Sunday, March 31, 2013

Carmen Paschale Easter Sunday

Surrexit Christus sol verus vespere noctis,
surgit et hinc domini mystica messis agri.
nunc vaga puniceis apium plebs laeta labore
floribus instrepitans poblite mella legit.
nunc variae volucres permulcent aethera cantu
temperat et pernox nunc philomela melos.
nunc chorus ecclesiae cantat per cantica Sion,
alleluia suis centuplicatque tonis.
Tado, pater patriae, caelestis guadia paschae
percipias meritis limina lucis: ave.

Last night did Christ the Sun rise from the dark,
The mystic harvest of the fields of God,
And now the little wandering tribes of bees
Are brawling in the scarlet flowers abroad.
The winds are soft with birdsong; all night long
Darkling the nightingale her descant told,
And now inside church doors the happy folk
The Alleluia chant a hundredfold.
O father of thy folk, be thine by right
The Easter joy, the threshold of the light.

                                            Sedulus Scottus trans. Helen Waddesll

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Springing Midwinter

In Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot wrote about 'midwinter spring': here in Devon it is springing midwinter: a sprinkling of snow last night under the paschal moon; bitterly cold temperatures and an even more bitter wind. This morning, briefly, sunlight, a false promise, for this afternoon it has clouded up again, and the forecast for tonight suggests it will be the coldest yet.
Yesterday my hostess and I were discussing what we might do on Easter, as both of us, life-long Anglicans, can no longer stomach the local liturgies—or most liturgies, for that matter. Each year we have celebrated, quietly, in different ways with music, with readings we have gleaned over the previous year, and lots of silence.
This year I half-jokingly suggested that we find some sort of simple piece of kit which we could take into the upper pasture at midnight on Saturday to contain a bonfire, and that we light candles, sing the Exultet and do the readings and prayers. My hostess jumped at the idea, and in no time had located a 'brazier' at a nearby ironmongers. I was thinking of a sort of flat metal basin such as garden catalogs list, but when we arrived at the shop, the assistant pulled out a proper brazier, the sort in which the beacon fires are lit on hilltops [think the beacons lit to warn of the Armada; think the beacons lit on the mountaintops—based on the English model—in the film The Return of the King], a medieval basket design. Of course it was flat pack, and I spent most of this afternoon wrestling it into submission. And of course one bolt was missing, but we have substituted a sturdy piece of sheep wire until we can get back into town.
Radio 3 is broadcasting Bach this week, so we will listen tonight and then go to the large village church nearby [the tiny, lovely, 14th century one in this hamlet will be sadly dark] after the liturgy is over to sit by the altar of repose for an hour. Tomorrow we will listen to a Tenebrae CD that got rave reviews last Saturday on Radio 3, and perhaps also the Britten War Requiem—my standard listening for Good Friday. Then the pasture Vigil on Saturday, snow permitting.
And yes, I will miss the eucharistic liturgy, but since it has, like the bible readings, been flattened into nothing, made folksy, one dimensional, and banal, there is no point attending only to come away in with an advanced case of irritation. My hostess said she recently heard one thoughtful non-believer, Matthew Parris, sum up the problem, in a panel discussion 'Christianity at the Crossroads' on Radio 4: 'If the churches were inhabited by a sense of the divine presence, we wouldn't be having this discussion.' Unfortunately they are inhabited only by a sense of the clerical presence.
But that Presence is still here in the wilds of deepest Devon, in the cold and the dark, among the green and brown hills; along the verges pointed with daffodils in their millions, and the small yellow stars of wild primroses; and in the upper pasture at midnight under the Paschal moon.
To all my readers: may you have a most blessed Triduum and Eastertide.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pray for Them

