Gilbert White introduced the Natural History of Selborne (1789) with a selection of his verses, including this description of one family’s harvest time. Their field would have been much smaller than this expanse of barley, ready for the combine harvester, but barley it might well have been, grown for the breweries of London and nearby Alton. Every year, White would have seen the harvest gathered in by hand as he records here. By the sweat of their brow this couple took their part in God’s creation.
Waked by the gentle gleamings of the morn, Soon clad, the reaper, provident of want, Hies cheerful-hearted to the ripen’d field: Nor hastes alone: attendant by his side His faithful wife, sole partner of his cares, Bears on her breast the sleeping babe; behind, With steps unequal, trips her infant train; Thrice happy pair, in love and labour join’d !
All day they ply their task; with mutual chat, Beguiling each the sultry, tedious hours. Around them falls in rows the sever’d corn, Or the shocks rise in regular array.
But when high noon invites to short repast, Beneath the shade of sheltering thorn they sit, Divide the simple meal, and drain the cask: The swinging cradle lulls the whimpering babe Meantime; while growling round, if at the tread Of hasty passenger alarm’d, as of their store Protective, stalks the cur with bristling back, To guard the scanty scrip and russet frock.
The American writer Henry Thoreau claimed that we should not judge our wealth by the things we possess but by the amount of free time that we have.
By Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish chaplaincy. Welcome back, Eddie!
By Thoreau’s reckoning I’ve been pretty wealthy during the pandemic due in part to working from home. My working day used to involve three or four hours of commuting and so I’ve had that time for other things. After the first lockdown had eased I was cycling with a guy in my club called Steve who, pre-Covid, I would see from time to time on the train back from London. He said that previously at a quarter to five he would be clearing his desk and getting ready to head to St Pancras to catch the train. “Now,” he explained to me with evident delight, “I walk down the garden path to the shed to get my bike out and I’m off.” It was a bit the same for me last summer: down to the shed at the bottom of the garden, bike out and away. I needed something a bit different this year and the Korean study has filled up a lot of my free time nicely, although I’ve still relished the extra time for a variety of sporting and other pursuits.
St Augustine described the monastic life as otium sanctum, which can be translated as holy leisure. The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton touches on the theme of otium sanctum in his book ‘Spiritual Direction and Meditation’. ‘Business is not the supreme virtue,’ he writes, ‘and sanctity is not measured by the amount of work we accomplish.’ That’s not to say that no work or business is conducted in a monastery. On the contrary, monasteries through the ages have been hives of activity, and you’re also as likely to find workaholics there as anywhere, Merton himself having been one of them! Yet, there’s a structure and a balance to the monastic day that gives time to work, time to pray, time to eat, time to read or study, time to rest, and time just to gaze upon the flowers in the fields. It’s the active in harmony with the contemplative, and a little sign that all of our time, ultimately, is a gift.
Having free time doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing but being perhaps less driven and more conscious and intentional about what we’re doing in any given moment. I like that the word leisure comes from the Latin licere, meaning ‘to be permitted’ or ‘to be free’. I also like one of the definitions of that Latin word ‘otium’: ‘leisure time in which a person can enjoy eating, playing, resting, contemplation and academic endeavors.’ The key, perhaps, is taking time to enjoy and savour each moment in the day, and to take pleasure in the world and in those around us; to sit on a bench, to smell a rose, to listen to the birds singing. It could even be experienced in the midst of writing a report or a funding application, or when doing a 100 mile cycle ride! All is given, all is gift.
The key for Thick Naht Hahn, the Vietnamese monk and poet, is mindfulness. He counsels that when eating a tangerine, be aware that you are eating a tangerine! When drinking a cup of tea, be aware that you’re drinking a cup of tea! Just as in a Japanese tea ceremony, each step of the process is important and given the right amount of time and awareness: boiling the kettle, preparing the vessels, warming the pot, pouring the water, waiting for the tea to brew; and then sipping, smelling, savouring. Perhaps even giving a little thought and a blessing to those who grew the tea and picked and dried the leaves.
