Sunday 8 July 2012

Evensong at Binsey; Balm in Gilead

Last week I took a walk out to Binsey, which is a tiny hamlet about a mile or so from Oxford, the other side of Port Meadow. It's comprised of six or seven houses, a pub, and a church - the latter quite some way away from the village, down a road which leads to nowhere else.

Because the walk across the meadow is so pretty, it's a regular destination for people wanting to escape from Oxford into the countryside, and I've been there before, though never alone, and never for a service in the church. I wasn't really intending to go to Evensong that day, either. I just wanted a walk - to be out, and away from the town. And this was the easiest option: to get to Binsey you just have to walk along a long road, and occasionally there's a field with sheep, and occasionally a field with rabbits, and if it weren't for the ever-present roar of the ringroad traffic, you could be entirely alone in the world.

The only creatures you see around the church (apart from the rabbits) are the goats who dwell in a little pen adjoining the churchyard.

The church is St Margaret's, and you can read about its history here. The building itself, though ancient, is very simple, and tiny. There's a sort of general air of darkness and dampness that pervades it, but not at all in an unpleasant way: it's overshadowed by tall trees, and has none of the splendours which make Iffley church, for instance, such a treasure. Some fragments of medieval glass, and a big hatchment of the arms of Queen Anne, and that's all there is in the way of adornment.

This was exactly as much as I could cope with last week. They have Evensong here on Sundays in the summer months, and I can usually bear Evensong, however bad things are inside my head; its sober dignity is comforting to me in a way no other liturgy can ever be.

This was bare-bones Evensong, with a congregation of about seven people and hymns on a rather rickety harmonium, everything else straight out of the Book of Common Prayer. I can see why they only have services in the summer months: even by candlelight, at five o'clock on a July day, it was almost too dark to read the words in the damp-scarred little hymnal. But we all knew the words, anyway: 'Jesu, lover of my soul', and all the familiar responses. I never get tired of the unchanging words of Evensong:

O Lord, show thy mercy upon us.
And grant us thy salvation.

O Lord, save the Queen.
And mercifully hear us when we call upon thee.

Endue thy ministers with righteousness.
And make thy chosen people joyful.

O Lord, save thy people.
And bless thine inheritance.

Give peace in our time, O Lord.
Because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.

And most of all: Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The simpler the music, the darker the church, the more the words stand out: the more they overwhelm you. I was reminded of my first experience of Evensong, when I was a teenager, in the ancient little church in the town where I grew up; there, amid tuneless music and an empty church, the youngest in the congregation by forty years or more, the beauty of the language broke upon me like a wave, and I sensed for the first time that there might be something real behind all the shallow childish religion I'd previously been exposed to. It might not be true, but at least it was serious.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

I went back to Binsey again today, mostly because I had started writing this post this morning. I neglected to mention before that Binsey is famous for its treacle well, supposedly discovered in the eighth century by St Frideswide, Oxford's own Anglo-Saxon patron saint. The well is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, and it's a 'treacle well' because in Middle English (from the fourteenth century, anyway) 'treacle' meant 'healing liquid, medicinal salve'. This one is famous because it inspired the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland:

'Once upon a time there were three little sisters,' the Dormouse began in a great hurry; 'and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well—'

'What did they live on?' said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

'They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

'They couldn't have done that, you know,' Alice gently remarked; 'they'd have been ill.'

'So they were,' said the Dormouse; 'very ill.'

Alice tried to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary ways of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much, so she went on: 'But why did they live at the bottom of a well?'...

The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, 'It was a treacle-well.'

'There's no such thing!' Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went 'Sh! sh!' and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, 'If you can't be civil, you'd better finish the story for yourself.'

