Monthly Archives: December 2013

26-28 December


In the Anglican prayer book, the readings in the King James Bible for St Stephen’s Day repeat John 1:1. He that believeth, I sit there as light pours in.


St John the Evangelist

I go back to the open empty church and try to understand the parting words of Christ to John who affirms that all this is true. Happy those who have great faith.


A Times journalist had written a particularly nasty piece about Christianity. He went to a Christmas Day service but of course only for the music and the pretty fairy tale. But he made one good point: the Archbishop of Canterbury should have concentrated in his talk about convincing people of the existence of God. Of course the church is right to speak about poverty. But the modern day crisis, which sets us apart from previous generations, is not our concern or lack of concern for the poor but our lack of faith. The Archbishop cannot convince anyone of course in one or a dozen sermons. Faith is not an arithmetical problem. But he could say, I believe that we must persevere.

Faith does not come except in rare fortunate cases for life in a flash. It is not a question of having blue or brown eyes. One keeps them forever. You have to persevere. In Catholicism we have the great gift of the daily mass. I find it a great consolation. But other denominations have their daily communal worship, or at least we should be encouraged to go in for daily communal worship. My faith is like a high gear bicycle. I have to pedal furiously every day to make a little progress. Others have a low gear religious mind. With little effort, on the flat anyway, they can go along at a tremendous lick.

I was lying awake thinking of all this but these, I thought, are just arguments. What is important is to pray. I prayed very slowly as I got to ‘Thy will be done’ I thought maybe His will is an increase in faith and in my mind’s eye I saw a light, rectangular, solid stone, like one of the Stonehenge stones, but in pure white light. I wonder do self-proclaimed atheists never have religious experiences?

The Nativity of Our Lord

We start by going to the Holy Rood Catholic Church at 8pm for a simple spiritual vigil mass. We go on to the magnificence of Sung Eucharist in Lincoln Cathedral and then to carols and readings on Christmas Day morning in the tiny church at Stainton le Vale.

In the middle of the night, we awake thinking really is it just a pretty legend? Only light comes during the simplest of the three services and the reading from John with the words about light and belief.

Up to Christmas


That reading again: “This is how Jesus Christ came to be born.” The patter of words carries on.

I went for a walk around Chiswick House. The Ionic temple sat reflected in its pool of light, calm and still. The paths laid out by Lord Burlington radiate out in perfect symmetry.


Zechariah’s power of speech returns. And, of course, his faith.

Third Week of Advent


I remembered a story from the sermon the week before, prompted by what I heard today which I could not remember.

A blind man had put out a sign as he begged, sitting on the street: “Blind. Please give generously.” Very occasional coins tinkled into his hat. He sensed a person stopping. He could only feel the shoes. The lady wished him well and departed. Then suddenly coins started pouring into his hat. Later she returned and he touched her familiar shoes. Why had things changed after she left? “I turned your sign around,” she said, “to read ‘It’s a beautiful day and I can’t see it.’”

Words matter.

Of course the new sign excited pity. Words matter. It is worth writing them down. But there’s a deeper meaning. How often do we forget that it’s a beautiful day; or a beautiful world? And who, what created it?

Last week I walked to the Thames. There was heavy fog, so heavy that I could not see across to the other side. I might have been on the edge of the ocean. The sight of the Thames was extraordinarily beautiful.


We went to a friend’s funeral, the same church, the parish church in Gainsborough, for another friend a few weeks ago. Here in a small town you are remembered, surrounded by friends and family, the church packed. In a big city, you are lost.


The genealogy of Jesus Christ was read out at Mass. You can always hear people inwardly moaning. It is very long, but calming and beautiful in its way. But I never quite see its point. It ends with Joseph, but surely he wasn’t Jesus’ father.


Once again the reading from Matthew 1:18-24: “This is how Jesus Christ came to be born: …”

Heard again and again at carol services and masses, like a patter of rain, the usual image seeps into the brain. We were told today that the translation of “Joseph, being a man of honour” is a rubbish translation. It should read “being a just man”. What if he had said no? No marriage, Mary stoned to death, Jesus killed in the womb, a silent God on high, no message, no redemption. His son still dying for us but we know nothing of it.


Poor Zechariah. When Gabriel gave him the good news about his wife, he didn’t believe it. She was too old. As a punishment, he was struck blind. How many times should I have been struck blind for not believing.

We all went to Buckingham Palace for the investiture. A slightly bizarre occasion. The Prince of Wales expressed the hope to me that I would carry on. I almost said “Just like you, I intend to” but didn’t. Perhaps this would be lese majeste!


I was in Tate Britain looking at a painting by Reginald Frampton, Brittany 1914. The figures seem curiously detached from the reality about to hit them. Did Mary truly understand the cataclysm about to hit her?


The sun streams through the narrow windows behind the altar in the Cathedral blinding me; only vague shapes emerge on the altar. Like Zechariah, my lack of faith dulls my senses.

