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Monday, 1 January 2018


El Greco, the Blessed Virgin Mary

A new year, for most people, implies resolutions and an attempt to improve one’s life. Yet as a Catholic text I saw this morning said, the beginning of a civic year (the Church’s year, don’t forget, starts with Advent) stands in the sign of the Mother of Christ. It may be useful – and, in a way, a relief – to remember her reaction to the unexpected visit of an archangel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word.” Instead of specific resolutions, with their known limited half-life, we might think of making these words, and this thought, our own for 2018: a year to be spent in the silence of listening, whatever the world’s noise around us.

Monday, 25 December 2017


As I do every Christmas, I here post the exquisite little poem by English actress Jill Furse, the wife of glass engraver and poet Laurence Whistler and the mother of Robin Ravilious. It moves me as much today as it did fifty years ago.

Jill Furse, by Angus McBean


Beyond this room
Daylight is brief.
Frost with no harm
Burns in white flame
The green holly leaf.
Cold on the wind’s arm
Is ermine of snow.

Child with the sad name,
Your time is come
Quiet as moss.
You journey now
For our belief
Between the rich womb
And the poor cross.

Monday, 18 December 2017


Yule demands incessant busyness; Christmas demands waiting in silence. How to combine the two? Perhaps we can learn from the Carthusians. A novice-master tells a young monk the complexities of “silence”: to shut oneself up in cell for incessant prayer is not silence as the order’s Statues understand it. Opposed to “noise”, “silence” demands that we identify the source of the noise first, and when we do so we find that much of the clamour comes from one’s own heart. Outward silence does not still this, on the contrary: it invites it. True silence consists first of all of listening: you begin by listening to the others around you – not just what they say, but what they are not saying. You listen to what you can gather of their deep needs, feelings and concerns. Meanwhile, you go about your business – business-business or Yule business – but listening quietly to all you meet.

Once you learn to listen to others (for a Carthusian, “your brothers”, for the rest of us, our families, loved ones, and anyone else who comes our way), you have a much better chance of being able to listen to God. Why? Because your own self, your own ego, your own desires, wishes, prejudices, feelings, thoughts, temper, and what you will, have learnt to shut up. And this, says the old novice-master, is true Silence. Silence happens when your own self has learnt to be quiet. In true Silence, only God speaks. Sometimes in His own voice, in the ears of your heart; sometimes in the voice of your brothers, your sisters, and your neighbour.

And when that happens, you can go about your Yuletide busyness – buying presents, ordering the turkey, decorating the house, adorning the Christmas tree, sending cards, planning convivial meals and stocking up on whisky – in a perfect silence of waiting, of expectation, and of hope. The silence of Advent.  

