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A Sermon delivered at St Matthew's Church, Northampton,
5 May 1946

First published as Five Sermons by Laymen, 1946
Matthew 11.28. 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'


"When I came into this church for the first time in my life, which was yesterday evening - coming in by that South West door over there - I wanted to go down on my knees. For this is the sort of church which brings you to your knees. These soaring vistas of pale stone arches, the superb proportion of window to wall space, the delicacy of much of the detail from the profound, primitive simplicity of Henry Moore's Madonna and Child, to the lace-like tracery of this beautiful wrought-iron chancel screen, the way the genius of Holding, the architect, leads your eye to the high altar there below the flashing jewels of the East Window, that altar where the Greatest


Mystery in the World happens Sunday after Sunday, and where, as we who try to be Christians try to believe, the Creator of the world, of the universe, of the trees and birds in the road outside, of the stones which Holding used to build the church, of the bones which help you sit upright in your seats tonight, where the Maker of our souls and minds, our very selves becomes present to hear our needs and answer our prayers in accordance with His Will - as I thought of all these things I did indeed want to fall on my knees and thank God for the beauty which man has made to the Glory of God in St Matthew's."


"Then as I joined with you in worship at the great mystery of Holy Communion this morning, I realized that it was more than mere aesthetic beauty which made me want to kneel and which made me lower my voice as I entered the church last night. For this is a building which has been loved and prayed in. Your prayers, particularly at the Holy Communion, have soaked its stones in worship and have made St Matthew's a place where it is easy for a stranger to humble himself before God, to ask Him questions and to wait, in the reverent stillness of the congregation at the beautiful singing of 'O Lamb of God', for His answer. And I asked - what can I possibly tell these people, who come to church in such numbers, who have a beautiful building and the advantages of the full sacraments - what can I possibly tell them which will help? So please do not think of me as some special sort of person, a layman who is nearly a clergyman or any kind of expert in theology. I don't feel I ought to be in this pulpit. I would much rather one of you were here preaching instead of me. But since I am here, the best thing I can do is to expound my particular problems and what has helped me to solve them."


"I feel sometimes that it is very hard to believe in God. And sometimes I envy those who have never had any doubt. I mean, I say to myself, can it really be true that nineteen hundred and forty-six years ago a child was born to a Jewish peasant woman, and this child was the very God who made the sun, the moon, the stars, this earth with me on it and all the spiders, alligators and everything else? And did this child grow to be a man, was He crucified, did He rise from the dead and send His Holy Spirit down to dwell in His Church? And there, where that light is twinkling through the iron screen in the Lady Chapel, nearly 2,000 years later, is that where He is Himself present in the form of consecrated bread and wine? When I worship with you at Mass I know it is true. And those moments when I know this is true remain in the memory so that doubt is dispelled. And because this is true, because the Creator of the World is present in this church and in thousands and thousands of others raised by the faith of so short a time as the last 2,000 years - because this is true, then nothing else is so important."


"Nothing else. Saints and far cleverer men than I have believed this, and so I will myself. It is no longer fashionable to be an atheist. And if it were not true, if the universe were an inexplicable accident, there is no point in anything. We would all have to go on living on this earth as long as possible, forever if we could, for there would be nothing afterwards. And if you read advertisements for medicines, breakfast foods and what not, you would think the people who write the lies about them really believed that we will live forever by gargling with TCP every night or eating Shredded Wheat in the morning. But you know and I know that somewhere in some builder's yard or at a saw mill or in virgin forest there is wood waiting and somewhere else screws are being made which will come together to make our coffins. To make your coffin, the coffin of the only person who is really you. And it is a very healthy thought - not a bit morbid - a very healthy thought, the thought of death. For it stops you worrying too much about those things of this world that don't really matter. Death makes me at any rate long to believe in God and to know, as we heard in the Gospel this morning, that He is the Good Shepherd."


"But now here's the difficulty of a layman like me who has to work for his living. And I expect it is the same for most of you. The world is too much with us. Last week I heard the parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Education make a speech. He said there was a cultural breakdown in Europe. Cultural breakdown! There's more than that. We live in mechanical barbarism, not in civilization at all. Nearly all of us are doing jobs which take up too much time so that we cannot get home, our wives are worked off their heads and are too tired to be cheerful when they see us. We earn money in office or factory simply to earn the right not to have to work all our lives. Our work is either too manual or too much office work. Our lives are unbalanced. He is either a very lucky man or a man wholly deadened by the social system who has a job today which gives him so much pleasure that he looks forward to returning to work after a holiday."


"Think of the man working on a chain belt. Poor feller! He tightens a nut as it comes along on the belt. He gets adept at this and in case he should go mad or become careless, he is now and then allowed to tighten another sort of nut by way of variation. He will probably be doing it all next week to the accompaniment of music while he works and possibly his wife may be working somewhere else while the children are farmed out in a community crèche to play with the psychological toys. And when the day is over the man will bicycle back down treeless roads to his sleeping box and his food will come out of a tin and his music will come out of a wireless set and his opinions will be given to him in the newspaper. We let machines run our lives. We listen but we do not sing; we read, but we do not write; we feel, but we do not think; we buy, but we do not make; we judge things by money standards because money buys us escape from the roaring lunacy around us. We escape to see games which we do not play, towns where we do not live; lives, in screen and play, which are not our own. We escape from one vacuum into another. 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' "


"And here comes the point of all I have been saying to you. 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' That does not mean a rest in a deck chair when the grass is mown or a rest by the seaside, it means the true rest in the Lord. It means the faculty for not being worried by the world, for being able to distinguish good from evil; it means the calm of those really good people you know and everyone of us here can think of one or two among our friends or relations."


"There is only one way of finding this true rest and that is by prayer. Let me make a suggestion to you, and forgive me as a layman for making it."


"Supposing every day this coming week every person here goes into a church, this church if you like, and kneels before the altar or before the Blessed Sacrament where our Lord lives more intensely than anywhere else. Ask for the faith to believe that He is there, put yourself into the presence of the Creator of the World who loves you by saying 'In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost'. Wait and listen. All kinds of things may distract you: people talking; an argument going on in your head; the thought of some lying advertisement; buses changing gear outside; aeroplanes roaring; gradually a silence will be caverned out of the noise and you are in the Presence of God. Even if you can't believe this, go and try, the effort to believe will help you. And then say the Lord's Prayer slowly three times. Once thinking of your friends, once thinking of your enemies, once thinking of all those in the world who are doing disinterested acts of kindness in their fellow creatures whether they are Christians or not."


"Then when you have done this each day for a week, you will want to do it for another week. It should not take you more than five minutes a day. Believe me, this is the way to find true rest, the real calm sense of proportion in this roaring world where we are watching the slow changeover from the agricultural to the industrial age. God's time is not our time. Do not worry about that. He will settle your problems for you, if you listen to Him and pray. And while you are about it, thank God for the priests and people who keep His churches alive. There where the light twinkles in the Lady Chapel and daily on the altar our Lord says, 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' "


Reproduced by permission of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
and © the Estate of Sir John Betjeman 2011
Published in 'Betjeman on Faith, and anthology of his religious prose' by Kevin J Gardner
SPCK 2011
ISBN 978-0-281-06416-8

Images: Statue of Sir John Betjeman at St Pancras station by Sarah Smith; St Matthew’s Church, Northampton by Alison Barr.

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