Saturday, 13 September 2014

Memory, coincidence and David Jones: Part 2

Part 1 of this post is here.

So why has this incident, the curious incident of the priest in the chapel, come flooding back to my mind? Only because this week, at a conference in Oxford, I met the priest whom I had spied six years ago. He, like me, was attending a conference about the English poet and artist David Jones. I recounted my story and he was amused. I suppose a priest who celebrates ad orientem is not really aware of what is happening behind him. Priests everywhere must realise they are living instruments of a God who strikes in the glories of the Mount of Transfiguration and then in the humble quiet of even a Manchester church, but I'm sure the prosody of everyday life takes the sheen off that idea pretty rapidly after ordination. But God's poetry lives on, whether we are aware of it or not.

But what was even more serendipitous about meeting this particular priest at this particular conference was that the original experience was such a very David Jones moment. Jones was a Catholic convert after his service in World War One, but his first real contact with the Faith came during a lull in fighting. He was out and about gathering wood (if I remember rightly) when he came across a barn from which he could see a glimmer of light. He came close to the building and, like me peering in through those gothic arches, he found a gap in the wall and looked inside to see what was happening. And what was happening was Holy Mass! In the quiet of the barn, dirty, hulking soldiers of various stripes were gathered close to an altar where a priest, facing ad orientem, muttered words that Jones would come to spend the rest of his life meditating on: benedictam, adscriptam, ratam. What a curious circularity this was - so I reflected on Thursday - that the priest I should have espied Jones-like all those years ago should turn up at a David Jones conference!

There are many things one could say about Jones, but perhaps the most pertinent to this experience is that Jones believed deeply in stepping back into the soil of history. The Tommies who appeared in his epic poem In Parenthesis are like reactualisations of so many warriors across history, carrying the banners and flags of a thousand hopes on the battlefield. Jones makes history into archaeology, dipping a teaspoon into the surf of a million memories and showing us what the past can mean again in its reactualised, represented mode.

Had I never had this experience in Manchester, I would have seen this only as a poetic and aesthetic model. But in some odd way, seeing the priest in the chapel of Our Lady of the Strada in Manchester was like a telescopic perspective, casting my vision back to Hopkins himself and beyond, into his various poetic priests and ultimately, into a mystery and sacrament that Hopkins served in his own life.

We walk, my friends, amid mysteries and coincidences. History is not linear. Eternity is not at the end of time. And all of us count to the whole story in ways we cannot even imagine. This I learned from Hopkins and again from David Jones. And again from the humble priest, moving anonymously at the altar in a chapel, ignored by all but me.

God alone knows what it all means, but if you ask me, it says that we are not alone.

Memory, coincidence and David Jones: Part 1

Let me start with one of my favourite memories which I'm not sure I have ever mentioned on here before. It was the summer of 2008 and many moons ago now. On a scale of 0-10 where 0 is bad and 10 is excellent, 2008's summer ranked as a -5 or thereabouts. For reasons that need not detain us here, I ended up in Manchester - not, I hasten to add, that the city itself was the source of my chagrin. And I had to try to finish a book I was writing while I passed through an emotional and mental quagmire. Yes, it was a grim time, the weather was unsympathetically fine and all I had to console me were a lot of dead poets and the musty third floor of the John Rylands library at the University of Manchester.

So, away I plodded every day to my work. One particular afternoon, however, stays in my memory. I had been hovering around Gerard Manley Hopkins for some time and unwilling to look more closely at the work. His poetry wasn't published until after the timeframe that the book focused on, so there was a good reason not to include him. But he is such a monument and the few poems I knew were so glorious that I could not help myself that day taking the plunge and steaming through the vast bulk of his poetry there and then (about 100 poems I think).

And I was transfixed. His language is a beautiful weave of the purple and prosaic, his rhythms and rhymes were electrifying, his purpose overwhelming. Not the least touching of these poems were the ones where priests appeared, moving through the words solemnly but steadily. Hopkins liked to see the priest as a craftsman doing his job, setting about Extreme Unction like a carpenter about a piece of four by two. Having been transfixed, I was then transported. Hopkins held me in his hand and might have made me fall back in love with the idea of being a priest - I was then unmarried. Still, all the while, I felt something small and fragile about Hopkins. He did not conquer by force but by a deep and rich capacity for spiritual seduction. As a rule, I'm no fan of Jesuits but this one could have persuaded me otherwise.

