Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
- Chaucer, Geoffrey The Canterbury Tales ed. Robinson, F.N. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 1961. (P.17. lines 1-4).
The above four lines introduce The Canterbury Tales, a great literary work by the fourteenth century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The Tales are a series of stories told by various people on a religious pilgrimage. The people are identified by their occupations, so that we have The Knight's Tale, the Man of Law's Tale, the Merchant's Tale, and so on. Altogether, they create a fascinating portrait of the people and customs of the time. The above four lines might be translated as:
When April with its sweet showers
The drought of March has pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such moisture,
Of which virtue engendered is the flower;
You knew it all along, didn't you? Middle English is like that; at first you are a bit confused by it, but then, after looking up various words in the glossary you realize "Of course! That's what it means." You realize also that Middle English has a certain charm to it. Certainly when Chaucer is narrating, he uses language to demonstrate a gentleness or kindness, even as he dissects human nature and all its follies.
When the Parson is asked to relate a tale, he at first demurs:
Thou getest fable noon ytold for me;
For Paul, that writeth unto Thymothee,
Repreveth hem that weyvan soothfastnesse,
And tellen fables and swich wrecchdnesse.
Why sholde I sowen draf out of my fest,
When I may sowen whete, if that me lest? (Page 228, lines 31-36).
You'll get no fable from me
For, as Paul writes to Timothy,
He criticizes those who abandon truth,
And who tell fables and wretched nonsense.
Why should I sow chaff out of my fist,
When I may sow wheat if I wish?
Out of biblical obedience, the Parson does not want tell a frivolous tale.
Like any good preacher, however, he is glad to have an audience. He offers to tell a "myrie tale in prose" (l.46) which will in fact turn out to be an extended sermon on the seven deadly sins. It is an extremely well organized and comprehensive dissertation and is thought to have its origins in works by theological scholars (page 16). A partial example of this sermon is as follows:
For Crist seith: "Loveth youre enemys,
And preyeth for hem that speke yow harm, and eek for hem
That yow chacen and pursewen, and dooth bounty to hem
That yow haten." Loo, thus commandeth us oure Lord
Jhesu Crist to do to oure enemys. For soothly, nature
Driveth us to loven oure freendes, and parfey, our enemys
Han moore need to love than our freendes; and they that
Moore need have, certes to hem shall men doon goodnesse;
And certes, in thilke dede have we remembraunce of the love
Of Jhesu Crist that deyde for his enemys.
The beautiful message that we should love our enemies comes shining through the fog of archaic words like sunshine through a spring shower.
What better verses are there to meditate upon, therefore, than Matthew 5:44-48? Turning to the English Standard Version for biblical clarity we read:
"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
The message is beautiful, but a thousand protests may cloud our brains when we contemplate these words. We know we are not perfect; how can we be held to the same standard as God? This is nevertheless the ideal for which we must strive. It would be an impossible dilemma if we did not remember that we are not saved by anything we do but by the sacrifice of Christ:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16).
We may therefore constantly be reminded of our imperfections, and strive always to improve, without despairing at the seeming impossibility of the task. The water of life, the Word of God, can flow through our veins and bring forth the flower of virtue.
In faith and fellowship,