A Glimmer of Light

I have made a new discovery whilst looking through my notifications on Facebook. I found some comments mentioning my writings, but of a singular shallowness. The original poster of the thread gave a link to a page of a site that I had not yet seen.

I am still discovering this site and its keeper, who appears to be a man in his 60’s living the good life in Michigan with his family. He resonates with my own thought and intuitions through his interest in Romanticism, Jakob Böhme, Berdyaev and the general movement in reaction to modernism and technocracy. This site is worth discovering at the same time as I unearth articles of a rare lucidity.

Sometimes, Facebook, with the shallow ideas of some about what clothes they wear to Mass, can reveal treasures. Above all, I have the impression of being a dim light among others for a new movement of thought and art in a world that flattens humanity under the weight of viruses, lockdowns and prospects of “great resets”.

I will be looking through this website with great interest.

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Oscar Wilde

This is an extraordinary film from 1960 about the downfall of Oscar Wilde in the 1890’s. We are very lucky to have the whole film available on YouTube. I find it very well acted. I first saw it more than thirty years ago, but only now did I really appreciate the personalities of Wilde, his wife Constance, Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) and the pompous and angry Marquis of Queensberry.

On the YouTube page containing the film, you will find extracts from a review attesting the quality of the acting and authenticity of the screenplay. The one question remains: what was Wilde doing with cheap and vulgar “rent boys”?

As the film went on, I had the impression that Wilde was acting out the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles – English translation and the moving German text which was set to music by Mendelssohn. Throughout the trials and consultations with his solicitor, Wilde seemed to be bent on destroying himself by trying to be too “clever” with the prosecution and defying the advice of his own counsel.

First of all, the vile Marquis of Queensberry had a visiting card delivered to Wilde with the words “posing as a sodomite”. In what way was that libel? The matter was private and did not involve anything said or written in public. The portrait of Queensberry showed an abusive and violent man who mistreated his wife and his children alike, a perfect picture of the pathological personality. I detected the same toxic traits in “Bosie” which showed through his manipulative arrogance. Wilde also lived far beyond his means and I had little sympathy for any of them other than Constance and the two children.

I often quote from Wilde’s De Profundis as he seemed to have an understanding of the noblest aspects of humanity, after two years of the hell of a Victorian prison. He was so badly destroyed that he was unable to rebuild his personality or spiritual life when he lived in Paris, and ended his life most tragically as meningitis ate his brain away. What was the nature of that love that dare not speak its name? The line was actually written by “Bosie”, not Wilde. The expression is conventionally taken to mean homosexuality, something that was severely repressed in the Victorian era. At his trial, Wilde attempted to give a more noble explanation on the basis of friendships between mature men and boys in the ancient Greek culture. St Paul was explicitly severe about homosexuality in the Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians in particular. Homosexuality in the New Testament is a particularly interesting article giving various exegetical approaches to the various Pauline and Old Testament texts. Some liberal scholars interpret the texts as a prohibition against paedophilia and prostitution, but more conservative exegetes hold a complete condemnation of all same-gender sexual acts and relationships. I would as a priest be more inclined to discourage physical sexual acts in favour of the kind of friendship described in De spirituali amicitia (Spiritual Friendship) of St Aelred of Rievaulx, a Christian counterpart of Cicero’s De amicitia. St Aelred, as Abbot of a large monastic community, would have been very severe on physical sexuality between monks. But the friendship he described is perhaps a love that forgot to speak its name over the centuries. I think we do well to read this work, which has been translated from Latin into English and other modern languages, and discern the spirit of this venerable idea of friendship, real friendship, between two human persons. Churches and priests need to develop a truly pastoral approach in helping men to transcend their sexual desires through profound friendship and spiritual life. It is easier said than done, but the feeling of “falling in love” can be a dangerous and catastrophic illusion.

I suspect that Wilde lied to the court when he denied having “it” with rent boys. He is not the saint many would like to believe. How would a man of that level of culture and nobility of spirit get mixed up with such lowly persons? As for taking the Marquess of Queensberry to court, when setting out on vengeance, one must first dig two graves. Being blinded by love can lead a person to abdicate reason and common sense to a degree that self-destruction is the only issue. How else would Wilde have been so reckless in putting all his faith in his wit and sense of humour? A court of law is no place for such foolishness! His attitude was probably not far from contempt of court.

Constance could only do what she could for the good of her children, as a woman of her time. Today, the equivalent would be a case of a paedophile who abused children sexually, a priest or a teacher in particular. She showed her pain and sense of duty in forcing her husband after his release from prison to give up his parental rights. The couple never divorced. I saw in the portrayal of this woman a profound altruism, sense of duty and genuine care for her discredited husband.

I don’t think I can draw any absolute conclusions from this reconstruction of long-dead historical figures. I am very fond of Wilde’s work. I have several of his plays in videos that I can watch. The Picture of Dorian Grey is haunting, to say the least, and an incredibly fine understanding of the human soul. The little stories for children like the Happy Prince are just as profound in their tenderness. The two post-incarceration works De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol show Wilde in his pain after having suffered such a disproportionate and soul-killing punishment for his indiscretions. The Soul of Man under Socialism was a prophetic piece of writing for a century of which he saw only the first year.

What do I conclude? I can only observe the cruel division between a spirit of such nobility and sense of the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, a Romantic to the last, on one hand, and someone who perhaps shared the narcissistic traits of Bosie and his violent and abusive father who was fanatically bent on Wilde’s destruction. I think I understand the spirit of contradiction in ideas like Work is the curse of the drinking classes and overcoming temptation by giving in to it. He waged war on conventional morality and the self-righteousness of the Philistines of his age. In his opposition to hypocritical moralism, he overstepped the fragile line into sin and suffering.

He died a hundred and twenty years ago, and his grave is found at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The monument is of a singular ugliness in my opinion. Wilde left his mark, certainly on me.

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O for the Wings of a Dove

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee (John Donne).

This quote is usually evoked to maintain the position of humanity being possible only in a social context or a relationship. In a nutshell, we will have to distinguish between the social nature of humanity and the transcendent spirit of a human person. Some people do not do well in the bustle of intensive social life. Psychologists talk of extroverts and introverts. It is simply the personality of an individual. There may be other technical terms like autism, but this posting is not about that.

I named this article after the famous anthem by Mendelssohn, Hear my Prayer with the latter section O for the wings of a dove.

