Monday, 17 April 2017

Hell's mandarins

The gods of Hell consider themselves to be the most benign  and generous of hosts.  After all they give their "guests" exactly what they want; exactly what they preferred over and above the Love of God. In a parody of the Mansions of the Father, the mandarins of the underworld fit out with excruciating precision and attention to detail, personalised teenage bedrooms of  vice, where their guests will have an eternity forced to entertain their lust, gluttony, avarice or whatever cocktail of vice they chose for themselves.  The claustrophobia and misery are exquisite.  These mandarins are happy in their work, they have devised a Blairite Meritocracy for which they are the overlords and they are in love with their own ingenuity.  They have conveniently forgotten the One who has allowed them to exercise such power.

It wasn't always like this.  For thousands of years, their job was far simpler and they were more like Victorian clerks.  It was all ledgers and ink wells.  Scrupulous records would be kept.  There was an inevitability about the job.  The books always balanced. Actually that isn't entirely true.  The books had not balanced on three occasions.  They conveniently like to forget about Enoch, Moses and Elijah whom they had never welcomed to their realm.  Accounting oversights or gentle reminders that ultimately they had no real power over death.....?  The gods don't like to think about such things.  They had their empire to run.  Mistakes can be erased from the memory and there was much to be busy about making sure their guests were comfortable.

When a man called Abraham checked-in they knew they were dealing with somebody a bit different.  He was almost unbearably polite and gracious and yet all he would do was wait.  He treated their empire like a waiting room.  Waiting for something better.  But what could be better than what they had to offer? Other souls gravitated round Abraham.  The mandarins were unhappy about this but they would not be out-polited by a mere man so they let him be and many grateful souls found their way to his bosom.

It all really went wrong for them when one of their guests disappeared.  It was unheard of that a man whose body had begun to putrefy on earth could go awol from their realm.  But that is what happened to Lazarus.  He wasn't an oversight in the ledger.  His name was there, clearly written by one of the most experienced and well respected of the mandarins, but he had gone.  Something had to be done.  The laws of death had to be obeyed.  He must die again.  They had contacts on earth, it could be arranged.  Then news came through that they might do even better.  The Author of this great travesty Himself might be theirs for the taking.  Yes, forget Lazarus, they thought, the Man responsible for this outrage can balance the books instead.  So every force united to bring about His death.  The singular moment of unity.  A Cosmos shattering upheaval from which there was no return.

When He arrived, it wasn't as they expected.  The tasteful, strong and somewhat lavish doors to their realm lay in splinters.  Clerks were running about in a frenzy, the ledgers were in tatters on the floor.  The machinery of their empire was crumbling.  The Man was preaching to the dead. They listened and many followed Him back out again. The clerks were powerless, though they were pleased that some chose to remain behind and not follow this Brigand.

The gates of the underworld were shattered. The mandarins were a laughing stock. The gods on earth were mocking them about having a glass revolving door fitted. It was all too much, but hurt pride is a great motivator.  Fom now on, they would concentrate on those who freely chose to check-in with them, they would entertain them royally.  No more Abrahams to deal with.  They would have guests over whom they had complete control.  There would be realms for the dead over which they had no jurisdiction.... but they couldn't care less about that.  They had a job to do and they would do it to perfection.

So when That Mere Woman also did not obey the laws of death and went straight to Heaven, the event passed by our mandarins with hardly a second thought. It was the gods of the world who were smarting this time. The implications of the Creator's eternal love for her will always be beyond the comprehension of the gods of the underworld. And whilst souls on earth stubbornly fail to grasp the significance of His love for each of us, these mandarins will have work to do.  Work is always better than thinking.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Holy Saturday and the Dead

I'm thinking about the generation born between 1914 and 1924.  They include my grandparents and my late husband's parents.  The people I am thinking about are all dead.  They would have had no memories of the pre-Pius X church.  That was the world of their parents.  The first real change to the liturgical life of the church that they would have witnessed were the "reforms" to the Triduum instigated under Pius XII.

These changes were enthusiastically embraced by the in-laws and others I knew.  In the 1990s I recall two elderly gentlemen from Salford who had done the Triduum together each year without fail since they left National Service.  Their lives drifted apart but they came back together for the this: especially the watching and the nighttime Easter vigil.  My in-laws loved it too.  They loved the drama of the vigil that the pre-Pius XII liturgy did not have. They loved the emptiness of Holy Saturday and the anticipation of the Vigil.They were active stalwarts of their parish.  I really feel that for them it symbolised a post-war freshness and hope.  These were souls who found the changes really positive and therefore when further changes happened in the 1960s, they absorbed them enthusiastically too. I got to know them when the full consequences of the Novus Ordo and its often disastrous manifestations (along with slum clearances and increasing "individualism") had emptied the parishes.  They genuinely believed (because they'd been told) that the "Old Mass" was wrong.  They would be in horror if they knew we'd ever gone to the Tridentine Mass at the Holy Name in Manchester. I think they would have been happier if we'd embraced Buddhism.  My husband had watched the slow removal of the old liturgy with a more critical eye.  He told me that even in the mid-70s many parishes were still using the '62 for one of their Sunday Masses at least once a month.  Everything was at the discretion of the parish priest and the Bishop, until Bishops decided to engineer a "bright new future" and obliterate the Vetus Ordo completely, and the legacy of Cardinal Heenan too.

