Sermon on St Anselm

Sermon Anselm 2015

Apparently there is a pelican in St James’s Park which objects to Selfies. If he is part of the background of someone’s old fashioned photo he is content, but if anyone tries to co-opt him into a picture of themselves he takes umbrage and runs away.

The novelist Howard Jacobson told this story on the radio last week as an intro to a diatribe against modern varieties of egotism, which targeted all those who wish to plaster their own mug-shot across the nation to publish later on face-book( his words not mine) and those readers who grumble about novels which have characters in them who are too strange or different from themselves.

It is not all about me was his heartfelt cry.

Now consider these words, which come from a meditative prayer written, well I won’t say at this point how long ago.

Come now, you ordinary  person,

 Turn aside for a while from your daily employment,

 Escape from the tumult of your thoughts.

 Put aside your cares.

Leave your heaviest worries to one side,

Make space for a time for God

Enter the inner chamber of your soul,

Shut out everything except God,

And that which can help you in seeking him,

 And when you have shut the door, seek him.

Now, my whole heart, say to God,

 I seek your face,

 Lord, it is your face I seek.’

A bit of a contrast to a world which people are very anxious to locate their own face.

I have every sympathy with that Pelican, and I think St Anselm, who wrote those words about 1000 years ago, would have too.

There is a huge amount of good in our world today, much of which we don’t notice because of the way bad news grabs our attention. Between 1990 and 2010 , for example, the number of people living in absolute poverty on our planet reduced by 50% and during the same period the number of children who die every day fell  by 16,000.

Imagine that news reversed and we would be horrified-16000 extra children dying in a tragedy everyday- so why aren’t we rejoicing?

Aid, trade, medical science, political activity have all contributed to an unprecedented improvement in the lives of millions around the world in 2 decades and yet we still easily fall into despair , cynicism and nostalgia in the face of small challenges and immense ones ( such as Climate change and terrorism).

Maybe filling the world with pictures of ourselves is just one more symptom of fear and anxiety? If we only gaze transfixed at ourselves we won’t notice all the troubling and challenging reality out there.

But if we don’t look away from ourselves we can miss much.

We won’t for example pay any heed to those such as St Anselm who lived so long ago. They are so utterly different from us- what can they possibly have to say?

Well I have already given one example with that quotation. We can contemplate the possibility of turning away from our own obsessions, habits and activities, for a moment and go looking for God. Listening, paying attention, being mindful.

All ways of closing the door, however temporarily, against gazing at our own reflection.

When I was reminding myself about St Anselm last week I found myself smiling inwardly.

This man who was born in Italy, 33 years before the battle of Hastings, into a world far more horrid than ours, in terms of violence, want and suffering; who because of the prevailing world view spent even more time worrying about the wiles of the Devil than we do about the duplicity of politicians, is a heart -warming and admirable figure.

In an age when it was a convention that anyone appointed to high office in the church made great protestations of unworthiness- however keenly they may have preened themselves for the post before-hand- St Anselm seems to have been genuine in his lack of ambition.

When he was made, and I do mean made, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093- at the age of 60 – so he was for those times already a very old man- he had to be ambushed at Gloucester by the then king, William Rufus, who thrust the Archbishop’s staff at his closed fist. If Anselm opened his hand and gripped it that would have been a sign of acquiescence.

When he eventually accepted that he was now Archbishop he soon found himself exiled for not knowing his place. It being a feudal society he was  vassal now to the king. As his lord, William Rufus was entitled to demand £1000 from the Archbishop so he could go and wage war in Normandy.

Anselm refused to hand over more than half that sum because he didn’t want to put financial pressure on his tenants. It didn’t help that Anselm also criticised the king’s life-style and the corruption of his closest allies. I am sure some recent political leaders wished they could so easily get annoyingly critical archbishops out of the way.

But the most striking thing about St Anselm is that he was fundamentally a spiritual man. He had become estranged from his father decades earlier because he wanted to ask questions and dig deep into things.

His father would have been happy for him to become a monk at a nearby monastery where he could become a man of status and distinction. But Anselm felt that he could not follow that path and so spent the next few years wandering north in the search for wisdom and a teacher who he could respect.

Eventually he found that person, Lanfranc, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy. It was that geographical accident that resulted years later in his being dragged into power politics. He wanted to do nothing but pray, and think and write. How was he to know that William of  Normandy would soon set his heart on conquest?

We still have Anselm’s prayers, and his theological writings, which were probably the most influential in the whole of the western church before the Reformation apart from those of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.

We owe to him one of the most searching reflections on why God had to enter fully into the human realm to redeem it,; a big part of his answer being compassion- God not being a wise bystander but a seeker after the lost in all the mess of life.

He also wrote many loving letters of spiritual advice to other monks and anyone else who wrote to him. Much of it probably far too stern for our taste, but because of that more likely to give us pause for thought; Like in Hindu culture to this day, in his time, many married couples who had seen their children to adulthood wanted to enter religious communities- now freed from parental responsibilities. He counselled them.

Above all was his focus on God, and his love and majesty and our littleness in comparison. He didn’t seek his own face but God’s.

A final prayer which was written for friends might be helpful, as it also acknowledges our own inability to feel the right emotions and find the required words.. Think of someone you know or one of those stories of suffering that move us so powerfully- kidnapped children, people risking their lives in fragile boats to escape war zones, persecuted Christians: Your choice

My prayer is but a cold affair, Lord,

Because my love burns with so small a flame,

But you who are rich in mercy

Will not give them what they need

According to the dullness of my energy

But as your kindness is above all human love

So let your eagerness to hear

Be greater than the feeling in my prayers.

Do this for them and with them, Lord,

So that they may thrive according to your will, and thus guided and protected by you,

 Always and everywhere,

May they come at last to glory and eternal rest,

Through you who are living and reigning God,

 Through all ages. Amen.

 

Messy Church Sermon

I was sitting on a train to Wimbledon last week in a soporific mood when I suddenly jumped into a state of alertness due to an information announcement.

