But the winter is still with us. It is nearly three weeks since the Solstice, but the weather is mild and damp rather than freezing cold like in some parts of the world. The spring of 2019 will bring us other worries. If winter is past, it is in another way of understanding these words. The first coming of Christ and his manifestation to the world brought an end to another kind of winter.
As an adolescent, I grew weary of hearing about the moods of the Old Testament God who was quick in his anger to kill people by opening up the earth so that they would go straight to hell. At that stage in my life, I discovered there was another Bible, that of love and hope, of knowledge and light. I heard an anthem in York Minster, a setting by Patrick Hadley of the text of the Song of Solomon:
My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
What are such writing doing in the Bible? I knew nothing of allegory or the various other keys to interpreting the Scriptures. The images in the text are striking, and even more if it were simply a man’s romantic infatuation for a beautiful woman. Looking deeper, this is the Redemption of fallen mankind and the message of hope from a “God above gods”, a love letter to us all who languished in the prison house. The greatest allegory, at least for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, is that of spring, a new creation heralding the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the next step in a single Mystery from this manifestation or Epiphany of the incarnate Word of God. The flowers appear on the earth, and the birds begin to sing. For the moment, at least they come and chirp under the eaves of my house and around the bird feeder. The “turtle” is the turtle dove, and not the reptile with a big shell that swims in the sea! The smells of spring are particularly magical, especially the earthy smell of a forest in May, something like the odour of freshly picked thyme ready in the kitchen to go into a meal. The senses are awakened as we become more aware of the beauty of our human existence, and these are images of God’s love.
I hope this year that this spring and new hope will give us courage as we face a world that has been unknown to us in England or continental Europe since the end of World War II. The decades of building and “had it so good” happiness are being thrown away, because such a “happy time” brought us complacency and a care-free attitude. The generations following us “baby boomers” began to blame it on us as their financial strength began to be whittled away. Where’s the money all going? No one would tell us. We lost interest in philosophy and the notion of God. We took the Soma pill that figured in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. The churches emptied as we took pleasure in pleasure itself, and forgot that the pleasure of the senses was only to be an image of a higher reality.
We had the strikes without end in the 1970’s and began to hear about financial slumps. My father had to keep telling us that times had changed and that we had to be careful with money. The coal mines and steel works of northern England closed down, and then the people in those towns no longer had jobs. The pinch was hard, but the Trente Glorieuses were over by 1975, when I was at school and not doing very well. To this day, the consumer society and our electronic gadgets have softened the blow as they become more sophisticated and cheaper. As technology improved our life and Soviet Communism collapsed, we grew to expect more and more from the Welfare State and consumer goods. We discovered that people from other parts in the world wanted the same thing and were prepared to forsake their origins and families to get their share. It all had to crack somewhere as people began to realise that we were living in what amounted to a feudal society of billionaires and millionaires, a cash-strapped middle class and a working class that no longer had jobs. Something was to blame for all this.
As we approach the 2020’s, we realise that nothing could be different from the 1920’s: the aftermath of World War I, the Roaring Twenties – perhaps with its parallel with the 1950’s. Lurking underneath all that was a mal du siècle that emerged from the back end of the nineteenth century. The Belle Epoque looked nice enough with beautifully dressed people in the boulevards of Paris and Berlin, but it hid the causes of the Great War and the end of a world. These periods come and go in cycles as different aspects of human nature dominate. The Roaring Twenties brought the discontent from the way World War I was ended and Germany was made to pay. They ended with one of the most catastrophic economic crashes of history and the Great Depression. Poverty breeds bitterness and hatred. Someone is to blame, and getting that one right has always been the most difficult thing. It is happening again, but in a different way. The wars that have just been fought have devastated other parts of the world, and their refugees came to our world. They need our Welfare State, and we don’t have the money for them as well as ourselves. It’s their fault! In that way, our “roaring twenties” may yet reflect those of when my father was born. I don’t think our twenties will roar, however!
We are brought to face a wall of hatred that is rearing its ugly head in England, France and elsewhere. The writing on the wall was already there in the late 1940’s as Orwell reversed the digits of the year in which he wrote his dystopian novel. The Cold War reminded us that the second world war was not over, even though Hitler and his cronies were dead by their own hand or the hangman’s noose. The “post-truth” culture of our politics is nothing new from the time of Göbbels, and back to Rasputin, Machievelli and the entire history of humanity. Our British foul-up is nothing new, nor is the situation in France as Macron struggles to keep his presidency and prevent a real revolution. Interestingly, Brexit has nothing to do with populism, though populism has exploited this experiment conducted by England’s political and business elite.
The demons have been unleashed after having been contained by the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. We are yet in very early days, something like the run-up to the Spanish Civil War of 1936. Having been fascinated by the history of the twentieth century for much of my life, even having the courage to read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I feel oppressed by this remaining demon in our human nature and the way that evil becomes banal and a matter of course. One word to describe it is inevitable, because it absolves everyone of responsibility and makes it all so faceless. I now understand how Vaughan Williams lost his faith and Elgar stopped composing until nearly the end of his life. If such barbarity is inevitable, it takes away the will to live.
