Monthly Archives: November 2010

Beyond Comprehension

Dear Gabriel,

I had to go to a very difficult meeting with a friend of mine today – a priest. It actually went quite well, contrary to expectations and what was said at the beginning. Afterwards, travelling back on the tube he told me he had left a holy meditation in one of the seats. Mother Theresa used to do this.

I know we like to think we are rationalists and this sort of magic is mumbo jumbo, but don’t dismiss that which goes beyond the rational. Be prepared to be a bit magical.

There is so much beyond the perverse world which we cannot comprehend.


Doubting Thomas

The Centurion

Dear Gabriel,

Today, the reading is about the Centurion.

And when Jesus entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. [Matt. 8]

Of course, for the Jews listening to Jesus, what would have struck them about this story was that it took a hated Roman Conqueror to be so happy to accept Jesus’ will and be so strong in faith. But this story is very relevent in this doubting world.

We are Romans – the last people who might have faith – and therefore this story is for us.

A New Year

Today, at the start of the Church’s liturgical year, I start a new series of Another Country. I will do it in the form of a letter to one of my six children, but so that I don’t favour any particular one, I shall address it to one we never had – Gabriel.

We always liked this name, but never used it.

Dear Gabriel,

Today a copy of Awake arrived from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I would never join them, but some of their literature is worth reading, so be polite when they turn up at your door!

They give five secrets of happiness:

1) Love people, not money or possessions. ‘The love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things.’ [Timothy 6:10]

2) Resist the urge to compare yourself with others. ‘Do your work well and then you will have something to be proud of.’ [Galatians 6:4]

3) Maintain an appreciative attitude. ‘In connection with everything, give thanks.’ [Thessalonians 5:18]

4) Chose your friends wisely. ‘He that is walking with wise persons will become wise.’ [Proverbs 13:2]

5) Satisfy your spiritual needs. ‘Happy are those conscious of their Spiritual need.’ [Matthew 5:3]

I would add to the first: love people not power or reputation. Easy for me to say, because I have been in the backbenches for twenty-five years and have never been offered power. But the love of power is as corrosive to speaking your own truth in your own way as the love of money. Perhaps it is worse.

To the second, I would add: Resist the urge to compare yourself to what you might have been or may become. Live for the present to help you work at the present. Look at nature – not just a glorious star flecked sky or sunset, but also the leaves of a plane tree in a city.

This helps in the third instruction – to maintain an appreciative attitude. If all else fails, remember that you are alive.

The fourth speaks for itself.

The fifth is the most important: ‘Satisfy your spiritual needs.’ The world has grown enormously in material happiness and, particularly in the West, stalled on spiritual happiness. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps we can investigate these together later.

The End of the Church Year

This is the last week of the Church year. The readings are from the book of the Apocolypse. For the Atheist, this is one of the most wildly incomprehensible and ridiculous books of the New testament.

Even if you don’t believe in its content, however, you can still love the poetry. Today’s reading:

And after these things I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, saying, Alleluia; Salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God:

For true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand.

And again they said, Alleluia And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.

(Revelation 19:1-3)

Christopher Hitchens, one of our most prominent atheist commentators, was in the Times today. He has a very severe cancer. He has put his view of death rather nicely. He doesn’t fear death because he won’t know about it, but if he does wake up in an afterlife, he says it will be a pleasant surprise.

I once heard Billy Graham saying much the same thing: “I don’t fear death, only dying.”

Billy Graham has seemingly unconquerable faith. Christopher Hitchens may have little or none, but they are not far apart – and I am in the middle.

Birth and Death

If you go to the 10:30 Mass at the Cathedral, you sometimes come across a funeral. Most funerals are private affairs in a small chapel. Here there were few members of the family but the usual 50 or so strangers seated around the vast building. I feel a bit of an interloper on these occasions, but actually, it sums up that death is for anyone, anytime. Eileen was the lady whose funeral it was. I never met her and perhaps never will. Or perhaps I may.

Mata Amritanandamayi again:

Personally I am not interested in celebrating my birthday. The real ‘birthday’ is when the thought ‘I was born’ dies. If we were to live each day as our last day – that is, to live each day to the fullest and share as much love as possible, then each day would be like a birthday: each day would be a celebration. In fact, we should realise that every birthday is also a ‘death day,’ because every birthday takes us closer to death. But people are afraid of death, so in order to forget death, they celebrate their birth instead.

The Old School

We paid a visit to another old school of mine (I have several), the Reading Oratory in Berkshire. This is the only school to be founded by a Saint – Cardinal Newman. At first he only had seven boys. One of his ideas in education was that the headmaster should know all his boys’ names – not too hard with just seven! I paid a visit to Norris House where I was a boy. It was sad to see a picture of my late brother there. Underneath it, there seemed to be a picture of my youngest son – but it was me forty-five years ago. Anxious, serious and surprisingly neat.