I’ll shortly have the great gift of two week’s of holiday in which Yim Soon and I will walk the West Highland Way in Scotland followed by Ben Nevis and then a few days on the Isle of Skye. I will consider myself the wealthiest person alive to have such otium sanctum and to be able to spend it in such a place and in such company.
In this post from the John Rylands Library in Manchester Kate Gibson uses letters from the Nicholson family to demonstrate that religious faith did not die out in the mushrooming industrial towns of Britain.
Her project, Faith in the Town: Lay Religion, Urbanisation and Industrialisation in England, 1740-1830, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is looking at the letters and diaries of ordinary people living in the towns of Northern England, for evidence of the place of faith in their daily lives. Unlike many histories of secularisation which focus on formal church organisations and their records, we argue that looking at the everyday practices of faith, and its relationship with how people thought about their family lives, their identities, their work and their use of urban and domestic space, provides a more vibrant picture of the continued importance of religion in this period. This is a history of faith from the bottom up, not the top down.
Faith in the Town has many interesting posts that may challenge us today, when our church communities have been in enforced hibernation. What can we and our buildings offer by way of space to be quiet and simple, welcoming, common worship for members and non-members alike?
Art Thou a King, then?
Come, His universe,
Come, crown me Him a King!
Pluck rays from all such stars as never fling
Their light where fell a curse,
And make a crowning for this kingly brow!—
What is my word? Each empyreal star
Sits in a sphere afar
In shining ambuscade:
The child-brow, crowned by none,
Keeps its unchildlike shade.
Sleep, sleep, my crownless One!
Unchildlike shade! No other babe doth wear
An aspect very sorrowful, as Thou.
No small babe-smiles my watching heart has seen
To float like speech the speechless lips between,
No dovelike cooing in the golden air,
No quick short joys of leaping babyhood.
Alas, our earthly good
In heaven thought evil, seems too good for Thee;
Yet, sleep, my weary One!
And then the drear sharp tongue of prophecy,
With the dread sense of things which shall be done,
Doth smite me inly, like a sword: a sword?
That "smites the Shepherd." Then, I think aloud
The words "despised,"—"rejected,"—every word
Recoiling into darkness as I view
The Darling on my knee.
Bright angels,—move not—lest ye stir the cloud
Betwixt my soul and His futurity!
I must not die, with mother's work to do,
And could not live-and see.
When I was teaching in school, I once had a class of 13 and 14 year-olds for Religious Studies, an opportunity to reflect, always a priority for Agnellus Mirror. I found this set of notes the other day, their reaction to the question, tell us something, or things, that have changed your life.
It’s time to dust these notes off and share them. And to invite us all to reflect on how much of what we as adults do or don’t do, say or don’t say, helps or hurts the young people we share our lives with as parents, grandparents, relatives, godparents or teachers. Listen to the witness of these youngsters! Read between the lines!
Making new friends at school and leaving my old friends from my old school. My father lost his job abroad and had to come to London to find a new job. He got a job on the railways but he was in digs and we were still in Scotland, so we moved down.
My brother returning from boarding school.
My father dying in hospital.
Moving house because I have to make new friends and go to a new school; leaving my friends behind.
Boswell read Doctor Johnson's papers after his death:
I select from his private register the following passage:
'July 25, 1776.
who hast ordained that whatever is to be desired should be sought by labour,
and who, by thy blessing, bringest honest labour to good effect,
look with mercy upon my studies and endeavours.
Grant me, O LORD, to design only what is lawful and right;
and afford me calmness of mind,
and steadiness of purpose,
that I may so do thy will in this short life,
as to obtain happiness in the world to come,
for the sake of JESUS CHRIST our Lord. Amen.
