Saturday, 29 January 2011

The end-of-January factor

Apologies for the failure to update the blog this last week. Term started, an avalanche of marking hit my desk, and I was spending a lot of energy getting back into the four-hours-a-day commute from East Chesville to Uni-ton. It's amazing the circumstances that human nature can adapt to, and the London Underground is no exception. I am now slowly learning to fall into deep reading mode, standing on one leg and leaning my book on sombody's ruck sack, while someone else hangs onto my pocket, the whole carriage sways to and fro, and half the passengers disembark to allow someone in the middle to descend at Green Park. I hasten to add that this only happens during the rush hour!

Meanwhile, I cannot help feeling that whizzing rush of excitement that comes over one in the last few days of January before payday arrives! The last couple of months with marriage, honeymoon and Christmas have been financially taxing (no pun intended). But it is also exciting of course to be back at the chalkface, as I observed last week.

What's more, if the weather hasn't been so great, I have at least been able to warm myself up by laughing at the annual crop of student essay howlers (this month's leading contender being, 'The idea of national identity exited de Gaulle'. But, we can wonder, through which aperture?).

So, the end-of-January factor is definitely high (or definately high, as some of my undergraduates might say). Excuse me for being cheery, but I just cannot help it. I'm half Wilkins Micawber and half Albert Doolittle.

[Ches retires, singing:

'I'm getting money in the mornin',
Ding dong, the cash register will chime,
January payday is my winter May Day,
So get me to the bank on time!'


and performs the Old Kent Road jig].

Friday, 21 January 2011

Skool's out

The end of the teaching week: the beginning of the human weekend. Here's a few thoughts on education from one of my favourite comedians, Mr Milton Jones! If you are a PE teacher, please look away now...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Teaching again

Term has started again and I'm back at the coalface in the dark, dank gloomy chasm that is the mind of the undergraduate.

'Interrogatives', I told the grammar seminar, 'a word derived from the Latin 'inter' meaning 'between' and 'rogare' meaning 'ask' ...' and they looked at me as might a couch potato whom I had just reminded of his need for a twice weekly stroll around the park ...

'What were Balzac's politics?' I ask a class full of French students (as in 'from France'), 'given the joke he has just made about the Palais Bourbon where the National Assembly sits... Well, he was a monarchist, and a sort of lax legitimist during the reign of Louis Philippe [blank faces] You do know who Louis Philippe was, don't you...?' At this point I began again, 'Well, you know place de la Bastille...' and they had the good grace to burst into laughter. Still ...

I love teaching. It's just that I wonder whether they have ever been taught anything ever before they got to university! Apologies to school teachers (for I was one once). I couldn't get my pupils to remember much either!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Papally speaking: Assisi III and the beatification

It's been an odd week for popes. We began with news of the imminent ordination of former Anglican bishops to the Roman Catholic diaconate and priesthood, and the establishment of the Ordinariate. 1-0 to Pope Benedict. Then news filtered through - though it was a week old at least - of his announcement of Assisi III in October, which triggered a range of commentary ranging from the apoplectic to the papolatrous. That was 1-1, I think. And then yesterday the news wires were alive again with the story of Pope Benedict's recognition of a miraculous cure through the intercession of John Paul II, and the designation of a date for his beatification on 1 May this year. Don't ask me how to score that yet! Who was it said that a week is a long time in politics? It's a long time in papalitics too.

I was bemused yesterday at the converging nature of criticism and praise for these various acts, especially Assisi and the beatification. William Oddie, for example, has written an intemperate piece denouncing all those who think themselves more Catholic than the pope, especially the SSPX. I note James Preece has already commentated thereon, observing that Oddie's major premise - Catholics trust the pope or they are on their way to the funny farm - is nonsense on stilts, and certainly not Catholic teaching. At the other end of the scale, we find Telegraph blogger Stephen Hough, who by some stretch of ludicrous logic manages to see in the announcement of JPII's beatification a sign of the end of infallibility:

By rushing through the beatification of Pope John Paul II, his predecessor and friend, [Pope Benedict] has made clear how fanciful and arbitrary the whole idea and process of ‘making saints’ is, and has allowed space (in the future) for a reassessment of infallibility itself as a dogma.

