DURING the course of this long, slow spring, my daily walks with George and Zara took me past St Mary’s, Linton. I watched the spring open out in blossom, scattering wild flowers through the churchyard, the tender green leaves unfold on the lime trees, and the squirrels in the woodland patch awake from hibernation and find their hidden stores. Everywhere I heard, in brake and bush, the chorus of birdsong, and caught little glimpses of the birds themselves building their nests.
And, yet, in the midst of all that opening out and thriving stood the church itself, locked and closed. Even though that closure was itself an act of love and care, I always felt a pang passing it by, and felt almost as if the building itself were joining me in grief and longing to be open again.
And often, as I watched the birds flit past between me and the church, those verses from Psalm 84 would come to me: “Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young: even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.” I certainly felt the “desire and longing” that the Psalmist speaks of, to “enter into those courts” again.
Then the day came when we could open for “private prayer”, and I remember with what loving care and caution it was arranged: with the carefully spaced chairs, and the sanitiser, and, indeed, a rota of church-sitters for the opening hours to make sure everyone was safe, and keeping it safe for others. They, too, those patient church-sitters, like the sparrows and the swallows, had found their own place in Psalm 84: “I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God: than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness.”
I make no suggestion, of course, about where the “tents of ungodliness” may be pitched these days, but I do know that when one is “going through the vale of misery”, as we all have been of late, then an open church, quiet and inviting, can indeed be, as the Psalmist says, like “a well” whose “pools are filled with water”.
I had reached Psalm 84 in my new series of poems responding to the Psalter, just at the time that we were opening St Mary’s again. One of the first things that I did was to slip in and read the poem aloud in that lovely, resonant, holy space:
LXXXIV Quam dilecta!
Yahweh saves, Our God is merciful
And how I long to enter in his courts
To nestle at his altar and to dwell
With him forever. Day and night my thoughts
Are yearning towards the beauty of his temple
In “swallow-flights of song”. For in his courts
Time is transfigured, opened out and ample,
It touches on eternity. I stay
Awhile within this church, its simple
Furnishings, and storied windows say
More to me of heaven than the pale
Abstractions of theology. A day
Spent in an empty church has been as full
Of goodness as an age elsewhere. I feel
Its peace refresh me like a holy well.