In one of her inexhaustible ‘letters’, published as essays, Ida Görres insists that God is beyond any notion of gender. ‘He is One in every respect; for he is is the fullness of being. In the earthly-human realm, though, this fullness is divided into poles of generative and receiving love, of the love that protectingly and caringly maintains and the love that bears, gives birth, and nurses. God is the Father from whom all fatherhood on earth is named; and God is the maternal God ‘in whom we live and move’. Inscrutably rich and deep is the symbolism and sacred sign-value of the sexes. Devout paganism knew a lot about this (only now – at the end of modernity – have we reduced it to a matter of pure materialism). Christians ought to know more about it still. The great and venerable spiritual tradition of the Church is rich in hidden treasures, which we should once again make our own.’ This text was published in 1949, in Von Ehe und von Einsamkeit. Görres could have no idea of the urgency her call would have three-quarters of a century later. Incidentally, who reads Ida Görres nowadays? She, too, represents a treasure we should again make our own.
In his eulogy at Ida Görres’s funeral, on 19 May 1971, Fr Dr Joseph Ratzinger cited a cry of pain from one of her essays. ‘What if the rebels really were to own the future? What if this process, which seems to us like destruction and betrayal, were actually God’s will and to resist it were impious and an act of petty faith? What if—an agonizing thought in the midnight hours—what if I were tied to a great but inexorably dying body, through just emotionally stirring, but ultimately subjective, unreasonable inhibitions, habits, prejudices, antiquated piety, wrongly grounded loyalty? . . . Are we living on a leaky ship sinking inch by inch, from which not only the rats but also the sensible, sober people jump off just in time?’
‘But all this questioning’, Ratzinger added, ‘is offset by a great, indestructible confidence. It is expressed in the simple yet likewise great affirmation: “I believe in God’s faithfulness”.’ Here is a perennial lesson, a source of balance and quiet joy.
‘I love Viktoria’, said Yehudi Menuhin about Viktoria Postnikova: ‘Such empoignement! Such power, and such wonderful commitment, strength, passion. There’s no gap between what she plays and the music. She’s off in full command.’
The remarks were made in conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon as the two listened to a recording of Bartok’s First Sonata. One can quite see what he meant here, too, where we find her playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky, her husband, live at the Proms on 31 August 1979.
Though I find her musicianship even more supremely in this recording, made much later in life. As an encore in Budapest she plays Schubert’s Impromptu no. 3, Opus 90 in G Flat Major. She really is one with that piano, without the slightest need to perform histrionic gestures.
‘In the beginning’, we read in Genesis 1, ‘the earth was without form and void’. What that might have been like is beyond the ken of most of us. We get tantalising impulses, however, in a recently recovered interview from 1964 with Fr Georges Lemaître. The priest-physicist, one of the first to formulate a theory of the ‘Big Bang’, insists that ‘the beginning is so unimaginable, so different from the present state of the world’ that we must first of all abstract from the image of the world as (we think) we know it: ‘there is a beginning […] in multiplicity which can be described in the form of the disintegration of all existing matter into an atom. What will be the first result of this disintegration, as far as we can follow the theory, is in fact to have a universe, an expanding space filled by a plasma, by very energetic rays going in all directions. Something which does not look at all like a homogeneous gas. Then by a process that we can vaguely imagine, unfortunately we cannot follow that in very many details, gases had to form locally; gas clouds moving with great speeds…’
Free Before Power
A review article by Josh Cohen mentions an incident from Freud’s life that was unknown to me. It occurred when Freud, subject to keen attention from the Nazis since the Anschluss, was at last persuaded to leave Vienna on the Orient Express in June 1938.
‘Freud’s late and deeply ambivalent recruitment to the plan of escape often inspires a joint sense of frustration and respect. How, for example, could he have been so reckless as to ask the Nazi official awaiting his forced signature (on the document attesting to the “respect and consideration” shown him by the Gestapo) “whether he could add one sentence: ‘I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone’”? The quip risked instant sabotage of the plan; witnesses attest to the fury on the face of the officer. Still, it is hard to hear this snatch of sharp gallows humour without feeling a wave of admiration.’
May the admiration one feels grow into fortitude.
I happen to own a life of St Francis de Sales published in 1928 by Eugène Julien, bishop of Arras. It carries the epigraph, ‘A mes prêtres, ce beau visage de Prêtre’, ‘To my priests I propose this beautiful type of a Priest’. How we need beautiful examples of people whose holy lives we desire to emulate! For a bishop to put forward such an example is a truly pastoral initiative. When King Henry IV offered Francis de Sales preferment that would take him from Geneva to a wealthier see, he replied: ‘Sire, I pray Your Majesty to forgive me, but I cannot accept his offer. I am a married man. I have married a poor woman, and I cannot leave her for one who is richer.’ Herein lies a whole theology of episcopal ministry. To his priests St Francis said: ‘It is not enough for clerics to strive to be holy; they must also become learned in the science of their state. In priests, ignorance is more to be feared even than sin, for by ignorance one does not merely lose oneself, one dishonours, disgraces the priesthood. […] In a priest, learning is the eighth sacrament of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The greatest misfortunes of the Church have come when the ark of learning has been found in other hands than those of the Levites.’ Certain Levites now seem to disagree. All the more wholesome, then, is the saint’s admonition.
At a time when much about Russia inspires fear, indignation, and rage, it is important to remember that other Russia of deep humanity and openness. It does me good to revisit Yuri Norstein‘s exquisite animation Hedgehog in the Fog, a parable that does not admit straightforward interpretation. It is multi-layered and complex, yet utterly simple. It speaks to us of anxiety, of genuine peril, of unexpected allies, of the joy of reunion in friendship, and of the fidelity and affection that can be held by a jar of raspberry jam. We all go through periods when we can’t understand where we’re going; when we seemingly can’t even see our own feet on the path. Norstein said of this film: ‘Each day, Hedgehog goes to see Bear, but once he walks into the fog and comes out of it changed. This is a story about how, under the influence of circumstances beyond our conscious ken, our habitual state can suddenly turn into a catastrophe.’
Yet the catastrophe is not final. Do the stars not, at then end, shine even more brightly for what Hedgehog has been through?
The Sense of It All
Admirably, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk continues his daily addresses to the faithful of Ukraine and to people of good will everywhere. Yesterday he uttered this cry: ‘We want to be heard in different corners of the globe, for people to hear that Ukraine is suffering, Ukraine is crying, and we are in pain.’ Yet he does not permit himself, or us, to get stuck in introspective fascination with pain. His overarching concern is to ‘discover the meaning of our Christian existence’ in the light of Christ’s mystery and on the basis of historical reality. Contemplating the sacrament of baptism, Shevchuk cites Chrysostom: ‘Let us imagine a golden cup that was damaged. No matter how it is repaired, it will always be visible that it was damaged. What must be done to remove any sign of past defects from that cup? It must be remelted, put into the fire again, remelted again, given the shape of the same cup, but it will now be new. It will have the same piece of gold, the same shape of the cup, but it will be taken out of the fire as new, it will experience a new creation and a new birth.’ To this re-making we are called. Our world needs to be made new in Christ. With the Major Archbishop we can pray: ‘Heavenly Father, grant us Christians of the third millennium to discover our deep divine sonship.’ Thus, only thus, shall we find the lasting source of justice, of peace.
Blessed Cyprian had a keen sense of the newness of the Christian condition. It was motivated by the attraction of the Catholic faith, liturgy, and patrimony. It was also informed by awareness of what a world without Christ can look like. In 1929, when Fr Cyprian was newly ordained, working in Onitsha, a smallpox epidemic broke out in his native village. The local people attributed the spread of the disease to evil spirits. A witch hunt began. Among those singled out was Fr Cyprian’s mother Ejikwevi. She was sequestered and forced to drink poison. We can only imagine the wound left by her cruel death in the heart of her son. It is all the more striking that Fr Cyprian’s faith was marked by determined trust in providence.
People often ask: How can I pray? In a conversation with Lydia Chukovskaya on 27 September 1939 Anna Akhmatova provided an example of how not to do it. At a time of tension nationally and personally she recalled with amiable sarcasm, perhaps to distract herself, a scene from happier times: ‘Once, while waiting to try on a new dress designed by Schweitzer, the famous couturier, my cousin (who weighed more than a hundred kilos) kissed an icon of St Nicholas and said: Please, do make it fit!’
If we’re honest, don’t we often pray like that, insisting that God’s providence provide us with outfits that neither fit us nor display us to our best advantage? A prerequisite for prayer is humble, that is realistic, self-knowledge. Another is trust that God knows what is best for me, and will provide it if I am disposed to receive it. That entails willingness to let go of cherished ideas of what I want, even of what I think I really need.
Today’s Office of Readings gives us a marvellous passage from Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Ephesians (§ 15).
‘It is better to be silent and to be real, than to talk and to be unreal. Teaching is good, if the teacher does what he says. There is then one teacher who ‘spoke and it came to pass’, and what he has done even in silence is worthy of the Father. He who has the word of Jesus for a true possession can also hear his silence, that he may be perfect, that he may act thought his speech, and understood through his silence.’
Ἄμεινόν ἐστιν σιωπᾶν καὶ εἶναι, ἢ λαλοῦντα μὴ εἶναι. Does my speech enhance being? Does it affirm reality or foster unreality?
To be a Christian
Today George Cardinal Pell’s requiem is celebrated in Rome, with a final commendation given by Pope Francis. Much has been written about Pell in recent days. Matteo Mazuzzi, writing for Il Foglio, remarks that he was no natural diplomat. His outspokenness could be disconcerting – indeed disconcerts still. My remembrance of him is marked by a broadcast following his release from prison in April 2020, after months of incarceration for crimes he had not committed, after a process widely dismissed as a miscarriage of justice. What struck me was Pell’s complete lack of bitterness. With robust cheerfulness he accepted what had happened as one might accept a bad-weather day. He insisted he bore no grudge against his accusers. St Silouan used to say that heartfelt prayer for enemies is the criterion of Christian faith. In that respect Cardinal Pell has left a luminous testimony; in that light everything else he did and said must be read. In his last homily, a week ago, he urged his hearers to work for the Church’s unity, founded on charity in truth. That, too, is a lesson to remember.