We were taken to the old chapel. In my day, we had a choice at 7:30 of prep or Mass. Mass was preferable, because one could go to sleep there. It seemed as old and as unchanged as ever.

Thank you to Clive Dytor, the Headmaster, for taking us round and for turning the school around to become one of the best Catholic schools in the Country. Newmanesque, he knows the names of all the boys. In my day, the head was a kindly but fierce Benedictine Monk who, for some reason, wouldn’t let me go to Winston Churchill’s lying-in-state, He thought my studies should come first and that it wasn’t fair on the other boys who didn’t have a ticket… Fair enough.

At school, I went into the bottom set – 4d (yes, there was a 4a, 4b and a 4c). They told us that Latin was beyond us, so I led a revolt, saying we should be allowed to do it. To the credit of the authorities, they let us. It was my earliest political victory. There haven’t been many since.

Edward Leigh, leading a revolt of Oratory School students.


I went to the Confirmation service of my son at the Brompton Oratory. It was sobering and almost uncanny to see the children in the same place, in the same uniforms, reciting the same things as I had done nearly half a century previously.

I even remember the Bishop asking us all a question. My hand shot up – my first political act – and typically, I got the answer wrong! After the Confirmation in Latin we had Benediction, all according to the rite. The timeless words drifted in and out of my mind. Whether they penetrated the minds of the boys is debatable, but they will not forget the experience, even in fifty years time.

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

Beauty and Peace

Walking from a constituency engagement in Market Rasen to my home, I descended the valley and was faced with an extraordinary contrast of shades of green, pale blue, browns and an utterly still lake, shining like glass. It was a scene of extraordinary beauty and peace. If felt almost like nature’s response to the woes of the world.


I went to confession and confessed that I was too easily irritated by other people. Within a few minutes of penance, I went to mass and was soon irritated by the person in front of me talking. My sin free period had lasted precisely ten minutes.

Diversity of Forms, Unity of Intent

At Mass this week we were reminded that Mass can come in many different forms. Latin or English, traditional music or guitars – but ultimately it is a tool to achieve a numinous experience and a path to experience the divine.

Stonyhurst Objects

I went to the Stonyhurst dinner. There was an excellent talk by the curator of the museum.

Objects have a wonderful power which words don’t, as we saw in the ‘History of the World in A Hundred Objects.’ The collection at Stonyhurst is wonderfully eclectic: a beautiful book of hours, capes, and even the eye of a Matyr. History is here under one’s hands.

Praying for the Dead

November is a month of praying for the dead. A humanist sees this as a pointless exercise. Even as a religious person, I feel it difficult.

What, precisely, are we trying to achieve for the dead person? A quicker passage through Purgatory, perhaps? Reading this month’s Oratory Magazine, we are told that it is one of the most important things we can do. I tried it out with initial reluctance.

Curiously, once I had prayed for three friends that had died, I felt a lot better – as if I had achieved something.


I went to the Civic Service at Gainsborough for Rememberance Sunday. This always a dignified and moving occasion. This year, I noticed that the minister had added a Taizé chant.

O Lord hear my prayer
O Lord, hear my prayer
When I call answer me
O Lord, hear my prayer
O Lord, hear my prayer
Come and listen to me

This was sung as the bidding prayers were made. I thought it beautifully done and added a spiritual element to a civic occasion.

Perhaps it is a good sign of the times that a purely spiritual chant is considered appropriate at this sort of occasion. Certainly, the church was packed.

On Tetford Footbridge

I came upon the footbridge
And stopped to listen there
and all stood still but the gurgling brook
And the fading leaves in the Autumn air

I heard my boys’ voices distant accross the field
My daughters’ footsteps approaching
A distant dog bark
A machine far away

But here in the wold surrounded valley
Our own noise was muted; our thoughts stopped too
And the Water moved on under the footbridge
Never changing, always new

Past and future had never been
Only the gently swaying leaf above,
And lapping below the wooden bridge;
This moving stream

This moment was the only news
The only event and reality
Bursting upon the silence
But gently, slowly; sweetly

A shot; the brass clad Pheasant rises
From the woods to the top of the hill

To a view of many miles beneath
Deep ploughed brown furrows
and a short, green clad figure on the heath

Far away I glimpse the marsh and plain.
And the quiet church of Tetford is hidden yet present
Ancient stones and many generations.

Gauguin’s Contemporary Christ

Before travelling up to Lincolnshire I went to the Gauguin exhibition at the Tate Modern. Always when I go around these exhibitions I feel inspired to carry on painting. One’s own lack of any talent or skill means that there is nothing one has to prove; just to try.

