‘In this way you have humbled yourself, Christ my God, to carry me, your stray sheep, on your shoulders. You let me graze in green pastures. At the hands of your shepherds, you refresh me with waters of orthodox teaching . You pastured these shepherds. Now they in turn tend your chosen, special flock. Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop to serve your people. […] Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the straight path. When I open my mouth, put your words in it. […] Do not let my heart incline me either to the right or to the left. Let your good Spirit guide me along the straight path. Whatever I do, let it be in accordance with your will, now until the end. And you, O Church, whose assistance comes from God, are a most excellent assembly, the noble summit of perfect purity. God rests in you. Receive from us an exposition of faith free from error, to strengthen the Church, just as our Fathers handed it down to us.’
Into the Woods
I am copying down in a book from my heart’s archive
the day that I ceased to fear God with a shadowy fear.
Would you name it the day that I measured my column of virtue
and sighted through windows of merit a crown that was near?
Ah, no, it was rather the day I began to see truly
that I came forth from nothing and ever toward nothingness tend,
that the works of my hands are a foolishness wrought in the presence
of the worthiest king in a kingdom that never shall end.
I rose up from the acres of self that I tended with passion
and defended with flurries of pride:
I walked out of myself and went into the woods of God’s mercy,
and here I abide.
Jessica Powers (1905-88)
‘Pay attention./Be astonished./Tell about it.’ During Advent this poem by Mary Oliver speaks with particular authority. It moves me to find it resonate with Fides et Ratio. The encyclical’s contemplative author points out that fundamental elements of knowledge
‘spring from the wonder awakened in [us] by the contemplation of creation: human beings are astonished to discover themselves as part of the world, in a relationship with others like them, all sharing a common destiny. Here begins, then, the journey which will lead them to discover ever new frontiers of knowledge. Without wonder, men and women would lapse into deadening routine and little by little become incapable of a life which is genuinely personal.’
But who, these days, sets time aside and has peace of mind for wonder, I wonder?
‘Christ formed a community with the Twelve. A priest can’t live on his own! He runs the great risk of isolating himself and of being caught up in just his own ideas if he does not live in dialogue with laypeople or with other priests. Look at Saint Augustine: he lived with his clergy. It is indispensable to find means by which priests can live in community, even if it requires great humility on their part.’
Remarks by Cardinal Robert Sarah in a recent interview. They correspond to historical fact. Again and again, in the history of the Church, a renewal of the priestly state has come about through the rediscovery and radical practice of a common life.
To Become a Man
The death of Gérard Philipe on 25 November 1959 provoked national grief in France. In a recent book, Jérôme Garcin revisits the actor’s singular life and death. He contends that Philipe personified the need for catharsis after World War II, embodying the French nation’s best aspirations. But he stood for something more universal, too. Maria Casarès said of him: ‘He was a man seeking avidly, ferociously to become a man’. He knew time was short. In an interview with the journal Arts, he was asked: ‘What thought preoccupies you?’ He answered: ‘The urgency of the things I have to do.’ Then, ‘What amazes you about life?’, to which he responded, ‘Its brevity’. Happily we have both the films in which he acted and many sound recordings that he made — this one, for example: a marvellous reading of Georges Duhamel’s Mozart Told to Children.
When Navid Kermani speaks, I listen. Few commentators have his breadth of perspective and depth of culture, not to mention his elegant style. In a recent article in Die Zeit, ostensibly about German troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, he argues for the rebooting of politics beyond demagogy and simple answers. There, must, he says, be a space between non-involvement and warfare. It should be the realm of politics, engaged to seek solutions in seemingly hopeless situations, to conquer indifference, to foster exchange and shared effort for good through clearheaded thinking, persistence, and patience. ‘Politics stands for an interest extending beyond one’s own sphere, embracing what is other, if only for the simple, selfish reason that we cannot keep our prosperity and peace as long as suffering and violence reign elsewhere in the world. The other then becomes our own in the form of refugees, attacks, and terrifying prospects, the effort to sustain which destroy our soul and the civility of our commonwealth.’
‘Ought we not to leave the free-born mind of man still ever free?’ The question is posed by Didymus, a Roman soldier, in Handel’s oratorio Theodora, with a libretto by Thomas Morell. Handel considered it one of his major works. It has been unjustly forgotten. This week’s Paris production, with a stellar cast, was a welcome resurrection. The drama is set in Antioch, during the reign of Diocletian. All citizens, on pain of death, are ordered to take part in pagan rites. For the Christian Theodora, the matter is clear: there is no room for compromise, though she is nonetheless a loyal subject. Valens, the emperor’s governor, scoffs: ‘They are not Cæsar’s friends, who own not Cæsar’s gods.’ These were the terms of play during centuries of persecution. What happens when Caesar, be he embodied in a social democracy, no longer has gods? What space is left, socially and politically, for those who do? In Theodora, the confession, ‘I am a Christian’, is an ultimatum. It makes one think.
Anger simmers through Philippe Sands’s book, occasionally sending the lid of the narrative flying, but never for long. The story returns to containment within a carefully conducted forensic enquiry in what has become an engrossing book.
