At the end of 1938, Edith Stein was moved from her monastery in Cologne to the Carmel of Echt in Holland. Her superiors hoped that, there, she would be less exposed to Nazi persecution. She had, however, as a Jew, to report in person to the occupying forces. Turning up at HQ in Maastricht, she was struck by its ordinariness. It was just a busy office like any other busy office, full of girls with typewriters, their minds half on the work in hand, half on their evening engagement. How deceptively innocuous is the bureaucracy of evil! Edith’s discomfort grew while she waited. It reached its pitch when she was summoned to appear before officers of the Gestapo, whose standard greeting was, ‘Heil Hitler!’ Edith promptly declared, ‘Praised be Jesus Christ!’ She later told her prioress she knew this response could be perceived as an outright provocation, but she could do nothing else. Then and there, she said, she was intensely conscious of being caught up in the age-old battle between Jesus and Lucifer. May we likewise have the wisdom to recognise the terms of this battle, the courage to step forward to the front when we are called, the grace to let Jesus work his victory through us. For his strength is made perfect in our weakness if only we place that weakness unreservedly at his disposal.
Beyond the Trivial
In an insightful review of a book I think I’m unlikely to read, Rowan William provides a throw-away, elegant definition of poetry. ‘Poetry’, he says, ‘is language so constructed that it lets us see beyond the trivial, exploitative, weaponized uses of words that are deafeningly present around us.’
The word ‘weaponised’ is unexpected, but it is spot on. It recalls me to this morning’s Vigils reading from the Book of Hosea: ‘Provide yourself with words and come back to the Lord’ (14:2).
It is a great and urgent civilising task to redeem words that have been taken hostage for violent purposes, to liberate them and enable them to metamorphose into praise, the highest, noblest form of free expression.
‘The faith of God in us makes, every now and then, one of us come true. And then a heart is rhymed to the very beat of God, a mind to truth, and a mouth to gospel, wooing the matter of humanity to God.’ I find these lines, written by Fr Simon Tugwell, printed as an epigraph to a fine new edition of the Dominican Libellus Precum published by the English Province of the Order last year. Fr Tugwell continues: ‘Such a man was Dominic, messenger of God’s love, a carrier of his infinite pain and hope, a hurricane and a haven, hurling torrents of peace through the civilised corridors of comfortable half-truths, of plump correctness and wizened zeal; to dwellers in ancient darkness long familiar, a disturbing possibility of day.’
May it please God to raise up men and women of such stature also now.
Rilke on Joy
‘These things have I spoken unto you’, says Christ in the Gospel, ‘that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full’ (Jn 15:11). Joy, like peace, is a criterion of authenticity in spiritual discernment. It matters, then, to distinguish it clearly. On 31.01.1914 Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to Ilse Erdmann: ‘The reality of any joy in the world is indescribable; only in joy does creation take place (happiness, on the contrary, is only a promising, intelligible constellation of things already there); joy is a marvellous increasing of what exists, a pure addition out of nothingness. How superficially must happiness engage us, after all, if it can leave us time to think and worry about how long it will last. Joy is a moment, free of obligation, timeless from the beginning, not to be held but also not to be truly lost again, since under its impact our being is changed chemically, so to speak, and does not only, as may be the case with happiness, savour and enjoy itself in a new mixture.’
St Jean-Marie Vianney was an inspired pastor. The great message he conveyed concerned the Christian call to holiness, indeed, to divinisation. For Vianney it was axiomatic that the Christian is called to share in the very life of God. The tragedy of sin lay, for him, in the fact that it impedes the divine life in man and thus keeps him from his finality, the goal for which he is made, making it impossible for him to be truly happy. Consider a statement such as the following, from one of Vianney’s sermons: ‘Like a lovely white dove which emerges from the midst of the waters and comes to rustle its wings upon the earth, the Holy Spirit sets out from the infinite sea of divine perfections to come and agitate its wings upon souls that are pure, to impart to them the balm of love.’ Couldn’t we, in our day and age, do with rather more exposure to this message?
My main musical discovery this summer has been a recording released in 1972 of Zuzana Růžičková (1927-2017) and Josef Suk (1929-2011) playing Bach’s sonatas for harpsichord and violin. Suk and Růžičková introduce the listener into a wholly new, often surprising sonorous universe. Their interpretation is marked by intelligence, rigour, and (to use that unfashionable word) virility. Quiet passages resound with an almost unbearable tenderness free of appeal to superficial sentiment. The two communicate this music as an essential statement. They play Bach as if their lives depended on it.
When you read up a little about Růžičková, you find that hers literally did, in extreme circumstances. Her existence was deeply marked by Europe’s twentieth-century traumas, yet she seems to have been without bitterness. I recommend Peter Getzels’ cinematic portrait of this remarkable musician, available here – or on Medici.
Ashamed of our Face
In her fine 1997 series on the history of painting, Sister Wendy Beckett marvelled before the murals of Lascaux: ‘All these animals are beautiful. And centuries ago, when there was room on earth for all of us, how humankind must have yearned to be strong and beautiful, free, innocent — all the things that they were not, and we are not; and perhaps that’s why they made these images secretly in the earth, to honour the animals?’ Before the same murals, three decades earlier, Zbigniew Herbert had wondered at the comparatively inadequate, often disguised representation of man: ‘Man destroyed the order of nature by his thought and labour. He craved a new discipline through a sequence of self-imposed prohibitions. He was ashamed of his face, a visible sign of difference. He often wore masks, animal masks, as if trying to appease his own treason. When he wanted to appear graceful and strong, he became a beast. He returned to his origins lovingly submerged in the warm womb of nature.’ I wonder: are we not weirdly witnessing, now, a similar kind of retreat behind a similar kind of mask, inspired by a similar kind of shame?
Never More Bishop
What’s a bishop for? The list of answers is long. Ideally he should be all things to all people! Still, something basic is expressed in this account that features in Martin Mosebach’s important book, The 21.
‘In Wadi-Natrum, in one of the ancient monasteries which had grown into new greatness, it was announced to me that the very elderly Abbot, also a Bishop, would appear. A small door opened, and there was the old man, his gaze dreamingly absent. He stood up straight, but was visibly already resident in another world, with staff and cross in hand. Could he sense the lips that touched the back of his hand? His gestures of blessing were faint; still, he must have been conscious of the presence of the faithful. Never was he more a bishop than just then, nothing but the vessel of a more exalted will.’
Sigrid Undset wrote of St Olav, patron saint of our diocese and country: ‘Saint Olav was the seed our Lord chose to sow in Norway’s earth because it was well suited to the weather here and to the quality of the soil.’ What makes his story so compelling is the fact that we can follow, step by step, the work of grace in his life. Olav was not a ready-made saint; he began adult life as a viking mercenary. Though through his encounter with Christ in the Church, through decisive sojourns in Rouen and Kyiv, then his final, dramatic return to Norway, where he died a martyr, supernatural light gradually took hold of him and suffused him, radiant in his body even after death. The feast of St Olav is kept on 29 July. Should you wish to follow our triduum of celebrations, beginning this evening, you can find access here. A good account of St Olav’s life is available here.
Prayer & Poetry
At vespers tonight, the feast of Sts Joachim and Anne, I was struck by the Magnificat antiphon. The text is familiar, but it was as if I read it for the first time: ‘Inclita stirps Iesse virgam produxit amoenam, de qua processit flos miro plenus odore’ (The glorious stem of Jesse brought forth a lovely shoot from which proceeded a flower replete with wondrous scent’). The repeated dactyls produce a pleasing rhythm moving towards the restful syllable ‘flos’, which is a way of conveying, without clunky commentary, that the feast is not primarily about the individuals named but about the fruit of their union, whose whole existence was oriented towards Christ. The noun ‘virga’ (‘shoot’) suggests ‘virgo’ (virgin). The image used to describe her Child indicates the important Pauline theme of Christ’s fragrance (2 Cor 2:15). More could be said about the choice of words. These riches are contained in a single, humble line. Why did it impress me so? Because it is so unlike many newer liturgical prayers, which read like announcements in morning assembly. Is one reason behind the trouble we have integrating our liturgical past a loss of poetry?
An existential question in the middle of urban traffic.
Sorrow and Joy
The liturgy honours St Mary Magdalene, first witness to the resurrection, with the title Apostle to the Apostles. What equipped her for this? The perseverance and courage that enabled her, at a point when all her hopes were shattered, she who had so often been let down, just to remain, wait, and weep. She did not run away from grief. She did not seek distraction from it. Nor did she lock herself within it, indulgently. She touched its core, simply and deeply, and was thus prepared to recognise the presence she sought not in front of her (where she had expected it) but behind her, where she could have sworn it must be someone else’s.
It is hard to sustain sorrow. But sometimes there is no other way to encounter joy.
In a beautiful, elegiac tract, Yoshida Kenkō (c.1283-c.1352) reflects on the transience of earthly things, counselling detachment. He take delight, though, in encounters. ‘What happiness to sit in intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of this world … but such a friend is hard to find, and instead you sit there doing your best to fit in with whatever the other is saying, feeling deeply alone.’
Even in such cases there is a remedy within everyone’s reach: ‘It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met’ — yet nonetheless do meet somehow through the medium of the book.
With characteristic lucidity, Eivor Oftestad analyses a recent documentary on surrogate parenthood. We assume we know what the parental-filial social contract consists in. She helpfully highlights the extent to which it is conditioned by changing circumstances:
‘Our understanding of what a child is cannot be taken for granted. It reflects, at any time, conditions and notions prevalent in cultural paradigms. An agrarian society understood the begetting of children as generation. The industrial society was inclined to regard it as production. Today, in a consumerist society that hardly permits experiences of deferred need, it is increasingly seen in terms of acquisition – and everything, as we know, can be acquired if we pay for it.’
Do we think in terms of being given children or of getting them? The question really matters.
In today’s Vigils reading, St Ignatius of Antioch (ad Magn. 1-5) develops a motif typical of early Christian writings. It is the image, rooted in Deuteronomy 30:19, of the two ways between which each human being must choose. ‘All things have an end, and two things, life and death, are side by side set before us, and each man will go to his own place. Just as there are two coinages, one of God and the other of the world, each with its own image, so unbelievers bear the image of this world, and those who have faith with love bear the image of God the Father through Jesus Christ. Unless we are ready through his power to die in the likeness of his passion, his life is not in us.’
Living as we are in a world of endlessly blurred boundaries, this perspective challenges us. It is a salutary challenge. We need the testimony of brave women and men who choose life. It isn’t an easy option; it will, as Ignatius says, bear the mark of Christ’s passion. But it will be a function of truth, and the truth sets us free.
I have long pondered a statement made by Bonhoeffer in Resistance and Resignation. At first I thought it was rhetorical hyperbole; now I no longer think so. ‘Stupidity is a more dangerous foe to the good than wickedness. One can protest against evil. Evil can be exposed. It can even, in extremities, be fought against with violent means. Evil always carries the seed of its own decomposition and at any rate calls forth unease in human beings. Against stupidity we are defenceless. Here we can do nothing whether by protest or by force. Reasoning has no effect. Objective facts that go against the grain of one’s prejudice are dismissed – in such cases the stupid person reveals critical faculties. If the facts simply can’t be overlooked, they will be sidelined as singular cases void of consequence. In acting thus, the stupid – in contrast to the evil – person is wholly pleased with him or herself; indeed he or she becomes dangerous, easily provoked to attack. Greater care, then, is called for in confronting stupidity than in confronting wickedness.’
Of course, the stupidity Bonhoeffer speaks of is not incompatible with considerable intelligence. What’s lacking is prudence.
I know nothing of the surgeon Thomas Prickett beyond what is recorded on this plaque in a thirteenth-century church on the Isle of Wight. But what is stated there is enough.
I’d say one can be counted blessed who is remembered as having lived ‘a life of extensive usefulness’ to others. Indeed we could do with a revival, Europewide, of aspirations to public service. Mr Prickett not only lived well. He also died well, ‘with piety and resignation’. And this he learnt to do in no more than thirty years of existence.
He must have been a good man. May he rest in peace.
Coram Fratribus will take a holiday for a couple of weeks.
Thank you for your interest in the site!
I wish you a pleasant summer.
Having visited the Józef Czapski Pavilion in Cracow last September, I was keen to learn more about this extraordinary writer and painter. Czapski’s little book on Proust, Lost Time, is a marvel: the text came into being as lectures given to fellow inmates in a Soviet prison camp. Eric Karpeles’ life of Czapski, Almost Nothing, is also highly readable. A fine portrait not only of a man, but of an age.
A contribution to The Tablet’s recommendations for Summer Reading.
Last week, Abbess Christiana Reemts offered this compact reflection:
‘Earlier, people would say, “I don’t believe in God” or, “I am an atheist”. Now we’re more likely to hear, “Spirituality matters a great deal to me.” What is intended is often the same.’
It is a standing joke in Italy that many of the country’s structures don’t work. What does work is the effective transmission of culture. One stumbles across ancient remnants everywhere, of course. But that isn’t all. Italians remain conscious of being heirs to a great civilisation. This heritage is taught in school, discussed in the media, fostered in excellent museums. It isn’t just about looking back to a glorious past. It’s about positioning oneself in the present. When I walked past this newsagent’s window one day last week, a copy of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War was on display. I enjoyed seeing it. When I went back the next day to photograph it, it was gone: someone had bought it. But a book about Athens and Sparta was there instead, in among the romantic novels and autobiographies of athletes. With Europe in a state of anxious transformation, really under threat, more of us could benefit from revisiting the foundations of our civilisation, reminding ourselves of the history and core meaning of notions like ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘tyranny’, etc. We need to galvanise our sense of what is worth defending, and why.
Grace to Receive
The ordination of deacons concludes with the traditio evangelii. The bishop hands the newly ordained a book of the Gospel, then addresses to him this exhortation:
Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Take care that you believe what you read, that you teach what you believe, and that you fashion your life according to what you teach.
A causal chain is indicated here. It absolutely presupposes the first element: Reading the Gospel as it is given us, not as we might like to rewrite it.
Mouth of Truth
The Bocca della verità outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin is one of Rome’s best known landmarks. It features significantly in that immortal film, Roman Holiday, but its history reaches back far beyond celluloid into the mists of history. The story goes that any liar who places a hand in its mouth will have it bitten off. In daylight, the round face looks pleasant enough. The legend attaching to it seems a bit of a joke. Illumined at night by a strange yellow light, the effect is different. The monument looks lunar, sinister, cruel. It makes me reflect that truth on its own, detached from virtue, can have an aspect that is vindictive and destructive. To be life-giving, truth must be suffused with humanitas, which to the ancients was a way of expressing ‘compassion’. The truth, said St Paul, must be enacted in love (Eph 4:15). Detached from love, it risk being marked by the the old titan’s features: an indiscreet, cold, incurious stare and a voracious mouth.
Friday’s terrible shooting in Oslo is yet another indication — as if we needed more — of the breakdown of conversation in our society. Culturally, the West is pulled in different directions. With certain tendencies we may be in deep disagreement. Yet to seek to annihilate difference, to point a gun (be it rhetorical) at those who embody difference, is perverse. It is time to recover the use of logos, reasoned speech. It is time to be on our guard against discourse sprung from anger. Macarius the Great said: ‘If while correcting another you are carried away by anger, you are feeding your own passion. Yet you mustn’t destroy yourself to save another.’ Today’s Gospel is relevant. Faced with the insult of a Samaritan village that refused to let Jesus in, James and John proposed to ‘call down fire from heaven to burn them up’. The Lord ‘turned and rebuked them’. An ancient Gospel manuscript adds the content of his rebuke: ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them’ (Luke 9:51-5)
No contribution to the World Meeting of Families has received more attention in the secular press (here, for instance) than that of Daniel and Leila Abdallah, a Maronite Australian couple. Their talk called forth a strong response in the aula, too. We all, thousands of us, rose to our feet in tribute to their testimony. The two spoke of pardon. They know more about its cost than most, having lost four children in a terrible accident caused by a drunk, drugged driver on 1 February 2020. The Abdallahs’ Christian response to their loss has had a massive impact in Australia, resulting in the institution of a National Day of Forgiveness. The work of grace in the couple’s life is palpable. Yet they insisted that pardon first of all requires a will to forgive. ‘Forgiveness’, said Leila, ‘is a choice you make’. Daniel added: ‘I had to forgive so that my family would not be imprisoned in the trauma of that night.’ It is precious to be reminded with such simplicity, such authority that no interior prison sentence needs to be final.
Gigi De Palo and Anna Chiara Gambini spoke today of discovering, four years ago, that their newborn son, Giorgio Maria, had Down’s. There and then, in hospital, they looked at each other, said Gigi, ‘with complicity’, exchanging a glance in which the whole history of their love was contained. And embraced with joy the child given them. They spoke unsentimentally about the struggle it involves to raise a child gifted in this way, but it is, Anna Chiara insisted, a light struggle – ‘Una fatica leggera’. In objective terms it has weight, yet the heaviness is lifted by the love circulating between parents and child, and drawn forth in others. We were told about Giorgio Maria’s singular ability to enable others to respond to him with love. The presentation amounted to an empirical validation of Christ’s saying, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’. The yokes and burdens we carry can seem overwhelmingly our own, yet they can become his, so eased and lightened, if we call his loving presence into them.
This evening the World Meeting of Families began in Rome. What impressed me most was the testimony of Paul and Germaine Balenza, a couple from Congo, married since 1995. Twenty-six years into marriage, Germaine discovered that her husband, a public figure, had been unfaithful. ‘I felt’, she said, ‘that power had gone to his head, that he was no longer interested in me.’ She left him, and set about publicly shaming him on social media. It was a miserable time for both. With the help of a Catholic couple, Paul began to do serious work on himself. Germaine was drawn into the process. ‘We were able’, she says, ‘to tell each other hard truths, to empty our hearts of hatred and anger.’ Gradually, they resolved, in Christ’s name, to be reconciled. They assembled their families and asked forgiveness of their children; then, in church, they renewed their marriage vows. We sometimes place the ideal of a Christian family on such a pedestal that it seems to be unreachable – or even to vanish into the realm of fiction. Here, meanwhile, is a story that fits into a Biblical paradigm, where families as a norm are dysfunctional and for that reason display the work of grace palpably and credibly. Paul and Germaine remind us with authority that the world can begin anew even when all seems lost.
I recently happened on a letter Mother Thekla (Sharf), nun of Whitby, wrote to an imaginary convert to Orthodoxy. It probes the self-seeking that can lie hidden in religious aspirations — and indicates remedies. ‘I have not been told why you are about to convert, but I assure you there is no point whatsoever if it is for negative reasons. Are you expecting a kind of earthly paradise with plenty of incense and the right kind of music? Do you expect to go straight to heaven if you cross yourself slowly, pompously and in the correct form from the right side? OR….. Have you faced Christ crucified?’ This, Mother Thekla insisted, is the crunch. It’s about resolving to believe, whatever happens, that Christ’s redemptive work makes sense. And to act on it. ‘That does not mean passive endurance, but it means constant vigilance, listening for what is demanded; and above all, love. Poor, old, sick, to our last breath, we can love. Not sentimental nonsense so often confused with love, but the love of sacrifice – inner crucifixion of greed, envy, pride. And never confuse love with sentimentality. And never confuse worship with affectation.’
How can I see the world that surrounds me? Anyone who has considered the question knows the answer isn’t obvious. More than analyses, sometimes, we need testimonies, such as Maud Sumner’s in this brief poem:
Till the midnight hours
I sat up with a rose
To watch the rose.