Surely this is the first time in history that a Pope and an Archbishop of Canterbury have been installed within three days of each other. Ironically and perhaps symbolically, the installation of the Archbishop took place in an older setting than that of the Pope: one in the homeliness of a medieval paradise, the other in the almost kitsch grandeur of baroque excess.
Few could have missed the similarities in emphasis: neither man is beholden to the inner establishment of their respective churches: Francis has never been part of the Roman Curia, and Welby hasn't been a bishop long enough to have had his spine removed. Both sent clear signals about simplicity, humanity, ecumenism, global awareness. Both seem determined: each clearly has a steely side. They will need this steel, but they should also beware. Each, pushed to certain limits, and in spite of what they profess, has the potential to use this steeliness to become a tyrant.
Huge hopes and fears hang on these men; Francis is already seventy-six, with a limp and only one lung. His time to get things done is a lot shorter than Welby's, all things being equal which, of course, they never are. Most of the expectations are probably unrealistic. If the Pope can reform the curia, that in itself will be a heroic, gargantuan task. If he can reform the curia, then, it seems to me, the rest will follow: the reform of the Vatican bank and the addressing of child abuse. What it is unrealistic to expect is that he will have the time or energy or personal belief also to change the Vatican's position on clerical celibacy, birth control, women's ordination, and the official attitude towards gay people. On the other hand, he may surprise us. I'm not counting on it. I'm not even hoping. But I would welcome it.
Welby is even more unpredictable. A product of Holy Trinity Brompton, the fount of happy-clappydom and the idolatry of experience, Welby is an evangelical who crosses himself and is a Benedictine oblate. What we have not been told, intriguingly, is of which house he is an oblate, whether it is Roman Catholic or Anglican. [Later: Anglican, of Elmore Abbey now at Salisbury.] His recent remarks, which have already put him at odds with some of his evangelical colleagues, about the profundity of relationships that he has observed and admired in some gay partnerships, are most welcome but also something of a surprise.
Probably in the first flush of their installations, neither of these men knows exactly what changes their time in office will be able to facilitate: it is impossible to imagine exactly how dreadful the curia is—whether the official Roman curia or the unofficial Anglican one—until they start trying to work with their respective dens of demons. It is possible that Francis will be defeated, as have so many popes before him, by the sheer size, viciousness and intricacy of the Roman curia. Let us hope it does not overwhelm him as it did John Paul II. At Francis' installation one had the sense that he was asserting himself over the curia but letting them have enough rope to hang themselves, that he was biding his time. And only time will tell.
But let us not kid ourselves: the Anglican 'curia' and factions are equally vicious; one had a sense with Welby at his installation, however, that he was totally in charge, and that you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him. He will need this determination and this fearlessness in the days ahead. The tradition and, more, the intransigent egos he is up against are in some ways even more entrenched than those of the Roman curia, because much of the power and preferment in the C of E is tied to the monarchy and the state.
It's almost as if the part of the world that still cares about these things is holding its breath until the new battle lines, the strategies and tactics, become manifest—as manifest as they will ever become, for most of the work will doubtless be done out of sight of the public arena. We need to pray for these men that they can hold their nerve and do the very difficult house-cleaning that needs to take place in both institutions, and most of all that they may do so without losing their own souls.

Friday, March 15, 2013


Joan Chittister at expresses the feelings of many, many people, which persist, even in the face of watching Francis I use simplicity to undermine the baroque tradition of his post.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Backwards in Credulity

Today in the Bodleian I was looking for something online and happened across a live broadcast of the cardinals' Mass before they are locked away. I didn't have the sound on, but it seemed a very subdued occasion indeed; the faces were grim. Outside the Mass was broadcast on giant screens, but very few people seemed interested; the great space in front of St Peter's held only dribs and drabs of people scurrying here and there, no-one paying attention to the images flashing pointlessly into the emptiness. The lack of interest may in part have been due to the black clouds sitting over the Vatican spitting rain on all and sundry, one drop like a tear on the lens of the broadcasting camera. Or it could be due to other causes.

When Ratzinger was elected to be Benedict XVI, I heaved a jaded sigh, my body adding a large French-style shrug, knowing that the Roman Catholic church had condemned itself to further irrelevance—in fact, it felt as though with Ratzinger's election, the church had passed the point of no return. Ratzinger had some good ideas theologically—which he invariably put to very destructive, even at times, diabolical, applications. Over the years, rumours have leaked out of the Vatican of his fondness for dressing up in old (e.g., 17th century) pieces of ecclesiastical tat, while his wanderings through the vast corridors were accompanied by a herd of cats. His resignation brought another shrug, a much smaller one this time, since I have more or less lost interest at the level of involvement—good riddance, but much, much too late. The lukewarm accolades he received after the fact seemed to smack of relief more than anything else, and his role as pope—though not his previous role as rottweiler—will doubtless quickly be forgotten.