It offers, as Rebecca Abrams wrote in the FT, ‘a timely reminder that crimes against humanity don’t occur only at the level of states and governments. They take place also in the more secret and less fathomable depths of people’s hearts and minds.’
It shows furthermore the lengths to which people may go to redeem the memory of those they love (and thus their sense of self), the stakes of collusion with injustice, the perversions that occur when high, even transcendent, ideals are submitted to politicking. Sands provides us with something of a universal parable, full of relevance for the present time.
‘Humour has something liberating about it. […] Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able here to assert itself against the unkindness of the real circumstances.’
Sigmund Freud, Der Humor, 1927
I am not sure what Freud would have thought of this advertisement, but he would surely have approved of the principle it represents: good-natured, liberating humour in the middle of a busy cityscape, at a time when many people are anxious about many things.
On pilgrimage in Rome in 1887, Thérèse Martin (whom we think of as St Thérèse of Lisieux), paid a visit to the abbey of St Cecilia in Trastevere. She had assumed that Cecilia was patron of music because she had sung prettily. She discovered that, no, the reason was another: the proclamation had been made ‘in remembrance of the virginal song of praise she sang to her Divine Spouse hidden in her heart of hearts’. At once Thérèse felt for her ‘the tenderness of a friend’ (A 61 verso).
The story of Cecilia, one of the Church’s early martyrs, has inspired countless works of art. Dear to me is this song, which I first heard recorded by La Trova de Las Faez. The composer, Manuel Corona, was a bohemian. The text is not very devout. But it shows how the legacy of a saint can saturate the consciousness of a culture in such a way that it becomes the obvious prism through which to imagine, consider, and interpret deep experience.
On the Eve
Turgenev’s novel is set on the eve of the Crimean War, but the title refers no less to the experience of the young heroine Yelena, whom we follow from adolescent indecision to steely resolve. There is nothing contrived in this portrait. When, halfway through the story, Yelena asks, ‘What’s the point of youth? What am I living for? Why do I have a soul? What is all this for?’, her suffering is palpable. It accounts for her attraction to the Bulgarian patriot Insarov: ‘When he talks about his homeland, he grows and grows, his looks become finer and his voice like steel, and it seems then that there is no one in the world before whom he would lower his gaze. And he not only talks – he has done things and will do things.’ Yelena, too, ends up doing things. A powerful account of growth and resolution.
‘Violetta’s playing was improving, was becoming more free. She discarded everything extraneous, everything non-essential, and found herself. This is a rare and supreme joy for an artist. She had suddenly crossed that boundary, which is impossible to define, but beyond which lies beauty. The audience came to life, amazed. […] Borne along and buoyed up by a wave of general sympathy, with tears of artist’s joy – and of real suffering – in her eyes, the singer gave herself up to the wave of support; her face was transformed and, confronted by the awesome spectre of suddenly approaching death, the words broke forth from her in a burst of prayer which rose to the heavens: Morir sì giovine! The whole theatre shook with frantic clapping and rapturous cries.’
Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve, tr. Michale Pursglove, ch. 33.
When Patrick Leigh Fermor visited the abbey of Saint Wandrille in the mid-50s, he was, after an initial spell of restlessness, overcome by a need for sleep ‘so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug’. Then, after some days, a transformation began. Weariness gave way to limpid freshness. How come? ‘The explanation’, he wrote, ‘is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything.’
Since the year of grace 649 the monastic life has been lived in this place, providing rest for the weary, silence for the talked-out, hope for the hopeless.
Assemble the Treasure
How do you see the creative tension between old and new in an age like ours that has made novolatry a guiding principle?
You are right in calling this tension ‘creative’. To live within it presupposes a sense of gratitude for what is handed on to me, and a sense of being responsible for it. Gratitude and responsibility: two qualities that are being eroded, I’d say, in the world we inhabit, the world we have helped construct. So we must cultivate them, practise them, being like the Gospel steward who knew how to bring forth from his treasury ‘things both old and new’. That image presupposes the patient work of assembling the treasure first.
Brave New World
In a recent study, the Angus Reid Institute questioned a cross-section of Canadian leaders about collective priorities for furthering the common good. Its findings are interesting. Of the under 30s, only 23% thought it worthwhile building on the achievements of previous generations. 30% would fix the mistakes of previous generations. 47% opted for ‘starting new and restructuring society differently’. The trends are reflected in the responses of the next age group up. I’d say they are broadly representative of attitudes throughout the Western world, weighed down by fatigue, disillusionment, and anxiety. But how to restructure society, making all things new, without a shared notion of finality? Christians ought to have, here, a substantial contribution to make. But we’d need to sharpen our own sense of purpose first, lifting up, as the Letter to the Hebrews urges, our drooping hands and strengthening our weak knees.
At the entrance to the women’s prison in Hildesheim there’s a glass showcase with an open book displaying texts written by inmates: an intelligent and moving initiative. The book presently shows an entry dated 28.10.2021:
No support from many people for whom I had made such an effort./I have known hours of pain for my fingers were burnt./Too often in my life have they pierced me with their sword./Too much time have I wasted on those who were not worth it.