Life with Reason
In a fine review article in First Things, Jennifer A Fray cites Elizabeth Anscombe‘s syllabus of errors from the mid-1980s. It is made up of ‘twenty theses, commonly held by her fellow analytic philosophers, that she deemed inimical to the Christian religion and that could, she insisted, be shown ‘false on purely philosophical grounds’.’ Nearly all these theses pit nature—conceived of as formless, and thus empty of objective meaning or purpose—against reason. I think of Chapman’s line in his Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron from 1608: ‘O of what contraries consists a man! Of what impossible mixtures!’ It is tragic, though (and, when you think of it, comical), that nature and reason, body and soul should be thought of in terms of contradiction. On the resolution of this quandary, the Church has crucial things to say. How we need, now, not rhetorical effusions of sentiment, but thinkers of Anscomb’s stature, integrity, and clarity apt to conduct metaphysical enquiry in the terms here outlined: ‘Metaphysics is not the project of constructing static systems of reality; rather, it is a lived praxis whose defining aim is wisdom.’
At almost 100, Henry Kissinger remains a keen observer of world affairs. In a 2021 book he discussed the way in which the balance of power is rocked by the onset of Artificial Intelligence, which Niall Fergusson has proposed we might rename ‘Inhuman Intelligence’. Recently Kissinger applied this perspective to the war in Ukraine: ‘Auto-nomous weapons already exist, capable of defining, assessing and targeting their own perceived threats and thus in a position to start their own war. Once the line into this realm is crossed and hi-tech becomes standard weaponry – and computers become the principal executors of strategy – the world will find itself in a condition for which as yet it has no established concept. How can leaders exercise control when computers prescribe strategic instructions on a scale and in a manner that inherently limits and threatens human input? How can civilisation be preserved amid such a maelstrom of conflicting information, perceptions and destructive capabilities?’ The ascendancy of the inhuman points to the urgency of Christmas. Faith in the incarnation does not just vindicate humanity; it asserts that we depend on God to know what is, in fact, human. That assertion appears to be empirically demonstrated round about us.
After worshipping the Son of God, the Magi returned to their homeland ‘by another way’. Their choice was pragmatically motivated: the angel had warned them of Herod’s plots. However, there is also deep symbolic truth in their new itinerary. An encounter with Jesus is transformative. One isn’t the same afterwards; it no long seems right to keep on walking the way one walked before. We yearn for something else on which we may struggle to put our finger.
To be a Christian is to live in this state of otherness, constantly looking for the right way. The Way, of course, has a name, a face. It reveals itself to us to us on Mary’s lap and here on this altar.
‘Ratzinger’s double name — Joseph, at birth, Benedict, as pope — refers to an unlettered saint, a poor man of God who reminds us of the Russian yurodivy, those extravagant ‘fools for Christ’ who refused to abide by the rules of the world in order to expose the sins of humanity. Joseph Ratzinger did not break any laws — he was too German for that. However, he quickly understood that in a clearly post-Christian society the light of the Church naturally orients itself — eschatologically, one might say — towards the margins. He realised that the future of the Catholic faith depends on its ability to become a counterculture formed by small creative minorities that will be a leaven of salvation. This corresponds to Biblical experience, and to Christian experience as well. We recognise here the red thread that preserved classical culture after the fall of Rome […], that saved Eastern icons from iconoclastic fury, that challenged the seemingly unstoppable power of Arianism. It was also the experience of the Jewish people through a continuous diaspora that lasted for centuries and millennia. Ratzinger saw in this a sign of God’s will.’
Benedict XVI RIP
‘In the evening of our life’, wrote St John of the Cross, ‘we shall be judged on love alone.’ It is as if we now see this faithful servant of the Lord and his Church illumined by love — he who was such a strikingly courteous man.
‘Stand firm in the faith’, Benedict XVI urges us in his spiritual testament, ‘and do not let yourselves be confounded’. What is simply transitory — polemic, sin, empty hypotheses — will pass; what is essential remains. ‘Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, ‘and the Church, with all her shortcomings, is in truth his body.’ This is the confession in which the text culminates. Let us make that confession our own.
From a brief tribute to Benedict XVI
I wish all readers every blessing of Christmas.
Coram Fratribus will take a short break, but will be back in the early new year.
Today, two days before Christmas Eve, we invoke Christ as Rex gentium: ‘King of the nations and the one for whom they long.’ We may think we live in a time that has lost interest in Christian preaching. But people’s longing remains: longing for a firm foundation on which to build our lives; longing that our contradictions may be reconciled, our vital energies united. The Church confesses Christ as the corner-stone, the one who makes separate things into one. He redeems us from our presumption, from our illusion of thinking we must manage on our own, from our sin. In Mary’s Magnificat, the Mother of God proclaims: ‘He has looked upon my lowliness.’ He will look upon ours, too, if we grant him access to it. Today we might ask ourselves: What in me needs to be reconciled? Where do I need the grace of the incarnation? In order to invoke the Lord’s grace where it is really needed. And in order to pray, with expectation and trust: ‘Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay.’
In an affectionate portrait of Józef Czapski, Wojciech Karpiński wrote, ‘After our first encounters, I often went back to his texts. There I recognised the sharp timbre of his voice, the way he had of emphasising certain words, printed in italics in the text, by gesture and intonation when he spoke. I recognised the same rapid and precise outlook, and the use of the present indicative to speak of Delacroix, Corot, Degas, Daniel Halévy – or of himself a few years or several decades earlier. For him, all truly important problems were contemporary.’ Czapski would equally have talked in the present tense of Aeschylus, of the Prophet Isaiah, of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. How circumscribed and dull life becomes when we reduce our notion of the ‘contemporary’ to what happens to be going on just at the moment. A true perception of reality will point us towards a now that is ever-present.
‘The Doctor Mellifluus‘, wrote Pius XII of St Bernard, ‘was remarkable for such qualities of nature and of mind, and so enriched by God with heavenly gifts, that in the changing and often stormy times in which he lived, he seemed to dominate by his holiness, wisdom, and most prudent counsel.’ He was also an exceptional communicator, as his epithet suggests. In a marvellous text read at Vigils today, Bernard anticipates interactive media. He has all of humanity hanging on the Blessed Virgin’s lips as she ponders her response to the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation. ‘Answer quickly’, he urges her: ‘this is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence!‘ There is rhetorical delight in this passage; there is also great seriousness. Bernard reminds us that Christmas concerns each one of us. The Virgin’s ‘Yes’ is the source of our hope. We are called to make it our own.
Let’s start with an easy question: What is the Incarnation?
— Well, I’m not sure it is such an easy one. First of all, it is an impossible paradox, because it is the account of the union of two incommensurate entities: the uncreated being of God and our being of dust. The great Christian wonder is before that mysterious union. […] We need to remember that in becoming flesh, the Word didn’t simply occupy one human body as a guest for 33 years. Human nature as such — that is, flesh — was invested with a potential for divinity. And so being a human being in the wake of the Incarnation isn’t the same as being a human being before the Incarnation, whether or not one believes in Christ and whether one even knows that Christ ever walked on this Earth. We like to talk about things being ‘systemic’ these days, and something systemic happened to human flesh through the Incarnation that opened it to transcendence and to eternity.
As a young Cartusian, Dom Jean-Baptiste Porion wrote to his sister: ‘I ascertain the riches contained in a single perspective, the outline of a mountain, say, with its pine trees in the golden glory of May, in the mists of October, or whenever. We must become the mirror of this beauty and its echo. It always reveals something new, yet every time it says it all. I wonder whether travel is worth the bother.’ In a quite different cultural environment, Zhu Xiao-Mei has written of her teacher Gabriel Chodos that he taught her this: ‘In order to really learn to play the piano, to really learn music, it is as well to penetrate to the depth of a single piece as to study many different pieces. Many great researchers know this: it is by scrutinising over time a specific, circumscribed subject that one makes the most important discoveries and thereby develops a method that will allow one to work on any subject.’ How desirable to have this degree of patience, perseverance, and contemplative flair.
The liturgy of Advent is like a camera lens shifting from panorama to focus on minuscule detail. We set out from cosmic longing as we call on heaven and earth, the dew and the fruitful earth to bring forth the Saviour. Then our expectation is anchored in history unfolding linearly from creation to the call of Abraham; from the story of Israel to the Forerunner; from Mary’s Yes to the Child in the manager. Our faith is beautiful. But it is not reducible to poetic imagery. It is based on things that happened; and points towards things that will happen. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the presence towards which all earthly light points. He himself is a source of uncreated Light shining so that the world might find salvation, hope, and joy. In our Rorate Mass a reflection of this Light embraces us comfortingly. When the Church through the liturgy lets us hear the Prophet’s words, ‘I will save you’, it is not by way of a generic statement. It illumines each one of us. Let us then become light.
Whoever wishes to live in Christ, wrote St John of the Cross, must dig deep, for Christ is ‘like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides. […] The soul cannot enter into these treasures, nor attain them, unless it first crosses into and enters the thicket of suffering, enduring interior and exterior labours.’ There’s no masochistic glorification of pain in this statement, simply the expression of an incontrovertible fact: the transition from our created nature wounded by sin to the uncreated, holy Light of God is so immense, so categorical that it will be painful. We must let go of much. To perform this transition, said St John, can feel like traversing a dark night. There we become acquainted with Christ’s Cross, which symbolically effects the intersection of our life’s horizontal and vertical axes. ‘The cross is the gate that gives entry into these riches of his wisdom; because it is a narrow gate, many seek the joys that can be gained through it, but few desire to pass through it.’ Do I? (Cant.Esp. B, str. 36-37)
Fear Proved Wrong
‘On the night I was born’, says the indomitable Heidi Crowter, ‘my mum cried to my dad, saying “She will never get married or be a bridesmaid” — which’, she adds, ‘I proved wrong.’ The fears an expectant mother can feel on learning, like Heidi’s, that her child has Down’s are legion and readily understandable. What is terrible is that our society largely just confirms them, to the point of making such a mother feel it would be cruel to give life to such a child. An alternative account is needed, like the one presented a few years ago in this luminous video. It declares with great authority: ‘Your Child can be happy!’ The film was produced for World Down Syndrome Day, 21 March, which happens to be, too, the feast of St Benedict. His great question was and remains, ‘Who is the man that wishes for life?’ (RB Prologue). We might add: Which is the world that does? Jérôme Lejeune, discoverer of Trisomy 21, wrote, ‘The quality of a civilisation is gauged from the respect it shows its weakest members.’
