Sunday 21 June 2009

West Stourmouth and the Courts of God

Psalm 84

O how amiable are thy dwellings : thou Lord of hosts!

My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord : my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young : even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

Blessed are they that dwell in thy house : they will be always praising thee.

Sunday 14 June 2009


In the past few years, Sunday has become my favourite day of the week. I liked it when I was a child, too - we used to go to church, and then my family would often go out somewhere, and we'd have Sunday lunch together, and watch the Antiques Roadshow, and it was lovely - but there was always the thought of going back to school on Monday hanging over the day. Homework would always have to be done on Sundays, which is enough to spoil any day. It never occurred to me to do all my homework on the Saturday and keep the Sunday free from work, which Christians are after all supposed to do - that just seemed massively impractical. When would you have time for it all? When I came to university and lived with an evangelical Christian who said she never did any work on Sundays, I wondered how she managed, and thought I could never do that - when would the work get done?

Anyway, two years ago I joined my college choir, which sings at Evensong on Sundays. We practise in the afternoon beforehand and have formal hall afterwards, which often goes on until eight or nine. It takes up a large part of the day, and lots of people complain that they don't have time to do it because they have so much work to do. For a few weeks I would try and squeeze in a few hours of work between coming home from church in the morning and going to choir practice, and it did indeed feel rushed and busy. But gradually the ritual of being in the choir - the unchanging succession of practice, the service, drinks, dinner - began to impress itself on me as not a fun way of spending the time, but a proper way of spending a Sunday. I began to feel that I ought to keep Sunday better. So I tried not doing any work in those spare hours, and instead started to read the books I don't have time for in the week, to play music, or to write to friends.

It sounds idle and self-indulgent to spend a whole day without doing work, and I know it's a luxury I'm lucky to have as a student (and a graduate student at that, able to set my own timetable). But it's amazing what a difference it makes to how I approach the remaining days in the week. Sunday is a real day of rest for me now. I look forward to it, and I find that unlike in the days when I would come home from church and get straight back to my regular work, the prayers and hymns I hear at the services I attend impress deeply on my mind and my imagination, undiluted by having to compete with the ordinary concerns of every other day.

Even if it means Saturdays and Mondays are more of a rush, the work gets done somehow. Sundays are free of work, and that means free of worry, too; I force myself to be more trusting, and to concentrate on what really matters, not on the everyday things which nag away at me all the rest of the week. Sunday belongs to God, and not to me.

George Herbert wrote a lovely poem called 'Sunday', which you can find here. These are my two favourite verses:

Sundays the pillars are,
On which heav'n's palace arched lies:
The other days fill up the spare
And hollow room with vanities.
They are the fruitful beds and borders
In God's rich garden: that is bare,
Which parts their ranks and orders.

The Sundays of man's life,
Threaded together on time's string,
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternal glorious King.
On Sunday heaven's gate stands ope;
Blessings are plentiful and rife,
More plentiful than hope.

Friday 12 June 2009


This has not been a good day. I just handed in four essays and have another two to finish for next week, and I seem to have lost the ability to write in coherent sentences (you have no idea how much trouble I had just with that one). I'm also a little sad that it's almost the last week of term.

However, that does mean it's the Leavers' Service at college on Sunday, in place of the usual Evensong. And we're singing this:

That makes everything better.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

St Margaret of Scotland

One of my particular interests - professionally as well as personally, if the next few years go to plan! - is the Danish conquest of England. I like to call it 'The Conquest' on purpose to be confusing, because most people, like me, only learned at school about one medieval conquest of England - the Norman one (and not much about that, if you went to the same kind of school I did). But in 1016, exactly fifty years before the more famous conquest, England was invaded by the Danish king Cnut, and became part of a great pan-Scandinavian empire including Denmark and Norway. When you think that there had been Scandinavians settling in various parts of the British Isles for two centuries before that - in Ireland, Scotland, and northern England in particular - and you add in The Conquest, it's incredible that this Norse strain in British history has been so generally forgotten in the popular imagination.