A statement of pain and resignation indicating a tough lesson learnt and a wish to know something better. I hope Angie’s burnt fingers will find the balm they need. I hope her pierced heart will find healing — and that one who is worthy will be waiting for her.
‘You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting’. The saying is proverbial in many European languages. Do we remember its source? It was put before us this morning in the Office of Readings. Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, chastised for his ambition and complacency. But who remembers lessons dealt our fathers and mothers? In a gesture of deliberate blasphemy, Belshazzar profaned the sacred vessels from the Temple, thinking this a convenient way of showing his status beyond any law of whatever origin. That is when he noticed the writing on the wall, a most terse oracle stating simply that some boundaries are final. To overstep them is to plunge into destruction. Heine retold the story in verse set to music by Schumann. Ian Bostridge’s interpretation has an intensity that makes the listener shudder, for it makes us see that this isn’t just the retelling of an old fairytale, but the stated criterion for many decisions with which we ourselves are faced.
I was delighted by this doorway I happened to pass in the centre of Hildesheim, not just because it shows up the banal featurelessness of much modern architecture, which bans any decoration interfering with the streamlined design of an industrially made birds’ nesting box, but because it bears witness to the outlook on life of the houseowner that commissioned it back in 1705. I dare say it does something to you to place all your goings-out and comings-in under the motto ‘In you, Lord, I have always put my hope’.
In Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the aria Là ci darem la mano is charged with ambiguity, being the callous seducer’s attempt to lure the innocent Zerlina into his embrace while Masetto, her fiancé, is otherwise engaged. Don Giovanni fails, so the music has come to represent thwarted ambition. As such Gabriel Axel used it with good-hearted irony in Babette’s Feast to voice the rotund Achille Papin’s futile hope for the pastor’s daughter’s hand. Three weeks ago, in Warsaw, the winner of this year’s Chopin Competition, Bruce Xiaoyu Liu performed Chopin’s Variations on the theme in a ‘vividly detailed and amazingly insouciant’ rendering, writes Gramophone‘s Jed Distler. It is brilliant, with exactly the right measure of humour.
A Tiny Spark
‘If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold.’
This was advice St Charles Borromeo gave to priests. He was one of the most enterprising forces behind the great movement of renewal that followed the Council of Trent. He did not advocate passivity or a kind of quietism; but he stressed that no outward work will bear fruit in the Church unless it alive with a fire that is of God. The last part of the collect for the feast is a prayer for the present moment: ‘Shape and renew your Church until it bears the image of Christ, and shows his true likeness to the world.’
Yesterday, the giant puppet Amal arrived in Manchester after trekking through Europe from the Syria-Turkey border. This epic journey was undertaken to draw attention to the plight of refugee children. They are present on our continent in baffling numbers, but who sees them? Amal stands 3.5 metres tall: it’s been impossible to overlook her. Amir Nizar Zuabi has spoken of his team’s wish to create an ‘artistic moment that creates compassion’. Such moments are needed. Politics void of empathy is nothing but a pragmatic game. Article 1 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ It says a lot about us that we need, these days, a doll to call this principle to mind.
We live in times that find it harder and harder to forgive. It is not that people are becoming crueller; but they’ve largely lost the conceptual categories, the identity-shaping stories, that make forgiveness possible. It isn’t natural to pardon. Our nature craves vengeance and tends to crave it immoderately. To be a Christian is to place forgiveness at the centre of one’s life: to ask for it humbly; to give it generously, letting go of grudges. When we come up against the boundaries of our sensibility, we look towards the cross and remember: we are not our own. All Souls’ Day affirms the reality of a pardon that extends, in Christ, beyond death. It summons us to become, by prayer and sacrifice, agents of divine mercy. Our prayer for the dead manifests the Christian revolution. It’s charter is founded on faith in the soul’s immortality, in our answerability for our choices, in the efficacy of intercession, in the reality of a Love stronger than death. Long live that peaceful revolution.
When we hear the name Bach we spontaneously think of Johann Sebastian, one of our civilisation’s most luminous geniuses, a man who has reasonably been called the fifth evangelist. He was not, though, a solitary comet blazing across an otherwise dark sky. He came from a long line of musicians. His star shines within a constellation. The music of other Bachs increasingly draws the attention of scholars, performers, and listeners. This recording of the motet Fürchte Dich nicht by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703) is exquisite. Its word patterns and subtle polyphonies indicate a link connecting the music of the better known Bach, the composer’s cousin, with that of Schütz. What is more, the way in which Christ’s promise to the Good Thief (‘Today you will be with me in paradise’) is woven into a prophecy from Isaiah (‘Fear not: for I have redeemed you’) reveals a refined theological sensibility.
We’ve such a need for simple words like
‘bread’, ‘love’, ‘kindness’
to keep the blind from losing their way
in the dark.
We’ve such a need for silence – silence! –
in order, through the air and in our thoughts,
to hear the voice,
the murmured, modest voice,
of pigeons, ants, human beings, human hearts
and their cry of pain amid all that is
not love, not kindness, not bread.