Now we seem to be about to witness the same process all over again, a quickening march further along the road to oblivion. There are several threads that run through press accounts of preparations for the conclave.

One of these threads is simple astonishment at the grandiose and archaic rituals that are being enacted in Rome. These rituals are all the more bizarre in the face of scholarship that has exposed fault lines in the official mythology of church origins and prerogatives, not to mention the vast gulf between them and the poor Christ, whom the cardinals claim to represent. And that word claim is a key to the hypocrisy: '. . . he did not claim equality with God but emptied himself . . .'(Phil 2.6)—the core text of the season of Lent leading to Easter that we are currently celebrating.

Another thread running through press accounts  is a sometimes barely concealed revulsion at the whole charade. Plump cardinals sweetly smiling waddle across the piazza while stabbing opponents in the back—figuratively speaking, of course, though it doesn't take much imagination to see in the mind's eye the quick thrust of a stiletto—or misericordia as it ironically came to be known—that one cardinal might push unseen into the rolls fat above the red bellyband, under which beats a supposedly human heart. The Guardian has published a rogues gallery of the cardinals going into consistory, and a very depressing set of faces it is.

A third thread, and one I most identify with, is the subtext, ‘This is quite amazing, but in this day and age, who cares?’ Tired old men electing one of their number to be yet another ho-hum, tired old pope, issuing dicta that destroy people’s lives—if anyone pays attention; old men living in a mad fantasy world whose ethos is perhaps best signified by the Borgias. It’s the ‘destroy people’s lives’ that I do care about, and one of my primary motivations for working in theology has been to discover why, and expose the means, and false beliefs, by which the church causes so much pain; its dehumanizing, degrading manipulative tactics in the process of pursuing its stated goals of ‘salvation’. This last, I hasten to say, refers to all institutional religion, not just Rome. Christians have been cheated of their spiritual inheritance for far too long.

Some of my Catholic friends try to hold out hope. The problems in the church are so dire, they say, that the electors will be forced make a radical shift. The consistory that elected John XXIII was conservative, too, and look what happened. To which I can only reply, yes, look what happened: all the hopes raised by Vatican II have been dashed, as his successors try to turn the clock back to the Council of Trent, and pretend as if Vatican II never happened. I’m afraid that for me hope does not figure into the equation. Is it the Buddhists who say that until hope dies there is no possibility of growth?

In any event, whatever happens will be interesting—in the sense of the Chinese curse. From where I sit, it is much too late to save institutional Christianity, and perhaps it is a mistake to try. The present institutional forms are burdened almost to a standstill by their mad, bad mistakes of the past, which hang around their figurative necks like Marley’s chains studded with a filigree of Ancient Mariner's albatrosses—and for many of the same reasons in fact that beset those two old reprobates in fiction.

Christianities—as in the early churches—will survive here and there, but institutional forms have always been antithetical to the message of salvation: salvation that originally meant freedom from a debased culture  and the persecution of one’s self-conscious mind, so that one might enter into the Christian community, a paradise of mutual support and service overflowing from the wellspring of life made available by the work of silence—or at least that was the ideal for the first nine centuries or so. 

What today passes for Christianity—the idolatry of experience and the grandiosity of institutions that are for, by, and of the clergy—may continue to thrive for a while as fashions do, but in the end people will become bored of them and drift away. Much of Christian heritage has already been lost; unless there is a miracle of some sort, this election may cut the moorings that still attach us to the rest.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Of Walrus and Cistercians