Boswell comments: This was composed when he 'purposed to apply vigorously to study, particularly of the Greek and Italian tongues.' Such a purpose, so expressed, at the age of sixty-seven, is admirable and encouraging; and it must impress all the thinking part of my readers with a consolatory confidence in habitual devotion, when they see a man of such enlarged intellectual powers as Johnson, thus in the genuine earnestness of secrecy, imploring the aid of that Supreme Being, 'from whom cometh down every good and every perfect gift.Let us all have confidence in habitual devotion!
Life of Johnson by James Boswell, via Kindle.
We met the Shakers briefly when we were reflecting on Vocation in daily life, in particular the life and work of women in this 18th and 19th Century American community. But they started off in Manchester, about 1747. Faith in the city!
The shakers were influenced by the Quakers, they had been known as the Shaking Quakers, and a leader emerged in the person of Ann Lee, the illiterate daughter of a blacksmith. She was however a person of great spiritual intelligence, as well as the desire to know God and carry out his will. Her devotion led her group to accept her as a second embodiment of Christ, and she was known to them as Mother Ann.
There was still a great intolerance of religious dissenters in England at the time, which led to her leading a small band of Shakers to North America in 1774 to restore the Apostolic Church there. This was at the start of the American Revolution, and they were treated as spies for the British government and thrown into prison. After their release they set about establishing the Kingdom of God, and war-weary Americans began to join the movement, and the Shakers made room for them all. Communities of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming were thus established in rural areas, trying to live by the law of love, but celibate, as Jesus had been. A far cry from the mills of Manchester’s Industrial Revolution.
See Caroline B.Piercy, The Shaker Cook Book, New York, Crown Publishers, 1953, pp16-18.
In another age, in another life, Thomas Traherne might have made a monk. In another age, in another life, another Thomas found his vocation as a Cistercian monk and writer. That’s how it was beginning to look in 1947 when Merton wrote the following journal entry. The message of the kneeler above contrasts with Traherne’s message in the last two days, ‘The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it be employed’; at least superficially. But Traherne was also counselling the practice of meditation which begins with stillness. How that is achieved depends on the individual to a great extent; the fact that I came to stillness when cutting the grass was not appreciated by all my superiors… Over to Merton, who had chosen, been called to, a life of silence but not necessarily one of stillness.
The Cistercian life is energetic. There are tides of vitality running through the whole community that generate energy even in people who are lazy… We go out to work like a college football team taking the field.
Trappists believe that everything that costs them is God’s will. Anything that makes you suffer is God’s will. If it makes you sweat, it is God’s will. But we have serious doubts about the things which demand no expense of physical energy. Are they really the will of God? Hardly! …
If we want something, we can easily persuade ourselves that what we want is God’s will just as long as it turns out to be difficult to obtain.
Reading the two Thomases together, I wonder that any of us ever find any stillness in modern life. I no longer have access to a big, noisy, green, ride-on mower. But I do have the garden to turn to: news from there tomorrow.
It is an indelible principle of Eternal truth,
that practice and exercise is the Life of all.
Should God give you worlds, and laws, and treasures,
and worlds upon worlds,
and Himself also in the Divinest manner,
if you will be lazy and not meditate, you lose all.
The soul is made for action,
and cannot rest till it be employed.
Idleness is its rust.
Unless it will up and think and taste and see,
all is in vain.
A pilgrimage is practice and exercise for body and soul. This summer, may I up and think and taste and see – a pilgrim even if only in the familiar streets of my home town. Ponder:
Mrs Sparrow has got bolder over the last few days; you see that I have managed to take her picture.
When I was alone in the garden, eating lunch, she flew to the table – there’s a corner of it in the photograph – hopped to the edge of my plate, and took a beakful of sardines to feed the babies. She has come down when friends and family were present and entertained them, taking crumbs and morsels from the ground or table. Did people feed the birds around the Temple in Jerusalem?
I am glad there are no regular cats in the garden these days!