Yesterday we advocated butterfly’s days: no set agenda, no targets, no business, no busy-ness. Today we open the Book of Common Prayer to read a collect that is complementary to Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘The Butterfly’s Day’. It makes explicit that we are passing through this life, and need God’s guidance and rule to survive passing through things temporal, but we can keep a hold on things eternal with Our Father’s mercy.
Our picture from Saint David’s Cathedral invites us to be still – Emily might say ‘idle’. And knowing that Our Father is God will follow; we will be given a hold on things eternal
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that with you as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not our hold on things eternal; grant this, heavenly Father, for our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Here is E.V. Lucas in the Sussex woodlands more than a century ago. The iron trade moved North as iron and coal mining techniques evolved during the Industrial Revolution. But he cites Thomas Fuller’s question as to which use of iron was the more harmful – guns or the printing press? Fuller lived in the XVII Century and witnessed the Civil War. I doubt he would maintain today that fewer lives were lost to guns than the sword. Let us pray for the beating of all weapons into instruments of peace, and for a continuing change of heart towards our sisters and brothers and our earthly home. Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury was a part-time iron worker.
St. Leonard’s Forest, and all the forests on this the forest ridge of Sussex, were of course maintained to supply wood with which to feed the furnaces of the iron masters—just as the overflow of these ponds was trained to move the machinery of the hammers for the breaking of the iron stone. The enormous consumption of wood in the iron foundries was a calamity seriously viewed by many observers, among them Michael Drayton who was, however, distressed less as a political economist than as the friend of the wood nymphs driven by the encroaching and devastating foundrymen from their native sanctuaries to the inhospitable Downs.
Jove's oak, the warlike ash, veined elm, the softer beech,
Short hazel, maple plain, light asp, the bending wych,
Tough holly, and smooth birch, must altogether burn;
What should the builder serve, supplies the forger's turn,
When under public good, base private gain takes hold,
And we, poor woful woods, to ruin lastly sold.
Under the heading of Sussex manufactures, Thomas Fuller writes, in the Worthies, of great guns:— “It is almost incredible how many are made of the Iron in this County.
A Monke of Mentz (some three hundred years since) is generally reputed the first Founder of them. Surely ingenuity may seem transpos’d, and to have cross’d her hands, when about the same time a Souldier found out Printing; and it is questionable which of the two Inventions hath done more good, or more harm. As for Guns, it cannot be denied, that though most behold them as Instruments of cruelty; partly, because subjecting valour to chance; partly, because Guns give no quarter (which the Sword sometimes doth); yet it will appear that, since their invention, Victory hath not stood so long a Neuter, and hath been determined with the loss of fewer lives.
One of the classic Victorian hymns that still speaks to us today.
Souls of men! why will ye scatter
Like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts! why will ye wander
From a love so true and deep?
Was there ever kindest shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Saviour who would have us
Come and gather round his feet?
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice
Which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour;
There is healing in his blood.
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we lose the tender shepherd
In the judge upon the throne.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
I have been extremely ill of an asthma and dropsy, but received, by the mercy of GOD, sudden and unexpected relief last Thursday, by the discharge of twenty pints of water[11 litres]. Whether I shall continue free, or shall fill again, cannot be told. Pray for me.
Death, my dear, is very dreadful; let us think nothing worth our care but how to prepare for it: what we know amiss in ourselves let us make haste to amend, and put our trust in the mercy of GOD, and the intercession of our Saviour.
I am, dear Madam,
Your most humble servant,
Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784″ by James Boswell.
Lucy Porter was Johnson’s stepdaughter; he had married her widowed mother but she had died after just a few years. Although he lived and worked in London – the man who is tired of London is tired of life is his saying – he kept in touch with family and friends in Lichfield, his home town, including Lucy. At the time of writing he was an old man and sick; dropsy is now called oedema, a swelling of soft tissue especially in the legs, and may be an indication of heart failure – so carrying 11 kilos of extra weight in fluid was not good. Johnson does not say how his relief was brought about.
But his heartfelt love for his stepdaughter shines through, as well as his apprehension of death and judgement.
listening to the dance-music of the tide in the evening.
from “Stray Birds” by Rabindranath Tagore
And very gentle music it was, this winter’s evening in Margate. At the turn of the year, let’s pray that we may enjoy such evenings in this life, with a warm home to return to.
And may He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at the last.
John Henry Cardinal Newman
Apologies that the Tagore’s numbering has got out of sequence.
Are you worried about the coming year? Are you happy to be alive? What would make you happy? Are you grateful for your existence? Chesterton calls us to learn from Saint Francis how to accept life as a gift from our Creator.
The full and final spirit in which we should turn to St. Francis is the spirit of thanks for what he has done. He was above all things a great giver; and he cared chiefly for the best kind of giving which is called thanksgiving. If another great man wrote a grammar of assent, he may well be said to have written a grammar of acceptance; a grammar of gratitude. He understood down to its very depths the theory of thanks; and its depths are a bottomless abyss. He knew that the praise of God stands on its strongest ground when it stands on nothing. He knew that we can best measure the towering miracle of the mere fact of existence if we realise that but for some strange mercy we should not even exist.”
From “Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis” by G. K. Chesterton.
O, GOD, giver and preserver of all life,
by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained,
look down upon me with tenderness and mercy;
grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed;
that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness.
O, LORD, let me not sink into total depravity;
look down upon me, and rescue me at last from the captivity of sin.
Almighty and most merciful Father,
who hast continued my life from year to year,
grant that by longer life I may become less desirous of sinful pleasures,
and more careful of eternal happiness.
Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt;
but as my age advances, let me become more pure in my thoughts,
more regular in my desires, and more obedient to thy laws.
Forgive, O merciful LORD, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws.
Give me such a sense of my wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance;
so that when I shall be called into another state,
I may be received among the sinners to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon,
for JESUS CHRIST'S sake.
From "Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784" by James Boswell
Boswell acknowledged Johnson as a most pious friend, who was by no means as wicked as the reader might imagine. Johnson was inclined to melancholy and to a deep sense of his own sinfulness, but any of us could make our own the last paragraph of this prayer.
Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder dates from some 20 years after Johnson’s prayer. May they both be received among the sinners who have obtained pardon.
Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.
More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.
All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.
We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.
JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’
This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.
From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.
‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’
In March 1945, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli was sent from Istanbul to become the new Papal Nuncio or Ambassador to France, a country on its knees after years of occupation. A heavy and unexpected responsibility. A few years later, on the death of Pius XII, he would be elected as Pope John XXIII. This reflection is from his Spiritual Journal.
I must not disguise from myself the truth: I am definitely approaching old age. My mind resents this and almost rebels, for I still feel so young, eager, agile and alert.But one look in my mirror disillusions me. This is the season of maturity; I must do more and better, reflecting that perhaps the time still granted to me for living is brief, and that I am drawing near to the gates of eternity. This caused Hezekiah to turn to the wall and weep. (2 Kings 20:2) I do not weep.
No, I do not weep, and I do not even desire to live my life over again, so as to do better. I entrust to the Lord’s mercy whatever I have done, badly or less than well, and I look to the future, brief or long as it may be here below, because I want to make it holy and a source of holiness for others.
John XXIII (1965), Journal of a Soul, London, Geoffrey Chapman, p264
‘Leave it in the hands of the Lord’ is a good motto at any age, so long as you have something to leave there. Maybe the older we get, the more aware we are of our shortcomings and the wilted state of our offerings. We lose the spontaneity of the toddler who gives mother a daisy flower, just picked with no stem but accompanied by a beatific smile. He knows she will accept his gift; the old man can see the imperfection in both gift and giver, yet he gives back to the one who gives all.
The tax-collectors and sinners were all crowding round to listen to Jesus. This is what St Luke reports in 15:1. This line is worth lingering over. Sometimes only one sentence is enough to tell a story of its own. As I repeat these words slowly to myself, my imagination fixes on Jesus. He’s not talking to scribes and Pharisees for a change. Good – because he has such a hard time whenever he is dealing with the synagogue officials. They don’t want to hear what he has to say, they pretend interest but are always preparing a trap. Of course, they never get the better of Jesus. He seems to handle these encounters effortlessly and he is never wrong-footed by them. But I feel certain that these encounters were very painful for Jesus: discouraging, and exhausting.
So, by contrast, here is Jesus in the centre of a very different crowd – one that is sincerely interested. These were people one would not usually associate with religion, or with much else that was respectable, for they were the type of people that find themselves on the outside of respectability, looking in. They were the type that most cultures reject. They were labelled tax collectors and sinners by the culture of Jesus’ day. And Jesus loved to be with these people. On this occasion, as on every occasion when he sees his that his words are welcomed, he must have been deeply moved by their interest and love. These are the ones who allow him to reach their hearts – and he wants this ardently himself. He came into the world to reach all people, but reaching such cast-offs is a matter of urgency for him. These are the ones who have probably never been given a break in their lives. Tax-collectors were generally considered a dishonest bunch at that time, most of them reputed to abuse their position in order to grab a cut of whatever money they collected from people who were already poor to begin with. And so-called “sinners” were people who were thought to be involved in all sorts of iniquitous practices, whose entire life-style was considered morally dubious at best. I daresay that then as now, there were people relegated to this group who were essentially honest but had fallen on very hard times, people for whom earning a living had proved impossible, and for reasons beyond their control. But many will have been truly as dishonest and even criminal as they were thought to be, and all were deeply wounded people for one reason or another. This is a crowd of seeming failures – if you judge success by the sleek appearance of it. And this is something Jesus never did.
This is the bunch who “crowded around Jesus” – and not because they wanted a hand-out from him. He had walked into their lives and they were bowled over by him. They had never met anyone like him. Our text indicates that we are not dealing with just one or two from this sector of society. It says they were “all” crowding around Jesus. Luke is talking about a lot of people here. How did Jesus manage to reach them? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been there as an invisible observer to see how he looked at them, for example, to hear what he said, to note the words he chose, and to see these tough characters melt, and the deeply hurt ones lift up their heads. By his radiant and gentle personality, by his words that showed he understood everything that had ever hurt them, Jesus cracks open the hard shell of their hearts and eases them away from their distrust and fear of him. And there they were – crowding around Jesus, bumping each other, trying to get closer to him. They wanted to hear what he was saying, to “listen to him.” These aren’t usually the types to go in for sermons, but Jesus was different. Very different. His word was hope and forgiveness. Everything about him was a message of peace.
This is where I stopped reading and placed myself in that crowd. Is there anyone who has a completely clear conscience? If so, perhaps this isn’t the bible passage for you. But if you have anything you regret on your conscience, if you bear remorse like a constant and heavy load on your back, if shame is your daily companion join this crowd. That’s right, squeeze in there, between the bag lady and the guy with long, stringy hair hanging down his back. Look at Jesus. He is looking at you, he sees you join this group, he catches your eye for a moment and smiles a beautiful warm one right into your face. He’s talking. You are able to move in closer. Miraculously, the others make room for you and glance at you with understanding – they are catching something of Jesus’ own tenderness. What do you hear Jesus saying?