Now exhausted by the mystical marathon Hopkins had led me on, and with a notebook bulging with copious notes - hardly any of which made it into the book in the end!- I ceased by work and wandered out into the keen late-afternoon light. I wandered up to the Oxford Road and crossed over to where the former (then former, now actual) Jesuit church of the Holy Name stands. It is a wonderful neo-gothic effort, and the fruit of Joseph Hansom's imagination like the Oxford Oratory (also a former Jesuit church). Let me show you for a moment:


The cool, incense tinged interior is always welcoming and I wandered down the church on the epistle side looking for a spot to stop and say my prayers.

Just at that moment, something caught my eye. Is that the shining of 'shook foil' I wondered to myself. But then I saw him. There are several side chapels on the south side of the Holy Name, all beautifully restored before the Jesuits returned to the church (and hopefully now maintained, I make no judgments). And in the finest of them, dedicated to Our Lady of the Strada - a place where wondrous miracles have been wrought - there was a priest moving about saying Mass. The stone walls of the chapel are crafted into windowless gothic arches, so that the priest looked like he was moving behind delicate saplings. I noted immediately a familiar figure, a priest of the Oxford Oratory only recently ordained. Then I noted with deepening satisfaction the altar cards on the altar and realised this recent ordinand was celebrating the Old Mass (it's finest title, so bugger off, pedants!).

There was then in my mind a cascade of images and realisations as I sat to watch the priest from a distance. This young man was celebrating the same Mass that Hopkins would have celebrated everyday. He was celebrating Mass in a church of Hopkins's own congregation (though built, I think, after Hopkins's death). And I am a witness to this otherwise private scene - there was nobody else in the church - in the otherwise busy and tumultuous city, having just spent the afternoon with Hopkins's work. Heavens, is this man actually Gerard Manley Hopkins? Am I seeing a vision in gothic vestments???

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There are some moments one feels that were just meant to be and that mean very little to anyone but oneself. This is one of mine. Nothing more expected than an academic staggering out of a library at the end of a hard day. Nothing more prosaic than a priest saying Mass in a chapel. But then nothing more wondrous than the moment of seeing this newly ordained priest, moving quietly about his business at the sacred altar through the gothic arches of a cool, sunlit chapel, as if for all the world it was not 2008 or even 1908 but 1878 and Hopkins himself was resurrected, represented in the Sacrament, alive and living, borne by the thoughts and prayers of the Eternal Church.


Part 2 later or tomorrow. Now it's nappy time (the sublime to the ridiculous!).

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Wasteland

Oh dear, I've been neglecting you, haven't I? I shall make no excuses as they are only the usual ones. I notice that James Preece finds family life and blogging hard to reconcile these days as well. We're busy doing our bit for the kingdom of God, although you wouldn't think it by some people's standards.

I've actually spent more time this last month fielding correspondence from various quarters. There was the correspondent who wrote to tell me that we were all excommunicated - all, mind you - on 8 December 1965, the closing day of Vatican II which marked our official abandonment of Extra ecclesia null salus. It's a weight off my mind actually. I've only been making an effort in the mistaken belief I was still a member of the Church.

Another correspondent writes to me about Apostate Rome. For him, everything that happens in the Church is processed through a kind of mental gymkhana after which it suits whatever thesis he is pressing. He quotes one theory that there are good and pious members of the Church not following Traditionalism but only because they are in a kind of invincible ignorance about the modern errors. Lucky for them! I suppose former traditionalists like myself cannot claim that boon, but my correspondent has been too polite to tell me that so far.

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What does it all mean though? Somewhere further along the spectrum I read regular updates of friends who are wracked by anxiety about the current papal train wreck. Like the blogger I mentioned a few weeks ago - who, thank God appears to have been able to steady his ship - they are asking questions about whether they can even be members of a Church in which every pearl that falls from the pope's lips is treated like the utterance of an Oracle. I don't blame them very much; after all, it seems like hardly a week passes without one of Pope Francis's appointments making yet another blunder. They are only following the cue from HQ after all. It is not happening by accident.

