Of Violets and of Moss

Of Violets and of Moss

There are violets that grow in my garden; there’s a patch of them at the end of the drive which is expanding steadily, year on year, and because the garden there is a raised area, the flowers are almost at eye level. You just need to bend over to be able to smell the tiny purple blooms. These are sweet violets, I should add, to distinguish them from dog violets which have no scent.

Speaking of the scent of violets, people often wince, and refer to the Parma violets sweets or to Devon violets perfume which was often the standby perfume gift for young girls in the 70s and 80s. During my childhood, while I liked Devon violets perfume (sometimes also April violets was the name) I was forbidden to use it as the pathology lab and morgue my father had worked at as a young man had used a violet- scented disinfectant and the smell reminded him so powerfully of death and decay he would become quite ill if he smelled it.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that actual sweet violets don’t smell much like the perfume at all. In a big shopping centre in Nottingham, a flower seller was offering bunches of sweet violets for a quid. I bought some and I took them home, enchanted and enlightened. That pungent, sickly fragrance from the cheap perfume has only the very faintest of resemblances to real violets. Some years after that, living in very rural Norfolk, I happened upon an entire bank of them, glowing in the spring sunshine and filling the air with a totally heavenly aroma. You could almost imagine the passing of angelic wings giving off this scent as they passed. In Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, she cites the use of violet leaves as a successful nostrum for cancer, giving the case history of a nurseryman with advanced colon cancer being cured by a preparation of the herb (though the quantities used are vast!). I do not know whether any modern research has been done on the herb (the Modern Herbal was published in the 1930s) but I do wonder whether the properties need another look-at. I use a tea made with a mix of violet leaves and other herbs to encourage good dreams at night.

One of the curious aspects of the scent of sweet violets is that when you smell them, a few moments later, you can no longer smell them at all. The molecules have a sort of anaesthetic effect on your sense of smell; you go nose blind. So if you are walking through an area where lots of the flowers are in bloom, the fragrance will seem to come and go.

Much of the time, though, because violets are often regarded as invasive weeds, you tend not to find them in gardens at all. So letting ours spread means we are finally getting patches of glory. At this time of year you still need to bend over, get close to the earth to be able to partake of this glory. The accepted wisdom of why flowers have a scent is to attract pollinators but with violets, relatively few of the pretty blossoms actually ever produce any seeds. I don’t know why this is so but violets have more than one trick up their silken sleeves. Violets have developed numerous ways to spread. Violets spread by underground rhizomes and may form vegetative colonies. They also spread by a different seeding method. Flowers near the soil surface that never really open, called cleistogamous or non-opening, self-pollinating, shoot seeds out to establish a new colony away from the parent. For more info on this fascinating plant do have a peep at the link here: https://awkwardbotany.com/2020/07/08/the-hidden-flowers-of-viola/

For me, violets are an unexpected gift from life, quite other than I imagined them to be. Perfumes rarely capture the true beauty of a scent, and this is one where the synthetic perfumes associated with the flower fall very short of the reality. Yardley have always produced a violet perfume; in my childhood and until fairly recently, it was very much the classic Parma violets sort of scent. But recently it was reformulated (to various online wails of protest, because it left behind the very sickly-sweet variant) and is far closer now to the mossy, green, and ethereal odour of sweet violets in a hidden nook. Guerlain does two perfumes that have violet at the heart, Apres L’Ondee, and Insolence, if you wanted to push the boat out as they both cost a hefty amount more than the very modest Yardley offering.

Another treasure you need to get close to to appreciate its extraordinary beauty is moss. In the last year especially, I’ve found myself assailed by more anxiety attacks and even panic attacks, than for many years. Purely by chance, I found a grounding method that works for me, and that is when I feel that rising tidal wave of panic, I look for moss. Even in the centre of Norwich, there is moss to be found. It sits on old stone walls as little tussocks of velvet; it hides between paving slabs and on rooftops. The purity of the greenness is soothing and calming; the texture is often soft and reassuring. The closer you look, the more you see. Little fronds uncurling, tiny flowering stems extending into the cold air, often holding beads of dew or rain like jewels being shyly but proudly held out for your admiration. Lichens too will draw my eye; these lowly beings are a scientific marvel and mystery, being not individuals but rather communities working in harmony for the good of all. Made up of fungi, bacteria, algae, lichens are everywhere, some only where the air is clean and pure. I’m currently reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book on fungi Entangled Life which has a chapter on lichens; it’s a revelation how little we yet know about lichens and fungi, and the discoveries are already challenging how we see life as a whole.