The text is based on Psalm 55. This theme is a prayer and a desperate appeal to God for deliverance, and then launches into a description of the psalmist’s anguish and his desire for peace. It evokes the Sehnsucht of Romanticism and a very fundamental human need to be left alone for any number of reasons. Mendelssohn originally set the following German text to music before English adaptations came into being:

O könnt’ ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin,
weit hinweg vor dem Feinde zu flieh’n!
in die Wüste eilt’ ich dann fort,
fände Ruhe am schattigen Ort.

It struck me very strongly when I was a young choirboy singing this piece, for it seemed to be very “me-me-me” and “what I want”. Desire is often unattainable, as impossible an aspiration as flying like a bird. We do not escape our angst by simply moving from one place to another. We cannot evade the battle God has willed us to fight. This will be the most significant aspect to the solitary’s life, as in the famous Temptation of Saint Anthony of the Desert. Our only rest is in Jesus. The solitary life is illusory with only the idea of getting away from it all.

The Church and many non-Christian traditions have traditions of the solitary whose purpose is contemplation and self-awareness. There are canonically constituted hermits who are under the authority of a religious community. They wear a habit and live in a designated place. There are probably many others who live alone for various reasons and who do not depend on any religious organisation.

There are several websites I have found particularly interesting:

These seem to be sites of resources and possibilities for communication between hermits to support each other without living in community or being under a power or authority structure. You will find articles on Catholic and Christian hermits, but also those belonging to other world religious traditions, sometimes the eccentric who just lives alone in some remote place.

One of the first things to do is to get rid of the stereotypes of eremiticism. It is important also to get rid of the ideas of putting on the appearance of monastic life. L’habit ne fait pas le moine. Blaise Pascal is famously quoted as having said in regard to the Jansenist nuns of Port Royal, Qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête (The one who plays at being an angel descends to the level of the beasts). A literal translation is impossible for that one. In our days, discretion is of the essence, lest we encounter the self-styled abbot wearing a scapular and a cowl – and being found drunk and disorderly and unworthy of his apparent calling. I do have a particular person in mind when mentioning this. It is an error not to repeat. What is important is what is inside.

Earlier, I wrote a couple of articles on liminality. A person in this state comes to see the utter folly of society. Rob Riemen wrote of this question of “mass humanity” in his beautiful little books Nobility of Spirit and To fight against this age. The general tendency in society is to dumb down or bully the individual and plunge him into the comfort zone of the collective. Panem et circenses. Society and collective human nature have always been absurd, materialistic, status-seeking and self-justification.

Pope John Paul II wrote a book Sign of Contradiction in which he gave a profound analysis of the place of Christ and tension between sacred and secular. This sign of contradiction is one of the characteristics of liminality. Solitude does not come without difficulty, the first being accepting one’s own absurdity. The fool for Christ is strong in the Russian Orthodox tradition but also in the western Church. Think of St Philip Neri and St Benoît-Joseph Labre among many others. We have to accept this disintegration as attested by men like C.J. Jung and Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980), something that may have influenced Wojtyla during his time under the Nazis and almost immediately under the Communists.

We are brought to the brink of our own chaos, pointlessness and irrationality, in which only the light of the divine can give any sense. As Berdyaev said: No one who has left a Christianity based on authority can return to anything but a Christianity which is free (Freedom and the Spirit). However, this freedom depends on a genuine search for the spirit. Without the tarnish of superficiality and illusion the mystery of God appears  in all its depth. I find in authors like Thomas Merton and Alan Watts the profound thought that we all die alone, but it is in this aloneness that we discover our true self and unite with the solitude of all.

It is essential to transcend society, not reject it. Humanity is embraced at its spiritual level. Non-conformity cannot be rebellion any more than an exaggerated social life. The experience of solitary life, whether for life or for a time, will certainly help us to guard against false religion or narcissistic illusions. The aim is not to rest but to become fully conscious and awake. Far from being a drunken phoney abbot, the solitary is called to live life as it is, eschewing the quest for attention or admiration and being effaced.

Merton seems to introduce a certain dualism between being a solitary and the Romantic individualist. He was called to the hard and austere life of the Cistercian hermit, as was Fr Charles de Foucauld. I am not sure that all solitary life must be modelled on this radical austerity on pain of being sent back into the social life of common mortals. There would seem to be room for diversity.

Monastic hermits renounce divisive values like nation, group, family, politics, etc. but so do many other souls too. We have also to renounce our own ego and perhaps undergo the disintegration of the personality as described by several modern psychiatrists. Such an experience with make us wary of our concern for the appearance of everything, the ritualised aspect of liturgical life, the social dimension of the parish and its secular teaching. Merton describes the call to solitude as “silence, poverty and emptiness“. It is a way of paradox and apparent contradiction. Like Alan Watts, Merton inclined towards the “nihilism” of Zen Buddhism. I am not sure that Jesus was of that mind, or not entirely.

Solitude should be a witness to the spiritual dimension of Christianity taking precedence over the political and social aspects. It is a ministry, not of preaching and proselytising, but of healing the wounds of the world within oneself. The solitary is not so much the “specialised” monk who takes on a tougher observance of the rule, but who are chosen for it by having been alienated by the world. Solitude is won by suffering and disillusionment with the world with which we cannot relate.

The golden rule for any solitary is that appearances are not enough. It has to be an utterly honest and sincere approach to self and God. The solitary embarks for a voyage to the unknown, something absolutely different, a desert of emptiness that Jakob Böhme called the Ungrund. It is the abyss, without foundation. It is dark and irrational. It has no being. Thus Böhme described the origin of the world and evil. The Ungrund is a primordial freedom containing the ability to transform into matter, indeterminate even by God. It is only by accepting our own nothingness and void that we can begin to perceive God. Few of us will ever do so because of the sin of pride. The hermit will have his own personality and character but he is alone in his confrontation of God. The solitary is not always a mystic, but he is entirely on his own. He cannot live in modern society because it leaves no space for compassion or contemplation. Only today I saw a video about the condition of boys being initiated into manhood having the object of – competition and dominance. Its message was entirely the Ubermensch idea of Nietzsche. It was a salutary lesson to see it, even if some of the psychoanalysis about boys and their mothers made a considerable amount of sense.

It is easy to understand the story of St Anthony’s temptations in the desert. A multitude of demons came and started beating him. His suffering was immense, but he exclaimed “Here is Anthony. I do not flee your beatings nor pain, nor torture; nothing can separate me from the love of God“.

