September! We are moving into Autumn, fruit, grain harvest, swelling pumpkins … return to school, reluctant scholars yet glad to see their friends. remembering Oscar Wilde yesterday, here is the XVII Century English-speaking Welsh poet, Henry Vaughan, looking for the luxuries of out-of-season flowers and fruit. He’d find them today of course, rushed to us from around the world. But note his conclusion!
The tender vine in our garden suffered from the North’s cold wind last winter, but we have a few bunches of grapes swelling; are they to be food for humans or starlings?
Who the violet doth love,
Must seek her in the flow'ry grove,
But never when the North's cold wind
The russet fields with frost doth bind.
If in the spring-time—to no end—
The tender vine for grapes we bend,
We shall find none, for only—still—
Autumn doth the wine-press fill.
Thus for all things—in the world's prime—
The wise God seal'd their proper time.
Another blog by Eddie Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy in London. Thank you Eddie, as always.
“You don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you have it again.”
I’d only gone down to the newly re-opened library to return the couple of books that I’d had out since last year and to borrow a new one. As I came out of the main entrance onto Canterbury High Street I was greeted by an unusual sight. There were seven elderly-looking ladies about to start some kind of performance. They were dressed identically in grey headscarves and billowing black shawls and each had a zimmer frame. To the accompaniment of a slightly eerie soundtrack, they began to push their zimmer frames around one another and were looking more and more distressed and agitated. Their expressions then softened, as did their movements, and suddenly they all pushed away their zimmers and began to dance. Next, they undid their headscarves and flung them into a captivated crowd and ripped off the black shawls to reveal colourful dresses. A solitary man appeared with a large drum, onto which he was beating a flamenco rhythm. The spectacle ended with the setting off of party-poppers and the women throwing rice over the bystanders, before disappearing, dancing, round the corner. I was utterly enchanted and deeply touched. It was the first live dance performance I’d seen in over a year, the first live anything, and it was so good to experience it again.
As I went round to the other side of the library to get my bike I came across the women in their flamenco dresses, looking very pleased with themselves. “That was wonderful,” I gushed. “Thank you so much.” And I added, almost in tears, “You don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you have it again.” One of them asked if I’d like more rice strewn over me. “Oh yes!” I replied, and was duly anointed. I felt truly blessed.
The day after that I was having a well-earned coffee with a couple of the guys I’d done my Saturday morning club cycle ride with (and what a treat it is to be riding in a group again). We were basking in the sun by the Argentinian café in the Dane John Gardens in Canterbury, and it was great to see people out and about again. I’d been chatting with Conor en route about coming out of lockdown and I’d told him about how much I’d enjoyed seeing a live dance performance again. Just then I spotted a couple in the nearby bandstand doing a tango. “Look!” I exclaimed to Conor and Chris, “there’s a couple dancing.” Chris then told us of how he had practised for months the first dance, to an 80s song, he did with his wife at his wedding, and the conversation went onto other songs from the 80s. Then I told Dublin-born Conor about a nice scene from the film ‘Sing Street’ in which the protagonist, a boy who forms his own band, gathers a load of fellow-pupils at his Dublin school to be dancers at the first gig and implores them to “dance like it’s the 80s!”
One of my favourite scenes from ‘Mamma Mia’ is where all the women, young and old, dance down to the harbour to the tune of ‘Dancing Queen’ and then leap into the sea. An especially touching bit of that scene is an older woman casting off the large pile of sticks she’s been carrying on her shoulders, joining the joyful procession, and crying out, “Oh YEAH.” A few months ago my ninety-one year old mum was sent a wind-up dancing leprechaun by one of her sisters in Newry. The care home where she lives sent a gorgeous video of her standing up and doing a little jig alongside the leprechaun. This from someone who needs a zimmer frame these days to get around.
The day after the Argentinian coffee and tango in the park was Trinity Sunday and Yim Soon and I were at our customary zoom Mass. Part of a reflection from one of the women present was the playing of a Nina Simone song ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.’ During the song several of us present began to sway and dance, and David the priest was moving from side to side the icon of the Trinity, so that it looked as if the Trinity themselves were dancing. It was a special moment.
