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Thursday, 19 January 2017

Looking through Vivyen Bremner's thoughtful little book I Tune the Instrument, I was struck by a passage from Thomas Traherne -- the second of the two below. I made me look again, as I hadn't done for years, at the Centuries of Meditations, and I was enchanted all over again at the wealth of beauty and wisdom in their pages. So I will share some of them in the coming weeks. Here are two to begin with: the first with its allusion to the English Civil War, the second with its almost William Blake-like ecstatic penetrating into the world around us through and in the Spirit.

I.   I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings advance you to glory: but by the gentle ways of peace and love. As a deep friendship meditates and intends the deepest designs for the advancement of its objects, so doth it shew itself in choosing the sweetest and most delightful methods, whereby not to weary but please the person it desireth to advance. Where Love administers physic, its tenderness is expressed in balms and cordials. It hateth corrosives, and is rich in its administrations. Even so, God designing to show His Love in exalting you hath chosen the ways of ease and repose by which you should ascend. And I after His similitude will lead you into paths plain and familiar, where all envy, rapine, bloodshed, complaint and malice shall be far removed; and nothing appear but contentment and thanksgiving. Yet shall the end be so glorious that angels durst not hope for so great a one till they had seen it.

II. You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins. Till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God as misers do in gold and kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

Image: Samuel Palmer, "Eventide"

Sunday, 15 January 2017


Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ
From time to time I have had occasion to cite, to quote, and to express my admiration for, Sœur Emmanuelle Billoteau, a Benedictine hermit from Provence who periodically provides comments on the daily readings in that admirable French booklet Prions en Eglise.  This Sunday, the first after Epiphany, I found her meditation on the reading from the Gospel of John instructive enough to translate it here.

John I:29-34

“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.’ And John bare record, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.’”

The story of John the Baptist is that of a revelation received from God. John has been able to recognise him whom it was his mission to announce. The text bears the mark of wonder, the fruit of a lived experience. As a privileged witness, John is the spokesman of the Evangelist.

John’s verses provide a key for reading the whole of the gospel. They contain a teaching of great density concerning this Jesus who comes to John. In citing the faith in the pre-existence of the Word, “before I was, He was”, the Baptist embraces equally the time of Jesus’ earthly life and its beyond, with the evocation of the Paschal mystery, the gift of the Spirit, and the glorification. A sequence we can follow by means of the names given to Jesus: “Lamb of God”; he who “baptises in the Spirit”; “Son of God”. The first of these titles refers us back to the sacrificial ritual of the Temple, with its burnt offering, to the Paschal lamb the blood of which protected the children of Israel at their departure from Egypt, and to the triumphant lamb of the Jewish apocalypses of the inter-testamentary period (from the 5th century BCE to the 1st century CE).

In pointing us back to the Paschal mystery, the highest point of the revelation of God’s love, John the Evangelist reminds us that strength is deployed in weakness. Thus the royalty of Christ, the triumphant Lamb, is not conquered according to the usual human modalities, through force and violence. The way God has chosen for the establishing of his Kingdom, which “is not of this world” (Jn 18:36), is that of humility, of the love that proposes and exposes itself. It is in the self-humbling of the Son that the Spirit revealed himself by resting upon Him. And it is the Spirit, the gift of his Passover, who gives us access to the confession of His sonship by the renewal of our intelligence. Which allows us to pass from a partial knowing to an ever more profound knowing of the mystery of the Son, our discovering of which is never-ending. So we should do well to beg the Father to make us open ourselves to the Spirit, so that he may guide us to the whole and entire Truth.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

AND THEN . . .

In his brilliant essay “The Simple Art of Murder” Raymond Chandler, the great 1930s detective novelist, recounted his early days when writing stories for periodicals under considerable stress because of deadlines. Obviously, when thinking up plot developments, you would get stuck from time to time. But, he said, he and other hacks worked out a solution for this: “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