Drowse and close
But the midnight rose
Then chiefly shows
Its wine-red powers —
Perfume so deep from the heart of the flower,
Beauty so sweet, that zero hour
Torn from the robe of eternity,
Holding all silence — holding me.
The World’s Hope
The Fathers found a great Old Testament prophecy of the Eucharistic mystery in the bestowal of manna in the wilderness. They were drawn to God’s promise given through Moses in Exodus 16:12, ‘In the morning you will eat your fill of bread.’ Origen read the verse in the light of the image of Christ the Morning Star, expounded wonderfully in his sermons on Exodus. The 1947 edition of that text in the Sources Chrétiennes was done by P Henri de Lubac. He appended to Origen’s commentary a marvellous footnote of timeless relevance:
‘To Origen Christ restores to an ageing world perpetual youth. Thus is conveyed the considered sentiment of gladness that bore up the first Christian communities, conscious, at once, of being heirs to a most ancient tradition and yet of embodying a new world. It still depends on the Christian of today whether Christianity will appear to all as the world’s youth and its hope.’
Anne Applebaum’s 2020 volume Twilight of Democracy appears with two different subtitles. The first, apparently peculiar to the US is, ‘The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism’; the second, British, reads, ‘The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’. The autobiographical account of shattered friendships, judiciously interspersed into an otherwise analytical text, invests the argument with human credibility. Applebaum writes: ‘Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity; there is nothing intrinsically ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ about this instinct at all. […] It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.’ This is a helpful and, to my mind, persuasive point of view. It makes me think how urgent it is to revive a truly Catholic politics. As I have argued in a different context, ‘Part of what makes the Church catholic is its capacity to sustain tension, to wait for apparent antitheses to be resolved — by grace, in charity, not by compromise — in synthesis.’ This trait, presupposing clear orientation, is likewise a frame of mind. It is much needed in public life today, even requiring revival within the Church. This is not a time to be wasted on useless, simplifying squabbles. There is urgent, necessarily complex work to be done for the common good.
Not in Numbers
We worry, and hear others worry, about the falling number of people going to church, requesting the sacraments, pursuing a vocation, and so forth. It is right that we should be concerned. At the same time, we require more than a merely human perspective. What is at stake, after all, is a supernatural matter. Do we believe that God is God, or not? Do we acknowledge, and own a need for, strength beyond our own? The story of Gideon’s battle against Midian (Judges 7) is instructive. Called to be an instrument of Israel’s freeing, Gideon turned up before the Lord with 32,000 men. The Lord said, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, My own hand has delivered me.’ By various procedures, the Israelite army was reduced to just 300. It seemed an absurdly inadequate number; yet the Midianites were routed. Israel was awakened to a truth it had forgotten: God is a living God, a God who saves. This week’s collect contains the confession, ‘we are weak and can do nothing without you’. That is surely part of what, in present circumstances, we are called to take on board, recognising ourselves as we are, God as he is. When this happens, new life is released.
To say, ‘I did it, it’s my fault’, requires a great deal of maturity. It presupposes readiness to take responsibility, and that is hard at a time when so many influences push us in the opposite direction, nurturing a litigious mentality that always looks to charge what goes wrong to someone else’s account. Brené Brown expounds the dynamics of blaming in this smart little video, lasting no more than three minutes. It is a help to self-examination. Brown remarks that blame is simply a discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability. Accountability is by definition a vulnerable process. Blaming meanwhile is lodged in anger. It shuts us off from others instead of opening us to them. And so it is one of the chief reasons why ‘we miss our opportunities for empathy’.
Does Ukraine naturally belong as part of Europe — or not? The Russian aggressor tries to persuade the world that the answer is no. This rhetoric is met with counter-rhetoric, as it must be. Scholars at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute, meanwhile, propose a response based on careful historical research, amassing evidence with which it is impossible to quarrel. They state their purpose modestly as being the creation of ‘a picture of the medieval European world that fits the evidence from the primary sources’. They carry it out by mapping the dynastic connections made between the ruling family of Kyivan Rus’ and the rest of medieval European royalty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The map needs no commentary. You can access it here. This project makes a particular impression on me as a Norwegian, gratefully remembering that our national patron, St Olav, arrived in 1030 at the battle of Stiklestad, traditionally marking the Christianisation of our country, straight from Kyiv, where he had enjoyed the protection and hospitality of his friend, Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise and his Swedish queen Ingegjerd.
As If By Enchantment
Do not blame your brother for an unloving action. Try to cancel it by performing a loving action in its place. Do not preach moral principles: sow only deeds of love. From there, all the rest will follow as if by enchantment.
Seek no more when love is accomplished, for there is no more to seek. Go to another place where love is still imprisoned and deliver it to the holder of the key.
From The Word Accomplished by A.B. Christopher [Alexander d’Arbeloff]
It is moving to observe the seemingly endless row of crosses in the cemetery of St Vincent’s Archabbey, Latrobe. More than 700 monks rest here. Some will have lived linear, crystalline, clearly focused lives; others’ lives will have been more contorted. But here, in death, they repose fraternally in peaceful order, lined up in serene statio, waiting for the heavenly liturgy. Whether their fidelity was spontaneous or hard-won, they kept it to the end. ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord‘.
St Vincent’s was founded, as the first Benedictine monastery in the United States, in 1846 by Abbot Boniface Wimmer. He was a man of courage, vision, and more than a little tenacity. Tellingly, his motto was, ‘Forward, always forward’. This missionary monk impressed Pope Pius IX at an audience in 1865. The pontiff is said to have sent him off with the singular valediction: ‘Long live Abbot Wimmer and his magnificent beard.’
Where Have I Been?
Whitsun makes me think of a scene from the last act of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in which Solveig, on the Eve of Pentecost, sits in her hut and sings. Her life has been one of waiting for the man she loves, who left her, promising to return. Years have passed, yet her confidence in him has not wavered. She sings: ‘If you have much to carry, give yourself time. I shall wait: I promised you that.’ As for Peer, he roams, having all but forgotten her. He is forced, however, to reflect on what has become of his life when a messenger of God confronts him, saying: ‘There’s nothing left of you, only unfulfilled promise.’ He challenges Peer to summon positive proof of personal integrity; else, he warns, he will be melted down and repurposed. He does not even have the mettle for damnation — there’s simply nothing there. That’s when Peer stumbles on Solveig’s hut. Meeting her again, he asks her, genuinely moved, and appalled by the threat of annihilation: ‘Can you tell me where I have been since last we met, where I have been myself, whole and true?’ She answers: ‘That riddle is easily answered. You have been in my faith, my hope, and my love.’ To bear one another’s burdens is not just about helping others; it is about holding their truth before God in love, even when they are lost to themselves. Such is life in the Spirit.
While his nation bleeds, and his pastoral heart bleeds for the nation, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv reflects on essentials. He asks what love stands for. ‘Today the word “love” is so devalued […] that we sometimes do not understand what it means to love. Therefore, the virtue of love should be distinguished from the feeling of liking some wish of ours, a desire, something that we like, something that is dear to us, something that is the subject of our longing. Love, divine love, is complete self-sacrifice, complete self-giving for the sake of the one I love. This is the divine love with which God loves us all, and the fullest manifestation of the content of this divine love that leads to sacrifice are the words, once again of the Saviour Himself: “ For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). Therefore, the revelation, the full revelation of our God in Whom we believe, is the God of sacrificial love we have on the Cross. When our Saviour dies, He gives His spirit into the hands of the Father and says, “It is finished!” […] It seems to us that when we sacrifice ourselves for another, we die. But the truth is that love is a life-giving force, a force that gives life. When we give ourselves, then we truly live, we live eternal life.’
At Peace with All
Nikolai Gogol’s Meditations on the Divine Liturgy begin with an account of how the priest must prepare himself to celebrate. He should ‘begin from the evening before to be abstinent in body and spirit, should be at peace with all, and should avoid harbouring displeasure towards anyone. From the evening on, after reading the prescribed prayers, he should dwell with his mind in the altar, […] so that even his very thoughts may be duly consecrated and filled with sweet fragrance. When the time comes, he goes to the church with the deacon; together they bow down before the Holy Doors and then kiss the icons of the Saviour and the Mother of God, after which they bow to all present, by this bow asking forgiveness of everyone.’
One doesn’t just stumble into prayer. Body, heart, and mind must be made ready. That takes time. And requires of one commissioned to celebrate the sacred mysteries utter dispossession. It is good to be reminded.
In the Same Boat
When you’re in Minnesota, Norway doesn’t seem too far away, somehow. The landscape is sometimes similar, but that is not all. Tens of thousands of Norwegians came to Minnesota between 1851 and 1920, making the Twin Cities the unofficial capital of Norwegian America. Many here speak fondly of a Great Grandpa Åsmund or a Great Aunt Bergljot. A local luminary like Garrison Keillor can make a statement like, ‘To Norwegians, the polka is a form of martial art’, and expect to draw a self-ironical grin from hearers. My favourite example of the Minnesotan-Norwegian connection is this commercial for Lutheran Airlines. It catches fundamental aspects of a mindset that is instantly recognisable.
‘You’re all in the same boat on Lutheran Air’.
At St John’s Abbey, Collegeville, I am privileged to live just opposite a room that houses a facsimile copy of the St John’s Bible. What an extraordinary creation! The brainchild of Welsh calligrapher Donald Jackson, it is a unique phenomenon in modern publishing: a hand-written, illuminated copy of the entire Old and New Testaments. I am struck by something Jackson says about the project: ‘The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.’ At a time when most of us are so chained to keyboards that our hands start trembling as soon as we have to write more than just our signature with a pen, it is good to be reminded of the role handwriting can play in enabling understanding, even enlightenment. I am struck, too, by the sheer gratuity of this project, alive with delight. Delight is something most of us could do with more of in engaging with things that lend significance to our lives.
By Being Happy
An interview with the Lithuanian poet Indrė Valantinaitė in this week’s Dag og Tid contains a marvellous exchange. Valantinaitė reflects on the fate of her grandmother, who died in traumatic circumstances.
— We all carry sadness as part of our family histories. The hope is that we can make peace with what is tragic. Then we help those others, too.
—Those who suffered the sadness? How?
—By being happy. By living life to the full. By the experience of freedom. By making peace with terrible happenings. You see what I mean. No, she isn’t here; but thanks to her, I am here. If I am happy, I believe she is helped.
‘I am a religious person’, says Valantinaitė, ‘a Catholic’. She adds: ‘A good poem doesn’t lie. I find strength in poetry. And in faith. Poetry and prayer heal.’
I am on a journey. Before departure, an email from the airline warbled, ‘We look forward enormously to welcoming you onboard’. Enormously? The affirmation contrasted with the flight attendants’ weary gestures. The receipt from the airport hotel told me, ‘We hope you had an amazing stay’. Even a bottle of fruit juice in the departure lounge is rich in aspiration: ‘You are special! Treat yourself kindly!’ I find all this wearying.
Why do we revel in automatically generated assurances that we, like every one else who spends money in the furtherance of a particular enterprise, are uniquely wonderful? Why do we put up with this overwrought rhetoric? It is time to reaffirm the nobility of the ordinary. That, after all, is what life mostly consists of. It would be a shame to miss out on it.
Over the past few days, given the encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the region of Donetsk, there has been speculation in the media about whether negotiation with the aggressor will — should — ensue. It is useful to re-read Professor Timothy Snyder’s recent talk to the Kyiv Security Forum. It bore the title, Why Ukrainian victory is important for the world. Especially thought-provoking is Snyder’s tenth and final reason. It touches a tendency of retrospective myth-making whose influence is felt in other areas, too; indeed it shows signs of becoming culturally axiomatic. ‘Russian propaganda is all about the past, it’s all about how things are predetermined, it’s all about seeking some kind of moment at some point in history where we were right and everyone else was wrong. But that is not what we need. We need, everyone needs, a future. We need a politics of the future; we need an event that can break us out of our rut and which will point us towards a future.’ To opt, then, for prospect. This will mean assuming responsibility for life, nurturing a will to live, for others to have life.
a child walks alone through the forest of grief
without being afraid
it is only the forest of grief, says the child,
I shall walk here awhile while I wait
a child walks alone through the forest of grief
it waits not, just walks slowly on
seeing all there is, touching it
I am because I am, says the child
a child walks alone through the forest of grief
only by walking alone can I find my way
I shall lose all I find
and all that I lose shall be mine forever
a child walks alone through the forest of grief
I hear best when all is quiet, says the child,
then I hear that I am not on my own
I walk alone and am lifted up to where I cannot reach
The word ‘tragedy’ is much overused nowadays. This is a paradox, given that we’ve largely forgotten what it means. When we say ‘tragedy’ we tend to have in mind ‘a very sad occurrence’. To the ancients meanwhile it meant something more like ‘a great commotion or disturbance’, notably in the form of a public spectacle. If such disturbance or commotion awakens us inwardly, it can be beneficial without necessarily being pleasant. The force of tragedy was brought home to me afresh last week when, on account of a spot of Covid, I had leisure at last to read Oliver Taplin’s 2018 version of Aeschylus’s Oristeia. Compellingly readable, it is characterised at once by nobility and verve. One is spontaneously drawn to read it aloud. It is hard not to feel a twitch of nostalgia for days in which exposure to texts of such profundity was a prerequisite for public discourse, thereby held up to an exacting standard. We are reminded of the peril inherent in seeing things as they are in Cassandra’s outburst: ‘Again the piercing anguish/of foretelling true comes swirling up/and thrums me with discordant preludes.’
Bergman’s Autumn Sonata made an indelible impression when I first saw it as a teenager. I’ve watched it again. It’s lost none of its power. The film is not reducible to pamphleteering issues: it is not about gender roles or career choices, not even primarily about parenting. It poses an existential, universal question: ‘Am I a human being able to love?’ When it was launched in 1978, the critic Lasse Bergström wrote: ‘Bergman has for a major part of his mature life as an artist moved towards chamber acting in a closed environment, in which a few people meet and speak to or past one another, in which dramatic space opens solely onto the landscape of the soul and of dreams. His new film Autumn Sonata has been produced in proximity to this path; still, something new has happened to the acting within the closed room. We are no longer meant to observe it from a distance. We are constrained to enter it, so to feel the impact of the mirrors that come crashing down upon us. Let me say it straightaway: I experience the affecting power of Autumn Sonata as something enormous and unique. Between two viewings I tried hard to think of any previous film by Bergman or anyone else that in the same naked way has struck me like a fistblow in the soul – but to no avail.’
Lichen in a Tree
A few weeks ago, in Germany, at a second-hand book sale, I acquired a copy of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for half a Euro. That is one eight of the cost of a large latte. Published in 1862, the book depicts the conflict between traditionalists and intellectuals, manifest as a conflict between generations. Bazarov, a resolute nihilist, occupies centre stage. He believes in nothing, in love least of all. The strong impressions that remain with the reader, though, are not those left by his rhetoric, but the quiet presence of auxiliary characters like Bazarov’s parents, whom he largely deems unworthy of attention. At one point his mother, Arina Vlasievna ‘pressed her grey head’ to his father’s and said: ‘”Never mind, my Vasia. True, our son has broken away from us; he is like a falcon—he has flown hither, he has flown thither, as he willed: but you and I, like lichen in a hollow tree, are still side by side, we are not parted. And ever I shall be the same to you, as you will be the same to me.” Taking his hands from his face, Vasili Ivanitch embraced his old comrade, his wife, as never—no, not even during the days of his courtship—he had done before. And thus she comforted him.’ Strong winds may agitate the crowns of trees a while, then die away. The lichen remains, be it in the trunk of fallen stems.
The novels of John Le Carré, with their tightly woven, sticky webs of deception, speak to the present. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Control, head of the British secret service, says to the agent Leamas: ‘Our work, as I understand it, is based on a single assumption: that the West is never going to be the aggressor. Thus we do disagreeable things, but we are defensive. Our policies are peaceful. But our methods can’t afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition, can they? […] Yes, I mean, occasionally we have to do wicked things, very wicked things indeed, but you can’t be less wicked than your enemy simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you?’
Leamas sums up his professional experience in the observation, ‘There’s only one rule: expediency.’ He also says, ‘I reserve the right to be ignorant. That’s the Western way of life’. How one would wish this to be simply a malicious caricature.
What Do We Value?
In a column in last week’s Economist, Fr Andriy Zelinskyy, chief military chaplain for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, writes openly about the atrocities and the absurdity of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Already before this phase of invasion began, he remarked: ‘The future depends on all of us. If we face it together, we will succeed. If not, the consequences will be serious, not only in Ukraine.’ Now he goes further, as he must: ‘This war is about more than politics and more than gas and oil. The nature of our humanity is at stake. The dreams the West harboured after the cold war ended led to a shift in global culture. Among the changes was a divorce between power and compassion. Governments forgot that the essential goal of all democratic institutions is to treasure human life. The importance of this point differed between countries, however. And at times commitment to it wavered in the face of political and economic concerns. The war in Ukraine uncovers a difficult question: “What do we really value?”’
‘The Church of Christ has always preached liberty, equality, and fraternity but on another basis — that of knowledge of human nature. Our brotherhood consists in that we are all co-heirs of a treasure which we lost at the very outset of our family history, and which was wonderfully won back for us by a God who of his own free will entered into blood relationship with us. Human brotherhood implies that there is a need for authority to lead the backward, the thoughtless, and childish, and to direct the heartless and unscrupulous; and he is a betrayer of mankind who thinks himself to be so far different from these others that he needs no authority and no one to guide his conscience. Only One can have absolute authority, he who is Actor Vitae — exercising the Creator’s authority over that which he has made.’
This morning Pope Francis enlisted Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) among the Church’s saints. Having rejected faith as an adolescent, absorbed by ambition, pleasure-seeking, and indolence, Charles was provoked to recognise religion’s claims by witnessing Muslims at prayer in North Africa. Back in Paris, he wished to gain an understanding of the confession into which he had been baptised. He looked up a priest, Fr Henri Huvelin, with the cerebral question, ‘Father, I have no faith. Please teach me.’ The priest answered, ‘Kneel down and confess to God, you will believe!’ Charles objected, ‘But, I didn’t come for that!’ Huvelin repeated, ‘Confess!’ The young man come in pursuit of enlightenment realised that only forgiveness would bring him light. He knelt down and confessed his entire life, which thereby changed decisively. Rowan Williams once remarked that Huvelin ‘was not what many would call a whole man, but a deeply injured and fearful man, psychologically scarred.’ Yet he knew exactly what this sybaritic rebel needed to hear and had the courage to say it, occasioning a revolution that brought about the unification of another’s complex life in the unity of holiness. I find this fascinating, and beautiful.
Don’t Get Caught!
On 13 May 1917, three children in Fatima, Portugal had a vision of the Mother of God which they described as a communication of ‘light so intense that, as it streamed from her hands, its rays penetrated our hearts and the innermost depths of our souls, making us see ourselves in God, who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in the best of mirrors.’ The three gained insight into eternal realities. One might think they’d be estranged, thereafter, from earthly things. Far from it. Not long afterwards, one of the children, Francisco, was upset upon seeing a friend clutch in his hand a bird he had caught. Offering to ransom it, Francisco ran home to fetch his savings, gave them to his friend, and set the bird free. ‘Then, as he watched it fly away, he clapped his hands for joy, and said: “Be careful! Don’t let yourself be caught again!”‘ The encounter with God’s redemptive grace had made him unable to endure the sight of unfreedom in any form. Is it possible to have a radical sense of justice for creatures without faith in an ultimate, eternal Justice? A moot point.