What is convergent about these two apparently contradictory commentaries is the emotion masquerading as reason. Oddly enough, Bishop Fellay of the SSPX can be seen going through rather the same process when answering a question about Assisi at the recent Courrier de Rome congress in Paris. He takes exception to Pope Benedict's use of the word 'faith' in relation to other religions, before reflecting on the nature of analogy which would allow a limited application of the word 'faith' to something which is not supernatural, before lurching off bizarrely into an interpretation which enables him to insinuate that this use of the word 'faith' correlates with the symbolic theological vocabulary condemned in Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Bishop Fellay and Stephen Hough seem so opposed to the pope that they are intent on positing objectively perverse interpretations of his words; Oddie, on the other hand, loves the papacy so much that he's unwittingly half-way to justifying Liberius and Alexander VI.

Cor, can we just take a breather? Did we all fall down the collective rabbit hole? Why must we impose game-ending interpretations on others? Is there not an escalation of rhetorical violence here which seeks at every turn to deliver the killer blow, regardless of what the truth of the matter really is? Some people are guilty of bad will, and their machinations are deserving of exposure, if nothing else will bring them to their senses and if they are harming the common good. But most people - this is my view at least - seem to be flailing around in the swirl of information, of knowledge and what we must call counter-knowledge, which characterises our informational age. I do not exempt myself from their number. We all should try to understand! And if we must disagree with others for the sake of truth, let us disagree. But why must we be so often determined to drive the stake of logic through our opponent's heart?

****************

So let me come to the two issues in question.

1) Assisi III: I wrote about Assisi the other day. And my position is little different now from what it was then. But let me clarify still further. On reflection, the syncretist overtones of Assisi could well be overstated. Who, after all, among the people of the world really thinks that the pope is any less determined to preach the gospel because of Assisi? I suspect most people interpreted JPII's actions - and will interpret Benedict's - as a gesture towards civic order, rather than as a statement of belief in universal salvation. The real danger is arguably for the Church's own self-understanding. Never mind faith, let's talk about peace. What do we mean by peace? Surely what the Assisi meetings are meant to promote is the absence of conflict and some bonds of civility and friendship. This might not seem so crucial in suburban London, but in war-torn Gaza or Sudan learning not to throw a bomb through your neighbour's window is surely no bad civilisational goal.

So what's the problem? The problem is that such a ceremony, under such patronage, seems to occlude, to hide, to veil from view the salvific peace which Christ came to bring the world. What does Christ mean by peace in the gospels? Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. The Church is not a wing of the police, and still less a wing of the diplomatic service. If we are against violence, our opposition is only relative; after all, only the violent bear away the kingdom of heaven. Is there not something in Assisi which lowers the temperature of the Church's zeal for her mission to spread not civilisational order but salvific peace? Is there not something in Assisi which seems to beg us to be contented with a peace which is purely civilisational? And is there not the danger that this civilisational peace is then confounded with a salvific peace, in a tangle of ideas which the SSPX and other traditionalists feel they must denounce as syncretism? Those are the questions. My fear is that this confusion over peace is deeply problematic. I would like an answer. I'm more likely to get one from Pope Benedict than from anyone else. Let us be patient.

2) The beatification of John Paul II: my view of this is quite simple. If the Church beatifies and canonizes him, then so be it. Personally, I think the mistake was to open up his cause for investigation almost immediately. How history will view this man in fifty years time is another matter. What is wrong with allowing some historical perspective, if only because the adulation surrounding JPII was so effervescent? Like most traditionally minded people, I can think of half a dozen reasons why I would find his canonization difficult. Unlike most traditionally minded people, I can think of another half a dozen reasons why he was an extraordinary man of God and lover of Jesus Christ. So who is to decide this issue? That's ultimately why we need a central Magisterium: because otherwise we fracture into a thousand splinters, all of us determined to follow our own view points which we mistake for the truth of Christ.

****************

Well, there we are. I think I've said quite enough about all that. The weekend beckons with promise of baking, strolls in the park and domestic bliss.