I’ve always been taken by the Hindu belief that the Lord Shiva danced the world into existence. On this theme, the most well-known song of Sydney Carter is ‘The Lord of the Dance’, whose lyrics go ‘Dance, dance, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the dance, said he.’ As a child I was convinced that this lyric was, ‘I am the Lord of the dance settee.’ When we were young my sister and I used to jump up and down on the settee in the living-room, and it seemed to me very fitting that God would be jumping up and down with us! The image of the dance settee has, happily, never really left me.
Yim Soon and I are delighted to have just been invited to a wedding, the first such invitation in ages. It’s friends who are musicians and as well as the prospect of good music one of my first thoughts was that we’ll hopefully be able to have a good dance as part of the celebration. I’ve written before of my August holiday in Barmouth, which is an annual reunion of old friends (who met in the 80s!), plus their now mainly adult children, which began in 2000. One of the traditions of the week is a concert night and one of the traditions of the concert night is the singing of ‘500 Miles’. At what was to be the final performance before Covid, the song turned into a long conga of people snaking around the concert room and that led in turn to everyone dancing, old and young together, to other 70s and 80s classics. It was one of the highlights for me of Barmouth 2019.
To finish, here again are the immortal words of Sydney Carter, at least how I remember them:
‘And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be; for I am the Lord of the dance settee’!
Foul-cankering rust the hidden treasure frets, But gold that’s put to use more gold begets.
From “Venus and Adonis” by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare echoes the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) which shows gold becoming fertile in its own way, and also languishing useless underground. This happened to treasure that my brothers and I hid once when on holiday in Wales. Perhaps we felt that this hidden treasure was a sacrifice that would draw us back to the little resort where we had enjoyed a week of happiness with both our parents available. Our treasure was a hoard of beer bottle tops from the Border Brewery, which came in different colours according to the brew in each bottle, and carried a picture of a Welsh dragon. Our source was not our Dad’s empties, but a nearby pub’s backyard. We thought we’d marked the spot where we’d hidden them, 12 inches from the telegraph pole near the holiday house, but the next year we failed to find it.
If only we’d had a metal detector! I think the spot is covered by the North Wales Expressway now, so we can forget about looking for our treasure, and decades later, the tops will surely be fretted away, though I do know someone who would be very grateful for a set of tops from a long defunct brewery.
A more generally exciting buried treasure was discovered in Staffordshire a few years ago. Being largely of gold, it has survived, though battered at the time of burial and in the 13 or 14 centuries since. If you have an hour between trains in Birmingham, you should be able to get to the museum and admire what’s on show – if you can get yourself past the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and the other treasures there.
The processional crosses and other liturgical objects were saved from destruction, but whoever hid them may have been killed in battle before retrieving them, or like us boys, may have misremembered the clues. We can admire the art while regretting that this gold will never again be put to its original use. Not that that should stop us from offering a silent prayer of wonder and gratitude. These gloriously playful designs speak of artists at ease in their faith, bringing their joyfulness to their work, as Hopkins did in his poetry.
Rebound Books are stylish ring-bound notebooks, made by L’Arche Brecon using covers from old books that would otherwise have gone to landfill. Covid restrictions have caused a collapse in sales, since the community cannot go to their usual markets and sales that have been cancelled.
And so, they had a think and began working on textiles, making masks and bunting.
Since then, Jamie Tobin tells us, ‘We have created hundreds of masks, sending parcels all over the UK – and even a few over-seas. More fabric was donated, and we streamlined the process.’ Success on the rebound indeed.
You can read the whole of Jamie Tobin’s article here. And you can visit Rebound Books’ website here and place orders for notebooks, masks, or bunting. Other contact details appear at the foot of this post.
Masks ready for Posting
TELEPHONE 07794 396360
EMAIL ADDRESS email@example.com The Muse, Old Museum, Glamorgan Street, Brecon, Powys, LD3 7DW
We start with a prayer to Saint David, asking him to pray for the people of Wales. Unlike the other nations of Britain, Wales has a native born saint as its patron, born at the edge of the little city that bears his name.
Blessed David, you are an apostle and patron for the people of Wales. Grant, I implore, that through your prayers, your people will be enlightened by the truth which you taught, and they will obtain everlasting life. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
David was a true apostle, fondly remembered after 1500 years. he travelled the country, preaching and celebrating the Sacraments. His famous last advice to his followers was to ‘be faithful in the little things’; advice we could all usefully take to heart.
