Last week we followed the book of Daniel. It is one of my favourites. He’s a plucky sort who always fights and wins against the odds. Everyday I went to mass and followed his activities. On Monday, as a mere lad he refuses at risk of death to follow the pagan dietary laws. “At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.” Later the King was to take Daniel with the utmost respect into his confidence and Daniel became a most trusted advisor. The Old Testament can be very positive in demonstrating the way in which God looks after those who suffer and make sacrifices for him.
At Mass today there was a very simple hymn. Try as I might I cannot remember the exact words, but I think it went something like; “O Sacrament Divine, O Sacrament Sublime.”
The simplicity of the hymn, caused by the repetition of the words, acted on me like a tonic. All my thoughts and doubts about life and faith; what is true? what is pure? receded into the background, as I let the words wash over me.
Images of water pervade Chinese art and philosophy. They symbolise. Simplicity, memory and human virtues. A Woodblock by Chen Qi which I saw this week at the Victoria and Albert museum invites one to contemplate the abstract qualities of water.
The above image, an oil on canvass, is one my attempts to paint water.
I also found this quote in the museum.
The three refuges
I take refuge in the Buddha, the perfectly enlightened one, the shower of the way.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, which leads from darkness to light.
I take refuge in the Sanha, the fellowship of the Buddha,s disciples, that inspires and guides.
I was still thinking about the faith of Jesus and the book of Maccabees. Their most profound conviction in the afterlife and how it is shown in all their actions.
The beautiful passage in Latin and English which is sung at the Mass for the deceased clergy in the Cathedral sums up our hopes for redemption.
In quo nobis spes beatae resurrectionis effulssit, ut, quos contristat certa moriendi condicio, eosdem consoletur futurae immortalitatis promissio.
In him who rose from the dead our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality.
The readings this week, the third week of ordinary time are from The Book of Maccabees. They are particularly gruesome but also uplifting because Jesus despite being persecuted refused to give up the faith. I love the passage where the mother of seven children sees six of her sons die for their faith and then says to the seventh,
My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this executioner, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.
My own faith is but a weak reflection of the mountainous faith of these people. Can we imagine a mother giving up her sons lives and her own for the sake of religious principle?
The mother’s point is that through their actions they will gain something more wonderful than any earthly offering, the gift of eternal life.
The readings left me a little cold at the time but when at the end of mass in the cathedral I paused for a moment in the tomb of St. John Southworth something unaccountable happened. I felt inexplicably moved.
Last Thursday evening I debated at the Oxford Union alongside the Bishop of Winchester and Jonathan Aitken. At a well attended debate we won by ten votes, 145 to 135, proposing the motion “This House believes that Britain needs a return of Christian Values”.
Everything conceivable was thrown at us, even the slave trade. It was interesting that we didn’t talk about homosexuality, but our opponents were adamant that Christians are obsessed by it.
I just concentrated on the teachings of Christ; a better guide than the life of most Christians since!
Yesterday was the Feast of Saints Hugh of Lincoln and Elizabeth of Hungary.
I had a dream a few nights ago that someone had said to me that it was not difficult to love the whole world. One just had to write “if” a few times, like writing lines at school. Presumably as in “if only I could ignore this other person’s mobile phone on the train”.
Of course I readily agreed. But, although in this dream, I started to write the oh so easy ifs without effort, very soon it seemed as difficult and wearisome as pushing a boulder up a hill and I gave up! The story of our lives.
Yesterday I had been totally lost in the music of the Mass. Today I couldn’t concentrate because every two or three minutes, with monotonous regularity, someone cleared their throat behind me.
Then I remembered my dream of the “If” the day before.
These two Saints gave up everything for prayer, wealth, power, families, but we will never be the same.
The music was Ex Ore Innocentium by John Ireland. If I could be distracted even from that sublime music, what hope is there? Then I went home knowing I had heard it recently. Played it and precisely at track five in Music from Christchurch Priory, the CD collapsed and I couldn’t hear any of it. Teaching me a lesson, I suppose.
I visited Durham at the end of last week. Every time I go into the Cathedral there, I pray at the tomb of St. Cuthbert. It is extraordinary that this great Anglo Saxon Saint is still there all these years after his initial wanderings. There is a simple prayer written there which acknowledges his role as a shepherd of his flock in troubled times. It is both moving and simple.
That evening the whole of the Cathedral on Palace Green was lit up as a son et lumière. It is when these Cathedrals are lit up in bright colours that they begin to come back to the way which they might have looked in medieval times, each Saint decked out in colour for maximum effect.
I was just reflecting on the Mass at Westminster Cathedral where the Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux were received. Any kind of Relic is considered ridiculous in this modern world. Indeed I feel a bit embarrassed by it. Even so you could not fail to be moved by the sight of thousands walking past the remains of this ordinary nun who simply wanted to find love and God in all things, even the smallest and most insignificant. I am sure Calvin would not have approved of the Mass for the Relics, but perhaps he would have approved of the life of this good lady.
Can we not then admire her simplicity and celebrate her life in the presence of her remains? By her travels around the country, Theresa has reminded many people about the simple way she lived and the simple way she loved. The amount of people who venerate her remains are a testament to the wonder of her life. She will have led many to consider God in a new light.