St Margaret of Scotland, who is commemorated on June 10th, was a victim of The Conquest. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, who was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England before Cnut, and that makes her the great-niece of my favourite saint, Edward the Confessor (Edmund's half-brother). Edward has an excellent story of his own, which I'll write about another day. He and Edmund were both the sons of Ethelred the Unready, a king of Gordon Brown-like incompetence. For a short time first Ethelred and then Edmund divided the kingdom with Cnut, but they both died in 1016, leaving Cnut as unchallenged king. Cnut then married Ethelred's widow. He was just that hardcore.

Anyway, Margaret's father (also called Edward) was only a baby at this point, and like all the other surviving members of the royal family, he was exiled to the Continent. Logically, he is known as Edward the Exile. He ended up in Hungary, where he grew up and married, and that's where Margaret was born. He had a son, Edgar, too, and another daughter. A pretty rubbish time for the English monarchy, I think you'll agree - Cnut ruled until his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his two sons, and it probably didn't look like there was much chance of Margaret's family getting back their ancestral kingdom.

But then! Edward the Confessor came back from exile and was chosen as king. How? That's a story for another day. Well, he heard that his nephew Edward was still alive, and sent for him and his children to come to England and be his heirs. They came. Unfortunately, Edward (the nephew) died pretty much as soon as he returned - probably murdered. So now Margaret and Edgar were in England, a country they had never seen, but to which Edgar was heir apparent. This was in 1057, when Margaret wasn't much more than ten, and Edgar was even younger. The children spent the next ten years living in England at the court of their great-uncle, who (although he was married) never had any children.

This is the bit of the story I find particularly fascinating (I get a little speculative and historical novel-ish at this point, because there's no evidence about Margaret's childhood). What kind of relationship did Edward and Margaret have? The childless king and the fatherless princess, both former exiles, both future saints, both known for their piety and faith... Did Margaret study his example? What did she learn, in that court, of the fragility of earthly power, of the changes and chances of this fleeting world? And Margaret and her brother were Edward's only surviving family, the only link, through their grandfather, to his long-ago childhood before The Conquest. Is it too fanciful to think he might have talked to her, or to Edgar, about their ancestors, the kings of Wessex, and their failures and their successes?

Probably. This is why I study literature, and not history.

Edward the Confessor died in 1066, when Edgar was only fourteen. Now we come to the other conquest. Briefly, Edgar was too young to rule, so Harold Godwinson, Edward's brother-in-law and perhaps the most powerful man in England but for the king, was chosen as king. William the Conqueror invaded. Harold was killed at Hastings. Etc.

Edgar and Margaret, with their mother, fled the country, and ended up in Scotland, where they were taken under the protection of King Malcolm. Malcolm, probably looking for a connection with the house of Wessex, married Margaret as his second wife. She became a queen and the mother of kings and queens. And here we see an indication that her Anglo-Saxon heritage really did matter: her first four sons were given the names of English kings, Edward (for her father? her great-uncle?), Edmund (her grandfather) , Ethelred (great-grandfather), and Edgar (great-great-grandfather). Her eldest daughter, Edith, bore the name of Edward the Confessor's wife.

What did she learn at Edward's court...?

Margaret lived a devout life, personally pious and a benefactor to the church. She died in 1093 and was canonised in 1250; she is one of the patron saints of Scotland.

Monday 8 June 2009

Hopkins and Langland

Gerard Manley Hopkins died on this day in 1889. Pied Beauty is one of his most delightful (and accessible!) poems of praise. I was thinking of it yesterday when I posted that extract from Piers Plowman - Langland's 'foster forth' reminded me of the penultimate line of this poem. Hopkins certainly read Langland, and was partly indebted to his alliterative verse and to Anglo-Saxon poetry in the development of his own metrical system of sprung rhythm.

I was going to say that Langland would have liked this poem, but he was the ultimate perfectionist, a lover of extremes, who spent his whole life rewriting one enormous poem; it's hard to imagine him finding God in the imperfect. Except that Piers Plowman itself is one of Hopkins' 'dappled things': wordy, repetitive, sometimes muddled and self-contradictory, but illuminated with flashes of some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

How Shall I Sing That Majesty?