Even further along the spectrum - perhaps I should say somewhere over the rainbow - I read that this week The Universe, once a paragon of Catholic middle-of-the-roadness in the UK, has given its back page over to ACTA, a kind of cross between SAGA and rent-a-slogan. Here's a sample of their latest stuff: encouraging complaints about the mild attempts of the Congregation for Divine Worship to restore some order during the sign of peace. Because, don't you know, ritual and love are polar opposites ...

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I try to love all Catholics, from those who talk about Fornicating Rome (yes, that too apparently) and those who want to see more rainbow stoles in the sanctuary. But how barren it all is! It's all steam and no coal. I don't know if we can label both extremes as Catholic freneticism but it's worth a punt. Its language is that of brash self assurance and its logic is always impeccable. It's just all barking mad.

Oh yes, it has shards of truth and sense tied up in it. All mad things do. I'm very fond of Chesterton's definition of the madman: not one who has lost his reason but one who has lost everything except his reason. This could be applied to almost any group in the Church which strays but a little from its God-given charism into a wonderland of human ingenuity (for which read lunacy). Take the Franciscans: forever tripping over their sandals into some crackpot extremism. Take the Jesuits: please, somebody take the Jesuits ...!

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And so my favourite metaphor at the moment for what is around us is The Wasteland. A land of dryness, a realm of wandering madmen and bands of loons. We listen to the dripping water somewhere and know there is divine mercy in the world, but around us is a whirlwind of chatter and Twitter, of news and noise, of getting and spending. We are behaving increasingly like neurotics, worry-stricken about events thousands of miles away and yet untroubled by our neighbours' dilemmas.

And all the while, from rad trad to loony liberal to the ordinary man of indifference in the pew, we remain largely unaware of the people and the prayers that carry us through, beyond our knowledge. I recently discovered a network of night adorers in my area, adoring the Blessed Sacrament all night, every night, across the city. God knows what liturgy they attend or whether they revel in Pope Francis's every word, but God knows how they love and adore Him!

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'These fragments I have shored against my ruins', Eliot writes towards the end of his poem The Wasteland. Contrary to what Macbeth said, existence is not a tale told by an idiot. But, heavens, there are lots of idiots and lots of sound and fury out there for all to hear. What remains are the fragments: the fragments of our holy history ('Our Church is the Church of the saints', says Bernanos), the fragments of the Blessed Eucharist, and the fragments of our poor prayers. These are, or should be, greater consolations, indeed greater anchors in the Wasteland, than all our anxious gurning or theologification.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Bridges, gaps and whistling in the dark

Let me start this post by saying I have no idea for certain what will take place at the Synod in October with regard to the hot-button issue of Communion for the divorced and remarried. God alone knows that. But it is part of the public service role of this blog to squeak a warning at the top of its voice about, on one side, the total doom sayers and, on the other, the pollyanna party.

I have heard a lot of hard things said about the current pope and so many of them appear true. Need I rehearse the myriad stories of his vague and imprecise language, his wild phone calls, the strange favouritism given to Kasper, his falsely irenic engagement with other religions to the point - reportedly; everything dubious about this papacy seems to be reportedly so - of suggesting Tony Palmer not convert to Catholicism (as Ratzinger did for distinguished Lutheran Sigrid Spath)? Don't become a Catholic for the sake of building wide bridges to unity? It's enough to make all Francis apologists choke on their Cheerios!

But Francis's clear trajectory on all these points is not for me a sure and certain sign that the Synod will simply go the way he clearly wants it to. He is a man and that is enough for him to be a mystery. Add to this fact that he is also the Vicar of Christ, and I find myself unable to predict with any confidence what he might do later today, let alone in October (or in the Synod proper of 2015). The religion of Jesus is the snatching of victory from the jaws of defeat. If things look bleak, they are looking up. Frankly, Francis seems to me like a drunk passenger who has somehow got control of the plane's cockpit, but the Holy Spirit is ultimately in charge of autopilot. The Church and, yes, even the pope, remain a mystery. God will have his way, of that we must remain unshakeably sure. I have no idea how exactly the story of the Synod will pan out. I know of various groups among the bishops who are working hard in preparation to block any outlandish Kasperite nonsense. I have no doubt there are counter operations being prepared by the looney liberals. All I am trying to say is that we must not lose hope that the Kasper solution can be defeated.

