Monmouth Priory tapestry, Geoffrey of Monmouth, modelled on Fr. James Coutts

I have only now learned of the death, over a year ago, of Fr. James Coutts, former vicar of St. Mary’s, Monmouth. The news brings a rush of memories of a most gentle and saintly man, and a reminder of a debt.

I can’t remember when we first saw Fr. Coutts: if it was in the lane at the Old Church in Penallt—he and his wife Stevie offering us a lift after morning prayer—or if it was not until we heard him preach at compline in Wednesday of Holy Week that year. This was neither at Monmouth, nor at the Penallt church, nor yet at Trellech, where Fr. Coutts, in retirement, sometimes officiated, but at the chapel of Ty Mawr, the convent of the Society of the Sacred Cross at Lydart, in the countryside near Monmouth.

The service, late at night, as the ancient office of compline would be, left a deep impression, not least for Fr. Coutts’s sermon, on the theme of Mary’s suffering. An exposition of this catholic devotion of such psychological and spiritual penetration, and intellectual humility, sharpened by the atmosphere of the hour, the season, the cloistered sisters in the little chapel choir, I remembered it, and spoke about it some while after, with a young Canadian woman of our acquaintance, a novice at Ty Mawr. She said she could get her hands on a typescript of this sermon and would I like to see it.

From that moment the idea for Luggas Wood was born. The romance (a rather better designation than novel) is a Marian fantasy in which are figured a Jewish artist, an Arab teacher of creative writing, a band of pilgrims, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary herself, the whole a superstructure or scaffolding built around the bright fire of Fr. Coutts’s brief homily.

I transcribed it from the badly-typed flimsy our friend supplied and stuck it in the place in the plot where there would be such a sermon, meaning eventually to write something else. By the time I had finished a draft, however, it was clear to me I was incapable of improving or replacing or even re-imagining the sermon other than as it was.

I wrote to Fr. Coutts and explained my dilemma. I said I would either drop the whole project, or, with his permission, use the sermon and credit him in the published work. I enclosed a copy of an early draft, and some other work of mine, and waited to hear back.

His reply, written in longhand on one of those long-gone postage-paid air-letters you scribbled on sideways and over the flaps and everywhere, was only the first in what became a regular if infrequent correspondence. His position on the sermon was firm: I had to use it as I wished, and was on no account to mention his name, a charge which I have honoured until now.

He introduced me to the poetry of David Jones. He suggested I get in touch with the Canadian scholar of Jones’s works, Thomas Dilworth, which I did. He gently chided me for having his fictional counterpart in Luggas Wood host a dinner party on the eve of Easter Sunday (a terrible solecism, Holy Saturday being a most solemn fast). He thought my Yellow Room a better novel than Luggas Wood. He never addressed me otherwise than as Professor. On a later visit to Wales we were entertained at The Reynolds, James and Stevie Coutts’s beautiful rural retreat.

I print here in his memory a passage from Fr. James Coutts’s sermon for the service of compline on Wednesday of Holy Week, 2005, Ty Mawr:

There is the silence of an ineffable experience that is life-giving, and that will, in the future, be somehow, fruitful. And there is the silence before the ineffability of love. There is the silence of a love (a love that is humble, that serves), that continues to give itself away. From these kinds of silence we may begin to discern the silence of God, present in everything that God creates—the stones, the flowers, the trees, the animals, the planets (le silence éternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraie), other human beings, present even in pain. When we begin to hear that silence, becoming part of that silence, that communion of love, then indeed we are beginning to hear the silence of God, present in all things, in all people, calling to us, enveloping us in love.