A final word about prayer. Jack Sullivan says that prayer to Cardinal Newman cured his serious spinal condition. Whether Newman intervened or not we will never know and what does it matter. Jack thought the prayer worked and he thereby demonstrates the power of prayer.
After two services in the Anglican and Catholic Churches and a Remembrance Sunday service at the War Memorial my own energy was flagging.
And then we came to the last hymn, Jerusalem, and these words:
I will not cease from mental fight till we have built Jerusalem here.
Well its going to be a long fight.
A thought occurred to me about the power of prayer. If there are 6 billion people in the world and if one percent of them prayed to God at any one time that’s 60 million people. How could God cope with so many prayers? This is a rather impious thought, but isn’t God driven crazy by our prayers? Shouldn’t we give him a rest? It’s this sort of reasoning that convinces many people that the idea of God is ridiculous.
I’m not so sure. Google can receive many millions of requests simultaneously, but of course, it doesn’t have one mind. However, if God exists, could he not have a single directing purpose and an unlimited capacity to receive our prayers?
Once again I awoke in the night and this time I had more success in engaging in conversation with God. I gradually went through the entire life of Christ using the Rosary as a guide. I included the mysteries of light, but didn’t tie myself to any number of Hail Marys, perhaps only one for each Mystery. I used the method of St. Ignatius, imagining myself there, hearing and seeing with my own eyes. It seems to have worked because although again my mind wandered and my doubts came and went, I became happier and composed myself for sleep.
St. Charles Borromeo had the most unprepossessing of beginnings. He was made a Cardinal at the age of 22 by his uncle, the Pope! However, to everyone’s amazement he refused to stay in Rome, and instead became an outstandingly holy and committed Archbishop of Milan.
St. Charles had one central message which was that of the vital importance of daily mental prayer, not reciting the Hail Mary by rote, but engaging in a conversation with God. This I have always found the most difficult thing to do. What does one say? And most of the time its rather one sided. But I shall try and persevere!
The week had been full of bad news. So on waking in the middle of the night I tried St Charles’ advice. However, every time I tried to pray my mind wandered into the difficulties. I tried again and again but kept wandering off. I finally gave up, but one important thing occurred to me. It is not necessary to be sure that God exists to pray to him. You just have to make the leap of faith!
We went to Mass in the tiny upstairs chapel at Osgodby in Lincolnshire. It is one of the earliest Roman Catholic chapel Houses built as a result of an Act of Parliament in 1791 which allowed Roman Catholic churches to be built “without bell or steeple”.
The reading was from the Beatitudes, or the Blessed Attitudes as our priest called them. I have always wandered what the first line means.
How happy the poor in spirit,
Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven
Who are the poor in spirit? And if their’s is the Kingdom of Heaven it begs the question, should we not be full in spirit?
This weekend I went to Corringham Church near Gainsborough for the unveiling of a plaque to honour a group of airmen who were killed in a wartime crash near the village.
Corringham is a beautiful church with a fine ceiling and Victorian rood screen built up from the medieval original. There are few rood screens left in our medieval churches but when one comes across them they are a joy to behold.
The accident in question happened in December 1943 on a training flight in thick fog after the plane had taken off from Blyton Airfield. The interesting thing about the ceremony was that it was commemorating just one of seventeen aircraft crashes in Lincolnshire that night.
The whole church was full sixty-six years after the event to remember this one little-known tragedy of a previous generation, which would have occurred together with all the other great tragedies around Europe that day. This was a fitting tribute and absolutely right.
I went to two contrasting exhibitions today. The first was a collection of sculptures and experiences at the Royal Academy by Anish Kapoor. I went in ready not to like it but everybody there, mainly hoards of children, seemed to love it. I took my fifteen year-old son who acted as my tour guide by explaining things to me. Indeed, his explanations were better than the pretentious catalogue.
I particularly liked the Shooting into the Corner installation of a gun firing huge wax pellets at the immaculate white walls of the academy. The Hive installation, where one stares into an enormous black whole was vaguely spiritual and the large piece of wax moving at an agonisingly slow pace through three enormous rooms had its moments. But was I moved deeply? No.
We then walked along the road to “The Sacred Made Real” exhibition at the National Gallery. This was a collection of extraordinarily powerful paintings and sculptures from the Spanish Golden Age and included works by Velazquez and de Mena.
Recently I seem to have spent a lot of my time reading St Ignatius of Loyola and here he was in front of me, every detail perfect. Next was a Mater Dolorosa, a picture of grief. The wounds on the back of Christ were carved in terrible detail.
As I wandered I listened to the music of Stephan Hough, which had been inspired by the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria’s Requiem and was written for the exhibition.
The overall experience was overwhelming and I could see that the other people (much fewer in number than at the Royal Academy) were similarly affected.
When one thinks of the bravery of these men one is literally awed.
One of the followers of Edmund Campion witnessed his friend go to the gallows. Faced with the same terrible death – to be half hanged then disembowelled and quartered – he could have turned back at any time. A simple recantation would have done. A denial of Christianity would not have been necessary as the dispute was about Papal supremacy.
His reaction was to utter a plea in Latin, “Jesus, be my Jesus” and he went calmly to his fate.
I could never imagine doing the same. I would have recanted a dozen times rather than face such an ordeal. But our faith nowadays, our convictions, are so weak.