All that said, I am not - repeat: not! - advocating pollyannaism. In my post last week I mentioned William Oddie's bizarre reassurances that the pope will favour the Mueller solution over the Kasper solution when the crunch finally comes. These reassurances have since been republished by Crisis magazine, so they must be good, right? Yet as far as I can see, Oddie's sole evidence for his confidence is a sermon that Francis preached one morning, with the following words:

“Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching; fidelity to the Creed; fidelity to the doctrine, safeguarding this doctrine. Humility and fidelity. We receive the message of the Gospel as a gift and we need to transmit it as a gift, but not as a thing of ours: it is a gift that we received.”


Oddie's other argument in favour of his thesis is that if Pope Francis really supported the Kasper solution, he would have greeted it differently from the way in which he did (calling it 'serene theology'). In the cold light of day, this last claim looks close to silly. At best, it is much like special pleading.

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One of the problems we have with Pope Francis is that many of us simply do not recognise the gulf he appears to place between doctrine and practice. The Tony Palmer question is a good example. Being a full member of the Catholic Church is either a matter of salvation or it is not. With the sole exception of invincible ignorance - known ultimately to God alone - I know of no justifiable reason that excuses a man from remaining out of full communion with the Church.

So the question we must ask is not why Pope Francis would tell Tony Palmer to stay outside of full communion. The question is: "what are the implications for other teachings if it makes no difference to Tony Palmer's salvation whether he is a full member of the Church or not?" God knows the difficult obstacles that any soul faces on its journey towards the truth, but is it Pope Francis's view that lack of full membership of the Church is objectively speaking no obstacle at all to salvation (we know that subjective conditions can make a difference)? What exactly is the evidence that he thinks such a lack is indeed an obstacle? As far as I can see, Pope Francis's mission to the evangelicals seems to amount to this:



Given everything else Pope Francis is reported as saying, we really have to wonder what the meaning of “Fidelity to the Church, fidelity to its teaching; fidelity to the Creed" really is. What possible necessity can such fidelity have in the light of the Tony Palmer case? Come on, William Oddie and Crisis, parse this for me!

But in this argument perhaps I am succumbing to the temptation of wanting to make sense of Pope Francis's views. I am assuming there is a bridge to be built between doctrine and practice. Yet, as I said above, arguably this is our problem: that we do not recognise the gulf that, for him, seems to exist between doctrine and practice. I am coming to think that it is quite possible for Francis to believe fully in the doctrine of the Eucharist, and in the doctrine that says adultery is a grave sin, but still, in practice, to be prepared to tolerate Communion for the divorced and remarried. Likewise, he may well believe in the necessity of full communion with the Church but, in practice, be happy to see people stay outside of it for the purposes of building bridges. That building bridges metaphor is so fraught with anthropocentrism, so thick with self reliance, I can barely bring myself to write it. It reminds me of another ecumenical metaphor about "leaving our baggage behind" which used to do the rounds. Well, you know what happens when you leave your baggage behind? These days you get arrested and questioned under Section 4 of the Terrorism Act!

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Readers who are ruthless logicians will be streets ahead of me by now setting out all the implications of the gap between doctrine and practice which Pope Francis's words and actions all strongly suggest. And, quite possibly, preparing accusations against the obvious implications. All things considered, however, I'm not sure this is the most fruitful path. On the other hand, trying to find comfort in the more traditional reassurances Pope Francis gives seems to me to be a dead end. It is simply whistling in the dark (not a wholly damnable pastime but not a wholly excusable one either).

In my opinion, all we can hope for is that when the Synod comes, Pope Francis will either be discouraged by the force of opposition to the Kasper proposals, or that even he will find it impossible to accommodate the Kasperite gap between doctrine and practice. Even the wise cannot see all ends. Oremus!