‘Man’s ability to see is in decline. Those who nowadays concern themselves with culture and education will experience this fact again and again. We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.’ Thus wrote Josef Pieper in the 1950s, in a passage cited this morning by Elizabeth R. Powell at a symposium held in Trondheim under the title, Seeing Nature. We’ve become a lot worse since Pieper.
Powell went on to perform an exercise in seeing by means of close analysis of David Jones‘s engraving from 1924, The Nativity. Notice the middle ‘n’ in the word ‘incarnation’. The inversion, we were told, was probably a simple mistake (an engraver must carve his work as a mirror image), yet one rich in significance, for God’s becoming man is the source of ‘multiple inversions’. To relearn to see, we must ‘recalibrate our senses to the wonders of the small’. Then great discoveries, perhaps even revelations, await us.
‘Modern societies’, writes Emily Wilson, ‘are peculiar in the degree to which we segregate the dead from the living.’ Monks are in this respect blessedly countercultural. They live and die within an ancient wholeness. A monastic death is a community affair. The community watch with the dying brother, offering prayers and the comfort of friendship. When death occurs, the body is washed, then brought to the church with singing; there it remains, in the middle of choir, illumined by the paschal candle, always with a praying monk at its side, until it is carried out, again with song, to be buried in a grave dug by the brethren’s hands. A Cistercian is buried without a coffin, on a plank. It’s a way of honouring in death the simplicity that marks our life. It’s also a way of making explicit the symbolism of John 12:24: ‘Unless the grain of wheat…’ This tactile, familiar engagement with death is in no way morbid; on the contrary, it is reassuring and freeing, as those who attend a monastic funeral can testify and as many viewers of the film Outside the City have remarked. It is a way of healing the estrangement of what Wilson calls ‘our peculiar modern desire to mourn the dead without having to touch them.’
A Heart Changed
How often are we not told, ‘Do as your heart dictates!’ In a symposium in Hildesheim today on what the Benedictine patrimony can contribute to the Church’s mission, Mother Christiana Reemts, abbess of Mariendonk, picked up this imperative and said, ‘I hold it to be quite false’. She explained what she meant by pointing out what we know from experience and what Jeremiah pointed out almost cruelly: ‘The human heart is deceitful above all things’ (17:9). Our heart is not an infallible compass; it is subject to many temptations, tensions, and trends. Before it can guide us reliably, it must be oriented and, when necessary, healed. The great Christian task which the monks or nun exemplifies, said the abbess, is ‘to let the heart be transformed by God’s Word — then to listen to this transformed heart’. How liberating to hear a voice speak such basic truths, truths that, once one has assimilated them, seem self-evident. There is more food for thought, in German, on the abbess’s blog.
When Gotthard, abbot of Niederaltaich heard of his appointment as bishop of Hildesheim in 1022, he is said to have said, ‘Lieber in Bayern ein Abt als droben ein Bischof’ (‘Rather abbot in Bavaria than bishop up there’). Yet up he went, beginning a ministry that was singularly fruitful. Gotthard was canonised in 1131, the foundation year of Tintern Abbey. Today, on his liturgical feast, the diocese of Hildesheim inaugurated a Godehardjahr, not only a year of commemoration, but of prospective mission. At the opening Mass, Gotthard’s successor, Mgr Heiner Wilmer, summoned the entire diocese to ‘Benedictine renewal’. In a rousing sermon he said: ‘For us in the diocese of Hildesheim, this is about inner change and transformation in Christ.’ Much is being written and said at the moment, not least in Germany, about the problems of the German Church. How marvellous, then, to witness such a life-giving initiative, bearing the hallmarks of unity, hope, and Benedictine humilitas, focused on and oriented towards Christ to whom, St Benedict insists, ‘nothing is to be preferred’.
One of the endlessly fascinating things about the early Church is the way in which the Fathers (and Mothers, too, though they left less evidence in writing) used classical culture as a way of illuminating Christian revelation. Many of them knew Homer by heart. The story of Odysseus’s return from Troy shaped their consciousness. The passage in which he had himself tied to the mast to resist the sirens’ call had special appeal. In it they saw an image of the Christian’s return to the Homeland in a voyage marked by ‘glorious risk’, καλὸς κίνδυνος. The sirens symbolised ‘the world’ as the New Testament writers understood the term: creation as opposed to God, endeavouring to draw us away from him. St Jerome wrote in his commentary on Isaiah (PL 24, 216B): ‘The sirens still repose in shrines of pleasure. By means of a sweet but death-inducing song, they pull souls into the depths.’ I dare say that peril is still to be reckoned with, but are we able, in this day and age, to recognise the sirens’ warbling for what it is?
In the rite of consecration of a bishop, the consecrator gives the newly ordained his staff and says: ‘Receive this staff, a sign of your calling to be a pastor. Watch over the flock which the Holy Spirit has appointed you to govern in the Church of God.’ My own staff, a gift from a faithful friend, was made in the workshop of the Hungarian master silversmith Kristóf Gelley. He has just released a video recording the process of creation. You can find it here — a testimony to craftsmanship of the highest order.
A pastoral staff is crooked as a means of catching hold of the hind legs of sheep in flight from the fold: that, too, is part of the shepherd’s task! The crook on mine, which recurs in my seal, is modelled on the seal of St Bernard of Clairvaux. The cross is Byzantine (you may refer to this exquisite example), a reminder of all I owe the rich tradition of the Eastern Church, which is nourishingly present, too, in the heritage of Nidaros.
Purity of Heart
Great purity can exist in the midst of ugliness. Darkness can help us perceive the brilliance of light, be it small and placed at a distance. It impresses me that the Major Archbishop of Kyiv, Mgr Sviatoslav Shevchuk, should choose to reflect on purity of heart today, even as we may be tempted to avert our gaze from atrocities committed in Ukraine. His words, which I’ve compressed very slightly, are an inspiration:
‘To be pure in heart means to see God present in my heart; to build a pure relationship with him, not a selfish one, not using God as a means to achieve my own goals or satisfy my own lusts and passions. To see God in your heart means to share in his resurrection. The Lord God gives man this gift of resurrection in the sacrament of baptism. The fullness of God’s presence must be manifest in our relationship with God and neighbour. May the Lord God show his face in Ukraine. May he bless Ukraine through pure-hearted people who, even in the circumstances of a brutal war, know how to maintain their purity. People who look into the face of God, then see his image in every person, then try to serve God present in a specific other. Such people are already blessed. Such people rejoice in the purity of their hearts, and they see God.’
At a time when the cult of Stalin is enjoying a perverse revival in the east and we may even be witnessing a stab at reincarnation, it is good to recall those who resisted the dictator with resolve, at great cost. One such was Maria Yudina, among the greatest pianists ever to have lived. Gloriously eccentric, she slept in a bathtub and routinely gave away her concert fees to members of her audience. She was unflinching in her Christian confession. Do watch this noble documentary. When Stalin, who admired her, sent Yudina a gift of money, she replied, ‘I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.’ As for the money, she added, she had given it away. She was serially ousted from public life and lived in penury. Shostakovich knew and revered her. After her death caused by an error in medication, he said, ‘She always played as though she was giving a sermon’. You will get a sense of what he meant if you listen to this recording of Beethoven’s 4th Concerto.
Ah, if only more preachers preached as if they were playing Beethoven!
How I miss the voice of Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020)! Fortunately it still speaks to us in his writing, as in an address for Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2020 — a remembrance crucial to us all, kept by Jewish communities on this day.
‘The Holocaust has become more than a Jewish tragedy. It has become, for the West, a defining symbol of man’s inhumanity to man. […] We remember whole communities of Jews from Sweden in the north to Greece in the south, from France in the west to Russia in the east – people who were no conceivable threat to anyone – who vanished into the black hole in the heart of Europe. Among them were families who had lived in certain lands for almost a thousand years and yet they found they were still regarded as strangers without the most basic of human rights, the right to life. […] Those who hate need no reason to hate. Jews were attacked because they were rich and because they were poor. They were condemned as capitalists and as communists. Voltaire accused them of being primitive and superstitious; others called them rootless cosmopolitans. Antisemitism was protean and logic-defying. It exists in countries where there are no Jews. That is why Holocaust remembrance must not be confined to Jews alone. The victim cannot cure the crime. That demands the rule of law, a respect for justice, and a constant effort of education.’
This fragment of ‘The Last Judgement’ by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch was painted some 200 years after Dante wrote his Divine Comedy. It is striking that both artists, evoking the reality of hell, as a matter of course put several mitred prelates in it – indeed, there is even a cardinal’s hat in evidence here in this picture. I don’t think such representation necessarily suggests that high clerics were or are more hellishly inclined than others (although in some cases this may be the case); it is rather an uncompromising reminder of the principle, ‘Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required’ (Luke 12:48). If one happens to be a bishop photographing this painting, able subsequently to espy, albeit faintly, one’s own reflection in the glass, there among the reprobates, one prays spontaneously for mercy and the gift of fidelity, recalling with gratitude another line of Scripture: ‘The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it’ (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
As a Child
At first sight, this angel seated in the cemetery outside the Münster of Frauenwörth seems a charming, innocent example of Bavarian Baroque. Only on closer inspection does one notice that he rests his left elbow cavalierly on a skull. Is this a sinister manifestation of the principle, ‘Et in Arcadia ego’? An example of Christians’ obsession with mortality? A superficial observer might think so. I don’t. No, the monument makes me mindful of this lovely reflection by Dom Porion (in Écoles de silence):
‘If instead of being frightened of God we really trusted him, we should fear neither the world nor the flesh nor pain, neither the past nor the future, neither others nor ourselves. We should consider this world as a child considers a ball in his toybox, and a ball of bad quality at that, a ha’penny ball; and we should play with death as with an elderly nursemaid. As long as we trust in God we are agile and strong. The day we lose our trust in God we languish, even if no real danger is in sight.’
Easter stands for the rebirth of hope. When, as Christians, we say to someone who has lived through terrible things, ‘Don’t lose hope!’, the statement is no vague moral boost, but a pointer to something, someone substantial. To hope for myself is also to have hope for others. Benedict XVI stated this magisterially at the end (§48) of Spe salvi, affirming that ‘no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. […] Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise?’ This is profound and beautiful theology. It is also (should also be) the foundation of Christian politics.
When I recently discovered Hugo Rahner’s great work about the Symbols of the Church (with which I once spent much time) in a secondhand bookshop, I rejoiced as if I’d met an old friend. I spontaneously felt like taking the book out to lunch.
Published in 1964, full of hope for the realisation in the present of ancient plenitude, it is a book to re-read now. Its very first sentence is apposite:
‘Since Paul in Ephesians 5:32 wrote the inspired word about the mysterium magnum which obtains between Christ and the Church, we can ever again, in the course of the history of dogma, deduce the Christian integrity and intellectual profundity of a theological system from the way in which, within the construction of the whole, the chapter on the Church is integrated.’
This icon by the Ukrainian iconographer Lyuba Yatskiv renders with grace the message of a Kanon for Easter Sunday composed by Cosmas of Maiouma (floruit ca. 730).
‘You came down to the depths of the earth to accomplish all your glory; my presence in Adam was not hidden from you; through your burial, compassionate Lord, you have brought new life to me when I was dead. You have opened your arms and joined together what before was parted. You released those who were held fettered in linen shrouds and under gravestones, and they cried out: There is no one holy but you, O Lord!’
Gaudia paschalia! May Christ’s holy Resurrection bring healing and peace to our weeping world!
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews which the Church gives us today in the Office of Readings speaks of God’s rest, which evokes the whole atmosphere of Holy Saturday. The profundity of the rest may be gauged from the fierceness of the battle that preceded it. In this interview, Patrick Pullicino – a priest and professor of neurology – proposes a physiological reflection on Christ’s Passion inspired by a careful examination of the Shroud of Turin. There is rich material, here, for mediation in awe and silence. There is also a prompt to make our own the tender, grateful prayer of the final chorus of Bach’s St John Passion, Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine, ‘Rest in peace, you sacred limbs; and bring me also to rest.’
The image of the crucifixion is now so embedded in Christian consciousness — and in outsiders’ perception of Christianity — that we easily forget how long it took to emerge. This panel from the main door of Santa Sabina on the Aventine in Rome is the earliest known representation of Christ crucified made for a devotional purpose. It was produced in the first half of the fifth century. Cicero, voicing a classical Roman’s point of view, had written that ‘the very word cross should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things, but the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man’ (Rab.Perd. 16). This gives us an idea of the revolution in sensibility that issues from Good Friday. It gradually enabled Christians to perceive the cross as a manifestation of grace and to sing as in a Lauds antiphon this morning: Propter lignum venit gaudium in universo mundo — ‘throughout the world, joy has come through the wood [of the cross]’.
The Sacred Triduum displays the unfathomable mystery of God’s personal, unique love for each of us. To believe in the possibility of such love, we need to practise it and discern the face, the name, the soul of men and women who can easily seem featureless, obliterated by a fog of prejudice. Someone who practises this art of humanity, and bears witness to it, is Katja Oskamp, whose Marzahn, mon amour: Confessions of a Chiropodist (now available in English translation) is a wonderful book. Oskamp speaks of the vulnerability and shame people feel on revealing their feet to another: ‘Whether they’re labourers from a building site or vain fellows covered in tattoos, whether they’re pregnant or old ladies, spiritual low-flyers or academics, all apologise, the first time they remove socks and shoes, for their feet.’ Her observation sheds light on the significance of the foot washing in the Upper Room, which we enact liturgically, as if for the first time, each Maundy Thursday.
Membra Iesu nostri
As every year, I find myself on Palm Sunday struggling to look ahead. Rationally I know that within a week we shall have celebrated Easter, yet the prospect seems almost unreal given that, between now and then, we shall by means of the Paschal mystery have re-lived liturgically — that is, with high realism — the entire history of the world, seeing it through to fulfilment in the eschaton. In the Ambrosian rite, Holy Week is known as the Hebdomada authentica, the week that sets the measure of all other times. It is a helpful notion. It puts experience in perspective. Where words fail, music can help. I love Buxtehude’s Membra Iesu nostri, the setting of a text attributed (wrongly, probably) to St Bernard of Clairvaux. Through what is largely a mosaic of Scriptural passages, the cantata takes us to the heart of Christ’s sacrifice and the grace it confers. The video quality of this recording with René Jacobs shows its age, but the ensemble’s interpretation is possibly unsurpassed. The text can be found here.
Otto Preminger’s 1963 picture, loosely based on the life of Cardinal Spellman, was a box office hit, though critics were snooty about it. Bosley Crowther, reviewing it for the New York Times, remarked of the protagonist: ‘The young priest, played by Tom Tryon, is no more than a callow cliché, a stick around which several fictions of a melodramatic nature are draped.’ To watch it again sixty years down the line is to be clementer. It is now so rare in cinema to find representations of Catholic clergy that even approach three-dimensional credibility that one spontaneously awards high marks for effort. The film represents an image of priesthood after which young people today supposedly hanker, though I suspect the situation is in fact more complex. What strikes one most is the fact that the Church (notwithstanding obvious failures of individuals throughout the film) could be portrayed in a mainstream medium back in ’63 as representing, at some deep level, moral authority, be it one against which people railed. This marks such a contrast with the present day that it really makes one sit up — to realise what a task we’ve on our hands.
The initial wistfulness of Lea Ypi’s memoir of growing up in communist, then post-communist, Albania reveals itself a rhetorical device in the unfolding of a political parable. Ypi exegetes the perfidy of concepts. In her childhood, everything and everyone was labelled. By the criterion of loyalty to Uncle Enver, all things fell into place. Even hairstyles could be described as loyalist or imperialist. The revolution of 1990 caused order to unravel. Ypi, still a child, discovered that many people, including her family, ‘had simply mastered the slogans’ without believing in them. It caused her a trauma. ‘I believed. I knew nothing else. Now I had nothing left.’ The book is an account of her piecing together a sustainable account of society. It is seasoned with humour; but the tragic is never far away. No reader will quickly forget Ypi’s friend who, at fifteen, was trafficked overseas to work the streets of Milan. Or the image of her father, charged with the management of a seaport, manically rehearsing the names of hundreds of Roma workers whom he refused to lay off: ‘If I forget their names, I will forget about their lives.’ The Albanian revolution, writes Ypi, had been ‘a revolution of people against concepts.’ How hard this outlook is to maintain over time.
In today’s audience, the Holy Father firmly condemned the massacre of Bucha, calling again for peace. In the light of what has taken place in Ukraine in the past 48 hours, Sergey Karaganov’s recent conversation with Bruno Maçães, is even more preoccupying. Karaganov, a former adviser to Putin, affirms: ‘Russia cannot afford to ‘lose’, so we need a kind of a victory. And if there is a sense that we are losing the war, then I think there is a definite possibility of escalation. This war is a kind of proxy war between the West and the rest – Russia being, as it has been in history, the pinnacle of ‘the rest’ – for a future world order. The stakes of the Russian elite are very high – for them it is an existential war.’
I find myself thinking of a speech Otto von Habsburg made almost twenty years ago, in 2003, looking eastward and pointing presciently to Europe’s gullibility in taking its security for granted.
To the Heart
In a beautiful brief essay on Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Fr Robert Imbelli cites James MacMillan’s claim that it is ‘one of the most deeply Catholic works ever written’. It is also, he adds, ‘a magnificent affirmation of Catholic humanism, accenting at its midpoint the good news, both scandalous and salvific, that God became man.’ Imbelli says it took him a long time to discover this work from within. I had the same experience. For years it seemed to me too bombastic, too full of contrasts, too little like an act of worship. The interpretation that to me unlocked its mystery was Thielemann’s 2010 performance at the Semperoper in Dresden, commemorating the city’s destruction during World War 2. There is a quality of earnest attention in both performers and audience (which includes Mikhail Gorbachov) that is moving and contagious. The soloists proclaim their parts as if they were evangelists. At the end, everyone stands, in perfect silence. Beethoven inscribed the score with the words: ‘From the heart—may it go to the heart.’ And there, suddenly it entered mine.
Lost in Thought
How one wishes that every architect of public policy would read Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought, part testimony, part manifesto. It’s not only a highly interesting book; it’s an important one. Hitz puts her finger on a sore point in modern Western society: the fizzling out of the meaningful transmission of culture with a resulting loss of sharable criteria for community-building. Among the causes identified is this: ‘Colleges and universities once held central a practice whose success was evident and that therefore provided an endless source of confidence. That practice is called teaching, and it consists in the person-to-person transmission of the habits of mind that underlie all serious thinking, reflection, and discovery.’ Instead, she contends (rightly, I think), university campuses increasingly turn into playgrounds, the distance between staff and students widens, the quality of education becomes less serious, while disconnected prestige academics churn out reams of research ‘completely disconnected from any recognisable human question’. If you wonder what can be done about it, read the book, which is anything but gloomy. Indeed, it explicitly dissuades from ‘the deliberate choice of a miserable existence’.
