Address by The Very Reverend Dr Frances Ward, on the occasion of the funeral of
Ronald George Blythe, CBE, FRSL
St Andrew’s Church, Wormingford
20 January 2023 (the day of commemoration for Richard Rolle)
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let’s take a moment to consider the three photographs on the order of service.
For each one captures something quintessential of Ronnie, through his long life.
On the cover – Ronnie in his 20s, looking up from his writing, perhaps – looking gorgeous! and who would not have welcomed this young man into their lives? As indeed Christine (Kühlenthal) did when she found him in the library, and John (Nash), and that wonderful bohemian society of artists and writers that befriended him; including Benjamin Britten, as the Aldeburgh Festival began. So many others too, friends, over the decades. Those who knew Ronnie know something more about friendship that they didn’t know before.
And then, on the inside back cover, here he is with his CBE for services to literature – of which he was so justifiably proud. All those wonderful books, novels, articles, columns, and of course the classic Akenfield.
(Credit: Christopher Matthews)
He is where he belongs at Bottengoms, with that generous welcome to those who made it down the voluptuary lane in May time, or in the depths of an icy winter. Snow on snow. A glass of Tio Pepe to greet you, and lamb chops if you were lucky. If rightly guest. And then conversation, and gossip, of the best sort. Bottengoms, like the nightingale’s nest:
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide –
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way…
It's the image on the back cover that we might dwell on, though, as we gather today to honour and celebrate his life. Here he is, in his beloved garden. We imagine his gaze, as he looks away from us, taking everything in, the familiar, and the unfamiliar, the hidden, seen and unseen, of the changing seasons, the constancy and transience of the natural world. His gaze, and night vision, as he loved to walk in the dark. All places alike to him. Like his beloved cats.
(Credit: Zoe Brown)
You will know of the literature telling of the garden – how in Islamic traditions, paradise is where we belong – the garden of delights. How the Christian story begins in a garden, where all creation in myriad abundance surrounds the first mythic humans – who, as with so much since, make such a godawful mess of things.
Of how, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, and found it empty, and turning, addressed the gardener. The man with whom she was so familiar – yet she thought him a gardener. Not a fisherman, or a gravedigger, or a carpenter, but he was a gardener – the first sighting of the risen Lord. The garden of Eden becomes the garden of Gethsemane, the garden of the Resurrection.
So much happens in gardens – the place where God and humanity toil together to nurture life, to see through death. Jesus the gardener. Yes. And so God honours the natural world – and calls us to do so much better.
God not only honours, but creates, continuously. All around us, something is happening. With the deep pattern to life, to existence, the world delights us, ever anew.
It is the greatest gift, of all.
Ronnie’s writing is infused with the gift of nature.
He was a man of gifts. The greatest gift was his appreciation of gift.
Not for him any sense of entitlement, or petty resentment, or grievance, or right. No – the opportunities that came his way, the friends, the service and care and kindness he gave and received – all were gifts. Gifts he recognised, received with grace, and gave in turn, knowing them, ultimately, as from their divine source. A gifted, giving man.
And as we lay him in the ground, next to his beloved Christine and John, the earth receives him as a gift, too. Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, with rocks and stones and trees. Ronnie is where he belongs, at one with the earth, enfolded deep within the meaning of the beauty that holds and inspires us, if we have but ears and eyes.
Ronnie had those ears and eyes – and the gift to write what he saw and heard.
He knew, better than most, how to turn nature into art.
Nature he loved, and next to nature, art.
He warmed his hands before the fire of life.
[Walter Savage Landor]
And we are the richer, so much richer, for it.
This nation has a fine, long, living tradition of nature writing – today, as good as ever. And Ronnie is up there, with the best there has been, or is, or will be. The words flowed – alive with a sense of history enfolded in the present moment – the words singing the joy, the delight, the easter, in ordinary time and place.
Some Christians refuse to see the grace of God in the natural world; labelling ‘pagan’ where others perceive enchantment. Ronnie would dismiss such churlishness. Of course, this beautiful world speaks – shouts, cries aloud, sings, whispers, sotto voce, sometimes laments and sobs – of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s overflowing generosity.
God’s delight in the abundant pleroma – the fullness that fills all things.
The fullness of love that now holds Ronnie as it has held him in life.
The last hours that Ian and his dear ones spent with him were memorable – for Ronnie had no fear. He was only curious. Curious about what was to come next, in God’s grace. And God’s grace and love it is, always waiting to embrace, with an intimacy and ultimacy that is beyond words. Even Ronnie’s.
Ronnie is in the garden of paradise, of which his own garden was a foretaste, a glimpse of the glory that is eternal.
Ronnie chose the ancient words from Isaiah for today. To hear again, as now he knows, of the wilderness and the solitary place. For the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose, where it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing.
To hear again of the world that sings aloud a sense of enchantment, of healing, of the way of holiness, when the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
This was Ronnie’s life. Enchanted. Full of grace. Bonny and blithe. Good and gay.
He responded to the love that bade him welcome to the feast, to the garden of delights, into this sacred life that is stronger than death.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
‘A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here’:
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.