Paul Griffin draws our attention to a seventeenth-century writer whose inspired turns of phrase and outlook on life and death have given him great encouragement
Just when you have given up hope for the Church of England, and concluded that God is washing his hands of it, you come across someone recognizably Anglican, and recognizably loveable, good, and sound as a bell. It may be a person today, or one from history who staggered on with many ups and downs, from Hooker to Rowan Williams: Donne or Lancelot Andrewes, or Samuel Johnson or Bishop Edward King, or some person known to you who quietly stands for the old and faithful virtues, who attends the Eucharist and lives for others. At such times you feel reassured, so that you can stagger on yourself for a bit more history.
That seventeenth-century Norwich doctor, Sir Thomas Browne, is one such for me. It is unfortunate that because of his intricate style, he can never be to everyone’s taste, except in extract. Yet at a time when we lament the flat state of our liturgical writing, he holds the rare secret of lifting our hearts with memorable utterance. Give us an occasion of rejoicing, when the ointment of life seems to have no flies in it (Palm Sunday, for example), or an occasion of gloom, when there seem more flies than ointment (following the Crucifixion, perhaps), and there is the steady voice of the experienced old doctor: ‘Darkness and light divide the course of time…I that have examined the ways of man, and know upon what slender filaments that fabric hangs.. .and considering the thousand doors that lead to death, do thank my God that we die but once.’
A proper old misery, you may say No: rather a man who by the beauty of his words restores our faith in the great dream of the afterlife, from which we are woken, not by any temporary shouting of crowds in the streets of Jerusalem or London, but by what he calls ‘that unex-tinguishable laugh in heaven’.
Earthly rejoicing, without a consciousness of that dream, is never part of it. Remember the Israelites when they shook off their Egyptian slavery, and launched joyfully across the Red Sea. We’re free! Hooray! O goodness: now we have to wander around endlessly in the desert! Down with Moses! Remember the Soviet Union when it shook off Communism. We’re free! Hooray! O goodness: we have no security any more! Down with Gorbachev and Yeltsin! No harm in earthly rejoicing in itself, as long as you remember what sort of an earth you inhabit. There must always be a place for Jubilees.
A Jubilee, remember, was signalled by the Jews with a yobel, a ram’s horn, every fifty years. In theory at any rate, though one cannot but be a little cynical about the reality, everyone went crazy: debts were cancelled, slaves given freedom, and property returned to its original owners. And what does Old Misery say about that? ‘The first day of our Jubilee is death.’
Death as awakening
No, please don’t give up on him. All he means is that whether you win or lose test matches, the nature of the game of cricket remains. There are certain unalterable truths that may sound irrelevant when England actually wins a match, but which can cheer you up when they do not. All rejoicing, and all sorrow, pale before the vast truth of the Resurrection. Death may be inevitable, but regarded as a waking up it transcends all else. ‘Who can be drowsy,’ asks Browne, ‘at that hour which frees us from everlasting sleep? or have slumbering thoughts at that time, when sleep itself must end, and, as some conjecture, all shall awake again?’
It cannot be a completely hopeless Church that produces that, can it? My respected father-in-law used to say: ‘I am a Catholic; but I cannot deny the Church that has sustained me through all these years.’ To which the older Anglican says he is ‘…ready to be anything, in the ecstasy of being ever.’