Friday, 14 January 2011

John Paul II to be beatified

It has just been announced in the last few minutes that John Paul II will be beatified on 1 May. The miraculous cure of a nun from Parkinson's disease has been recognised by the Holy See as being due to his intercession.

Hmmm, reflections later.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Popularity and fidelity in the public square

Francis Phillips has written a very interesting piece on Cardinal Hume in The Catholic Herald online, or more precisely on the Anthony Howard's forward and epilogue to his biography of the Cardinal published in 2005. Phillips was most disturbed at Howard's claim that Cardinal Hume "[persuaded] a predominantly unbelieving public that it was perfectly possible to be a convinced Christian without being in any sense a crank”. Curiously, Howard's view of Hume correlated with the Tablet's obituary of the cardinal which claimed:

'That is not the way we do things in England' became a trademark of his, to ward off policies and approaches [of Rome] that were unlikely to endear themselves to the Catholic Church at home.

In her own article Phillips eventually concludes:

In his clear pursuit of Catholic respectability within the English Establishment, crowned by getting Her Majesty to attend Vespers in Westminster Cathedral, Hume was wrong. You simply cannot be true to Catholic teachings on eg the sacredness of life before birth and in sickness and old age, sexual behaviour and the nature of marriage and hope to be “respectable”.

This view rings bells with me at the moment. In my current reading, Georges Bernanos's pamphlet Le Scandale de la vérité, the desire to sacrifice truth, justice and honour to corporate interest (in Bernanos's analysis these are sacrificed to national interest) is seen as a peculiar sin of the French right wing in the interwar years. But why did the French right make such sacrifices? Solely for the sake of practical leverage. Never mind the message; feel the influence. Is this ringing bells for anybody else?

Without further study, it would be unfair of me to apply these principles to Hume's case - and I beg you not to throw Hume to the dogs in the comment box unless you do it dispassionately and with hard evidence - but the major premise of Phillips's argument is correct: sanctity and worldly popularity are rarely bed fellows. Good grief, that is an evangelical principle: If this is what they do in the green wood, what will they do in the dry? (Luke 23: 31) As St Teresa of Avila says somewhere, you cannot begin to serve God until you've lost your reputation. Other saints clearly became holy by the sacrifice of their worldly leverage. Indeed, one might even claim the path to holiness through the sacrifice of worldly success is a particularly English one: St Thomas à Becket, St Thomas More, St Edmund Campion, Blessed John Henry Newman ... need I go on?

So what is the legacy of Hume in terms of Catholic fidelity in public life? Well, I'm sure there is evidence to the contrary, but when I think now about the association of Catholics with the British Establishment, it is not hard-headed, uncompromisingly orthodox figures that spring to mind, but individuals like Tony Blair or Greg Pope. When the vote was taken at the third reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2008, at least twenty Catholic MPs voted in favour of it, including two papal knights.

So here is the question for the Howardian view: if Hume's policy was so good, where are the persuasive Catholic voices in the public sphere who manage to be Catholic, orthodox, popular and successful? Or is this marriage of popularity and fidelity ultimately like the legendary Philosopher's Stone which turns base metal in gold?

Neither is this a dead argument. We might might need the velvet glove approach in this country, but isn't it about time we did away with the limp wrists? Our new papal nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, charged with nominating replacements for up to 38% of the bishops of England and Wales in the next three years, needs our prayers.

I haven't read Howard's biography of Cardinal Hume and maybe I should. Still, if Howard is right about Hume, and if Howard's case is that public relations are more crucial than fidelity to the Church, I say that is a difficult burden for any man's memory to carry, particularly one hoping to serve the disreputable Son of God.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Coo-ee, Mrs Beamish!

Fr Z has put up a poll on his blog asking for people to say how they feel about the Sign of Peace and inviting bloggers to spread the word. I'm happy do so, and to provide a link to the poll in question.

