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For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Family Courts: a Scandal With an End In Sight?

Those who follow Christopher Booker's column (I have a permanent link to his Daily Telegraph page at the right hand side) will know that, prompted by some recent and scandalous cases that have become public because they have been published outside Britain, there is a growing hope that the corrupt and secret family courts will see the light of day. One might not think much of Sir James Munby's professed legal philosophy, but at least he is moving to do something about this painfully flawed system.

I know a little about this matter from friends in the medical profession: one doctor with whom I worked told me the story of an immigrant mother who was terrorised by a social worker. The mother had a few months of post-natal depression, but with an attentive and hard-working husband, she was able to make it through and get back to health. A social worker who had needlessly threatened to take the five older children away during the episode then "kept tabs" on the family, and complained to my friend that there was something not quite right about the mother's behaviour when she went round to the spotlessly clean and obviously happy household: the mother wasn't chatty or friendly. My friend quite rightly pointed out to said social worker: that is because she knows what you intended to do, and is terrified of you still, and your "helpful" prying visits to see if there is anything that might justify your breaking up a close-knit family.

If you think that this is a rare problem, I am not so sure. There are other similar cases in which I have been involved directly which have made me very angry, and mystified as to the motives of the social workers concerned. In one case, although not involving children, another doctor and I had to start a procedure to obtain an legally appointed I.M.C.A. (Independent Mental Capacity Advocate) for a patient, before we could prevent a social worker from needlessly forcing an elderly person into a place that they clearly did not wish to go to, when there were obvious simple and preferable alternatives.

I suppose that any era or nation is not judged in retrospect by the relatively large number of people who acquiesce, or live a life that never runs into conflict with authority and power. No-one talks about the vast numbers of happy people living in Spain during the Inquisition period; no-one writes pieces on the fact that most Germans had reasonably normal and free war-time lives, comparable to the lives of British people not under a Nazi regime. Most people make the minor adjustments necessary, keep their voices down when they are saying something that could be dangerous, and compromise here and there - all for a reasonably quiet time. But these ages and civilisations are censured and maligned because of what happened to the people who either actively resisted the regime, were not discreet enough, or those who for whatever reason ended up on the wrong side of the wrong people.

It is generally accepted that splitting up families and forcing adoptions is the mark of a wicked tyranny - whether it be perpetrated upon medieval Jews, communists in Franco's Spain, or Aboriginal families in Australia. It is possible that this is one of the things for which our age will be remembered: children taken from their parents on flawed medical evidence, or to satisfy the personal hostility of a social worker, and without hope of recourse or a public hearing. And although the injustice does not touch a large proportion of people, it is the manner in which the affected families are treated that will leave a lasting shame upon this time and this country.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Twelve Days

Well, I don't know about this... there is a claim floating around in the Wiki version of history and truth that the song The Twelve Days of Christmas has its origins as a kind of occult memory aid for recusant Catholics in the sixteenth century. An example of the interpretation proffered:
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” celebrates the official Christmas season which starts liturgically on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later on the Feast of the Epiphany. “My true love” refers to God, “me” is the individual Catholic. The “twelve lords a leaping” are the twelve basic beliefs of the Catholic Church as outlined in the Apostles Creed. The “eleven pipers piping” are the eleven Apostles who remained faithful after the treachery of Judas. The “ten ladies dancing” are the Ten Commandments. The “nine drummers drumming” are the nine choirs of angels which in those days of class distinction were thought important. The “eight maids a milking” are the Eight Beatitudes. The “seven swans a swimming” are the Seven Sacraments. The “six geese a laying” are the Six Commandments of the Church or the six days of creation. The “five golden rings” are the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah which are generally considered the most sacred and important of all the Old Testament. The “four calling birds” are the Four Gospels. The “three French hens” are the Three Persons in God or the three gifts of the Wise Men. The “two turtle doves” represent the two natures in Jesus: human and divine or the two Testaments, Old and New. The “partridge” is the piece de resistance, Jesus himself, and the “pear tree” is the Cross.
Note the nice bit of hedging one's bets at number six; I have also seen the numbers nine and seven interpreted as the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit, respectively. There are a few problems - some people have done their homework and cannot find any reference to recusancy in connection with this song before A.D. 1990 and this particular theory seems to have first arisen on the Internet; and it seems that there may be a French origin to the song (a theory says that it skipped the Channel c. 1770).

