*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)