Earlier a typical one ‘ the next station is Wimbledon, where this train will be terminating’ had hardly penetrated my train journey sleepiness, but this one was much more arresting. It began normally enough’ The next station is Wimbledon.’ But then it took a dramatic turn which dragged me into a state of attention.

Where this train will be terminated.

That seemed a bit drastic. It didn’t seem to be ailing in any way. And I asked myself how were they going to be able to do that anyway? Is there a giant crusher, hidden at the back of the station somewhere for killing trains.

But I did get the message. The eccentric fashion it was delivered made it all the more memorable.

Jesus’s had a way of getting his message across by using verbal shock tactics. When we take a closer look at St Mark’s gospel, the one that predominates during this church year, you will notice that odd ways of expressing himself were for him the norm.

He talks a lot about the kingdom of God.

Well, his contemporaries would have known all about the Kingdom of God. It would be the state of affairs when God took over.

No more wars, or sorrows, no more endless wrangles over right and wrong, and no more Romans running the show. A perfected world with God in charge.

So when Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is like the smallest seed you can imagine, or a treasure trove hidden in a patch of scrub, people would rightly have wondered what on earth he meant. They would have been jogged into attention by the oddity of the expression, and asked themselves ‘ maybe God’ plans are different then?’

Jesus’s parables have not been forgotten though. They have a way of sticking in the mind.

Hold that thought.

When Libby Lane was made bishop of Stockport, you will probably have heard the heckle from Rev Paul Williamson, who shouted out.

 No- not in the Bible.

The Archbishop of York just carried on in a dignified and authoritative manner. But it would have been wonderful if he had been able to answer the heckle.

Something like.

Not in the Bible?

Ordination is not in the Bible.

 Archbishops are not in the Bible.

 There are no cathedrals in the Bible

 and your employment protection which means you can spend so much time out of your parish indulging in vexatious litigation and being a public nuisance, without being sacked, is not in the Bible.

There are lots of other things that are not in the Bible. Including clear guidelines for the correct use of mitochondrial DNA!

It just isn’t like that. The Bible is not an ikea flat pack.

When I consider the bible and its great variety of books and characters it sometimes seems to me as if it is like a debating chamber with a bank of bureaucrats on one side and a mob of jesters on the other.

The compulsively tidy minded and those messily anarchic.

There are lots of books in the bible which are full of rules and guidelines, and then there are the prophets who tweak the beards of all in authority.

The stories of creation in Genesis provide a good example.

The newest of the 2 has God filing the world into existence.

I will put the darkness over here and the light over there,

 The world here, the planets and stars up here.

Here is my task for day 4.

Now I will put in the trees.

And now the animals.

 

The much older version goes like this.

God grabbed some dust and made a man out of it. Then thinking the man would get lonely, made some animals for company.

 That didn’t work. So he took out the man’s rib and made a woman.

He put them in a lovely garden, but then a snake, with legs, came along and all the trouble started.

The bureaucrat thinks that God worked to a serious 7 day plan, the jester suspects God was just playing or ad-libbing.

This to-ing and froing goes on throughout the whole Bible. And throughout the whole of Christian history.

That’s one reason, I think, that we have theologians and saints. Someone needs to think things through, while others need to test the boundaries, and be, like St Francis, fools for God. Risk takers and experimenters.

Returning to my terminated train story, the main purpose of the church is to get the Gospel out. God’s message for all people. It is easy enough to blame those outside for not paying attention, but it just might be that we, who do come to church, are not as good as we can be at communicating it.

Or, as I prefer to put it, it allowing God’s message to be heard.

I think we need our formal worship. When we break bread together at the Sunday Eucharist, we are doing something fundamental and vital- we will explore something more of that together during  Lent  , which is now not far off- but what about those outside who are uncertain, or maybe even embarrassed because of what they see as their Messy lives?

To get the message out is the whole point of our Messy Church experiment on Saturday March 21st, and I encourage you to get involved. It is a way of letting people hear the Gospel, by telling the story imaginatively, by doing craft activities, sharing food , and by having a simple, more flexible form of worship.

We will be inviting people in the neighbourhood, not just those with young children, but of any age. I have a very enthusiastic team involved who have already done a lot of work- including persuading me- my inner bureaucrat needed working on! The PCC is totally in support.

Over the next few weeks there will be plenty of publicity about it, and there are signing up sheets around today. We really do need your help. Your inner bureaucrat may be rebelling already, muttering, ‘it’s not proper church.’ ‘ Dumming down,’ Maybe even.

Not in the Bible- to which, as I have just made clear, my riposte would be.’ Oh yes it is.’

Above all we need you to come, and invite those people you know who are reluctant to come to ‘ proper church’, but might feel a bit safer with the Messy version.

If it goes well we will be doing it again, but if we don’t take a risk together, we will never know if it was worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on St Paul

Sermon on St Paul. 15.

In the light of what happened 2 weeks ago in France we have all had, or heard, conversations about how people who once appeared to be ordinary and harmless can change so profoundly that they can become murderers. Theories and bafflement abound.

Were they born like that? Were they corrupted by ideology or led astray by people?

Perhaps they were lost souls searching for a noble purpose who ended in committing atrocities instead?

I have never forgotten the experience, of when In Berlin, staring at length at a photograph of a German doctor who in the 1930’s risked his own health to work with children suffering from contagious disease.

I simply could not get the measure of his soul however intently I looked. He looked professional but ordinary.

Next to him were some of the shoes left behind by some of the children he had experimented on in a Concentration camp a few years later.

St Paul is an interesting figure in his own right, who arouses strong opinions in the church and outside , such as being acclaimed by some as the true pioneer of Christianity and Jesus’ best interpreter, or by others as the fount of all bias against gay people and women.

His impact on history is well known.  It was his reflections on justification by faith which led Martin Luther to launch the Reformation.

And he still provides the words of choice at most weddings and funerals, when people turn to 1 Corinthians 13 to express love or grief.

This man who was an eager participant in a crowd which stoned a man to death for blasphemy!