Damian Thompson has responded with his customary waspishness, rubbing his hands with glee over one comment on Fr Z's blog which mocks older people who seem to like the practice and congratualate each other on making it through another week alive. At my recent wedding, which was celebrated in a highly 'Benedictine' form of the New Mass - ad orientem, half in Latin, chant, etc. - my wife gave the Sign of Peace to her family, while I didn't even look at my lot who were presumably (as I say, I didn't even look at them) burying their heads in their Tridentine missals. I've done it often enough.

But what about the Sign of Peace in itself? Well, we know the arguments. Some say it should never have been grubbed up from the annals of liturgical history, having become a matter for the clergy alone at solemn ceremonies in the Roman Rite; others say it detracts from the approaching moment of Holy Communion when we ought to be focused on Jesus alone. On the other hand, its supporters cite as justification Christ's command to be reconciled to our brethren when offering sacrifice; others, with more loveydoveyness than liturgical sense, say it is a moment for the community to express its lurrrvvvv... We have all seen, and withered interiorly at the sight of, old ladies coo-eeing at each other across the aisle.

The problems with the latter position are obvious, but what about the objections? Well, the idea that the moment of Communion is a time for blotting everyone except Christ out of your attention, is a little on the individualist/subjectivist side of piety for my liking. And why should it be only the clergy who share the sign? The peace of Christ is a universal gift given to his Mystical Body, not a ministerial act reserved to the clergy. If people could be taught to do it properly - just as people learn to genuflect or make the sign of the cross - then it would be an excellent way of objectively marking the unity of love of God and love of neighbour just at the point of our receiving the Sacrament of Unity. I'm reminded of some lines from 'The Unknown God', a poem by Alice Meynell, as the poet contemplates someone else who has just received Communion:

‘Christ in his numbered breath,
Christ in his beating heart and in his death,
Christ in his mystery! From that secret place,
And from that separate dwelling, give me grace!’


In the liturgy, the peace of Christ is part of the interior ecology of Christ's entire body. THAT after all is why it is still a feature of the Extraordinary Form, and for that reason we cannot urge against the Sign of Peace arguments that would make it absolutely inappropriate even there.

In my view the essential problems of the Sign of Peace in the Ordinary Form are the way it is done and the false gloss that it receives. I've already stated what my gloss is, but how would the SoP be done in Ches's liturgical reform (Lawd 'elp us!)?

1) The Sign of Peace, as in the Extraordinary Form, would begin with the priest kissing the altar and passing it to the servers who then pass it to the congregation, to show the origin of the peace that is shared: Christ.

2) The layfolk would share the traditional kiss of peace (touching temples) with those either side of them.

Ta da! No fuss, no handshaking, no secularised glad-handing of everyone within reach, no selective snubbing of the ugly or the old! Moving the Sign of Peace to just before the Offertory, where it is located in the Ambrosian Rite, might also be a good compromise.

Failing that, well, we should remember that in the new liturgy the Sign of Peace is ( I think) always optional.

And, failing that, we could always adopt Mrs Beamish's tactic, as practised in the C of E.



Does ayone know if Mrs Beamish has joined the Ordinariate yet?

Use-over-value ... once more

A petition is doing the rounds about the closure of Ushaw and asking in particular for wider consultation and for a proper study of its possible uses. The writers of the petition mention four considerations which particularly concern them:


1. The absence of any consultation or discussion prior to the decision being made,
2. The prospect of St Cuthbert’s Chapel no longer being available for Catholic worship,
3. The apparent lack of consideration given to ways of securing a future for the college,
4. The loss of more than 60 jobs in an area where alternative employment is scarce.


All these are worthy reservations. I do wonder, however, whether the petition writers could not have acknowledged not only the socio-economic impact of the closure but also its effect on north-eastern heritage.

Here, in contrast, is the text of the early-day motion in parliament, organised by Labour MP Pat Glass:

EDM 1180

PROPOSED CLOSURE OF USHAW COLLEGE
13.12.2010

That this House expresses concern about the proposed closure of Ushaw College in North West Durham; notes that Ushaw College is a Roman Catholic college, home to St Cuthbert's Seminary which has been forming young men for the priesthood since its foundation more than 400 years ago and which holds a library that is priceless to the heritage of Catholicism in England and the North East and consists of grade 1 and grade 2 listed buildings; further notes the importance of Ushaw College in the local community and the concerns that local people have at the closure announcement; and supports calls for this decision to be reconsidered.