Over the other side of the world was my grandfather.  He was very well educated and something of a Latin scholar.  His faith was the faith of a convert and it ran deep.  He had no concept of cultural Catholicism. Malaya was not like that.  Being an active stalwart in a parish meant nothing to him.  Priests said Mass, women (mainly missionary sisters) kept the church nice. Grandfather had the shortest of tempers.  He liked the lowest of Low Masses. If there was any fuss, if he could sense the presence of a person performing at Mass (especially theatrical singers), he'd be cross,.  Mass wasn't theatre. The Pius XII reforms to the Triduum meant nothing to him.  He wouldn't have attended much of it before, he wouldn't be attending much of it after.  He also hated the 1960s liturgical changes.  Once, when he was over in Manchester and we took him to the Holy Name, he really hoped it would be the last Mass he would ever attend.  It was a joy to him, even though it was a High Mass, at least it didn't hurt like the Novus Ordo.

Tonight I've been asked to attend a Novus Ordo Easter Vigil.  I don't want to go. It lost its appeal a few years back when I sat a bit too close to the sanctuary and was horrified by the bad temper and complete lack of reverence of those in the sanctuary: they were putting on a show and it was not going well. I, like my grandfather, dislike Mass as performance.  I too am happiest with the lowest of Low Masses. The person who asked me to go is the mother of a girl for whom I am the sponsor. I feel I ought to go as I won't be around next year.

I will go.  Writing this has decided it for me.  It is not in the church that has bad memories.  Mass is something that is there and that absorbs you when you are there.  It could be behind a dense roodscreen with only a squint to peer through or behind an iconostasis for all I care.  The transcendent is always there and the performance is secondary and by comparison, insignificant.

To all my readers, Paşte fericit!


I'm back from the Vigil.  That was beautiful.  Slightly shambolic but beautiful.  No campness, no clinical precision, no professionalism, just sincere faith and joy!

Hristos a învitat!

Adevărat a învitat!

Monday, 10 April 2017

Main line electrification blues

It was not a good day to be on the trains. Not the worst of days: Cheltenham racegoers and the British weather have produced worse delays for me, but there was an irritating slowness about the line between London and home.  However, delays enabled me to read a small book; basically an essay in book form rather than a book. This book had not found its way into the pile at home marked, "for Oxfam".  It was a book the dear departed had said I must read: I never did, until now.

It is brilliant. It was written in 2000 by the great military historian, Michael Howard.  It is called The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order. This masterful essay explores Western society from 800 through to 2000 through its warcraft and ideas of "peace". It is timely and at times felt chillingly prescient.  I am a person of sympathies rather than an adherent to a particular ideology. It deals even-handedly with all the secular agendas: liberal, nationalist and conservative and the author has a thorough grasp on how technology shapes warfare more than ideology does. It is a book that suits me, though my sympathies are very different from the author's. He is a child of the Enlightenment with considerable fondness for Kant and Non-conformism.

The title of the book is a quote from the 19th Century jurist Sir Henry Maine: War appears to be as old as mankind but peace is a modern invention.

The Enlightenment did seem to produce the concept of peace as something to be achievable through the human project: the great secular myth that humans decoupled from their Creator can do any good at all.  However, neither can theocracies achieve the peace that their religious foundations have at their root.  "Peace" is a myth, and whilst the author does not reach this conclusion, nothing in the book dissuaded me of the truth of this fact. The peace that is to me a myth is the peace that to quote Howard comes "from the forethought of rational human beings who had taken matters into their own hands" and is the "visualisation of a social order from which war had been abolished". It is a concept inherent in Theocracies, Democracies and Totalitarian States, Caliphates and the UN (as well as wretched hippies and the whole dismal peace movement). It needs an awful lot of war (of the most disproportionate and least just kind), slaughter and suffering to maintain its delusion.

So why am I writing this?  I am writing as a Catholic. I am writing in Holy Week.  I am thinking out loud about the madness in the daily newsfeeds. I am thinking about peace and what it really looks like.  It looks like the pierced heart of the Mother of God, it looks like Our Lord mocked and crowned with thorns.  Peace is the absence of sin, not and achievable state of human cooperation/subjugation. Peace can be found in the midst of conflict, it is to be nurtured in our hearts be we priests, warriors, merchants, labourers or useless Physics teachers. God's grace is sufficient for us to find it. God's victory is won. It is a crime not to seek it.

That most gloriously illiberal quote of Newman's springs to mind:  The Catholic Church, holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse. 

It is there that peace is found, and nobody seems that willing to contemplate its profound and uncomfortable significance.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Catholic Things..

