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Words that continue to comfort

by
17 July 2020

As congregational services resume, Gerald Butt reflects on the liturgy that has sustained him through other crises

Stephen Barnes/Religion/Alamy

EVERY Sunday morning was the same. We filed into in a spacious room, with a view on to an extensive lawn and tall, mature trees. It had been a reception room in a large country house in Somerset. Now, it was a prep-school chapel, dedicated to St Nicholas. We took our places in the pews, and the communion service began.

Much of it washed over me. But each week there was one moment that I awaited eagerly: the reading of the Comfortable Words. “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Jesus Christ saith to all who truly turn to him. Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Those two sentences made me shiver. The choice of the word “comfortable” in this context, where today we would probably say “comforting”. The chaplain enunciated “comfortable” at walking pace, four distinct syllables. They hung in the air. “Heavy laden.” Not by school work or worry, but the weight of loneliness. A boy lonely in the crowd, missing privacy, suffocated by the relentless group activity of boarding-school life.

The language of the Book of Common Prayer and The English Hymnal seeped into my consciousness in prep school, and, later, through senior school. The intimate room looking on to the lawn was replaced by a stark, white-painted chapel with a large black crucifix looking down on the altar. Infused with incense amid the daily and weekly High Church rituals, my brain picked up and recorded the rhythm of so much that was said and sung. “I bind unto myself today, The strong name of the Trinity”; “We do not presume to come to this thy table”; “We blossom and perish like leaves on the tree”; “Give peace in our time, O Lord.”

Then, at Sunday evensong — that most melancholy moment on the cusp of another wretched week, when family seemed far away — the call to “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord. . . Defend us from the perils and dangers of this night.” Too much. I have lived through some dark times since then, but few quite as bleak as those Sunday evenings in my early teenage years.

 

AFTER leaving school, I went up to university. Before long, organised religion started to drop off me, and I made no effort to catch it. Demonstrations in Grosvenor Square, the union bar, and the urgent desire to find a girlfriend. Distractions, not excuses. As a graduate, moving into Middle East journalism and, later, to a correspondent’s job in Lebanon, I seldom felt an urge to take part in organised religion. Even if I had wanted to, for most of this period there was neither the time nor the opportunity. The Anglican church in Beirut stood on one of the main lines of combat.

Reporting on the anarchy in Lebanon in the later part of the civil war, I was often in dangerous situations. There was good reason to say prayers for my own safety and that of my young family. A heart-stopping moment, for example, when, from the window seat on a plane as it climbed out of Beirut airport, I saw black puffs of smoke rising from around our block of flats close to the sea shore. My family were trapped at home while a battle was being fought around them. Not until I landed in Amman could I know that they were safe. Or the time a shell exploded close to the plane we were all in when the airport came under fire.

Whenever an explosion rocked the buildings in West Beirut — as they did so often — my first thought was of my wife and two little ones. Where were they? Would they be safe? I didn’t pray. But the words of the communion service continued to comfort me throughout those scarring years, long after my family had fled to safety.

In Jerusalem, some years later, I drifted back towards the Church, joining services at St George’s Cathedral. A new start, I thought. For a time, it was fine. But I suppose it demonstrated the flimsiness of my faith. I enjoyed the familiar hymns; but the language of the communion service had lost its appeal. It had lost the poetry of the Prayer Book prose; and that, if I’m honest, is really what I was hankering after.

Since then, I have been an occasional churchgoer — in Nicosia, in Alexandria, in Istanbul, in Richmond, in Surrey, in the Priory here in Malvern, and probably other places I’ve forgotten. For a time, in the middle of all this, I was a paid-up member of the Prayer Book Society, and took communion a couple of times at St James Garlickhythe, in the City of London: a bastion of the traditional liturgy.

Maybe out of shyness, or in reaction to ten years of communal life at boarding school, I find I can’t commit myself long to communities or causes. Like Milan Kundera, I fear I am “put off by the smell of the herd”. And I have no desire to proselytise on behalf of the Prayer Book, or criticise or denigrate modern liturgy or hymns. It’s just that the Prayer Book happens to be my invisible companion, and will continue so, even if I never again set foot inside a church.

 

I AM grateful, some 60 years after first hearing the communion said and sung in that chapel in Somerset, that the Prayer Book and English Hymnal have kept me linked to a Christian upbringing, if not with the Church itself. The lines that have become absorbed into my soul “tinkle with a clear, sharp happy sound, like a downpour of tiny pebbles”, to borrow a description from Simone de Beauvoir.

As in all companionships, there can be long absences, but never a complete severance. At a time of crisis or distress — not least during a global pandemic — I can be sure that the instinctive recollection of long-remembered and loved lines will offer me “that peace which the world cannot give”.

 

Gerald Butt is a UK-based Middle East consultant, analyst, and author, and a former BBC correspondent in the region. He began writing for the Church Times in the mid-1990s.

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