The story becomes that much more frightening as St Athanasius related:

“The demons made ​​such a racket that the whole place was shaken, knocking over the four walls of the tomb; they came in droves, taking the form of all kinds of monstrous beasts and hideous reptiles. And the whole place was filled with lions, bears, leopards, bulls, wolves, asps, scorpions. The lions roared, ready to attack; bulls seemed to threaten him with their horns; snakes advanced, crawling on the ground, seeking a place of attack, and wolves prowled around him. They all were making a terrible noise. Groaning in pain, St. Anthony faced the demons, laughing: ‘If you had any power, only one of you would be enough to kill me; but the Lord has taken away your strength, so you want to frighten me by your number. The proof of your powerlessness is that you are reduced to taking the form of senseless animals. If you have any power against me, come on, attack me! But if you cannot do anything, why torment yourselves unnecessarily? My faith in God is my defence against you”.

I spent six months at the Abbey of Triors in 1996-97. I later wrote this reminiscence:

The monks in the distant choir were chanting the psalms of Matins in the gloom of the night. It was the day following the Feast of St. Joseph of 1997 as I sat alone in the empty nave of the Abbey church with my office book, not that I was as attentive to the words as I was on other mornings. They seemed no longer to matter. The candles on the altar gave a distant glimmer, and just enough light to read was given by carefully dimmed electric lamps high up in the coffered wooden vault.

The black shadows of the monastic cowls filled the plain wooden stalls, as the grey concrete pillars reached up to the high vault. Occasionally, one of the hooded figures would kneel and rise before returning to his misericorde, having presumably began to sing the wrong verse or confused one neume for another. Psalm after psalm, the monks continued in their chanting of the night office.

Unlike the monks, I had not slept for the whole night. It was the darkest day of my life, and under that shroud of profound hopelessness, I felt I had no further reason to live. Did God exist? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? If He existed, I prayed that I might die, that He would relieve me of the agony within my being. This must have been what it is like for a man who has been convicted and sentenced to a long term in prison, the businessman who lost all his money or the orphaned child. Indeed, the Abbot had frequently called me an “orphan” of the Church.

It was not in me to consider suicide. It is one thing to think about it, but the idea of actually throwing a piece of rope over a roof beam or taking a knife to cut my arteries would fill me with revulsion and horror. Even in these low depths, I would think of my parents who would always love me. Also, he who commits suicide commits a mortal sin in doing so, and would die without God. But, I prayed to God that He would do the deed, and take me away from this earth that meant nothing more to me. I waited for my heart to stop beating, but it did not.

Though I was making no sound, nor was I disturbing the Office, there was an occasional concerned glance of the Abbot in my direction. The office continued as I quietly sobbed in my pew. I would look up towards the apse of the church, my eyes moving around the blackened windows, as the night still held its deathly grip over the world. So the cold and empty depths kept its hold over my soul that morning.

The cold was piercing, as I wrapped myself in my black cloak and sat in my solitary place. The chanting continued, and the community came to the end of the second Nocturne and intoned Lauds. As they sung the Miserere, the verse Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus : cor contritum et humiliatum Deus non despicies had a special meaning for me. I had no need to follow it in my book, since the monks sang this psalm every day. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit, a broken and contrite heart wilt He not despise. This was my prayer, to a God I whose existence seemed more and more unsure, that He would accept my sacrifice.

Was my heart broken on account of my sins, something very wicked I had committed deserving of the heaviest canonical sanctions and punishments from God? He who hears you hears me. The ecclesiastical authority finds in these words a licence to take the place of God. Was it because of the words of my former superior the day before who had told me that my presence at the Abbey and following a canonical penance would make no difference?

Lauds came to a close as the bell tolled to summon the Brothers to serve the private Masses in the crypt and the monks sang the Benedictus. Beyond the east windows, the black was finally turning to a dark blue as the dawn began to herald a new day. My office book was still marked at the Venite, since I had not followed a word. As the office drew to a close, the silent and efficient sacristans began to prepare the numerous altars for the private Masses. It was time to go to the Abbot’s Mass in the crypt.

I rose from my pew as if I weighed several tons and slowly moved towards the glass doors between the narthex and the nave, as I had done every day. I noticed the slight smell in the neutral air carrying a hint of boot polish as I carried my little monastic breviary and the worn chant book in my hands. I also had my little Latin missal to follow the Mass, since the monks said their private Masses in complete silence. I made a bow to the altar and left the church through the glass doors and turned towards the little door leading to the crypt.

Going down the gloomy and dimly lit stairway between two high grey concrete walls, I arrived in the crypt. It felt like descending into the Führerbunker in Berlin, rather than into a place inhabited by God’s love. The first priest monks were vested and moving slowly towards to their altars accompanied by their servers wearing black cowls. Candles were still being lit as other monks were donning albs and the vestments for Mass. The altar under the apse of the church at the far end had four candles and the Pontifical Canon. It was the Abbot’s altar, and several people silently knelt in prayer as they waited for the Mass to begin. A strange silence reigned in this grey concrete bunker under the Abbey church. There were some twenty little chapels, each with a plain stone altar on which the priests of the community would celebrate Mass each morning. The cold grey polished concrete floor awaited its paving, perhaps a future low-priority item in the Cellarer’s budget.

At this point I felt as if I wished to vomit, as the boot polish smell grew stronger, mixed with the heavy smell of sweat, candles and damp concrete. I could no longer face this bleak sight that filled me with such sadness and despair. I turned around, climbed the stairs and went to my room in the guest house. I could take no more of it, and I felt repelled by the thought of doubting whether God even existed and receiving Communion as if this day was like any other.

What would bring someone to this degree of desolation? Was it the realisation that I had deceived myself for years in an illusory vocation, even to the point of having been ordained a deacon? All those years of hopes and dreams, broken almost on the point of priestly ordination, and now, nothing remained. What did the cassock I was wearing mean? Why was I in this house of prayer and monastic life?

The corridor leading to the guesthouse was totally deserted, and the air was thick with silence. I looked out of the window of the guest corridor overlooking the cloister to the countryside beyond. The new day was cloudy and dull. I returned to my room, undressed and returned to my bed, but sleep would not come to me. The words of the previous day were still echoing through my mind, gnawing at my soul like a demon out of hell. Sleep finally came until there was a knock on the door. It was the Abbot.

It was broad daylight, about nine in the morning, the time when the monks were in lectio divina. The Abbot understood everything before I said anything. There was little to say, only that I should make a pilgrimage to the little house where Marthe Robin had died some years before, and ask for the intercession of this humble servant of God who had suffered and expiated for her whole life. That morning, I drove the short distance to a small remote farmhouse in the Vercors hills where a few cars were parked. Again the same atmosphere of devotion oppressed me as a small number of pilgrims gathered in the humble bedroom where the servant of God had lived in agony for decades, finally relieved by death. They silently muttered the prayers of the Rosary. I joined them with my own rosary and made the effort to pray. The curtains were drawn in this darkened room, containing only a wardrobe, a small table and the neatly made bed. Pious images festooned the walls. Many people had come to this place during the life of Marthe Robin to ask her a pearl of her wisdom. She was now gone and present only in spirit.