Second Week of Advent


We went back to the play. As my son was singing “Bring him home” for a moment, in his look or in his voice or a transitory note, I saw and heard my dead brother. What an extraordinary sensation. Of course it is not unlikely. The genes after all are the same but I had never noticed it before. It was only the emotions of the song that caused the recognition. The song is a prayer for protection of a living person. My fleeting recognition was of a dead person, once so familiar now gone. Who are we? Are we a single entity or part of the part of something else?


I went to the House for tributes to Nelson Mandela. The point is obvious. Like many great men he will be judged by magnanimity in victory, or rather he is one of the few people who fulfilled it.


Although the poetry comes round every year, it never ceases to astound. Has anyone ever written anything finer than Isaiah?

“Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low… then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”


I did a reading in the Order of Malta carol service. Some years I have done, attended five of these. They can be a bit formulaic. This one is made not so much by the beauty of the church or the candlelight but by the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and the power of John’s verse, healthily spoken out. For a moment, its power overwhelmed me.


To another carol service, at Downside Abbey. The king of all carol services. It is the power of the Schola of course but also the fact that it is bookended by plainchant and focused at its centre on the Benediction. Too many carol services are just jaunty tunes interspersed by fairy tales… in the view of many who go to them. How sad.


Advent to me is about a light. It flickers at first, then grows as the candles do. The response to the psalm then has particular power:

“Anyone who follows you, Lord, will have the light of life.” (Psalm 1:1-4)

These words kept rolling over in my mind. What light, what life, whose, where, how? Is this a general statement or addressed to me? Do I believe it? Yes, listening to it during the Mass I did, then forgot it for the rest of the day.


As I was walking down off the Wolds at around four o’clock, it was nearly dark. The features of the landscape were fading into each other – trees, bushes, grass were all fading into each other. Each shape was inchoate. There were no longer bright greens, blues, yellows; the last colour of late autumn, only a delightful greyness, some dark some lighter, fading into each other.

Belief for the Unbeliever


Today is the start of the Church’s year. Perhaps it’s a good opportunity to start too a guest in faith. Why do I struggle with belief? How can I believe? Some will or may come to it suddenly or unexpectedly.

But for me and I suspect for most of us it is a daily struggle. So I think it’s worth looking at it – the question of God’s existence or otherwise – not as a great mountain but as a daily step.

In reading every day and trying to go to Mass perhaps I can make a little progress and maybe others too may find this approach useful.

Today I went to a family First Communion in St Nicholas Church on the river at Chiswick. A beautiful Anglican service, complete with Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Latin. The church, this ancient church seemed content with the service.

Later I walked to Barnes Bridge. Here I was brought up, here I used to walk nearly fifty years ago. I wondered if I walked now to the Crescent, if I rang the bell, would my mother open it? Would I find my father inside on the green chair reading his newspaper, the chair on which he died. Where are they now? But in my mind’s eye, they still were there. So faith is in the mind.

Later, in the Cathedral, I read today’s words in the Gospel:

“Stay awake! You do not know the hour.”

No we do not, and most times we plod on, forgetful. But just once a day cannot we think internally?


We went along to Lambeth Palace for an Advent Service with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is always a most beautiful service. In these ancient medieval melodies one can lose oneself. For a moment one can feel real joy. Here too in today’s Gospel one can walk with the Centurion.

“Sir, I am not worthy to have you under my roof.”

A good reading for the first weekday in Advent.


We had a debate on the persecution of Christians in the twenty-first century. There was the usual relativism. We were told that Christians are persecuted in 105 countries and Moslems in 101. Maybe all persecution is wrong. But the overwhelming denial of human rights and downright persecution in the world is against Christians.

I referred to the French film “Of Gods and Men” which I had seen on Sunday night. There is a lovely passage when Father Christian confronts his tormentors with the passage in the Koran exhorting peace between faiths. If you persevere, if you concentrate sometimes as in a moment at the Advent service you can feel joy.

“Filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 10:21-29)


I led a debate on funding of dermatology. One of the best moments of the week, indeed of the month, was when walking out of the debate. A lady who suffered obviously from a skin condition thanked us.

“He sat there, and large crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb, and many others.” (Matthew 15:29-37)


As I emerged from a meeting with some important people, I should perhaps have remembered today’s psalm (117):

“It is better to take refuge in the Lord, than to trust in princes.”


I was talking to someone at a surgery who clearly has a lot of problems and is almost defeated by life and ill health.

What a pity one cannot do this:

“Then he touched their eyes, saying ‘Your faith deserves it, so let this be done for you.’ And their sight returned.” (Matthew 9:27-31)


We went to a performance of Les Miserables at my son’s school. He told us he was in the chorus. In fact, he was playing Jean Valjean. Les Miserables in particular the song “Who Am I?” is I think a profoundly Christian play. The words express the Christian dilemma. At one level, they pose the question: should one lie to survive? “If I remain silent, I am damned. If I speak up I am condemned.”

But I think there is a deeper meaning. Who am I? Do I have a separate or meaningful existence? Where does my consciousness of self come from? Is it a mechanical, chemical, or spiritual consciousness? Is it material, fleeting? Should it owe allegiance to this real world or another, unseen, which may be illusory?