The difference in emphasis is significant.

Of course, you might not think EDMs very serious. Indeed, they are well known for not being serious. In recent months they have included calls to mark the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon's death and offered congratulations to Ann Widdecombe for her part in Strictly Come Dancing. Early-day motions indeed!

Still, I digress. The tragedy is that even the attempts to save Ushaw must concur with the logic which is calling for its closure. Hinting at the moolah that might be lost by putting an end to Ushaw as a conference centre is good tactics, but it does confirm the principle that nothing survives except that which is financially viable. I'm sorry if this belongs to the category of the bleeding obvious. I happen to think that Ushaw's closure belongs to the cateory of use-over-value.

Speaking personally, I applaud the EDM against Ushaw's closure for its priorities, but I suppose we must acknowledge that the only logic that might save the seminary is the one urged in the e-petition.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Lost in Assisi

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It had to happen at some point. The pope has announced that there is going to be a twenty-fifth anniversary jamboree in Assisi where various religions of the world will again be invited, as they were in 1986. Are we in this case allowed to say 'oh hell', or would that offend our Jehovah Witness brethren who tell me that the Gehennah of fire was simply a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem?

The Catholic Herald wrings its hands long and hard about the pope's reservations concerning Assisi, as expressed in his 2003 book Truth and Tolerance. So what is the pope's justification for the kind of 'multi-religious prayer' that might take place at Assisi 2011 (note that it is not inter-religious, but multi-religious in character)? The Herald explains it thus:

In multireligious prayer, he wrote, the participants recognise that their understandings of the divine are so different “that shared prayer would be a fiction”, but they gather in the same place to show the world that their longing for peace is the same.

What I don't get, however, is why it is at all necessary to show such a longing is the same everywhere. Indeed, I have great difficulty in accepting that what Christians wish for when they wish for peace is what Buddhists also wish for. As Chesterton puts it, the Christians are waiting for the fulfilment of the world's desire; the Buddhists are surely searching for the extinction of all desire.

I have another and deeper problem here, however, and it is this: in the multi-religious format there is undoubtedly some kind of equivalence established between the prayers of all religions. Somehow, all our prayers are made expressive of the same ecology of petition and response. The trouble with that, however, is that the prayer of the Church is the prayer of Christ himself. Of course we would want to encourage any man to pray and petition God, even if he hardly understands who and what God is. But to put the Church in this multi-religious stance (let alone an inter-religious one) is somehow to erode the specificity of Christ's own prayer incarnate in time through his Mystical Body, the Church. We do not wish for the peace that the Muslim wishes for, for his peace would exclude Christ as God, who alone is the guarantor of peace.

We need not even touch on the issue of scandal which the current pope understood well enough in 1986 and in 2002. Why he must persist with this project escapes me, unless it be part of the John Paul legacy in its most radically misguided phase. Who but John Paul could have performed such an apparently syncretist shoe-shuffle before Europe's relativists, and then later on lament Europe's silent apostasy, and on both occasions be a model of unalloyed sincerity? John Paul, the hard-headed Polish priest ... fulfilling the dreams of those who would dissolve all religious differences in a gaseous, universal spirituality? I cannot but shake my head at the picture of him next to the Dalai Lama, holding that silly little plant pot and looking so serious. How did we come to this?


Still, if only he was here! JPII at least would have the nous to argue the toss and the good grace to enjoy the argument. He at least might have engaged with the argument because - and this is where many traditionalists have got him wrong - he was a man who loved the truth of Christ more than himself, even if he made some gross miscalculations. His legion of idolators on the other hand will barely hear a word against him, and no doubt genuflect again to this wretched, misguided simulacrum of a vicar's tea party.

And that is why Pope Benedict's acquiescence to the ghost of Assisi is so unlike him - he, the man who parked the Vatican's tanks overnight on the lawns of Lambeth!