'No, please go on!' Alice said very humbly; 'I won't interrupt again. I dare say there may be one.'
There is one, and it looks like this:

Treacle in the original sense always makes me think of this passage from Langland's Piers Plowman, one of my favourite bits of that poem and probably of every kind of literature, ever:
For Truthe telleth that love is triacle of hevene:
May no synne be on hym seene that that spice useth.
And alle his werkes he wroughte with love as hym liste,
And lered it Moyses for the leveste thyng and moost lik to hevene,
And also the plante of pees, moost precious of vertues:
For hevene myghte nat holden it, so was it hevy of hymself,
Til it hadde of the erthe eten his fille.
And whan it hadde of this fold flessh and blood taken,
Was nevere leef upon lynde lighter therafter,
And portatif and persaunt as the point of a nedle,
That myghte noon armure it lette ne none heighe walles.

It's difficult to translate this, because it relies on a whole vocabulary of medicine and healing which is thoroughly medieval and alien to a 21st-century understanding of those terms. Essentially it imagines God as a kind of life-giving sap, "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower" - a force so full of love that it overflows onto earth, heavy with power like a plant bowed down by dew, but at the same time as light as a leaf trembling in the wind.

'For Truth tells that love is the treacle of heaven: no sin may be seen on him who uses that medicine. And he wrought his works with love, as it pleased him, and he taught it to Moses as the dearest thing and the thing most like to heaven. And the plant of peace, most precious of vertues: because heaven could not hold it, it was so heavy with its own sap, until it had eaten its fill of the earth; when it had taken flesh and blood from this earth, there was never leaf upon a linden-tree lighter than it was, weightless and piercing as the point of a needle, so that no armour could stop it, nor no high walls.'

Vertue here means 'life-giving power'; think of the first lines of The Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...

That sweet inspiriting liquid is what Langland means when he calls God, or love, the 'most precious of vertues' - the treacle of heaven. And that's the treacle of the healing well at Binsey.

It's odd that I should have come round to quoting that part of the General Prologue, because I quoted it the last time I went on a mini-pilgrimage to one of Oxford's churches, at Iffley back in March. On that day a whole number of things came together in my mind: the light in the church and the hymn; the blossom on the trees and the stained glass window; the animals' carol. And today it was the same. Because I was thinking about Langland's treacle, I added 'balm in Gilead' to the title of this post, for the sake of this song:

This is based on Jeremiah 8:22: "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" And when I consulted Brewer on the subject of treacle, I learned that "in an old version of Jeremiah viii. 22, “balm” is translated treacle—“Is there no treacle at Gilead? Is there no phisitian there?".

It was raining today as I walked to Binsey, as it has been for several days. Between the rain and the rushing force of the swollen river, and the treacle well, life-giving liquid was all over the place. At Evensong we prayed, in the familiar petition of the Book of Common Prayer, for God to "pour down upon us the continual dew of his blessing" - most precious of vertues.

As for the 'leaf upon lynde' - Binsey always brings thoughts of Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'Binsey Poplars':

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

Which seemed especially appropriate today, when last night I had been reading, and identifying a little too much with, Edward Thomas' Aspens:

All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top...

Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree.

And the reading at Evensong was, of course:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

This passage has always been deeply moving for me, anxiety-prone as I tend to be. Last night, amid the wild rain, I was wondering if I'm condemned to that 'ceaseless, unreasonable grieving' that Thomas talks of, which seems to beset some kinds of people for no particular reason. 'Aspens' shows us one way to consider the lilies of the field. But after today, the trees 'talking of rain, until their last leaves fell from the top' spoke less of sorrow and more of Langland's 'liefest thing and most like to heaven': the plant of love, heavy with vertue, yet light as leaf on lind.


Martin Sellers said...

Are you familiar with the Swedish folk group Triakel? Here they are with an insanely catchy version of a Lutheran hymn, I Himmelen.

Clerk of Oxford said...

I'd never heard of them, but that song's wonderful! I'll certainly be investigating them now...

Joanna said...

What a great blog, thank you! I was looking for connections between CS Lewis and Port Meadow, to further the campaign re the student development, and got carried away reading. Excellent photos too.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you! I'd be interested to know if C S Lewis ever wrote about Port Meadow - I hope you find something, and that it helps the campaign. Port Meadow is such a wonderful place, and so important to Oxford!