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Franciscan hall of mirrors

In these days of mind-bending CGI simulation, it is easy to forget that only a few years ago we had to rely on sleight of hand and trickery to change the way things appeared. I say it was trickery but perhaps that is not so. The bending of light and its effect on our sight are well-established phenomena in nature, as you can see by simply sticking your hand in a stream and watching it 'bend'. We're surrounded by light almost all the time, and yet when it bends - a perfectly natural phenomenon - we are bemused or confused. We might imagine the laws of nature are changing or that our sight is failing. But nothing of the sort is true. We are just unused to the effect and the results amuse and confuse us. A more sinister turn of this phenomenon is referred to as smoke and mirrors. A magician might do it for our amusement. A fraudster would do it to rob us. Somewhere in the world, there may be civilisations where the bending of light is not merely a phenomenon for amusement or deceit but one which holds a more central place in their culture. Step forward any knowledgeable anthropologists who can fill in this blank for me.

I say all this - as usual - with an ulterior motive. Two matters have struck me this week and caused me some anxiety. I'll set them out here in my usual, pedestrian way. You may make of them what you will.

First, a blogger - to remain nameless - I know is close to separating himself from the Church. Pray for him, please. His problem, as I understand it, is that he is too honest a man to close his eyes to the appalling contradictions of this current papacy. His tragedy is that many intelligent and eloquent Catholics have attacked him for his always level-headed and even-handed criticisms of Pope Francis's words and actions. Our blogger, besieged on all sides by verbal diarrhoea, thus has come to the conclusion that if Francis's defenders represent Catholicism, he, the blogger, cannot be a Catholic. Something is profoundly wrong in a Church where people are so loyal to the pope that they will defend him even in his most egregious moments and question the Catholicity of others for finding fault.

The second matter that struck me this week is William Oddie's column in The Catholic Herald. Are you worried that the pope will change something dramatic at the Synod? Fear not, says Oddie, because however much he has praised Kasper to the skies, and (reportedly - everything dubious about this pope is 'reportedly' so) called at least one divorced and remarried woman to say she can receive the Eucharist, he has also in other moments said that we must all be faithful to Catholic doctrine. And so, Oddie concludes, the pope won't change anything at the Synod.

It was in the light of these two matters that the image of the hall of mirrors in the traditional fair funhouse sprang to mind this week. In the hall of mirrors some things loom entirely out of proportion and appear much bigger than they really are. Thus my blogging friend's persecutors. With every new and specious argument they produce defending the indefensible and lambasting the naysayers, they get puffed out of all proportion, their size apparently sanctioned by the implications of Pope Francis's words or deeds. As I have observed elsewhere: the strong can survive the attacks of their enemies but only the great can survive the defence provided by their friends. And Francis, it must be said, is not a great.

In contrast with the looming bloatedness of the Franciscan defenders come Oddie's bizarrely justified predictions about the Synod. Francis can be reduced to his most orthodox commentaries on the necessity of fidelity ... and we can just ignore the rest? This is the counter-error to our blogger's mistake, wherein matters get shrunk down to manageable size, regardless of the reality of things.

For Oddie, the pope's mistakes can be minimised because one day somewhere he said something precisely orthodox. For our blogger - God love him in his suffering - the defenders of Francis's mistakes seem to make such an overwhelming cacophony that they obscure for him the symphony of the faith which brought him to the Church in the first place.

Yes, here we have it: the Franciscan hall of mirrors. Bullshitters bestride the stage and sprinkle their papal dust on everything by way of justification, while good men cut themselves in incipient self-hatred for being so out of line, for refusing to accept the distortion of the hall of mirrors.

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We are surrounded, dear friends, by an accelerating chaos, at least in the minds of many who are engaged intellectually in the Franciscan papacy (the rest of the members of the Church will be spared the trouble through being too busy elsewhere, thank God). It is always a crisis when someone is contemplating walking away from the Church for such conscientious reasons. Pray, pray for my blogging buddy.