Whatever the doubtful origins of the song, there are Twelve Days in Christmas, and they add up to a splendid celebration in the Roman Breviary. Because each of the first four days is the beginning of an Octave (one makes a special commemoration of the feast that has an Octave for seven days, and then celebrates it anew on the eighth), there is a polyphony in the prayer that ebbs and flows rather like Thomas Tallis's Spem in alium. In addition to the feasts I list below, one of the first eight days of Christmas will be the Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, which carries its own significance and recounts the blessing of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem by Simeon and Anna. It commemorates the prominent and surprising emphasis of the Octave of Christmas, the coming suffering ("yea, a sword shall pierce thine own soul also", says Simeon to Mary) and the lamb-like innocence of the Divine Son, and yet His kingly power, shortly to be revealed in the Epiphany.
(1) 25th December: The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ
This is a feast which sets Christmas in motion, but which is not primarily a feast of a little baby in a manger, but is - remember that this day brings Advent to its consummation - a triumphant proclamation of the coming of the Christ as King, one who will rule the nations with a Rod of Iron. Its temper is set by the shout of the angels, Gloria in excelsis Deo.
The three Masses of this day, Midnight, Dawn and Midday, have slightly different connotations and have been mystically interpreted as connected with, respectively, the Creation (Jesus's origin in Eternity), in the Judaic dispensation (Jesus's birth in Time), and in the Christian dispensation (Jesus's birth in the Soul).

(2) 26th December: St. Stephen the First Martyr
The first martyr to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who was an outcast in the swaddling clothes of the manger as he was to be an outcast in the shroud of the tomb, is joined so closely to the celebration of Christ's birth to be a stark reminder of the fate of the faithful follower of the Christ-Child, and of their common prayer of forgiveness to the Father in the moment of death.

(3) 27th December: St. John the Apostle and Evangelist
The one who leaned upon the breast of Jesus, the beloved disciple, is celebrated to bring one to contemplate a mystical union in love with the Incarnate God. Again, the suffering and Cross is not far distant, for St John stands with the Mother of the Church at the foot of the Cross, himself a type of the Church given to her maternal care, as was too the Infant Jesus.

(4) 28th December: The Holy Innocents
The martyrdom of St. Stephen and suffering of St. John's heart is followed by the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem at the hands of Herod. Here is a relentless third in this threefold prefiguring of the Passion, the Lamb without spot offered at the hands of wicked men, intent on preserving their own power and safety; here too is a prefiguring of the One who "as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so openeth he not his mouth". The Holy Innocents are understood by some to be those 144,000 of the Apocalypse who are virgins, and who "follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth"; those who have seen the Triumph of the Holy Innocents by Holman Hunt in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool will not forget the scene of a crowd of toddlers thronging the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt, getting across the mystical idea of the unity of these slaughtered children with the ultimate work of Jesus.

(5) 29th December: St. Thomas a Becket
There is a summing up of the themes of the first four days of Christmas in the death of Archbishop of Canterbury: he is martyred for standing against worldly interest, one with Christ at His very altar.

