Example

Only in Hammerfest have I had the experience of seeing wild reindeer from an airport carpark. The Catholic parish in the town is the world’s northernmost. The climate is challenging; though much depends on your point of view. The locals say: ‘We’ve nine and a half months of winter, but apart from that it’s non-stop summer!’ The first Catholic Church was dedicated here in 1878, part of the extraordinary North-Pole Mission headed by Baron Étienne Djunkowski. What were its principles? They were various; but one can get a sense of which were most effective. The other day I met a nonagenarian, wonderfully youthful parishioner who is a fourth-generation Hammerfest Catholic. What, I asked, had caused her great-grandmother to convert at a time when Catholicism was held in suspicion and snowball fights erupted between Catholics and Laestadians? Her answer was clear: The example of the Sisters of St Elisabeth, who made this patch of land their own and loved it, who poured themselves out to help people during a time of famine while nurturing a deep life of prayer, maintaining the church as a place of beauty in a setting of harshness. The lesson is perennial.

Life & Calculation

Needed construction work in the cathedral complex in Tromsø has ground to a halt because a pair of black-legged kittiwakes (Rissae tridactylae) have built a nest in a corner of the yard. The kittiwakes are a protected species. The city authorities were clear: no human activity is permitted to disturb their habitat until the pair’s young have left the nest. It’s a nuisance from a practical point of view; I’d like to see the work completed. It is also something of a peril: the birds are protective of their territory, swoop low with menacing cries when one goes in and out, and practise precision bombing. At the same time there is something beautiful in this situation. The providence of two menaced, exposed birds have arrested the strategic planning of serial human agencies, leaving us all in anticipation of their freckled eggs hatching. The priority of life, be it fragile, wins out in an unequal combat with cool calculation. In this, may there be a parable.

Voice to Word

Though I have read them countless times, the Letters of St Ignatius of Antioch always reveal something new. For Vigils today, the Church gives us a passage in which Ignatius exhorts the Christians of Rome not to canvass for his release and instead to let him face martyrdom (Rom., II)): ‘I shall never have a better opportunity of reaching God, and you will never have the opportunity of performing a better act than now, by keeping silence. If you remain silent, I shall become the word of God [λόγος θεοῦ]; but if your love of my physical life makes you speak, I shall be nothing but a voice [φωνή]. Grant me nothing more than this: that I should be poured out to God, while an altar is still ready for me.’ Ultimately this is the trajectory we must all follow: from being a mere voice to becoming a substantial word, a process that will be accomplished by means of oblation.

Suffusion

Gathered with a group of friends for a seminar on Ida Görres, I am affirmed in my conviction: hers is a crucial voice for the present moment (see Notebook 1 February, 23 June and 17 September 2023). About the Church she writes: ‘The strangest creation of God, so unique in kind, so large, so contradictory, so colourful that no single person can take stock of her and figure her out, and certainly no outsider can ever take her all in, let alone understand her and judge her. Only she herself can do this, comprehending herself in faith, endlessly considering herself in her faithful theology, looking at herself through her mystics, loving herself in her children. Only the believer as the cell of this body, embedded, suffused with her life-process of knowledge, faith, love, participates also in her consciousness and in the spirit in which she understands herself.’ In terms of a contemporary register of terms, such suffusion would seem to be a sine qua non for synodality.

Aversion of the Gaze

This sixteenth-century mural in the twelfth-century church of Moster shows the drama of the fall. Man and woman, created to face one another fearlessly with love, can no longer look upon one another. Adam’s face is turned away, invisible. His betrayal has reduced him to something less than the prosopon as which he was created to subsist. Impressive is the energy of the serpent whose disturbing coils, for being interrupted by whitewash, testify to a determined purpose to undermine relationship.

‘When Scripture speaks of the origin of sin, the first casualty is the natural, free relationship between the sexes. The fall lets Adam and Eve know what it means to be ‘cut off’. They no longer find themselves in one another. They hide. They are ashamed.’ From Chastity.

Nefarious

A seminary rector recommended Nefarious to me. I am glad he did — I probably shouldn’t have seen it otherwise, it being advertised as a ‘horror film’, a genre I stay clear of. That label, though, is misleading. Nefarious is subtle. It offers a study in motivation, an exploration of freedom (what does it take to be a responsible agent?), a critique of language subversion, and an engagement with the nature of evil. Sean Patrick Flanery delivers an exceptional performance as Edward Brady, a death-row prisoner apparently possessed by a demon. When the other main character, a well-meaning psychiatrist, dismisses this hypothesis as irrational, the demon retorts: ‘I am the most rational creature you will ever know.’ A thoughtful line that has equivalents in the writings of the Fathers. Kevin Turley reflects on the critical establishment’s booing of the film, which is what one would expect, for ‘to say Nefarious is countercultural is an understatement’: ‘It reminds anyone who will listen that there is only one battle — and that we are all enlisted in it, whether we realise that or not.’ We may prefer to close our eyes and pretend the battle isn’t real. This is not an easy movie to watch. It couldn’t be. But it is worth seeing.

Polyamory?

‘Surely one of the pleasures of monogamy’, writes Miranda France in a bracing review of three recent books about sexual liberation (?), ‘is knowing that your partner isn’t having amazing sex in a boutique hotel while you’re taking out the bins.’ I’d call that a definition of happiness by minimal criteria. Still, her frank emphasis on pleasure is rather a relief in the context of these putative accounts of desire in the twenty-first century, which seem to be marked by joylessness. The trend they chronicle isn’t catching on among the young: ‘More and more young people are opting for sexit. Where centuries of prohibition failed, society has finally found the way to dampen teenage appetite: sexual saturation.’ France’s reading, basically sympathetic, certainly not moralist, is thought-provoking. It shines a torchlight up what is evidently a cul-de-sac, indicating a cultural, social, anthropological and indeed theological task: that of rediscovering and showing what desire is for.

Trinity Sunday

‘It is customary on Trinity Sunday for bishops to issue a pastoral letter to be read in place of the homily. It is said that this is because bishops fear their priests will lapse into heresy if left to preach themselves. Many priests, true, have a dread of today’s feast, not because they do not believe that God is three-in-one, not because they do not love the trinitarian mystery, but because it is so hard to talk about it. This shouldn’t surprise us. God is by definition greater than anything we can think up or imagine. It is his nature to be transcendent. He reveals himself to us for love, but our minds are inadequate to grasp what is revealed. St Augustine, one of the acutest minds the Church has known, wrote at the end of his treatise on the Trinity: ‘Free me, Lord, from a multitude of words!’ Having written that immortal book, he looked back over it and thought: it would be better to say nothing than to speak so inadequately. We know how he felt. Yet we crave illumination. We wish to comprehend. We have to say something.’ From Entering the Twofold Mystery.

Distinctive Voices

The Bible, writes Marilynne Robinson, displays ‘an interest in the human that has no parallel in ancient literature’. Her Reading Genesis is so thrilling because she understands this interest and shares it. Take Rebekah, who ‘alone in Scripture laments the discomfort of her pregnancy’. Did she feel let down by life? ‘Did Abraham send his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and forbid him to take Isaac with him, because Isaac himself was unprepossessing? […] Would the bride have been pleased to be brought to Sarah’s tent, and to comfort Isaac for the death of his mother?’ The more Robinson engages with Rebekah, the more she brings out her ‘very distinctive voice’ marked by ‘expectations she cannot bear to have disappointed, though I speculate, they have been disappointed since she first saw Isaac walking in that field. Disappointment is a very familiar turn in human affairs, therefore always relevant to the larger question of divine providence at work in it.’

Not Simply Itself

Early this morning, having listened to the BBC World Service‘s updated account of anguished realities in Ukraine and Gaza, of the forthcoming election in Great Britain taking place ‘against a pretty sour backdrop’ with voters not liking ‘any of the politicians or any of the political parties’, being citizens of a country ‘that senses it is on the wrong track and that life is getting worse’, I found myself reading an essay by Alice Albinia about a recent book, The Rising Down. It chronicles ‘the human experience of land and describes with acuity how the places we know are often linked through our experiences, thoughts and memories to other lands.’ The book’s author, Alexandra Harris, describes this as ‘the very common, complicated, unpredictable habit humans have of making places from other places, so that nowhere is simply itself.’ When this is acknowledged, Albinia writes, even patches of territory will be found to ‘sing’. It seems to me that political rhetoric worldwide moves in the opposite direction; and that that accounts in part for serial political, cultural and religious deadlocks.