Reading authors like Rob Riemen, Thomas Mann and Berdyaev gave me a tremendous amount of insight into the roots of human resilience and our capacity for facing adversity. If I am still in time to make New Year’s Resolutions, one I will make is to read more and focus on the nobility of the human spirit illuminated by divine grace. Letting ourselves die is not an option, any more than suicide – we are called to fight the enemy. This can be though actual warfare, or through politics, or through reading and writing truth and aspiration to transcendent truth. As St Paul put it, we are fighting against principalities, against the Archons of the darkness of this world.
We talk of an end to winter before the end of autumn! Perhaps the moment of grief will be when people are shot in the streets or sent to death factories. Our instinct is to learn from history and prevent it from happening. When I go to England, I am aware that the only thing that matters is money. Money and power. I keep reading about it and I see the abolition of all sacredness, the abolition of man as C.S. Lewis put it. There is plenty of that here in France too, with a president who is a cynical banker and a billionaire. The difference is that the population is boiling with anger at a regime that cares about money and power for the few and not the people. Even the feudal lords in the middle-ages had obligations to their serfs. What makes things more complicated is when the opposite mean and intend the same thing – Tweedledum and Tweedledee – like the varieties of socialism – and now populism. Someone like Rees Mogg or Boris Johnson is no different from the class of billionaires trying to corrupt the EU and destroy it from within. Populist billionaires? Yes, that’s what I said and meant. Human capacity for deceit and manipulation is without limit, the psychopath’s pathocracy.
We can fight without violence by thinking, reading and writing. This seems to be my calling in life, even without getting reluctant bums on the pews of my chapel! True, I could do it without being a priest – but I am a priest. This is something positive. We have to be positive. Demons don’t exorcise themselves! They have to be evicted as light dispels darkness. We have also to live for the moment. We are in the early stages. There are no concentration camps and no war is being fought. Our battlefield is philosophical and concerned with human life against The Machine. Romanticism formed my thought since I found that pre-Enlightenment religion and philosophy have so little power to convince. Scholasticism is great at the Angelicum and at seminary, but not much use in the real world where real wars have to be fought.
Another important thing is not to give too much credence to other people’s opinions. Read or hear them out, and think about it. Beware of what we read in the press. For example, the right-wing American rags are suggesting that France is up in flames. I don’t see much sign of that. Even if I were in Paris, at a safe distance, I would see yellow-vested thugs fighting with the police, property being damaged and destroyed, frightened people staying away – but it is nothing compared with the 1870 Commune in Paris when the troops were using live ammunition. We might get a revolution if that happens! When reading stuff about Brexit, consider the source. By all means, read the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Daily Express – but read blogs and analyses. Above all, read books. Develop a critical spirit. Get rid of your television set and learn to use the Internet. Self reliance, something we can learn from the American Transcendentalists.
Another aspect I cannot emphasise enough is our spiritual condition. Prayer takes different forms. Some people can look the part in a church, kneeling and rapt in contemplation. We had Oraison at seminary, the period following Lauds in the morning and before breakfast. Some managed to hold themselves immobile for half an hour, developing their inner thoughts to enter into communion with God. Others, myself included, would quietly read something spiritual. My prayer comes in the form of music, both listening to it and playing it. Harmony, melody and rhythm focus the spirit and exclude distractions and parasite thought. It is the purest form of prayer I know. The other important thing is a sense of wonder, being in a cathedral like York Minster, or being on the sea in a very small boat. A lot of sailing is the mechanics of pulling this rope, releasing that one and holding the tiller steady in the conditions you find yourself in. There are also flashes, moments of illumination as a ray of the sun hits a high chalk cliff. That too is prayer and an expression of God’s voice and response to us. This is one way we can seek truth when others tell us lies.
If we can remain faithful, I am sure the call will return, ever more light-filled. I feel strongly the need to aim for Easter for the next Blue Flower, making Lent a time for working both on myself and an essay. That would seem reasonable with the organ removal job and my translating work that has been particularly intense since last November (I’m not complaining because it’s paid work). By that time Brexit may be a done deed through the incompetence of our governing institutions – time for a regime change, perhaps the irreversible loss of all we have held to be dear – and for our country to learn a little humility! We should know after next Tuesday’s Meaningful Vote – that is if it has any meaning.
We have to be ourselves, not compared with other people. We might get somewhere.
“My prayer comes in the form of music, both listening to it and playing it.” I don’t think I’d ever heard or even heard of the setting by Patrick Hadley of the text of the Song of Solomon: thank you for writing of it – and, I find someone has uploaded a performance:
When I was young, I ran into an LP anthology of 18th-c. American music, including settings of selections from the Song by various hands and in different styles (such as William Billings’ ‘I am the Rose of Sharon’) – something very new to me! – and later, a wider-ranging anthology on cassette, including Renaissance settings, Latin as well as vernacular, to both of which I have listened repeatedly with delight. Something which came to mind, singing last week in the wedding of a liturgy and Patristics scholar, finely bringing in the Song throughout, though without any such settings.