His moral trajectory was the reverse of the young terrorists we rightly agonise about.

He rejected murderous violence and went from being complicit in murder to an apostle of forgiveness and charity.

Someone who could write, as he did to the Christians in Rome:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

He was not someone who abandoned controversy either, as is made clear by the account we have of him in Acts, and by what we can readily read of his own words.

But there was a crucial difference, in that from the time he changed- the word conversion is not used at all in the biblical account- from someone who thought that those who preached Jesus as Messiah or Son of God should forfeit their lives for blasphemy to someone who proclaimed Jesus as Lord he took all the dangers upon himself.

Whether he was risking the wrath of the authorities for being a rabble rouser, or endangering his life in epic journeys by sea to found or support tiny Christian communities, he was no longer a threat to others, but only to himself.

Something shifted in him which re-oriented his life.

What has traditionally been called the Conversion of St Paul was something much more profound and radical than is often supposed.

He didn’t simply swap one religion for another one, neither did he just stop being a bad guy and start being a good guy, and neither did he, as has commonly been suggested in our sceptical and reductionist age, merely have a psychological crisis due to a bang on the head after falling off a horse.

He became a Visionary.  A word which we might be a bit wary of. But by which I mean someone who saw the world so differently and lived so courageously that he enriched the world, and changed it forever. Who had insights which inspired and niggled then and which continue to do so now.

The story of his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus might be a dramatized version of a process which took years- the crucial point of a dawning realisation rather than a blinding flash out of the blue. But whatever it was it did mark a fundamental shift.

Christ was no more the enemy, but the foundation of his whole life. Christ’s self-giving love and his reconciling work;- between God and humanity and between people- was now for St Paul the centre of everything.

The self righteous anger, the hatred of the other, the strenuous attempt to follow the correct rules and stick to the conventions, just collapsed inside him.

One way of seeing his letters- which make up a quarter of the New Testament- is as evidence of the process of re-building his sense of self and the world, in the light of this crisis.

Those same letters reveal him doing so in dialogue with other early Christians asking many of the same kind of questions, but not being able to go as far as he did in the grandeur and range of his answers.

His fundamental question was what difference does Christ make to my life and the world?

Which, if one considers it for a moment is a big question.

It embraces the categories we now label theology, philosophy, ethics, society, history, politics and psychology.

Which is why I think that St Paul has had so much attention in the past and deserves it still.

Because his context was very different from our own we might find it challenging to always see the connections, but  there are many which still resonate with what we experience.

His writings and his biography not only have the instant relevance of being about a man who turned aside from murderous violence. To  become one who could insist that:

 Faith, hope and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.

But they also keep nudging away at all the other implications of what Christ means for the world.

St Paul’s world was stratified in ways and directions far in excess of what we see today. Religion, social class and gender had fixed boundaries. St Paul began to say things such as there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile.

The Greco- Roman world was much attached to the notions of fate and determinism. One could nobly endure or find the flow and go with it. Christ for Paul put a stop to that.

Paul talked about liberty and freedom as alternatives and the Holy Spirit leading to transformation and eternal life. The future opens up as a place of possibility for all humanity. How often do we succumb to the idea that the world is just so?

And the suggestion that it was St Paul who paved the way for such  ideas as conscience and the person, which we now take for granted, by insisting that everyone, irrespective of their social position, had worth, and moral freedom  being children of God, is no exaggeration.   Which isn’t just an interesting historical detail but surely speaks to our attitudes to who matters to us, and what power we have for good.

The accusation is sometimes made that Christians go wrong when they substitute St Paul’s teachings for those of Jesus. Dogmatic types do sometimes make such a mistake, but maybe the philosopher Wittgenstein got the relationship between the correct when he wrote.

The spring which flows gently and limpidly in the Gospels seems to have froth in St Paul’s epistles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Midnight Mass

One of the few thing that I have in common with Christina Rossetti, the poet responsible for the carol ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, is a love of London Zoo.

She found the company of the animals and the disciplined concentration required to sketch them a help in lifting the pervasive depression that affected her later years.

I find it is a good place to think and to be still and look. A bit like an art gallery with exhibits that breath and move.

On my last visit I was enjoying a cup of coffee in the late autumn sun when a fire alarm went off.

All the staff of the Zoo café and the handful of customers were asked to get away from the building and wait for the all clear.

That was when the very friendly member of staff next to me said,

At least it was just the fire alarm; it’s a bit of a worry when it’s the one telling us that the tiger has got loose.’

Encountering a tiger face to face would be a very different proposition from watching it safely through bars and glass!

The same could be said for God. If He is safely tucked away in heaven, or loiters around in empty churches, or is a mere idea in the mind, he is not very dangerous.

The point of Christmas though is he has got loose! He came into the world at Bethlehem, and is still at loose in the world.

To risk being convicted of gender stereotyping, St John’s gospel is clearly the work of a man. The language is stirring and has its magic when read out at Midnight Mass, but it is still deeply abstract and philosophical.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

It is trying to communicate an important truth.

That put in contemporary terms would go something like this:

Meaning, which came fully visible in the life of Jesus Christ, had its origin when the universe was formed and has been instrumental in the evolution of life and the development of moral consciousness.

St John summarises this grand truth of the Incarnation like this.

And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.

It is no accident that the details that St John makes no mention of at all in his Gospel have such prominence at Christmas.

If St John provides the theory, the other gospels provide the practice.

The stuff we find in Nativity plays and we sing about in traditional Carols.

 

A young woman having her first child; in deeply troubling circumstances.

A faithful husband of tremendous loyalty.

A gritty journey, not to a hotel recommended by Trip-advisor , but to a shed full of animals.

Learned sky watchers abandoning their own land to bring peculiar gifts to a far distant new born king, in an obscure Roman province.

A jealous and fearful grown up King, Herod, with a twisted heart, who won’t stop at murder to protect his own.

And the last act, which resonates so much with what we hear about daily on the news; what millions are actually experiencing at this very moment; the flight of a family into exile to escape the threat of death.