What had brought me to this desolation? Why was the dice loaded against me from the very start, my vocation broken whilst still in the egg? Eight years later, the reason is painfully obvious. The notion of hope is a basic concept of existence, without which no one can live. If a man is deprived of hope, his spiritual and psychological life comes to an end. All psychologists know this. Hope determines human personality; it is connected with the basic instinct of self-preservation. A person who has no religion, or who is an atheist, depends entirely on himself and other persons, and understands the limits of the subject and object of his hope. For a believer, for a religious superior to willingly tamper with hope is a criminal act, a crime against humanity.

It would seem that living in the absence of hope is a part of monastic spirituality. It is also a technique of psychological torture that had been employed by the professional interrogators of the KGB and gurus of cults. If one maintains a person in controlled hopelessness for the right amount of time, the personality is broken and will comply with any requirement, like for example divulging secret information or giving unconditional obedience. A monk is trained to have hope only in God and to have no need of any earthly image or “icon” of that hope. It indeed takes a heroic and mystical soul to make a good monk – or a nihilist.

My own hope has been determined by my conditions and values in life. I always hoped for the love of God, reflected in that of other human beings. My vocation to the priesthood, my hope in which was nurtured up to the diaconate, is a vision of this love. The crucible that tested me that night between the 19th and 20th March 1997 was that of the whole crisis of modern humanity vacillating between faith, hope and love on one hand, and nothingness and despair on the other.

Why would this trial fall upon me? I believe that it was necessary to go through such an experience in order to bring hope to others, which is the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is surely the essence of the priestly vocation. I am not so self-centred as to believe that this can happen only to myself. I have seen people die from hopelessness. The Church will bear a great weight of responsibility for this, and the fact she is now going through her own “dark night of the soul” is evidence of poetic justice. It may take the bankruptcy and dissolution of entire dioceses to bring the message home, perhaps even the of the Vatican itself. One day, the Church will learn the value of hope for each of her most humble members in all conditions of life, and return to the mission of Jesus and the Gospel.

In a certain way, I must have been through such an experience, an episode of severe depression in reaction to being gaslit (I wish I had known about this term then!) the previous day by my old superior whom I had asked for reconciliation. It is easy to banalise or dramatise, but the scars from those days remain. Then would it be not be presumptuous to consider the life of a hermit? I am already one in my own mind. It is not the life of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe on his island of paradise, but the arid and dry desert of one’s own inadequacies in the sight of God.

The only peace the hermit will find is in God alone. It is a lifelong wrestle that is ours alone without any help, as it is in marriage to a person who doesn’t care.

I have found the journey of Thomas Merton, like that of Alan Watts, very interesting. In a way, his and mine seem to resonate. I was a young Anglican church musician before converting to Roman Catholicism with a romantic view of liturgy and spirituality, but I was confronted with populist political ideology. I too was influenced by Thomism in Rome, Fribourg and the seminary of Gricigliano. By the end of 1997 I was expendable and expended, and still convinced of a vocation to the priesthood. It was not until 2017 that I would understand what was alienating me from everything to cause superiors and others to see me as unstable. That is indeed so for one who subscribed to the notion of an absolutely immovable and immutable God and the virtue of a person who has never changed in his whole life. To one Roman prelate I met, the very act of converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism is a sign of instability. It is change.

I have been brought to relinquish any resistance to that change. I ended up back in the Anglican Continuum and my priesthood has been accepted in something that can be objectively recognised as a Catholic Church. I was still seeking that stability that I believed was necessary to be acceptable as a priest.

What kind of hermit should I be? What would Dom Coureau of Triors say? It is not something to be attempted until one has been for years in a community and ready to live in a hovel provided by the community. Above all, that monk should have a particularly advanced experience of monastic life. That is not my way. I only spent six months in the guest house and was pretty miserable much of the time. I hung on in an attitude of pride: I would prove the superior who was gaslighting me wrong. I stayed two extra weeks as I checked over and tuned the organ I had brought from the UK and installed in the transept of the abbey church.

The French abbeys of the Solesmes Congregation are no exceptions to the rule of institutionalisation and convention. In his book Alan Watts wrote way back in 1947, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion. I quote a paragraph from his introduction:

The present low ebb of Church religion consists in the fact that rarely, even for Church people, does it give the soul any knowledge of union with the reality that underlies the universe. To put it in another way, modern Church religion is little concerned with giving any consciousness of union with God. It is not mystical religion, and for that reason it is not fully and essentially religion.

That can apply also to monasteries when formalism trumps the individual spiritual aspirations of the men who occupy the choir stalls. I make no accusation against the community that kindly welcomed me and taught me my lesson. I am no more mystical than they and I live in the same dryness and agnosticism (etymological meaning of the word) as them. One thing that did not enter the equation was my “Aspergers” autism and my need to kick out against the walls of the cloister. We are brought up to believe that we must be a part of corporate humanity, a cog in the machine, in a relationship – whatever the cost. If solitary life is discouraged or even forbidden, then there seems to be little to expect from community life or marriage or anything else.

We need a notion of solitary life that goes beyond monastic rules and collective conventions. Anyone who has that degree of humanity and spiritual aspiration can live somewhere, appear to be someone very ordinary, and be a hidden treasure, a secret leaven in the loaf of bread. He can live in town and work in an ordinary job, but perhaps it is better to own a small house and a few outbuildings in the country and earn one’s loving by self-employment. Bernard Moitessier was such a man, more interested in eastern philosophies than in western religion. His hermitage was a sailing yacht. He was also capable of handling that boat in the most severe seas.

We have lessons to learn from Existentialist philosophers, men like Rob Riemen and the psychoanalysis of Jung and others in more or less a similar school. An autistic (high functioning) person is all too aware of the hollowness of collective life. He is alienated, not because he thinks himself better than anyone else, but because he cannot understand their unspoken language. An autist can “mask” and “play the game”, but inwardly remains elsewhere. He aspired to something other than the collectivist illusion.

The Orthodox theological tradition makes a stronger distinction between person and individual. Merton made a similar distinction as he criticised collectivism and considering solitude as selfishness and indulgence. Coming to terms with oneself is perhaps one of the most severe ascetic disciplines there are, no whipping, no hair-shirts, just honesty to God and oneself. Solitude has to be discovered and lived. It is not reserved to “trained” monks. We have to recognise our uniqueness and personhood outside of any institutional context. I am very encouraged to find the three websites early on this posting, as written by lay hermits as well as priests and former members of religious communities.

