St Margaret’s Church, Binsey, Evensong on Sunday 30th September [Trinity 18]
‘Some small harvest’
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have taken my theme for today’s homily from the title of a book published in 1986, the memoir of the archaeologist Glyn Daniel, who for many years edited the journal Antiquity and ended his career as Disney Professor of Archaeology in Cambridge. Although I read History at Cambridge rather than Archaeology I made a point of attending his lectures on the History of Archaeology, which helped me to see how knowledge of the past is built up, despite many a pitfall by generation after generation. Glyn was a genial presence both in life and on television where he made the prehistoric past accessible to viewers for many years; he was a great Bon viveur who once shortened a lecture because ‘last night was St David’s Day’. His best-known popular book on the Palaeolithic cave paintings in the Dordogne and the Neolithic monuments in Brittany was entitled The Hungry Archaeologist in France. He accomplished a great deal, he allowed me to empathise with ancient peoples in their search for the divine even though we are never going to be able to understand religions so opaque to us because there are no written records. He gave pleasure to many people and reaped, in his own words a modest reward, ‘some small harvest’.
Harvest Festivals are often celebrated in churches by accumulating a pile of fruit and vegetables, the product of agro-industry rather than of organic growth, bought from a supermarket more often than from the land, perhaps an allotment, where they have been nurtured through the year , or far worse a sad accumulation of tins of baked beans and pre-packaged rice piled up against the altar. Do not misunderstand me: I am all in favour of giving emergency rations to food banks, because the mean and immoral society of which we are part, does not provide enough, scandalously does not provide the food and the housing for those who most need it. However, this has nothing to do with harvest; it is merely letting the selfish rich off the hook.
I see harvest, rather. as a garnering in at the end of a year, of the fruits of the earth, not just by humans but by other animals too. I delight in seeing the squirrels scampering up and down the walnut tree which overhangs my garden, stripping it of every nut. It gives me more pleasure seeing them fulfilled than filling a sack with nuts for myself. Harvest means for me as much the hips, haws and berries in the hedgerows for the mice and birds as any traditional human harvest. There is so much beauty in the countryside at this time of year: I have never seen the abundant hips on the briar-roses looking more lovely than they did in yesterday’s bright sun. But this season has an additional meaning for me, as a season in which to give an account of myself over, assessing what I have done or not done over the past year. As it happens on Tuesday week I have an appointment, as I do every year, with someone appointed by the Church for a Ministerial Development Review. This allows me to review my life over the past year, both as a priest and as a person, and to discuss it with a sympathetic individual. Clearly, if all I could find to say was to take a ridiculous example: ‘I take as few services as I can, meet as few people as I can, take no account of the world around me, and otherwise do nothing’, I would clearly have garnered nothing, there would be no ‘harvest’, and nothing worth saying.
I think we should see harvest not simply in terms of the calendar year but of life. All our lives are varied and unpredictable, in terms of health, life-span, interest and opportunity. I think of Robert Frost’s lovely poem, ‘The Road not taken’ which concludes:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We all have choices to make at every turn, as we go through life; we can observe that in the lives of others as we can in our own lives. To take a few personal examples, being brought up in a liberal and civilised family who nurtured my interests, and my reading, as well as the subjects I studied at school and at university all influenced the course of my future life; my friends, pupils and other people in general all helped to determine my sensibilities, and ultimately led up to my being ordained as a deacon and priest. It could all have been different, in a bad way of course, if I had lacked health, lacked a secure background or education or friends, where would I be now? After visiting a number of prisons, I came away thinking that I might be in gaol. But I could with the privileged background I had, have elected to do different things. And my religious trajectory, for example, might have been different. With greater language competence I might have learned Hebrew and, with different friends and appropriate encouragement, I might. as a Jew, have in course of time have become Rabbi, for example. Actually, this particular dichotomy between becoming a priest or a rabbi is one that our former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries muses on, in his fine and sensitive book on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, After the Evil.