 

Into all this is woven the message of the angels. The glad tidings of hope and peace.

The birth of the Saviour, The Son of God.

This vulnerable child, placed in a tangle of straw, born into the mess of the world which we, humanity, have helped to make, who will change everything.

God is on the loose in the world he creates.

It all began at Bethlehem, but later Jesus ranged across Galilee and on to Jerusalem. His love and challenge for all to see.

Our reason for rejoicing tonight is summed up in the last verse of the hymn we will sing later. O Come all ye faithful.- the verse we only ever sing on Christmas Day.

Yea, Lord we greet thee,

 Born this happy morning,

Jesus, to thee be glory given;

Word of the Father,

 Now in flesh appearing.

Sermon for Bible Sunday

Bible Sunday Sermon. 2014.

I have told the story before about how when I was interviewed for the role of priest or this parish I was asked a question about the Bible, by our archdeacon, Stephen Roberts

Carole was there, but I doubt she can remember all the details.

The question was. Which bible verse sums up for you what the Christian gospel is all about?

And I  said I have not got one, and then went on to explain to him, as tactfully as possible that I didn’t think that was a very useful question.

Today’s gospel includes a text which illustrates the issue. It’s one that most of us love and easily relate too.

A Pharisee asked Jesus what’s the most important commandment? and Jesus replied. Well, , the greatest, The Muhammad Ali if you like, of commandments  is You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, but the second is ‘ you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Many Christians would probably take that as one of their favourite texts. It’s all about believing in God and being good and kind to people isn’t it? A simple but perfect summary of the Christian Gospel?

But others might prefer other biblical verses.

Martin Luther, who kicked off the Reformation, in 1517, was particularly attracted to St Paul’s letter to the Romans. And that was because of a particular dilemma in his world, something which he wrestled with deep in his own being and made the Christian life complicated and stressful for many Christian people.

Christ and the Church had always taught that a key element of faith was the promise of the forgiveness of sins, but in Luther’s day this had become so tied up with practices such as confession to a priest and going on pilgrimages and fasting, that there seemed to be an insurmountable barrier between the human soul and God.

Getting to God to feel a sense of his direct love and care had become almost impossible, priests and penances etc functioning like  border guards for people fleeing persecution or call centre waiting queues. You made a lot of effort to get through, but with no certainty of success.

Luther found the message of Romans exhilarating and liberating. He found there various passages which implied that personal faith was the key.

That God didn’t forgive people because they had completed an impossible spiritual obstacle course, but because they turned to him in trust with honesty about who they were.

The message is that God saves, people don’t have to save themselves.

Many Christians today, in the Reformation tradition will see St Paul’s letter to the Romans, rather than Matthew 22 as the key Christian text, that unlocks the Gospel.

Sometimes this goes to extremes, so that Paul’s ideas are given equal or greater importance than Jesus’.

And if you meet anyone who in any discussion of religion starts quoting the 2nd letter of Paul to Timothy to trump something you have to say.

All Scripture is inspired by God , you might well be in the company of a someone you might want to label a fundamentalist, who will be convinced that the world was created in the recent past, or that the Bible is a kind of divine instruction manual.

They might be driven by hostility to evolutionary theory or by a need for clear rules for living, but those words, all Scripture is inspired by God means for them that the Bible has absolute authority in all areas, including morality and science.

The over-used and usually misused Sufi parable of the elephant in the room might be helpful here. The original point of the story was that when it comes to religious truth and the human understanding of God, it is impossible from one perspective to see the whole.

The blind men who each had only one part of the elephant within reach were not stupid nor dishonest; it was perfectly reasonable for the one who was touching the beast’s leg to say it was like a pillar, and the one holding its ear to think he had a hairy carpet in his grip.

They were not all wrong, they were simply only partially right.

It’s when the person with tunnel vision thinks they have got the whole picture that real evil can happen.

In an interview a few weeks ago the bishop of London, Richard Chartres said something very interesting.

‘ The real trouble with the Church is not  that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women. It’s that it is spiritually incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us. It has reduced religion from a journey of many dimensions and parts to a set of ideas that might be encapsulated in a neat formula.’

In other words we tend to reduce religious truth to our horizon. A neat formula which re-assures us that we have got it taped. But however insightful and true our horizon is we are always in danger of missing the elephant.

I am convinced that all of these favourite bits of the Bible are true.

I believe that Scripture is Inspired by God, and that St Paul’s letter to the Romans does powerfully bust open the notion that salvation- the way  to get to know God- is via soul breaking moral effort, but  on the contrary  is a gift from God to people.

And I also believe that  loving our neighbour is essential.

But none alone is sufficient and tells the whole story. The Bible is a rich and complicated narrative, as is the Christian tradition, and as indeed our own lives as we seek after God, day by day, year by year.

The hymns we sing today make the same point via song.

Morning has broken reminds us that we live in a marvellous world created and sustained by a loving God.

Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire reminds us off our need for and the power of spiritual inspiration.

Be thou my vision is about seeking to see the world and live in it with  God’s perspective.

And Here I am Lord reinforces all those insights and celebrates God’s call to do his work of mending broken hearts and loving our neighbours in practical ways.

I don’t think we notice sometimes how richly hymns articulate and encourage our spiritual longings, but just like the Bible they don’t let us settle for a little picture of God; they tell a complex but joyous story, about our lives being built enriched and transformed by a loving God.

 

 

Not suitable for penguins

The lesson of the Penguin Pool

Being a member of the Zoological Society of London I can drop in to London Zoo whenever I feel like it. Each time I follow a very similar routine. I arrive as close to opening time as possible and make my way immediately to the butterfly house.

Last time I went the air inside was full of newly hatched glasswing butterflies. As their name suggests they have transparent wings making them seem even more fragile and ethereal than other species.

From there I make my way back to the Penguin Beach. All but one of the penguins there are Humboldt penguins, which are grey and sleek.

The odd one out is a solitary Rock-Hopper Penguin, who sports a golden punk hair-do. He can often be seen standing all alone on a rock and his lonely state always tugs on my heart strings.

