Good, better, best

Readings: Psalm 15 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

How is one’s spiritual life formed? My own was very much shaped at school. My early education was at a primary school, specifically and prophetically, as it turned out, St Andrew’s Primary School in the part of West London in which I grew up in the 1960s. It was a church school attached to the local Anglo-Catholic church. The school had been built in the Victorian era and had not been modernised. It had, for example, exclusively outdoor toilets, which invariably froze up in the winter. In the classrooms, the wooden desks were divided into batches of four, all facing inwards.

Religious education was taken very seriously and was a daily occurrence. Much of it was delivered by the vicar of St Andrew’s church, the reverend father John Carr, a relative of the sometime Conservative party Home Secretary, Robert Carr, whom he rather resembled in voice and demeanour. Dressed always in his long black cassock, Father Carr would sweep up and down the aisles of our classroom inculcating religious instruction, and his classes routinely concluded with a bracing rhyming injunction, in which we were all required to join: ‘Good, better, best, never let it rest, till your good is better, and your better, best’.

This was, I now see, St Andrew’s Primary School’s version of ever to excel.

I used to concentrate very hard on this set of injunctions, but I confess it was for a particular reason. Identified as a studious and also a bossy child I had been moved from my favoured desk with a group of like-minded small girls to sit in one of the groups of four desks with three badly behaved small boys, whom it was intended I would quell by studious example and intimidating temperament.

I regret to say that I was rapidly corrupted by the naughtiness of Howard Witts, Richard Hicks, and Carl Dengel, whose bad behaviour was creative and entertaining. It took a particular form when Father Carr was striding up and down the aisles. Each of our Victorian wooden desks was equipped with two containers: an ink well, from which we filled our fountain pens, and a glue well. When I tell people below the age of 50 this they immediately ask, What was the glue FOR? Sticking things to other things. A huge amount of cutting up pieces of paper and sticking them into exercise books took place in primary schools in the 1960s. It was a standard way of inculcating learning. If you stuck something in your exercise book it had extra status.

However, the ink wells and the glue wells could be put to more nefarious purposes – or nefarious purposes by the standard of a primary school in the 1960s. So as Father Carr walked up the aisles past us setting out the word of God, the boys and I would surreptitiously rip small pieces of paper from our exercise books. We would scrunch them up into little balls and then dip them in the inkwell so that they were black, the colour of Father Carr’s cassock; then we would dip them in the glue well so that they were sticky. As Father Carr strode past with his back to us we would throw the small black glue balls silently and swiftly in his direction so that they stuck to the back of his cassock. If we were successful by the end of the lesson he resembled from behind a large scaley lizard; it was most satisfying.

He must have known but he never commented. This may have been because he understood that, in the midst of this subversive act, we were concentrating very hard on what he was saying. The slightest fluctuation in his voice, indicating that he might turn round and apprehend us in mid-throw, kept us utterly focused on his words.

Psalm 15, our first lesson today, was a Father Carr favourite. It was short, it was deceptively simple, and it was rhetorical. We also found it exhilarating. We knew that after ‘Lord who may abide in thy tabernacle?’, to take the King James Bible version which I grew up with, he would probably turn around. If he didn’t, he certainly would after ‘Who shall dwell on thy holy mountain?’

But in turning around, Father Carr would also explicitly be asking us to look at ourselves, as he elucidated the text. He believed that the Bible was about and for reflection and that that was a way of life. Lord, who may abide in thy tabernacle, was a question I asked myself from an early age, understanding, as was explained to me, that this was not just about going to the tabernacle; it was about staying there. ‘He that doeth these things shall never be moved’ as the King James Version concludes it.

That, as an academic, I became a medievalist has a lot to do with the early training I received from Father Carr. As a student at the University of Oxford, I was fascinated, when most other people, I should acknowledge, weren’t, by the fourteenth-century English poet William Langland, who spent his long life writing and rewriting his epic poem, Piers Plowman, the central question in which is What Shall I do to be Saved? This vast poem exists in at least four different versions. All feature its central protagonist, autobiographically named Will, after Langland himself, but also representing the human will, created good by God, but prone to sin and self-doubt after the Fall. Langland could not, would not, leave this poem alone, and the reason for that was that the persistent self-reflection which the poem advocates and acts out in its endless rewriting, was, as he saw it, the way to wisdom.

Anyone here who has read Piers Plowman, in any of its versions, will know that it is a vast allegorical journey, an early version really of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and that in the course of it Will has encounters with figures called Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest. To a girl educated on Good, Better, Best, this was at one level a concept immediately understandable. You keep trying harder, to excel and to do the things that bring you closer to the holy tabernacle. But as our second lesson today illustrates, drawing out the potential of Psalm 15’s own statements, there is more to it than that.

