So as the year comes to its end, you might be disappointed with this year and some missed opportunities.
But remember how lucky you are – we are.
I found this passage in Leningrad:
“28 Dec 1941 at 12.30 – Zhenya died. 25 Jan 1942 at 3pm – Granny died. 17 March at 5am – Lyoka died. 13 April at 2am – Uncle Vanya died. 10 May at 4pm – Unlce Gyoosha died. 13 May at 7.30am – Maria died. The Savichevs are dead. Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.”
Written by 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva. What extraordinary resilience and suffering. So always look on the bright side. Be humane.
I am reading Anna Reid’s book Leningrad about the three-year siege from 1941 to 1944. The suffering of these people was appalling. Mass starvation and reduction of people’s lives to a primitive struggle for a few grains of bread.
Of course, any problems you might have pale in comparison with such suffering. Certainly aged 61 I am lucky to have health, job, and family.
But what it drives home too is the terrible point: lessons of war. Hitler’s invasion of Russia was manic and cruel. What was he hoping to gain by invading a country just to destroy it? But all wars are terrible. They all have unforeseen consequences, however ‘just’ they seem at the time. Why can’t countries just mind their own business and manage their budget.
Today I went to a Eucharistic service in our local church. No priest was free. It was curiously simple and moving, just five or six of us, the laity doing, of course, everything apart from the Eucharistic prayer, but creating something beautiful. It is enough.
When you dream, things become indistinct. Objects look like a piece of wood that has been left too long outside in the rain. I had a dream tonight that whilst I was looking at an altar and the Blessed Sacrament above it, the whole assembly had grown indistinct like wood left too long outside. Like my belief, hazy and indistinct.
The choir being on holiday there was no Evensong in the cathedral at Lincoln, only evening prayer. But in a sense it was more beautiful. In this vast, empty space, the sole voice of the priest rose up in plainchant – ‘Come down oh God from Heaven’. Thus hundreds of years ago, the monks must have sung the same thing. As the sound rose, did God indeed come down to meet it halfway? In our minds, yes. In reality, we hope.
I was looking out of the window. It was pitch black outside, the bare branches silvery in the light from the window, swaying in the wind and brushing the glass. A cold, unpleasant sight, like death breaching the warmness of the room. Inside the fire blazed, comforting like life after death, and elsewhere in the house people moving, arguing, joking, like life itself, a phase between life and death.
You think Boxing Day should be part of the Christmas season. Instead it is all blood and gore, the story of St. Stephen’s martyrdom. As he dies, he forgives his enemies. How difficult it is ever to forgive the most minor slights and irritations.
Outside Our Lady of Victories Church in Kensington is a little fish tank with some water dribbling into it but on the wall is written these words to Mary:
Torrent of Compassion
River of Peace and Grace
Splendour of Purity, like the Dew of the Valley
Dear to God, Beloved to All
I memorised it and the words often came back to me. And worked.
But why should they? Doesn’t reason tell us that Mary was first a peasant girl, long dead, mother of a Man long since executed?
But the words “Torrent of Compassion” kept coming back to me. If one prays to her, it is as if a tower of compassion is staring over one. And after the tower, great masses of water cascade over one’s fears, you enter a slow-moving river of peace and grace.
Normally if you want to get a seat in the Cathedral for Midnight Mass you have to get there by 10.30. Today I had been asked to do the reading at Matins before the Mass. Of course I had read this beautiful passage from Isaiah several times but when I stood up before this huge church to read it, I was so nervous I had not a clue what I was reading. A mere automaton but this is all one needs, an instrument for poetry of a majestic kind. What sort of man living in a tent in a primitive society could produce such writing? Who was he and how inspired?
Sometimes if you go to Mass in the Cathedral at 10.30, the light shining in through the East Windows on a winter’s morning slants in from a low sun directly into one’s eyes. Everything in the sanctuary becomes indistinct. In the Christmas season all you can make out is the vague shape of the Christmas trees. As you watch, altar, priest vanish and then only the words can be heard, in Advent of the Incarnation and Mary’s acceptance and at the Consecration only the Host raised high emerges from the encircling gloom.
Strangely, almost magically lit by the light behind as in some complex stage lighting, but it is only the Sun; and now the Sun continues its course, passes the window and the white scene is restored to its ordinary, everyday colours.
We travelled up a long journey through the Isle of Axholme to Crowle, fighting the traffic streaming from London to arrive at the back of a packed church for the sixtieth anniversary Mass of our old parish priest at Market Rasen, Father Philip Bailey.
One thing I take away with me, not this beautiful church with shades of Keble College nor the sung mass and its cadences but what Father Philip said in his talk afterwards:
“I have never owned anything in my life but you people have given me all I have ever needed.”