But at least he doesn’t have to live in the old penguin pool.

That famous work of modernist architecture, designed in 1930 by Lubetkin, is oval like an egg and has amazing suspended bridges, but was never at all suitable for any actual living penguins.

The concrete it was made from damaged their feet- giving them the crippling complaint  bumble-foot-, and wasn’t very friendly to a bird that likes to burrow; and the water was too shallow for them to actually swim in.

When the Zoo authorities decided to build a Penguin enclosure which took into account what real penguins were actually like there was quite a strenuous campaign by devotees of the old pool to leave things just as they were.

It seems to me that a lot of damage is done to people when they to, like the original London Zoo penguins, are on the receiving end of theories and ideas which don’t take proper account of human nature.

Here are 2 quotations.

‘ When all is said and done, is there any more marvellous sight, any occasion when human reason is nearer to some sort of converse with the nature of things, than the sowing of seeds, the planting of cuttings and the transplanting of shrubs..’

‘ All kind of things rejoiced my soul in their company- to talk and to laugh, to do each other kindnesses, to share the love of books, to chat about everyday things lightly  and then about deep concerns, and back again.

 

Can anyone tell me who I am quoting?

I can give you a clue- they are not part of an advertising campaign by the Royal Horticultural Society or Waterstones.

St Augustine, whose day it was on Thursday.

These days St Augustine is chiefly remembered for having a pretty bleak conception of human life, epitomised by his theory of original sin.

Simply put he insisted that all human beings are born deeply flawed, into a world of suffering which is also profoundly disordered. God has the power to save and redeem them, but by their own power they can’t escape their fundamental nature or situation.

But those quotes provide a useful reminder that he didn’t think all was bad. There was plenty of avenues around for light and grace, fulfilment and happiness too.

Augustine’s picture of the human condition was complex, full of light and shade.

When I consider young men heading off to Syria to contend against a great evil, with the potential for their idealism to turn into a hateful ideology, plus a host of other circumstances we are all aware of, I can’t help but think Augustine was on to something.

Now consider Richard Dawkins latest brush with controversy.

In case you haven’t followed it. It stemmed from a hypothetical discussion via twitter. A woman who said that if she discovered that she was pregnant with a baby suffering from Down’s syndrome she would experience an ethical dilemma, received a fairly blunt reply.

“Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

He followed this up with a more detailed explanation of his reasoning.

Basically his line was that, as he sees the maximisation of happiness and the reduction of suffering as his golden rule when it comes to making moral decisions, logic dictated his conclusion.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of that particular furore a pretty fundamental understanding of the meaning and purpose of life is involved here. To be happy and to avoid pain become the cardinal virtues.

It is the back ground utilitarianism that’s all around us.

Pharell William’s Happy is a great song and great video, but I am not sure it provides an adequate rule for life!

You can probably all remember the famous atheist bus campaign of a few years ago, for which Richard Dawkins was a great enthusiast and in the light of his comments in this situation we can see why.

Its slogan was simple and emphatic.

‘ There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

The writer Francis Spufford was incandescent in his fury about that.

Here are just a few extracts from what he wrote  at the time in his provoking book ‘ Unapologetic’.

The word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry- enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great… but enjoyment is one emotion. The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product.

He writes that enjoyment is just one small part of life.

 The rest of the time, you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest.

I understood better why he was so angry about the narrowing of life’s meaning and value to enjoyment when I read the obituary, in the spring, of his mother, Margaret Spufford

I knew vaguely that she was a historian of great repute, and  a Christian spiritual writer renowned for her honesty and wisdom, but what I did not know was that she suffered from early on in her life with chronic anxiety, developed a rare life- long form of osteoporosis, causing her near constant pain, and had a daughter who had a genetic disorder which took her life at 22.

All of which makes me think that St Augustine wasn’t so wrong after all. Certainly his account of what it is to be a human being has much to re-commend it when compared to some of the modern alternatives, which are as unsuited for real human beings as the penguin pool was for real penguins.

We can’t really live in them, we can’t make ourselves at home and the water is far too shallow.

 

St Paul the Radical. Sermon 6th July 2014

Sermon Philemon

A couple of months ago I was feeling very guilty because I hadn’t written a  short play for  our church drama group to perform for ages, and I was scratching my head as what would be a suitable subject.

In the past I had been quite ambitious, producing one play which taught the whole history of the writing of the OT and a summary of its contents in 10 minutes or so, but generally I prefer to tackle actual stories- I have covered the life of Moses in 2 short plays and St Francis of Assisi in another for example but I just had a block- that is until Ruth said’ why not do one about the runaway slave Onesimus?. It’s a good story and its found in the shortest book in the whole Bible’- it is found in St Paul’s letter to Philemon which is only one chapter in length.

As I often find is the case- it took me a bit of time to concede the wisdom of her wifely advice, and then a couple of days later I sat down and started writing. But I immediately ran into a problem. One I run into quite frequently- as someone who studies the Bible a lot. The story of Onesimus was not as simple as I remembered it.

This is what I thought it was about. A well to do associate of St Paul, Philemon, had a slave Onesimus, who ran away and found his way to Paul, when Paul was in prison in Rome. Paul in his letter beseeches Philemon to forgive him for running away and accept him back without punishing him. The story has been taken usually in one of 2 ways, both possessing a strong dose of anachronism. Christians have seen it as a story about kindness and people not so keen on our faith, have seen it as a typical example of christianity’s illiberal conservatism with its uncritical acceptance of the institution of slavery.

The first thing I noticed is that it is not absolutely clear that Onesimus was ever a runaway slave. There is something highly unfeasible about the whole scenario as traditionally conceived. Philemon seems to live in what is now Turkey- Paul is in Rome. In those days a massively large distance to cover with hugely expensive travel costs. Onesimus would have had to pilfer a small fortune from Philemon to afford such a journey- and to visit someone in prison. That just does not seem likely.