In early Norwegian Christianity, churches were sometimes built on sites used for pagan sacrifice. Thus traces left by heathen contamination were cleansed; thus, too, one showed that faith in Christ brought obscure presentiments of battles between good and evil to luminous fulfilment. Something similar happened to the tradition of St Lucy. Lussi-Night was an established notion in medieval Scandinavia. A female demon named Lussi was thought to haunt the world on this, the year’s longest night, an outburst of evil on the threshold of Christmas. This nocturnal witch found her match in Lucy, whose name means ‘light’. The historical Lucy was born, we are told, in Sicily in 283. Enchanted by the beauty of the Gospel, she consecrated herself to Christ. Her resolve met incomprehension, but she kept it. She preferred death to being robbed of freedom to be faithful. Lucy was a young girl. But she prevailed, in her outward fragility, over dark violence by enlightened Christian fidelity. In this our Norse ancestors found a source of hope. So may we.
Ascesis of Joy
Do we think it hypocritical to perform an action not in tune with our spontaneous emotion? If so, let us remember that feelings are to a large extent formed by actions we freely decide to perform or not to perform. Resolve is a key quality in our moral and spiritual life. Think of sport. Not many of us are ready, just like that, to run a marathon. We need to get into shape over time. We live at a time, in a country, in which there is a gym at every street-corner. We know how effective regular physical exercise can be. Should we take our spiritual exercise less seriously? That would be irresponsible and unwise.
From my Pastoral Letter for Advent
The legendary Beethoven interpreter Rudolf Buchbinder declared, ‘From my fifth year, one thing was crystal clear to me: I wanted to be a pianist’. He admits he had a moment of doubt at eight or nine, when he thought of becoming a conductor (‘perhaps I dreamt I’d then have to practise less’), but this faithlessness was of short duration. He stuck to his first inspiration and seems not, 60 years on, to have regretted it. We’re wary, now, of letting children make momentous decisions too early. They must see the world! There is wisdom in this. But I wonder: do we take sufficiently seriously the clarity children often have about what matters in their lives, what doesn’t? Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Latin Church knew from a very early age that she had to be a nun, and fought to realise that aspiration. What would she have been told today? To get a degree in management consultancy first, to acquire a taste of ‘real life’? Or at least to take a gap year travelling round the Far East? Perhaps the Holy Spirit would not raise up a Thérèse of Lisieux now. But what if he did?
Some lives are so rich in experiences, contradictions, tensions, sufferings and joys that they do not seem to fit into a single biography. Such is the life of Zhu Xiao-Mei. Her autobiography, patterned on the Goldberg Variations, tells the story of an exceptional musical talent crushed by China’s cultural revolution, yet not extinguished. The account of how, in the re-education camp of Zhangjiako, she found an accordion used for a propagandist show, then managed to draw from it (and from the recesses of memory) Chopin’s Second Etude, opus 10, is proof of the human spirit’s resilience. From that moment, she who seemed to have lost everything, even her sense of self, was again ‘haunted by music’, especially that of Bach, which displayed to her the possible integration of opposites in harmony, balance, beauty. ‘If one has much to say, in life as in music’, writes Zhu Xiao-Mei, ‘one must take the time to say it.’ Thank God, she does. If you have not heard her Goldberg Variations, do listen. And hear her speak about them in Michel Mollard’s The Return is the Movement of Tao.
‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’ (Mt 11,19). What is that supposed to mean? Jesus’s words spring from perplexity regarding ‘this generation’. We ascertain that a Palestinian context 2,000 years ago has much in common with our own. Today, too, it is a risky business to predict the response of the masses and to wish to please. Good PR is important, but has its limitations. At the end of the day, sincerity is more effective. Our Lord impressed people by his ‘authority’, we are told. The term (ἐξουσία) could even be rendered, I’d say, as ‘integrity’. What Jesus said and his outward gestures were at one with his being, with who he was. Therefore people listened even when he said things that cut across their expectations. Good Christian communication is not primarily about publicity hypes. It is about trustworthiness. Wisdom speaks for herself, if only it finds expression in us, through us.
Formed as we are to a scientific mindset, we think of the way things happen in terms of cause and effect. You flick a switch and the light comes on. Interest rates rise, and consumer habits change. Factories in Newcastle send out noxious fumes, and Norwegian reindeer go bald. Our gadgets, our economy, our fragile ecosystem: all seem to obey this fundamental law of causation. It is easy to assume that it’s simply the way things are. Let’s be wary of that assumption, especially in matters of theology. Today’s feast, crucial to the unravelling of our redemption, rejoices in effects that precede their cause. The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not some myth of romantic purity removing the Mother of God from humanity’s common run whose stains we know all too well. The message of this feast is not that Mary did not need to be redeemed. On the contrary, she is, we might say, more redeemed than anyone else, the recipient of a unique outpouring of grace.
Time to Read
Ambrose of Milan — bishop, statesman, poet — was an exceptionally busy man. Yet he knew how to be still. I am always touched by Augustine’s description of him in Book VI of the Confessions. Augustine was no respecter of persons. Yet there is awe in his account of this man who so deeply influenced his life: ‘Often when I was present—for [Ambrose] did not close his door to anyone and it was customary to come in unannounced—I have seen him reading silently, never in fact otherwise. I would sit for a long time in silence, not daring to disturb someone so deep in thought, and then go on my way.’ This passage, often cited as a clue to the reading habits of Antiquity (reading aloud was clearly the norm), reminds anyone in leadership of how important it is to keep up determined, concentrated study in the midst of all other the claims on one’s attention. ‘Let no vain or unmeaning word issue out of your mouth’, wrote Ambrose to the newly appointed bishop Constantius. To heed that counsel, one must constantly re-ground oneself in intelligent statements of essentials, nurturing, forming and setting a standard for one’s own intellect.
Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is an opera based on a play by Bernanos based on a short story by Gertrud von Le Fort based on a true story. It must be the most thoroughly theological piece in the repertoire of grand opera. Anyone who comes fresh to Emma Dante’s production at the Opera di Roma would never guess. Why her Carmelites are dressed like low-cost Queens of the Night, obligatorily limp, and wear blue surgeon’s gloves, I’ve no idea. The singing is excellent. Michele Mariotti directs the orchestra masterfully. But what a trial for the musicians to perform this fine work in a largely imbecile production. Such Christian symbolism as occurs is used so nonsensically as to be rendered silly, as if one had staged Turandot in the style of Little Red Riding Hood, with the wolf in a kimono. It is a missed opportunity – and a reminder that it matters to acquire and intelligently pass on symbolic literacy. What a contrast with Riccardo Muti’s landmark production of 2004, not to mention Dervaux’s version with Poulenc’s original cast, available as an audio recording in the Internet Archive.
Francis Xavier’s ministry was not one of constant success. A telling incident occurred in 1551. After several months’ effort in Yamaguchi without making a single convert, Francis’s companion Fernandez was teaching in public one day when a man came up and spat in his face. Fernandez calmly wiped his face, and continued preaching. Faced with this spectacle, one of the Jesuits’ bitterest enemies converted to the faith and asked for baptism. Within a few weeks the local Church counted many converts. We’re given to complaining, today, that society does not want to hear the Christian message. What is it, though, that niggles us? Is it that Christ is unknown? Or is it our sense that no one appreciates us and our once-prestigious institutions? Often our motives are mixed. Therefore it is important to examine them. We are called to cast fire upon the earth. Let’s make sure our hearts are set on doing just that, not on restoring tatty Christmas lights to adorn our own houses. If the world spits on us, our response may reveal the face of Christ more effectively than any preaching. The Lord exhorts us, ‘You received without charge, give without charge’. So that is what we must do. (From Entering the Twofold Mystery).
Blindness & Sight
Blindness is a leitmotif in Scripture. It can result from illness, as in the case of Bartimaeus. In such cases intervention from without is required for healing. Isaiah presents us with blindness of a different kind, resulting from immersion in shadow and darkness (29:18). Those smitten with it must step out of the murk first; otherwise no one can help them. Even healthy eyes are blind in a closed, lightless place. There’s a risk that we get used to such blindness, which does have its comfortable aspect. What I cannot see or choose not to see (in myself or around me) cannot require a response; by closing my eyes I protect myself from needing to exercise my freedom. The Gospel would make of us seeing women and men, that is, realists without illusions yet on fire with invincible hope. When we raise our eyes and meet the gaze of God, which sees us everywhere, we discover the one perspective that renders this world intelligible: we see the universe embraced by immense charity made up, at once, of justice and mercy. Ubi amor, ibi oculus. For our eyes to see clearly, our heart must be freed, widened, enabled to love.
Our Lady of the Snows
‘I have rarely approached anything with more unaffected terror’, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, ‘than the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows.’ Such is the effect a house of God can have. Yet on closer acquaintance this Trappist abbey, where Charles de Foucauld would later begin monastic life, appeared to him full, not only of eccentrically lovable people, but of intrinsic attractiveness. Stevenson went on his way, he records, ‘with unfeigned regret’. Today something remarkable happened in Our Lady of the Snows. Having been home to Trappist monks for 172 years, it changed hands and was taken over by Cistercian nuns from the thriving abbey of Boulaur in the Gers. Sending the foundresses off yesterday, Mother Abbess said: ‘May they attract numerous vocations so as to found in their turn’. It may seem over-daring to charge a not-yet-founded community with the task of founding – but no, such is the logic of being fully alive: we receive the gift of life, natural and supernatural, to pass it on; our task is not only to flourish, but to bear fruit. Were we more alert to this fact, much in the Church (and indeed in the world) would look different.