Full of Interest
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov taught his community at Tolleshunt Knights: ‘If one always considers oneself to be the last, meeting someone else becomes each time the opportunity for spiritual profit and progress. If I am the first, life is infernally tiresome. If I am the last, life is full of interest because I am always learning something useful.’
Gila Sacks recently said something similar about her father: ‘He learned and learned, and continued to learn every single day, until his last. He learned from books, from texts, from laws. He learned from history and from world events. But, mainly, he learned from people. He would seek out people to learn from, from every possible path of life. And he would seek out what he could learn from everyone he met.‘
To learn to live like that!
Every Catholic priest carries the legacy of clerical abuse as a profound grief. To be a priest now is to live within an open wound. It is difficult, in such a climate, to speak about the nobility and beauty of the priestly vocation, of the joy at its heart. One statement that still conveys something essential, I think, is this video produced by the Spanish Bishops’ Conference in 2015.
‘I don’t promise that people will ask for your help; but I promise they’ll need you.’ ‘I promise you will provide the world with nourishment.’ ‘You will accompany those who suffer.’ ‘You will give strength to those who desire to be strong.’ ‘I don’t promise you’ll meet important people but people who’ve no idea what they’re worth.’
This is a time to set ourselves a high ideal and to mobilise all our strength, all our love, to follow it.
The Aroma Gone
About halfway through Nikita Mikhalov and Rustam Ibragimbekov’s film Burnt by the Sun (Утомлённые солнцем), an incidental character says:
Things aren’t so bad nowadays, but it’s the aroma, the taste of life, that has vanished. For good.
The statement is belied by the setting, which bursts with life, affection, and sensual warmth. The trouble is: in one participant, life has perished within, frozen by the cold hand of totalitarian power. The outward show of vitality is but a choreographed death-rattle of the soul. Gradually, the influence spreads. To refer to capture in an icy spider’s web as ‘sunburn’ is supreme irony.
Bound for Albania
‘I remember setting out in late August 1996, from a basement flat with one of the classiest addresses in London. The evenings that August were filled with distant music. Live opera wafted over from open-air performances in the nearby park, where fat, late-matingseason peacocks almost broke the tree branches with now desperate enthusiasm, their randy shrieks mingling with snatches of amateur Carmen. A heady blend of music and nature to accompany my frenzied packing, for I was swapping London W11 for Tirana.’
Thus begins Joanna Robertson’s retrospective reportage of how she ‘stumbled into Albania’, a country about which I may not be the only one to know far too little. The result is a thrilling account of a country rich in colour, beauty, dignity, and tragedy at a crucial moment of its recent history.
Two helpful insights from today’s divine office, for the feast of St Luke.
Gregory the Great wrote: ‘One who has no charity towards another should in no way be entrusted with the office of preaching.’ To speak with authority and merit others’ attention, we must first of all see them with benevolence, deeply wanting their good for their own sake. Gregory was a civil servant before he became a bishop. The principle applies, I’d say, to any public discourse.
Then, in the Vigils hymn: the evangelist is called ‘seminator luminis’. Oh to be a sower of light!
I have been to the cinema to see the latest James Bond. Even he is recast as a saviour-sage these days. He is no longer pitted, as in days of yore, against mere criminality, but against the menace of universal extinction. A life-threatening substance is set to infiltrate mankind, making merest touch lethal, cancelling out human flourishing. Bond works his victory by giving up his life. Greater love has no man. There is every reason to believe that resurrection will follow in the next episode. Before the film we were treated to a Coke commercial playing on Eucharistic imagery.
People are clearly hungry (and thirsty) for Ersatz narratives of redemption. Why is it that we Christians have such trouble conveying the attraction, nobility, beauty and compelling plausibility of the real thing?
Crisis of Trust
A law proposal from the government is rich in paradoxes. It affirms that the young now reach psychosocial maturity late, yet would place on teenage shoulders the weight of tremendous decisional autonomy in cases of experienced dysphoria. An observer remarked: ‘We would give our children a gift package without precedent: an immense vacuum, a gigantic black hole, in which they have to work it all out on their own, without any compass other than that of an absolute relativity.’
The proposal premises that ‘asymmetric’ communication is of its nature suspect: that any person of authority (a parent, a teacher, a doctor, or a priest) should be seen as a potential manipulator. Naturally there is a need for prudence. But where will this general crisis of trust take us? The state proposes itself as guardian; but what have we witnessed these past 18 months if not a general collapse of trust in governments? My heart goes out to the young. What battles they have to fight — alone.
Alain Finkielkraut’s conversation with Rémi Brague and Guillaume Cuchet, recorded on 9 October under the title ‘Does Catholicism still have a future in France?’, is illuminating and instructive for all sorts of reasons. Memorable not least is Brague’s remark:
‘A Christian thinks that the truth is preferable to an illusion, even to the kind of illusion that, as Pushkin said, elevates us.’
The only ladder worth climbing is the one that makes us descend into the embodied truth about ourselves. To aspire heavenward, we need to have our feet on the ground, even if it happens to be a dungheap.