I was struck by the different roads I and others might have taken, on returning from a trip to Rome with Mary Magdalen’s parish and opening a copy of the Church Times and reading about a very good and inspiring friend who has joined a religious community in Burgundy near Taize. The article was written by her brother, and about his sadness at the inevitable loss of contact to a degree with a sister living abroad and especially as a nun. I got to know Katie well, both as a parish assistant at a church with which I am much involved, and later, as she was taking a post-graduate degree with great distinction. A life as a university lecturer or as a priest were certainly very much life possibilities, but her vocation led elsewhere. And inevitably such a vocation contains great sacrifice, not only reduced contact with those one loves, but the opportunity to marry and have children. But one has to go where the Spirit leads, for the sake of the Kingdom.
This is in fact the second time in my life that a friend has joined a religious order, instead of the more usual career path of others. Ann was more or less my contemporary, and we met through a drama group, ‘the Vikings’ which performed in churches in north-west Middlesex and happened to specialise in Medieval drama. In a short play, Dulcitius, written by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim in the manner of Terence and assuredly a remarkable work to have been written by a tenth century nun, I as a wicked Roman soldier of the Emperor Diocletian had the task of throw a virgin, played my friend, into the fire. Before her martyrdom she expresses the joy of Eternal Life, which is denied to me as a servant of evil.
‘Death for me is great joy, but for you great grief .’ For a Christian, after all, length of temporal life does not matter, ancient tombstones express this with the formula ‘plus minus’ , meaning ‘more or less’ after the age of death. All that counts is the manner in which life has been lived.
The play was about choice, and my friend’s life, as she embarked on her vocation, was a profoundly thoughtful choice. I remember other friends were puzzled, but I somehow felt there was something mysterious that I did not understand at work, and many decades later as my Christian life developed I came to see that as Our Lord visiting his friends Martha and Mary, told Mary who listened to him, the type of the contemplative, that she had chosen the better way. Indeed, it was many years later when I met Ann again after I had embarked on my new calling, and as an ordinand at St Stephen’s House that I realised that ‘the wheel had come full circle’.The life vowed to celibacy can yield ‘a holy and inexpressible harvest’ as the Emperor Julian expressed it, writing about a very different and, admittedly, far more extreme pagan cult! But that word, ‘harvest’ is surely appropriate for a dedicated life, well lived.
Indeed, we should see our entire lives in terms of harvest, and containing many choices, many divergent paths including paths one glances longingly along, like those of two friends who joined religious orders. There is a revival of community living, a new monasticism, in which people take vows (often involving a celibate life) for a year not least within our own diocese. A very few will doubtless take life vows, some will seek ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, many will pursue secular callings. There will inevitably be losses and disappointments alongside great spiritual gains; sacrifices as well as unexpected gifts of the Spirit.
As a Third Order Franciscan I am constantly made aware of the other Franciscan orders, the first of Friars, the second of enclosed sisters, as well as of other Religious paths, such as that of the Benedictines. And there are again and again so many secular choices. There is so much more than any single lifetime can encompass. What matters is the harvest. The only thing that is truly important is that whatever one does in life has to be performed in a spirit of real humility, always as an offering to God, to whom all is open through life and at the end of life in this world. One very wise friend, a sponsor at my baptism welcomed me with the words: ‘your life with God…’ and that phrase has stayed with me, a constant reminder of dedication to God. I have mentioned one medieval play; better known is the late Medieval English play, Everyman which I remember well, as the name part was played by my brother. Clad in the gorgeous dress of a 15th-century merchant, he was pulled out of the audience to give an account of himself throughout his life, as we will all be required to do…for ‘he’ stood and stands for every person. My own life, indeed all our lives, can never be centred on garnering fame, wealth or power, all of which are in the final analysis illusory and all of which crumble away and will count for nothing. The only harvest worth offering to the Lord of All, is a harvest of love for all creation, a harvest of gentleness, kindness and humility. In the long history of the world, which is only a brief moment in the light of eternity which is our true home, that harvest cannot be large, but if it has within it a park of the Divine Wisdom, even that harvest, ‘some small harvest’, as Glyn Daniel expressed it, will be enough in the eyes of our God.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.