A Valiant Bishop
500 years ago, on 28 November 1522, the Metropolitan Erik Valkendorf died in Rome. He had come to seek the support of the Holy See against the pretensions of King Christian II. This penultimate archbishop of Nidaros, whose destiny strikingly resembles that of Thomas Becket, had commissioned the Missale nidrosiense (1519) for use throughout his province, which embraced, not only all of Norway, but Greenland, Iceland, the Orkneys, and the Isle of Man. He prescribed this prayer for recitation by all his priests before the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries: ‘Grant me, Lord, inward tears with strength to cleanse the stains of my sins and fill my soul with heavenly gladness always. I pray you, Jesus, by your own most kind tears: grant me the grace of tears which, apart from your gift, is beyond me. Grant me a fountain of tears that will not dry up, that my tears may be my bread by day and by night. Prepare this table for your servant in your sight that it may strengthen me. I desire to eat my fill of it daily.’ This evening’s Vespers at the Collegio dell’Anima, of which Valkendorf was a member, can be found here, a brief video-summary here.
Awake the Dawn
If we are privileged to pray the Divine Office according to the order prescribed by St Benedict, Vigils of Saturday present a tremendous panorama. The set Psalms take us on a tour from the creation of the world through the history of Israel to a glimpse of the world to come: ‘I shall awake the dawn’.
It is good to be reminded that history moves towards a goal.
As Sr Elisabeth Paule Labat once wrote: to the extent that man grows in wisdom he ‘will perceive the history of this world in whose battle he is still engaged as an immense symphony resolving one dissonance by another until the intonation of the perfect major chord of the final cadence at the end of time.’ Advent invites this year, as every year, to attune our hearing, to establish ourselves in inward silence. Thus we may perceive the perplexing modulations formed about us now as stages in an ongoing melodic development whose climax will be glorious.
In a recent video Fabrice Hadjadj reflects on visual media. With panache and economy of means he lists strategies intended to keep us hooked. He speaks of what has become a near-universal anxiety: the fear of missing out. We are vulnerable to algorithms designed to seduce us by means of a perfect mixture of stimulus, suspense, and reward. What does it do to our general outlook on life to watch quantities of little videos with only highlights and no dramatic development to speak of? ‘Over-excitement anaesthetises you. Your attention span is in pieces. Bombarded with news items, you are better informed, no doubt, but you’ve lost your ability to think. A sentence by Proust becomes unreadable to you. A dialogue by Plato seems to you too long.’ What to do then? ‘Disconnect!’
It may be advisable to read a page of Proust from time to time to verify if the time has come to follow this counsel.
Forward & Upward
In his account from 1768 of A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, Laurence Sterne evokes an encounter with a Franciscan begging for alms. Sterne disapproved of the exercise. He was firmly resolved ‘not to give him a single sous‘. Yet he was intrigued by the man, above all by his eyes ‘and that sort of fire which was in them’. The friar’s head, he wrote, ‘was one of those heads which Guido has often painted,—mild, pale—penetrating, free from all commonplace ideas of fat contented ignorance looking downwards upon the earth;—it look’d forwards; but look’d as if it look’d at something beyond this world.—How one of his order came by it, heaven above, who let it fall upon a monk’s shoulders best knows: but it would have suited a Bramin, and had I met it upon the plains of Indostan, I had reverenced it.’ The notion of ‘fat contented ignorance looking downwards upon the earth’ is dispiriting. We need to meet people who direct our gaze forward and upward. Perhaps, by God’s grace, we may even be such to others.
Listen to Your Heart
‘You should only listen to your heart!’ This is the message of Cristina Scuccia, until recently the world’s best-known religious sister, now a waitress in Spain, as one can read in the report, Italy’s singing nun casts off her veil. ‘You should only listen to your heart!’ It sounds great; but is in reality an ambiguous counsel. What if my heart tells me one thing today, another tomorrow? Anyone who has lived more than a half-conscious life knows that Jeremiah, when he wrote, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’ (17:9), wasn’t just engaging in prophetic hyperbole. The heart isn’t spontaneously faithful. It pulls us in different directions, susceptible to ephemeral charms. St Cecilia, whose feast it is today, prayed: ‘Let my heart be immaculate, lest I be confounded’. That is a wholly different approach. It involves the ascesis of letting my heart be cleansed before I trust its inspirations. Living in this way taught Cecilia steadfastness to the point of martyrdom. It made her a saint.
Christ the King
Do I so fully live in the Spirit that I can say, with regard to every aspect of my life, ‘Jesus is Lord’? Do I acknowledge Christ’s lordship over my instincts and appetites? Or do I keep pockets sewed up for private use, indulging desires, dreams, and imaginings I have formally renounced? Is Jesus Lord over my passions? Or do I sublet areas to myself, breathing on embers of resentment, enjoying the bitter draught of anger? Is Jesus Christ—the same yesterday, today, and forever—Lord of my past and future? Or do I hug achievements, experiences, pleasures and hurts of distant years, while making plans for a tomorrow not my own?
Literature & Life
Ours is a time of loneliness. A year or so before I left the UK, the government appointed a Minister of Loneliness. A state department was called for. We’re aware of great needs in mental health, not least among the young. I shan’t attempt to formulate a universal diagnosis. God save us from clerical psycho-quackery! That said, it’s part of a bishop’s job to interpret societal crises from a spiritual point of view. I maintain, after all, that the spiritual life stands for something real and substantial, carefully aligned to, but not to be confounded with, psychological life. I dare to say this: I think existential superficiality, conceptual impoverishment, and a loss of words are a risk to public health in our time. We live at a great depth; we experience and feel deeply: that’s the way we are. But fewer and fewer have words with which to designate the depths that, by virtue of existing, they touch. So they are vulnerable to offers of simplifying labels, even of re-labelling. In order to live — to survive — we must reach a certain depth of consciousness, there to encounter ourselves and others, to make sense of joy and pain.
From a talk in Norwegian, here, on ‘The Power of Words’.
In his memoirs, Louis Bouyer wrote about what made him laugh. ‘I should add that all my teachers would later tell me of the superiority of character-driven comedy over situation comedy never managed to uproot from me every child’s conviction: that those who hurl cream pies at each other’s faces are funny in a far more relaxing, and, therefore, at bottom far more satisfying way, than the more subtle forms of what is called ‘wit’. In fact, it is quite remarkable that these latter forms usually grow stale in less than a generation.’
This explains why, say, a Louis de Funès, whether engaging in off-road driving, singing in choir, or speaking a range of foreign languages, has a far more durable appeal than any amount of intellectual comedy.
Which is not to say that what he represented was superficial. If you’re in doubt, just look at him here, attending to Madeleine Renaud reading Claudel’s La Vierge à midi.
The Use of Opera
This morning, waiting for an airport bus that never arrived, I and others in the queue watched with bated breath as two men abseiled up and down the wall of the Paris Opera. Were they acting in an outdoor performance of the Entführung aus dem Serail?
No, they were displaying a mega poster advertising the latest Samsung. A fine gadget, I’m sure. Still, it is dispiriting that the façade of one of Europe’s great sanctuaries of culture is reduced to a mere support for trade.
Chagall, who painted the opera’s ceiling, maintained that ‘the dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world’. Such wonder is of its nature gratuitous. I wish the abseilers had put up a giant portrait of Mozart instead.
Things Take Time
‘Great things take time’, said Cardinal Newman. It’s a reminder we need in a culture that expects everything to happen immediately. In 1863 a young Frenchman preparing to be a priest, Léon Dehon, visited Trondheim. ‘Trondheim’, he wrote in his diary, ‘was once a holy city. Countless miracles were wrought at the tomb of St Olav in the cathedral.’ He felt called to carry that great Christian legacy on. Nothing came of it then. Next year, however, three priests from the congregation Dehon founded, the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, will come to Trondheim to begin a mission there. It will have taken 160 years for the seed that was planted to sprout. One can only marvel at the working of providence. And pray for the wisdom to adopt a long-term, supernatural, and trustful view of our life and tasks.
Today’s Mass Gospel (Luke 17,26-37) exhorts us to remember Lot’s wife, arrestingly portrayed in a poem by Anna Akhmatova.
‘Akhmatova explores the symbolic potential of Lot’s wife from within, rescuing her from the status of a theological cartoon, conjuring up a loveable, pathetic presence. Akhmatova had tasted the bitter fruits of ideological absolutism. She, so elegantly colourful in Modigliani’s portraits, would not countenance the sketching of a complex human destiny with nothing but charcoal. She redeems Lot’s wife from two-dimensionality. Her poem enriches the story in ways that seem to me, not only licit, but indispensable. Her compassionate insight spells a lesson for all time. What holds us back from unconditional self-giving is not just attachment to vice. Much that claims us is good and dear. To remember Lot’s wife is to prepare for a severance that may bring pain.’
In the first episode of BBC’s Civilisation from 1969, still intensely watchable, Kenneth Clark sits below a Roman aqueduct wearing a very English suit, citing Cavafy. He has just asked what civilisation’s enemies are. He gives a threefold answer: fear, boredom, and hopelessness, ‘which can overtake people with a high degree of material prosperity’. That’s where Cavafy’s Waiting for the Barbarians comes in. In it the poet evokes a late antique city in a state of apathy, every day awaiting the arrival of barbarian hordes expected to turn life upside down. In the end, though, the barbarians don’t turn up; they have directed their course elsewhere. The city’s inhabitants respond with spontaneous disappointment. Cataclysm would have been better than nothing. ‘Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?/Those people were a kind of solution.’ For a civilisation to thrive, says Clark, it needs, above all, confidence: the sense that life is worth living, that children are worth having, that the future is worth constructing. That’s every bit as true today as 53 years ago. Only, since then our store of confidence has shrunk.
