Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
I’m a bit late to the party with this one: historian of the classical world Tom Holland on realising that Christianity is the basis of his (and our) moral outlook.
The first Sunday of Advent is 27 November this year. For those of us who prefer Advent services to Christmas ones, the earlier the better, frankly. I relish the frisson of gloom, foreboding and fear of judgment you get at Advent, alongside the hope. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is all very well, but it’s the minor chord at the end of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ that I crave.
With Christmas expanding backwards into the early days of December, we must be careful to preserve the distinctive atmosphere of Advent. No ‘Once in Royal’ allowed until you’ve had your fill of ‘O come, O come, Adonaï’. (Which no one is quite sure how to pronounce.)
You know ‘the time’ has come: you must wake up now: our salvation is even nearer than it was when we were converted. The night is almost over, it will be daylight soon – let us give up all the things we prefer to do under cover of the dark; let us arm ourselves and appear in the light.
(Romans, 13: 11-14, Jerusalem Bible)
Or if you prefer the Revised Standard Version:
Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
I had Jewish instruction, religious instruction, and when I was about fourteen years old, of course I wanted to rebel and do something terrible to our teacher and I got up and said ‘I don’t believe in God’. Whereupon he said: ‘Who asked you?’
This week I’ve been on a writing retreat, sent by my academic institution as a way of encouraging me to finish writing a journal article. I had no say over where I was sent, and my employer knows nothing of my religious proclivities, so it was for purely practical reasons that I ended up being booked into an Anglican priory. I had no great expectations of my stay, beyond the fact that I’d be spending three days sitting in a room, tapping away at my computer keyboard and hoping that the peace and quiet would enable me to finally succeed in turning a conference paper into something publishable.
But then, on my first day, the prior came and introduced himself, and there the synchronicities began. Not only does Brother A. turn out to be a former academic, who used to teach and research in areas very similar to my own, but we soon realised that we have a remarkable number of contacts and intellectual influences in common. Moreover, when the conversation turned to A’s current role, it emerged that he’s one of the main organisers of the UK branch of the Thomas Merton Society. Now, in my pious youth, Merton was a huge influence on me, his Seven Storey Mountain not only confirming me in my decision to become a Catholic, but also leading me to seriously consider (for a time, anyway) a vocation as a Cistercian. And Merton’s writings on Buddhism engendered in me a lifelong interest in Eastern spirituality.
My faith has been rather wobbly of late, to say the least, and as often happens I’ve been struggling to reconcile my secular, intellectual interests with my rekindled Christian faith. When I first began to feel stirrings of re-awakened belief a few years ago, and went to see a priest, he encouraged me not to reject everything that I’d thought and believed in the intervening years, but to bring it with me as I moved forward in faith. I’ve not found that an easy trick to pull off, but when I meet someone like A., who has managed to embrace belief without rejecting everything he’s been before, it reminds me that it’s possible. It’s not so much how it’s done that helps me, but simply the fact that someone else has managed to succeed in doing it.
A. kindly made time to talk to me at length, about matters both secular and spiritual, and to show me the priory’s unrivalled collection of books by and about Merton, including a couple signed by the great man himself. So my three days at the priory turned out to be something of a spiritual as well as an academic retreat – an unexpected gift and an unforeseen blessing.
Last Tuesday was the Feast of St Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order. The Gospel reading at Mass was the story of Martha and Mary, as told by St Luke, which includes these words of Jesus:
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.
You could say that contemplative orders like the Carthusians, or the Trappists with whom I used to stay at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey when I was exploring Catholicism the first time around, have chosen Mary’s ‘better part’, or what the King James Bible translates as ‘the one thing needful’. Basically: Stop. Be quiet. And listen.
On a lighter note, my Facebook friend Peter Palladian marked last week’s feast by sharing two stories, the first told to him by a man who narrowly escaped joining the Carthusians:
“I’d been accepted as a postulant,” he said. “Arrived on the appointed day with my suitcase. Lay brother asked me to wait in the cloister while he fetched the novice master. I watched him slowly walking off down that quarter of a mile corridor until he was just a speck on the horizon. I suddenly thought ‘I can’t do this, I simply can’t!’ So I turned tail and fled for my life.”
The second story was told by a Carthusian of many years’ standing, reflecting on his first days in the monastery:
The necessary ceremonials and formalities completed, he was pottering around his new hermitage, trying to take it all in, trying not to think “What on God’s good earth have I done!” Of a sudden – it being about the midday hour – the hatch linking his gaff to the cloister flew open, the gnarled face of the ancient-of-days lay-brother attending filling the hole. ‘Beer or cider?’ barked the face. Our hero, taking it as the sunny day it was, on a whim, opted for a refreshing flagon of cider rather than his usual, much preferred, beer.
Cometh the next day, cometh the hour for luncheon, our same hero was very much of a mind to revert to his beloved ale, waiting patiently to be asked his choice once more. That moment though did not come. The hatch door snapped open, his tucker with cider was shoved in, and before any “I say my good man, if it’s all the same to you…” slammed again shut it was.
“It took a couple of weeks to sink in,” he mournfully told us, “but eventually I realised I’d made a choice for life on that first day. That’s how they do things in a Charterhouse and so for thirty-five years I’ve drunk nothing but blasted cider. Absolutely can’t stand the stuff now. Show me an apple tree and I’ll scream.”
I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky. Actually, I’m sick of hearing about them from religiously minded readers. These tend to be the only authors that come up when I ask them what they read for literature.
So says Randy Boyagoda here. I know exactly how he feels (though I can’t imagine I’ll ever grow tired of Eliot, Hopkins or Dostoyevsky). But Artur Rosman thinks he’s wrong to argue that all the great religions novelists are dead, and he has some interesting recommendations to make. (Yes, I know these posts are from two years ago, but I’ve been out of the loop, and sometimes I’m slow to catch up with these things.)
The comparison of Roy Hodgson to Pope Francis, and of Jürgen Klopp to St. John Paul, naturally leads [one] to think of which other popes could be compared to which other LFC [Liverpool Football Club] managers. The cerebral Rafael Benítez is clearly Pope Benedict XVI, and the majestic Kenny Dalglish is Pius XII. But who is Brendan Rodgers? Strange as it might seem, I would compare him to Bl. Paul VI. Rodgers came in as a sort of progressive, young, but highly qualified manager, who knew Spanish and could talk about tiki-taka and the possession game, and at first caused a lot of enthusiasm, but ended with the whole club in a sort of depression. In a similar way, Bl. Paul VI was elected to the See of Peter as a sort of progressive, young, but highly qualified prelate, who read cool theologians like de Lubac and Guardini and had edgy artistic taste. He too was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm initially, but after 1968 all was sadness and depression…
We were recently in Rome. One early evening, on our way back to the hotel, after a busy day sightseeing, we looked in, quite by chance, on the church of Trinita dei Monti, at the top of the Spanish Steps. This was the sight and sound that greeted us (not my video, but one I found on Youtube of a similar occasion): the monks and nuns of the Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem chanting the Office. Balm for the soul.