As a sick young child I was sent to a prison-like convalescent home in Worcestershire, hoping that fresh air would do me good. My best memories are of celandines and crocus, those early spring flowers; and sticky buds of horse chestnut which the teacher brought in and allowed to open in the classroom. Mary Webb was thinking of these same buds in autumn when they come into prominence.
Curiosity is awakened by the small brown bud at the end of a chestnut twig in autumn, a little farther on than this year’s fruit. How much of the future form is hidden in that small sphere? How much embryo tree is wrapped in its inner cases of wool and velvet? What hint of next summer’s white chalice and green finger dwells in its innermost recesses?
Long before the unfolding of these buds in April, when the downy leaflets uncurl, you can see, if you open one, the compressed cluster – each yellowish ball about the size of a pinhead – which is the future flower, and the faint dawnings of leaves all wrapped in soft wadding.
The thought of the sap forming itself into these marvels, of the skilful, silent artistry going on without hands at the end of every bough and at the heart of every root makes the world a place of almost unbearable wonder.
Near Bateman’s Sussex (National Trust)
When we look down into the blueness of some little pool, rejoicing in the birdlike passage of the clouds, and then look up to the wide sky, we realise that the finite is like a lake which, as far as its capacity allows, mirrors the infinite; and when we see the foreshortened image of a poplar stretched in pale colouring beneath it, we have a sudden vision of time as the faint, straitened shadow of eternity.
Reflections in a pool give rise to a reflection in Agnellus Mirror, 100 years since Mary Webb published Springs of Joy, from which this week’s thoughts are taken.
We are so overwhelmed, in these days, with our discoveries of omnipotence that we have little time for realizing the minute care allied with it.
We forget that the power which sets the parhelion flaming in the sunset, and calls the straying comet back from the bounds of the dark, also puts the orange underwing to sleep in her chrysalis cradle, while the flower she loves best is prepared for her.
Who can say which is the greater sign of creative power, the sun with its planet system swinging with governed impetus to some incalculable end, or the gold sallow catkin with its flashing system of little flies? Ephemera, all of them; and all utterly beyond our understanding.
And the more you know, the more you wonder … Laudato Si’!
Not once only, but every year, the fair young body of the wild rose hangs upon the thorn, redeeming us through wonder, and crying across the fetid haunts of the money-grubbers with volatile sweetness – “Father . . . they know not what they do.” (Luke 23.34)
I love that expression, volatile sweetness. Worth pondering; how readily do I give out my loving kindness?
I did think of saving this post until Lent, but I miss the wild roses, so here is a reminder of summer. These were beside the Canal near Edinburgh. Christ crucified on the lily is on the Isle of Wight. In different ways Mary Webb and the unknown island artist remind us that all creation is one, and we all have responsibility not to be money-grubbers, but to use all we have, including money (that tainted thing, as the Jerusalem Bible translates the words of Jesus in Luke 16.9) wisely and generously.
And naturally, Laudato Si’!
Mary Webb’s illness caused swellings, which eventually distorted her face. But:
There are many to whom all beauty seems denied; they hunger for it dumbly, unconsciously. Is their life to be a stricken tree, colourless and silent? Surely not. The flawless forms and colours of nature are an especial consolation to those who are oppressed by that dark tragedy, deformity of body or unloveliness of face. How deep is the desolation, when a sad soul looks out anxiously, through eyes that cannot reflect its beauty, watching for an answering smile, and meeting only a look of swiftly concealed repulsion! Startled and ill at ease in the ruinous mortal dwelling, reminded of it continually, this soul leads a life of torture. I saw one of these look from her windows and weep bitterly, finding no comfort. Then a voice came in the long sigh of the dawn breeze:–
“I know, inhabitant of eternity, how strait and comfortless your home is. Go out into my garden and forget. The skies are clear; see where I lead out my sidereal flocks! The tall young larches are dreaming of green; there is moonlight in the primrose woods. There is a fit dwelling for you; go, and be at peace.”
She rose and went, and her laugh came back upon the wind. The leaves do not hesitate to finger and kiss any face, however marred, that looks up into their dwelling. No distortion of body frightens the birds, if the heart within loves them.
One flower of germander speedwell may be the magic robe that clothes us with the beauty of earth. It has the same strength of structure, wonder of tint and mystery of shadow as all natural things. Awakened by its minute perfection, the mind … realises that nature’s beauty can never be perfectly grasped.
Ceasing for a time to question and strive, let us dare to be merely receptive.
It does not matter how shut in we are. Opportunity for wide experience is of small account in this as in other things; it is depth that brings understanding and life. Dawn, seen through a sick woman’s window, however narrow, pulses with the same fresh wonder as it does over the whole width of the sea. A branch of flushed wild-apple brings the same joy as the mauve trumpet-flower of the tropics. One violet is as sweet as an acre of them. And it often happens – as if by a kindly law of compensation – that those who have only one violet find the way through its narrow, purple gate into the land of God, while many who walk over dewy carpets of them do not so much as know that there is a land or a way.
Mary Webb is drawing from the same spring as William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
We might remember those last two lines next time we are at Mass.
Mary Webb, 1881 – 1927, the Shropshire poet and novelist, suffered from Grave’s Disease, a thyroid problem that is much better understood and treated today. The introduction to her book, The Spring of Joy reveals:
One to whom life was pain, and death a charnel-house, came under cloudy hollows stained with sunrise into a country pleasant as lilac in the rain. Wandering down aisles of birdsong to the brink of a river, she drank where the ousels and the stars had been before her, and found comfort and joy. So she brought back in the palm of her hand for those in need of healing a few drops of the water which sparkled and held the sky.
Some readers may find her writing sentimental, but it is nevertheless authentic and from the heart, and Franciscan in its living in God’s Nature. An ousel is a water blackbird.
Well, dear readers, this is the start of the post-FISC Agnellus’ Mirror. The Franciscan International Study Centre is no more. Who knows were the future will take us? Although the Centre kindly adopted us, we were separate enough to feel bereaved but neither divorced nor terminally compromised when its closure was announced. There are still Franciscans on God’s earth and we’ll try to be in that number, even if not all of us count ourselves among the first, second or third orders in all the ecumenical cousinage of the Poor Man’s family. For the present we will continue to be based in Canterbury, but we have contributors across the UK and further afield. Please continue to walk with us and pray with us.
Let’s turn our backs on the removal men and take ourselves to Shropshire with Mary Webb, poet of the early 20th Century. Her reflections this week inspire a Franciscan Exclamation: Laudato Si’ !