Sunday, 29 January 2012

Heaven in Ordinary

Though the weather is colder the days are lengthening and there's a real promise of spring in the air. I've been walking with our dog by the Hogsmill river, where the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais painted the background to Ophelia (see above - Holman Hunt painted The Light of the World nearby too). It was an ordinary morning: sorting out the dustbins, 'poop-scooping' the garden, feeding our neighbour's cantankerous cat; then a walk through what was once a wild rural landscape, the delight of artists, and is now a well-loved and cared-for suburban park. I'd started the day by listening to Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite: he heard the beauty in the ordinary songs of the English countryside and added his own touch of beauty.

So the theme of ordinariness was in my mind on my walk, and I found the 17th century poet George Herbert's words 'heaven in ordinary' fitting themselves to the rhythm of my steps. The air was full of birdsong: a robin, the 'teacher, teacher' call of great tits, a raucous flock of bright green ring-necked parakeets. A heron sailed over like a fantastic flying machine and settled on the river, matched in stillness by his reflection in the shallow water. Above my head grey squirrels chased each other in the branches and a woodpecker drummed. All ordinary creatures (unwelcome pests, some would say, in the case of the parakeets and squirrels) but their vitality at the early turning of the year felt like a sign of 'the dearest freshness deep down things', as Hopkins called it.

Slow as I am, it was only as I turned for home that I remembered the context of George Herbert's words. 'Heaven in ordinary' comes in his poem Prayer I, which consists simply of a list of symbolic images for what prayer might be. To notice 'heaven in ordinary' is to experience prayer.

Here is George Herbert's poem in full:


Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angel's age.
          God's breath in man returning to his birth,
          The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;

Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
          Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
          The six days' world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.
          Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
          Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

          Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
          The land of spices, something understood.

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