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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

04 November 2022

While leading a retreat at Wantage, Malcolm Guite encounters Alfred the Great

I HAVE been staying this week in Wantage, as a guest of the Community of St Mary the Virgin, where I am leading a retreat. It is a beautiful and restful place, nestled into the Vale of the White Horse. Although this was my first visit, the community of Sisters here had already done me a great deal of good; for the first time I saw that the letters “C.S.M.V.” were on the cover of a beautiful lucid translation of St Athanasius’s little book on the incarnation, which was translated by “A Religious of C.S.M.V.”.

That “religious” was none other than Sister Penelope, a great scholar and translator of both Greek and Latin texts, including a lovely version of St Bernard on the Song of Songs. She was a remarkable woman, and corresponded and exchanged manuscripts with both C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.

That little book on the incarnation was one of the important stepping-stones for me on my journey back to a full Christian faith, as was the brilliant introduction to it by Lewis. Indeed, Lewis became a great friend of Sister Penelope, and they had a long correspondence. He dedicated Perelandra, obliquely, to the Community, with the inscription “To Some Ladies at Wantage”. As he noted wryly to Sister Penelope in a letter, that dedication somehow came out, in a Portuguese translation, as “To some wanton ladies”!

I was leading a retreat on the Psalms, but, on Wednesday, they invited me to celebrate communion, and it happened to be the day set aside to remember and celebrate King Alfred, “a local saint”, as they informed me with some pride. That afternoon, I wandered into Wantage itself, and there, in the little Market Square, I saw the fine statue of Alfred the Great, its white stone almost glowing in the autumn sunshine. Stepping a little closer, I read the inscription on the base of the statue:

Alfred Found Learning Dead

And He Restored It.
Education Neglected
And He Revived It.
The Laws Powerless
And He Gave Them Force.
The Church Debased
And He Raised It.
The Land Ravaged By A Fearful enemy
From Which He Delivered It.

Even as we lurched, yet again, between governments, between prime ministers, between all the specious promises and vague clichés of our present political discourse, I couldn’t help giving a wistful sigh as I read that inscription; for so much in our realm at present is neglected, so many are powerless, so much is debased or debilitated by the recent ravages of both plague and war, as it was when Alfred began his programme of reform and renewal.

If a new administration, whether before or after a General Election, could propose and achieve even half of what the great Wessex king did, we would have every reason to be thankful.

I was glad that, at the morning eucharist, the Sisters had invoked Alfred’s aid and intercession for the nation. We’re going to need it.

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