(6) 30th December
The one day without a specific memorial, in it one recalls the four simultaneously running Octaves in the following commemorations:
Antiphon of the Nativity: Gloria in exclesis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, alleluia, alleluia
Antiphon of St. Stephen: Stephanus autem plenus gratia et fortitudine, faciebat signa magna in populo
Antiphon of St John: Iste est Joannes, qui supra pectus Domini in coena recubuit: beatus Apostolus, cui revelata sunt secreta coelstia
Antiphon of the Holy Innocents: Hi sunt, qui cum mulieribus non sunt coinquinati: virgines enum sunt, et sequuntur Agnum quocumque ierit

(7) 31st December: St. Silvester Pope and Confessor
Bishop of Rome at the time of Constantine, his legend states that he refused the imperial crown from the newly converted Emperor Constantine, from which it is implied that the Pope's authority guides the imperial power: emphasising, one might say, that the kingly exercise of Jesus's power is subject to His priestly and sacrificial authority. He rules, but from the Cross; just as He is truly Incarnate, but in a mean stable.

(8) 1st January: The Octave Day of Christmas, the Feast of Mary as Mother of God (The Theotokos or "God-bearer") and the Feast of the Circumcision.
Rather than Christmas Day itself, which is very much a festival of the Kingship of the Babe, the feast at New Year is a feast of the humanity of Christ, seen in a dual way - in His Circumcision and subjection to the Law of which He was Author, and in His taking his humanity from His dear Mother. One of the antiphons for this day speaks of the "marvellous exchange", whereby He takes our humanity and we are granted His Divinity.

(9) 2nd January: The Octave Day of St. Stephen

(10) 3rd January: The Octave Day of St. John

(11) 4th January: The Octave Day of the Holy Innocents

(12) 5th January: The Vigil of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night
From the Octave Day of Christmas and each of the days following until Vigil of the Epiphany, the commemoration of each of the Octaves gradually drops out of the daily prayer, the polyphony sinking into a single keening voice at the lamentation of Rachel for her children in the Octave of the Holy Innocents. Then, on the Vigil of this among the most ancient of Feasts, the Appearing of the Christ to the Gentiles, the note of joy and expectation is taken up again, and the happiness of the Babe in Arms is about to be transformed into manly joy as God Incarnate, King and High Priest raises His radiant eyes over the benighted world, receives homage and the gifts of His station, is lighted upon by the Spirit of Life and Power and pours out wine like water.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Summer in December

It is well enough known, I believe, that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was disputed between the Dominicans and the Fransicans, St Thomas and St Bonaventure, with the "pro" Franciscans on the winning side. I saw this set in a different frame, however, in some readings for the feast whose original source I cannot place: the piece pointed out that the difference between the two sides was underpinned by a diverse theology of the Incarnation and Redemption. For the Dominican Aquinas, the Incarnation was a response and remedy to the Fall; for the Franciscans and Duns Scotus the Incarnation was part of the plan of Creation and thus the Incarnation of the Word preceded the Fall. The different notions of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the feast of her conception on 8th December predates the dispute) flow from this parting of the ways. For St Thomas, the Fall involves all of Creation, including the Blessed Virgin, and the redemption of Jesus then purifies and saves our Lady more or less at the moment of her conception; for the Franciscan theologians on the other hand, Mary, as the one whom God willed to be the carrier of the human nature of the Incarnate Christ, was purified and redeemed by his Incarnation before the Fall took place. Maybe the fact that we celebrate the feast of Mary's Immaculate Conception is to tip the scales slightly towards the idea that Creation is but the first step towards the Incarnation, and the final step at the end of all things, the Consummation of the Incarnation, is the divinisation of Creation in the Incarnate God.

I reproduce the following from a homily by the Abbot of Pluscarden, now Bishop of Aberdeen, on 8th December 2010, and to read the rest follow this link.