What does one do all day? Probably, it is not a very different life from that of many people who have a stable routine of getting up in the morning, going to work, eating meals at regular times and having time for leisure and hobbies. Add to that a daily Mass and Office, time spent in nature in forests, up mountains and on the sea. Then add the person’s ability to study and write, contributing to the heritage of philosophy, theology and other subjects.

I found a lot of interest in Buddhism and Hinduism in Merton, Watts, Dom Bede Griffiths and others. Personally I have not had the occasion to attend worship, even though it is available in western Europe. Their culture is so different from ours that simply attending their worship would leave me confused. That said, I understand why many in the 1960’s sought inspiration from India, Mongolia, China and Japan. Conventional Christianity has become too stale, perhaps irretrievably so. Whilst I resist the temptation of syncretism – mixing religions to produce a kind of artificial cocktail, I think we do have much to learn from Zen meditation and Hindu non-dualism. I am also a fan of the Perennialist René Guénon who converted to Islam in Egypt via Sufism.

I do believe that all experience in life can bring us to self-awareness, and therefore to God who is immanent within us as well as transcendent and infinite. Merton wrote:

This dynamic of emptying and of transcendence accurately defines the transformation of the Christian consciousness in Christ. It is a kenotic transformation, an emptying of all the contents of the ego-consciousness in order to become a void in which the light of God or the glory of God, the full radiation of the infinite reality of His Being and Love are manifested.

Solitude begins by being aware of a need to pull out of collective humanity and its materialism. Then one can live in a boat, or in a little house in the country, anything that “floats one’s boat” and ensure conditions for life. Some hermits were homeless like St Benoît Joseph Labre. Whatever, the most important thing is within, to transcend the world in order to seek wisdom and enlightenment.

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Limits and Change

I begin this year in earnest with some reflections on my own experience of life. For quite some time, I have sought a philosophical way of discussing the autism spectrum or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome. Most of what is written on the subject is scientific and clinical, written by distinguished men like the Canadian psychiatrist Dr Laurent Mottron and the Australian psychologist Tony Attwood. I have until now failed to find a way to proceed with this subject, at least until I came across the notion of liminality.

This word, like any other, is quite ambiguous in its meaning. It can describe a transitional state between one norm and another, but also a situation of being at the limit or edge or what most people experience as life. It can also describe the agonising situation of being divided between two incompatible or mutually-exclusive positions. Someone who is on the autism spectrum, and I am thinking particularly of those who are not intellectually impaired, will also experience profound alienation from a life that most take for granted.

I have debated with myself to what extent I would expose myself on a blog that is accessible to all, and I still feel I have to be discreet about some things currently going on in my life. However, I was aware of the instability that some remarked along my journey. What was this instability? I interpret it most as being unable to relate to the social games many play, and I have experienced this both in the Church and in marriage. By 2016, I became so concerned with this alienation that I sought a psychological / psychiatric explanation. I cast my mind back to childhood and school, my family, to seek an explanation. Eventually, I found sites and online tests concerning autism and Aspergers syndrome. Discovering a positive diagnosis (provisional) by quite a large margin, I consulted a psychiatrist and asked him to refer me to the right people for a proper diagnosis. That diagnosis was positive. It gave me a certain explanation, but at the cost of becoming a subject of clinical interest, condescension and gaslighting. This is why it is not a good idea to use a label for self-identification or self-justification. It is merely a piece of information, an explanation in conventional and (pseudo) scientific terms.

In the light of this experience, I saw the term liminality in the same light. Who would go into a pub and say “Hey, mates, I’m liminal“? They might say that I have had a few too many or that I should go home and get some rest. Childhood memories are revived with feelings about in-between places, fear, doubt and confusion. Liminality is a state where we wait for knowing how we will emerge on the other side of the frontier. However, finding closure and certainty is largely an illusion in this twilight world. My present matrimonial situation (having announced my intention to divorce and waiting for the first hearing at the divorce court), leaves me in a state of suspended reality, in which no plans can be made for the future. Uncertainty is a part of life that we have to accept. This is union with God through the apophatic way, the cloud of unknowing. “Aspies” are used to being alienated from the things of this world – terrena despicere et amare coelestia. Clarity will come in one form or another. We have no children, and our personalities are utterly incompatible.

Being uncertain made me seek some kind of light from a scientific perspective to clarify the rational side. There are more unknowns in the universe than there are knowns. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet, I.5).

Returning to the concept of stability, everything in life is change. This idea is reminiscent of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who in many ways inspired German Idealism and Hegelian dialectics. I identify more with such ideas than the static stability of Parmenides and his influence of Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy. This change is felt through anxiety and Sturm und Drang. We navigate in troubled waters, and there is only one to admonish us O men of little faith! Then Jesus rose in the boat and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.

It is in this in-between and seeking some kind of “normal” that we have to come to terms with ourselves, to accept ourselves. I read an article about positive disintegration in the ideas of the Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980) who was influenced by C.J. Jung. The theory is quite difficult to understand, but essentially, the growth of the person comes through suffering and the renunciation of the super-ego or the false self. Liminality can bring us to a closer realism about ourselves, and there are many quotes from the Gospel that illustrate this. For example: Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit (John xii.24). This notion of death to the world, resumed by St Paul, is not actual death but the shedding of the false person to make a transition into a state of salvation. This is an analogical notion of death, as when a monk makes his vows. Dąbrowski draws up a theory of individuation describing how a small number of individual persons will go through disintegration and reintegration leading to the flowering of an autonomous personality. This happened to many of the mystics who are saints of the Church, but also to others who have to accept being torn apart so that they can reconstruct as a new person. But, the theory is much more complex and clinical.

We don’t have the right to give up the search for what is deepest and most authentic in us, the spark of divinity in our souls, our spirits. I certainly don’t think that any religion other than Christianity has understood this strength in our weakness.

One thing I have noticed about my current experience is how everything just slows down. I often forget words and search for them, sometimes finding them on Google via synonyms or just waiting until they return to my consciousness. I find it more difficult to read, and my writing is much less frequent. My priestly vocation causes me pain, not that I want to leave it, but that it is a constant reproach to my unworthiness without indulging the guilt ego-trip too much. Even playing the organ is an act of will, and the boats are laid up for the winter. I am waiting for my strength to return with a new life. I think that it is important not to force myself but to be patient in these most nerve-wracking moments of the transition from marriage back to celibacy and authenticity. Much of this is burnout, which would regenerate with a new set of circumstances.