He was a vegetarian if not a vegan, so today we can enjoy a Leek and Potato gratin in his honour, though he would not have known potatoes, and would have eaten cheese only out of politeness. He did not condemn others who ate meat and dairy, but abstained from them as an act of penance; Lent all the year round. But today is a Feast Day, a day to celebrate in his honour.
We pray that our personal relationship with Jesus Christ be nourished by the Word of God and a life of prayer.
That’s Pope Francis’s intention. Perhaps we could recall when Jesus gave some clear advice on how to pray. We see him doing just what he advises when we read the Gospels.
And when ye pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, that love to stand and pray in the synagogues and corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men: Amen I say to you, they have received their reward.But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee.And when you are praying, speak not much, as the heathens. For they think that in their much speaking they may be heard. Be not you therefore like to them, for your Father knoweth what is needful for you, before you ask him. Thus therefore shall you pray:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.
in October 1854 George Borrow is walking through Wales, and has reached the village of Llansilin, where the bard Eos Ceiriog, the Nightingale of Ceiriog (Huw Morris) lived and is buried.
Having discussed my ale, I asked the landlord if he would show me the grave of Huw Morris. “With pleasure, sir,” said he; “pray follow me.” He led me to the churchyard, in which several enormous yew trees were standing, probably of an antiquity which reached as far back as the days of Henry the Eighth, when the yew bow was still the favourite weapon of the men of Britain.
The innkeeper led me directly up to the southern wall, then pointing to a broad discoloured slab, which lay on the ground just outside the wall, he said: “Underneath this stone lies Huw Morris, sir.”
Forthwith taking off my hat, I went down on my knees and kissed the cold slab covering the cold remains of the mighty Huw, and then, still on my knees, proceeded to examine it attentively. It is covered over with letters three parts defaced. All I could make out of the inscription was the date of the poet’s death, 1709. “A great genius, a very great genius, sir,” said the innkeeper, after I had got on my feet and put on my hat. “He was indeed,” said I; “are you acquainted with his poetry?” “O yes,” said the innkeeper,” from Wild Wales by George Borrow.
If anyone had dared suggest to George Borrow that this respect for a poet’s grave was on a par with Papist superstition, Borrow would have been mighty vexed. He held that Catholics put ‘their hope of salvation on outward forms and superstitious observances’*, and no doubt would have included venerating saints’ relics as one of those observances. He himself went out of his way to visit Llansilin, for the sake of a poet.
*The Bible in Spain.
Photograph by Plucas58 via Wikipedia. Free to use.
George Borrow on his mid-19th Century tour of Wales has reached Strata Florida Abbey, where the grave of the mediaeval bard Daffyd Ap Gwilym, is thought to lie.
Who knows, said I, but this is the tree that was planted over Ab Gwilym’s grave, and to which Gruffyd Gryg wrote an ode? I looked at it attentively, and … relying on the possibility of its being the sacred tree, I behaved just as I should have done had I been quite certain of the fact: Taking off my hat I knelt down and kissed its root, repeating lines from Gruffydd Gryg, with which I blended some of my own in order to accommodate what I said to circumstances:
“O tree of yew, which here I spy,
By Ystrad Flur’s blest monast’ry,
Beneath thee lies, by cold Death bound,
The tongue for sweetness once renown’d.
Better for thee thy boughs to wave,
Though scath’d, above Ab Gwilym’s grave,
Than stand in pristine glory drest
Where some ignobler bard doth rest.”
