The stuff of life to knit me / Blew hither: here am I - on coping with the transience of life

My grandmother's copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám


From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1st ed.) by Edward Fitzgerald:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing. (XXIX)

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in the Nothing all Things end in – Yes –
Then fancy while Thou art, Thou art but what
Thou shalt be – Nothing – thou shalt not be less. (XLVII)

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth's sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows! (LXXII)

My schoolboy edition of Housman
From A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.


From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart –
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-14


One of my own deepest held intuitions as a liberal minister of religion is that a sound, critical knowledge of the Biblical texts is a good thing and something to be encouraged. I think it is good for both cultural and religious reasons and, as you heard a couple of weeks ago I agree with the Unitarian theologian John F. Hayward that, whilst a liberal minister is free to teach more than the Bible they are most certainly not free to teach any less.

Now, intellectually speaking it is, perhaps, not too difficult to persuade most people that reading and learning something about the Bible might be a good idea. However, what I have found nigh on impossible to achieve is to persuade people actually to open up the book somewhere and begin reading it themselves. This is especially so for those who have not grown up in a religious, and specifically Christian or Jewish, context.

My illustrated Children's Bible
I count myself lucky in this regard because, as a child, I did not need persuading for, not only did I go to church twice on a Sunday and so hear the major stories of the Bible read out-loud week by week, but my grandmother also bought me my very own Bible, a captivating illustrated children's edition which I spent many hours happy reading.

However, on leaving secondary school and becoming a full-time musician I didn’t continue to spend a great deal of time reading the texts because by then they had become well-remembered “background” stories. However, whenever I thought about them at any length, I became aware that the "meaning" of them had to me become increasingly puzzling. After leaving school I had, like many people, grown more and more sceptical about the truth and value of formal religious belief and the meaning (or supposed meaning) of the Bible’s contents were intimately bound up with that belief. Consequently, for me the stories had no existence outside formal belief that was able to bring them alive in the here and now. All in all this meant that I opened the Bible far less often than I had done in my childhood and early teens.

When I went back to university in the 1990s formally to study theology and to train for the Unitarian and Free Christian ministry I imagined that in my Biblical Studies studies I was going to be reintroduced to the stories in a way that would restore to them some kind of conventional monotheistic meaning. As you will hear, for me, things turned out very differently indeed.

Father John Davis
There were about twenty of us who gathered that fine, sunny October day of 1997 in a classroom on the ground floor of St Stephen’s House just off the Cowley Road. Known popularly as “Staggers” it was, and remains, the home of British Anglo-Catholicism and so, as non-conformist ministry student, it was a strange place in which suddenly to find myself. But my own college, Harris Manchester, had for quite a while been sending its ministry students to Staggers because of an academic link that had been formed with their Old Testament tutor, Father John Davis.

When he came into class a nervous, but expectant, quiet descended upon us; our Oxford education was about to begin. Now, and remember this is an Old Testament class, Father John began, not by reading from the Bible but, by closing his eyes and reciting from memory some verses from Edward Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khayyam.

This was a surprise twice over. Firstly, because of its somewhat old-fashioned, eccentric, donnish quality but, secondly, and more importantly, it was because I both knew and adored old Khayyam’s verses. I had learnt them from my grandmother, the same one who had given me my illustrated Bible. At her death, I had inherited her own very battered, but still lovely, pocket edition.

Not content with bowling us one googly Father John immediately sent down another. This time, again from memory, he began to recite from Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad.” I could not have been more surprised because these poems were also very familiar to me. I had studied them for my “O” Levels and over the intervening years had come to love them very much indeed.

It was only after this extraordinary and wholly unexpected opening that Father John finally said to us, “Now, dear boys, open your Bibles at Ecclesiastes”. When we were ready he pointed to one of us and said, “Can you read to us chapter one, verses one to eleven.” When the student had finished Father John then quietly repeated part of verse two in English and Hebrew, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” - "hevel hevelim, hakol hevel" and pointed out to us that the word “hevel” is breath- or wind-like in its sound and it was better translated, not as “vanity”, or “futility”, but as “transience” and suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, the whole meaning and weight of the text was transformed. For the remainder of the class he introduced us more fully to the general theme of transience as it is found in Ecclesiastes. He concluded by saying that, in order fully to understand the book and its key theme in our own time we could do no better than spend most of our first week of Biblical Studies reading, not Ecclesiastes, but some poetry inspired by an heretical Persian Sufi-inspired mystic and a highly unconventional English atheist. Housman actually described himself as being “In philosophy . . . a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist” who “regard[ed] the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action” (Norman Page, p. 159). Father John set us a tutorial essay on the subject of transience and sent us on our way.