Autism is not a thing that can be treated or cured with a few pills and an electric shock like in the comics featuring psychiatrists who tell their patients – Just relax and I’ll make you normal! It is an answer, or the beginning of an answer, that absolves us from an impossible search into ourselves which leads to depression and the feeling of being a “failed human being”. The important thing is not going into the desert and fasting for forty days and forty nights, feats of heroism we would not be able to observe, but baby steps in the recovery of our spirit and interests in reading, music or whatever.

I would like to contribute towards a philosophical view of this aspect of humanity, though found only in a small percentage of individuals. I am not a scientist or a mental health professional. They have their job to do. I have mine as a priest with a badly injured vocation, and as a person with an interest in helping other persons who have been through a similar experience.

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New Year 2021

One side of me is tempted to join the chorus of those who are glad to see the back of 2020 in order to hope for something better in this new year. I might think of our present time becoming a repeat performance of the 1920’s. They emerged from World War I and then the Spanish flu. Then the dictators came onto the scene and the world only seemed to find some semblance of sanity in the 1950’s except for the arms race and the Cold War. The enemies have changed but the humanity / inhumanity goes on as before. I too am faced with that terrifying mystery of “other people”. A long time ago, I arrived at the conclusion that this is society and how society has always been and always will be. However, individual persons are generally good, kind and human – just as long as they have something of their own souls and haven’t succumbed to “mass humanity” as men like Rob Riemen and Thomas Mann call the sort of people who worshipped Hitler in the 1930’s and became fanatics.

Were the 1920’s like the 1820’s? They were the heyday of the Romantic Movement in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Does history revolve in cycles of one hundred years? I think a long and critical look would cast doubt on such a theory. We are all concerned that everything is becoming politicised and polarised. We are no longer debating like gentlemen but shouting at each other to make the opposite person shut up. The Coronavirus has brought bitterness, conspiracy theories as all epidemics do, political conflict and cultural strife.

For a long time, I have made a distinction between the human persons I know and the anonymous mass of “other people”, to which I add that I am their “other people”.

We enter a new year. One of hope? The vaccines against the Coronavirus are coming thick and fast, but many people are minded to refuse them. Personally I fear the vaccine much less than the disease itself. I will stick to the mainstream narrative that affirms that there is a disease that causes death and disability for life, and that science has come up with these vaccines. If we refuse the vaccine, we can only be less afraid of the disease – or deny that it exists. Collective humanity seems to have a very low level of intelligence, the same lesson we learned a hundred years ago with the upsurge of populism and the dictators.

Isolating and observing the lockdowns have been very difficult for many people. An advantage is that there is very little flu, and even the common cold is severely limited by the precautions we take against the Coronavirus. Going a little deeper, the curb that has been put on our social life has forced us to live with ourselves. Solitude is not loneliness. All too often, we look for supply in other people when we need to find God within.

Insofar as such lessons are learned, I am optimistic that our 20’s might bring the optimism and the fruit of resilience as when the world slowly emerged from the hecatomb of 1914 to 1920 (if we indeed include the Spanish flu). That optimism was short-lived and ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the causes of political extremism as we are seeing again now. Perhaps those years were fun, at least for privileged people, as described in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, the halcyon days of Et in Arcadia Ego. If we want a longer-lasting peace, then its roots must be that much more profound.

I wish for us all the end of this virus, not that we may “return to normal” but find a new mind and spirit, one of reason and creative imagination.

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Macron the Philosopher King?

When considering political figures, it is almost a “new orthodoxy” to think and say the opposite, and even see a plot. Something President Macron said a couple of days ago struck me in contrast to his usual fashion of expressing things in the national or common interest. In particular, a read the news article in Le Point of 22nd December 2020. His keynote was “We have become a victim and emotional society”.

I was taken back to many of my reflections on Romanticism in the decades following the French Revolution and the Terror. The basis of that new way of thinking was the Age of Reason with the imagination restored to man’s wholeness. It is a major tenet of St Thomas Aquinas that reason has to take primacy over the passions. The Romantic is not an anti-rationalist but wants the wholeness of human experience. I doubt that Macron would directly subscribe to such ideas. He is pragmatic – and he is a banker. He does his job in such a way as it works. However, these reflections show something that stands out in the political world from pure considerations of money and particular interest.

Society is deeply disturbed by the crisis caused by the pandemic, identity politics and polarisation. Above all, conspiracy theory is gaining ground, often with the most grotesque and irrational ideas. The French are a “people of paradoxes”. I sympathised with the early yellow jacket (Gilets Jaunes) movement, because Macron’s politics seemed to be serving only the wealthy, using ecological concerns to tax ordinary people that much more. Then the movement became violent and bestial. Its agenda was no longer ordinary hard-working people with ever-shrinking budgets but violent anarchists and nihilists like in late nineteenth-century Russia.

This article suggests that Macron has acquired experience from these crises in a country that resisted Nazism during the Occupation and has ever since been suspicious of any kind of authority, legitimate or not. There is the old canard about everything being allowed in England unless it was forbidden, everything being forbidden in Germany unless it was allowed – and everything being forbidden in France, but you would do it all the same. It is an undisciplined country, but one that will not incline to excessive or irrational authority.

Taken to excess, this a priori refusal of authority becomes a “permanent poison”, a vicious circle, a crisis of identity and conspiracy theory – the very driving force behind Nazism and Stalinism.

Macron notes a “Manichaean” view of history, a “society of permanent emotion”. The victim is vindicated above all things and crushes reason. Such a mentality cannot accept complexity and will not listen to the other person’s word. According to some psychologists I am reading, the world has become narcissistic in the meaning of the disordered personality. Wearing a mask has become a sign of respect for others, but many people have just not got it. Life is about their convenience.

He is a convinced republican, in the French, not American, meaning of the word. France was once a kingdom, and the Aristocracy and the Church themselves attracted the anger of the Jacobins and people reduced to extreme poverty. Then came five republics. No political system is perfect, but it seems to be suited for modern times in the task of upholding freedom and democracy. De Gaulle’s answer to the defeat of Nazism seemed to  inspire people in those days. Some dream of bringing back the King, someone with a more or less legitimate bloodline – but it won’t happen, even in spite of the writings of the Marquis de la Franquerie.

