Sunday, 26 September 2010

Papal ponderings I: Grubbing for roots

Before the papal visit, in the storm of controversy over arrangements at Cofton, etc., I underlined two simple facts which I thought were in danger of being overshadowed by the pre-visit jitters:

1) the vicar of Christ is coming to Britain

2) we ought to listen to what he has to say

The visit and its aftermath have indeed been fascinating, not only because of what the pope had to say - more of that anon - but also because his reception by the British was not what one might have feared when reading the slavering, angry opinion pieces of Polly Toynbee or Johann Hari. Nor, come to think of it, was that reception marked by the pope's apotheosis into celebrity status, in spite of the tabloid reaction in some quarters. Somehow, all the sterotypes of the pope crumbled in his presence, without at the same time new myths forming about him in the public eye.

Where new myths have arguably begun to form is in attempts to describe what exactly the impact of the visit has been. Talk of the visit as a moment of re-engagement between the Church and society in this country might be spinning things just a little too prematurely. Where, after all, is the evidence for that? I note with some interest that Archbishop Vincent Nichols has spoken only of the spiritual fruits of the visit in his pastoral letter this Sunday. That is all very true. Still, are our ears not still ringing with the words the pope spoke to the bishops before he left for Birmingham International:

As you proclaim the coming of the Kingdom, with its promise of hope for the poor and the needy, the sick and the elderly, the unborn and the neglected, be sure to present in its fulness the life-giving message of the Gospel, including those elements which call into question the widespread assumptions of today’s culture (my emphasis).

It is quite a commission when you think of it. I wonder what our Lords are preparing to do about it.


The addresses and homelies by the pope during his visit number nearly 20,000 words in total, so there should be no shortage of things to ponder in the weeks ahead. Looking at his first address - the one he gave at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh - I suppose what strikes me now that I read it again is not so much the thumping implication that those who exclude God from the public square are like the Nazis. It is rather the pope's insistence on the 'deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life.'

A certain kind of Englishman (I number myself among them) or English woman is these days so used to lamenting the decline of civilisation, so accustomed to being disappointed by our lack of resistance to the worst cultural innovations of the west, and so numbed by the spin of twenty-first century professional pressure and uncertainty, that he (or she!) no longer notices the depth of these roots. We live in a society which in so many ways is contra naturam. Still, we should take comfort. No matter how hard the loonies try, it is actually quite difficult to reconstruct human nature in some other way; and Catholicism is in a sense so natural. When we find in our current structures those instincts that made Christian civilisation distinct from Roman or Barbarian civilisation - charity, courtesy, forgiveness, fraternity - we are looking at the fruits of the gospel. The soil is poor, but the flora is unmistakable.

Neither is it possible to wipe out history! English separatism from the continent was always an aberration, and the elevation of J. H. Newman to the altars is a stark reminder that it is possible to be perfectly English and perfectly Roman. Newman, More, the line goes ever on and on.

In this historical perspective I think it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of our reconnecting with the kind of liturgical silences we witnessed in the papal ceremonies. Even Archbishop Nichols was bowled over:

I will never forget the richness of the silence of 80,000 people at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in Hyde Park. I hope every celebration of Mass contains times of shared silence in which we can draw close to the Lord

This too is a return to the historical roots of Christianity. Watch and pray. Watch and pray. The undoubted dislocation from this source of spirituality in contemporary liturgical practice is part of the tragedy of the reform. Silence was one of the ways our fathers prayed, and it should never have been lost. Never.

But, lo and behold, a modern discovery in Hyde Park: silence facilitates prayer. Are we merely watching men rediscovering the roundness of the wheel after a passing vogue for quadrangality? Even if that is so, let us rejoice!

Of course our futures require more than this reconnection with the political and religious past, whether remote or proximate. But I am wondering whether we take enough comfort in such a reconnection. Behold the roots! It is hard of course in the hubbub of modern life to hear the voices of the past and to feel those presences which bestride our religious history. But, how suggestive of our ressources they really are!. And how important it is that we take after them once more! Historia magister vitae ... aeternae?

I wonder if this is what informed the pope's sermon during the Mass at Cofton Park which seemed to focus almost exclusively on spiritual matters. I was underwhelmed initially by what seemed a rather timid reflection on Newman's spiritual life. But perhaps the papal subtext was simply this: any fool can bang a drum of public controversy (and usual does), but fruitfulness comes first from listening to God, like Newman, More, and all the rest. Behold the roots! The past is ours and the future with it. All we need do is dig:

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
‘O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

If you want another explanation of the rage of the anti-pope protesters, you might find it in their awareness that the root-grubbing German Shepherd should, at all costs, have been kept out of the national flowerbeds.