In the first version of this piece, I said all this made me sick. Well, that was probably precipitous. We await to see some fuller explanation and clarification of what will happen. In manus tuas, Domine.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The twelve 'yoms' of Christmas

Yom is the Hebrew word traditionally rendered as day in translations of the Bible. One curiosity of theological history is that about the same time that Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell were getting their marching orders from Pope Pius X, the Pontifical Biblical Commission was approving a wider interpretation of the meaning of yom so that it could be understood as a period of time, rather than a solar day. That wouldn't have made much of a difference to the modernists since Loisy and Tyrrell had problems other than those posed by biblical criticism (and rather more significant critical questions than those raised by the meaning of yom).

Still, on the eve of what is traditionally the Feast of the Epiphany I cannot help wondering whether the bishops of England and Wales, who ordered the Epiphany to be celebrated last Sunday, might not find some mileage in speaking of the 'Twelve Yoms of Christmas' rather than the Twelve Days. After all, if yom refers to an indeterminate period, you can slice your yom wherever you want to. Twelve yoms could be anything from twelve hours to twelve periods of twenty-two hours, and none of us would be any the wiser.


Of course it is another matter what such a reorganisation of time might do to the gifts traditionally associated with each of the twelve yoms of Christmas. Twelve lords a-leaping can most certainly be organised in a period of twenty-four hours - especially if you tell them it's happy hour in the bar - but anything shorter than that might cause problems. The milking of cows also takes time, as does the simultaneous counting and marshalling of all kinds of fowl from swans to partridges and turtle doves. Is a yom long enough, I ask myself.

It all seems a far cry from a proper celebration which takes time after all. Naively perhaps, I'm always amazed at the indecent haste with which Christmas is forgotten every year. Just who wouldn't want twelve days of joy rather than just the one? Well, that's the rub. It depends on your joy. If your joy is fitted to the coming of the Son of God, then there's every chance you'll be celebrating for twelve days and then some. If your joy is fitted to something less marvellous, a shorter period might be in order.

I'm making no implications about the joy among the bishops of England and Wales whose yoms might in private last longer than twenty-four hours. But I wonder what is really achieved by moving big feasts like this to the Sunday, other than the regular elision of the twelve days to twelve yoms and the homogenisation of the temporal cycle.

Am I flogging a dead horse? Well, I probably am. But anything's better than trying to count out leaping lords and milking maids before the yoms run out.

A happy Epiphany one and all.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Flattering to deceive

On our recent honeymoon we stayed for a few days in a hotel near the Panthéon, the great Republican mausoleum which celebrates les grands hommes of the French Republic. If you want to stay in the area let me warn you away from booking a spot at the Hotel André Latin on Rue Gay Lussac. They do not provide kettles in their rooms - something you really miss in winter - and they point blank refused to provide us with one when we asked nicely. Kettles are, we were told, a fire hazard. I didn't know this but apparently kettles explode in France all the time.

Well, call me a cynic but it struck me that the point of this deprivation was to chase guests out of their room to spend 12 euros on the hotel's breakfast. Happily, in the vicinity of the hotel we managed to buy a thermoplongeur, two mugs and a box of tea bags, and we smiled broadly as we walked by reception every morning, warmed by the fruits of our illictly-haboured water-heating equipment. But I digress even before I have started ...

The Panthéon has always seemed to me to be one of the more agressive expressions of French secularity. It started life as a church after all; it was in fact the church of St Genevieve on whose mount it stands. It was sequestered for a second or possibly third time by parliamentary diktat in 1885 to house the remains of Victor Hugo when the old scoundrel finally choked. It was thus returned to the purpose it had been put to under the Revolution when a mighty procession of French nobodies got swanky burials and a kind of republican apotheosis. One cannot fail to be amazed by the reproduction of Foucault's pendulum which swings gently from the central dome.


You and I think the point of the pendulum is to show that the world turns on its axis. Léon Foucault probably did too. In republican folklore, however, it is the definitive proof of the errancy of the Bible. A crowd of stone representatives gathers around a Marianne-like figure in the apse whom they all salute with what looks remarkably like a Nazi reflex. Descend into the bowels of the building and you find the burial chambers of Hugo, Emile Zola, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. Are you getting the picture? The Panthéon breathes every form of republican righteousness in the book.