I approached Teodor Currentzis’s rendering of Verdi’s Requiem with scepticism at first, put off by the Le Chiffre look and by all the jumping up and down. Having lived with it for a couple of years, I feel only admiration. Currentzis restores to this work, often performed as if it were a bravura extension of the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, urgency and seriousness. His ensemble Musicaeterna sometimes sing Verdi as if he were Rakhmaninov, but it is no imposition. On the contrary, it is a revelation. This performance was recorded in the church of San Marco in Milan, where the Requiem was premiered in 1868.
How did we ever manage to consign the Dies irae, that profound and grandiose prayer, to the liturgical archives?
When For You It Is Night
What do you do when life apparently disintegrates, when structures you rely on collapse, when you no longer see the sense of anything? Pour another drink? Ring your therapist? Bury your head in the sand?
There is a further option. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik accounts for it in this stirring testimony to which I return on a regular basis, wanting a share in the great man’s enthusiasm and unshakable sense of purpose.
This evening at vespers we read: ‘And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.’ (2 Peter 1:19)
Integrity & Honesty
In a letter to his brethren at Chartreuse (included in the breviary for his feast today) St Bruno expresses joy at seeing them full of zeal ‘erga ea quæ integritatis et honestatis sunt’, that is, with regard to all such things that pertain to integrity and honesty. Rare qualities at the best of times.
Reading these words just hours after absorbing the impact of the Sauvé Report on the abuse of minors, I found them resounding like a bugle call. Only if we also pursue integrity and honesty with zeal, in a spirit of reparation illumined by hope, will the Church find the renewal she evidently needs.
‘I stand as a beggar before the mercy of God’, wrote Bruno to his friend Raoul-le-Verd, ‘praying that he will heal all the infirmities of my soul and fulfil all my desires with his bounty.’ A prayer for the present moment.
A Year Gone
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“I am the dawning light.
Look unto me, your morn shall rise,
and all your day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my star, my sun,
and in that light of life I’ll walk
till trav’ling days are done.
Horatius Bonar (1808-89)
Having watched, yet again, Granada’s 1984 production The Jewel in the Crown, based on Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, I find myself wondering whether TV is ever again going to attain such heights. I am astounded by the series’ relevance now in its portrayal of how empire unravels; of what happens to outdated structures conceived to prop up ideals in which no one any more believes; of the sheer unprincipledness of ambition; of the intractability of racial and class prejudice, whether born of stupidity or unacknowledged passion; of the unlikely appearance in dungheaps of flowers of courtesy; of India’s complex fascination. The New York Times wrote, 37 years ago, ‘The Jewel in the Crown is not only engrossing television. It is important television, a model of what the medium can do.’ I’d say that still holds.
On this day in 1835, a group of monks who had set out from the Breton abbey of Melleray founded the monastery of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire, the house in which I was blessed to make my profession. Though to speak of a ‘monastery’ at that early stage is to evoke the wrong kind of association. The founders settled in a poor cottage with a leaky roof in Tynt Meadow, a field on the property given them by Ambrose Phillips de Lisle. To establish the community was a matter of naked faith, holy perseverance, and sheer bloodymindedness. We often speak now, and rightly, of ‘refounding’ communities. It is good, when considering this prospect, to brace oneself for radical poverty, perhaps for a very long time; also, to nurture that sense of excitement, of having something wonderful to share, of wanting to give all without half-measures without which no foundation ever got off the ground.
What is Truth?
Pilate’s question has lost none of its edge, though we prefer not to think about it much. Often, remarks Cardinal Biffi, in a recently published collection, we shy away from statements of truth for fear they might be divisive. He goes on:
“Instead we must ascertain that since God began the creation of the world dividing light from darkness, any forfeited ability to draw distinctions, any relinquished understanding of what is and what isn’t, any design that favours (or at any rate puts up with) the mingling of truth and error, any confusion between good and evil, far from spelling the dawn of a new era of understanding, communion and peace, spells capitulation to an absurd nostalgia for primordial chaos.”
Rhetoric of Confinement
Two days ago the Norwegian government resolved to reopen the country (to use the official nomenclature) after a year and a half of Covid-related restrictions. When I looked up the website of a national newspaper, the lead item was an editorial with the title ‘The End of 562 Absurd Days’. For further reportage, one had to scroll quite a way down the page. This unexcited approach seemed broadly representative of other media — as if the fizz had long since gone out of the bottle, notwithstanding the language of ‘war effort’, ‘deadly threat’ and ‘national dugnad‘ having been, not long ago, in everyone’s mouth. Something significant happened in about the middle of July when, seemingly overnight, statistics of dread moved into small print while prime space was taken over by advertisements for summer wear. That events of these past 18 months have been dramatic and that radical communal efforts were called for: this is beyond doubt. Still, I’d interested to see a cool study of the rise and fall of the rhetoric of confinement. It would help us understand not only what we have lived through but the forces that influence our understanding.
I thoroughly enjoyed Craig Brown’s essay ‘Nothing is real’ in the TLS of 10 September 2021 (the paper takes a while to reach Norway). It’s one of those pieces one should re-read before writing anything about anything, or anybody, at all. I was struck by this quotation from the historian Lewis Namier, born Ludwik Bernstein Niemirowski and now perhaps most renowned – a fact that would have bemused them both – as the husband of Iulia de Beausobre:
‘One would expect people to remember the past and imagine the future, but in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience […], they imagine the past and remember the future.’