My own favourite theory is that Onesimus who like many slaves might have been a well educated Greek, could have been a trusted messenger who Philemon  sent to Paul, but simply overstayed. There is no hint in the letter that he had committed a capital offence, which in that culture, running away would have amounted too! We will never know exactly what he had done to merit Paul’s pleas on his behalf.

But whether he had run away or not there is something striking about the way Paul treated him and considered him. His letter is full of intimate and affectionate references to Onesimus. He writes, I am sending him, that is my own heart back to you.

He calls him his child and says he has become his father; which might be even more significant.

Just before I went away I went to hear a talk by a scholar who is not well known, but very well respected in his field, Larry Siedentop, who is a fellow of Keble College, where he has taught intellectual history and political thought for many years

His latest book, is called Inventing the Individual- The origins of Western Liberalism. And in it he proposes that toleration and respect for human rights and dignity, which have been the legacy of the Liberal Tradition, owe their existence to Christianity, particularly the way, to put it colloquially, it drove a coach and horses through the classical world’s assumptions about what mattered and who mattered.

His thesis is that in the ancient world the family was, literally a sacred institution. Each family unit was not only set up on a patriarchal model, as is well known, but was built around a cult focussed around the ancestors and the family gods. The male run family was the key economic and communal unit. Women and slaves were part of it, but of no intrinsic status. They were virtually property of the male line.

St Paul’s radical declaration that there were no slaves, or women, Jews or Gentiles in Christ, and his behaviour with regard to Onesimus seem to me to be 2 sides of this revolutionary coin. The latter shows that he meant what he said.

Some biblical scholars have argued that Paul is recommending to Philemon that he should free Onesimus from the status of slave, although I can’t quite see that, but there is no doubt that he sees Onesimus as a human being- equal to him in the sight of God- someone not at all boxed in by his social position, and he wants Philemon to do the same.

Siedentop argues that by such shifts of perspective the church chipped away at the assumptions of the classical world and directly led to many of the things we value most about the modern one. The institution of slavery eventually becoming obnoxious and the rights of the individual paramount for example.

That turns on its head the version of history that we so often hear. That the church has always been on the side of dogmatism and control and has fought tooth and nail to resist a more humanistic way of dealing with people.

The very short letter to Philemon is well worth reading as it reveals  St Paul  at his most tender and revolutionary in reflecting on the difference that a Christ and God centred life will make.

 

 

David Cameron and The C of E

Sermon May 4th.

 

As it is now public knowledge that I am an official Labour candidate at the forthcoming election later in the month, I thought it appropriate to begin my sermon this morning with a very clear endorsement of the leader of one of our 2 major political parties.

I am talking about David Cameron, of course!

Those of you who follow the news will have noticed a minor spat around Easter between our Prime Minister and some eminent- I’ll qualify that- fairly well known- atheists, as to whether or not it is sensible to call Britain a Christian country.

I can declare myself an authority on this story for the simple reason that as one of the 34,000 people who buy a Church Times every week, I have actually read what David Cameron wrote. But I want to begin with the letter of objection which turned up in the Telegraph a few days later because in many ways it is more interesting than what the Prime Minister had to say.

The first thing that jumped out to me was the list of signatories. The main one, who I believe penned it, was the incredibly genial and likeable host of the radio programme- ‘ The Life Scientific’, Jim Al- Kahlili .’ There were other notable public intellectuals, such as Philip Pullman, and then there were the comedians.

Times have certainly changed. I really can’t imagine that 3 decades ago Morecambe and Wise, or Tommy Cooper would have been recruited for such a polemical enterprise- although maybe that would have been about right- with Les Dawson to add a due note of solemnity.

But there they were. I didn’t count them all, but amongst their number was Tony Hawks. Best known for his occasional appearances on Just a Minute, carrying a fridge around Ireland for a bet, and challenging the whole Moldovan football team to a game of tennis.

Context is surely important here. David Cameron’s article was written for a small newspaper, which is almost exclusively read by active members of the Church Of England to mark Easter!

What he wrote could be interpreted by the suspiciously minded as a buttering up exercise in the wake of the ongoing tension between the government’s Welfare strategists and the churches, which run most food banks, but it seems to be stretching it a bit to read into his words a contemptuous and menacing attack on everyone who is not a committed member of a church.

The letter of rebuke said this.

 

, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.

The Prime Minister was very careful to say.

.. Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all.

They wrote

”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.

In the last census, just short of 60% defined themselves as Christian; 21% as having no religion.

 

They also said

At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces.

Really?  Did the druids have a bigger influence than I had noticed? The classicist, Mary Beard, has argued that the main conduit by which the classical world of Rome and Greece has seeped into our culture is through the public schools, most of which have always been explicitly christian foundations.

One of the arguments that Cameron did make that all the faiths in Britain help to provide social and spiritual glue, and that this is a good thing.

By coincidence I was invited to a meeting at Balham Library on Wednesday. I have mentioned my involvement with the Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network before. It has been going for about 10 years and its main purpose is to try to connect the work of the NHs more directly with local communities and their needs.

Its main areas of concern at the moment are  mental health and dementia.

The gathering was  diverse- as a white Caucasian male, I was very much in a minority.

In the room were Muslims, Hindus, members of the New Testament Assembly- a black pentecostal church, an outpost of which we host here on Sunday afternoon.

Charity workers and an academic who is an expert in dementia and practical ways of mitigating its effects on individuals and families- brighter lighting being as effective as medication. Mainly people of faith but not exclusively.

The meeting was chaired by the Vicar of Roehampton.

That seems to me to epitomise one of the very positive contributions that  faith communities can make to the well-being of society.  There was nothing triumphalist or exclusive about the conversation and all there wanted to offer help to those outside their own faith communities.

As David Cameron put it.

From giving great counsel to being the driving force behind some of the most inspiring social action projects in our country, our faith based organisations play a fundamental role in our society.

I am glad he is proud of that- I am too!

In the Gospel today we heard the story of the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus. What a story?

Disciples who had been captivated by Jesus’ vision of a world healed and redeemed are downcast by his death and fear it was all for nothing. Then in one moment of illumination their vision and hope are restored. There lies one of the great claims and gifts of our faith.