And yet, what struck me on this visit - for I have visited it several times before - was the détournement of French national history. In many ways the Panthéon is rather more subtle than I had given it credit for. Around the walls, for example, are a series of remarkable murals depicting the scenes of French national heroes, including Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Genevieve, the holy King Louis IX, and others. In the very dome above the apse the figure of Christ Himself is depicted, surrounded by Joan, Genevieve, the 'angel of the nation' (' Galliae custodem')


and what appears to be the Virgin Mother.

What could it all mean? Later that day we went up Montmartre to visit the Church of the Sacré Coeur and above the altar there is a mosaic of Christ almost identical to the picture in the Panthéon, but with this small difference: in addition to Joan and Genevieve, there is also the pope kneeling at Christ's feet!

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think it is also the surest sign of envy. The Panthéon in this light is about making French history serve the Republican story. On closer inspection the murals of St Joan and St Genevieve showed them almost all but divested of their religious connotations. Instead they were meant to serve some rather more earthly purpose: salvation by the Republic!

Who was it said that the devil is the very ape of God?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Preparing for that first post-New Year alarm call

Some of us have had to work through this last week of the Christmas break, but for the rest, here's a little ditty to help you shake off the holiday rust when tomorrow morning's alarm rings out.

Shake a leg then!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Three kings to the Tarshish Defence

In England the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated today in churches up and down the land. Have no fear; I'm not going to rant on about that. The surrendering of universally observed traditions to the diktats of a bishops' conference, while perfectly canonical, says all we need to know about the culture of clericalism which Bishop Tom Burns has recently denounced, although surprisingly not where it is most apparent.

No, the one thing I'm surprised about this year is not to have heard that old well-worn line about the three kings not being kings at all. I would be interested to actually look into the philology of the issue. While the word in the original indicates magi and not king, as we understand it, I found myself wondering this morning how much we actually know about the use of the word in its ancient connotations. Various kings or royalty have certainly been known by other titles, rather than their regal one. Vlad the Impaler, or Philippe le Bel, spring to mind. What if the magi were kings who dabbled in a bit of magi-ing?

But then, the very least we know about them is that on their arrival in Jerusalem they were able not only to gain an audience with Herod but also to cause a serious commotion throughout the city, or at least that part of the city which is mentioned in the gospel. Herod also let them go, which suggests that he saw them as something more than the kind of conjurers who might have served in court. These were dignatories of some special kind.

Perhaps we also have too strict a view of what a king is anyway. Our concept is rather too heavily influenced by the Renaissance heritage of the divine right of kings, or perhaps more recently by the ethereal and remote dignity of Queen Elizabeth II. We forget that various places in the ancient world designated all manner of people as kings. The title Duke itself comes from the Latin duc which simply means leader. Perhaps king is as elastic a term as the terms 'brother', 'sister' or 'woman' are in the language of the gospel.

And then we have other reasons for supposing the magi to have been real kings, beginning with the Psalms which tell us that

The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts


There is something representative about kings which we do not find in magi, i.e., in the light of the epiphany of Christ to the Gentiles, there is some profound fittingness in leaders of the Gentiles bending the knee to the Messiah, more so than in representatives of the intellectual classes paying their homage (as needful as that may be). And, finally, if we need no other reason, is not the fact that the magi represent US a pretext for thinking that they were kings: none of us, after all are wisemen, but, says St Peter, we are a royal people.

So were they kings? Or magi? Or both? I'm rather persuaded by the last possibility. And in the adoration of Christ they found both their tinsel crowns and meagre learning refreshingly brought down by a baby bundle of swaddled mystery.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

New Year Resolution No. 156b ...

... blogging, which I would have done if the internet connection had not come and gone all day like a patient wavering in and out of consciousness.

Still, enough of the excuses, I'm back for another year. And as Chesterton said of new year resolutions, let us hope it is not something that goes in one year and out the other.

A happy new year of grace to you all.