Which is why it is so important to put historical remembrance to the test, especially when it is lodged in a profound sense of involvement, with individual and collective identities at stake.
The Higher Clergy
Among the people whose lives and works are considered in Daniel Mendelsohn’s fascinating, sinuous essay, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, is Archbishop François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651-1715):
‘In a portrait made before his downfall, the archbishop has an elongated but kindly face, the high hooked nose, with its sharp tip, and the rather pointed chin offset by the warm dark eyes, whose brows are raised in what can strike you an an attractive frankness— an openness to questions, to possibility, not always present in the faces of high clergymen.’
Now, there’s a remark to ponder.
Visiting the shrine of the Holy Cross at Mogiła on 9 June 1979, Pope St John Paul II proclaimed:
“Let us go together, pilgrims, to the Lord’s Cross. With it begins a new era in human history. This is the time of grace, the time of salvation. Through the Cross man has been able to understand the meaning of his own destiny, of his life on earth. He has discovered how much God has loved him. He has discovered, and he continues to discover by the light of faith, how great is his own worth. He has learnt to measure his own dignity by the measure of the sacrifice that God offered in his Son for man’s salvation.”
This time of grace, of salvation has not passed; it is now, full of eternal promise.
The Fragility of Peace
To go on pilgrimage to the shrine of St Onuphrius in Jabłeczna on the river Bug is to enter a state of emergency. Just across the border, refugees largely from the Middle East are used as pawns in a political manoeuver. A little further along the Bug, again on the other side of the river, military exercises qualified by Reuters as ‘war games‘ run their course. One is reminded of the fragility of European peace, of the way in which innocent lives are overrun by historical processes. Over and above the necessary discourses of politics, I keep hearing the resonance of the monks’ constantly repeated invocation at the liturgy this morning: Господи помилуй, Господи помилуй, Господи помилуй! ‘Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy!’
The Heather Blooms
Now, mother, the heather blooms,
for the first time in this world
Only for you
the fields were gleaming,
the colour of amethyst.
They lay there in wait
for a word of praise from you,
the utterly generous.
Not even the tiniest knoll
after an encounter with you.
At noon today, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, that noble pillar of Catholicism, was declared blessed at a solemn Mass in Warsaw, though not alone. Alongside him, the Church beatified Mother Elżbieta Róża Czacka (1876-1961), whom Wyszyński knew and revered. Born into a noble family, she suffered from an eye disease since childhood. A riding accident in 1898 left her with both retinas detached. She lost sight for good. This could have been the bane of her life. It wasn’t. She turned it into an opportunity, deciding to dedicate her life to caring for the blind. She founded the order of Franciscan Sisters Servants of the Cross to care for and educate the physically blind and to do penance for the spiritual blindness of the world. To me, the most moving part of today’s Mass was the proclamation of the first reading from a text in braille by a blind woman taught by Mother Elżbieta’s sisters. In that reading we were told, ‘come to me, you who desire me’ (Sirach 24:19). Where such desire burns, no failing, no handicap is decisive. What appears to be an impediment may even turn into a grace, an impetus.
When at sunrise this morning, just below the monastery of Strahov in Prague, I found myself in a street named after Raoul Wallenberg, I felt as if I had unexpectedly bumped into an old friend.
I was first confronted with the facts of his life in 1990 through Kjell Grede’s film, Good Evening Mr Wallenberg. In 2012, reviewing two new books on Wallenberg, Inger Dahlman wrote: “In Budapest Raoul Wallenberg was transformed from a dansant élégant always surrounded by beautiful women into a man who, at the end, was unshaven, sweaty, and bleary-eyed, falling asleep for sheer exhaustion as soon as he sat down, though never tiring in his endeavour to find new ways of saving lives.”
The example of Wallenberg shows what nobility human nature can reach in one whose conscience is awakened – and how such awakening comes about. It is a scandal that the circumstances surrounding Wallenberg’s death remain an enigma. May the memory of this man, honoured as ‘Righteous among the Nations‘, never perish.
Christ’s Passion is such an overwhelming paradigm in Christian art that it tends to invest motifs of every kind with solemn pathos. This inspires awe, which is good. Still, we sometimes need a different perspective. Central to the Fathers in their endeavour to expound the identity of God’s eternal Wisdom made flesh was this verse from the Old Testament:
‘I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always’ (Wisdom 8:22).
In Mary’s Magnificat, which the Church sings each evening at Vespers, we make her proclamation our own: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ (Luke 1:47).
A Czech, Gothic Madonna and Child in the cloisters of Nový Dvůr renders this aspect of the Christian proclamation with grace. It is far from superficial; on the contrary, it is very profound.