We sang this hymn at college Evensong yesterday, to the barnstorming tune Coe Fen. The last verse always makes me a little teary!

How shall I sing that Majesty
which angels do admire?
Let dust in dust and silence lie;
sing, sing, ye heavenly choir.
thousands of thousands stand around
thy throne, O God most high;
ten thousand times ten thousand sound
thy praise; but who am I?

Thy brightness unto them appears,
whilst I thy footsteps trace;
a sound of God comes to my ears,
but they behold thy face.
They sing because thou art their Sun;
Lord, send a beam on me;
for where heaven is but once begun
there alleluias be.

Enlighten with faith's light my heart,
inflame it with love's fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.

How great a being, Lord, is thine,
which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
to sound so vast a deep.
thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

John Mason (1645-1694)

Sunday 7 June 2009

Langland on the Trinity

To my mind, Langland's Piers Plowman is the masterpiece of Middle English literature (yes, better than Chaucer!). On this Trinity Sunday, I've been re-reading a memorable section: his version of some traditional images for the Trinity.

First, God as a hand (my slightly modernised version):

The Father was first as a fist with one finger folding,
Til him loved and list to unloose his finger
And proffered it forth as with a palm to what place it should.
The palm is purely the hand, and proffereth forth the fingers,
To minister and to make that might of hand knoweth;
And betokeneth truly, tell whoso liketh,
The Holy Ghost of heaven - he is as the palm.
The fingers that free be to fold and to serve
Betoken soothly the Son, that sent was til earth,
That touched and tasted at teaching of the palm...
And as the hand holds hard and all thing fast
Through four fingers and a thumb forth with the palm,
Right so the Father and the Son and Saint Spirit the third
Holds all the wide world within them three -
Both wolken and the wind, water and earth,
Heaven and hell and all that there is in.

Then, as a candle:

For to a torch or a taper the Trinity is likened -
As wax and a wick were twined together,
And then a fire flaming forth out of both.
And as wax and wick and warm fire together
Foster forth a flame and a fair leye
So doth the Sire and the Son and also Spiritus Sanctus
Foster forth among folk love and belief,
That alle kynne Christians cleanseth of sins.
And as thou seest some time suddenly a torch,
The blaze thereof blown out, yet burneth the wick...
So is the Holy Ghost God, and grace without mercy
To alle unkynde creatures that covet to destroy
Lele love or life that Our Lord shaped.
And as glowing gledes gladeth not these workmen
That work and wake in winters' nights,
As doth a kex or a candle that caught hath fire and blazeth,
No more doth Sire nor Son nor Seint Spirit together
Grant no grace nor forgiveness of sins
Til the Holy Ghost begin to glow and to blaze;
So that the Holy Ghost gloweth but as a glede
Til that lele love lie on him and blow.
And then flameth he as fire on Father and on Filius
And melteth their might into mercy - as men may see in winter
Icicles in eaves through heat of the sun
Melt in a minute's while to mist and to water,
So grace of the Holy Ghost the great might of the Trinity
Melteth to mercy - to merciful and to none other.

Read it with the Middle English spelling here.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

The Bells

The city has been full of church bells this morning. That happens sometimes, and I can never exactly tell why - is it just practice, or a special occasion? As far as I can tell, this is an entirely ordinary Tuesday morning. But at one moment the bells were ringing from the tower of Lincoln library (formerly All Saints' Church) and at another from Carfax (formerly St Martin's), and from unidentified places all over the city. It was one of those mornings when scraps of poetry swim into the memory: first, Hopkins' description of Oxford as 'bell-swarmèd', then, more distantly, of George Herbert on 'Prayer': 'Church bells beyond the stars heard...' In all that poem's feast of images, I think the one about church bells is my favourite. Like prayer, like remembered poetry, bells say: Look up. Raise your head, and look beyond.