It’s the feast of Saint Bernard, one of the founding fathers of the Cistercian reform of monastic life. Our reflection is from Thomas Merton, writing in 1952. The celebration of the Eucharist has changed in religious communities as much, if not more than in parishes; there is one Community Mass each day, but there is still room for silence with God.
Our picture is from the trailer for Outside the City, a film by Nick Hamer about the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard’s Abbey in Leicestershire. Read on for Thomas Merton’s reflection on this day.
This week it is my turn to say the brothers’ Communion Mass, Our Lady’s Mass. It is always a Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin, always the same. I like it that way.
In the summer time, this Mass is said at three o’clock in the morning. So I leave the choir after morning meditation to go and say it while the rest of the monks recite Matins and Lauds. I generally finish the brothers’ Communions by the end of the second nocturne, and then go off into the back sacristy and kneel in the dark behind the relic case next to Saint Malachy’s altar, while the sky grows pale outside over the forest and a little cool air seeps in through the slats of the broken shutters.
The birds sing, and the crickets sing, and one priest is silent with God.
Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, Hollis & Carter, London, 1953, p336.
It’s Mary’s feast today. She matters because she is the mother of Jesus. Let’s read the thoughts of a 19th Century Protestant Englishwoman.
Elizabeth Barrett published this suite of twelve verses in 1838, before she met Robert Browning. I say ‘suite of verses’ for each one can stand as a poem in its own right. In these first two verses Mary speaks tenderly to her Son, trying to establish what their relationship will become. Jesus new-born, sleeps on, exhausted. What will become of them both? We will publish a further selection of the verses over the next three days.
In the stained glass window Jesus is old enough to learn to read and be in Joseph’s workshop, with a rose bush and a palm tree outside.
THE VIRGIN MARY TO THE CHILD JESUS
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
But see the Virgin blest Hath laid her babe to rest. Milton's Hymn on the Nativity.
I. Sleep, sleep, mine Holy One! My flesh, my Lord!—what name? I do not know A name that seemeth not too high or low, Too far from me or heaven: My Jesus, that is best! that word being given By the majestic angel whose command Was softly as a man's beseeching said, When I and all the earth appeared to stand In the great overflow Of light celestial from his wings and head. Sleep, sleep, my saving One!
II. And art Thou come for saving, baby-browed And speechless Being—art Thou come for saving? The palm that grows beside our door is bowed By treadings of the low wind from the south, A restless shadow through the chamber waving: Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun, But Thou, with that close slumber on Thy mouth, Dost seem of wind and sun already weary. Art come for saving, O my weary One?
More from EBB tomorrow; the whole suite can be found on line.
Mrs Sparrow has got bolder over the last few days; you see that I have managed to take her picture.
When I was alone in the garden, eating lunch, she flew to the table – there’s a corner of it in the photograph – hopped to the edge of my plate, and took a beakful of sardines to feed the babies. She has come down when friends and family were present and entertained them, taking crumbs and morsels from the ground or table. Did people feed the birds around the Temple in Jerusalem?
I am glad there are no regular cats in the garden these days!
I had been sitting at the garden table, taking tea with Mrs Turnstone and Grandson No 2, but they had to go to find his parents. I sipped on.
I feel I have short-changed you, dear readers, because the central character in this story does not appear in the feature photograph, but she would have been even more camera shy than Mrs T is, and I was enjoying her company too much to send her packing by pulling out my phone.
She is one of the hen sparrows that nest in the roof of next-door-but-one. The landlord could do with fixing the roof but will have to wait now until the breeding season is over. The sparrow flew down to the table and attacked one side of the sliver of cake; these was a waspy looking creature opposite who probably would have posed for a photo, but Mrs Sparrow is not that bold, so what you get to see is a sliver of cake, slightly ragged at the edges. I got a shared meal with Mrs Sparrow, an uninvited guest.
Not that she sees it that way. As far as she is concerned, we humans are part of God’s providence (Luke 12:6). Food was provided, and food was accepted. She tucked in herself before taking a beakful home. At some point later the cake fell to the floor and was scattered across the flagstones; but it grew too dark for photography, and by the time a tardy human drags himself downstairs tomorrow morning, the crumbs will be gone.
I expect this bird is one of those that help themselves to Mrs Turnstone’s sphagnum moss, leaving her hanging baskets denuded; I daresay, too, she knows about the flowers pecked to ribbons for their sweet petals and nectar. Some things just have to be forgiven.
Other translations have swallow for turtle; turtle being the turtle dove of course. Not as noisy as our local collared doves, I imagine.
How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of host!
My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God.
For the sparrow hath found herself a house,
and the turtle a nest for herself where she may lay her young ones:
Thy altars, O Lord of hosts,
my king and my God.
At Trotton Place lived Arthur Edward Knox, whose Ornithological Rambles in Sussex, published in 1849, is one of the few books worthy to stand beside White’s Natural History of Selborne.+ In Sussex, as elsewhere, the fowler* has prevailed, and although rare birds are still occasionally to be seen, they now visit the country only by accident, and leave it as soon as may be, thankful to have a whole skin.
Guns were active enough in Knox’s time, but to read his book to-day is to be translated to a new land:
“I have the satisfaction of exercising the rites of hospitality towards a pair of barn owls, which have for some time taken up their quarters in one of the attic roofs of the ancient, ivy-covered house in which I reside. I delight in listening to the prolonged snoring of the young when I ascend the old oak stairs to the neighbourhood of their nursery, and in hearing the shriek of the parent birds on the calm summer nights as they pass to and fro near my window; for it assures me that they are still safe; and as I know that at least a qualified protection is afforded them elsewhere, and that even their arch-enemy the gamekeeper is beginning reluctantly, but gradually, to acquiesce in the general belief of their innocence and utility, I cannot help indulging the hope that this bird will eventually meet with that general encouragement and protection to which its eminent services so richly entitle it.”