Today is Epiphany, the day when the Magi brought their gifts to the Christ-child, named as gold, frankincense and myrrh, and it seems fitting that I have brought you a few gifts too, of violets and of moss, of things you need to get close to the earth to begin to appreciate, maybe even on your knees to even see, and start to ponder on the need for humility in its truest meaning (that of being close to the earth).

Epiphany Sermon-the baptism of Christ

Another “guest post” from my husband.  By the way, he’s not twisting my arm to post these, it’s more the other way round; I feel they need to be read by more people than the average congregation holds.    

Isaiah 42:1-9 ¶ Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 ¶ Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. 8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Acts 10.34-43 34 ¶ Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Matthew 3:13 ¶ Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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Do you remember your baptism? I don’t and I suspect most of you won’t. You were probably a baby at the time. But whether or not you remember the water, the effects are with you now. The power of baptism is eternal. It’s batteries never run out. It never needs re-charging or re-doing.

This was a big thing when I was at college training for the priesthood. Some of my fellow students wanted to remember their baptism like those who are baptised as adults can. They also wanted the experience of full immersion baptism.  

The college though was against this. The previous principle had even promised to expel anyone that had themselves re-baptised. 

You see this isn’t an issue about a good spiritual experience. Something to strengthen the faith. This is about trusting in God’s promises and in His eternal power. 

By being re-baptised they were in effect saying that their first baptism hadn’t worked. That God’s action was somehow deficient because they were not aware of what was going on at the time. It was about a lack of trust in God and a complete lack of faith in His Church. 

But that leads to the question of why so much fuss over a bit of water or a quick dip in a swimming pool?

Well by our baptism we are full members of God’s church. All of God’s promises are claimed by us, or for us if we are a little baby. From that moment onwards God is with us, working in us. We are part of the Church everywhere. And not just the Church of England, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches also accept your baptism. Sadly, that can sometimes be one of the few things we end up agreeing on! 

In baptism you are spiritually joined to Jesus. You share in his baptism, crucifixion and resurrection. 

So God is in you and with you; a part of you. But let’s get back to those fellow students of mine at theological college, good people, that wanted an experience. They were wrong – but I can sympathise. 

They were committing their lives, and those of their immediate family, to the service of God’s church. They had given up their jobs, careers, home and familiar church family. They were in a strange college. They had faith but they were weak, like all of us and like me. They were also anxious, and in need of reassurance. They wanted some sign or at least some experience that would calm their nerves. A powerful spiritual experience that would help see them through the years to come. 

They, like me and I suspect like you, had faith but also like each of us, they probably had doubts, sleepless nights and worries about the future.  

I know this is true for me, all of the time. I have faith, I trust but I also have doubts and fears. And the more important the situation the greater my temptation to doubt. 

I believe, (Lord) help my unbelief”! This should be my motto! It is the words of the father of a sick child to Jesus, recorded in Mark 9:23: “I believe, (Lord) help my unbelief”!  

This is what the experience of the Christian faith is about. What it is really about. It is a struggle between belief and unbelief. Sometimes it is easy to believe, things may be going well. Church is good, people are getting along and life feels good. 

Then without warning our belief seems less solid. We are tempted to stop our illogical belief. This is particularly strong when things go wrong. When we are ill, lose someone close to us, or our job… the list goes on and on. We are knocked off balance. All our sure belief seems to vanish like a mirage. But God is there. Like with baptism, He is eternal, all powerful and he never gives up, even with us; even with me! 

Now this is not to say that doubt is a bad thing. I think it is essential for the growth of a healthy faith. But that is for a different sermon on another day, perhaps the Feast of St. Thomas.  

Doubt may not be wrong but unbelief, the feeling of our faith crumbling, can be destructive. It can destroy us. Particularly when we pretend to ourselves that it isn’t happening. That is why that cry to God, “I believe, help my unbelief!” is so important. We admit our weakness. And turn to God for strength. We turn to him even when it seems as though he is not there at all.  

When I resigned my living 4 ½ years ago. I left because I was disgusted by the way the church organisation was treating people. I had given my life to the church but I could no longer continue to serve it. It was a dark time. But facing my unbelief in God’s ability to work through an, Oh so fallible church, was a first step to seeing how I may be able to serve again. I may be coming out the other side again.  

And you are part of that. Bishop Graham, bishop Richard, Fr. Roger, the people at Corton and you here in this Church, have all helped. You were one of God’s answers to my cry, “I believe, help my unbelief”. 

That simple cry is one small step out of our unbelief, our fear and our doubts.  

So, “I believe, (Lord) help my unbelief”.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.