The last phrase of today’s Gospel, ‘We are useless servants, we have done only what was our duty’, may seem harsh. Is the servants’ work then valueless? Only if we see it from our society’s perspective, in which service is perceived as demeaning and everyone wishes to be his or her own boss. If, meanwhile, we are in the service of a Master who is supremely good, loveable, creative, and resourceful, awareness of our objective uselessness is no tragedy; on the contrary, such awareness will make us overjoyed that we can nonetheless be employed to produce something beautiful and lasting, almost despite ourselves. To do our duty then will be glorious, an honour.
Such servants we are called to become.
East & West
Some thirty years ago, Jaroslav Pelikan remarked: ‘It has been evident to Western observers since the Middle Ages that Eastern Christianity has affirmed the authority of tradition more unambiguously than has the West. Repeatedly, therefore, it has been the vocation of Eastern Christendom to come to the rescue of the West by drawing out from its memory the overlooked resources of the patristic tradition. So it was in the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, when the scholars of Constantinople fled to Venice and Florence before the invader, bringing their Greek manuscripts with them […]. And so it has been again in the twentieth century. One of the most striking differences between the First Vatican Council and the Second – and a difference that helps to provide an explanation for many of the other differences – is that between 1870 and 1950 the Western Church had once more discovered how much it had been ignoring in the liturgy and spirituality, the theology and culture, of Eastern Christendom.’
De bono mortis
A couple of weeks ago, on my way from Santa Cecilia to Santa Maria in Trastevere, I noticed this graffito. It’s difficult to know what’s behind it, irony, serenity, or even a kind of perversity. The only perspective in which such a statement, I’d say, can be said to make sense is the perspective of faith. St Ambrose provides it in his treatise entitled, De bono mortis, ‘On Death Considered as a Good’. He says: ‘The Lord suffered death to make its surreptitious entry [into life] to make guilt cease. However, lest the finality of nature should appear to reside in death, the resurrection of the dead was bestowed. Thus guilt would be brought to an end by death, while nature, through the resurrection, would be rendered eternal.’ We need to keep reminding ourselves of this, that death just isn’t natural and that our nature therefore, knowing itself albeit subliminally to be made for unending life, rebels against it.
Thank You, Beethoven
Han-Na Chang introduced this evening’s performance by the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra reading a passage from Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament. The text, written in 1802, expresses the composer’s deep distress at his increasing deafness. Indeed it reveals hopelessness. Remember, he was only 32 at the time: ‘what a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing […], such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, a little more and I would have put an end to my life.’ He was withheld from this drastic decision by the imperative of creation: ‘it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce’. Having finished reading, Han-Na Chang said: ‘Beethoven, what happened to you? You decided to live. Thank you.’ Then she raised the baton. That same gratitude vibrates within me at the end of a glorious concert, the music still resonating in my ears.
To be a Catholic, as far as I can see, is to steer clear of excesses, be they progressive or regressive. What matters is to receive the fullness of tradition in order, with gratitude and humility, to pass it on undiminished. The noun traditio, let’s not forget, primarily indicates a dynamic process.
In times marked by corporate amnesia, many young people naturally wish to drink deeply from the sources of the past. That is good. We are called to emulate the example of Isaac, that mysterious patriarch who spent much of his life unstopping the wells, dug by his father Abraham, which the Philistines had filled with gravel to prevent the Israelites’ flocks from thriving. But tradition no less calls on us to be prospective. A Christian is one who is in forward movement.
Martha Nussbaum once wrote a book with the incomparable title, The Fragility of Goodness. Once you’ve heard the phrase, it stays lodged in the memory. Often enough the good seems terribly fragile. That is when it matters to walk, not by sight but by faith, believing firmly in the supreme Goodness that bears all things. In the Dialogue, Catherine of Siena heard the Lord say: ‘I wish to act mercifully towards the world and to provide in all circumstances for my creature endowed with reason. Ignorant man, though, turns into death what I give for the sake of life; thus he makes himself cruel to himself. I always provide, and I tell you that what I have given man is highest providence. With providence I created him; and when I looked into myself, I fell in love with the beauty of my creature’ (c. CXXXV). On this account, even our destructive inclinations result from a perversion of the good, which it matters to catch sight of in order to reorient our energy towards it. Further, a gaze of love – suffered love – rests upon us even in our rebellion. If only we would awaken to it.
Today’s Vigils reading (Wisdom 7,15-30) offers an extravagant list of adjectives describing Wisdom. To give an account of the ineffable, we have two options, accumulated repetition or reverential silence. Theology’s principal sources, the Scriptures and the sacred liturgy, give examples of both. Within Wisdom, we are told, is ‘a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, active, incisive, unsullied, lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp, irresistible, beneficent, loving to man, steadfast, dependable, unperturbed, almighty, all-surveying, penetrating all intelligent, pure and most subtle spirits; for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion; she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.’ In the West, Wisdom has come to appear ponderous, personified by bearded sages. Biblical Wisdom, meanwhile, is fleet-footed and gracious, chaste but peaceful, not anxious. It has an edge, being sharp, yet is philanthropical. A broad semantic field opens up before us waiting to be rediscovered and delighted in.
Memory for Blessing
Anne Applebaum wrote of Linda Kinstler’s Come to this Court and Cry that it ‘reminds us of the dangerous instability of truth and testimony, and the urgent need, in the 21st century, to keep telling the history of the 20th’. For the past 75 years, remembrance of the Shoah has maintained a certain standard in Western historical consciousness. Are we aware of what is at stake now that there is hardly anyone left to recall and bear witness? Documented testimonies assume new significance, such as this 2006 portrayal of six Norwegian Holocaust survivors, including the noble Mr Jo Benkow, from 1985 to 1993 Speaker of Norway’s Storting. The last word in the film is given to Jenny Wulff (1921-2009), whose family perished in German camps: ‘When you need someone to console you, there’s no one there.’ To keep the memory of absence alive is now a moral imperative.
Up to Date
Ten years have passed since Martin Mosebach mused about Catholic bishops: ‘It is as if they have forgotten that the Church is very old and that she has survived many societal systems and upheavals throughout history and that, in many centuries, she was not completely ‘up to date’. Least so at the time of her foundation in late antiquity, in an urbanised, enlightened, multicultural, atomised and individualised society which, by a slow process, she permeated and transformed.’
Thinking people at a distance from the Church are apt to ask themselves, Mosebach contends (with customary poignancy and elegance): ‘Should they see [the Church] as dangerous or possibly as the only remaining alternative to secular society?’ The jury, I’d say, is still out.
Meaning through Form
In an essay on the art of M.C. Escher, Maria Popova explores the interface between music and visual art. Experiencing deep loneliness as a result of the fact that he was ‘beginning to speak a language these days only very few understand’, Escher found sudden, freeing enlightenment in the Goldberg Variations.
‘It wasn’t until he heard Bach’s Goldberg Variations that his mind snapped onto its own gift for rendering meaning through form. ‘Father Bach’, he called him. Wonder-smitten by Bach’s music — by its mathematical figures and motives repeating back to front and up and down, by the majesty of ‘a compelling rhythm, a cadence, in search of a certain endlessness’ — Escher felt in it a strong kinship, a special ‘affinity between the canon in the polyphonic music and the regular division of a plane into figures and identical forms.”
In his thoughtful, exquisitely illustrated account of a visit to Mount Saint Bernard, Mark Dredge says of one of my brothers, ‘It takes me a couple of days to sense that his calmness comes with something deeper, a profound contentment and happiness which I come to recognise as joy.’ What a wonderful testimony is joy! And how marvellous that a monastic brewery provides an occasion to share it! I still believe beer-making can reveal something of the mystery of the Church. By being refined to manifest their choicest qualities; by being brought together in a favourable environment; by mingling their properties and so revealing fresh potential; by being carefully stored and matured, the humble malt, hops, yeast, and water are spirit-filled and bring forth something new, something nurturing and good, that brings joy to those who share it. Considered in this perspective, the brewery provides us with a parable for monastic life, with the Lord as virtuoso brewmaster. The Scriptures favour wine as an image of the Gospel—but that is culturally conditioned; beer, it seems to me, is a much-neglected theological symbol. – Temperance in enjoyment, needless to say, is taken for granted!
Rome’s Pontifical Minor Seminary moved to its present quarters on the Via Aurelia in 1933. The apse painting in the principal chapel is a scene straight out of Sienkiewicz. It bears the inscription, ‘Hail flowers of the martyrs, sons of the apostles; by whose outpoured blood and by flames Rome was lit up’. The reference is to Nero’s ghastly action after the city fire of 64, when the emperor, who had probably been behind it, blamed the nascent Church and had crucified believers lit as torches round his garden. It strikes one that not so long ago it was considered opportune to raise young people in the faith by putting before their eyes the witness of the martyrs. Indeed, the lads who first prayed before this scene would, a decade on, as young priests, have to make courageous choices. Are young Italian Catholics now invited to contemplate themselves in the protomartyrs? I think of an English parallel. Just thirty years ago, I’d say, the witness of the martyrs was central to the self-image of English Catholics. Today that memory seems to have been eclipsed. One wonders how that happened. And why.
In his incomparable fresco of the Last Judgement at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Cavallini depicts the ascending orders of angels. As they rise, they become less embodied, more ethereal. Thus a subtle theological truth is rendered visibly. To draw closer to God is to be conformed to him, to participate progressively in his nature. To assert this is not to indulge in over-audacious speculation; it is to put faith in divine promises, ‘that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4).
There is much that is positive in the contemporary culture of celebrating the human body. From a Christian point of view, though, this outlook runs the risk of being limiting. It curtails aspiration. It keeps us from learning the high art of self-abandonment. That is probably why our times find it hard to face death, which marks such an obvious letting-go intended to be freeing, yet frightening in the extreme if our sense of self is exclusively bound to what we know we must leave behind.