I was thinking of this the other day as I was meditating after my morning prayers, and something occurred to me. When you are contemplating a human situation, whether private or public, whether social or political, try mentally adding the line “And then Christ walked in.” The result is quite fascinating. It is, of course, related to the old “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) that some people tattoo on their fingers; but it has the merit of looking at a scene as a scene, i.e. dramatically, like a story or a play or film, and drawing you into the role of a screenwriter challenged to continue the plot from this new happening.
Example 1: “The Senate confirmation hearing for the putative new Attorney General was proceeding on the whole peacefully, though not without a few difficult moments. And then Christ walked in. . . . . . . . . . . .”
Example 2: “We were being extremely tactful in our conversation at Thanksgiving dinner, until Uncle Gavin started bringing up politics. ‘No, please, Gavin,’ Jane pleaded, ‘not this year!’  And then Christ walked in. . . . . . . . . . . “
Example 3: “In a French bistro frequented by North African construction workers, a couple of cheerfully-dressed women came and sat down. Some unfortunate remarks were made. And then Christ walked in. . . . . . . . . . . .
Example 4: “ My friend Jill was teaching a sophomore class on Shakespeare, and a discussion developed on the question whether a queer production of Hamlet would be accurate, provocative or both.  And then Christ walked in. . . . . . . . . . .”
Example 5: “Pope Francis was with his advisory group of cardinals, pondering what if anything to do about the Middle East. And then Christ walked in. . . . . . . . . . .
I’m sure you can think of more interesting situations, whether applied to yourself or involving parts of the world you’re interested in. You could even make it a (serious) game with a few friends . . . . . . . . . 

Saturday, 7 January 2017


François Fillon

             France is a curious country. The French themselves often talk about “l’exception française”, and a foreigner is from time to time brought up short by actions or reactions that seem entirely peculiar. A recent example followed the guest appearance on the TV evening news of François Fillon, the presidential candidate who was the big winner of the conservative primary. Fillon wants to reform the French economy in ways that recent governments (in one of which, Sarkozy’s, he was Prime Minister) have not been able to do because of massive resistance, mainly by the trade unions. He is an impeccably-dressed gentleman who enjoys racing vintage cars, and he would like to be the French counterpart of Gerhard Schroeder, the social democrat who reformed the German economy in 2002-5. Fillon is bright, writes well, and has a sense of humour. And when asked about his intended, and controversial, reform of the social-security and medicare systems, he pointed out that while the cost of these systems, and the national debt-level, made reform absolutely necessary, that he would see that it did not hurt the vulnerable. “I’m a Gaullist, and what’s more, a Christian,” he said, “so obviously I will not initiate any policies that are harmful to human dignity.”
            I was watching the interview, and found this remark understandable and unexceptionable. Imagine my surprise when, in the five days following, I saw it provoke a storm of media scandal. Many Frenchmen seemed outraged that a candidate for the Presidency should say out loud that he is a Christian. Shameful! Scandalous! To a foreigner, the reaction was incomprehensible. Until I heard it discussed by a radio columnist this morning, a woman who on Saturday mornings spends 5 minutes explaining religions to the atheists and agnostics who make up most of that station’s audience. She pointed out once again “l’exception française”. Angela Merkel, she said, had maintained that her policy of welcoming refugees was solidly connected with her Christian faith (she is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor); and in Germany, she said, that didn’t raise an eyebrow. But in France, she insisted, it simply could not have been uttered. Why? Because of the tradition, dating from the Revolution and reinforced in the late 19th century, of laïcité or secularism. This insists that religion is strictly a private affair and must never be allowed into any public political discourse; and as the columnist said, you have to remember that this tradition of secularism in France was created, maintained and extended in a battle against the Catholic Church.

            Well, I understood the storm a little better, but I found it a saddening experience. Fillon was perfectly sincere, perfectly well-meaning, and for him respect for human dignity is the natural and proper outcome of a Christian faith. To be reviled for this day in, day out, by otherwise intelligent and not dishonest politicians is a spectacle that does France no credit.  

Tuesday, 3 January 2017


What's new is the year. What's old is the language. To wish everyone the very best for this year, there is no better wish than faith. Here is one way to strengthen it, quietly, quietly, every morning. Just before rising, say this prayer.

O Lord our heavenly Father,
almighty and everlasting God,
who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day,
defend us in the same with thy mighty power,
and grant that this day we fall into no sin,
neither run into any kind of danger;
but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance,
to do always that is righteous in thy sight.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Book of Common Prayer's Third Collect, for Grace, in the service of Morning Prayer, it is a translation of a Latin original from the 5th century Gelasian sacramentary, and as the French say, in five-and-a-half centuries it has not taken on a wrinkle. No need to "update" or "modernise". A perfect companion to a new day, and to a new year. 