Only a Little
We’re acutely conscious right now of the role propaganda plays in war. The deployment of information — or misinformation — can be tantamount to taking up arms. Christian Krönes’s portrait of Brunhilde Pomsel, Ein deutsches Leben, released in 2016, when the protagonist was 105 years old, makes for timely, challenging viewing. For having been Goebbels’s secretary from 1942 until April 1945, Pomsel regarded herself, after a lifetime’s pondering, as having been purely incidental to the drama of war. She owned no responsibility. ‘There is no justice’, she remarked, still indignant at having been interned by the Russians in 1945: ‘After all, I’d done nothing except type for Herr Goebbels. Of what lay behind it all, I knew nothing — or only very little. No, I would not see myself as culpable.’ Her long monologue, shot in black and white, shows (by way of counter-witness) what courage it takes to stand aside from the crowd. Only exceptional individuals are naturally courageous. For most of us, courage requires cultivation. On such cultivation the notion of the ‘free world’ depends. Pomsel said: ‘For my part, I am one of the cowards.’
In a Lent homily preached more than 1,400 years ago, Pope St Leo the Great said something stirring. Commenting on St John’s assertion, ‘God is love’, he placed the accent emphatically on ‘is’. He exhorted his hearers: ‘Let the minds of the faithful examine themselves. Let them, by truthful enquiry, evaluate the intimate stirrings of their hearts. Then, should they find in their consciences some repository of love, let them not doubt that God is present in them. Let them be ever more expansive in works of persevering mercy in order to be ever better able to put up such a guest.’
To be on the look-out for this effective presence of a personal, divine love in oneself and in others is to awaken to the sacramental nature of existence. It is also to be gradually relieved of the tendency, common to most of us, to mistake means for ends.
Life & Loss
At times of upheaval, it matters, for the sake of understanding, to extend one’s perspective as broadly as possible. It matters no less, at the same time, to focus on particulars, lest the complexity of seemingly insoluble conflicts overwhelm us. We read of soldiers in both the First and the Second World Wars who hankered after the novels of Jane Austen. Cinema can likewise root us in human particulars, revealing their beauty and letting us sense the universal significance within them. A master of this art was Yasujirō Ozu. His 1953 film Tokyo Story, remastered in 2017, is a fine evocation of life and loss, filial failure, selfless devotion, and the uncertainty of old age. Ozu once remarked to a reporter: ‘Pictures with obvious plots bore me.’ Tokyo Story is not a film of action, but its characters are drawn with moving, utterly credible precision. It is a work of high art that challenges viewers to reflect on what is, in fact, of consequence in life. A challenge that, here and now, is of vital importance.
Trying to understand the background for the war in Ukraine, we are brought up against deeply troubling realisations. I have been salutarily provoked by the analyses of Professor John Mearsheimer, much cited in recent weeks in a variety of media. It is uncanny to revisit now this lecture, which he gave seven years ago at the university of Chicago, where he occupied a distinguished chair. What strikes me most is his emphasis on the fact that, to a certain way of thinking, it will seem expedient to ‘wreck’ an entire nation to ensure one’s own strategic advantage. James Meek made much the same point in a carefully argued 1 March podcast for the LRB. An agenda that coolly envisages destruction for destruction’s sake is surgically dehumanised. All the more powerful is Archbishop’s Shevchuk’s repeated pleas (here, for instance) for a focus on personhood. What is a Christian response to iniquitous violence? ‘We should do everything possible to express our respect for the dignity of the human person.’ The archbishop calls, not only for Christians’ obedience to Gospel standard. He calls for a revolution of politics.
Of the Brook
The scene of the Annunciation is rendered in any number of wonderful works of art. Dearest to me is that of the Carmelite painter Fra’ Filippo Lippi (1406-69). Rarely have I been to London without stealing time to go and pause before it in the National Gallery. The silent conversation between the Virgin and God’s Angel is depicted incomparably. The essence of this feast, however, the fact that it commemorates the moment in which the Word became flesh, is impossible to render pictorially. For that, we need music. An account is given us in Handel’s Cantata Dixit Dominus, a setting of Psalm 109. The Psalm’s finally verse reads thus: ‘He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.’ The Fathers found in this phrase a prophecy of the incarnation, of God’s stooping to drink of the water that quenches our thirst along life’s tortuous, beautiful, often painful path. This version, sung by Annick Massis and Magdalena Kožená, takes us as close to the heart of the mystery as it is possible to get by sensory means.
Wisława Szymborska was once asked by an aspiring writer to provide a definition of poetry. She answered with kindly irony:
‘A definition of poetry in one sentence — please. We know at least five hundred from various sources, none of which strike us as both all-embracing and pleasingly precise. Each expresses the taste of its own age. Our native scepticism saves us from attempting new definitions. But Carl Sandburg’s lovely aphorism comes to mind: “Poetry is a diary kept by a sea creature who lives on land and wishes he could fly.” Will that do for now?’
From Szymborska’s Advice for Authors, translated by Clare Cavanagh.
For years I have admired the films of Volker Koepp chronicling life in the region the ancients called Sarmatia, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The fact that this region is now largely covered by Ukraine give Koepp’s work great relevance. Indeed, I’ve just noticed that his 2013 film In Sarmatien will be re-screened tomorrow in the Akademie der Künste in Berlin at a fundraising event for the Ukraine-Hilfe. The film portrays tensions of a life lived between Russia and Europe. A Moldavian woman recounts how not so long ago her mother tongue, Romanian, for being a Romance language related to Italian, had mandatorily to be written with cyrillic letters. It is chilling, in the light of current events, to hear a young Ukrainian say, nine years ago, that after the hopes raised by the orange revolution, ‘great pressure’ had set in: ‘Everything gets smaller, narrower. There’s straightforward intimidation going on.’ At the end of the film, though, an interviewee maintains: ‘Anyone who carries a sentiment of freedom in the heart, in the soul, can fly.’
‘Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities. Perhaps for this reason, Joseph is traditionally called a ‘most chaste’ father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the centre of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus.’
From Pope Francis’s Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, n. 7.
Is it licit, even possible, to laugh in the face of tragedy? In a thought-provoking essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik contends that it is. He reflects on the communication of Ukraines’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, that paradoxical politician, whose background is a career in comic acting. He cites something Zelensky said in an interview in 2019: ‘Laughter is a weapon that is fatal to men of marble! You shall see.’ Gopnik muses: ‘Clowns degrade order in order to make us imagine another world.’ This can have a sublime dimension. It is significant that Russia, with its long tradition of absolutist rule, should have produced the singular type of the holy fool. Gopnik’s observations make me think of a remark made by Jonathan Sacks in a broadcast produced at the height of Covid anxiety. He was commending people able to make others laugh about what was going on. For, he insisted, ‘humour is deeply connected to humanity. […] What we can laugh at does not hold us captive in fear.’
On 25. March, the feast of the Annunciation, Pope Francis will consecrate Russia and Ukraine to the immaculate heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is a powerful gesture, symbolically charged, right now. The archbishop of Lviv, Mgr Mieczysław Mokrzycki, invites us all to take part in spiritual preparations during the days ahead. In the prelature of Trondheim we use a novena that concludes with the following prayer:
Eternal Father, in the maternal heart of the Virgin Mary you give us an image of perfect compassion with your Son’s saving sacrifice; grant us a heart like hers, and let the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, at her intercession, be blessed in justice with your peace, which is not of this world. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
At Lauds this morning, I rejoiced on reading one of the preces. Truly a prayer for the present moment! Here it is: ‘Da nos mysterium Ecclesiæ altius percipere, ut eadem sit nobis et omnibus efficacius salutis sacramentum.’ We pray for the gift of being able to perceive – to fathom intellectually – the mystery of the Church more deeply, in order that the Church may more efficaciously be for us and for all a sacrament of salvation. Just out of interest, I looked up the prayer, afterwards, in the English breviary. There it reads as follows: ‘Lead us more deeply into the life of your Church; and through us make it a clearer sign of the world’s salvation’. It’s like boiling good pasta down to mush before serving. The mystery is gone. The sacrament is gone. Perception – the summons to exercise one’s mind so that it might open one’s being to grace – is gone. Instead of the Church, Body of Christ, being for us and for all a sacrament, agency is lodged in us.
In this simple example of sense lost in translation, the source of much current malaise can be found. We should heed, then, the 2. Vatican Council’s watchword and return to the sources.
With monastic simplicity of means, this commemorative display in the Carmelite monastery in Tromsø, Carmel Totus Tuus, says what needs to be said.
The blue-and-yellow ribbons, representing Ukraine, touch the roses’ thorns — and the roses, of course, indicate the promise of intercession for the world given by St Thérèse.
They are overlooked by a representation of Divine Mercy painted for the nuns by W. Piwarski:
Jezu, ufam tobie.
Jesus, I trust in you.
The World’s Form
I’ve felt a need to re-read Gertrud von le Fort’s Hymns to the Church. What texts! Here’s an excerpt from her prose poem Corpus mysticum:
‘Behold, you come towards us, your forehead golden with the mirror image of our joy. For he from whom we went forth has pursued us; and he from whom we scattered has gathered us to himself. In the womb of our misery, he caught up with us. He has made himself, in your hands, into humility. He lives in your chalices’ wine, in the white bread on your altars. You let him rest upon our longing. You let him rest on our hungry lips. Deep in the heart of our solitude, you let him rest; it bursts open, then, like gates whose seals are torn; the dust of atoms wafts into one, for eternity’s quiet has strength that surpasses the tempest’s: we are of one Body, one Blood. Of one ensoulment we are the flame. You are the world’s only form.’
Pain of Leaving
In a brief interview, Larisa Galadza, Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, speaks of her experience of the past few days with consummate diplomatic discretion. Yet passionate commitment and humanity shine through, not least in her silences.
After having to flee Kyiv, she and her staff spent some days in Lviv:
‘You could see every morning the relief on the faces of the staff at the hotel because we were still there, and that gave them confidence. The morning we decided we had to leave, those faces changed. And that was heart-breaking… That was heart-breaking. I think a lot of us cried for a lot of the journey out of the country.’
Today’s statement by the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, is a powerful summons. It shows up the hollowness of much other, contemporary discourse concerning what the Church is about.
‘Today in Ukraine we see a huge disdain for human dignity. Humanity is being destroyed, the human being is being dehumanised. Especially the being of those who began this war. He who begins war becomes lesser with regard to his own humanity. He who kills another destroys first of all humanity within himself, he destroys his own human dignity. What can we, as Christians, do to oppose such contempt for the human person during the war in Ukraine? First of all, today we should undertake acts of mercy. We should do everything possible to express our respect for the dignity of the human person.’
How to counter contempt? Undertake acts of mercy. This is life according to the Gospel. And we all need to hear it.
This afternoon, on the pier in Tromsø, I was intrigued to find this cast-iron dachshund. It looks out over the bay as if surveying its domains. I have no idea what it is supposed to symbolise, but it made me think of an observation by Jerry Seinfeld. Cited in En Liang Khong’s TLS review of Chris Pearson’s Dogopolis, it voices a quandary that must have occurred to many of us at the sight of dogs, increasingly wearing designer clothes, out for a constitutional with their attendants:
‘If you see two life forms, one of them’s making a poop, the other one’s carrying it for him, who would you assume is in charge?’
I probably shan’t read this study of ‘the emergence of a new kind of canine cosmopolitanism’. Life is short.
A friend has passed on some words Sara Lidman spoke on 11 November 1956, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. They keep ringing in my head, troublingly.
‘Time and again during these days that seem as long as entire years, one thinks: But surely this can’t be allowed to take place? Surely someone will eradicate this injustice? Must not nature itself take action against this evil? At times the state of being human is so debased that we’d sooner appeal to the clouds and the grass to show man mercy than to men. Oh, that we were reading of this barbarism in some old manual of history; that we could look up from the text and say: How cruel men were in days of old. Something like this could never happen now! But what we read is the daily paper. And we tremble for grief and shame.’
The Russian president claims he has ordered the invasion of Ukraine to ‘denazify‘ the country. The Patriarch of Moscow, meanwhile, maintains that the invasion has metaphysical significance and somehow represents a moral crusade. It is hard not to draw a line between such statements and the business venture of a former president of the United States: a social medium in which subscribers can post any idea that happens to float into their mind as a ‘truth’, expecting this to be picked up and transmitted by others as a ‘retruth’.
During Lent we reflect on Christ’s words: ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter’ (Matthew 12:36). There is nothing to suggest that this was intended as a throwaway remark, that is, a ‘truth’ in the social-media sense, requiring inverted commas.
In an essay printed in the latest edition of Communio, Nicholas J. Healey performs an exegesis of ‘synodality’. He puts the term in context and provides what is often lacking: a carefully worked-out ecclesiological foundation. The following is just one of several helpful insights:
‘the coresponsibility proper to the laity unfolds in and through configuration to the ecclesial Bride — a configuration essentially requiring an obedience to the Word of God, which the Magisterium exists to foster and protect. Far from being a form of slavery to clerical overlordship, however, this obedience is an implication of the freedom of God’s children — just as the Magisterium is not the private good of clerics but a service of the deposit of faith that demands the most radical expropriation for the sake of the bonum commune on their part.’
The Place to Be
Professor Kristin Aavitsland has permitted me to share her impressions from a visit to Santa Maria della Pace in Rome last Friday: ‘It was the place to be on the first Friday of Lent, a week after the invasion of Ukraine, even if we’d turned up on a scholarly errand. A fervent, protracted rosary for prayer was going on, suitably enough in just this church. In a strange way it was as if the people praying, women almost all, were united to the saints who are depicted there so wonderfully. They too are predominantly women, women of prophecy and action, who by words, writings, and deeds stood up to tyrants, reproved the mighty, and risked their lives for the sake of justice and peace: Catherine of Siena and her namesake from Alexandria, Birgitta of Sweden. Within the spatial whole of the church they enter into a kind of dialogue with Raphael’s sibyls, likewise prophetic presences. At the heart of it all, of course, is Our Lady of peace. Above the entrance to the choir there’s an inscription: In terra pax. All this, the inscription invoking peace, the frescoes, the intense prayer for Mary’s help, brought the choir together in a single tonality. It was beautiful and soul-stirring. I think the students of the history of art were also touched. God help us for what is going on in Ukraine.’
The Pity of War
Following news from Ukraine, one can feel overwhelmed. It matters to root the tragedy in human particulars, as the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen did this morning, reporting from a railway station in Kyiv (from 11:35). ‘Fathers stood on the platforms waiting to see their families off. […] A man called Alexander sobbed as he waited for the train to leave. He’d put his wife and two small children on board. Alexander wouldn’t let go of a small toy ambulance his eight year-old son had given him as he put them on the train. He kept playing its siren. All the heartbreak of the war was on one man’s face. […] Many of the volunteers are young men, boys barely old enough to shave. […] They were dressed for a camping weekend or a festival, except they were carrying newly issued Kalashnikov assault rifles. One had brand new white trainers. Another had a yoga mat to sleep on. If they were scared, they didn’t show it. Like the other young men with them, they had the courage, patriotism, and sense of invincibility of all the other generations who have signed on to fight for their countries in Europe’s war. Their families will pray they will not have to learn the same brutal lessons. The older men looked much more apprehensive.’
Prayer & Fasting
People often ask: How can I learn to pray? The obvious answer is: pray with the Church through the liturgy and sacraments.
However, a more intimate life of prayer is also called for. We long to pray in a way that expresses our deepest being. We long for the prayer of the heart.
I have found invaluable guidance in a slight volume published in French in 2001. Its title was, ‘The Prayer of the Heart’. Its author was designated as ‘A Carthusian’.
As an offering for Ash Wednesday, I would like to share a translation of this precious resource. You can find it here.
‘Lord, teach us to pray!’ (Luke 11:1).
The Way We Look
Still on the subject of the way we look at things, I’ve revisited Sam Mendes’s film from 1999, American Beauty. I was troubled and fascinated by it at the time, to the extent of presenting a paper on the movie to a theological society. I agree with what I said then about Mendes’s exploration of the boundary between the virtual and the real. The film ‘provides paradigmatic evocations of human beings frustratedly seeking the Other in each other, in the natural universe, and in God, wanting to transcend themselves in love, but repeatedly falling back on a painful, pitiless solitude in which ‘you can rely on no one except yourself’. Faced with such existential anguish, theologians have a duty to engage anew with essentials, telling again the story a God who does ‘look right at us’ and who does invite us to look back, not with a ‘demonic’ gaze set to dominate and possess, but in an ‘angelic’ serenity which freely admits the freedom of the Other, whose Beauty is boundless communion.’
You can find the full text here.
Some words Jean-Louis Thiériot wrote for Le Figaro this weekend resound in my mind: ‘In Europe, war is back. Our seventy years of peace have been nothing but a happy parenthesis. Only simpletons will be astonished. The warning signs were clear to behold: ex-Yugoslavia, Georgia, Donbas, Nagorno-Karabach. Power and the sword reestablished themselves long ago as the world’s axis. The apostles of the end of history and of happy globalisation were not, however, disabused of their illusions. They had forgotten what Péguy once insightfully said: ‘We must always speak that which we see; above all, we must always, and this is more difficult, see that which we see.’ They had forgotten, too, that history is tragic and that the gordian knot is often cut in blood.’
‘Lord, that I may see!’ is a culminating prayer in the Gospel. Sight is, a lot of the time, neither comforting nor comfortable. But it’s by seeing that we establish ourselves in reality and, so, are able to address it.
In the austere definitions of theology, it is sometimes said that the mystery of the Blessed Trinity can be expressed in terms of three subsistent relations. It is not, to put it crudely, about three Persons with relationships; relation is the foundation of Personhood. The idea that originating reality is relational seems dizzying at first. Gradually it liberates thought. It is susceptible of transposition into the realm of human experience and psychology. Quantum physics uses a related paradigm to explain the physical world. It is fascinating to read the following in a book by Carlo Rovelli: ‘[The equations of quantum mechanics] remain mysterious. They do not describe what happens to a physical system, but only how one physical system is perceived by another physical system. What does this mean? Does it mean that the essential reality of a system is indescribable? Does it simply mean that there’s a part of the story still missing? Or does it mean, as I think, that we must accept the idea that interaction is reality?’ In a 2017 interview, Rovelli specified that ‘objects are just the nodes of interactions. They’re not a primary thing; they’re a secondary thing, I think.’ To think like that is to re-think everything.
Autonomy = Freedom?
Romano Guardini was the subject of Pope Francis’s doctoral research. It has often been said that his influence on the pontificate is great. One listens attentively, then, when one of the finest living experts on Guardini, and his biographer, comments on trends in the Church. In a recent conference, Professor Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz offered a global perspective on the Synodal Path, in which she participates with vigour and intelligence. It unfolds, she observed, in a context that absolutises autonomy. Our sense of autonomy is now so strong ‘that whatever God (or the Church) puts before me in terms of commandments, counsels, or wishes is defined as heteronomous. Only when it accords with my own autonomy will I follow it.’ We say no to self-transcendence. We assume that freedom affirms itself against God, perceived as an Adversary — or simply refashioned in our image. Largely lost are light-charged, revealed notions of God and humanity. We’re surrendered to our own obscure longwindedness. Our time’s radical questioning, says Gerl-Falkovitz, is like a thermometer revealing an infection that has long, perhaps since the Enlightenment, been latent. It would seem that what we really need is not self-help, but a Physician.
Pray for Peace
On 29 September 1938, Francis Poulenc found an excerpt from a poem by Charles d’Orléans (1394–1465) reprinted in Le Figaro. The text, profoundly topical, moved him. He set it to exquisite music. This song has been ringing in my ears ever since, this morning, I read of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine:
Pray for peace, sweet Virgin Mary,
Queen of heaven and mistress of this world.