Today the Church is filled with joy at Mary’s Immaculate Conception. It’s not just Mary who says, Gaudens gaudebo in Domino. It’s all of us.
We know what we’re celebrating: not, as many think, the conception of Jesus by Mary, but the conception of Mary herself. And not that conception from her parents’ side, as if there was anything out of the usual about it (which there wasn’t), but from hers. We’re celebrating simply her. We’re celebrating the gift given her from the moment she came to be. This gift can be spoken of in two ways, and the liturgy does both. Put negatively, it was the gift of redemption, by preservation, from original sin, often metaphorically described as a stain or spot, like something on a mirror or a face. Mary is free of this blemish. But original sin, says Tradition, is itself a negative. God’s intention for us has only ever been grace, relationship, but because of the mysterious first sin we are conceived without this, dis-graced, if you like. We’re like poor modern students, starting life in debt. There’s a lack in us, something missing, a deprivation, a nakedness says Genesis: a lack of grace. Mary lacked this lack. And if you negate a negative what you get is a positive. And so positively, this gift is the gift of sanctifying grace, of a share in the life of God. It’s the gift of the Holy Spirit living in the heart. The mirror is stainless to reflect the light, the face is all radiance, the nakedness is clothed. It’s the gift of holiness, of ultimate beauty. Mary, said the poet Coventry Patmore, is ‘the extreme of God’s creative energy’. She is the human being fullest of the Holy Spirit.
And this is something to be filled with joy about.
Not everyone has an unhappy childhood. Thomas Traherne, the 17th c. poet, certainly did not. In fact, it was much more than happy. It was transfigured. It was an experience of Eden. He himself, of course, had received redemption from original sin and the gift of sanctifying grace in baptism as an infant, and he described his childhood once like this:
  I felt no stain nor spot of sin.

  No darkness then did overshade,
  But all within was pure and bright;
  No guilt did crush nor fear invade,
  But all my soul was full of light.

  A joyful sense and purity
  Is all I can remember,
  The very night to me was bright
  ’Twas Summer in December.’ (Innocence). 
 ‘’Twas Summer in December.’ Topical! That is why the Church is rejoicing today. Summer in December, spring in winter. Gaudens gaudebo in Domino.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Thoughts on C.S. Lewis, and Christian Reunion

By unanimous popular request I am going to write a post on C.S. Lewis to honour the Golden Jubilee of his passing from this world to the next. Unanimous popular request means that one person mentioned that I should do so in passing, and no-one else has suggested that I write anything at all. I wanted to mention two things: (1) the evolution of Lewis's reputation as a writer and (2) was he just about to turn Roman when he died?

I haven't read any of the panegyric or polemic on Lewis on this anniversary of his passing, although, skimming through news and blog sites many a title with his name in it has caught my eye. The reason is partly that I have read more or less every word the Ulsterman wrote, and probably several times as well, and have read through most of the major commentaries; I even read through A.N. Wilson's ghastly biography. (Nota bene: if you really cannot stand someone's guts, your biography of them is unlikely to avoid a strong odour of bias. Why did he bother?) I am therefore unlikely to be surprised or informed, as most obituary and review material on such occasions is likely to be recycled. It is interesting, though, how Lewis's legacy continues to evolve. We are still relatively close to his death, and he seems to be growing in stature in some ways, and shrinking in others. His literary criticism, for example, is now acclaimed as his most original and enduring work; his didactic theology and philosophy laid aside; and his fiction does not seem to command quite the same favourable consensus that it did. People are beginning, on the one hand, "for Pete's sake!", to talk of the boarding school Pevensies as dated; whilst on the other hand there are hints that people are discovering the final book That Hideous Strength in his Science Fiction trilogy and finding it to be a vivid and stark prophetic warning.

I think that That Hideous Strength is very powerfully prophetic, yes, and has some great scenes and philosophical ideas behind it. Such as the notion of angels as planetary deities, for example; the ideas of language and the Babel scene near its end; its spiritual insight into the potential evils of contraception; and its stark warning about the convergence of three things - power, a medical view of moral evil and an irresistible program of social engineering. The very final love scene, or should I say the anticipation of the love scene which takes place after the close of the book, so to speak, is very beautiful indeed. Very few writers get across the earthy, ancient, semi-divine and deeply complicated experience of conjugal love in the way that Lewis achieves at the close of the book. But is it a unified and complete work of art? As much as I wish it did, it really doesn't pull it off, and in parts it is in my opinion the worst fictional stuff that Lewis wrote.

