in 1535, he left his “Irron mylles and furnesses” to his brother John, who happened to be Vicar of the parish of Buxted near by. “Parson Levett”, as the Privy Council called him, rapidly and unexpectedly developed into an armaments entrepreneur; by 1543, he was the main supplier of cast-iron cannons to King Henry VIII, all the while faithfully nurturing his flock as a country parson. No contradiction in vocation appears to have crossed the serenity of his mind.

An infantry officer’s sword may not be in the same league as a muzzle-loading, two- pound Tudor cannon, but I think that there is a clerical echo there somewhere. At any rate, a random reference from Isaiah in today’s morning prayer to “turning swords into ploughshares” has improbably now added 19th-century dress swords and Tudor clerical cannons to the ongoing, agreeably haunted, palimpsest that is my daily prayer life.

The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.

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