Another poem by Mary Webb; this one sprung to mind one January afternoon, as I walked home from the Goods Shed Farmers’ Market, passing this well-laden hawthorn tree. A few more cold days, and the blackbirds – see below – will have stripped it.
A Hawthorn Berry
How sweet a thought,
How strange a deed,
To house such glory in a seed--
A berry, shining rufously,
Like scarlet coral in the sea!
A berry, rounder than a ring,
So round, it harbours everything;
So red, that all the blood of men
Could never paint it so again.
And, as I hold it in my hand
A fragrance steals across the land:
Rich, on the wintry heaven, I see
A white, immortal hawthorn-tree.
Let’s stay with Mary Webb today. Here is the blackbird; he is too preoccupied to sing, with that annoying human standing right next to his lunch. Mrs Blackbird was hidden behind the ivy in the first picture.
Mary Webb once more takes us from the things we hardly see for familiarity to the immortal, eternal. Infinity in a grain – a seed – of hawthorn. A hawthorn seed planted in her time would be ablaze with haws now, if not stripped by the birds, and then creamy white in May, the original Mayflower. This very bush is special to me. Walking by one day after an operation, I realised my sense of smell had returned, an unexpected gift from surgery elsewhere in my head. I try to remember in passing, and be consciously grateful.
I wonder what Tyndale the Terrier will make of it all. He’s named after a great Christian communicator, the translator of the Bible into English, but our Tyndale has rather less intellectual enthusiasms. He’s the one who greets Anne by wagging his tail, but also sniffing around for the dog biscuit she sometimes has about her person. Dogs never miss a chance of a snack: it’s as if they don’t believe they will ever be fed again.
There are, of course, many chances of a morsel falling a dog’s way when a group of people pause to eat together (Matthew 15:26). Tyndale will be busy clearing up crumbs until his master calls a halt.
Each of us has our own gluttony, but I hope and trust that we will find food for all the senses on this walk; food that will build up our souls and our friendships. Even aches and pains, weariness and blisters tell us that we are alive!
Our prayers on the march will include a ‘dog lead’ – reflections on Tobit and Matthew 15. A good dog is not one spelt backwards, but can lead or shepherd us to where we ought to be.
The leaves are not all down, despite the winds’ best efforts, so I can still share an autumnal story. LAudato si!
It was a little damp for sweeping leaves, but the apricot was shedding its gold over the public footpath and we didn’t want passers-by slithering at the corner, so out came the broom.
Perhaps it was the dampness that brought it out: a distinct scent of apricot rising from the leaves! I never noticed that before. Let’s hope it’s a promise of harvests to come.
A few days later, as I went to lock up for the night, I noticed the remaining leaves glowing and dancing in the lamplight. (I wish I could say moonlight, but she was obscured by low cloud.)
A silent disco; people pay good money for such entertainment!
I am always grateful when my sense of smell surprises me in this way. I lived largely without it for years. Laudato Si! for the apricot tree, for the leaves – and yes, for the lamplight – on this occasion. It is not necessary and pollutes the night sky, but just this once, Laudato Si! And Laudato si! for the surgery that, as an unexpected side effect, allowed me to smell again.
(A version of this post has appeared on the Will Turnstone blog)
By the very right of your senses you enjoy the World. Is not the beauty of the Hemisphere
present to your eye? Doth not the glory of the Sun pay tribute to your sight? Is not the vision of the World an amiable thing? Do not the stars shed influences to perfect the Air? Is not that a marvellous body to breathe in? To visit the lungs: repair the spirits, revive the senses, cool the blood, fill the empty spaces between the Earth and Heavens; and yet give liberty to all objects?
Prize these first: and you shall enjoy the residue: Glory, Dominion, Power, Wisdom; Honour, Angels, Souls, Kingdoms, Ages. Be faithful in a little, and you shall be master over much. If you be not faithful in esteeming these; who shall put into your hands the true Treasures? If you be negligent in prizing these, you will be negligent in prizing all. For there is a disease in him who despiseth present mercies, which till it be cured, he can never be happy. He esteemeth nothing that he hath, but is ever gaping after more: which when he hath he despiseth in like manner.
Perhaps, first, they are not afraid to know divine things with a kind of knowledge that makes room for mystery. This ‘base-note’ was sounded when we were looking at faith, and it plays continuously. Faith is the habit of mind in which we assent to what is ‘non-apparent,’ says Thomas. Our existence is usually geared to what is apparent on the level of our senses. But there is emphatically another level. St. Thomas tells us (or me, anyway) to trust it.
Second, perhaps saints on earth know – unforgettably – that they are on a trajectory headed towards the fulfilment of our deepest hopes not in this life, but in the next. Yet, surely, they are also unforgettably aware that eternal happiness has its beginnings now. St Thomas teaches that through the virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, our whole being can be directed to God – and not merely God outside and beyond us. The theological virtues tap a new spring within us where God dwells, making Himself known. Now. Today. This very moment!
Third, perhaps the saints are more aware of the gift of God. God gives us the beginnings of eternal life, He gives us His ‘wide lap’ to support us, He gives us His happiness. And Thomas makes it clear that God is not stingy with His gifts. They are for everyone.