The exhibition includes Gauguin’s “Yellow Christ”. What is interesting about this crucifixion scene is that contains Breton Women. There is, therefore, something contemporary within this rendition of an otherwise ancient image.


I went to the Requiem Mass for the deceased of my old school, the Oratory. The usual list of diseased Oratorians from before and around the time I was there was read out, but also mentioned was a brave young officer killed in Afghanistan.

War is never just a matter of numbers and policy – it is the terrible impact of death to individuals and the bereavement of those left behind.

Faure’s music and the words of the Requiem were hauntingly soothing:

Requiem aeternam dona eis.
Domine, et lux perpetua,
Requiem aeternam,
Aeternam dona eis.
Perpetua luceat.

We are reminded of Newman’s Dream of Gerontius. All of us will make this journey with trepidation, or even with acceptance.

Slowing Down, Speeding Up

I was having a most interesting conversation with a friend about science.

Apparently – and I am badly versed in all this – the spaceships launched out of the Solar System in the ’70s are not slowing down and coming to a stop, as Physics would predict, but rather they are speeding up. Physics has had to invent Dark Matter to explain this phenomenon.

Science, then, is never still. It is always expanding and moving. It is not like slowly building a rigid house of knowledge, making God redundant the moment the roof is complete. I suspect that Science will no more do this in a hundred or a thousand years than the next ten, or last hundred.

Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

This is an interesting feast, because the Basilica di San Giovanni, Laterano, is the Mother Church – founded, incredibly, as long ago as 324. But what I love about today is the reading from Ezekiel. It is the beautiful imagery of the water flowing down to the sea which is so enchanting.

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.”

He said to me, ‘This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.

(Ezekiel 47: 1-2 & 8-10)

Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament

If you go to the 1:05 Mass at the Cathedral, there is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament afterwards. To the rationalist, this is absurd. What is being worshipped is a piece of bread – no more, no less. But the believing Catholic believes it is something utterly different – the body and blood of Christ and the presence of God.

As I stood there, I still could not make the mental leap into utter certainty, but I know that a wonderful numinous sense of being in a presence was there. Could this emotional feeling of itself be proof? Of course not, but it was real, it was there and it was enough.


Its amazing how at a place like Downside all problems seem solvable. Suddenly one’s appointed role at work seems doable and worthwhile. At our oblates talk we were discussing the devil. Even his existence is very unfashionable at present. But it seems to me that as all things have an obverse, then if God exists then so too must an anti God or devil. And the devil, if he exists, must hate prayer with a vengence and attack it with feelings of coldness and depression.

Certainly prayer comes so much easier in a place like this. As our Oblate Master puts it, if God exists there must be an encounter with him. As I sat alone in the Abbey Church I had day dreams, of course, but I also had an impression of the devil’s wings beating uselessly on the outside of the Abbey walls, like the Dementors at Hogwarts. A hundred years’ worth of prayer here are driving him away.

Compline by Candlelight

I arrived in the Guests Wing of Downside Abbey for an Oblates weekend and by chance picked up a sheet about the life of a missionary – Bishop Alain Marie de Boismenu. A remarkable man, one the last things he said was:

I am a cripple and nothing works any more but my heart, which now has the time to love deeply. It is good to be able to say that one is able to love more and more, and that one day we will receive the gift of being able to love fully.

By chance, this comment was also in a newsletter from the Abbaye Saint Joseph de Clairval at Flavigny. Suddenly, on this damp November afternoon in Somerset, with the golden leaves falling in the blustery wind, I remembered a warm evening in Burgundy this Summer, and the monks trooping into Compline by candlelight.

Later, the afternoon light in the darkening Abbey was so heavy and mysterious that one could almost hold it. I set a candle in front of a statue of Christ and received in return one of those moments when one knows it is all true.

After that, walking in the grounds, it struck me that maybe the reason one has these feelings is because it is true!

Busy Day in the Chamber

I spent a busy day in the House of Commons, speaking in the defence debate. We all had fun knocking spots off each others’ arguments. It amused me afterwards to find this in today’s readings from St. Paul to the Romans, 14:

You should never pass judgement on a brother or treat him with contempt as some of you have done.

…Or as I have done, and do, I thought!

Only Individuals

The priest at Mass quoted St Teresa of Calcutta. “God cannot see crowds, only individuals.” This must be true if there is a knowing God, otherwise he would be overwhelmed. But as an expression of the truth – that we should be happy because we are loved individually – it is beautiful.

Old Mass, New Mass

My son’s school put on a Tridentine Mass at the Little Oratory. Of course it was beautiful but what struck me was how much that is said in the Novus Ordo is silent in the old Mass.

For all that, it is more spitual. All this is such a mystery and so unknowable that words cannot express it.