Kindly cause to pray
the company of saints and direct your plea
towards your Son, beseeching his highness
to have gracious regard for his people,
which he was pleased to redeem by his blood,
by bringing an end to war, which destroys all things.
Tire not of praying:
pray for peace, pray for peace,
joy’s true treasure.
Ability to See
Gabriel Josipovici has been to see the exhibition Dürer’s Journeys at the National Gallery. He describes it so vividly I delude myself I’ve seen it, too. Dürer (1471-1528) was indefatigably interested in the world around him, capable at once of global vision and microscopic scrutiny. Speaking of the notebook in which Dürer recorded impressions from numerous journey, Josipovici writes: ‘it is amazing to be able to read, 500 years after they were written, the unguarded comments of a curious traveller whose ability to see had been honed by years of practice.’ The reminder is precious. We may live with eyes wide open, even look feverishly around, without in fact seeing anything. Seeing must be practised. It is an art and an ascesis. It can also be a way of exercising philanthropy. We all know what Josipovici means: ‘At moments, looking at his drawings in particular or reading his Diary, we are pierced with the sharp sense of recognition: “Yes! I know this!”‘ — only we don’t realise until a trained seer enables such epiphanies of self-evidence.
A Bird in the Air
The first time I heard the music of Dhafer Youssef, it brought tears to my eyes. It is unlike anything else, though one senses a kinship with Jan Garbarek. Youssef, who admires Arvo Pärt, has made recordings with Western ensembles of sacred music, such as Jaan-Eik Tulve’s Vox Clamantis (the performance begins at ‘5). When he was a child, in Tunisia, the sound of the chanting of sacred texts awakened his musicianship. He has said, ‘I’ve a relationship with the Qu’ran that is more musical than religious. Religion, for me, is music. With music, there are no barriers.’ That is why it is hard to speak about it, words being circumscribing: ‘You’ve the sense of talking of a bird in the air. Of something which isn’t there.’
You can hear Youssef’s powerful Elegy for my Mother, part of his Bird’s Requiem, here. It impresses me that a YouTube commentator calls it ‘a purely cathartic song’.
The Netflix series Stories of a Generation, prominently featuring Pope Francis, carries precious flashes of insight. As Aldo Grasso remarks, in a column in the Corriere della sera, events and experiences are gently uprooted from their context to become universal allegories.
I have been touched, and inspired, by Carlos and Cristina Solis, a Uruguayan couple who, after fifty years of marriage, decided to take up the tango. It has given their relationship a new dimension. It has helped make profound and life-giving dynamics explicit. ‘Love, as we have experienced it’, says Carlos, ‘is a succession of adaptations from one to the other’ — just like in the tango! He then cites a Snoopy cartoon. Charlie Brown muses philosophically: ‘Some day, we will all die!’ Snoopy answers: ‘True, but on all the other days we will not.’
An Essay in Meaning
The voice of Marie Noël, once one is attuned to it, has a timbre quite its own, unmistakeable. Hers is a quiet voice, but one that speaks with authority, a voice that, by virtue of the depths it articulates, opens wide spaces in the reader and there resonates, an accompanying, comforting presence. She, who never left her native Auxerre, once wrote:
‘It was in these depths that the one great journey of my life took place, my descent into the abyss, my adventure, my face-to-face with danger. It was there that I had to go so that I might come back, burdened with the destiny of humankind, instead of staying for ever pure and fast asleep in my little garden with the Cross to keep me safe.’
A selection of Marie Noël’s texts is at last available in English in a marvellous volume presented and introduced by Pauline Matarasso, published today.
Today is the feast, not just of St Valentine, but of Sts Cyril (826/7-869) and Methodius (ca. 815-885). The two were blood brothers. Their extraordinary career certainly warrants them the title of Patrons of Europe. Alexis Vlasto, citing Zdenek R. Dittrich, calls Methodius ‘the last great figure of the universal church.’ He explains: ‘There had been schisms before; irrevocable schism was still more than two centuries ahead. Yet from the end of the ninth and particularly in the tenth century […], it was scarcely possible any longer to belong indifferently to both East and West. This was due not merely to the gradual estrangement between the churches on matters that touched their doctrine, ritual, customs, and all other aspects, but also, more obviously, to political factors in a Europe that was undergoing a rapid process of crystallisation.’ Right now, political tensions between East and West are crystallised terrifyingly in Europe. All the more reason to strive to restore fractured bonds within our own hearts and between the Churches.
Professor Thomas Fischer, a German judge, has a sharp mind and a pen to match it. He is not one to brush things under a carpet, and no Catholic apologist. I am struck by remarks with which he concludes an essay published in Der Spiegel last week, on the ways in which we, as a society, engage with the legacy of abuse: ‘The Church is subject to the same processes as other structures of external management and power-charged unassailability, which have melted away through globalisation. Communities cease; left are individuals. Responsibility gives way to self-optimisation. External management gives way to loss of direction. The community of God-fearers morphed at first into cosy group therapy, then into provision of customised wellness on demand. One can view this unravelling as the end of the story — or not. But it is unintelligent to surrender, simply, to baffled indignation. Of course the phantom pain is intense. But what holds a promise of healing is not a retroactive balance sheet with regard to enemies long since vanquished, but earnest efforts to create new structures and institutions of trust.’ Certainly the past must be viewed and integrated lucidly; but with a view to restoring community through whole-hearted, prospective conversion, to translate Fischer into Biblical terms.
People ask, ‘Where is God?’ They often put the question, it must be said, cavalierly, as if God ought to be a divinity ‘on demand’. This morning’s Vigils reading puts matters in perspective. God’s Wisdom, it tells us, ‘calls aloud in the streets’. God desires to be known – but we do not answer, and instead construct our lives, our world, as if he did not exist, regardless of him. The text from Proverbs 1 goes on: ‘Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.’ When we look at the world as we’ve made it, which makes us so afraid, is this not what we feel: satiation with our own devices?
In an interview from 2018, Bettina Röhl, daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, has interesting things to say about the myth of 1968 as the context for her mother’s revolutionary terrorism. The key figures of the movement, she contends, had for the most part had a privileged youth and were not acting out of WW2-induced trauma: ‘I think this time was full of energy. The West saw an explosion of culture, in music, in fashion. In a misjudgement of what was happening in China, the generation of ’68 confused this remarkable development in the West with the genocidal Chinese culture revolution, envisaged as a model. […] Representatives of ’68 like Gerd Koenen and Götz Aly speak of an unbearable lightness of being. They filled this perceived emptiness with ideologies, with Marx and Mao. This is one point at which I’m inclined to attribute a certain guilt to the then BRD. There was such progress and upward movement, but clearly no spiritual and moral superstructure. Young people are on the search for sense. And so the Revolution became fashionable, and a phantasm.’ Insights to ponder.
Recent exchanges with friends in Western Cameroon give further evidence of the misery in which the region is mired. In the press, we don’t hear anything about it. The Norwegian Refugee Council has for years listed the civil conflict in Cameroon among the ‘world’s most neglected crises‘. An independent think-tank found last year that reportage on Africa is at best haphazard in Norwegian media. Generally, it is absent. I dare say the following remark can be applied to other countries, too: ‘We observe that the world in many ways has shrunk in the plurality of Norwegian media, and that most resources used to cover international news are directed towards the Anglo-American sphere.’
No one can be constantly alert to all the world’s needs. Still, consistent neglect of certain areas is revelatory. It should cause us to ask questions — not least of ourselves: ‘And I? Am I willing to confront the prospect of a world unshrunk and the responsibility that comes with it?’
Lockdown has largely kept people out of museums. In a luminous brief essay, Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, reflects on the experience of walking round eerily empty rooms listening to the paintings. He writes:
‘A classic early definition of painting is given by Plutarch: ‘Paining is silent poetry; and poetry is painting that speaks.’ He was quoting Simonides of Ceos, a Greek musician and lyric poet of the sixth century before Christ, who wrote verses rich in human empathy. Paintings may make no sound but they have a voice that is able to communicate emotion and meaning across time and space. That is one reason why painting is so important.’
I’m not sure why it’s taken me till now to discover Grazia Deledda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1926, the second woman after Lagerlöf to be so distinguished. I have just read La Madre, which D.H. Lawrence, in a much re-printed preface, rather misunderstood, as far as I can see. ‘The interest in La Madre‘, he wrote, ‘lies in the presentation of sheer instinctive life.’ No, it doesn’t. The novel’s drama adheres in the point of intersection between instinctive and considered choices — which is not to idealise, or simplify, consideration; but to rehearse Deledda’s conviction that instinct calls for reasoned orientation. At the Nobel Banquet, Archbishop Söderblom addressed her: ‘Customs as well as civil and social institutions vary according to the times, the national character and history, faith and tradition, and should be respected religiously. […] But the human heart and its problems are everywhere the same. The author who knows how to describe human nature and its vicissitudes in the most vivid colours and, more important, who knows how to investigate and unveil the world of the heart – such an author is universal, even in his local confinement.’ In Deledda he recognised such an author. He was right.
You can find a decent (Italian) documentary film here.
‘Perhaps I can ask you now to reflect on some slightly trickier elements in the book, relating to agonies that come up today about sexuality, gender, abuse, and so on. You are not afraid of tackling them. But the way you’re tackling them is different, I think, from the way they’re often tackled, even by public theologians, because of your monastic perspective. To take issues of gender, first. We know from reading early monastics and ascetics that their lives were often freed up in extraordinary ways from gender presumptions of life in the city or life in the married condition. I think you imply, as I have also in my writing, that this may be a source of fertility, if I may put it like that, for contemporary thinking. Could you say a bit more?’
Thus asked Professor Sarah Coakley in a conversation we conducted recently. You can find the rest of it here.
‘To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.’ Four excellent counsels follow. Then the conclusion: ‘Reports drawn up on the lines I propose may at first seem rough as compared with the flat surface of officialese jargon. But the saving in time will be great, while the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.’
In October that same year, Churchill wrote to the Secretary of State: ‘The number and length of messages sent by a diplomatist are no measure of his efficiency.’
Nova & vetera
Time and again in salvation history, the impetus for conversion has come from fresh engagement with the past. An emblematic example is recounted in 2 Kings 22. In the reign of Josiah, Hilkiah the priest found the Law of God in the temple. The Law! No one had given it any thought for decades. Yet there is was, making demands at once sublime and shattering. Hilkiah gave it to Shaphan the secretary, who read it to the king. ‘When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes.’ Countless instances of fruitful conversion have begun in this way. The Cistercian movement of the twelfth century is one example, repeated in the seventeenth under Abbot de Rancé.
For more, pursue this link.
To Live a Little
At the beginning of the week I received a communication from a young Syrian, the friend of a friend, trying to find a way of getting his mother and sisters to safety. To explain the urgency, he wrote: ‘Many of my sisters’ peers have been jailed, tortured, raped and slaughtered simply because of their humanitarian work during this immoral and barbaric war.’
Yesterday I saw this heading in a Norwegian newspaper, regarding the lifting of restrictions that will enable sports events to receive more spectators and bars to stay open into the night: ‘Now we can again begin to live a little.’
The contrast between the two perspectives is dizzying. One of the things Covid has revealed is the myopia to which we are all prone. To it, those of us who live in privileged safety easily yield. A year ago, pundits across the globe predicted a new world order of solidarity and compassion. The trouble is, we do not have it in us to pursue such high goals for long. To stick to them, we need to be enflamed by an ideal that brings us out of ourselves.
The Medievals coined the phrase ‘natura naturans’ to speak of nature’s doing, quite simply, what nature does. The phrase was developed sophisticatedly by Spinoza. Perhaps, though, we might just recover the notion of ‘acting according to nature’ as an active verb?
I am struck by this image of a young tree quietly growing its way through an old garden chair without ruining it. Sooner or later, of course, the manmade object will give way. The seat will erupt. But it will happen gradually, naturally. Even if the chair will have had it, the process will be, somehow, beautiful.
‘If you love a plant’, the Kentucky Shakers used to say, ‘take heed to what it likes.’ We should pay more attention to how nature natures and beware of artifice, not least when we look at ourselves.
The Cistercian Order regards itself as having, not one founder, but three: Sts Robert, Alberic and Stephen (not St Bernard!). The Church celebrates the three of them today. On the face of it, the Cistercian project was conservative in scope, retrospective in motivation. Yet its protagonists made ground-breaking innovations. Several trends contributed to this process. One consisted in a systematic appeal to established authorities. Of these, the most obvious was the Rule of St Benedict. The Exordium Parvum provides a succinct account of the manner in which the community approached it. It gives the impression of seamen setting sail on a crisp, clear day, joyfully throwing overboard any ballast threatening to hamper speedy progress. The emphasis is not on grim-faced ‘strict observance’ but on the shedding of encumbrances. Furs, fine frocks and feather beds: let the current take them! Benefices and privileges went the same way.
For more, see here.
Not long ago, I had occasion to remark that society increasingly lacks a conceptual framework for behaviour geared towards the supernatural. In Norway, during last year’s lockdown, it became apparent that the law had no way of categorising worship as a distinct form of human activity. It was classed alongside tango classes and bingo nights.
A recent article by Andrea Mrozek observes that the natural, too, is being phased out of public discourse. Referring to a report in The National Post, she notes that female athletes now risk finding pregnancy listed in their contracts under ‘injuries’. Her example comes from Canada. The trend it represents seems universal. Mrozek writes: ‘We don’t have a category for [women having children]. We struggle with how to make special arrangements around it, and frankly, whether to do so at all. Pregnancy and childbearing are confusing propositions today’, increasingly seen ‘as something that inhibits real life rather than contributes to it.’
The following observation from Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968) is well-known. It is still worth recalling on this last day of the octave of prayer for Christian unity:
‘If I can unite in myself the thought and devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin Fathers, the Russian and the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. From the secret and unspoken unity in myself can eventually come a visible and manifest unity of all Christians. If we want to bring together what is divided, we can not do so by imposing one division upon the other or absorbing one division into the other. But if we do this, the union is not Christian. It is political, and doomed to further conflict. We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ.’
One aspect of what St Benedict in his Rule calls the ‘broadening of the heart’, a blessed, painful, joyful business.
There is nothing to distinguish Thomas (Fr Louis) Merton’s grave from that of scores of other monks buried in the monastic cemetery at Gethsemani except a small accumulation of mementos left by admirers. The white scarf attached to his cross lends his resting place a faintly hippie aspect, which I think he would have enjoyed. Humour is an essential component in Merton’s writings, I see that more and more. He possessed that most precious quality: an ability to laugh at himself – a characteristic shared by most people who take life really seriously.
Merton was buried next to Dom James Fox, his long-time abbot, in some sense his nemesis, but also his brother and friend. If you would like to read my review of Roger Lipsey’s fine book about their complex relationship, you can find it here.
Alone the lover knows. If you love not, I pity you!
The myriad lives will seem to you then but common and cheap
Like the sacred Host to unconsecrated eyes.
Only the lover has eyes to see the splendours of the Other,
With access to the house of twofold mystery:
The mystery of sorrow and the mystery of joy.
Entering the Twofold Mystery is published today, the feast of Blessed Cyprian Tansi. If you would like to attend the launch event on 26 January, at which I shall discuss the book with Professor Sarah Coakley, you can sign up here.
Beyond the Subjunctive
‘A certainty dawned: ‘I had not to be nostalgic for what I had been or for what I might have become. Instead I had to love what I was and to seek what I ought to be.’ She abandoned a life’s project composed in the subjunctive mood for one in the indicative. She is emphatic: ‘It was a long journey. Nothing happened overnight. But this is the condition, at once, of redemption and of every battle. […] Forgiveness does not come about in the abstract; it calls for someone to whom it can be addressed, someone from whom it can be received.’
A passage from The Shattering of Loneliness on the testimony of Maïti Girtanner. Here you can find my introduction to a new Italian translation of Maïti’s book-long conversation with Guillaume Tabard, published today.
Not About Seeing Quickly
There’s uncanny prescience in Marguerite Duras’s reflections, recorded in 1985, on life in the 21st century. And she didn’t even know about the internet!
‘I think man will literally drown in constant information about his body, about his physical becoming, about his health, his family life, his salary, his leisure. It is not far from a nightmare. No one will read anymore. They’ll watch TV. There will be televisions everywhere: in the kitchen, in the bathrooms, in offices and streets. No one will travel anymore. It won’t be worth the bother. When you can tour the world in eight days or fifteen days, why do it? In travel, there’s the time of travel. It isn’t about seeing quickly. It’s about seeing and living at the same time. It will no longer be possible to draw life from travel. Still, there’ll be the sea, the oceans — and then reading. People will rediscover that. One day, a man will read. And everything will begin again.’
In a review of The Letters of John McGahern, Emer Nolan, Professor of English at Maynooth, touches on the novelist’s sometimes fraught relationship with Seamus Heaney. Of Heaney she writes, ‘there is little sense in his work of having been stunted or damaged by Catholicism’ – as if this were exceptional. The remark is not malicious, simply bemused. That it should be thus says a lot about Irish Catholicism, indeed Catholicism in general, anno 2022. Examples of dysfunction and destructiveness in the Church are legion, alas; still, to present or tacitly (with guilt-induced breast-beating) to accept them as a norm is irresponsible and false. Over the past few days I have encountered two people who, independently of one another, spoke to me of the ‘explosion of life’ they have found as members of the Church and of the ways in which this explosion bears fruit in joy. I could understand what they were saying. I have known something similar, for which I remain profoundly grateful. It is important to share such experience, to talk about it. ‘Encourage one another!’ (1 Thess 5:11): A fundamental aspect of charity. ‘He who believes in me’, says Christ, ‘out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (Jn 7:38). Let the rivers overflow. Share the water generously.
Saving the World
On Monday I stayed in an airport hotel. A note in the bathroom informed me that each re-used towel would help provide drinking-water in the developing world. On Tuesday I passed through Schiphol Airport. A tub invited contributions of PET bottles ‘for clean water in Africa’. I’ve just stepped off a Delta flight, during which the announcement was repeatedly made: ‘Flight by flight we can make a difference. You shouldn’t have to choose between seeing the world and saving it!’ A concern for global welfare is laudable. But surely there is something not right about statements suggesting that I, by chucking plastic into plastic or by taking trans-Atlantic flights, am saving the world? It seems to me a way of anaesthetising conscience, potentially of paralysing real constructive action. I think of a brilliant take on absurdities in self-satisfied aid rhetoric produced by the SAIH in 2012. If you haven’t already seen it, do watch RadiAid: Africa for Norway.
This page is from a manuscript of the Vetus Latina Bible written at the end of the eighth century, probably in Brittany. The text (from Matthew, telling the story of the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt) is eminently legible. What elegance in each letter!
The period from 500 to 800 is often referred to as Dark Ages. After the fall of the Roman Empire, new political and social infrastructure developed, necessarily with a degree of chaos. Much of it was pagan, alien, if not hostile, to the Christian patrimony. During such a time, this glorious artefact was produced to enable the proclamation of hope: ‘Go to the land of Israel! For those who sought the Child’s life are dead.’
What if we, now, were to hold on to the letter of the Gospel with equal reverence, concerned simply to let it speak?