Is that enough?
Today, the feast of the great St Teresa, marks the centenary of the birth of Don Luigi Giussani. He continues to inspire countless people to radical, intelligent discipleship. I recently came across an exchange Giussani once had, on his way to give a lecture, with a journalist. Huge crowds were waiting. The journalist asked: ‘Why are all these people waiting for you?’ Giussani replied, ‘Because I believe in what I say.’ – ‘Is that enough?’ – ‘Yes.’ It’s good to be reminded of this from one who was a stranger to all gimmick. Cardinal Ratzinger preached at Don Giussani’s funeral. He stressed Giussani’s keen sense of Christianity as an encounter, an event. The secret of his efficacy as a teacher, educator and helper of the poor was his being always turned towards that encounter, well aware that ‘as soon as we substitute moralism for faith, doing for believing, we fall into particularisms; we lose our criteria and sense of orientation, and in the end we do not edify, but divide.’
A Dog’s Life
Elizabeth Lo’s film Stray is stirring and impressive. Ostensibly recounting a dog’s life in Istanbul, wittily interspersed with ancient quotations about the interface of human and canine existence, it in fact proposes a probing account of our world’s values, or lack of such.
Dogs provide a lens through which to contemplate human society. Through them we see human beings – children – treated like stray dogs. The stark absence of sentiment only makes Lo’s statement clearer. She calls her work ‘a critical observation of human civilisation’.
Sometimes it takes animals to recall us to our humanity. Thank God we’ve got them.
The Second Vatican Council taught: ‘In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God’. The phrase makes me think of a photograph I like to keep within reach. It shows the monk-archbishop of Milan, Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, as celebrant. It shows a man transfigured, wholly surrendered to the sacred act, in symbolic and embodied continuity with the heavenly host. Schuster was a man of slender, fragile appearance. Vested for the liturgy, though, he became a giant: ‘We witnessed a holy colloquy with the invisible power of God; it was impossible to behold him without succumbing to a religious shudder.’ Arguments about worship go on and on. The decisive question to be asked, however, is surely this: Who, now, celebrates the sacred liturgy on such terms? We might recall that Schuster used to say: ‘It seems people are no longer convinced by our preaching, but faced with sanctity, they still believe, still kneel down and pray.’
I recently had occasion to cite an insight of which I am convinced: ‘Anthropocentrism kills the Church and its life.’ How to get out of the rut? We’re told in this morning’s vigils reading, one of my favourite texts in the liturgical cycle. The Irish abbot Columbanus (ca. 543-615) asks how God’s light may shine in him and so illumine others? His answer is formulated as a prayer: ‘I beg you, my Jesus, fill my lamp with your light. By its light let me see the holiest of holy places, your own temple where you enter as the eternal High Priest of the eternal mysteries. Let me see you, watch you, desire you. Let me love you as I see you, and before you let my lamp always shine, always burn. Let us know you, let us love you, let us desire you alone, let us spend our days and nights meditating on you alone, let us always be thinking of you. Fill us with love of you, let us love you with all the love that is your right as our God. Let that love fill us and possess us, let it overwhelm our senses until we can love nothing but you, for you are eternal.’
At the end of Olivier Mille’s documentary portrait of Messiaen, the composer speaks of his oratorio Francis of Assisi. He’d been reproached for it, he says, by right-minded people objecting that St Francis had been poor whereas Messiaen’s orchestration, colours, and rhythms are incredibly rich. The composer gives the following response:
‘St Francis was totally poor, that is true. Yet he retained a child’s capacity for wonder. He was in awe before all the beauty that surrounded him. So he was rich! Rich in sunlight, rich in the stars, rich in flowers, rich in birds, rich in the sea, rich in trees, rich in all that surrounded him. That’s immense wealth – and it is’, adds Messiaen, ‘something I wish you all.’
By being abstracted from belonging (belonging in a culture, in a religion, in a gender, in one’s own body), the individual is surrendered to itself on the basis of self-defined psycho-sexual criteria. The surrender reflects the mentality of our time —our wish to create ourselves. It is presumed that there is no such thing as meaningfully mediating institutions. Cultural experience, meanwhile, shows that the self-understanding of women and men tends to develop precisely through community. Hardly any other epoch has had a view of human nature as atomised as ours. This view is upheld in full awareness that loneliness is a growing societal ill, especially among the young. The law proposal shows a lack of historical consciousness. As a society, driven by the state, we are asked to capitulate before an understanding of human nature that will turn out to be ephemeral.
St Francis & the Viol
So vivid are the accounts of St Francis’s personality that we risk forming an impression that is purely this-worldly. Francis is held hostage to more pragmatic causes than any other saint. It matters to recall with reverence the supernatural foundation of his life and witness. The Fioretti speak of an incident that took place not long before his death. Weakened by abstinence and spiritual trials, Francis turned his mind to meditation on celestial joy. ‘Now while this thought was in his mind, suddenly an angel appeared to him in surpassing glory, having a viol in his left hand and a bow in his right. And St Francis stood in amazement at the sight, the angel drew the bow once across the strings of the viol, when the soul of St Francis was instantly so ravished by the sweetness of the melody, that all his bodily senses were suspended, and he believed, as he afterwards told his companions, that, if the strain had been continued, the intolerable sweetness would have drawn his soul from his body.’ Here we glimpse the soul-mystery of this singular Christian, whose being was wholly attuned to the music of eternity.
Called to Fidelity
Today’s Gospel gives us the parable of the good Samaritan, a criterion by which we must measure ourselves. Are we naturally inclined to act like the priest and levite? Do we, to avoid others’ needs, cross the street and vanish into the cityscape on the other side? Perhaps we think, ‘I can’t’ or ‘I daren’t’. Right action in extreme conditions isn’t necessarily spontaneous. Such action must be prepared by other, small choices made in secret, the sort of choices of which life consists in the main. Let’s remember: each small action carried out in the name of Jesus, for his love’s sake, can be a source of sanctification. It can prepare us for big choices lying before us, choices as yet unknown on which others’ thriving will depend. We must practise fidelity, then, in daily circumstances, in whatever task God’s providence entrusts to us now. If we get used to saying Yes! in that setting, we shall be armed for greater trials, too. Then God’s Spirit will be free to work in us. By grace we shall acquire the mind of Christ. ‘It is no longer I who live’, writes St Paul, ‘but Christ who lives in me.’ What he means is: It has become natural for me, now, to walk as he walked. May God grant us, too, grace to reach that point of identification.
Bitter & Sweet
Michael Leunig has a gift for putting his finger on things. He is almost always enlightening, often funny, sometimes infuriating. He can both write and draw with tenderness.
Here is an autumn prayer from his collection The Prayer Tree:
A great deal of nonsense is often said about angels. We may find we’re given to thinking nonsensically about them ourselves, haunted as we are by images of feathers, celestial chariots, and cascading cloaks.
So earthbound are we poor human clods, so conditioned by our bodies, that it is hard for us to conceive of pure spiritual existences.
Another hurdle that separates us from the angels we celebrate today is this: they have no truck with sin, no experience of it. They can distinguish between good and evil with perfect clarity, whereas we, often enough, are captive to deadly ambiguities, not knowing, sometimes not wanting to know, what’s what.
Law & Parables
There’d be much to say about Linda Kinstler’s important volume Come to this Court and Cry, a landmark study of the aftermath of the Shoah. I’d like, though, to hone in on a remark which indicates, as it were, the book’s hermeneutic framework. ‘In Jewish tradition’, writes Kinstler, ‘law and literature have a dialectic relation, inflecting and following upon one another. Where the law fails, parables point the way. Where stories are silent, law speaks. In this way, literature and law produce and revise one another. «The two are one in their beginning and their end», wrote Haim Bialik.’ This insight helps us understand an aspect of the contemporary cultural climate. In society, but also in the Church, a movement is abroad to abolish fundamental laws. At the same time we have largely forgotten our identity-shaping stories, no longer retold. What we’re left with is bewildering emptiness.
The Good’s Discretion
St Vincent de Paul, born in 1581, embodied the Tridentine movement. Deeply committed to the reform of the Church and clergy, he was reared on the spiritual doctrine of the Capuchin Benet Canfield, an Englishman who did much to form French Counter-Reformation spirituality. The work for the poor for which Vincent is best-known was part of an overall vision of Catholic renewal. He did not prettify corporate charity. He knew that poverty rarely ennobles people. He told a confrère: ‘The path will be long, the poor often ungrateful. The more uncouth and unjust they are, the more you must pour out your love on them. Only when they know you love them will the poor forgive you for your gifts of bread.’ This is insight born of experience, informed by a keen sense of human dignity. Many an NGO could do with taking a leaf out of Vincent’s book.
I also love this other phrase of his: ‘Noise does no good, and good makes no noise.’
People sometimes speak of finding comfort in Scripture. Often enough, though, the Word of God is anything but reassuring. The beginning of the Book of Job is an example. It presents a man’s life as subject to an eternal wager, to testing that amounts to total loss. The Book of Job, let’s remember, is an extended parable, not reportage. Through exaggerated features it invites us to recognise a pattern of divine action and human response. It is not that God is cruel. He does not deal with Job the way we may, as children, have dealt with ants in an anthill, intoxicated by the disproportion between our felt omnipotence and the tiny animals’ powerlessness. The motivating factor behind the testing of Job is not sadism but the extreme value of the supernatural call addressed to man by way of an appeal to his freedom, a freedom that demands to be tested as gold is tested in the furnace.
