Wednesday, October 20, 2021
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The landscape of faith

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IT’S a long time – before the miserable lockdowns imprisoned us – since I sat in a glorious Sussex garden overlooking a lake resembling Monet’s lily pond, watching the horses as they hid under the trees from the penetrating sunshine, and gazing over oceans of green, the thicker green of the forest on the hill and beyond it all the Downs. Sempiternal summer. The very character and spirit of England. And in the stillness and the drowsy heat, I thought of Eliot’s saying about The point of intersection between timelessness and time. Hours of lively conversation with our hosts, with summer foods and a steady stream of something nice in a glass to wash them down. The human company was as delightful as the landscape, and made me recall Belloc’s lines:

‘From quiet homes and first beginnings out to the undiscovered ends,

There’s nothing worth the wear of winning, but laughter and the love of friends.’

But I’m not just feeling nostalgic about a lovely weekend spent with the Master of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots, his charming wife, their two horses, the lovable Rottweiler – yes, really! – their surreal cat which bizarrely makes a nest for itself under the lavender bush. I’m not even thinking, much, about their acrobatic and risqué parrot who entertained us for hours with his bawdy interlocutions. I’m thinking about the inseparable connection in the Christian religion between the faith and the landscape; between the faith and human relations. It is not so in the eastern religions of renunciation who see the spiritual ideal as an escape from the world. But Christianity is an incarnational religion in which spiritual and material things are one; in which the word was made flesh; in which, as the poet said, You shall not deny the body.

I find all this a great comfort. I both relax and rejoice when I look into the landscape as well as into the faces of friends and there discover the face of God: for God leaves his indelible imprint on what he has made; and without him there is nothing made that was made. This is not to say that God is the landscape or that God is my friends. But he cannot help revealing himself in both the landscape and the friends; for God tells us himself that they were made in his image. So, when I see the lily pond and the distant trees, moving gently in the breeze as if to affirm the summer’s afternoon, I not only enjoy my leg of chicken and drink the wine that maketh glad the heart of man; but I hear the background hum of transcendence, the laughter of God; and the very warmth of the sunshine reminds me of his infinite care for me – a sinner.

I’m not making this up. I mean there is a 1,500-year tradition of the happy marriage between our faith and the English landscape. It is there in Tyndale’s incomparable translation of the Bible, in all his homely similes and supremely in his claim that he would make an English translation of the Bible so direct, true and memorable that he would cause the ploughboy to know more of scripture than the prelate. It is there in Piers Ploughman. It is there in such lines as:

In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire

The association of man and woman

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament.

Or in this:

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept

For miles inland,

A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.

Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle and canals…

Or: And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?

I had with me a wonderful novel: A Month in the Country by J L Carr. He describes himself as an atheist, but his atheism is so superficial it made me laugh. He can no more escape from Christ the tiger hiding in the landscape than can anyone else with a sensibility which is based on landscape. It’s why you don’t get many atheist farmers.

God made the country; man made the town.

Carr’s novel is about a man, a craftsman, who has suffered miseries in the trenches in the First World War. He is commissioned when the war is over to uncover a medieval painting long concealed under the philistine plaster of an English country church.  There are in this short novel intimations of eternity, of truth in the divine presence, deep down things. He speaks of a man who proudly announced There is no God and adds by way of refutation not a theoretical proof but the simple and luminous sentence Two horses grazing over a hedge looked up and whinnied. I saw those two horses in Sussex that weekend long ago.

He speaks of The first flat clang of the elementary school’s bell.

He says, But of course it’s the smell of places, always the smell which makes an immediate impression – and this smell was damp hassocks.

He meets a typically disillusioned parson – and my God, I’ve met too many of these to acknowledge any defect in Carr’s portrayal of him! And this is what the disillusioned parson says:

‘The English are not a deeply religious people. Even many of those who attend church do so from habit. Their acceptance of the Sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need the parson. I come in useful at baptisms, weddings, funerals. Chiefly funerals. They employ me as a removal contractor to see them safely flitted into their last house.’

Now if I were to comment on all that disappointed, selfish sourness, I would say that parson, like so many, has no imagination, no religious sensibility and above all no gratitude. This is what Carr says:

‘We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a craftsman’s bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face.’

And I thought of Eliot and the contemplation of timelessness within time – an occupation for the saint.

I thought of:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams and winter lightning.

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

And I thought of God on the sweet hills of Galilee, striding towards Calvary . . .

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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