The art of Fernando Botero can be provocative. It can also illuminate. I am charmed by this ‘Journey to the Ecumenical Council’ in the Vatican Museum. The travelling bishop has no qualms about being visible – that’s the least one can say. He advances with as much of a spring in his step as his girth will allow. His pastoral staff serves a purpose: not a status symbol but an aid to progress through uneven terrain. We may object that he is on his own. Should a pastor not be surrounded by sheep? Well, he is moving between folds: his cathedral’s steeple is seen in the background; the assembly of the council lies ahead. We mustn’t forget the solitude to which a bishop is also called. It is a prerequisite for his ministry of episcopacy, meaning ‘oversight’. His solitude will entail an element of suffering at times, but can also be joyful. One who is truly grounded in the Lord is, to cite Cicero’s phrase, ‘numquam minus solus quam cum solus’ – never less lonely than when alone.
The Fear of God
Right now, when not much works out the way one would expect, one may be forgiven for finding pleasing irony in the liturgical calendar’s announcement that we’re back in ‘Ordinary Time’. In any case, it is good to be given, as a guide to ordinariness, the beginning of Sirach to read:
‘The fear of the Lord is glory and pride, happiness and a crown of joyfulness. The fear of the Lord gladdens the heart, giving happiness, joy and long life.’
Who fears the Lord nowadays? It is an attitude rather out of fashion. This is a pity. What is more, it is a concession to shallowness. What is holy is of its nature fearful simply because it’s categorically different to the stuff of our ordinary lives. If we’ve lost the ability to fear God, we’ve lost the ability to know God as God. And so it is no wonder that people discard the spectre that remains as an irrelevance.
In an important book, Dom Dysmas de Lassus, the current prior of La Grande Chartreuse, asks:
‘Isn’t this one of the most surprising aspects of the spiritual life: the ever fuller discovery of the extent to which God, for being our creator, is free in our regard from any desire to assume power and control?’
The extent of our freedom!
You can find a discussion of Dom Dysmas’s book, which analyses what may happen when freedom is put to bad use, here.
Today’s collect speaks of salvation proceeding radiantly with a view to bringing about a sunrise in our hearts ‘ever to be renewed’ (ut nostris semper innovandis cordibus oriatur). Our heart’s craving for infinity, its insatiable hunger for super-substantial nourishment, is magisterially affirmed in Fides & Ratio, n. 17.
‘The desire of knowledge is so great and it works in such a way that the human heart, despite its experiences of insurmountable limitation, yearns for the infinite riches which lie beyond, knowing that there is to be found the satisfying answer to every question as yet unanswered.’
A sense of being darkly imprisoned in restraint can reveal itself blessed if I choose to seek freedom and light ‘beyond’. The trouble is, we easily begin to feel comfortable, and safe, in captivity, especially when we’ve designed the prison ourselves.
While out on a long drive, I listened to a podcast of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time dedicated to Thomas Becket. None of the participants, specialists all, seemed to consider it possible that Becket’s mature recalcitrance may have been based on sincere conviction. The idea that faith might be, or become, the defining reality of a person’s life was not entertained. Such a priori scepticism on others’ behalf is bound to make for a shallow reading of history, and indeed of the present. Jean Anouilh, whose play inspired the 1964 movie Becket with Burton and O’Toole, was nearer the mark when he put this prayer into the newly consecrated archbishop’s mouth: ‘I gave my love, such as it was, elsewhere. […] Please, Lord, teach me now how to serve you with all my heart, to know at last what it really is to love, to adore, so that I may worthily administer your kingdom here on earth, and find my true honour in serving your divine will.’ As Henry II remarks with a mixture of disdain and awe later on, when Becket’s position is fixed: ‘Here he is, in spite of himself.’
‘What continues to intrigue about Philby after all these decades is his astonishing ability to maintain his double-life with such devious aplomb for so long. It showed a true, virtuoso dedication to the the art of duplicity, if such a thing exists.’
I think it does. There’s no joy in it, and we all have it in us to practise it, even if not to the level of virtuosity. Hence the abiding force of the Biblical injunction to cultivate an undivided heart.
I would have liked to invite all readers of the Notebook to a decent New Year’s lunch. Alas, the logistic challenge is too considerable. As an alternative solution, I offer you this recording, made at Verbier in 2002, of Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos BWV 1065 interpreted by Argerich, Kissin, Levine, and Pletnev. A YouTube commentator has written: ‘If aliens were to stop on earth and ask what our civilisation is like, I would show them this concerto.’ Vox populi, vox Dei.
Thank you, known and unknown friends, for your interest and digital companionship. I wish you a blessed and happy year. As Dag Hammarskjöld wrote in his diary at the beginning of 1953:
‘Night is coming on.’
For all that has been – Thanks!
To all that shall be – Yes!
Amid the excesses, and frequent banality, of seasonal decoration in our society of affluence, I was moved by this image from a youth prison in Northern Cameroon. The embellishments were overseen by a man serving a very long sentence, a man who once said: ‘You have to accept who you are. Once you do that, peace is possible. In prison I have become a man. My desire is to enable each of my comrades, too, to say with conviction, ‘I am a man’, to help them understand that they possess a freedom of self even in prison.’ One way of doing that is by creating something gratuitously lovely, the way God did when he created the world, and each of us. The friend who sent me the photograph remarked: ‘There is an irony in the paper ornaments becoming so many lights with the glow of the prison search lights beamed onto them. A confirmation that beauty can be retrieved wherever there is the faith to do so.’ Where there is beauty and faith, hope can be reborn. Blessed are those who kindle it.
Right & Wrong
I always try, on this day, to re-read Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. As a student I had a walk-on part in an amateur production. The advantage of having seen – and heard – a play many times, is that salient phrases stick in one’s mind. Timeless is Thomas’s observation:
The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
More than ever, however, I am struck by the warning that follows:
Servant of God has chance of greater sin / And sorrow, than the man who serves a king. / For those who serve the greater cause / may make the cause serve them.
Which may God forbid.
The term ‘pelagianism’ is bandied about quite a bit, often cryptically. A helpful application is one made by Benedict XVI when he spoke about ‘Bourgeois Pelagianism’. According to Tracey Rowland, commenting on it in a recent interview, it refers to ‘the mentality that Christ does not expect us to be saints. It is sufficient that we are decent types who recycle our rubbish, donate a few dollars to charity, and refrain from murdering and raping our neighbors or stealing their property. The mentality is that Christ was not really serious when he said that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.’ She generalises the notion of the ‘bourgeois’ (broadly understood as ‘keen on upward social mobility’) by identifying a ‘bourgeois Christianity’, which ‘does not fight on sacramental ground. It does not fight at all. It simply goes in search of Christian-friendly elements of the Zeitgeist with which it might identify and market itself.’
And so one is presented with plenty of scope for new year’s resolutions.
At the age of 92, George Bernard Shaw pronounced this considered judgement upon his friend, the formidable (and admirable) Abbess Laurentia McLachlan of Stanbrook: ‘though you are an enclosed nun you have not an enclosed mind’. Twenty-four years earlier, in 1925, when Shaw had contended that the Catholic Church has not space for Freethinkers, Dame Laurentia objected: ‘I said that to my mind no thinker was free as a Catholic – the limitations being in the direction of good sense and ensuring right thinking; it is not freedom to be able to think contrary to objective truth.’
About to make profession, at nineteen years of age, Dame Laurentia and her novice companion received a note from Dom Laurence Shepherd, a monk who had done much to affirm the community’s contemplative vocation: ‘Tell them they must be saints. They must be grand Benedictines of the seventh century.’ A call heeded.
Matt Brown’s 2015 film about the great mathematician, ‘based on true events’, is based on a fair amount of imagination, too. The result is a picturesque but somewhat unsatisfactory yarn full of facile stereotypes, with more than a passing resemblance to Slumdog Millionaire. There are good lines in it, though, as when Hardy says, in an early encounter, ‘You, just as Mozart could hear an entire symphony in his head – you dance with numbers to infinity’; then, later, while promoting Ramanujan’s candidature as a Fellow of the Royal Society: ‘We are merely explorers of infinity in pursuit of absolute perfection: we do not invent these formulae; they already exist and lie in wait.’
And, of course, there are Ramanujan’s own words of certified authenticity: ‘An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.’
Receive It All
Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier,
o Jesulein, mein Leben,
ich stehe, bring und schenke dir,
was du mir hast gegeben.
Nimm hin, es ist mein Geist und Sinn,
Herz, Seel und Mut, nimm alles hin
und lass dirs wohlgefallen.
I stand before Thy manger fair,
My Jesus, Life from heaven!
I come, and unto Thee I bear
What Thou to me hast given.
Receive it, for ’tis mind and soul,
Heart, spirit, strength—receive it all,
And deign to let it please Thee.
An inspired teacher enabled me, thirty years ago, to discover the art of Tarkovsky. With amazement I saw what heights cinema could reach. Last night I found myself watching, again, Andrei Rublev. A curious way of spending the eve of Christmas Eve? No, wholly appropriate. Tarkovsky evidences the sheer, superhuman cost of leaving an image of the divine in this world. One appreciates what it might mean when Scripture says the incarnate Son of God ’emptied himself’; what it might mean for us to ‘put on Christ’. Andrei Rublev is a celluloid icon.
Tarkovsky defected to the West because, he said, Soviet authorities spat on his soul. Yet later he testified: ‘The longer I stay in the West, the more I find that man has lost his inner freedom. In the West, everybody has their rights, but in an internal, spiritual sense, there is no doubt more freedom in the Soviet Union.’ A haunting statement made by one not given to superficial rhetoric.
In the Night
I am always touched by words from Psalm 102: ‘I am like an owl among ruins’. All of us feel like that from time to time. The experience needn’t be purely subjective; it may well correspond to things as they are. It is wonderful, then, in this morning’s office, to meet the assurance (from Isaiah 51): ‘The Lord comforts Zion, comforts all her ruins, and will arrange her desert like Eden, her wilderness like a garden of the Lord.’ The promise is prospective. But prospect presupposes retrospect: ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn’, cries Isaiah, ‘to the quarry from which you were dug.’
How can we look forward now, as a society, even as a Church, given over as we are to collective amnesia? The Word we await is the Word that ‘was in the beginning’. We must remove over-focused spectacles which only make short-sightedness worse and contemplate, somehow, that entire span. We must be like owls, watching in the night with attention.
It is countercultural to call Thomistic christology ‘this most crucial of theological disciplines’. Long live counterculture! In an incisive review article, Fr Robert Imbelli reminds us that it is carefully thought-out, carefully articulated dogma that makes the Gospel evangelion. But how many modern and contemporary christologies ‘support the Tradition’s claim regarding the unique Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ’? Do they not often ‘fail to rise above a view of Jesus as inspired prophet’? Think of sermons you’ve heard. Think of the collapse of ecclesiology. Often enough, ‘by scanting ontological reflection, [we] lack sufficient resources to undergird the New Testament confession of Christ’s uniqueness and its elaboration in the Church’s creedal and conciliar Tradition’. Christmas is the time to think about such things. What are we celebrating? Are we exclaiming, exultantly, ‘Oh come let us adore him’, or just singing, ‘Happy birthday’?
‘Be it done to me according to your word’, says the Blessed Virgin Mary, about to become Theotokos. She shows us what it means to walk, in St Paul’s phrase, ‘by faith, not by sight’ (2 Cor 5:7). St Ambrose expresses this in different terms:
Incomprehensibilis incomprehensibiliter operabatur in Matre.
Which is to say that ‘the Unfathomable worked unfathomably in his Mother.’ We have limited tolerance, now, for what is incomprehensible. We like things to be clearcut, simply expressed, horizontal, ideally risk-free. We’ve a massive act of renunciation to make if we would enter the Mystery of Faith and make our home within it.
The philosopher Pascal Bruckner, author of The Tyranny of Guilt, describes himself as ‘impervious to faith’. It is all the more interesting to note this remark in a recent essay, commenting on the current collapse of Catholic practice in France and elsewhere:
‘I am certain that the Church will only regain ground among the young if it offers them an art of living that is at once tolerant and demanding, without disclaiming any of its principles. A religion should aim to elevate men, not to flatter their foibles.’
Later: ‘There is no cult without mystery. By dint of drawing close to a common language with a view to seducing the faithful, one runs the risk of pushing them away.’
For us who hear it just before Christmas, the annunciation to Ahaz (Isaiah 7:10-14) is full of sweetness and light. Ahaz heard it differently, awaiting as he was the destruction of his country. Assyria was mounting a massive assault. The anxiety that reigned in Jerusalem, notes Isaiah, was such that Ahaz’s ‘heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind’. Ahaz wasn’t a good king. Religiously he made terrible compromises. Politically, he was a pragmatist void of principles. To this agnostic monarch, in these tormented circumstances, the promise was made: the Virgin will conceive; God will be with you; you will know the mystery of Emmanuel. Centuries passed before the promise was fulfilled. But it was henceforth in the air, resonant, orienting, hope-bestowing. God speaks to improbable people at improbable times. We’d better pay attention.
The impact of the Angelus bell, inculturated into Lutheran practice, is beautifully evoked in Selma Lagerlöf’s Jerusalem:
‘Everyone in the parish knew that no parishioner neglected to say the Our Father when the church bells tolled; and that every afternoon, at the sound of the bells, work ceased both indoors and out of doors while the men removed their caps and the women curtsied and everyone stood still for as long as it took to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone who had ever lived in the parish would further affirm that they never thought God greater or more worthily praised than on those summer evenings when they saw the scythes motionless, the ploughs at a standstill in the furrow, and a cartload of grain left right in the middle of discharging just for the sake of a couple of tintinnabulations. It was as if people knew, that Our Lord just then hovered over their parish on an evening cloud, immense and great and good, sowing blessings across the entire county.’
Prop & Pillar
Tantalising references in a recent article by George Weigel made me go and read William Faulkner’s banquet speech given in Stockholm on 10 December 1950, after he had received the Nobel Prize. This remarkable statement is addressed to writers, but really concerns us all:
‘[Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.’
‘God is light and in him there is no darkness’ (1 Jn 1:5) Yet darkness is his creation (Isa 45:7). Darkness, whether that which surrounds us or that which we carry within, is not necessary evil. It can enter God’s providential plan by revealing light. The refrain of St Francis’s Canticle of Creatures, Laudato si’, is on everyone’s lips. That is good. But do we remember the following verse? ‘Praised be you, my Lord, for Brother Fire, through whom you illumine the night; and he is beautiful, joyful, robust and strong’. Without night’s darkness, who would notice from afar the fire which shows us the goal of our pilgrimage, the sign of a faithful but discreet communion, a sign that beckons but does not blind?
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate Focu, per lo quale ennallumini la nocte: ed ello è bello et iocundo et robustoso et forte.
Stephen Lloyd-Moffett’s book about Bishop Meletios of Nikopolis challenges the reader wholesomely. Here’s an example: ‘The older generations, although they lost the correct conviction, maintained a compulsory surface of decency, but one which could not be imposed upon the youth. Because the youth want authenticity! And when looking at the inauthencity of their elders, they rebel. Truly, they rebel. We, as Christians, and I, as a priest and spiritual father and bishop, say to all of them: “Attain authenticity, internal authenticity, because only this will help you attain all others. Not a façade, not a mask.” The young always have something deeper. They seek authenticity. And it is a shame that they have been found without a guide.’
As the Lord said to Abraham: ‘Walk before me and be entire [הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים]’ (Gen 17:1).
Measure of Man
I am haunted by an impression left by a fine exhibition at the Musée Cernuschi: ‘Painting Apart from the World: Monks and Scholars of the Ming and Qing Dynasties’. It regards the place of human beings in the world. The paintings are largely scenes from nature, a reminder that sensibility to landscape was alive in the Orient long before it reached Western art. Almost invariably, a human figure, or a cluster of people, is included. But to see this human presence, one has to look for it. Man is given his measure by the world surrounding him. Today, we have inverted this perspective, with disastrous consequences. These reclusive artists of centuries past cast a gentle, beneficent light on the theses of Laudato si’.
A number of the works can be seen online here.
Rowan Williams’s Looking East in Winter is in some ways an austere read, reflecting a lifetime’s intellectual engagement with Orthodoxy. It is at the same time full of warmth. Williams’s account of holy folly is wonderful. And what a comfort, right now, to be reminded: ‘For anything to be natural is for it to be as God intends, to be in the state in and for which God created it.’
A contribution to this week’s Books of the Year review in The Tablet.
Here you can find the conversation I conducted with Rowan Williams at the launch of the book.
I love the story recounted in this marvellous book by Richard Dawkins about the meeting of two old friends, both Cambridge mathematicians. The Indian, largely self-taught genius Ramanujan was in hospital, on his deathbed, in Putney in 1920. His colleague G.H. Hardy called. ‘Hardy, always inept about introducing a conversation, said, probably without a greeting, and certainly as his first remark: “I thought the number of my taxicab was 1729. It seemed to me rather a dull number.” To which Ramanujan replied: “No, Hardy! No, Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”‘ It takes a trained, alert mind to see a thing for what it has the potential to be.
‘Spiritus Sancti resonet per omnem gloria mundum.’ I’ve recited these words, from today’s Vigils hymn, often, but only today realised their marvellousness. Who would have thought the Holy Spirit’s glory, throughout the world, resounds? One should listen out for glory more.
Marvellous, too, is the reading the Church gives us, from St Ambrose’s letter to a priest: ‘Store up water, the water which prophetic clouds pour forth, from many sources. […] Fill your soul, so that your land will not be dry, but watered by your own springs. For he who reads and understands many things takes his fill; and he who is full can give life-giving water to others. Therefore Scripture says: ‘If the clouds are full, they will pour down rain upon the earth.’
Mission & Task
That humanity is cruising at speed towards a brick wall is no longer an alarmist hypothesis; it carries the eery fatality of predictable fact. The sense of resignation widely felt in the wake of COP26 induces hopelessness. Why can’t we mobilise ourselves?
In this powerful lecture, given in Leeds Cathedral on 22. November, Dr Carmody Grey argues that the root cause is anthropological, lodged in our failure to recognise, and act upon, our specific mission and task as human beings. She speaks of the formation of desire, of the value of values, and of the need for a new humanism of solidarity, contending: ‘We consistently misdiagnose ourselves as independent.’
Dr Grey presents her case with stringent arguments and noble passion, a passion we need more of. The lecture starts at 4’30 into the video.
Thus Have I Made It
I first watched Roland Joffré’s The Mission as an undergraduate, mesmerised. After a quarter-century it has lost none of its force. ‘We must work in the world, the world is thus’, says the Portuguese governor toward the end. The Roman envoy retorts, ‘No, Signor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.’ Rarely has it been more epically shown that there are some alliances the Church simply cannot enter. I think of something Fabrice Hadjadj has written of another Jesuit mission: ‘Even as a stain is darker on a first communicant’s dress than on a builder’s trousers, so sin is graver in the soul of a Christian, who commits it within greater light, and defaces the face of the Church.’
‘In this way you have humbled yourself, Christ my God, to carry me, your stray sheep, on your shoulders. You let me graze in green pastures. At the hands of your shepherds, you refresh me with waters of orthodox teaching . You pastured these shepherds. Now they in turn tend your chosen, special flock. Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop to serve your people. […] Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the straight path. When I open my mouth, put your words in it. […] Do not let my heart incline me either to the right or to the left. Let your good Spirit guide me along the straight path. Whatever I do, let it be in accordance with your will, now until the end. And you, O Church, whose assistance comes from God, are a most excellent assembly, the noble summit of perfect purity. God rests in you. Receive from us an exposition of faith free from error, to strengthen the Church, just as our Fathers handed it down to us.’