I was completely captivated as I could see that my studies could be a, natural, human matter concerning philosophy and literature. Not a word had been spoken about formal Christian belief and we had, instead, been immediately directed, not only to two texts that I knew and loved but, more importantly, towards a timelessly relevant question of human existence - transience. It is fair to say not everyone in the class was as delighted as I!

And so began a relationship with my teacher that would eventually become a friendship that lasted until the day he died. Indeed in his will he specifically asked that at his requiem mass I was to read from Ecclesiastes. I did so with pleasure.

Oxford, as viewed from South Hinksey Village (19th Century)
Learning Hebrew through that wonderful, sceptical text in his study at New Hinksey looking across at the wintry-ridge memorialised by Matthew Arnold in the company of St. John his cat and accompanied by copious quantities of tea which was always followed by a concluding stiff gin and tonic, was one of the most defining intellectual - and I have to say, hedonistic - experiences of my time in Oxford.

Via his own life experiences and great knowledge and love of poetry Father John never failed to find a way to show that so many key Biblical themes which, in other hands appeared only as dry as dust or indissolubly tied to conventional religious belief were, instead, universally relevant human themes that pressed with real urgency upon my own life and its transient nature. Part of the secret was, of course, that I was doing this in highly convivial company. Those one-to-one tutorials, in so many ways, truly became a matter of life and death.

Every time we met I learnt something new about the pains and joys of human life, its loves and hates, fears and hopes. I learnt something about the desire for a better this-worldy world than the one in which we living, of the fear of death and dying, of the joys and woes of living in the natural world and the encounter with what we have called the divine and the sacred. I learnt, too, about the pain of exile and homecoming, of victories rightly and wrongly won, and defeats justly and falsely metered out upon us all.

But, perhaps the most important thing I learnt relates to another of Khayyam's verses:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument 
About it and about: but evermore 
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

Father John’s engaged and highly personal way of teaching the Old Testament texts ensured that my time study with him was never like this. I was always gently led to a door through which, when it was opened, I saw a previously unseen vista that gave me a new perspective on human life. I valued Father John as a teacher and friend so highly because, upon opening the door, he never once said to me that the vista opening up before me on that occasion was either the best or final one but simply one to be delighted in and considered for what it was. Some of you will be of an age to remember the children’s cartoon series “Mr Benn” (for those who do not know this cartoon I add a Youtube link at the end). Going to New Hinksey vicarage was just like going to costume shop. I was Mr Benn and Father John was the shopkeeper (who appeared "as if by magic") and who was capable of ushering me to a doorway into a new experience and view of the world. I always left inspired to look ever more appreciatively at the transient beauty of the cherry tree’s blossom and to enjoy, to the last drop, the fine wine (or gin and tonic!) that was currently in my glass. He taught me the same unsectarian, open-hearted and minded message as Ecclesiastes:

“And I commend enjoyment, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and enjoy himself, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of life which God gives him under the sun” (8:15).

The basic subject matter of all my classes and tutorials on Ecclesiastes, the transience of all created things, became particularly real to me when he died and was scattered to the wind's twelve quarters - “hevel, hevelim, hakol hevel” indeed. But at his funeral, toasting his memory with a full glass of wine in my hand, I was able to be profoundly grateful, too, that those same winds had blown him hither into life.

Now, I tell you this story today for two reasons. Firstly, because Father John’s advice to read Khayyam, Housman and Ecclesiastes TOGETHER changed my life for the better. It gave me a living practical and poetic way, not only to enter deeply into some of the important ancient texts of our culture, but also to deal well with the transience of life.

Secondly, because to my surprise and delight a group of five people in this congregation have, all at the same time, told me they would like to study some of the Bible’s wisdom literature, especially Ecclesiastes. We’ll be starting that in October.

I hope you can see that in preparation for this I can do nothing other than try to pass on something of the wonderful legacy I received from Father John and say to you all, dear boys and girls, please take some time to read Khayyam and Housman. It might, just (I hope), persuade you to open your Bibles and read Ecclesiastes - you will not be wasting your summer if you do.