Mark said...

Presumably "grubbing up the roots" is the earthier English equivalent of the "returning to the sources" movement of which the young Fr Ratzinger was a significant part?

(I realise there's an argument for saying that ressourcement became a Trojan horse for semi-modernist ideas, but, in its untainted form, it could well be viewed as an heroic attempt "to hear the voices of the past and to feel those presences which bestride our religious history".)

Moretben said...

"The language of God is silence; everything else is a translation." - Fr. Meletios Webber

Ches said...

Mark, yes, I think you could say that. We ignore our sources at our peril.

Moretben, that's an interesting quotation. I suppose the realm of the spirit is itself silent by definition.

Ttony said...

My slight concern is that "they" will see the silence at Eucharistic Adoration in Hyde Park (which "they" organised) as something objectively different from the silence which still occurs wherever there are parish Benediction services, and that it is therefore capable of being manipulated, in the same way as every other liturgical function is capable of being manipulated.

If not, "they" might have to start thinking that things like parish Benediction services should become normative.

T S E(l)liot(t) was right about not letting the dog anywhere near the sprouting dead body. Prune what grows above the surface if you really have to, but what appears above ground tells you absolutely everything you need to know about exactly where and what the source is. If you dig that up, you'll likely kill the plant - you'll certainly damage it. Bugnini's Garden ...

(It's never struck me before just how relevant that bit of the Waste Land really is.)

Ches said...

I was reading it in another way, Ttony. The original quotation from The Duchess of Malfi is:

'O keep the Dog far hence, that’s foe [not friend!] to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.'

It seems to me that here the buried thing is what needs to be dug up!

roveto ardente said...

At the Hyde Park vigil the Pope said very little. What he did istead was to lead us to Jesus. It was the heart to heart encounter with Jesus that brought 80,000 people to their knees in silent meditation. This is our Source.

If we dig Jesus out (and dust Him off), maybe we'll find it easier to stay silent and listen to Him as a church.

Why don't we all ask our PPs for an extra hour of Exposition a week and then go and pray for the fruits of the visit? Surely the PPs would be delighted to be asked and in so doing we might bring more people to Jesus and He would speak to their hearts (we might make it a special intention to pray for the bishops).

GOR said...

Silence is one of the things for which we have lost appreciation in modern society and, inevitably, in Church. It probably reflects the frenetic pace of modern life where we always have to ‘be doing’ and have little time - or patience - for just being or reflecting. Technology, ever pursuing the latest fad or commodity, has helped this along – from the Muzak of the 50s and 60s, through the Boom boxes of the 70s, to the iPods of today.

People need noise to exist, apparently. There is a fear of quiet (“What’s wrong…?” “What’s happening…?”). Commercial interests have capitalized on this also with companies expending much resources on researching which ‘moods’ will be conducive to commerce. Think ”Jingle Bells” or “White Christmas” are incidental in the Malls at Christmas? Think again! Even the medical profession got in on the act – audioanalgesia was a fad for a time, though I haven’t heard much about it recently.

Inevitably, in our Post-Vat II world, what is sauce for the commercial goose is sauce for the liturgical gander. Thus we got ‘active participation’ in place of silent reverence. But, as in much of life, thing do tend to come full circle. Recall that amid the noise and clamor of the raucous 60s, there was a surge of interest in eastern religions. And those religions put a premium on what…? Silence, reflection, meditation…

Shhh. Perhaps we may once again hear - pace Paul Simon – the sound of silence.

Ches said...

Audioanalgesia? What the???

The Guild Master said...

Oh, we haven't forgotten the depth of the roots. Not at all. It's the fact that they are so deep that has made society's ignoring them all the more painful.

I must admit, I allowed myself a grim, ironic chuckle at hearing Nichols' words on silence.

GOR said...

You never heard of audioanalgesia, Ches? I guess I am dating myself (well I am dated anyway…). It was an experimental technique introduced some decades ago to substitute music for the anesthetic – particularly in dentistry. I can’t say I had any personal experience of it (having only rare personal experiences of dentists, period…).

Somehow I never saw that music could obliterate the feeling of the dentist’s drill – even if it were the Anvil Chorus (probably a bad choice anyway) or the sextet from Lucia di Lammermour. “Just give me the shot – thank you very much!”