Into the Woods
I am copying down in a book from my heart’s archive
the day that I ceased to fear God with a shadowy fear.
Would you name it the day that I measured my column of virtue
and sighted through windows of merit a crown that was near?
Ah, no, it was rather the day I began to see truly
that I came forth from nothing and ever toward nothingness tend,
that the works of my hands are a foolishness wrought in the presence
of the worthiest king in a kingdom that never shall end.
I rose up from the acres of self that I tended with passion
and defended with flurries of pride:
I walked out of myself and went into the woods of God’s mercy,
and here I abide.
Jessica Powers (1905-88)
‘Pay attention./Be astonished./Tell about it.’ During Advent this poem by Mary Oliver speaks with particular authority. It moves me to find it resonate with Fides et Ratio. The encyclical’s contemplative author points out that fundamental elements of knowledge
‘spring from the wonder awakened in [us] by the contemplation of creation: human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny. Here begins, then, the journey which will lead them to discover ever new frontiers of knowledge. Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal.’
But who, these days, sets time aside and has peace of mind for wonder, I wonder?
‘Christ formed a community with the Twelve. A priest can’t live on his own! He runs the great risk of isolating himself and of being caught up in just his own ideas if he does not live in dialogue with laypeople or with other priests. Look at Saint Augustine: he lived with his clergy. It is indispensable to find means by which priests can live in community, even if it requires great humility on their part.’
Remarks by Cardinal Robert Sarah in a recent interview. They correspond to historical fact. Again and again, in the history of the Church, a renewal of the priestly state has come about through the rediscovery and radical practice of a common life.
To Become a Man
The death of Gérard Philipe on 25 November 1959 provoked national grief in France. In a recent book, Jérôme Garcin revisits the actor’s singular life and death. He contends that Philipe personified the need for catharsis after World War II, embodying the French nation’s best aspirations. But he stood for something more universal, too. Maria Casarès said of him: ‘He was a man seeking avidly, ferociously to become a man’. He knew time was short. In an interview with the journal Arts, he was asked: ‘What thought preoccupies you?’ He answered: ‘The urgency of the things I have to do.’ Then, ‘What amazes you about life?’, to which he responded, ‘Its brevity’. Happily we have both the films in which he acted and many sound recordings that he made — this one, for example: a marvellous reading of Georges Duhamel’s Mozart Told to Children.
When Navid Kermani speaks, I listen. Few commentators have his breadth of perspective and depth of culture, not to mention his elegant style. In a recent article in Die Zeit, ostensibly about German troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, he argues for the rebooting of politics beyond demagogy and simple answers. There, must, he says, be a space between non-involvement and warfare. It should be the realm of politics, engaged to seek solutions in seemingly hopeless situations, to conquer indifference, to foster exchange and shared effort for good through clearheaded thinking, persistence, and patience. ‘Politics stands for an interest extending beyond one’s own sphere, embracing what is other, if only for the simple, selfish reason that we cannot keep our prosperity and peace as long as suffering and violence reign elsewhere in the world. The other then becomes our own in the form of refugees, attacks, and terrifying prospects, the effort to sustain which destroy our soul and the civility of our commonwealth.’
‘Ought we not to leave the free-born mind of man still ever free?’ The question is posed by Didymus, a Roman soldier, in Handel’s oratorio Theodora, with a libretto by Thomas Morell. Handel considered it one of his major works. It has been unjustly forgotten. This week’s Paris production, with a stellar cast, was a welcome resurrection. The drama is set in Antioch, during the reign of Diocletian. All citizens, on pain of death, are ordered to take part in pagan rites. For the Christian Theodora, the matter is clear: there is no room for compromise, though she is nonetheless a loyal subject. Valens, the emperor’s governor, scoffs: ‘They are not Cæsar’s friends, who own not Cæsar’s gods.’ These were the terms of play during centuries of persecution. What happens when Caesar, be he embodied in a social democracy, no longer has gods? What space is left, socially and politically, for those who do? In Theodora, the confession, ‘I am a Christian’, is an ultimatum. It makes one think.
Anger simmers through Philippe Sands’s book, occasionally sending the lid of the narrative flying, but never for long. The story returns to containment within a carefully conducted forensic enquiry in what has become an engrossing book.
It offers, as Rebecca Abrams wrote in the FT, ‘a timely reminder that crimes against humanity don’t occur only at the level of states and governments. They take place also in the more secret and less fathomable depths of people’s hearts and minds.’
It shows furthermore the lengths to which people may go to redeem the memory of those they love (and thus their sense of self), the stakes of collusion with injustice, the perversions that occur when high, even transcendent, ideals are submitted to politicking. Sands provides us with something of a universal parable, full of relevance for the present time.
‘Humour has something liberating about it. […] Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able here to assert itself against the unkindness of the real circumstances.’
Sigmund Freud, Der Humor, 1927
I am not sure what Freud would have thought of this advertisement, but he would surely have approved of the principle it represents: good-natured, liberating humour in the middle of a busy cityscape, at a time when many people are anxious about many things.
On pilgrimage in Rome in 1887, Thérèse Martin (whom we think of as St Thérèse of Lisieux), paid a visit to the abbey of St Cecilia in Trastevere. She had assumed that Cecilia was patron of music because she had sung prettily. She discovered that, no, the reason was another: the proclamation had been made ‘in remembrance of the virginal song of praise she sang to her Divine Spouse hidden in her heart of hearts’. At once Thérèse felt for her ‘the tenderness of a friend’ (A 61 verso).
The story of Cecilia, one of the Church’s early martyrs, has inspired countless works of art. Dear to me is this song, which I first heard recorded by La Trova de Las Faez. The composer, Manuel Corona, was a bohemian. The text is not very devout. But it shows how the legacy of a saint can saturate the consciousness of a culture in such a way that it becomes the obvious prism through which to imagine, consider, and interpret deep experience.
On the Eve
Turgenev’s novel is set on the eve of the Crimean War, but the title refers no less to the experience of the young heroine Yelena, whom we follow from adolescent indecision to steely resolve. There is nothing contrived in this portrait. When, halfway through the story, Yelena asks, ‘What’s the point of youth? What am I living for? Why do I have a soul? What is all this for?’, her suffering is palpable. It accounts for her attraction to the Bulgarian patriot Insarov: ‘When he talks about his homeland, he grows and grows, his looks become finer and his voice like steel, and it seems then that there is no one in the world before whom he would lower his gaze. And he not only talks – he has done things and will do things.’ Yelena, too, ends up doing things. A powerful account of growth and resolution.
‘Violetta’s playing was improving, was becoming more free. She discarded everything extraneous, everything non-essential, and found herself. This is a rare and supreme joy for an artist. She had suddenly crossed that boundary, which is impossible to define, but beyond which lies beauty. The audience came to life, amazed. […] Borne along and buoyed up by a wave of general sympathy, with tears of artist’s joy – and of real suffering – in her eyes, the singer gave herself up to the wave of support; her face was transformed and, confronted by the awesome spectre of suddenly approaching death, the words broke forth from her in a burst of prayer which rose to the heavens: Morir sì giovine! The whole theatre shook with frantic clapping and rapturous cries.’
Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve, tr. Michale Pursglove, ch. 33.
When Patrick Leigh Fermor visited the abbey of Saint Wandrille in the mid-50s, he was, after an initial spell of restlessness, overcome by a need for sleep ‘so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug’. Then, after some days, a transformation began. Weariness gave way to limpid freshness. How come? ‘The explanation’, he wrote, ‘is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything.’
Since the year of grace 649 the monastic life has been lived in this place, providing rest for the weary, silence for the talked-out, hope for the hopeless.
Assemble the Treasure
How do you see the creative tension between old and new in an age like ours that has made novolatry a guiding principle?
You are right in calling this tension ‘creative’. To live within it presupposes a sense of gratitude for what is handed on to me, and a sense of being responsible for it. Gratitude and responsibility: two qualities that are being eroded, I’d say, in the world we inhabit, the world we have helped construct. So we must cultivate them, practise them, being like the Gospel steward who knew how to bring forth from his treasury ‘things both old and new’. That image presupposes the patient work of assembling the treasure first.
Brave New World
In a recent study, the Angus Reid Institute questioned a cross-section of Canadian leaders about collective priorities for furthering the common good. Its findings are interesting. Of the under 30s, only 23% thought it worthwhile building on the achievements of previous generations. 30% would fix the mistakes of previous generations. 47% opted for ‘starting new and restructuring society differently’. The trends are reflected in the responses of the next age group up. I’d say they are broadly representative of attitudes throughout the Western world, weighed down by fatigue, disillusionment, and anxiety. But how to restructure society, making all things new, without a shared notion of finality? Christians ought to have, here, a substantial contribution to make. But we’d need to sharpen our own sense of purpose first, lifting up, as the Letter to the Hebrews urges, our drooping hands and strengthening our weak knees.
At the entrance to the women’s prison in Hildesheim there’s a glass showcase with an open book displaying texts written by inmates: an intelligent and moving initiative. The book presently shows an entry dated 28.10.2021:
No support from many people for whom I had made such an effort./I have known hours of pain for my fingers were burnt./Too often in my life have they pierced me with their sword./Too much time have I wasted on those who were not worth it.
A statement of pain and resignation indicating a tough lesson learnt and a wish to know something better. I hope Angie’s burnt fingers will find the balm they need. I hope her pierced heart will find healing — and that one who is worthy will be waiting for her.
‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting’. The saying is proverbial in many European languages. Do we remember its source? It was put before us this morning in the Office of Readings. Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, chastised for his ambition and complacency. But who remembers lessons dealt our fathers and mothers? In a gesture of deliberate blasphemy, Belshazzar profaned the sacred vessels from the Temple, thinking this a convenient way of showing his status beyond any law of whatever origin. That is when he noticed the writing on the wall, a most terse oracle stating simply that some boundaries are final. To overstep them is to plunge into destruction. Heine retold the story in verse set to music by Schumann. Ian Bostridge’s interpretation has an intensity that makes the listener shudder, for it makes us see that this isn’t just the retelling of an old fairytale, but the stated criterion for many decisions with which we ourselves are faced.
I was delighted by this doorway I happened to pass in the centre of Hildesheim, not just because it shows up the banal featurelessness of much modern architecture, which bans any decoration interfering with the streamlined design of an industrially made birds’ nesting box, but because it bears witness to the outlook on life of the houseowner that commissioned it back in 1705. I dare say it does something to you to place all your goings-out and comings-in under the motto ‘In you, Lord, I have always put my hope’.
In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the aria Là ci darem la mano is charged with ambiguity, being the callous seducer’s attempt to lure the innocent Zerlina into his embrace while Masetto, her fiancé, is otherwise engaged. Don Giovanni fails, so the music has come to represent thwarted ambition. As such Gabriel Axel used it with good-hearted irony in Babette’s Feast to voice the rotund Achille Papin’s futile hope for the pastor’s daughter’s hand. Three weeks ago, in Warsaw, the winner of this year’s Chopin Competition, Bruce Xiaoyu Liu performed Chopin’s Variations on the theme in a ‘vividly detailed and amazingly insouciant’ rendering, writes Gramophone‘s Jed Distler. It is brilliant, with exactly the right measure of humour.
A Tiny Spark
‘If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold.’
This was advice St Charles Borromeo gave to priests. He was one of the most enterprising forces behind the great movement of renewal that followed the Council of Trent. He did not advocate passivity or a kind of quietism; but he stressed that no outward work will bear fruit in the Church unless it alive with a fire that is of God. The last part of the collect for the feast is a prayer for the present moment: ‘Shape and renew your Church until it bears the image of Christ, and shows his true likeness to the world.’
Yesterday, the giant puppet Amal arrived in Manchester after trekking through Europe from the Syria-Turkey border. This epic journey was undertaken to draw attention to the plight of refugee children. They are present on our continent in baffling numbers, but who sees them? Amal stands 3.5 metres tall: it’s been impossible to overlook her. Amir Nizar Zuabi has spoken of his team’s wish to create an ‘artistic moment that creates compassion’. Such moments are needed. Politics void of empathy is nothing but a pragmatic game. Article 1 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ It says a lot about us that we need, these days, a doll to call this principle to mind.
We live in times that find it harder and harder to forgive. It is not that people are becoming crueller; but they’ve largely lost the conceptual categories, the identity-shaping stories, that make forgiveness possible. It isn’t natural to pardon. Our nature craves vengeance and tends to crave it immoderately. To be a Christian is to place forgiveness at the centre of one’s life: to ask for it humbly; to give it generously, letting go of grudges. When we come up against the boundaries of our sensibility, we look towards the cross and remember: we are not our own. All Souls’ Day affirms the reality of a pardon that extends, in Christ, beyond death. It summons us to become, by prayer and sacrifice, agents of divine mercy. Our prayer for the dead manifests the Christian revolution. It’s charter is founded on faith in the soul’s immortality, in our answerability for our choices, in the efficacy of intercession, in the reality of a Love stronger than death. Long live that peaceful revolution.
When we hear the name Bach we spontaneously think of Johann Sebastian, one of our civilisation’s most luminous geniuses, a man who has reasonably been called the fifth evangelist. He was not, though, a solitary comet blazing across an otherwise dark sky. He came from a long line of musicians. His star shines within a constellation. The music of other Bachs increasingly draws the attention of scholars, performers, and listeners. This recording of the motet Fürchte Dich nicht by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) is exquisite. Its word patterns and subtle polyphonies indicate a link connecting the music of the better known Bach, the composer’s cousin, with that of Schütz. What is more, the way in which Christ’s promise to the Good Thief (‘Today you will be with me in paradise’) is woven into a prophecy from Isaiah (‘Fear not: for I have redeemed you’) reveals a refined theological sensibility.
We’ve such a need for simple words like
‘bread’, ‘love’, ‘kindness’
to keep the blind from losing their way
in the dark.
We’ve such a need for silence – silence! –
in order, through the air and in our thoughts,
to hear the voice,
the murmured, modest voice,
of pigeons, ants, human beings, human hearts
and their cry of pain amid all that is
not love, not kindness, not bread.
Full of Interest
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov taught his community at Tolleshunt Knights: ‘If one always considers oneself to be the last, meeting someone else becomes each time the opportunity for spiritual profit and progress. If I am the first, life is infernally tiresome. If I am the last, life is full of interest because I am always learning something useful.’
Gila Sacks recently said something similar about her father: ‘He learned and learned, and continued to learn every single day, until his last. He learned from books, from texts, from laws. He learned from history and from world events. But, mainly, he learned from people. He would seek out people to learn from, from every possible path of life. And he would seek out what he could learn from everyone he met.‘
To learn to live like that!
Every Catholic priest carries the legacy of clerical abuse as a profound grief. To be a priest now is to live within an open wound. It is difficult, in such a climate, to speak about the nobility and beauty of the priestly vocation, of the joy at its heart. One statement that still conveys something essential, I think, is this video produced by the Spanish Bishops’ Conference in 2015.
‘I don’t promise that people will ask for your help; but I promise they’ll need you.’ ‘I promise you will provide the world with nourishment.’ ‘You will accompany those who suffer.’ ‘You will give strength to those who desire to be strong.’ ‘I don’t promise you’ll meet important people but people who’ve no idea what they’re worth.’
This is a time to set ourselves a high ideal and to mobilise all our strength, all our love, to follow it.
The Aroma Gone
About halfway through Nikita Mikhalov and Rustam Ibragimbekov’s film Burnt by the Sun (Утомлённые солнцем), an incidental character says:
Things aren’t so bad nowadays, but it’s the aroma, the taste of life, that has vanished. For good.
The statement is belied by the setting, which bursts with life, affection, and sensual warmth. The trouble is: in one participant, life has perished within, frozen by the cold hand of totalitarian power. The outward show of vitality is but a choreographed death-rattle of the soul. Gradually, the influence spreads. To refer to capture in an icy spider’s web as ‘sunburn’ is supreme irony.
Bound for Albania
‘I remember setting out in late August 1996, from a basement flat with one of the classiest addresses in London. The evenings that August were filled with distant music. Live opera wafted over from open-air performances in the nearby park, where fat, late-matingseason peacocks almost broke the tree branches with now desperate enthusiasm, their randy shrieks mingling with snatches of amateur Carmen. A heady blend of music and nature to accompany my frenzied packing, for I was swapping London W11 for Tirana.’
Thus begins Joanna Robertson’s retrospective reportage of how she ‘stumbled into Albania’, a country about which I may not be the only one to know far too little. The result is a thrilling account of a country rich in colour, beauty, dignity, and tragedy at a crucial moment of its recent history.
Two helpful insights from today’s divine office, for the feast of St Luke.
Gregory the Great wrote: ‘One who has no charity towards another should in no way be entrusted with the office of preaching.’ To speak with authority and merit others’ attention, we must first of all see them with benevolence, deeply wanting their good for their own sake. Gregory was a civil servant before he became a bishop. The principle applies, I’d say, to any public discourse.
Then, in the Vigils hymn: the evangelist is called ‘seminator luminis’. Oh to be a sower of light!
I have been to the cinema to see the latest James Bond. Even he is recast as a saviour-sage these days. He is no longer pitted, as in days of yore, against mere criminality, but against the menace of universal extinction. A life-threatening substance is set to infiltrate mankind, making merest touch lethal, cancelling out human flourishing. Bond works his victory by giving up his life. Greater love has no man. There is every reason to believe that resurrection will follow in the next episode. Before the film we were treated to a Coke commercial playing on Eucharistic imagery.
People are clearly hungry (and thirsty) for Ersatz narratives of redemption. Why is it that we Christians have such trouble conveying the attraction, nobility, beauty and compelling plausibility of the real thing?
Crisis of Trust
A law proposal from the government is rich in paradoxes. It affirms that the young now reach psychosocial maturity late, yet would place on teenage shoulders the weight of tremendous decisional autonomy in cases of experienced dysphoria. An observer remarked: ‘We would give our children a gift package without precedent: an immense vacuum, a gigantic black hole, in which they have to work it all out on their own, without any compass other than that of an absolute relativity.’
The proposal premises that ‘asymmetric’ communication is of its nature suspect: that any person of authority (a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or a priest) should be seen as a potential manipulator. Naturally there is a need for prudence. But where will this general crisis of trust take us? The state proposes itself as guardian; but what have we witnessed these past 18 months if not a general collapse of trust in governments? My heart goes out to the young. What battles they have to fight — alone.
Alain Finkielkraut’s conversation with Rémi Brague and Guillaume Cuchet, recorded on 9 October under the title ‘Does Catholicism still have a future in France?’, is illuminating and instructive for all sorts of reasons. Memorable not least is Brague’s remark:
‘A Christian thinks that the truth is preferable to an illusion, even to the kind of illusion that, as Pushkin said, elevates us.’
The only ladder worth climbing is the one that makes us descend into the embodied truth about ourselves. To aspire heavenward, we need to have our feet on the ground, even if it happens to be a dungheap.
I approached Teodor Currentzis’s rendering of Verdi’s Requiem with scepticism at first, put off by the Le Chiffre look and by all the jumping up and down. Having lived with it for a couple of years, I feel only admiration. Currentzis restores to this work, often performed as if it were a bravura extension of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, urgency and seriousness. His ensemble Musicaeterna sometimes sing Verdi as if he were Rakhmaninov, but it is no imposition. On the contrary, it is a revelation. This performance was recorded in the church of San Marco in Milan, where the Requiem was premiered in 1868.