Thirty years ago today, Jonathan Sacks was installed as Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. In his installation address, he presented an audacious programme full of hope: a ‘A Decade of Renewal’. He explained:
“I choose the word renewal carefully. Judaism recognises not shinui but chiddush, not change but revitalisation. And if we do not renew our institutions they will die the slow death of increasing irrelevance. […] We must search out a hundred new ways of letting prayer speak to our souls, learning to our minds and mitzvot to our lives; and if they fail we must search for the hundred-and-first way.”
To revitalise, not necessarily to alter; to rediscover the potential of what has been passed on; to let this heritage form our spiritual, intellectual, and moral lives; to discern a task for the future in the experience of the past; to know where we come from, where we are going, to whom we must give an account: this enables growth and progress, not the merry-go-round of constant restructuring.
What’s in a Voice
In his five-part contribution to the BBC’s programme The Essay, Peter Brathwaite reflects on the power of the human voice. But that is not all: he also exposes, with due discretion and elegance, the political potential of art, its capacity to subvert and liberate. He speaks of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 people on Easter Sunday 1939, after she had been barred, on account of the colour of her skin, from singing at Constitution Hall. He indicates, to my mind credibly, the different dimensions of tension and expectancy that found expression in Robert McFerrin’s Rigoletto at the Met in 1956. Deeply moving is his account of Vera Hall’s ‘songs sprung from necessity’.
‘The human voice holds so much’, says Brathwaite, ‘but needs a listener to enrich and complete, to really hear it.’ He challenges us to listen differently; and to begin to find our own, true voice.
Aggression of Empires
As, with the rest of the world, I follow developments in Afghanistan aghast, I re-watch, with undiminished interest, Rory Stewart’s documentary made for the BBC in 2012, Afghanistan: The Great Game — a Personal View. Stewart is that rare animal: a politician who is also a scholar and an explorer. He walked across Afghanistan on his own, accompanied only by a dog named Babur, in 2002.
Cataclysmic events easily call forth facile responses. Stewart helps us avoid these. He asks: ‘What is it about this place and the paranoia and aggression of empires that has created repeated tragedy?’ One of his interlocutors in the film, Akbar Ahmed, answers, ‘When you combine arrogance with a lack of knowledge of that part of the world, you are almost guaranteed to run into trouble.’
On the Threshold
Dom Ildefons Herwegen concluded his portrait of St Benedict, Der heilige Benedikt, ein Charakterbild, which first appeared a century ago, with words that remain full of relevance now:
“St Benedict refers the spirit of the Western world to the unchangingly divine, the final goal of all created spirits. He shows us how the dignity of man can be preserved in his likeness to God. At the same time he teaches how a human society on earth is to be built. May the essential traits in this portrait of St Benedict — his great, soul-changing love of Christ, the measured, noble form of Antiquity, his keen sense of the pressing necessities of the time — remain the inalienable heritage of his disciples in the new epoch on whose threshold we stand.”
Psalms in the Age of Twitter
The Office of Readings this morning gave us an excerpt from Pius X’s encyclical Divino afflatu. It speaks of the treasure of the Psalter. Apart from the Gospels – themselves bursting with echoes of the Psalms – no text has left a deeper impact on Christian consciousness. The ancients invested their noblest art and energies in illuminated Psalters (as in this remarkable MS from Byzantium). To this day the Psalms remain the foundation of liturgical prayer. All clerics and religious are obliged to recite them daily. It is a blessed obligation. To re-read one’s life patiently, ever anew in the light of this inscrutable book is transformative, a practice to cultivate carefully, lovingly in the age of Twitter.
Greek to me
The launch of this site also represents the launch of a parallel project: that of recording the Gospels in Greek. There is much controversy these days about Biblical translations. It’s vital, then, to return to the sources with careful attention. My study of Greek has been hugely enriched by sensitive readings. Elli Lampeti’s recording of the last part of Matthew’s Gospel was a revelation to me; then, the work of W. Sidney Allen set me on a pursuit of classical diction. My recordings do not claim to be authoritative. They are simply the lectio divina of an amateur, someone who loves the text he reads, in the hope that his effort will inspire, perhaps even help, others to love and learn it better. The Gospel of Mark is available on Spotify.
The feast of the Assumption shows us what heights human nature, redeemed and irradiated by the Word, can reach. One who made this mystery of faith palpably embodied was Sr Marie-Ange de Chamas, who died on the eve of the Assumption last year, 53 years old. I never knew her, but was privileged to attend her funeral. That experience was among the most important things that happened to me in 2020. The wake of joy and gratitude the passing of her life had left swept me up, too. I keep her portrait in the bishop’s office, as a reminder of what really matters, something the world is ever more inclined to forget, even tries to eliminate.
You can find a piece I wrote about Sr Marie-Ange for The Tablet here.
Early in Marilynne Robinson’s Jack (2020), the fourth of her Gilead novels, Della and Jack have this exchange, trying to work out where a person’s true self is anchored:
‘I really just meant that there is—anyone, any human being, and then that person’s actual life, everything they didn’t mean or couldn’t say or wished for or grieved over. That’s reality. So someone who would know the world that way, some spirit, seems kind of inevitable. I think. Why should so much reality, most of it, count for nothing? That’s how it seems to me.’
‘That spirit would not always be impressed, depending on case.’
