A Theological Reflection on the little church of e.e. cummings

– thoughts on rural mission in Wales and Suffolk

                  

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i am a little church(no great cathedral)

far from the splendour and squalor of hurrying cities

– i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest

i not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;

my prayers are prayers of the earth’s own clumsy striving

(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children

whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around them surges a miracle of unceasing

birth and glory in death and resurrection:

over my sleeping self float flaming symbols

of hope,and I wake to a perfect patience of mountains

i am a little church (far from the frantic

world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature

– i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;

i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to

merciful Him Whose only now is forever:

standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence

(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

 

i am a little church(no great cathedral)

far from the splendour and squalor of hurrying cities

This is a lovely description of the country church and will resonate with many rural churchgoers. We may not have the splendour of cathedrals (although some East Anglian country churches are pretty striking!) but we also do not have the hurrying squalor of the urban parish. We are only little churches with small congregations generally lacking in resources (which are always under threat from stretched diocesan finances) and this littleness makes us feel vulnerable and unsure of ourselves. Yet perhaps there is something in this littleness which is our unique gift and charism. One aspect of this is the unique personality of each country church, this is emphasized in the poem by the church being the voice which is speaking. A country church is not just a functional instrument of mission, it is woven into the souls of rural communities as a living, personal presence and this is explored further as the poem progresses

– i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest

As I write it is November. The days are growing shorter, everything is getting wetter and colder. But this does not worry the country church, it has known this cycle of the seasons many times before. And we might also remember that the briefest day of the year is December 21, which in the church calendar is called O Dayspring!, for on this day we wait the coming of the Sun of Righteousness at Christmas

i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

April, of course, is the season of Easter. In Easter we hope for sunshine and the beginning of the return of warmth to the land, but this may not be the case. And again the country church does not worry – it lives both with the rhythm of the church year and the rhythm of nature, both are natural to it and it lives with whatever comes: sunshine or rain. This suggests that rural mission must have this same ability to live with the seasons, working with whatever comes and not trying to force the pace or make things happen which aren’t ready to happen. That is an urban strategy but the rural context resists such impatience because it has had to learn to live with the rhythm of the seasons.

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;

This again reinforces the thought that the rural church lives within the rhythms of the rural calendar, but again we can hear theological echoes: we hear Jesus saying that the crops are white for harvest and we also hear the well-known words of the parable of the sower. It is interesting that reaper is put before sower when more normally we think of sowing coming before reaping. What this does is emphasize the circularity of rural processes – we don’t just sow and then reap, rather we reap so that we will have enough seed to sow next year and so repeat the cycle. This understanding of time is perhaps different from the classic Christian understanding of time which moves through creation, fall, redemption and final consummation in one linear progression. Rural life, on the other hand, moves in this more cyclical sense of time which is perhaps why the word pagan originates from the Greek word for country people paganoi. In the light of this a rural theology may need to emphasize a wisdom spirituality such as we find in Ecclesiastes rather than just preaching the redemption spirituality of Isaiah and the prophets. This is particularly the case in a time of environmental crisis where we are beginning to see the problems caused by the linear pursuit of profit and progress and forgets to pay attention to the fundamental, cyclical realities of soil, climate and community

my prayers are prayers of the earth’s own clumsy striving

(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children

whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

These three lines reinforce this sense of what a rural spirituality needs to embrace. It is a spirituality rooted in the earth and human beings who are seen as being the children of the earth in all the complexities of their experiences. This, perhaps, is where rural mission might most fruitfully begin. The little church seems to be saying to us: here in the earth and the human experiences which we all know and struggle with, here is where we must be rooted and seek to find and live our faith.

around them surges a miracle of unceasing

birth and glory in death and resurrection:

But it doesn’t stop here. The poem is not about nature worship or simply being absorbed in natural cycles, it sets these human and natural experiences within the context of the Christian story – the birth, death, resurrection and glorious ascension of Christ. Into the ordinary lives of ordinary people the little church brings this miracle, not as something remote but as a surging reality which surrounds us. It is not a matter of simply living with the flow of nature but of getting in touch with a deeper vision that transforms our sadness and our joy, and which brings into natural processes the fertilizer of heaven

over my sleeping self float flaming symbols

of hope,and I wake to a perfect patience of mountains

For the little church is a witness to these ‘flaming symbols of hope’ which are contained in the Christian story. And yet they are not trumpeted; it is striking that they are present not so much in the noisy fun of a church fête or the ringing of bells at Easter but as the church sleeps underneath a dark sky at night. And when the church wakes it is not to rush into activity but rather a quiet patience – that kind of quiet patience which we see in the ancient mountains. Mountains might be a difficult image for us in Suffolk to grasp. When I lived in Wales the mountains rising above the hills were a constant reminder of ancient truths which persist across the centuries. Perhaps here in the busy flatlands of Suffolk marked by a history of rebellion and dissent, the injustice of the enclosure of common land and the technology of the latest farming practices it is not so easy to be reminded of this patient continuity. So here in this context what might be our symbols of perfect patience which remind us of deeper verities? Maybe the sea, or the sky or the ponds and wet places which sit damply in the clay earth, maybe just the gently rolling contours of the land itself. It is certainly important for us to have something which reminds us to be patient and live with a long perspective, remembering the limits of our humanity.

i am a little church (far from the frantic

world with its rapture and anguish)at peace with nature

And so we return to the beginning (we are reminded again of the cyclical nature of rural spirituality). Interestingly the little church seems to suggest that rapture is not part of rural spirituality. This is an important question, for it seems to me that the rapturous, the ecstatic and the mystical does have a role to play in rural mission. In Wales rapture certainly was part of the evangelical revival that transformed Welsh rural spirituality: the slow burning embers of rural faith flamed into life as Howell Harris strode the land and sparked revival. The Anglican church found this difficult to deal with and rejected many of its most important leaders such as William Williams and Daniel Rowlands with long-term consequences for its place in Welsh society. I am not sure if there is a similar history of rapturous revival in East Anglia. Nonetheless we need to ask what role has rapturous religion got to play in the mission of the modern rural church? I don’t think we should reject its modern expressions such as the charismatic movement, but perhaps we need to make sure that the rapture does not become frantic, grasping too greedily after spiritual highs… rather it needs to be a rapture which is at peace with nature and perhaps finds God most powerfully and rapturously in God’s first book which is the created world. Perhaps what the rural church needs is an ecological charismatic movement?! It may be that something like this is emerging in movements like Forest Church which conducts its services outside, foraging and celebrating in the natural world.

– i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;

i am not sorry when silence becomes singing

Again we return to phrases with a familiar ring. The idea that silence becomes singing is striking. People often talk about the quietness which they find in rural churches, but the little church suggests that we should not only seek silence and quietness in the rural church. There is a time for singing – perhaps, we might think, a time for rapture and a fresh encounter with God. Not that we can’t encounter God in silence but I think the poem suggests that the rhythm of rural life can’t just be about silence. Sometimes this is a problem for incomers to the countryside. They are seeking to escape from the noise and frenetic busyness of urban life and they become annoyed when the countryside becomes noisy and busy. This is perhaps understandable when the noisiness is an imposed urban noisiness such as that inflicted by illegal raves, but it seems questionable when it is a resistance to the noise of agriculture and rural industries – the very lifeblood of rural life. The silence of the little church is not domineering, rather it welcomes the natural rhythms which sees silence give way to rapturous singing.

winter by spring,i lift my diminutive spire to

merciful Him Whose only now is forever:

standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence

(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)

After the cyclical return to previous themes this verse might come as something of a surprise as the little church lifts its diminutive spire in a beautiful theological acclamation. Here we have a lyrical description of God ‘whose now is forever, whose truth is deathless, who is both light and darkness’. It is important that the spire stands erect. It does not try to hide away, it is not ashamed of the God to whom it bears witness. It may be small and insignificant and not dominate the landscape like a cathedral (we might think, perhaps, of Salisbury Cathedral and the way it majestically pierces the Wiltshire sky) but this lack of majesty is not so important as the particular witness of a rural church to the eternal presence of God. The little church humbly bears witness to the spirit of God living here amongst us where we live and move and have our being, and where we seek to be the people who lived the divine and holy rhythms of the little church.