Lent rattles on.  Every year it is obscenely busy.  Every year at this time I just crave time for stillness and recollection.  However, such things are a luxury.  Some things we deny ourselves during Lent, other things are denied us.  I think the latter are of greater spiritual importance. There is no point in craving them.  We seem to have to live the reality, and often at this most starkly holy of seasons, the reality is full immersion in the world.  It is about being still, recollected and focussed on God amidst the insanity and frenzy of daily life and the daily news feeds of misinformation, propaganda, sentimentality and moral outrage.

What am I learning about myself this Lent?
What is God teaching me this Lent? 
Just how inadequate is my response to Him?
How am I responding to those around me, am I giving of myself unconditionally or am I treating others as simply a projection of my own ego; judging their motives and making assessments as to their "worthyness" and sincerity?

These are all Lenten questions and I feel I ought to be addressing them and spending time on them. However now is the time to be wading through the piles of science controlled assessments (last year ever of those), and the piles of school reports that need writing.  Now is the time when my voluntary church duties escalate; there are several loads of washing and complex ironing to do. Now is the time to be contacting my pensions provider about my forthcoming changes in circumstances.  Now is the time to be getting quotes from removal firms.  Now is the time to be finding a notary. Now is the time to be offloading books and making plenty of trips to the local tip. Now is the time to be shredding and burning that which doesn't need keeping.  Now is the time for getting my Irish Passport (just in case).  Now is the time to sort out things that need doing for my tenant now that I have been over and inspected my property. (I loathe being a landlord). Now is the time to be seriously getting stuck into learning the local language.

It is only on this last front, the language learning, where I feel there is a marriage of the worldly and the spiritual.  On one side, I'm trying to decide which local football team to support and I'm looking through their websites and fan pages, picking up the language as I go.  It is fun, but I'm still undecided (none of them play in blue, which is a distinct problem for me). On the other side, I'm trying to memorise the Lord's Prayer,  the Ave Maria, Glory Be and the prayer to St Michael.  I'm also getting a friend to translate the mechanics of going to Confession, but as his French and his Latin is better than his English, I've had to find it in those languages first for him to do the necessary.

What I am learning is that it is only in the ordinary and the humdrum and the dull that the extraordinary will reveal itself. The thing is to praise God at all times. Praise God for it all.....! Elizabeth of the Trinity is ever my surefooted, unsentimental guide into the Abyss.

ps.  I think my team will be the one associated with the railway: they are a team that whilst money seems to have been chucked at them recently, they have the unending capacity for underachievement.  This is similar enough to MCFC for me to be at home. I'm not a glory hunter.

Monday, 3 April 2017


My neighbour's increasingly frail old black Labrador came to inspect the pear tree that climbs up the south facing wall of the cottage.  He likes pears but I don't think he'll be around to see the crop that will arise from the blossom I've photographed.  I won't see them either, I've just signed the contract for my new job and I have to be in my new country of residence for the 1st August.

The pupils at school suggested I just get rid of everything, pack a single suitcase and head off.  It is tempting.  I'm not at all attached to material things in a sentimental way.  However, it is a bit too foolhardy. I might as well move wholesale and take what possessions I need with me rather than start again from scratch. I'm aiming not to have to put anything into storage, either it is coming with me or it is to be re-homed or dumped.

There are plenty of things to get rid of. It is a satisfyingly lenten thing to do, to scythe down what I own. I'm not used to thinking about the things in my possession, it is an interesting exercise. My mum wants my car. I will be in an apartment and I have a shed full of soon to be redundant gardening implements.  There are 6 bookshelves of books and I'm currently sorting through what can be kept and what can go, I want to reduce it to filling just the two smallest bookcases.  What happens to the university standard Physics texts?  What happens to the extensive (but unopened since university days) collection of the writings of Peter Kropotkin?  What happens to the obscure theology books I've read, digested and feel no need to keep. What happens to my cassette collection? The cassette deck is not coming out with me so I presume the tapes will find their way to the tip.  I don't suppose anyone else would be interested in my collection of tapes of Sudanese pop songs sold to me by a travelling Sudanese bathroom fitter in Manchester. Tapes have not kept their sound quality unlike my vinyl which sounds great.  Not everything that will be kept will be kept for reasons of utility.  I'm going to be slightly frivolous. The turntable is going out with me: my little luxury.  I'm hoping that there is a whole wealth of ageing Eastern European vinyl to find, collect and enjoy. The priceless (because they have no monetary value) heirlooms will come out too, my set of 7 Chinese immortals (there should be 8, but one of them wasn't), the old brass jos stick holder from my great grandfather's grave in Ipoh, my grandmother's dented silver teapot and the portrait of a great great aunt from the Wirral, but nobody can remember her name. I also ought not be without my two bears (Pinkers and Oliver) who are most certainly up for the adventure.

It is all slightly ludicrous.  I could forget the lot, but I'm not entering a convent, I'm simply starting a new job, that it happens to be in another time zone is irrelevant.  Life and the things of life are to be enjoyed, but always remembering the source of everything and giving thanks to God for it all and letting go of it all when it is time to do so.

And the weather is glorious and doing it's best to keep me attached to this obscure bit Wessex, but it is time to go.

And if you don't believe me about the possibilities of great Eastern European vinyl, have a look at this: Funked Up East