But is is also a crisis when otherwise good and sensible people try to minimise the dangers that surround us.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Stratford Caldecott RIP

I reported a few weeks back that Stratford Caldecott was dying of cancer. I have just seen this news from the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture:

Stratford Caldecott, RIP

It is with deep sadness that we announce the untimely death of Stratford Caldecott, a long time friend of the Chesterton Institute; contributor and member of the Editorial Board of The Chesterton Review.
Stratford died in England today.

We extend our deepest and most sincere condolences to his wife Leonie and his family.

G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture


Please remember Stratford, his wife Leonie and his daughters in your prayers.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Anglicanorum crapibus

In this post, I might sound like I am speaking without love. I merely mean to speak with exasperation.

I come from diverse cultural lines but both have firm Catholic roots. My maternal great-grandmother was called Greenhalgh and her family were recusant Lancashire Catholics going back to the Reformation. One of our ancestors is Blessed Edward Osbaldeston, a priest who was hung, drawn and quartered in York in 1594. My father's side comes from Cheshire peasant farming stock and their name goes back centuries and centuries.

On the other hand, one of my grandmothers was a Burke and the other was a McCarthy. My parents grew up in one of those urban Irish Catholic communities which formed in Britain after the potato famine. Nowadays, while we might have lost the accent and the shamrocks, we have lost none of the pigheadedness.

It is this kind of background which simply makes me incapable of understanding Anglicanism. I am simply left agog at the brass balls it takes to sit in the General Synod and vote out of existence the tradition of the exclusively male episcopate. Yes, I know it all went wrong a long time ago; that since they have had women priests, it was only logical to have women bishops; that you can expect nothing more from a church founded for the convenience of a king riddled with syphilis. But I'm still left amazed by the perfect incoherence of it all; the tea-with-the-vicaress perversity of it; the invariable itching of ears under the cover of "sound" liturgy.

Yes, yes, yes, of course we would like the integration of the Anglican patrimony into the Catholic Church... those bits that can be salvaged and which belong more properly to the traditions of English Catholicism than any imported Irish pious tat. But the essence of the religion expressed by the General Synod is simply accommodationism of the very worst kind.

In the very same week the General Synod has voted to embrace women bishops (which makes as much sense to me as a chips and fizzy pop Eucharist), decisions will also be taken regarding the suppression of the devil from their baptismal rite and the deregulation of liturgical vestments.

All this tinkering is billed as an élan of relevance busting forth from the Anglican bosom. It looks to me more like a slide into self caricature. Look, frankly, God is not relevant any more to the Zeitgeist, so why not just replace His name with the word Love which means the same thing theologically? And now, let's have a pause for quiet recollection and a fondle of our prayer stones.

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I sound like I am speaking without love. I merely mean to speak with exasperation. My wife was raised Anglican and her piety is something extraordinary. But that is not the point. The point is that the Church of England is doing everything it can to please the world - a dynamic derived from the manner of its foundation, I suppose, but one whose current expression would have shocked Anglicans only a few years ago. Pleasing the world: can there be a better realisation of losing one's grip on the call of Christ?

Of course some Catholics would say something like this:

“I’m not interested in converting [Anglicans] to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. There are so many doctrines we will never agree on. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.”

But how can one show the love of Jesus without being devoted to preaching a plenary version of that love? It doesn't make any sense.

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My maternal grandmother was a supporter of the SSPX. One day after attending a Mass celebrated by Bishop Williamson, she was introduced to the prelate himself and kissed his ring. From her wheelchair, she looked up admiringly at a man she thought would understand her roots and said, 'You know, my Lord, we have a martyr in our family. Blessed Edward Osbaldeston.' He sneered down unkindly at her for a moment (if you know him, you will know that look) and replied, 'Yes, I'm sure many Lancashire Catholics have martyrs in their families.'

Well, you would think that if you confuse society and religion, Mr former-Anglican, now the self-proclaimed last Catholic bishop in England (all conclusions are contained potentially in the premises of the syllogism; don't try and avoid it).

But when religion finds itself simply aping society, it can only continue as a caricature of itself, an impostor, a Caliban, dressed in fine robes but mouthing its own slogan-driven vulgarity.