A very interesting question presents itself about the Chronicles of Narnia for lovers of those seven books: what is their pecking order? I admit that perhaps there is something in the idea that the boarding school Pevensies don't help, apart from the wonderful Lucy, because my clear favourite as a boy was the only book to be set completely in the other world, The Horse and His Boy. I struggle to pick out an order of preference, but this is what comes to my mind most spontaneously:

(1) The Horse and His Boy: my childhood favourite still wins out. The best bit: Shasta's meeting with the golden Lion in the mist.
(2) The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: an awfully close second. It is piled thick with beauty and excitement, and I can't decide whether to pick the sweet sea of lilies at the World's End or the escape from the Island of Darkness as my most loved part.
(3) The Silver Chair: and here there is utterly no doubt of the best bit, the Last Sign, the smell of singed Marshwiggle and the breaking of the spell of the Underworld enchantress.
(4) The Magician's Nephew is almost joint third, and I love especially the part where Digory refuses to escape back home with the Apple of Youth - or come to think of it, is my favourite bit the accursed city of Charn, the room of the Images, and the golden bell?
(5) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe comes in fifth. It was of course the first of the Narnia stories that I read, and I loved the logic of the Professor when Peter and Susan come to him to question Lucy's sanity. People say this character is based on Lewis's tutor Kirkpatrick: perhaps, but I would say it is vintage Lewis.
(6) The Last Battle I found rather dreadful and terrifying as a child, and I still do. The scene of the Last Judgment is to my mind the best bit: but it isn't comfortable.
(7) Prince Caspian is last, not because I don't enjoy it, but because as a child I didn't get the story immediately, and found the bit about Bacchus and the dryads in the woods unintelligible because I didn't know the necessary classical background. Even though I now enjoy that part very much, I simply don't have the same depth of childhood response to it. The episode of Lucy's vision of Aslan when they are lost in the forest - she can see him beckoning (barely) but the others cannot, and refuse to accept her pleading, is classic Lewis. We are always given enough for our faith to follow, though often with difficulty, and in hindsight we know very well what we should have done but are very good at disguising the truth from ourselves in the conflicting passions of the moment. My most loved moment in the book is when Lucy wakes in the moonlit forest, and feels that the long sleeping trees are about to awake. She speaks, but the moment passes without the trees awakening, and she is left feeling that she had spoken a moment too soon or too late, or somehow said slightly the wrong words. There is something very deep in one's psyche that is touched by this passage, about our understanding of nature, or of the unconscious natures of others (but are they the same thing?). It speaks to our aching loss of some primal word of wholeness, of wisdom and integration that at times seems so elusively near our tongue yet so utterly irretrievable. Perhaps St Francis knew it.

After that piece of wholly and unashamedly self-indulgent reverie about the Chronicles of Narnia, now for something a bit more long-faced. I noted from the Catholic blog sites that one or two people were setting out a case for Lewis as almost a Catholic, or at least on a trajectory that would have catapulted him across the Tiber had he but lived a few years more. This doesn't stand up, at least not from his written work.

His posthumously published essay Christian Reunion sets out the problem for ecumenical efforts - that there is no common agreement about authority between Catholics and Protestants. Lewis states the problem, but doesn't answer it: in fact he says he says "I can see no way of bridging this gulf". The gulf Lewis identifies thus: "[for a Catholic] the real vice of Protestantism is the formless drift which seems unable to retain the Catholic truths" and ends in modernism; on the other side "the terrible thing about Rome is the recklessness [for a Protestant] with which she has added to the depositum fidei. You [the Catholic] see in Protestanism the Faith dying out in a desert; and we [Protestants] see in Rome the Faith smothered in a jungle." The problem is that the Catholic sees an absence of Doctrine in Protestanism - asking a Catholic to agree to Protestant doctrines is like "asking a man to say he agrees not with a speaker but a debating society". And the reason Lewis cannot be Catholic, he says, is that to accept Catholicism is not to accept a particular doctrine, but "to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces.... like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but what he is going to say."