On Wednesday this week, the President of the Russian republic made a speech that began with the address, ‘Esteemed friends’, and ended with the phrase, ‘I believe in your support’. In between those statements lay a proposition of alternative reality. The stakes of absolutism, which Europeans thought was a superseded stage of societal development, are making themselves felt with force, not far away. This is a time to be mindful of where such tendencies lead. One way of doing so might be to watch Andrei Konchalovksy’s 2020 film Dear Comrades, a re-enactment of a massacre that took place in western Russia in 1962, when Red Army soldiers and KGB snipers opened fire on unarmed striking workers. As Peter Bradshaw wrote in his Guardian review last year, ‘Anger burns a hole through the screen in this stark monochrome picture’. What is our response, yours and mine, to the violent insult to righteousness being committed before our eyes?
Treasures can be found in unexpected places. One doesn’t normally look to the daily press for sapiential nourishment — but sometimes we find it there, to our delight and astonishment. An example is this essay by Katherine Rundell on John Donne (1572-1631) published in the New York Times a fortnight ago (it takes me a while to catch up). Rundell writes of Donne’s ease with extremes, of the way in which this supremely sensitive man could delight in life while looking on death fearlessly. From his practised capacity for tension sprang curiosity, sympathy, compassion, above all determined attention:
‘Wake, his writing tells us, over and over. Weep for this world and gasp for it. Wake, and pay attention to our mortality, to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us. Pay attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet. Attention — real, sustained, unflinching attention — is what this life, with its disasters and delights, demands of you.’
The notion of rest is important in ascetic vocabulary. The Greek Fathers designated it as hēsychia, a term rendered in Latin as pax. What the Fathers had in mind was not relaxation, but a state of inward balance in which the composite elements that make up human existence are gradually harmonised, attuned to the Logos, much as the members of an orchestra, before a performance, tune their instruments to the A intoned by the First Violin.
Often enough, we are conscious that this harmony and the beneficent balance it induces are absent from our lives. What to do then? An avenue is indicated by the poet Reiner Kunze, who once wrote that a poem is unrest come to rest: ‘Das gedicht ist zur ruhe gekommene unruhe‘. What if the fundamental human task were poetic, if the chief challenge before us were to make of our lives such a poem?
Who We Are
An artefact on display in a fine exhibition in Hildesheim’s Dommuseum is a candlestick made in the Meuse Delta around 1180. It represents the three continents known at that time – Europe, Africa, and Asia – as female figures. How interesting to note the attributes ascribed to them.
Asia holds a filled vessel and bears the inscription DIVITIE (wealth). Europe, bearing sword and shield, is characterised by the word BELLUM (war). Africa, meanwhile, is portrayed contemplatively, holding an open book on which is inscribed the word SCIENTIA (knowledge).
We find, here, a correction of perspective useful in the context of claims made in the European sphere, in a certain kind of political discourse, to perennial cultural supremacy, as if such a thing belonged to our continent by some sort of monopoly.
What is the relationships between an original and a copy? In the light of Genesis 1,27, ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him’, this problem is urgently relevant to every Christian. Athanasius, in his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word, developed it explicitly in terms of an artist’s work to restore a painting: ‘For as, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains from without, he whose likeness it is must come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood: for, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline is renewed upon it’. This enthralling documentary on the restoration of the Mona Lisa of the Prado is of more than just art-historical interest. It provides a parable of an existential pursuit of authenticity. It shows that a true copy is not a dead re-production, but a creation in its own right, possessing integrity. This applies to the works of a painter of genius. How much more must it apply to the works of the Author of Beauty?
Consultancy is a key function in our society. Enterprises large and small invest huge sums in it. The advisability of counsel is evident. St Benedict affirms, in chapter 3, ‘Do everything with counsel and having so done you will not repent’. Anyone who has exercised government knows what he means. There are times, though, when consultancy – weighing up options – is no good, when we have to abide by principles. We commemorate the martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage. When arrested in 258, he was urged to perform the civic ritual the emperor required: a brief visit to the city hall, a little bit of incense strategically placed, and that would be that. Cyprian said no: to obey would, to his way of thinking, be blasphemy. The imperial proconsul was shocked. Taking Cyprian aside, he said, Consule tibi – that is, ‘Exercise consultancy’. Cyprian retorted: ‘In a matter so just, there is no consultancy to be had’, In re tam iusta nulla est consultatio. Sometimes there’s a limit to what consultancy can achieve. What matters then is simply to tell truth from falsehood, and to opt for truth.
The requests put on our lips by the liturgy today, on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, are enormous. In the collect, ‘grant that your Church, participating with the Virgin Mary in the Passion of Christ, may merit a share in his Resurrection’; in the prayer after communion, ‘we humbly ask, O Lord, that […] we may complete in ourselves for the Church’s sake what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ’. These aren’t just words. They are pointers to the core of the Christian condition, where to be ‘passive’ is not to be inactive; on the contrary, incorporation into the Passion is the highest form of action, the presupposition for meaningful, effective Christian agency. We contemplate this truth in the ineffable compassion of Mary. Concepts fail to render its intensity. Music can hint at it, nowhere perhaps less inadequately than in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. This version with Mirella Freni and Teresa Berganza is to my mind unsurpassed. Both singers are at the peak of their powers. But there is more than just virtuosity at work. Their mature voices enable the maternal mystery to be voiced with singular power.
John Chrysostom is not a universally lovable saint like Polycarp or Francis of Sales. He was a preacher and teacher of genius; his fortitude was proverbial. Each year I am struck by the reference, in today’s collect, to ‘his astounding eloquence and his forbearance in persecution’. At the same time, Chrysostom had many rough edges. Some of his utterances can to this day startle us with their force, even violence.
He reminds us that genuine communion must be a function of truth, and that truth, more often than not, is something that has to be striven for.
The foundation of our oneness in Christ in the Church is radical authenticity. This requires us to be ready to denounce whatever in and around us is inauthentic, an obstacle rather than a help to the pursuit of genuine discipleship.
Like the Ore of Bells
There’s a tendency abroad to deprive the Church of her definite article, her capital letter, her personhood. What’s left, the task of ‘constructing church’ is a bit like ‘studying maths’, an exercise in human ingenuity. What a contrast in Gertrud von Le Fort’s Hymns to the Church: ‘Your servants bear ageless ornaments, your language is like bell-metal ore. /Your prayers resemble millennial oaks, your Psalms have the breath of the seas. /Your teaching is like a fastness on unassailable hills. /When you receive vows, they resound to the end of time; when you bless, you build mansions in heaven. /Your consecrations are like great signs of fire on human foreheads, no one can put them out. /The measure of your faithfulness is not the faith of men, the measure of your years encompasses no autumn. /You are like enduring fire above whirling ash! /You are like a tower in the midst of tearing waters! /That is why your silence is deep when days are loud; at eventime they will nonetheless fall upon your mercy. /You are the one who prays upon every tomb! /Where today gardens bloom there’ll be a wilderness tomorrow; where a people dwells at dawn, there is ruin at night. /You are the sole sign on earth of what is eternal; all that is not remoulded by you, is transmuted by death.’
Queen Elizabeth II lived a life admirable in so many ways that the encomia pouring out on her death yesterday, on the feast of Mary’s Nativity, are inexhaustible. What strikes me especially, though, is this: one person’s radical fidelity to her task and station lent stability to the lives of countless others. Fidelity can take many forms. Who knows what awaits us? Important is the heart’s stability, translated into embodied living. I recently came upon this noble prayer formulated by John Paul II on his 65th birthday: ‘If one day illness touches my mind and clouds it, I do surrender to You even now, with [a] devotion that will later be continued in silent adoration. If one day I were to lie down and remain unconscious for long, it is my desire that every hour I am given to experience this be an uninterrupted thanksgiving, and that my ultimate breath be also a breath of love. Then, at such a moment, my soul, guided by the hand of Mary, will face you in order to sing your glory forever. Amen.’
Man and Beast
When Anthony the Great, in the final stage of his long life, retired to the Inner Mountain, he was bothered by beasts that dug up his vegetable patch. He addressed them graciously (χαριέντως), saying, ‘Why are you doing me harm, since I do no harm to you?’ From then on, he and they lived together in peace. The restoration of harmony with the animal kingdom is a Leitmotif in ascetic literature, a sign of return to graced innocence, an indication of holiness. We are, as a generation, at the opposite end of the spectrum. A review of recent literature provides statistics that show how far our exploitation of animals has gone: ‘Spain’s porkers, nearly as numerous as its people, provide enough manure annually to fill the Barcelona football stadium 23 times over’; ‘We raise 66 billion chickens a year, eight for every human, almost all of them in terrible conditions’. The cinema is mobilised to open our eyes. I have been touched by Gunda and Cow. Both are beautiful. Neither is sentimental. Effectively these films reveal the otherness of animals, reminding us that the antiseptic, plastic-wrapped meat in supermarket fridges was once alive – and that all life deserves to be regarded with reverence.
Stepping out of Fear
In Scripture, a consequence of sin – which is a state of disorientation – is the experience of fearing where there is no fear (cf. Ps 53:5). The process of conversion involves the shedding of irrational anxiety. Sometimes, though, we’ve objective reasons to fear. This was the case with Judah in Jeremiah’s day, lending force to the Lord’s oracle, spoken through the prophet: ‘Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid; do not fear him, says the Lord’ (42:11). God does not tell the people their fear is groundless. He asks them to acknowledge it at a natural level, then to go beyond it in a spirit of faith. We often feel guilty about fear, trying either to suppress or dissimilate it. So it gains a deeper foothold. To say instead, ‘This is frightening, I am frightened’, can confer unexpected freedom. It grounds us in the real. To opt for the real is to aspire to truth. The truth, even when hard, liberates, opening us to the grace of courage.
אַל־תִּֽירְא֗וּ מִפְּנֵי֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ בָּבֶ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם יְרֵאִ֖ים מִפָּנָ֑יו אַל־תִּֽירְא֤וּ מִמֶּ֙נּוּ֙ נְאֻם־יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־אִתְּכֶ֣ם אָ֔נִי לְהוֹשִׁ֧יעַ אֶתְכֶ֛ם וּלְהַצִּ֥יל אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִיָּדֽוֹ
It is often assumed that what puts the Church at odds with contemporary society is its ethical teaching. Many cry out for change in this area. Quite apart from the merit of considering what might be a Catholic response to particular, perhaps new problems in ethics (something each age is called upon to do), I consider the assumption false. I do not think the principal skandalon is ethical. I think it is metaphysical.