Wednesday, 6 December 2017


I have been thinking about Advent, which this year has come in with a rush, slightly before I was ready for it. The admirable web clip “Advent in 2 minutes” reminds us, as do churches everywhere, that for Christians the season is one of awaiting a beloved guest whose coming is imminent. And in their naming of all the things Advent is not I was reminded that Christmas is of course also Yule: Yule with its perfectly pagan but enjoyable solstitian festivities, its eating, drinking and huge log fires, its exchange of gifts, its loud and happy Wassail songs, its evergreen tree and its colours of red and green. And I was reminded also that next to the notorious “War on Christmas” (from the curmudgeons who are annoyed by “Happy Holidays”) there exists also a continuing “War on Yule”, pursued by the faithful and the sensitive who every year feel their blood pressure rising at all this pagan commercialism. 
            Just as English is a hybrid language, composed in almost equal parts of Germanic and Latin roots, so the late-December holiday is a hybrid feast: part Dionysian Yule, part hushed and adoring attention and delicate celebration. Integrating the two is possible, indeed relatively easy, in a traditional society where both churchgoing and the Christmas goose are comfortable traditions, observed with care and happiness if not with excessive zeal and piety. It becomes much harder in a world where every tradition is systematically questioned and usually overturned, whether for reasons of impatience or from desire for novelty.  In such a world polemic tends to rear its unlovely head and conflict to ensue. If “peace on earth” is to begin at home, how to solve this difficulty?
          My own instinct would be to stop calling “Christmas” all that is really Yule, and vice versa. Unbelievers could happily wish one another “God Jul” as the Scandinavians do, and shops could sell Yule cards alongside Christmas cards. Christians who hate Yule could banish from their hearths as many of its characteristics as their children will allow; unbelievers could celebrate the Yule Dinner as they could the Yule Log. Christians who find that the culture of gift-giving interferes with the coming of the Saviour could give and receive their presents on the Eve of St Nicholas (December 5), as do the Dutch. The Christmas Tree could become the Yule Tree, and take its place among older English traditions of the season, like the Kissing Bough.
            For believers, Advent has moved – and I think happily so – from a minor penitential season, a sort of semi-Lent, to a season of waiting, awaiting, hope, and at least prospective joy. We await a favourite guest; so a little house-cleaning is in order. But to me the best preparation is to look around with care and attention and observe the sheer grinding, raging need of a world without faith: the misery of meaninglessness is piled on top of that of poverty, of illness, of solitude, until it is a wonder that vulnerable bodies and souls are not crushed by the peine forte et dure of unbelief.
            We are always being told by our churches to be missionaries: the thought seems to most of us outlandish. But when we look at the tragedy of indifference all around us, we can glean from it at the very least a motivation. This in no way diminishes the dilemma of action: we all know how those loudly proclaiming their faith and/or, worse, trying uninterruptedly to convert their friends produce new unbelievers as if by magic. So what can one do to counter the dark tide?
            An old spiritual adviser, wise in the ways of the soul, would probably tell us This is where ‘discernment’ comes in. And repeat the parable of the Good Samaritan. This last is a two-edged sword. In the first place, we are asked to identify, not with the Samaritan but with the victim: however secure we feel, in God’s eyes we are poor robbed and bleeding travellers, greatly in need of help. On the other hand, we may identify with the Samaritan himself, well-off but looked down on by the Chosen People as a Jewish tradesman might have been in the Paris or Vienna of 1900; and we might remember that he was not sermonising about the mounting number of robbery victims along the highways each year. He went about his business but kept his eyes open; and when he saw a bleeding figure in the bushes he did something. That is discernment. When life confronts us in a specific situation with someone suffering from unbelief (and yes, for many it is a suffering) as well as from other privations, then it may be possible to help in every way. Keep our eyes open; discernment.
            And, of course, there is Hope. Advent is par excellence the season of Hope. Surrounded by darkness and freezing fog and bone-piercing cold humidity, we do not give up, we do not give in to the night. Surrounded by the idiocy of Clown A and the venal rapacity of Clown B, not to mention the self-righteous demagoguery of Clown C, we do not give up on the prophecy, we do not surrender to the tempting idols that preen in every window and catalogue, nor to the bel canto of Cynicism and Despair singing in seductive harmony. We do not join the tempting troops of Anger, nor yet the raffish rakehelly rout of Entertainment. As we carefully tend the little oil-lamps of our vigil, we have our love to keep us warm.

And a glorious Christmas as well as a merry Yule to us all.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017


I used to teach Dryden, but somehow always missed this grand and glorious composition. It should remind us that the Restoration could do lyric very well when it tried; and never better than this, which I am happy to share on the Feast of St Cecilia, martyr and patron of music.

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687

From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony 
               This universal frame began. 
       When Nature underneath a heap 
               Of jarring atoms lay, 
       And could not heave her head, 
The tuneful voice was heard from high, 
               Arise ye more than dead. 
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry, 
       In order to their stations leap, 
               And music's pow'r obey. 
From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony 
               This universal frame began: 
               From harmony to harmony 
Through all the compass of the notes it ran, 
       The diapason closing full in man. 

What passion cannot music raise and quell! 
                When Jubal struck the corded shell, 
         His list'ning brethren stood around 
         And wond'ring, on their faces fell 
         To worship that celestial sound: 
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell 
                Within the hollow of that shell 
                That spoke so sweetly and so well. 
What passion cannot music raise and quell! 

         The trumpet's loud clangor 
                Excites us to arms 
         With shrill notes of anger 
                        And mortal alarms. 
         The double double double beat 
                Of the thund'ring drum 
         Cries, hark the foes come; 
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat. 

         The soft complaining flute 
         In dying notes discovers 
         The woes of hopeless lovers, 
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute. 

         Sharp violins proclaim 
Their jealous pangs, and desperation, 
Fury, frantic indignation, 
Depth of pains and height of passion, 
         For the fair, disdainful dame. 

But oh! what art can teach 
         What human voice can reach 
The sacred organ's praise? 
Notes inspiring holy love, 
Notes that wing their Heav'nly ways 
         To mend the choirs above. 

Orpheus could lead the savage race; 
And trees unrooted left their place; 
                Sequacious of the lyre: 
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder high'r; 
         When to her organ, vocal breath was giv'n, 
An angel heard, and straight appear'd 
                Mistaking earth for Heav'n. 

As from the pow'r of sacred lays 
         The spheres began to move, 
And sung the great Creator's praise 
         To all the bless'd above; 
So when the last and dreadful hour 
   This crumbling pageant shall devour, 
The trumpet shall be heard on high, 
         The dead shall live, the living die, 
         And music shall untune the sky. 

Dryden, by Sir Godfrey Kneller