Lewis's only suggestion is that unity won't come about by high Anglicans and liberal Catholics getting cosy together, (was that an anticipation of ARCIC?) but by people at the heart of each communion coming closest in spirit through union with Christ. Thus I do not see here, or anywhere else, a sign of Lewis drifting into Catholicism. The fact that he engaged in Anglo-Catholic practices such as viaticum and confession to a priest seem to me beside the point, as these were practices fully accepted within that wing of Anglicanism at the time.

One of the interesting things is that little Fount volume I have containing Lewis's essay (Christian Reunion and Other Essays) has a foreword by Walter Hooper who is encouraged by the opening of ecumenical dialogue at Vatican II. Now as I see it this turned into a red herring, for what came of this effort was exactly what Lewis said would not result in unity: liberal Catholics and High Anglicans having cosy conferences and producing glossy reports. And in this Lewis has been proved right. It is noteworthy, too, that nothing has changed in the gulf between Protestant and Catholic notions of authority, and in some ways it has worsened. The Vatican II definition of papal authority is if anything less limiting and less traditional than Vatican I: and in fact papal power, both before and after the council, was used to sweep away centuries of liturgy and accumulated tradition. Even if the liturgical reforms were not the direct will or act of any one Pope, there have been changes made or allowed that I think former popes would simply not have seen as within their juridical scope to make. One could argue that what one might call liberalising powers have been exercised in a very centralised and autocratic fashion. What has been missing is a firm hand in calling the Church back to centuries of tradition, even in the supposedly super-conservative reign of Benedict XVI, who removed the strictures on suppressed tradition but did not use his authority to say "No" with any great rigour. Thus the liberal Catholics, while decrying the notion of a centralised papacy and talking the language of a democratic Church, seem not to be wary of using episcopal and papal authority to enact sweeping and drastic reforms which they could not otherwise have pushed through.

On the other hand, have the conservatives had a conversion of heart on the notion of papal authority? They are much more likely these days to speak of the binding nature of tradition, to emphasise that the Pope has no authority to cast this aside, and to speak in their theology of the ultimate Tradition and guide of our belief, lex orandi, lex credendi. If this is true, then perhaps the road for a truly conservative and traditional path to unity will be opened by a clear notion of Tradition bound by the Divine Liturgy emerging, of which the Pope is the foremost guardian and servant. The text of the Bible and the text of the Magisterial Office will be seen through the text of liturgy: the Eternal and Living Word present in a Eucharist which has been restored to its proper place. In this way Lewis's concerns about the exercise of authority might be met, when authority becomes the servant of the Word, and the limits of its exercise are clearly defined by the prayer of the Church. There is a revival of Patristics and interest in tradition among some Reformed churches in the United States and more recently here in Britain, and Lewis's conundrum about unity could be solved by a convergence of traditional Catholicism and Reformed and Evangelical thought on the least likely of grounds: tradition.

The Bonnie Prince

There are some expressions of devotion to Jesus and His companions in glory that I find rather creepy, and I know I am not alone. The Holy Infant Child of Prague, for instance, scares me a bit, and several people I have mentioned this to nod in agreement. I came across a rather unusual modern Scottish Infant Jesus recently, The Bonnie Prince emerging from the misty Highlands, wearing a tartan with the Hunterston brooch pinned to it and standing on the Stone of Scone. This seems very appropriate somehow, given the legend and aura of the stone, and could be a starting point for an additional piece of mythology about the stone itself. The Bonnie Prince is a piece of popular devotional imagery that I found instantly attractive - a rarity - and perhaps if someone could produce one of the Holy Child sailing a little boat out of my beloved Bangor in County Down, I would be even more happy.