The holiness of God! The splendour of his glory, made manifest in Christ through infinitely gracious condescension! These core realities, which to the founders of Cîteaux were axiomatic, seem strange to an age whose outlook is wholly horizontal. We are children of that age. Of this we must ever be aware.
From a Letter to the Order.
Enough to Say Yes
‘For me and for each one of you, when God called us to specific stations in life, He revealed very little: the basic call, the bare bones. His invitation didn’t include a biography and a script, and so it called for faith and trust, our hand in God’s. No rose garden, only that whatever the garden, Eden or Gethsemane, He would be there faithful through all our infidelities. It’s true of every vowed existence, husband and wife, priest or religious, the law, dance, music or medicine, commerce or the State house. It’s true of the powerful and the powerless. God tells us only enough for us to say yes.’
With these words the Assuptionist Fr Philip Bonvouloir (1929-2012) offered friends a retrospect of his own experience. In it I dare say many of us will recognise our own.
To signpost what is effectively a rubbish dump as an ‘ecological isle’ requires some semantic acrobatics.
To sort waste is admirable, but is still just a way of storing it. The work of purification is a separate process, happening elsewhere, with an energy proper to it.
Really ecological would be the non-generation of junk, so as not to have to get rid of it.
The logic can be transferred, mutatis mutandis, to the inner life. There too we must beware of supposing that merely labelling and sorting amounts to cleansing.
Contemplative life is grounded in an ability to see. Contemplation is grace, of course, but grace, as ever, builds on nature, so we must exercise our faculty of sight. That’s something we all can do. In fact, if we fail to foster an ability to see and distinguish colour, the world around us increasingly appears monochrome. Czapski once noted:
‘Dusk already. Work once again, fresh and sure. Sure, in what way? In the way I control myself, objectify, expand the range of my sense of colour which, when I don’t work, is impoverished. The routine? Could you call this routine, this secular technique that opens a universe of happy, pictorial experiences before me? This slow pace couldn’t be called vision, it’s more like an apprenticeship of looking.’
Hans Ulrich Treichel’s novel Daybreak is effectively a pietà in prose. An elderly woman cradles her middle-aged son, dead after long illness, and at last feels free to express to herself – and to us – elements of the drama that has framed her life, which only in appearance has been ordinary (what is ordinary?) and banal.
How litte we know of one another! How limited is our notion of what others may be carrying, what heroism they may be called upon to exercise simply to rise in the morning!
‘Have we not passed along a steep mountain pass?’ asks the narratrix towards the end of her story. Indeed she has. And she has enabled the reader to get a sense of the risks run at such altitude.
Hunting the Pluck
This Heaney poem makes me think of John 7:38. It is one thing to carry a spring of water, another to find it.
Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tightly by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally
Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked with precise convulsions,
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green hazel its secret stations.
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
Far and Wide
In 1900, five years before Norway regained sovereignty, parliament passed a motion to grant 12,000 kroner towards the publication of Heimskringla in both established forms of the Norwegian tongue, ‘so that the book might reach far and wide, being affordable’. The notion that a nation in search of corporate identity would gain from engaging with its founding narratives was taken for granted and subsidised.
This provides food for thought in a cultural context marked by wilful amnesia. We readily live and speak as if the past were mere overweight, prospect all that mattered. And we’re surprised that we’ve trouble coming up with a sharable account of who we are, what we’re about? Never, perhaps, has there been a time in which the practice of careful remembrance was more necessary, indeed a civic (and ecclesial) duty.
It was once common for votive plaques to be fitted in churches in thanksgiving for graces received. An object might take the place of a plaque: a crutch showing that the owner had no further use for it, a photograph of a long-awaited child.
An essential passage in the Gospel is the one in which Jesus, between Samaria and Galilee, asks the cleansed leper come to thank him: ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?’ (Lk 17:17).
I love this unpretentious ensemble. Loud gestures are not always needed to give thanks. Sometimes a pine cone says it all.
What matters is the consciousness of having been graced, then the capacity to respond graciously.
This morning I stood at a window holding a bowl of hot tea while watching a swallow circling a pond into which, every third round or so, it shot like a bullet. The window was shut, I couldn’t hear the swallow. But I could see its jubilation.
This afternoon I saw a paraglider under a billowing, bright yellow sail perform gracious wind-whirls, all the lovelier for being wholly gratuitous.
It struck me that the two were doing the same thing: making being explicit and delighting in it. What a splendid urge all creatures have to enact that line in Hopkins’s poem, almost a confession: ‘What I do is me, for that I came’. Yet how much distracts us from it. How easily we surrender to unselving and so accumulate, instead of joy, dispiriting sadness.
The saint we honour as Rose of Lima was born in Peru, to Spanish parents, in 1586, 23 years after the closure of the Council of Trent, which energised global Catholicism. In Rose’s life, this energy was manifest in strong dedication to care for the poor, which brings her close to the aspiration of contemporary Christianity. We may, by contrast, feel estranged by her life of mortification. For Rose, the Passion of Christ was not a subject for meditation. It was the vital atmosphere within which her existence unfolded. Her attachment to the Cross was radical. This is an aspect of the Christian condition that, today, we tend to forget somewhat. God, says St Paul in today’s Mass reading, calls us ‘to share the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Now, that glory was supremely manifest on Calvary. To recognise this fact is not to yield to a morbid religiosity. It is to read the Gospel honestly, recognising our need for redemption and affirming the effective truth of the refrain the Church sings on Good Friday: ‘By the wood of the Cross joy entered the whole world.’ Thereby, not otherwise.
In a sermon, St Bernard or Clairvaux likens the Christian’s life in this world to a man who carries a flickering flame through a long, stormy night. The wind blows, the rain lashes down. To keep his flame from going out, he cups it with both hands, focusing all his attention on keeping it safe as he makes slow progress towards the Father’s house. What keeps his courage up is the certainty that he will, as long as he is faithful, arrive there one day. ‘And in that house not made with hands’, Bernard says, ‘there is nothing to fear. No enemy enters that house. No friend leaves it.’ The last remark is characteristic. St Bernard had a life-long charism for friendship. He knew that, in order to serve God, we have need of one another, and that this fellowship of truth-seeking hearts is life’s sweetest gift.
Quixote in Odessa
In his latest dispatch from Ukraine, published today in Dag og Tid, Andrej Kurkov reports that Minkus’s Don Quixote was performed, this week, at the Odessa Opera to a full house. To stage a ballet in the midst of war is an act of defiance, upholding the attainments of the human spirit in the face of brute aggression. One could interpret the choice of repertoire as high sarcasm. For this enterprise is not ‘quixotic’; it is bound to prevail. The spirit always does, in the long term. Last week, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk remarked, continuing his exceptional wartime catechesis: ‘the cornerstone of any society is respect for the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death. Because it is from the dignity of a person that all other rights and responsibilities of a person derive.’ To be determined to counter ugliness with beauty is to display what dignity is, and so to spread hope far abroad.
Grandeur of Time
A quarter-century ago I heard Olivier Clément speak unforgettably of the virtue of slowness. The world has speeded up a lot since then. We need to hear voices that remind us of the craziness of constant acceleration. Like that of Marie Noël, who in 1946 noted: ‘Here, each evening, there comes a splendid moment: the homecoming of the oxen with the great cartloads of sheaves towering over them […], they appear, slow and majestic, to come straight out of eternity. Maybe Boaz saw their like. And maybe that is the true rhythm of work, the one God devised for man, that noble gait, that powerful, unhasting tread. Perhaps our Cathedrals were conceived and built without hurry or fret, and with the steady calm of mind and hands and only the vigorous effort measured to the day’s need. Perhaps all human labour, be it of soul or body, requires for its beauty something of the grandeur of time.’ From a precious Essay in Meaning translated by Pauline Matarasso, p. 239.
Ever since I first read Simon Wiesenthal’s book Recht, nicht Rache (Justice, not Revenge), the legacy of this nobly tireless yet unbitter maintainer of remembrance has marked me deeply. In a documentary now a few years old, Sir Ben Kingsley, who played Wiesenthal in the feature Murderers Among Us, speaks about his first encounter with a man he had to get to know, so to speak, from within. What struck him above all — ‘it has never left me’ — was the way in which Wiesenthal would spontaneously draw his hand across his face in a gesture of contained despair: ‘I have never seen anyone else physically embody a whole generation of grief in one gesture. He manages to tap into the collective grief and the understanding of grief in all of us, whatever our history. This I think is tremendously healing. Because if you cannot grieve over loss, you cannot begin to redress that loss and repair the damage done.’ Kingsley stresses, though, that there was more to Wiesenthal than the incarnation of grief: ‘As well as weeping all of his tears, he was a man capable of laughing all of his laughter.’
In 1949, 53 years old, having recorded his account of a war during which he’d endured and witnessed terrible things, faced now with the suffocation of Poland, Józef Czapski asked himself if it was still possible to paint. Should he paint, a new form of expression was called for — but was the pursuit of art even moral? He wrote to Hering: ‘All I want to do now is to disconnect myself from other painters, from the Louvre, from the methods, and to use all my passions to gnaw their way into some painting of mine. Maybe a painting of an old Jewish woman in a train or standing at the Otwock station is closer to my heart today than the most scrumptious Parisian ideas. My painting really seems to have no use for Paris. I have one good friend here who continues to blast me harshly for not painting. Even though I tell him, “But the sky is falling, and you want me to sit and paint?” And he says, “Maybe the sky is falling because you and the others have stopped painting.”‘ (In Karpeles, p. 268).
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. Each day’s task is to acquire wisdom to recognise the terms of this battle, courage to step forward when we are called, grace to let Jesus work his victory through us. 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.