What the French Republic has offered is a secular state in which, in theory, different religions, cultures and philosophies can thrive, something like in the USA. The one condition is that of integration and respect for others. I am a foreigner in this country, and I was asked for several things when France granted me citizenship. First of all, there was an adequate use of the French language to live and work here. Another was to be financially independent, at least at the time of application. Another was to know at least the basics of French history and how the state institutions work. I have to admit I am a little vague, but constant exposure to the news media brings me notions of the Government, the President and the Prime Minister, the Assemblée Nationale and the Senate. The system is essentially divided, like most modern countries, into the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial – the famous separation of the three powers. This makes France an état de droit, a state of law, with no one being above the law. There are abuses and corruptions, but they seem not to go as far as some other countries, even united and disunited kingdoms!

It could be better, but it could also be much worse. In spite of the horrors of the Terror, Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Revolution began by heralding a system of liberté, égalité et fraternité – to which Wordsworth responded: Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. France has been very nasty with the Church through anti-clericalism, as has Italy. Many of the clergy in the late nineteenth century brought it upon themselves. That is something I can understand through my erstwhile contact with intégriste Catholicism! Modern France is tolerant. Distinctions are made between fanatical Islamists and terrorists on one side, and ordinary Muslims living in the country as we all do, on the other. The law is equal for all, at least it should be. Macron has attracted a lot of anger for his position on the kind of Islam that would conquer and take over France if it got half the chance. From what I have heard him say, I find his position perfectly reasonable and responsible. He is also right in asking us to love this country. I think I do, in spite of my frustrations with many things. Otherwise it would be more proper to go and live somewhere else.

There has been less of the Woke phenomenon here in France than the USA, but it has taken hold as an ideology. To give in to that ideology would be no different than submitting to Hitler or Stalin in other times. We cannot “cancel” the history of a nation any more than our own personal lives.

In every human society, there has to be authority and law. I have often expressed a certain form of anarchism in my own thought, but the human soul can only escape the constraint of law through the life of the spirit. This is an idea of St Paul in regard to the Mosaic law, but this will also apply in a modern secular state as in the canon law of the Church. Freedom is spiritual, and the lower man sinks into sin and selfishness, the more he has to be constrained with bit and bridle.

He said (my translation): “All contemporary societies live according to this kind of horizontalization, contesting any form of authority, including academic and scientific authority“. He added “The psychological and social consequences are terrifying because we end up not believing in anything any more“, and he describes a “vicious circle: a levelling out, which creates skepticism, generates obscurantism and which, contrary to the Cartesian doubt that is the foundation of rational construction and truth, leads to conspiracy theories“.

Here he was speaking about the pandemic crisis. The conspiracy theorists seem to have no positive message to convey: no vaccination, no lockdowns, no masks or barrier gestures. Either they would have the virus infect millions of people and kill as many as the Spanish Flu, or force state authorities to discredit themselves and say that it was all a “plandemic” to turn the world into an Orwell-style dystopia. I wonder if such people think so far beyond their own bestial comfort. Their message is none other than the nihilism of Dostoevsky’s Demons or the mentality denounced by Nietzsche.

For a State leader to understand such subtleties, as did great men like De Gaulle, is a great gift to us. We have all to work for a revival of reason and objectivity enriched by our use of creative imagination and the fulness of the human person. Macron’s message is one of positive humanism. I think he believes in God, but France does not allow a public figure to take sides publicly with religious beliefs. French secularism is more restrictive than its American counterpart, and perhaps a dose of the French brand would do some good in regard to fundamentalist Christianity and the kind of ideology that destroys faith and love of God. Macron is President of France and knows the game and how it works. He might not survive the election of 2022 and we might get a wild-eyed demagogue, but we will remember Macron as a man of thought, values and principle.

His thoughts leave me with hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel and a new paradigm to come.

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My Country

All I seem to have left of my country is to listen to Vaughan Williams and this lovely movement from his Bucolic Suite:

The reality is somewhat different, and it brings tears to my eyes as I make the best of life just over the Channel.

The first looming shadow is no-deal Brexit. It effects are already felt as the lorries are “stacked” all the way along the motorway. The ports are not ready any more than the parking areas for freight vehicles waiting for their turn for transport to France by sea. I am beyond polemics or cheap political shots. The damage being caused is appalling, as humanitarian organisations are bearing the brunt of feeding starving children of very poor English, Welsh and Scottish families. It is not by hazard that I choose this second piece on the old medieval hymn Dives and Lazarus. I would not like to be in the place of the rich man after his judgement!

The second is the new strain of SARS-CoV-2, which will be 70% more infectious than the one we have in most of Europe. I thought it was already as easy to catch as a common cold! We are waiting for more scientific information about this new strain. PM Johnson has imposed Tier 4 lockdown restrictions on the south of England. It was the only thing he could do. Too bad for secular Christmas and the hopes families had for getting together! I just hope the new strain will be kept out of continental Europe, but it will come. We must pray that we will start getting vaccinated before this new strain breaks the capacity of the hospitals.

I don’t think I have been to England for more than two years, or any other country outside France. I have taken the restrictions seriously, not only to avoid the disease, but to protect others just in case I catch it. This seems to be the minimum of human empathy and Christian charity! I seethe with anger as I hear about Londoners fleeing their town to go and infect other parts of England and here on the Continent. I hope the police are doing their job well, turning them back to their homes.

Who is to blame for all this? We all are as sinful humans, just like in those dark September days of 1939. Then, our people pulled together and Hitler was beaten. Surely, we can again care for each other and beat both the virus and the stupidity that brought about this caricature of British exceptionalism. May the Lord have pity on us!

Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo: facta est quasi vidua domina gentium: princeps provinciarum facta est sub tributo.

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Fourth Sunday of Advent

I am still nervously exhausted and will not be recording anything. The only thing I can do presently to bring anything good to others is by writing. Like Lent, this is a holy season that brings us the joy of the third Sunday, yet with our awareness that not all is well in ourselves in the face of God.

Like at other times in history, we suffer adversity through the pandemic, either by directly catching the disease and sufferings its symptoms – or by our life being curtailed by lockdowns and curfews, the fear of being vaccinated with something completely new. We are in an increasingly noisy world with conflicting “truths” and ideologies, between conservatism and “woke” and many others. We are far from the silence of the Stille Nacht and the effect that snow has of absorbing sound. I spent Christmas 1985 in the Swiss mountains with the young man who introduced me to the Dean of the theological faculty at Fribourg University and helped me get accepted. Those few days in one of the highest villages in Europe taught me the meaning of silence.

In the Office of the Mass according to the Use of Sarum, we find:

Remember us, O Lord, according to the favour that thou bearest unto thy people ; O visit us with thy salvation ; that we may see the felicity of thy chosen ; and rejoice in the gladness of thy people, and give thanks with thine inheritance. Ps. We have sinned with our fathers, we have done amiss, and dealt wickedly.

