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Rembrandt paints the prophetessHallo again to all.

This Eastertide we've noticed more than usual the unplanned sounds around us during the liturgy: the occasional siren of an ambulance outside, the howl of wind outside the church's walls, the rustle of lozenge-wrappers, and the creaking of pews. One almost never hears these sounds in professional recordings of church music, and sound engineers even seem to be able to manage to muffle most of them in radio broadcasts of live services. Yet they are the auditory substance that tell us we're participating in worship in the flesh, rather than just enjoying an echo of it through earphones.

Today we sat in front of an elderly woman—call her Hannah or Anna, if you like—who now experiences the liturgy more through sound, touch, smell and taste rather than through sight. Like those ancient prophetesses, she is constant in her attendance at the temple; her spiritual sight is sharp indeed though her eyes have become dim. For such a person, our printed service leaflet is not very useful, even in its large-print version.

We noticed today for the first time in our new attention to sounds with sources outside the chancel that our Hannah-Anna speaks every word of the liturgy in a voice just above a whisper. She says the words appointed for the celebrant, and the words appointed for the congregation. During the long sections of the service designated for the priest alone, she still soldiers on, following with her quiet speech all of the words of the Canon and other parts of the service never spoken by people not in holy orders.

Far from being anything like a breach of order and decency, Hannah-Anna's perfect verbal attention to the liturgy is the fruit of a life lived in, by and with the Prayer Book. She was born on an island in the West Indies, christened, catechized, confirmed, shriven, communed, married and churched according to one of the finest traditions Anglicanism has to offer. And, better than most, she has internalised it all, engraving the solemn words of our common prayer onto her mind so much that she no longer needs a book to follow along. She reminds us of the older members of religious orders who have memorised the entirety of the Psalter—becoming, in effect, living Psalters who move and have their being within the sacred page.

It is God's close friends, people such as our neighbour at church today—who are least served by and most betrayed by weblogs and church commissions or conferences—whose carbon footprints and sartorial budgets put most of us to shame—for whom we give thanks on this fine Sunday of the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him. We hope someday to be like them, with God's help but no merit of our own. Until time has brought us to that blessed place from which Hannah-Anna lifts up her hands in the sanctuary to bless the Lord, we intend to keep the buildings around us standing up, the heating-bills paid, and the Prayer Books in print. It is a small work to provide for the needs of those holy folk whose prayers prop us up and show us the way to that

Blessed city, heavenly Salem,
Vision dear of peace and love,
Who of living stones art builded
In the height of heav'n above,
And, with angel hosts encircled,
As a bride dost earthward move.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 13 April 2008

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