Monday, 2 January 2017


Today is the feast of St Basil the Great and of his friend St Gregory of Nazianze. Basil, a capable 4th-century archbishop, is also a Doctor of the Church, and has been called "the Minstrel of the Holy Spirit". So I thought I would put up here a snippet from his De Spiritu Sancto, to give us an idea of his voice. Here he is defending the glory of the Holy Spirit against those who underestimate Him.

49.  And His operations, what are they?  For majesty ineffable, and for numbers innumerable.  How shall we form a conception of what extends beyond the ages?  What were His operations before that creation whereof we can conceive?  How great the grace which He conferred on creation?  What the power exercised by Him over the ages to come?  He existed; He pre-existed; He co-existed with the Father and the Son before the ages.  It follows that, even if you can conceive of anything beyond the ages, you will find the Spirit yet further above and beyond.  And if you think of the creation, the powers of the heavens were established by the Spirit, the establishment being understood to refer to disability to fall away from good.  For it is from the Spirit that the powers derive their close relationship to God, their inability to change to evil, and their continuance in blessedness.  Is it Christ’s advent?  The Spirit is forerunner.  Is there the incarnate presence?  The Spirit is inseparable.  Working of miracles, and gifts of healing are through the Holy Spirit.  Demons were driven out by the Spirit of God.  The devil was brought to naught by the presence of the Spirit.  Remission of sins was by the gift of the Spirit, for “ye were washed, ye were sanctified,…in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the holy Spirit of our God.” There is close relationship with God through the Spirit, for “God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying Abba, Father.” The resurrection from the dead is effected by the operation of the Spirit, for “Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created; and Thou renewest the face of the earth.” If here creation may be taken to mean the bringing of the departed to life again, how mighty is not the operation of the Spirit, Who is to us the dispenser of the life that follows on the resurrection, and attunes our souls to the spiritual life beyond?  Or if here by creation is meant the change to a better condition of those who in this life have fallen into sin, (for it is so understood according to the usage of Scripture, as in the words of Paul “if any man be in Christ he is a new creature”), the renewal which takes place in this life, and the transmutation from our earthly and sensuous life to the heavenly conversation which takes place in us through the Spirit, then our souls are exalted to the highest pitch of admiration.  With these thoughts before us are we to be afraid of going beyond due bounds in the extravagance of the honour we pay?  Shall we not rather fear lest, even though we seem to give Him the highest names which the thoughts of man can conceive or man’s tongue utter, we let our thoughts about Him fall too low?

Saturday, 31 December 2016


Looking back on 2016 one can of course cite many horrors and many disappointments. But when one either looks more closely at  what’s happened in the world at large, a large number of blessings also become apparent: in India 800,000 volunteers planted 50 million trees in one day to help the country reforest 12% of its surface, while for the first time ever, 93% of the planet’s children learnt to read and write. One does need to be careful about absorbing “news” from media, especially television, internet and even print. Newspaper editors long worked on the principle “if it bleeds, it leads”, and this has now spread to almost all media. Social media, on the other hand, are sometimes even worse, as they can spread the steaming private rage of individuals faster than any (other) epidemic. One of the rare exceptions is the French daily La Croix, which resolutely continues to inform rather than titillate or judge, which invariably explains both sides of difficult questions, and which pays as much attention to good news as to catastrophes. (Le Monde, of which someone who worked there in the Fifties once said, “It’s not a newspaper, it’s a university”, still informs very well but has moved further away from impartiality – leftwards – and is temperamentally gloomy.)

For individuals, looking back on a year gone by is usually a bit nostalgic, slightly (or deeply) sad, rueful, or cautiously thankful. It’s a collective version of the eve-of-birthday mindset; it’s the painful travail out of which new year’s resolutions will shortly be born.

None of this should properly apply to prayer.

God does not ask us to apply ourselves more energetically to doing better at everything. God does not ask us to judge the rest of the world, even politicians. God does not ask us to hate our nasty enemies with more intensity and if possible to wipe them off the face of the earth. God does not ask us to be revenged on those who did ill to us or to our loved ones.

God asks only one thing: that we return His love. With every fibre of our being. And this is largely done not by increased activity but by allowing Him to visit, to move in, to take over. It’s almost passive, but it does take concentration: we ask Him to open our doors and windows so that He can enter and take up residence.

Once we embark seriously on doing that, resolutions become superfluous.

The illustration is William Holman Hunt's "The Light of the World" (1849-53) in Keble College Chapel, Oxford. Note that the door on which Christ knocks is overgrown and clearly unused to being opened, and has no handle: it can be opened only from the inside. Our inside.