She shook her head. ‘I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see. The previous things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it.’
The Magnificat antiphon for vespers tonight, the feast of St Laurence, sets a phrase attributed to the fourth-century martyr:
Mea nox obscurum non habet, sed omnia in luce clarescunt.
‘There is no darkness in my night, but all things are brightly illumined by the light.’
The message resounds with particular authority in the sweet luminosity of a Northern Norwegian summer night.
In classical Latin, ‘humanitas’ stands for ‘kindness’ or ‘compassion’, qualities thought to be specific to humankind. When one looks at how humans coexist in the world, though, it is easy to yield to cynicism. To be reminded of what a humane life looks like, I regularly listen again to David Nott’s conversation with Kirsty Young recorded in 2016. Dr Nott’s commitment as a surgeon in war-torn areas is an inspiration. Moving, too, is his account of an encounter with Queen Elizabeth II. Her response to the state of crisis he was in at the time shows what majesty means.
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings open
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable that ascension is not possible.
St Olav, amidst the tasks that absorbed his attention here in this world, ‘rested devotedly in the soul’s free contemplation of heavenly things’. The saints teach us the importance of fixing our gaze right there. They do so with the mixture of giftedness, limitation and eccentricity that characterises human beings in all periods of history. Sigrid Undset remarks that, while customs and cultural norms are subject to continuous mutations (in this respect they are rather like a virus), ‘the hearts of men do not change at all, throughout all ages’. They are pregnant with a longing imprinted on their essence, created as they are in the image of God, a longing that points towards a single, unchangeable goal.
Fated to live
Solzhenitsyn’s remark in a BBC interview from 1976, published in Warning to the West, has perennial relevance: ‘Once I used to hope that experience of life could be handed on from nation to nation, and from one person to another, but now I am beginning to have doubts about this. Perhaps everyone is fated to live through every experience himself in order to understand.’ Depending on one’s point of view, this perspective can be exhilarating or a source of despair.
Tenderness and Grief
Sir András Schiff’s recent interpretation of Brahms’s D Minor Concerto brings out the music’s tenderness and grief incomparably, not least in the Adagio movement. It is rendered brittle, somehow, by the artist’s choice of a Blüthner piano built in Leipzig around 1859, the year in which this music was first performed.
In the Book of Exodus (13:17), when Pharaoh finally let Israel leave Egypt, ‘God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt”’. There are two ways of reading this. Superficially, it may seem that the roundabout route was simply safer. But a deeper motive is at stake: had the way to newness been too direct, the incentive to return to a familiar setting in the face of opposition would have been too great. To maintain the incentive of God’s call, the impossibility of return was required. We find, here, a helpful paradigm for reading our lives in a supernatural perspective.
People I have loved
Watching a documentary about Albert Camus this spring made me want to read his last, unfinished novel, The First Man. It was a revelation to me, a beautiful book full of tenderness. Camus told a friend it was ‘about people I have loved’. Dealing as it does with shifting cultural identities, the quest for an absent father, inter-ethnic tensions and endeavours to overcome them, it is also intensely topical.
For The Tablet‘s Summer Reading supplement. You can find the documentary about Camus here.
I will not fear
Ego obdormivi et soporatus sum, exsurrexi, quia Dominus suscepit me. Non timebo milia populi circumdantis me. Exsurge, Domine, salvum me fac, Deus meus.
I have slept and taken my rest: and I have risen up, because the Lord hath protected me. I will not fear thousands of people surrounding me: arise, O Lord; save me, O my God.
From the Waiting Psalm (Psalm 3) at Vigils, in the English rendering of the Douai Bible.
Learning of the death of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks last night, I felt a spontaneous, visceral sense of loss. For years I have looked forward to his weekly reflection in the series Covenant and Conversation. Sacks has long been one of the few voices in British public life that carried real authority. He was firmly rooted in and expressive of his Jewish identity while remaining sincerely, lucidly, benevolently open to otherness. The Hesped read by his daughter Gila today is one of the most moving accounts I have ever heard of what it is to be a father.
Our Lady of Auch
It is an ancient Christian tradition that St Luke the Evangelist was not only a good physician but an accomplished painter, and that we owe him the first life-like image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though what ‘life-like’ means has been subject, through the ages, to changing sensibilities. This matronly account from the cathedral in Auch would surely have surprised, not necessarily delighted, the sitter.
In a time when so many people are dissatisfied with their bodies (a recent survey established that 61% of Norwegian youths are unhappy with the way they look), the healthy pragmatism of this cheerful sign outside a crêperie on Montmartre provides a breath of fresh air.
To say that Seamus Heaney’s posthumously published translation of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid is alive with intelligence and musicality is simply to state the obvious. What sets it apart is its status as testimony. It shows how even a poet of supreme inspiration is enriched by engaging perseveringly with great, ancient texts. And it honours the memory of one who enabled still untrained eyes to glimpse literature’s potential: Heaney intended the volume as a tribute to his classics master at school, Fr McGlinchey. Oh, to be a teacher able to inspire a life-long pursuit of meaning and beauty!
A Contribution to The Tablet‘s ‘Books of the Year’ pages.