How did we ever manage to consign the Dies irae, that profound and grandiose prayer, to the liturgical archives?
When For You It Is Night
What do you do when life apparently disintegrates, when structures you rely on collapse, when you no longer see the sense of anything? Pour another drink? Ring your therapist? Bury your head in the sand?
There is a further option. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik accounts for it in this stirring testimony to which I return on a regular basis, wanting a share in the great man’s enthusiasm and unshakable sense of purpose.
This evening at vespers we read: ‘And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ (2 Peter 1:19)
Integrity & Honesty
In a letter to his brethren at Chartreuse (included in the breviary for his feast today) St Bruno expresses joy at seeing them full of zeal ‘erga ea quæ integritatis et honestatis sunt’, that is, with regard to all such things that pertain to integrity and honesty. Rare qualities at the best of times.
Reading these words just hours after absorbing the impact of the Sauvé Report on the abuse of minors, I found them resounding like a bugle call. Only if we also pursue integrity and honesty with zeal, in a spirit of reparation illumined by hope, will the Church find the renewal she evidently needs.
‘I stand as a beggar before the mercy of God’, wrote Bruno to his friend Raoul-le-Verd, ‘praying that he will heal all the infirmities of my soul and fulfil all my desires with his bounty.’ A prayer for the present moment.
A Year Gone
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am the dawning light.
Look unto me, your morn shall rise,
and all your day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my star, my sun,
and in that light of life I’ll walk
till trav’ling days are done.
Horatius Bonar (1808-89)
Having watched, yet again, Granada’s 1984 production The Jewel in the Crown, based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, I find myself wondering whether TV is ever again going to attain such heights. I am astounded by the series’ relevance now in its portrayal of how empire unravels; of what happens to outdated structures conceived to prop up ideals in which no one any more believes; of the sheer unprincipledness of ambition; of the intractability of racial and class prejudice, whether born of stupidity or unacknowledged passion; of the unlikely appearance in dungheaps of flowers of courtesy; of India’s complex fascination. The New York Times wrote, 37 years ago, ‘The Jewel in the Crown is not only engrossing television. It is important television, a model of what the medium can do.’ I’d say that still holds.
On this day in 1835, a group of monks who had set out from the Breton abbey of Melleray founded the monastery of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire, the house in which I was blessed to make my profession. Though to speak of a ‘monastery’ at that early stage is to evoke the wrong kind of association. The founders settled in a poor cottage with a leaky roof in Tynt Meadow, a field on the property given them by Ambrose Phillips de Lisle. To establish the community was a matter of naked faith, holy perseverance, and sheer bloodymindedness. We often speak now, and rightly, of ‘refounding’ communities. It is good, when considering this prospect, to brace oneself for radical poverty, perhaps for a very long time; also, to nurture that sense of excitement, of having something wonderful to share, of wanting to give all without half-measures without which no foundation ever got off the ground.
What is Truth?
Pilate’s question has lost none of its edge, though we prefer not to think about it much. Often, remarks Cardinal Biffi, in a recently published collection, we shy away from statements of truth for fear they might be divisive. He goes on:
“Instead we must ascertain that since God began the creation of the world dividing light from darkness, any forfeited ability to draw distinctions, any relinquished understanding of what is and what isn’t, any design that favours (or at any rate puts up with) the mingling of truth and error, any confusion between good and evil, far from spelling the dawn of a new era of understanding, communion and peace, spells capitulation to an absurd nostalgia for primordial chaos.”
Rhetoric of Confinement
Two days ago the Norwegian government resolved to reopen the country (to use the official nomenclature) after a year and a half of Covid-related restrictions. When I looked up the website of a national newspaper, the lead item was an editorial with the title ‘The End of 562 Absurd Days’. For further reportage, one had to scroll quite a way down the page. This unexcited approach seemed broadly representative of other media — as if the fizz had long since gone out of the bottle, notwithstanding the language of ‘war effort’, ‘deadly threat’ and ‘national dugnad‘ having been, not long ago, in everyone’s mouth. Something significant happened in about the middle of July when, seemingly overnight, statistics of dread moved into small print while prime space was taken over by advertisements for summer wear. That events of these past 18 months have been dramatic and that radical communal efforts were called for: this is beyond doubt. Still, I’d interested to see a cool study of the rise and fall of the rhetoric of confinement. It would help us understand not only what we have lived through but the forces that influence our understanding.
I thoroughly enjoyed Craig Brown’s essay ‘Nothing is real’ in the TLS of 10 September 2021 (the paper takes a while to reach Norway). It’s one of those pieces one should re-read before writing anything about anything, or anybody, at all. I was struck by this quotation from the historian Lewis Namier, born Ludwik Bernstein Niemirowski and now perhaps most renowned – a fact that would have bemused them both – as the husband of Iulia de Beausobre:
‘One would expect people to remember the past and imagine the future, but in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience […], they imagine the past and remember the future.’
Which is why it is so important to put historical remembrance to the test, especially when it is lodged in a profound sense of involvement, with individual and collective identities at stake.
The Higher Clergy
Among the people whose lives and works are considered in Daniel Mendelsohn’s fascinating, sinuous essay, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, is Archbishop François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651-1715):
‘In a portrait made before his downfall, the archbishop has an elongated but kindly face, the high hooked nose, with its sharp tip, and the rather pointed chin offset by the warm dark eyes, whose brows are raised in what can strike you an an attractive frankness— an openness to questions, to possibility, not always present in the faces of high clergymen.’
Now, there’s a remark to ponder.
Visiting the shrine of the Holy Cross at Mogiła on 9 June 1979, Pope St John Paul II proclaimed:
“Let us go together, pilgrims, to the Lord’s Cross. With it begins a new era in human history. This is the time of grace, the time of salvation. Through the Cross man has been able to understand the meaning of his own destiny, of his life on earth. He has discovered how much God has loved him. He has discovered, and he continues to discover by the light of faith, how great is his own worth. He has learnt to measure his own dignity by the measure of the sacrifice that God offered in his Son for man’s salvation.”
This time of grace, of salvation has not passed; it is now, full of eternal promise.
The Fragility of Peace
To go on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Onuphrius in Jabłeczna on the river Bug is to enter a state of emergency. Just across the border, refugees largely from the Middle East are used as pawns in a political manoeuver. A little further along the Bug, again on the other side of the river, military exercises qualified by Reuters as ‘war games‘ run their course. One is reminded of the fragility of European peace, of the way in which innocent lives are overrun by historical processes. Over and above the necessary discourses of politics, I keep hearing the resonance of the monks’ constantly repeated invocation at the liturgy this morning: Господи помилуй, Господи помилуй, Господи помилуй! ‘Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy!’
The Heather Blooms
Now, mother, the heather blooms,
for the first time in this world
Only for you
the fields were gleaming,
the colour of amethyst.
They lay there in wait
for a word of praise from you,
the utterly generous.
Not even the tiniest knoll
after an encounter with you.
At noon today, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, that noble pillar of Catholicism, was declared blessed at a solemn Mass in Warsaw, though not alone. Alongside him, the Church beatified Mother Elżbieta Róża Czacka (1876-1961), whom Wyszyński knew and revered. Born into a noble family, she suffered from an eye disease since childhood. A riding accident in 1898 left her with both retinas detached. She lost sight for good. This could have been the bane of her life. It wasn’t. She turned it into an opportunity, deciding to dedicate her life to caring for the blind. She founded the order of Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross to care for and educate the physically blind and to do penance for the spiritual blindness of the world. To me, the most moving part of today’s Mass was the proclamation of the first reading from a text in braille by a blind woman taught by Mother Elżbieta’s sisters. In that reading we were told, ‘come to me, you who desire me’ (Sirach 24:19). Where such desire burns, no failing, no handicap is decisive. What appears to be an impediment may even turn into a grace, an impetus.
When at sunrise this morning, just below the monastery of Strahov in Prague, I found myself in a street named after Raoul Wallenberg, I felt as if I had unexpectedly bumped into an old friend.
I was first confronted with the facts of his life in 1990 through Kjell Grede’s film, Good Evening Mr Wallenberg. In 2012, reviewing two new books on Wallenberg, Inger Dahlman wrote: “In Budapest Raoul Wallenberg was transformed from a dansant élégant always surrounded by beautiful women into a man who, at the end, was unshaven, sweaty, and bleary-eyed, falling asleep for sheer exhaustion as soon as he sat down, though never tiring in his endeavour to find new ways of saving lives.”
The example of Wallenberg shows what nobility human nature can reach in one whose conscience is awakened – and how such awakening comes about. It is a scandal that the circumstances surrounding Wallenberg’s death remain an enigma. May the memory of this man, honoured as ‘Righteous among the Nations‘, never perish.
Christ’s Passion is such an overwhelming paradigm in Christian art that it tends to invest motifs of every kind with solemn pathos. This inspires awe, which is good. Still, we sometimes need a different perspective. Central to the Fathers in their endeavour to expound the identity of God’s eternal Wisdom made flesh was this verse from the Old Testament:
‘I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always’ (Wisdom 8:22).
In Mary’s Magnificat, which the Church sings each evening at Vespers, we make her proclamation our own: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (Luke 1:47).
A Czech, Gothic Madonna and Child in the cloisters of Nový Dvůr renders this aspect of the Christian proclamation with grace. It is far from superficial; on the contrary, it is very profound.
Thirty years ago today, Jonathan Sacks was installed as Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. In his installation address, he presented an audacious programme full of hope: a ‘A Decade of Renewal’. He explained:
“I choose the word renewal carefully. Judaism recognises not shinui but chiddush, not change but revitalisation. And if we do not renew our institutions they will die the slow death of increasing irrelevance. […] We must search out a hundred new ways of letting prayer speak to our souls, learning to our minds and mitzvot to our lives; and if they fail we must search for the hundred-and-first way.”
To revitalise, not necessarily to alter; to rediscover the potential of what has been passed on; to let this heritage form our spiritual, intellectual, and moral lives; to discern a task for the future in the experience of the past; to know where we come from, where we are going, to whom we must give an account: this enables growth and progress, not the merry-go-round of constant restructuring.
What’s in a Voice
In his five-part contribution to the BBC’s programme The Essay, Peter Brathwaite reflects on the power of the human voice. But that is not all: he also exposes, with due discretion and elegance, the political potential of art, its capacity to subvert and liberate. He speaks of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 people on Easter Sunday 1939, after she had been barred, on account of the colour of her skin, from singing at Constitution Hall. He indicates, to my mind credibly, the different dimensions of tension and expectancy that found expression in Robert McFerrin’s Rigoletto at the Met in 1956. Deeply moving is his account of Vera Hall’s ‘songs sprung from necessity’.
‘The human voice holds so much’, says Brathwaite, ‘but needs a listener to enrich and complete, to really hear it.’ He challenges us to listen differently; and to begin to find our own, true voice.
Aggression of Empires
As, with the rest of the world, I follow developments in Afghanistan aghast, I re-watch, with undiminished interest, Rory Stewart’s documentary made for the BBC in 2012, Afghanistan: The Great Game — a Personal View. Stewart is that rare animal: a politician who is also a scholar and an explorer. He walked across Afghanistan on his own, accompanied only by a dog named Babur, in 2002.
Cataclysmic events easily call forth facile responses. Stewart helps us avoid these. He asks: ‘What is it about this place and the paranoia and aggression of empires that has created repeated tragedy?’ One of his interlocutors in the film, Akbar Ahmed, answers, ‘When you combine arrogance with a lack of knowledge of that part of the world, you are almost guaranteed to run into trouble.’
On the Threshold
Dom Ildefons Herwegen concluded his portrait of St Benedict, Der heilige Benedikt, ein Charakterbild, which first appeared a century ago, with words that remain full of relevance now:
“St Benedict refers the spirit of the Western world to the unchangingly divine, the final goal of all created spirits. He shows us how the dignity of man can be preserved in his likeness to God. At the same time he teaches how a human society on earth is to be built. May the essential traits in this portrait of St Benedict — his great, soul-changing love of Christ, the measured, noble form of Antiquity, his keen sense of the pressing necessities of the time — remain the inalienable heritage of his disciples in the new epoch on whose threshold we stand.”
Psalms in the Age of Twitter
The Office of Readings this morning gave us an excerpt from Pius X’s encyclical Divino afflatu. It speaks of the treasure of the Psalter. Apart from the Gospels – themselves bursting with echoes of the Psalms – no text has left a deeper impact on Christian consciousness. The ancients invested their noblest art and energies in illuminated Psalters (as in this remarkable MS from Byzantium). To this day the Psalms remain the foundation of liturgical prayer. All clerics and religious are obliged to recite them daily. It is a blessed obligation. To re-read one’s life patiently, ever anew in the light of this inscrutable book is transformative, a practice to cultivate carefully, lovingly in the age of Twitter.
Greek to me
The launch of this site also represents the launch of a parallel project: that of recording the Gospels in Greek. There is much controversy these days about Biblical translations. It’s vital, then, to return to the sources with careful attention. My study of Greek has been hugely enriched by sensitive readings. Elli Lampeti’s recording of the last part of Matthew’s Gospel was a revelation to me; then, the work of W. Sidney Allen set me on a pursuit of classical diction. My recordings do not claim to be authoritative. They are simply the lectio divina of an amateur, someone who loves the text he reads, in the hope that his effort will inspire, perhaps even help, others to love and learn it better. The Gospel of Mark is available on Spotify.
The feast of the Assumption shows us what heights human nature, redeemed and irradiated by the Word, can reach. One who made this mystery of faith palpably embodied was Sr Marie-Ange de Chamas, who died on the eve of the Assumption last year, 53 years old. I never knew her, but was privileged to attend her funeral. That experience was among the most important things that happened to me in 2020. The wake of joy and gratitude the passing of her life had left swept me up, too. I keep her portrait in the bishop’s office, as a reminder of what really matters, something the world is ever more inclined to forget, even tries to eliminate.
You can find a piece I wrote about Sr Marie-Ange for The Tablet here.
Early in Marilynne Robinson’s Jack (2020), the fourth of her Gilead novels, Della and Jack have this exchange, trying to work out where a person’s true self is anchored:
‘I really just meant that there is—anyone, any human being, and then that person’s actual life, everything they didn’t mean or couldn’t say or wished for or grieved over. That’s reality. So someone who would know the world that way, some spirit, seems kind of inevitable. I think. Why should so much reality, most of it, count for nothing? That’s how it seems to me.’
‘That spirit would not always be impressed, depending on case.’
She shook her head. ‘I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see. The previous things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it.’
The Magnificat antiphon for vespers tonight, the feast of St Laurence, sets a phrase attributed to the fourth-century martyr:
Mea nox obscurum non habet, sed omnia in luce clarescunt.
‘There is no darkness in my night, but all things are brightly illumined by the light.’
The message resounds with particular authority in the sweet luminosity of a Northern Norwegian summer night.
In classical Latin, ‘humanitas’ stands for ‘kindness’ or ‘compassion’, qualities thought to be specific to humankind. When one looks at how humans coexist in the world, though, it is easy to yield to cynicism. To be reminded of what a humane life looks like, I regularly listen again to David Nott’s conversation with Kirsty Young recorded in 2016. Dr Nott’s commitment as a surgeon in war-torn areas is an inspiration. Moving, too, is his account of an encounter with Queen Elizabeth II. Her response to the state of crisis he was in at the time shows what majesty means.
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable that ascension is not possible.
St Olav, amidst the tasks that absorbed his attention here in this world, ‘rested devotedly in the soul’s free contemplation of heavenly things’. The saints teach us the importance of fixing our gaze right there. They do so with the mixture of giftedness, limitation and eccentricity that characterises human beings in all periods of history. Sigrid Undset remarks that, while customs and cultural norms are subject to continuous mutations (in this respect they are rather like a virus), ‘the hearts of men do not change at all, throughout all ages’. They are pregnant with a longing imprinted on their essence, created as they are in the image of God, a longing that points towards a single, unchangeable goal.
Fated to live
Solzhenitsyn’s remark in a BBC interview from 1976, published in Warning to the West, has perennial relevance: ‘Once I used to hope that experience of life could be handed on from nation to nation, and from one person to another, but now I am beginning to have doubts about this. Perhaps everyone is fated to live through every experience himself in order to understand.’ Depending on one’s point of view, this perspective can be exhilarating or a source of despair.
Tenderness and Grief
Sir András Schiff’s recent interpretation of Brahms’s D Minor Concerto brings out the music’s tenderness and grief incomparably, not least in the Adagio movement. It is rendered brittle, somehow, by the artist’s choice of a Blüthner piano built in Leipzig around 1859, the year in which this music was first performed.
In the Book of Exodus (13:17), when Pharaoh finally let Israel leave Egypt, ‘God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt”’. There are two ways of reading this. Superficially, it may seem that the roundabout route was simply safer. But a deeper motive is at stake: had the way to newness been too direct, the incentive to return to a familiar setting in the face of opposition would have been too great. To maintain the incentive of God’s call, the impossibility of return was required. We find, here, a helpful paradigm for reading our lives in a supernatural perspective.
People I have loved
Watching a documentary about Albert Camus this spring made me want to read his last, unfinished novel, The First Man. It was a revelation to me, a beautiful book full of tenderness. Camus told a friend it was ‘about people I have loved’. Dealing as it does with shifting cultural identities, the quest for an absent father, inter-ethnic tensions and endeavours to overcome them, it is also intensely topical.
For The Tablet‘s Summer Reading supplement. You can find the documentary about Camus here.
I will not fear
Ego obdormivi et soporatus sum, exsurrexi, quia Dominus suscepit me. Non timebo milia populi circumdantis me. Exsurge, Domine, salvum me fac, Deus meus.
I have slept and taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me. I will not fear thousands of people surrounding me: arise, O Lord; save me, O my God.
From the Waiting Psalm (Psalm 3) at Vigils, in the English rendering of the Douai Bible.
Learning of the death of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks last night, I felt a spontaneous, visceral sense of loss. For years I have looked forward to his weekly reflection in the series Covenant and Conversation. Sacks has long been one of the few voices in British public life that carried real authority. He was firmly rooted in and expressive of his Jewish identity while remaining sincerely, lucidly, benevolently open to otherness. The Hesped read by his daughter Gila today is one of the most moving accounts I have ever heard of what it is to be a father.
Our Lady of Auch
It is an ancient Christian tradition that St Luke the Evangelist was not only a good physician but an accomplished painter, and that we owe him the first life-like image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though what ‘life-like’ means has been subject, through the ages, to changing sensibilities. This matronly account from the cathedral in Auch would surely have surprised, not necessarily delighted, the sitter.
In a time when so many people are dissatisfied with their bodies (a recent survey established that 61% of Norwegian youths are unhappy with the way they look), the healthy pragmatism of this cheerful sign outside a crêperie on Montmartre provides a breath of fresh air.
To say that Seamus Heaney’s posthumously published translation of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid is alive with intelligence and musicality is simply to state the obvious. What sets it apart is its status as testimony. It shows how even a poet of supreme inspiration is enriched by engaging perseveringly with great, ancient texts. And it honours the memory of one who enabled still untrained eyes to glimpse literature’s potential: Heaney intended the volume as a tribute to his classics master at school, Fr McGlinchey. Oh, to be a teacher able to inspire a life-long pursuit of meaning and beauty!
A Contribution to The Tablet‘s ‘Books of the Year’ pages.