I recently heard a talk by the Historian and Television Presenter Bettany Hughes, and very good it was too. At one point she was talking about myths and history: and off the cuff she remarked that in the opinion of some neuroscientists, we can’t as individuals have a future thought without accessing a memory. In other words, in our minds the past not only roots the present but in a concrete way embodies the possibilities of the future. This resonated with me, especially in terms of prayer life.
Prayers – particularly repetitive, formal things like Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and the psalms – accrete layers of meaning when we recite them, which spark off associations and memories, which in turn can speak to where we are in the present. They are like a palimpsest - a thing of lost strata and accretions.
A palimpsest is primarily a medieval or older manuscript with writing and illustrations which are later scrapped off for re-use for other layers of writing: so layers are built up, with older text sometimes showing through like lost memories. But my favourite palimpsest is actually an ancient fresco, in Santa Maria Antica in Rome which I saw when I was on sabbatical three years ago. Originally part of a guard room and temple complex built and decorated by the Emperor Hadrian at the foot of the Palatine Hill, it was in the 5th century turned into a church, and over the next three centuries another five or so layers of paint were built up before the church was lost in an earthquake in 847 A.D. The Palimpsest Wall, as it is called, is a beautiful but uncanny thing, an image of the Virgin Mary shown as Queen of Heaven (the oldest example of this image in existence ) looming out of the painted strata like a spectral Byzantine Empress, lost in time. In a similar way fragments of texts, scripture and liturgy float in and out of focus as we pray, the past making its claim on, and giving form to, the present.
So it is, for example, that when I say the B.C.P Matins Third Collect, for Grace, “O LORD, our heavenly Father…..” I am always momentarily taken back to when, as a small boy sitting in the front row of the choir stalls in the early 1970’s, I learned the ancient words by heart as part of my introduction to church life: or with the Magnificat I am now a teenager, going to Evensong because I was riding horses on Sunday Mornings (every time I cantered I fell off, so eventually I decided it was safer going back to church – how wrong I was); or when I say psalm 130 I’m in my 20’s back on the roof of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, sunbathing and memorising scripture, because I felt I should be doing something worthy and not just having a nice time. These resonances crowd round while I pray, making prayer personal but also informing the present moment with meaning and intent. It’s a benign form of haunting, these encounters with my younger selves: but it’s also part of the fun of it all as I grow older, I feel
I’ve just bought a sword, as one does.
We used to have one in the family as a dim distant relative was an officer in a Cavalry regiment that pulled field guns. I remember as a child going to the (late lamented) Royal Tournament and loving the complicated choreography of the teams of horses weaving in and out in the arena, and being told that many years ago it was what my great- great Grandfather used to do. I was hugely intrigued, especially as my Grandfather still had his sword in his keeping. Alas, on a whim, he gave it away to a visiting cousin (my mother was hugely miffed, saying it should have come to me). At any rate, it left a sword shaped gap in my psyche and over the last few years I have left a number of bids at Gorringe’s, my local auction house to no avail: but at last I got one. Having Googled it, I discovered that it is an infantry officer’s sword, dating c. 1895-7. Its handle is pretty corroded, it has no serial number, maker’s mark or owner’s name (which explains why I could afford it) but I don’t care: I’m hugely pleased.
I know that an enthusiasm for steam trains is seen as a more appropriately clerical pursuit (for example, I love the probably apocryphal story of a residentiary canon of York Minster who every morning, dressed in a cassock and signalman’s cap, would walk across a flower bed planted up as a railway track in his garden, first looking each way to make sure no trains were coming, in order to change a signal he had erected on the other side) but maybe an interest in swords speaks more to my inner Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones Geek.
Mind you, it might be something in the local water. I am, among other things, the Rector of Horsted Parva, a delightful hamlet of some 200 souls with a 14th century church and breath taking views across the South Downs: in the 16th century, though, it was a centre of the international arms trade.
John Levett, a resident of Little Horsted in the 1530’s, was a pioneer of the Wealden iron smelting industry: when he died in 1535, he left his “ "Irron mylles and furnesses" to his brother John, who happened to be Vicar of the nearby parish of Buxted. “Parson Levett”, as the Privy Council called him, rapidly and unexpectedly developed into a major armaments entrepreneur, and by 1543 was the main supplier of cast iron cannons to King Henry VIII - all the while faithfully nurturing his flock as a country Parson. No contradiction in vocation appears to have crossed the serenity of his mind.
An infantry officer’s sword may not be in the same league as a muzzle-loading two pound Tudor cannon, but I think there is a clerical echo there somewhere. At any rate, a random reference from Isaiah in today’s Morning Prayer to “ turning swords into ploughshares” has improbably now added 19th century dress-swords and Tudor clerical cannons to the ongoing agreeably haunted palimpsest that is my daily prayer life.
The Rector Revd John WallReproduced by kind permission of The Church Times