A man came up attended by a large dog. “Good evening,” said I to him in Welsh. “Good evening, gentleman,” said he in the same language. “Are you the farmer?” “Yes! I farm the greater part of the Strath.” “I suppose the land is very good here?” “Why do you suppose so?” “Because the monks built their house here in the old time, and the monks never built their houses except on good land.” “Well, I must say the land is good; indeed I do not think there is any so good in Shire Aberteifi.” “Do many people come to see the monastery?” Farmer.—Yes! many gentlefolk come to see it in the summer time. Myself.—It is a poor place now. Farmer.—Very poor, I wonder any gentlefolks come to look at it. Myself.—It was a wonderful place once; you merely see the ruins of it now. It was pulled down at the Reformation. Farmer.—Why was it pulled down then? Myself.—Because it was a house of idolatry to which people used to resort by hundreds to worship images, down on their knees before stocks and stones, worshipping them, kissing them and repeating pennillion to them. Farmer.—What fools! How thankful I am that I live in wiser days. If such things were going on in the old Monachlog it was high time to pull it down. Myself.—What kind of a rent do you pay for your land? Farmer.—O, rather a stiffish one. Myself.—Two pound an acre? Farmer.—Two pound an acre! I wish I paid no more. Myself.—Well! I think that would be quite enough. In the time of the old monastery you might have had the land at two shillings an acre. Farmer.—Might I? Then those couldn’t have been such bad times, after all. Myself.—I beg your pardon! They were horrible times—times in which there were monks and friars and graven images, which people kissed and worshipped and sang pennillion to. Better pay three pounds an acre and live on crusts and water in the present enlightened days than pay two shillings an acre and sit down to beef and ale three times a day in the old superstitious times. Farmer.—Well, I scarcely know what to say to that.”
George Borrow is walking through Wales in November 1854, and does not regard an umbrella as something expendable, to be thrown out when one or two struts have broken! No Bibles for sale this time, but he’s as full of himself as ever. Enjoy his bombast! But we could remind him of Psalm 17:8, ‘Keep me as the apple of thy eye. Protect me under the shadow of thy wings.’ Even when the rain is in your face, the Lord will protect you. If you allow him to.
Rain came on, but it was at my back, so I expanded my umbrella, flung it over my shoulder and laughed. O, how a man laughs who has a good umbrella when he has the rain at his back, aye and over his head too, and at all times when it rains except when the rain is in his face, when the umbrella is not of much service. O, what a good friend to a man is an umbrella in rain time, and likewise at many other times. What need he fear if a wild bull or a ferocious dog attacks him, provided he has a good umbrella? he unfurls the umbrella in the face of the bull or dog, and the brute turns round quite scared, and runs away. Or if a footpad asks him for his money, what need he care provided he has an umbrella? he threatens to dodge the ferrule into the ruffian’s eye, and the fellow starts back and says, “Lord, sir! I meant no harm. I never saw you before in all my life. I merely meant a little fun.” Moreover, who doubts that you are a respectable character provided you have an umbrella? you go into a public-house and call for a pot of beer, and the publican puts it down before you with one hand without holding out the other for the money, for he sees that you have an umbrella and consequently property. And what respectable man, when you overtake him on the way and speak to him, will refuse to hold conversation with you, provided you have an umbrella? No one. The respectable man sees you have an umbrella and concludes that you do not intend to rob him, and with justice, for robbers never carry umbrellas. O, a tent, a shield, a lance and a voucher for character is an umbrella. Amongst the very best friends of man must be reckoned an umbrella.
Saint Augustine opens his Confessions with these words:
‘To praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’+
Some 1500 years later the prologue of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems tells how, through his poetic imagination, he would overcome his fears to:
'... build my bellowing ark
To the best of my love
As the flood begins,
Out of the fountainhead
Of fear, rage, red, manalive. +
Dylan’s work is religious, laid out ‘with as much love and care as the lock of hair of a first love’.* It is confessional, in the meaning Augustine intended: a recounting of his experiences and a praise of God.
Under Milk Wood portrays Llaggerub, Dylan’s imaginary Welsh town with its roots in Laugharne where he and his family were based in the last years of his life. Is it the Chosen Land? Reading the play as a parable, Llaggerub intertwines Dylan’s earthly and heavenly towns. Dylan drank at the same source as Augustine; if philosophy opened the wells for the bishop, poetry served the ‘spinning man’ with a flood to float his cockleshell ark, and, indeed, Dylan’s work gives hope that ‘the flood flowers now’, for him, beyond the ‘breakneck of rocks’ that was his life.
+ Augustine: ‘Confessions’, Tr. Henry Chadwick, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, p3.
+ All Dylan Thomas quotations from: ‘Prologue’ to Collected Poems, p1–3.