Wisdom is a paradox. Divine wisdom transcends human foolishness. A comprehension of wisdom poses a particular challenge within the academic community of a university because our currency is knowledge: the more you know the better you can be at your subject. We set a store too by intelligence, that capacity to interrogate, to challenge, to move ideas around, to detect an anomaly, and to be professionally curious. We admire people who are clever.

But wisdom is not straightforwardly knowledge or intelligence. Wisdom, as the Bible explains it in the first book of Corinthians, part of which we also heard today, expounds, is a quality of understanding that involves appreciating what we do not know, and recognising that divine understanding, divine wisdom, transcends our own, and in that sense knows us better than we know ourselves.

Certain things go with accepting that. Towards the end of one of Langland’s versions of Piers Plowman, Will, ever seeking to be sure of his route to salvation, asks in urgent desperation what is the crucial skill that he needs. And the allegorical figure of Wisdom responds, Learn to love, and leave everything else. ‘Doing’ in this way of seeing is as much a state of mind as it is about good works. The ‘best’ that Father Carr was encouraging my primary school class to chant about in Good, Better, Best, was not only about inspiring oneself to acts of goodness and generosity; it was about attaining a state of understanding that was to be achieved over a lifetime and through much reflection and a willing humility.

Wisdom, in this way of seeing, is inclusive; everyone can attain it because God does not exclude anybody and he values us equally. Piers Plowman, in Langland’s poem, stands for the transcendent figure of Christ, who is within this earthly kingdom not identified with a kingly or aristocratic figure, but with a simple ploughman, working the land, and very much part of his community. As today’s second lesson noted, not many of those called were of noble birth. When our chaplain says at the beginning of our services here that All our welcome, he is expressing the profound humanity that is at the heart of the Christian message.

So, in seeking ever to excel, to make our better best, we best do so sustained by wisdom that comes of also recognising our human limitations, and the endless, unlimited nature of divine love, and the comfort that should bring. In the Middle Ages, to my mind, one of the writers who saw that most clearly was a Scot, a man of Fife indeed, writing and working not so far from here in Dunfermline, the fifteenth-century poet, Robert Henryson. In the conclusion to his wonderful poem Orpheus and Eurydice, Henryson arrives at a way of seeing that his anguished fourteenth-century English predecessor Langland seemed incapable of holding on to.

Orpheus and Eurydice is about love and loss. It is a retelling of the classical myth of Eurydice lost to her husband Orpheus when she is snatched to the underworld. Orpheus travels to Hades to reclaim her, and succeeds, thanks to his beguiling prowess as a harpist, but loses her at the threshold between the underworld and this world when he forgets a promise made to Pluto and looks back at the beloved wife he is guiding to safety by the hand. Within that moment Eurydice is lost to him.

In Henryson’s poem, as often in the Christian Middle Ages, the Orpheus and Eurydice story is allegorised. Orpheus represents reason, the faculty that connects man, imperfectly, to divine wisdom; Eurydice represents human desire, capable of being united happily with reason but, after the Fall, ever fallible. Henryson’s poem ends its narrative very sadly with Orpheus, ‘a woeful wedower’, bemoaning the loss of his wife – it does not impose upon him the still more shocking denouement found in classical versions of the story. But Henryson does not leave Orpheus there. In moralising the allegory, Henryson makes it clear that the striving to get close to Divine wisdom that Orpheus’s journeys represent is beneficial and that it can take us to a point where God will, as the Medieval Scots put it, ‘undirput his haly hand’ and bring us close.

This brilliant Scottish poem thus ends with an extraordinary human and simple image of God just putting his arm around those who try to do their best, to get as close to him as they can. Good, better, best, and staying in the holy tabernacle, come together here in a way that is immensely, properly, and intellectually comforting. God, as Henryson, depicts it is, knows best, and is on our side.

When the time came for me to leave St Andrew’s primary school in 1967 I was encouraged by my parents to do something that was again a standard practice in the 1960s, to take my autograph book to school and ask the teachers to sign it and write a message in it. One of our more forebidding teachers, Miss Woodhouse, to whom I was a great disappointment having been corrupted by the small boys, and who we thought might have witnessed an episode of the sticky ball throwing, wrote prominently in an early page of my autograph book, Your future lies before you, like a great white sheet of snow. Be careful how you tread on it, for every mark will show.

I found this extremely depressing. I knew I had already trodden in that snow, indeed had probably left a trail of small sticky black pieces of paper in it. I trudged off disconsolately to wait outside church for Father Carr, as I knew I would be expected to try and come back with a message from him, though of course, everyone at home was expecting it to be Good, better, best. He eventually emerged from the vestry to find me sitting on the wall outside. He sat down. What’s the matter he enquired. I showed him my autograph book and said, ‘Miss Woodhouse wrote this, Father.’ He read it and smiled, then very quietly he picked up the book, neatly ripped out the page, screwed that into a small ball, put it in his pocket, and winked.