Hopefully we don’t open St Barnabas for theatrical performances, run clubs for the elderly and for those who care for children, collect for Christian Aid, or as individuals do what we can to bring hope and healing  where it is needed, to get noticed or exercise power, but because we are inspired by that vision.

The ongoing promise of Easter.

 

Quiet day talks and poetry. WH Auden

Talk one.

Why pick WH Auden? Trigger. Alexander McCall Smith little book What can WH Auden do for you?

Quintessentially Anglican, in a manner which is timely, inclusive and challenging.

The lament that the C of E has lost its way is at times like a deafening chorus.

It is too prone to chase cultural fashion, it is not relevant, the liturgy is boring, the worship is too banal, it has abandoned its traditions, it is too evangelical- it is not evangelical enough etc.

We have all heard them and more.

I think that Auden can help, partly as a result of timing. By being born in 1907 and living until 1973, he had to respond to all the great issues thrown up by the first half of the century- from the rise of psychology to mass political movements – but was around long enough to dip his toe in the incoming tide of change and controversy, which is our inheritance- whether that is liturgical reform or more liberal attitudes to sexuality, or the prominence of materialism and consumerism.

He had experience of all and something insightful to say about them too.

And as testified to by his famously crevassed face he lived.

His was a life which was oddly on the edge at the same time as being cossetted, so we find his poetry connects – I will draw a bit on some of his other writings too- with a wide range of human experience.

Funeral Blues- became a celebrity poem thanks to 4 Weddings and a funeral- and was originally a satirical piece from a play, mocking public mourning for a political figure, then in typical Auden fashion was turned into a cabaret song, and yet still has lines which tell.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

 

And September 1939 became a kind of literary anchor to thousands of Americans in the wake of 9/11. As they sort words to describe such a horrendous interruption into everyday city life. The opening verse alone in that context is powerful enough to bring you to the verge of tears.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

This was one of his own

poems that Auden disliked most of all- it is my favourite.

These are examples of what is quite common now. Of taking poems and like popular songs and using them as a kind of sound-track to life. Words which are semi- detached, at least, from their context and original meaning.

Today I want to draw attention to the spiritual and theological under-currents which are present in many of his poems. Sometimes those currents are explicit, but many are concealed. This I think is one of the great joys of Auden. One of his greatest gifts to the church he made his home.

For this concealment was not a result of embarrassment, as some of our noisiest public atheists might assume, but because he didn’t see faith as an add on- like  an extra compartment on a train- but something enmeshed within life as it is lived and experienced.

In what counts to us, what matters- where our hearts are.

When I started researching for this day I was surprised again and again by poems I would have assumed at first glance are in no way religious, but on being nudged in the right direction by those who know better, noticed things I had completely missed before.

 

Equal with colleagues in a ring
I sit on each calm evening
Enchanted as the flowers
The opening light draws out of hiding
With all its gradual dove-like pleading,
Its logic and its powers:

That later we, though parted then,
May still recall these evenings when
Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
And Death put down his book.

Now north and south and east and west
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all,
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers,
The dumpy and the tall.

You may have noticed from that line about north and south, east and west that Auden had his favourite lines, which he wasn’t ashamed to recycle.

But the surprise about that poem,’ A Summer Night’ written in 1933, is that it describes a defining moment for him in his spiritual pilgrimage. At one level it is a moving poem about good companionship under the stars with fellow staff at Downs school; where he was teaching at the time.

But as he later revealed its significance was much deeper for him.

For him it had a religious dimension to it. At a point indeed when he had assumed that he had left his Christian faith behind him with his childhood.

30 years after he wrote the poem he wrote an introduction to a book on Protestant Mysticism, and said this.

One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly – because, thanks to the power, I was doing it- what it means to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

Auden described this explicitly as a vision of agape- of Christian love- and always saw it, despite all his flaws and failings as a defining experience, which beat at the centre of his life.

There are quotations from Auden’s  poems, including this one, and the odd complete poem around the church and the halls for you to read in quiet contemplation, and they will be the ones I will consider most in my 2 subsequent reflections.

 

Talk 2. There is no getting way from God.

There is a strong tradition which appears inside faiths and outside them, of dividing the world into distinct territories. The Sacred and the Profane, the Religious and the Political, the Private and the Public, for example.

We can probably all think of situations in which such categories are helpful, but also of the problems and confusions they bring.

The favourite target of the satirist for example is the public figure who sets himself up as a man of firm moral principle, but acts badly and hypocritically in private. But try understanding the Protestant Reformation without noticing the tangle of social struggles nationalist politics and religious passions-public and interior- involved.

Auden was a very clever man, and a very complex one, so he noticed the great movements of history going on around him and brought those into his poetry, but also the personal dilemmas- the highs and lows- which marked his inner life, as they mark all of ours.

But his religious sensibility, as a put it earlier, was not like another compartment on a train, but a thread connecting all the mess of life; giving it another dimension.

One of his most famous poems is ‘ As I walked out one evening.’ Written in 1937 it  begins

As I walked out one evening.

 Walking down Bristol Street,

The crowds upon the pavement

Were fields of harvest wheat.

It seems to be a poem celebrating romantic love and then recognising its limits, but notice the last 3 verses. Their conclusion is interesting.

’O look, look in the mirror,

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless.

 

O stand, stand at the window

As the tears scald and start;

You shall love your crooked neighbour

With your crooked heart.’’

 

It was late in the evening,

 The lovers they were gone;

The clocks had ceased their chiming

And the deep river ran on.

 

Whatever was happening to him, and however parlous his private life became- often it was lived in squalor and in great loneliness- there was this attitude of blessing. What modern religious writers call a sense of gift. Auden strenuously avoided any sentimentality here by declaring in a talk given years later that you can’t refer to misfortune as a gift to someone else, but only as gift to yourself.

In describing his crooked heart, with which he attempts to love his neighbour he is referring  to his homosexuality- he used the word crooked to describe his disposition in correspondence with his close friend Christopher Isherwood -which although he accepted he was  never able to make peace with.