Rorate was said last Ember Wednesday, to the surprise of those used to the Roman rite. This piece reflects the patience of the People of Israel, the chosen people as they hoped for the coming of the Saviour, who is not far away now. The language is that of the Prophets, and we Christians look forward in the same way to the coming of the Sacramental Mystery of Christ in the liturgy of Christmas. We also look to the Parousia, in the form of our own death to this world and the resurrection of the body in whatever form that might take.

The Epistle resumes the Gaudete Office of last Sunday “Brethren, rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice…” “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord” precedes the blessing given at the end of Mass in the Prayer Book. This Sunday is most certainly in a changed tone from the eschatological themes of the first two Sundays and the prophecies of St John the Baptist, which continue this day.

We do well to refresh our knowledge of the enigmatic John the Baptist who met his violent death at the hands of Herod. The Wikipedia article is very full, and I will not attempt to resume it. The writings in the Gospels are enigmatic, as they are in the Nag Hammadi Scriptures. John is described as sent by God, but that he was not the light, but “came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that through him everyone might believe“. John neither confirms nor denies being the Christ or Elijah or ‘the prophet’, but described himself as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness”. This biblical figure is highly mysterious, and I will not try to speculate here.

An important aspect of prophecy is the miracle, the sick being healed, the deaf being made able to hear, sight given to the blind. All these things happened during the ministry of Jesus. These signs gave credibility to the message he taught.

The Communion verse says: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. These words come from Isaiah vii.14 and are repeated in Matthew i.23. ιδου η παρθενος εν γαστρι εξει και τεξεται υιον και καλεσουσιν το ονομα αυτου εμμανουηλ ο εστιν μεθερμηνευομενον μεθ ημων ο θεος – Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Again, the meanings of words need study. One such is the word translated into virgin. The Hebrew would tend to mean young woman (Jungfrau in German), but the Greek of the Septuagint gives παρθένος, unambiguously meaning virgin. Some biblical scholars have referred to this words meaning an ancient title for the Holy Spirit rather than a human person, perhaps connected with the Άγια Σοφία, the Holy Wisdom of God. There is an apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews in which Christ refers to the Holy Spirit as his mother. The Virgin Birth is a vital point of Christian orthodoxy, but the controversy needs to be studied with a critical mind.

Why Emmanuel as a name for one who is usually called Jesus or Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ‎)? I recommend reading Immanuel. It seems to be a name of symbolic value, more than our own Christian names we are given at our Baptism.

I would also like to emphasise contemplating the great O antiphons (from page 38). I have linked to the English version, but the Latin version is found here (from page 36). These are beautiful prophetic texts to begin and end the singing of the Magnificat at Vespers. They will take us to the 23rd December with the singing of O Virgo Virginum, which is why Sarum gives O Sapientia on the 16th and not on the 17th as in the Roman Breviary.

From a point of view of personal feelings, Advent has always brought melancholy, and this year is no exception (apart from the things going on in my life), but also a longing for God through the gloom of the coming Solstice. When I was in York, I frequently attended Evensong in York Minster and absorbed the organ music, the service settings and anthems, the solemn prayers from the Prayer Book. It was the stuff of my Anglican roots, but yet a perpetually unsettled mind and yearning for something I would never find by my own strength. This is Advent, the Sehnsucht of God’s people and each of us.

Modern secular Christmas devastates me, and I pray that the restrictions on Christmas gatherings will bring some to stop and think what Christmas really is other than consumerism, overeating, getting drunk and bringing up old family feuds and disputes. I have done the Christmas tree, and Sophie and I have bought the necessary foodstuffs for the Christmas dinner. I am likely to be alone (apart from the celestial beings) at Midnight Mass and the Mass of the Day. Indeed, those to whom the liturgy means nothing do better to stay away. Over the years, Christmas and Easter have been times of intense suffering, and I hope this will soon change. My hope and prayer is that God’s grace will renew my vocation as a priest and give it new meaning.

This coming week will bring us into Christmas. My prayers will be with those who are alone and who cannot even get to church, for the homeless and destitute. We will find joy insofar as we have grasped something of the real Christian meaning of this feast. In the gloom and the silence, may we find the Light shining from the Ungrund.

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A Day in the Life of Salisbury Cathedral, ca. 1500

Dr William Renwick “will be presenting this lecture ‘live’ on Youtube this coming Friday at 1:00 pm UK time. It should probably also be available for later viewing. This illustrated lecture will describe in outline what Friday December 18 would have been like some 500 years ago in Salisbury Cathedral, from the tolling of the bells for matins around 3 a.m. until the evening worship concludes with the antiphon to the Virgin in the Salve Chapel.

I will do my best to be with him or watch the recording afterwards.

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Rejoice in the Lord Alway

We arrive at the third Sunday in Advent, and I offer this recording by St John’s College in Cambridge of Purcell’s “Bell Anthem”, Rejoice in the Lord alway. These are the words of the Officium (Introit) of the Mass. They set a similar tone to the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare.

Gaudete comes from this text of St Paul (Philippians iv.4–6):

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.

It is translated into the English text used in Purcell’s anthem, which is clear and easy to understand.

We rejoice because the object of our hope is near. We are exhorted to continue in our patience without anxiety, showing our gratitude and limpidity in the sight of God. We address our desires and needs to God in all simplicity. We might see an image of this hope in the anxieties and needs of our own time as the world has seen in times past in the midst of wars, epidemics of disease and other adversities. Indeed, this Christmas is going to be pruned back in some of its secular and social dimensions, leaving us to make the best of what we have.

Like Lent, Advent was once a forty-day fast beginning on the day after Saint Martin (11th November). For this reason it was called Saint Martin’s Lent, known as early as the fifth century and still in use in the Ambrosian Rite. We have the echo of this longer Advent in the Sarum Use with the Sunday next before Advent, rather than the Nth Sunday after Trinity. From the ninth century, Advent was reduced to four weeks (a period starting four Sundays before Christmas). It kept its character as a period of fasting and prayer. Like the Lenten Laetare, this Rose Sunday (Rosensonntag in German) gives a break to the rigours of the fast and penitential character with a little respite.

Christian joy does not depend on our being consoled from the exterior but it is the experience of divine love, and that nothing can take it away, no adversity or even the inevitability of death. This should be the true spirit of Christmas.

Here is another one of my favourites, Orlando Gibbons, This is the Record of John, sung by the choir of Kings College Cambridge directed by David Willcocks.

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