When it dawned upon Absalom, the parish clerke, that he had kissed his loved one's backside, presented to him derisively at the window in the dark, not her face, he rolled about in an agony of rage. He rubbed his mouth with dust, sand, straw and chips. So says Geoffrey Chaucer in his The Miller's Tale.
When, as a school boy, I first read The Miller's Tale, I too like Absalom, rolled about, but in an agony of joy and glee and sheer delight.
Many years later, as a teacher of English, it delighted me to be able to introduce my pupils to a similar joy and glee in Chaucer's rollicking bawdiness.
Joylessness, says Chaucer is "a rotten sinne". In its train follow "slouthe,
wanhope and sluggy slumbring". The
sin of joylessness, he says, inclines a man to "undevotion,
thrugh which a man is so blunt that he may neyther rede ne
My day as a parish priest starts very early. I rise at each morning. The few minutes between getting out of bed and taking the first sip of a cup of micro-waved coffee provide almost the only time of my day when the bleakness of despair, futility and joylessness descends upon me. It takes usually but two sips of coffee to dispel this "slouthe, wanhope and sluggy slumbring."
I make my way over to church. At this time of the year it looms in total darkness as I approach it. There I sit, be-cassocked and cloaked, and attempt to pray. It is the best time of my day. Sweet solitude. I think, scheme, write verse, read verse, pray, howl with anguish, and sometimes thrill with joy.
Religious experience, for me, is inextricably caught up with joy. It is when, in prayer, I am filled with gratitude, and begin to articulate that gratitude, that sometimes, just sometimes, it runs away with me and I am overcome with a joy so intense and real that it seems an angelic visitation, an annunciation, an epiphany.
Because of this I find it hard to bear that the Church and God and Christianity seem so often so joyless, dull, dutiful and dreary. All those tedious, long platitudinous sermons. All that mean and miserable morality and moralising. All those words, words, words. "Poor talkative Christianity" said E M Forster somewhere.
Sitting be-cassocked and cloaked in a cold, blue-stone
Lord Thou hast given so much to me
Give one thing more, a thankful heart.
Holy Trinity Ararat, like its Rector, is perverse. It is back to front, faces west not east. As I sit there in the early morning, behind me the four big east-facing windows begin to flush and blush with dawn's light. A family of magpies scrabble with clawed feet on the roof's ridge outside and then begin to carol an Australian Sanctus to God for me. Any last vestige of "the rotten sinne" joylessness is dispelled. There is no room for "slouthe, wanhope and sluggy slumbring". I am blessed. (Ararat 1995)