But above all to the general human condition; the imperfection and folly that lurks in all our attempts to love.

Towards the end of his life he turned to writing very honest autobiographical haikus. One went, very truthfully.

His thoughts pottered

From verses to sex to God

 without punctuation.

 

In the first talk I referred to September 1st, 1939 and how it spoke to people witnessing the horror of 9/11, but of course its original context was the outbreak of war. And it demonstrates how his deepening faith and return to active involvement in church were as tied up with the events in the political and public  realm as much as with what was going on within himself. And it also shows how important the mind and the insights of the intellectual world were to him. Faith was never solely an emotional category for him, but a way of interpreting and responding to big events and big ideas. A prism, through which light is refracted.

So the poem draws on history, the then still novel science of psychology, the classical world, philosophy, political ideas and contemporary high culture- and yet never loses its immediacy and ability to speak plainly to that specific  situation and to others, such as 9/11, to the plight of Syria, and even I would suggest our food bank reliant post crash society, here in London. What to do? Auden’s beginning of an answer is.

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie, the romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man –in –the street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

 

Moonlanding. One of my favourites but one fairly universally derided. Stale and avuncular was one of the criticisms I found levelled against much of his later poetry. Hardly the case with this one, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1969.

It shows how he always kept up with events even in old age. Still had an eye which saw through modernity’s habit of thinking that now is always best, and was still certain that the little things of life and a sense of wonder and blessing are vital and more everlasting than any technical triumph.

I am of an age that means the Moonlandings will forever hold a wonder, allowed aged 11 to watch it as I happened, but in retrospect Auden might have been right about the hype and the questionable motivation involved.

It could be dismissed as a cranky outburst by a jaundiced old man, but surely that is a voice which deserves a hearing.

 

Moon Landing

It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while, made possible only

because we like huddling in gangs and knowing
the exact time: yes, our sex may in fairness
hurrah the deed, although the motives
that primed it were somewhat less than menschlich.

A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness: from the moment

the first flint was flaked this landing was merely
a matter of time. But our selves, like Adam’s,
still don’t fit us exactly, modern
only in this—our lack of decorum.

Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed: give me a watered
lively garden, remote from blatherers

about the New, the von Brauns and their ilk, where
on August mornings I can count the morning
glories where to die has a meaning,
and no engine can shift my perspective.

Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens
as She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at,
Her Old Man, made of grit not protein,
still visits my Austrian several

with His old detachment, and the old warnings
still have power to scare me: Hybris comes to
an ugly finish, Irreverence
is a greater oaf than Superstition.

Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.

 

Talk 3. With evening prayer.

Most of you have heard before how I was converted to the Book of Common Prayer. When I was ordained- 24 years ago- I went to a parish where all the services were in modern language apart from the 8am Eucharist and the sung evening service on Sunday which followed the 1662 prayer book. The Evening service had a large robed choir and hymns which went some way towards mitigating the out of date, antiquated language and, in my view, theology bordering on the barbaric- too much sin and self- abnegation for my taste.

There was a monthly Matins service too, which also used the old liturgy, where I was privileged to hear the great stage and screen actress, Wendy Hiller, read the lessons from time to time. I used to visit her too and we had a few quite energetic discussions about the relative merits of the old services versus the new ones. We were equally unpersuadable.

But over time and due to more frequent use of the old liturgies I understand far better why people hold to the old ways. There is far more to it than just being old fashioned, liking the familiar, and being averse to change.

Auden abhorred the liturgical changes which were just coming into the Church of England as he came towards the end of his life. By then he was dividing his time between his home in Austria and a cottage owned by Christ church college in Oxford- he moved there from New York to Oxford in 1972.

His health had been failing for a couple of years  and attacks of vertigo and fainting had been attended to back in New York by a young neurologist and friend working on his first book- Awakenings- Oliver Sacks.

Auden’s opinion about liturgical reform was very firm.

He hated modern translations of the Bible- actually he only lived long enough to glimpse the tip of the ice-berg with all the subsequent translations- and he valued the language of the BCP to an extreme degree.

He wrote.

We had the extraordinary good fortune in that our Book of Common Prayer was composed at exactly the right historical moment. The English language had become more or less what it is today…

The ecclesiatics of the  sixteenth century still possessed a feeling for the ritual and ceremoniousness  which we have almost entirely lost. Why should we spit on our luck?

So it is appropriate that our evening service uses the words he loved so much. Even those of you who are not utterly familiar with the words will detect echoes of familiar phrases that have become embedded in the language. You might notice too a solemnity and weight to the language which is often elusive or absent in modern versions. It is much harder to let the mind skate over the surface with these words than it is with the more recent alternatives. If you are the sort of person who ever listens to the radio late at night you will have noticed the difference between the words which wash over you and the ones that draw you in by arresting your attention- there is a parallel.

 

 

After service read Thanksgiving. Written very shortly before his death. A summary of the evolution of his life and work and a kind of prayer. You in the final verse is capitalised.  So it is not the poets and thinkers who are being thanked but God.

A Thanksgiving, by W. H. Auden

When pre-pubescent I felt
that moorlands and woodlands were sacred:
people seemed rather profane.

Thus, when I started to verse,
I presently sat at the feet of
Hardy and Thomas and Frost.

Falling in love altered that,
now Someone, at least, was important:
Yeats was a help, so was Graves.

Then, without warning, the whole
Economy suddenly crumbled:
there, to instruct me, was Brecht.

Finally, hair-raising things
that Hitler and Stalin were doing
forced me to think about God.

Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and Lewis
guided me back to belief.

Now, as I mellow in years
and home in a bountiful landscape,
Nature allures me again.

Who are the tutors I need?
Well, Horace, adroitest of makers,
beeking in Tivoli, and

Goethe, devoted to stones,
who guessed that — he never could prove
Newton led science astray.

Fondly I ponder You all:
without You I couldn’t have managed
even my weakest of lines.

? May 1973