Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each, So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
These lines by William Cowper are taken from his long poem ‘The Task’, written in response to a challenge from his friend Lady Ann Austen. Many readers will recognise ‘the cups that cheer but not inebriate’ but perhaps, like me, did not know the source.
I’d like to put alongside Cowper’s image the photo on this book cover.
Bishop Claude Rault was a teacher of mine before he became Bishop of the Sahara, at least the part of it in the great empty quarter of Algeria. His book has been my Lenten reading this year, but what I want to share today is from the introduction by Fr Christophe Roucou, himself a missionary in North Africa.
Roucou explains why Bishop Rault chose this picture for his cover. It shows
“a teapot in the embers of a living fire, ready to make tea that will be drunk and shared in this corner of the desert between friends, or offered to the passer-by in token of welcome and hospitality.
“The tea of meeting!”
The word ‘meeting’ is hardly adequate as a translation of rencontre; ‘encounter’ does not, for me at least, convey the warmth and welcome implied in ‘rencontre’. Claude’s book is a commentary on the meetings Jesus had with people, as described in Saint John’s Gospel; and we know how deeply he welcomed all manner of people. A review will follow.
It is the end of summer 1780, and Dr Johnson and James Boswell have not met together this year. In this time of lockdown and self-isolation, we can appreciate Boswell’s feelings when he writes:
I hope that you will agree to meet me at York, about the end of this month; or if you will come to Carlisle, that would be better still, in case the Dean be there. Please to consider, that to keep each other’s kindness, we should every year have that free and intimate communication of mind which can be had only when we are together. We should have both our solemn and our pleasant talk.
From Boswell’s Life of Johnson
But Johnson had to make his excuses. He was with his sick friend, Mr Thrale, who wanted his company during a stay in Brighthelmston (Brighton). It was then rather more than an hour from London, 60 years before the railway opened. Johnson’s words are worth taking to heart in 2021.
Mr. Thrale … is now going to Brighthelmston, and expects me to go with him; and how long I shall stay, I cannot tell. I do not much like the place, but yet I shall go, and stay while my stay is desired.
We must, therefore, content ourselves with knowing what we know as well as man can know the mind of man, that we love one another, and that we wish each other’s happiness, and that the lapse of a year cannot lessen our mutual kindness.
I was pleased to be told that I accused Mrs. Boswell unjustly, in supposing that she bears me ill-will. I love you so much, that I would be glad to love all that love you, and that you love; and I have love very ready for Mrs. Boswell, if she thinks it worthy of acceptance. I hope all the young ladies and gentlemen are well. I take a great liking to your brother. He tells me that his father received him kindly, but not fondly. Make your father as happy as you can.
You lately told me of your health: I can tell you in return, that my health has been for more than a year past, better than it has been for many years before. Perhaps it may please GOD to give us some time together before we are parted.
I am, dear Sir, ‘Yours most affectionately, ‘SAM. JOHNSON.’ ‘October 17, 1780
Who would like to hear from you today to keep the mutual kindness going till you can meet again?