“WHO sweeps a room as for Thy laws, Makes that and th’action fine.” George Herbert’s pithy couplet, a paean to the religion of the ordinary, might have served as a motto for the story told by Dr Naomi Pullin in Free Thinking: Religion and ordinary lives (Radio 3, Holy Tuesday). Two Quaker women, en route for Alexandria, are captured and imprisoned as heretics on the island of Malta. After four years of incarceration, the doors of their cell are finally opened for their release, and they are discovered contentedly knitting.
The quiet, heroic piety of women such as these is becoming of increasing interest to social historians, who, we are told, have typically overlooked religious practice. Simply stated, ordinary faith is expressed in ways that are routine, and whose virtue is in their unchanging ritual.
Yet historians, as Professor Hannah Barker here admitted, like to say that whatever period they are studying is one of profound change. For her, as a historian of the post-Enlightenment, there is the added challenge of convincing us that faith did not disappear from ordinary people’s lives as soon as Voltaire put quill to paper. Her research includes studying 19th-century family Bibles that contain children’s scribbles and doodles; and evidence of how familiar an artefact the Good Book was in the households of the Industrial Revolution.
Last week, The Passion in Plants (Radio 4, weekdays) provided an excellent companion piece to this discussion. In the company of the writer Bob Gilbert, and a Franciscan friar, Brother Samuel, the Holy Week story was revealed through the folklore and symbolism of nature: the pussy willow traditionally used to replace the palm, the bitter tansy herb, hawthorn, and cuckoo-pint. As rich and densely illustrated as a medieval herbarium, this series gave us social history and science, theology and poetry.
Ordinary lives of a special kind were the focus of last week’s Slow Radio (Radio 3, weekdays; originally broadcast in 2017). This was a timely repeat: no doubt we are being encouraged to learn from the monks of Belmont, Downside, and Pluscarden abbeys how to deal with life lived at a radically different pace. The soundscape created here of changing acoustics, occasionally punctuated with human voices, was of virtuosic quality, compromised only by the occasional utterance that fell on the wrong side of the line between profundity and banality.
If, as a remedy for our disordered times, neither celebration of the ordinary nor reduction of the heart rate is effective, then radio also offers a portal into a past so immersive that it might be regarded as a parallel universe. Saturday mornings on Radio 4 Extra are currently full of comedy from the 1950s, and Radio 5 Live Sports Extra last week presented the entire commentary of the third Ashes Test from last year: the one in which Ben Stokes snatched a victory from certain defeat. A story of death and resurrection if ever you saw one.