Lastly, perhaps the living saints are more willing to undergo the process that gives us connaturality with divine things. It strikes me that the virtues of faith, hope and charity are not so much virtues that we have, as virtues that have us. Through faith we allow God’s truth to form us. Through the virtue of hope, we allow our egg-sized hopes to be stretched to something more ‘heaven-sized’. Suffering can be seen as part of that stretching process. As we lean on God’s help, He leads us to the virtue of charity. Through the virtue of charity, we consent to ‘suffer’ divine things. The deepest, most divine thing, as we know, is Christ crucified. We learn to love as Christ loved by undergoing something of what He underwent. Through this process the Holy Spirit creates in us that connaturality with divine things for which we hunger on the deepest level of our being.
Many thanks, Sister Johanna, for this series of reflections. Maybe we now ought to read Pope Francis’s ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’ to help the message sink in and stretch ourselves to eternal-life-size. WT.
I trust that readers who also visit the Will Turnstone blog will forgive my recycling this piece from there.It fits in well with Saint Francis this week, and with our theme of Laudato Si’!
One summer’s day Mrs Turnstone and I took Abel to the woods where we found this invitation to look at Betula, the Lady of the Woods. Isn’t she lovely? Find one of her sisters near you and enjoy the sight.
And now something I’ve been saving till the right picture turned up! This passage from Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’. A writer may reveal what the reader more than half knows, awakening joyful recognition in her audience. I was reading Shepherd to learn about the Scottish Highlands, but I discovered something all-but known about the birch I see as I open the curtains. Here is Shepherd on p53:
Birch … that grows on the lower mountain slopes, needs rain to release its odour. It is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day, one can be as good as drunk with it. Acting through the sensory nerves, it confuses the higher centres; one is excited, with no cause that the wit can define.
It’s always good to return home even from a quick walk to the shops. There is magic in fingering the keys as I approach under the lime trees – trees that may not flourish on Cairngorm but here share their bee-sung, scented glory every summer. Birch is wind-pollinated, needing no nectar, but its fresh-air scent, which I barely register even in wet weather, is part of coming home. I never realised till Nan Shepherd told me! And the blackbirds sing louder in the rain.
We occasionally berate the birch for its scattered seedlings, which occupy any bare earth and even take root in garden walls. As Rome fell away from Britain no-one removed the young trees, and the towns crumbled.
Not far from here at the derelict mine, a birch forest has sprung up on the spoil. Silver birch, I called it as a child – but it is pure gold in Autumn.
Do seek out Nan Shepherd’s book and see, hear, smell, feel with her.
‘Have you noticed,’ said Ajax, wolfing down a flake of haddock, ‘how Abel likes to use all his words, but Will and Mrs T, who know thousands more, can sit under the apricot tree quite happily without saying a word?’
‘Do they need to speak to tell each other they are there?’ wondered T. ‘Of course not. But maybe Abel needs to tell himself he is in the presence of a digger, a train, or two black dogs.’
‘You mean he is telling himself his own story?’ interrupted Ajax, giving Alfie time to think how to respond to T’s probing remark about the two black dogs.
‘When he was little, he was just living his story. You remember how he just loved you two. No words from his mouth but plenty of glee. And you guys were on another plane, playing with him without words – until you pretty much forced him to say “dog”. Now when he picks up his toy bus, he says “bus” and “door” and makes a brrrrm noise when he pushes it across the floor.’
‘Are you saying he was better not speaking?’ challenged Ajax.
‘Of course not!’ T replied. ‘He’s not just a bundle of nerve-endings like the Builder’s Dog.’
‘You didn’t see BD outside Peter’s Fish Factory. He had abandoned Will and was sitting actually on a student’s knee. The ladies seem to like him as much as he likes them.’
‘He’s still a bundle of nerve ends. He could ignore her completely if he was out with his mistress.’
‘Director, you are too cynical!’ Alfie countered. ‘Maybe the Ossyrian scientific diet has trimmed your nerve ends too much.’
This time it was T’s turn to conceal his thought processes. ‘Not all my nerve ends, Alfie, not all of them; but what has Earthly life done to yours?’
There are obstacles within us to a more loving range of encounters. The frequent longings felt in our five senses to own this, do that impressive feat, travel to some famous sight or other, are all capable of misleading us. We forget the peace so greatly needed in our hearts. We place other goals and satisfactions in its place. Jacopone, in his poem, The Five Senses, reminds himself of the flat and tasteless reality of a world in which only physical experience is taken seriously.
“Each of the five senses argues heatedly
That his is the most short-lived joy,
That his delights fade fastest away.
The first to speak is Hearing.
‘The contest is over,’ he announces.
‘The sound I just heard is no more –
It touched the ear and vanished.
You can’t deny that.’
‘Hold on,’ argues Sight, ‘I am the winner.
When I closed my eyes just now
I blotted out all shapes and colours.
How short-lived the vision!
Can there be any doubt who has won this contest?’
…. Consider the risks of the game carefully:
For the one move you’re intent on making,
You appear willing to give up your soul.
My soul, eternity lies in you,
And eternal are the joys you seek.
The senses and their delights do not last.
Climb up to God: in happiness that knows no end,
In infinite joy, He will give you fulfilment.”
Our inner flowing mirror of light and wonder has its strength through the companionship of prayer. Even if our practice of prayer is a ruin.