The Walrus news this week has been that a young male briefly hauled out on  South Ronaldsay island in Orkney. So rare is this occurrence that Radio 3 dedicated San-Saen's 'Dance of the Elephants' to it the morning the report hit the headlines; evidently they couldn't find a musical rendition of 'Galumphing of the Walrus'. One article pointed out that there are medieval accounts of hunting walrus from ports in northern Scotland and the Faeroes so that a thousand years ago, perhaps walrus populations were not as rare as they are now; the article suggested that perhaps they were hunted to near-extinction and the relict populations driven back above the Arctic Circle.
That sounds plausible enough depending on how far south the ice reached in the Middle Ages. Walrus don't normally like hauling out on land. They like ice floes. They tend to stampede at the slightest provocation and if they are on land this means that the young ones tend to be trampled and killed. Ice floes are unstable enough that several tons of fleeing walrus will often tip them over so that none are worse for wear for a rapid dunk in the cold ocean where they were headed in the first place. And walrus don't like hunters: they will use their tusks to try to tip over any small boat, skin kayak or aluminium skiff.
There are a lot of reports of increasing sightings of wildlife in urban areas—black bears in Los Angeles, for example; coyotes trotting across the Columbia Univeristy campus in broad daylight; foxes sneaking through open windows to attack babies in London. Perhaps sea mammals are beginning to move into more populated areas. For myself, I frankly find it alarming that a walrus came this far south; it says something about the fragility of ice in northern Norway and other areas where they normally occur; perhaps this walrus was a sign of last-ditch efforts of a population seeking ways to adapt to the rapidly changing climate. It's unlikely polar bears could swim as far south as South Ronaldsay, but they are facing the same problem as the walrus.
Stay tuned.
*               *               *
Yesterday I travelled north to visit another vanishing species at the meeting of the Cistercian-Trappists' Region of the Isles hosted by the monks who have a stronghold at Mt St Bernard Abbey near Loughborough. It is a beautiful property and the friendly monks milk about a hundred cows, among other agricultural pursuits. I haven't seen  yellow milk like that on the table since a neighbour in my distant past used to share excess milk and cream from her registered Jersey. I managed to control myself and not bring butter home, though I was sorely tempted.
In any event, some of you will know that my Cistercian-Trappist connexions go way back; in fact, the house at Berryville sponsored me for profession, passed a resolution that as far as possible I was of their house, and gave me a cowl—a thoroughly humbling and wonderful lifelong cluster of gifts, spiritual and material. My most recent Cistercian forays have been to the new foundation at Tautra in Norway. Some of the sisters were coming to Mt St Bernard for the meeting and I was able to obtain permission to go to visit them.
It was a blessed twenty-four hours, amazing to hear a full choir—just as amazing for the monks and nuns, as someone wryly remarked; for the men's houses, particularly some of those in Ireland, are facing a bleak future and difficult decisions. When I wasn't talking with my Tautra friends, or milling around the guest dining room with the others—the only non-habited occupant in a sea of black and white—or standing in the freezing cold guest section of the austerely beautiful Pugin church, I simply sat in my room and listened to the silence. I didn't read, I didn't write, I didn't think.
There is a peculiar quality to monastic silence which I've mentioned before; each monastic order has a particular 'flavour' to its silence. I once walked into a monastery church in the Middle East—there was no sign indicating even that it was a monastery church—and instantly identified it as Cistercian-Trappist. Carmelite churches 'feel' different to Cistercian ones; Poor Clare chapels have yet another 'flavour'. Ditto Benedictine churches. Perhaps it was the solidity of the stone building, but yesterday and today the silence simply soaked in and I just sat there. It was such a blessing. And now that I am home something of that silence has, thank God, stayed with me; I need to pay attention to it even as I pick up the threads of my life again.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Saint David's Day

Today is St David's Day, and while the melody of the haunting lament 'David of the White Rock' is by a blind Bard named David Owen (d. 1749 at the age of 29), who was married, and not the great Welsh saint, who was a monk, it does not seem inappropriate to remember it today. A lovely, simple, authentic harp performance by Mark Harmer may be found at The words were added after Owen's death.

"Bring me my harp,"
was David's sad sigh,
"I would play one more tune before I die.
Help me, dear wife,
put the hands to the strings,
I wish my loved ones
the blessing God brings."

"Last night an angel
called with heaven's breath:
David, play, and come
through the gates of death!
Farewell, faithful harp,
farewell to your strings,
I wish my loved ones
the blessing God brings."

For anyone who has played the harp and has known the intimate, physical relationship that develops, this song has a special power. When, in Alaska, the lid was nailed on to the crate containing my harp to ship to Seattle to sell—there is no space in my tiny Oxford aerie to have one—it felt as though the lid on my coffin were being nailed down.

In Alaska the wilderness welcomed me, and whales sounded my bones. Sometimes my harp settled so sweetly into its tuning that alone it played the music of the spheres. It is always trying to play, even if it risks destroying itself. That is the nature of harps. (Writing the Icon of the Heart, p. 104)