There is a benevolently naive verbosity about some writers of Edwardian times, as we British count the XX Century before the Great War. This passage is from “Highways and Byways in Sussex” by E. V. Lucas, 1904, but of course the story from Knox is older still. I hope both men would appreciate today’s general good will and legal protection towards birds and the scientific study of them, but they both could tell us something of what has been lost in the years since then; although most birds are now legally protected, we should be less complacent; where are the cuckoos, martins and swallows we expected to see and hear thirty, even twenty years ago?
+ See White on Worms, 20 May, and search elsewhere in the blog.
* Fowler: someone who hunts and shoots birds (even rare ones).
The sky is clear,
The sun is bright;
The cows are red,
The sheep are white;
Trees in the meadows
Make happy shadows.
Birds in the hedge
Are perched and sing;
Swallows and larks
Are on the wing:
Two merry cuckoos
Are making echoes.
Bird and the beast
Have the dew yet;
My road shines dry,
Theirs bright and wet:
Death gives no warning,
On this May morning.
I see no Christ
Nailed on a tree,
Dying for sin;
No sin I see:
No thoughts for sadness,
All thoughts for gladness.
(from Foliage: Various Poems by W. H. Davies.
Sometimes Davies says it all in sheer simplicity: Christ is risen, No sin I see!
Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, Oh Lord of Hosts, my King and my God. Psalm 84:3.
This is a text that should speak to the heart of any worshipper, we should surely rejoice that the birds of the air should feel at home in God’s place. I’m always happy to find that sparrows, robins or bluetits are living in our place, sparrows in the eaves, other birds in the hedge, blackbirds on top of the box put up for bluetits. You’ll see why I could not resist sharing this little story. I am inclined to believe it happened in a cast iron Royal Mail box, like the one below, rather than a private householder’s gatebox, as shown above. WT.
Rowfant [a small village in Sussex] was once the scene of one of the most determined struggles in history. The contestants were a series of Titmice and the G.P.O., and the account of the war may be read in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington:—
In 1888, a pair of the Great Titmouse (Parus major) began to build their nest in the post-box which stood in the road at Rowfant, and into which letters, &c., were posted and taken out by the door daily. One of the birds was killed by a boy, and the nest was not finished. In 1889, a pair completed the nest, laid seven eggs, and began to sit; but one day, when an unusual number of post-cards were dropped into, and nearly filled, the box, the birds deserted the nest, which was afterwards removed with the eggs. In 1890, a pair built a new nest and laid seven eggs, and reared a brood of five young, although the letters posted were often found lying on the back of the sitting bird, which never left the nest when the door of the box was opened to take out the letters. The birds went in and out by the slit.
From Highways and Byways in Sussex by E. V. Lucas.
I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.
On our last L’Arche pilgrimage, those of us at the back of the group were following, not a golden string but arrows chalked on the pavement by the children. Who would not jump at the chance to draw graffiti across a town without getting into trouble? Only in the woods did we need some imagination to read the arrows they had created from sticks and stones.
In Dover town I ended up walking with P, who was happy enough to be walking way behind everyone else. Carrying the banner helped him concentrate on moving along. But we had to stop along the riverbank to watch the Dover ducks, who were quacking loudly. So I quacked back, quietly and politely, and so did P.
But my stomach was rumbling, and that golden string was going to snap if we lost touch with everyone else.
Soon a search party came to chivvy us along, so that we got to Kearsney Abbey park before all the food was gone. That was important to both of us!
Who knows where their golden string will lead them, on the way to Heaven’s gate? Blake’s picture shows us a woman walking beneath the White Cliffs and looking up to where her string is leading her. He does not show how our personal strings ravel together. Those weavings, knots, stitches, embroidery and tangles are part of each of our life’s journey, part of our shared pilgrimage, helping each other to find the way; as P and I did, one morning in Dover.
Science was not always seen as attacking Christian belief, and should not be presented as doing so. Rather it challenges the believer to accept, or not, the evidence of their own observations, and the often detailed observations of honest men and women looking at Creation, trying to understand it and their place within it. As one scientist put it, you can believe that God indeed created all things inside a week, but you have to accept that he created a world that looks, sounds and tastes as though he has been creating on a larger scale and over a longer period of time than we can even begin to imagine.
Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne in Hampshire, was one such honest observer. He had his battles to convince gardeners and farmers that ‘worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation’. That is now received wisdom. As for ‘small shell-less snails, called slugs’ … well, at least the hedgehogs enjoy them. White’s Natural History is based on letters to scientist friends.
These worms are rather dirty with grains of sand and soil adhering to their skin. We thought it would be unfair to wash them down. After the photo op they were soon back in their native soil.
Selborne, May 20, 1777.
Lands that are subject to frequent inundations are always poor; and probably the reason may be because the worms are drowned. The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy of nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity.
Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass.
Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work: and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently sterile: and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted that green corn, plants, and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulae (long-legs), in their larva, or grub-state; and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.
From “The Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White.
Let’s pray that we may never be counted among the incurious, but may appreciate that every link in the chain of nature has its part to play.
Swallows were being discussed on the radio this morning, but no, we have not yet seen any around here, though we’ve had blackcaps and willow warblers among the UK’s migrants. This photograph of swallows’ nests was taken a few years ago at Brant Brougham near Lincoln at snowdrop time, so these were the previous year’s nests which might well have been repaired and reused a couple of months later.
It’s rather delightful that they should have built against the roof boss of the pelican on her nest. And the picture brings to mind the famous verse from the Psalms:
Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God. Psalm 84.3