I dreamt that I was trying to find some proof of the Incarnation in my mind. I was standing on a wide, open plain in my dream. The truth I was sure was behind a barrier just before me, made of earth, but not very high. But every time I dug away a bit of this earthen barrier with a piece of beguiling glass on the top, it seemed to replace itself.
I never did get to the truth. Perhaps it is time to sign off Another Country for the Christmas holidays and I might discover the truth when refreshed!
My son has brought home for lunch during the holidays a skull he is supposed to model from for his art class. Somehow having a human skull in the house puts everything into perspective. MEMENTO MORI – why worry about the present?
When I heard the reading at Mass I was struck once again by the fact that this story of the Incarnation is repeated again and again this week. But as the priest reminded us, the story deserves repeating.
Imagine if you were on death row and the day before the execution you were reprieved, it would be an unbelievably joyous, earth-shattering event. But that is what the Incarnation is for us. The promise of life.
When Zechariah refuses at first to believe what he is told that his wife is to conceive in old age, he is struck dumb.
I suppose that our lack of faith also strikes our minds dumb.
In the Gospel today from Matthew, the Angel says to Joseph:
“Do not be afraid.”
These words come back again and again. I suppose they are all we need.
Do not be afraid.
In the “perfect” world we are supposed to make for ourselves, you are not allowed to feel depressed: it irritates other people. I am not so sure that a little depression does much harm. Everything comes in waves in nature. Up and down, backwards and forwards: the secret is to know when to stop and not to plunge too deep.
Of course we can accept our limitations if God knows where we are and wants us to be happy where we are, said my friend. But my friend has no doubts, we do. Of course, if God exists there would indeed be acceptance. He would not wish us to be anywhere than where we are. So we doubters have to assume and accept that he does know. Then comes acceptance and a measure of peace.
I was reading a homily. The author said that at Christmas people who never attend any kind of religious service “at least got to a carol service”. But a carol service can be an intensely moving religious experience. At Downside Abbey, at the start of the service, the whole church is swathed in darkness, only lit by candlelight and sounded by plainchant. And it is only with the first great sound of the first carol that the lights illuminate.
How do we make a good confession? I never know what to say. But I remember once when I expressed my inability to accept my lot, the priest said simply “Listen, listen to the words of the absolution.” Normally we are so grateful to have garbled off a few inadequate words that we barely listen to these words which are full of poetry and meaning for us.
Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, + et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In Jordan near Amman there are the most extraordinary Roman ruins at Jerash. I reckon they cover as large an area as Hyde Park, four times the area of the Roman Forum, with ten times more monuments at least. They are truly stunning, with great temples, a pillared road, mighty steps leading up to the Temple of Artemis. In one’s mind’s eye one can peer into the past as part of the crowd seeing the Emperor Hadrian striding through these great arches.
There are mighty ruined Byzantine churches to St Theodore amongst others but what struck me most was what a boy showed me. One can tip ever so slightly with just a key ring a huge stone pillar. This movement is a defence against earthquakes. And some of the cornices atop the pillars are hollow. They play music when moved. Thus the Romans had musical warning of an earthquake. How arrogant and stupid we are building vast layers of concrete which crush people by the thousand in earthquakes.
Why can we not learn the wisdom of people who lived two thousand years ago? To pause, consider, and build for beauty and safety and not just for profit.
I had to get somewhere on time but I made myself go to Mass. Going to Mass is supposed to calm you down, but it just made me late and agitated. The truth is that for most of us the rush of present events, moving time, is so important that we find it naturally impossible to concentrate on anything we should.
My daughter came back from a far-away place.
That’s more important than anything in politics.
Remember ‘Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all’ and in British politics at least. No-one dies and that’s the important thing. My Chamberlain remark was printed in every newspaper with the unfortunate interpretation that the present Prime Minister was Chamberlain. But “Never apologise, never resign, never complain!” The main thing is to keep telling the truth as one sees it.
In the end, the Prime Minister did the right and just said no to the new treaty. He told his truth as he saw it.
The Christmas Carol Service at St Peter’s, Stonyhurst. We go to so many carol services. They are a bit formulaic. What marks this one out is not so much the breaks in the carols with the choir singing ancient traditional melodies but the Benediction at the end. It is a true religious service. A service with an end, a point, and a statement.
Sometimes it is better to know when to hold your peace. This day I had things to do all day but still found time to go to the 12.30 Mass. Perhaps I should have stayed there. But I had to come back to speak. My remarks, inoffensive as they were, were too easily taken out of context. I said too many British Prime Ministers had come back from European Summit meetings holding a scrap of paper claiming victory. And we didn’t want this to happen again.
There was Mass in the Crypt and I had to leave early for a meeting. As I climbed the steps, depressed, the words followed me up.
O come, thou dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight