From The Sounds of St. Francis, March 2018.
The twentieth century English poet John Betjeman (1906-1984) is one my very favorite modern writers. Calling him modern, though, may be a bit of a misnomer, for his verses never ranked very highly among the literary establishment. He was far too traditional in his political and religious opinions and loathe to take himself too seriously. He also managed to write verses that ordinary people can understand (and often they even rhyme). He was very popular in his lifetime, and was even England’s poet laureate for the last twelve years of his life.
Most of Betjeman’s verses are about the English countryside, old buildings, social satire, and the Christian faith. He was a faithful Anglican, a warden of his parish church. His faith was awakened, like my own, as a young man in the pews of Pusey House, Oxford. He had a deep devotion to the church’s liturgy and sacramental life, shaped by his time in that enchanting place. The transforming power of the Eucharist is an oft-repeated theme in his work.
One of my favorite Betjeman poems is A Lincolnshire Church. In the midst of describing of a very ordinary building with a somewhat indifferent congregation, the author pauses to survey the tabernacle, the place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved:
And there on the South aisle altar
Is the tabernacle of God.
There where the white light flickers
By the white and silver veil
A wafer dipped in a wine-drop
Is the Presence the angels hail,
Is God who created the Heavens
And the wide green marsh as well
Who sings in the sky with the skylark
Who calls in the evening bell,
Is God who prepared His coming
With fruit of the earth for his food
With stone for building His churches
And trees for making His rood.
There where the white light flickers,
Our Creator is with us yet,
To be worshipped by you and the woman
Of the slacks and the cigarette.
The passage is classic Betjeman—the elegaic survey of rural beauty, the gentle humor, and the joyful trust in God, immense and gracious, who has given all this to us, and who has come to be with us in the gift of the Sacrament. There’s no surprise when he ends the poem a few lines later:
There where the white light flickers,
Here, where the rain descends,
The same mysterious Godhead
Is welcoming His friend.
In a few months, the white light will also be flickering here at Saint Francis. A tabernacle, designed by our own David Tozer is being constructed to be placed in our own “South aisle altar”—in the Chapel that is. Those of you who serve on the Altar Guild will know that the Blessed Sacrament has been reserved at Saint Francis for many years, in a cabinet in the Sacristy. The new tabernacle will allow Christ who comes to us in bread and wine to have a place at the heart of our common worship. A white candle will burn beside the tabernacle, a sign of Christ’s Presence, and God will welcome all his friends to greet Him in prayer and praise.
We had hoped that the tabernacle would be finished by the beginning of Lent, but the church pew construction company has too many other orders to handle—which, in the wider perspective, must be a good thing. It will probably arrive sometime in May.
However, it seemed fitting to prepare for its coming by devoting some time this Lent to exploring the gift of the Eucharist. Our Sunday morning forum will discuss the way the Church’s teaching and practice of the Eucharist developed over time: what Christ intended when he took up the bread and wine at the Last Supper; the way our worship was shaped by missionaries, persecution and imperial patronage; and countless reforms over the centuries that have aimed at bringing the Presence of Christ closer to His people.
On Thursday evenings we will explore a different devotional theme at the heart of the Eucharist each week: “the well of life,” “true bread from heaven,” “my flesh is food indeed,” “I will eat with him,” and “we are all partakers of one bread.” Psalms, Scripture texts, hymns and passages from Christians poets and theologians will throw light on these aspects of Christ’s Presence with us, and we will gather our prayers each week in a Litany of the Blessed Sacrament taken from the most recent edition of The Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, a devotional companion to The Book of Common Prayer.
Finally, we will welcome Brother Thomas Piolata for a Lenten Quiet Day on March 17. Brother Tomie is a Capuchin friar, a delightful and wise young man who has answered God’s call to serve him as a follower of St. Francis. He is a classmate of Pastor Allison’s and Father Mac’s at Catholic University, where he is studying for his doctorate in historical theology. He will speak about the place of the Eucharist in the theology and spiritual vision of Saint Francis of Assisi, our patron. St. Francis had a deep devotion to Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist, which he linked closely to the Cross and the vocation to give his life in service to the poor. Brother Tomie will unfold this for us, and ponder how St. Francis’ teaching can draw us closer to the same Lord who we worship with him.
I hope that in days to come you will find yourself drawn to that place “where the white light flickers,” but even more to the One who waits to meet you there. He is your friend and mine, who comes to dwell in us and to fill us with His life-giving Presence.