The Bible is scattered with imagery of the natural world. Church walls often depicted human life as the growth cycle of corn, where seeds were sown and grew to maturity only to be harvested by the grim reaper. Such imagery is often seen as grim, gruesome even, but it helped our ancestors deal with the fact that they lived in a world where death was a constant presence. Any small accident could prove fatal, a broken limb could prevent a person from working, so could effectively mean the same thing. Though the Bible mentions a life expectancy of 70, death could strike anyone, any time. The Black Death was horrific not just for the numbers of people who died, but for its lack of discrimination. The rich were struck down just like the poor, the pious with the criminals, so the very nature of prayer and of living a good life was shaken.
The church of Rome still practices communion, when worshippers ingest the body of Christ as a shared ritual. But it is not cannibalism as critics often claim, but a much older concept, because if humans are embedded in nature, the boundaries between species are less clear. One of the oldest, and strangest, of British folk songs is John Barleycorn Must Die. It describes how grain must die for us to live, so is part of the circle or cycle of life, but a recognition that humans were embedded in nature, as the highest form of life, but still negotiating their way. This is Steve Winwood & Traffic’s incredible version of it.
When people moved to towns, the links with the cycles of the countryside were weakened and today very few people have any links with natural cycles. Our concept of time is a mechanised one, it is more linear, with time being perceived as separate events following each other rather than following repeating patterns. The cleric Ronald Blythe describes this beautifully at the end of his book Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year:
It gets harder and harder in rural life to keep liturgy and everyday experience in meaningful rotation, to keep worship out of the theme park, to get a chilly wisp of November into the church. Out of the all-the-year heatwave of the car and into a vast old room which, in spite of switching on, at enormous expense, every bar an hour before the service, strikes, if not exactly cold, well, as though the days are pulling in. the congregation is annually puzzled by the everlasting circle and can never make out why it should run from Eloi to Andrew and not from New Year to Old Year.
I walk in the woods. They are perfectly liturgical. By late November their leaves are down and they are structurally naked and soaring. Homing creatures scuttle about. I wade through this year’s leaves, through a damp sinking and senescence, and past this year’s nests all open to view. and in what the poet John Clare describes as ‘the doubling light’. He wrote an everlasting circle book called The Shepherd’s Calendar, but his idiot publisher complained of its realities. There’s no avoidance of these in the Faith-According-To-November, I tell the congregation. The countryside may be running down but we have to stir ourselves up. It says so here – ‘Stir up the wills of thy faithful people.’ ‘But’, they protest, ‘you say the year is at an end with young Andrew!’ The year but not the circle. Every oak knows that. Round and round we all go, the living, the departed, the abundance, the dearth, the planets, the prayers, the holiness of things, all our new toys and comforts notwithstanding.