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

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Black Virgin

I am off to gentle Norfolk today, staying over until the Ordinariate pilgrimage to Walsingham on Saturday. The following is from one of G.K. Chesterton's greatest poems, The Black Virgin: one feels shattered after reading it all, as if one had an exhilarating and painful ride down a set of rapids.

The second stanza:


Burn deep in Bethlehem in the golden shadows,

Ride above Rome upon the horns of stone,
From low Lancastrian or South Saxon shelters
Watch through dark years the dower that was shine own:
Ghost of our land, White Lady of Walsinghame,
Shall they not live that call upon thy name
If an old song on a wild wind be blowing
Crying of the holy country whence they came?


But my favourite line, and the key to the whole poem I think, is the third line of the sixth stanza, "Something not evil but grotesque and groping". It is a line that reconciles one to all the weird and outlandish and childlike manifestations of the devotion one may see in any little niche in any corner of the world. There are no demons lurking; just a strange energy of crude but Holy Life that is striving towards Form, the child's wisdom that is beyond the wisdom of the wise.


There runs a dark thread through the tapestries

That time has woven with all the tints of time
Something not evil but grotesque and groping,
Something not clear; not final; not sublime;
Quaint as dim pattern of primal plant or tree
Or fish, the legless elfins of the sea,
Yet rare as this shine image in ebony
Being most strange in its simplicity.



Saturday, 14 June 2014

Little maiden Mary

The Temple Studies Symposia (I have mentioned this lot before) was held in the College of King's Chapel, London today, this time on the Old Testament Temple vestments and especially the veil that hung before the Holy of Holies. It was all good, but Dr. Margaret Barker's lecture was the highlight: how lightly that lady wears her astonishing learning.

I can't share all that was said, but something I would like to communicate is a fascinating little piece of tradition about a little maid called Mary... But first a quick detour to set up the anecdote.

The veil was most likely woven with a linen warp (the vertical threads that hold the cloth together) and dyed wool provided the three colours, crimson, Tyrian purple and blue, as well as the white of the linen. There were cherubim embroidered over it: no-one knows in what pattern. Josephus and Philo both agree on the interpretation of the veil and its colours. Linen, spun from flax which grows out of the earth, represents Earth; blue the Air; and crimson Fire. The purple represents Water, which seems odd, although bear in mind that no-one is quite sure (even though they know the sea-snail that produced the dye) what the colour was - it depends how many times one dips the wool etc. Thus the four elements are represented in the colours, making the veil an image of the stuff of Creation, and marking off the Holy Place or the Tabernacle (which images God's creation of the world as a dwelling for Himself) from the Holy of Holies. The veil is therefore matter covering the invisible God, who dwells within in the Holy of Holies - remember Christ's words, the kingdom of God is in the midst? Temple talk, apparently. The High Priest is in a sense deified - there is good evidence that he was ritually worshipped as personifying God on occasion - and becomes representative of God to the people when he enters the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, and comes out vested in the same colours as the veil (representing matter) but also with interwoven gold thread: he carries the divine within the matter of his vestment. Note that the book of Hebrews, thick with Temple imagery, speaks of Christ, the High Priest, who carries out from the Holy of Holies Incarnate Deity (pure gold within the elements of Creation) from behind the veil that shuts God off from our sight.

The veil being so huge (40 cubits by 20 cubits) and heavy fabric, it was whoppingly heavy when it was washed in the laver. Imagine a large of curtain (say, seven by seven feet) soaking wet, and then multiply the surface area by 25 or so... It took 300 priests for wash-day. For other soiling involving ritual impurity, the veil was cut into strips for Temple lamp wicks, and a new one woven. Because of its immense size it couldn't be woven all of a piece, but was made of 72 woven strips each about a hand's breadth.

Who did the weaving? There is some tantalising evidence in Baruch, for example, who mentions that the young maidens who wove the veil were commanded to destroy it on the approach of the Babylonian army to Jerusalem. This tends to back up the New Testament apocrypha (Gospel of St. James), which contains an account of the weaving of the Temple veil by Mary as one of the little maidens. Now this is fascinating indeed - together with the traditions that (1) Mary was devoted to the life of the Temple by her parents Joachin and Anna when she was a mere three-year-old and remained there until her betrothal and (2) that Mary was a consecrated virgin whose projected marriage to Joseph was a Jewish legal form for those in that state of life. A picture emerges of the little looms of these consecrated virgins of a tender age, weaving the long strips of cloth for the veil. And it is known that Herod the Great was carrying out major refurbishment of the Temple around that time. But the tradition has something more to add - that Mary wove strips of purple and of scarlet: the Water and the Fire of the Spirit.

The veil - Christ's flesh, from behind which his Divinity emerges into this world in the Incarnation - is woven by the little maid Mary. She weaves upon the warp of Earth the weft of Water and the Spirit.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Many Dimensions

I read Charles Williams' Many Dimensions (1931) on a recent holiday: Williams was a lesser-known member of the Inklings group (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien et al); but I think that along with Owen Barfield his thought is more fecund, more seminal than the two more famous members of the group. Many Dimensions is about the Stone of Suleiman, a stone that supposedly sat in the crown of King Solomon, upon which the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton, was written, and by which Solomon knew the hidden virtue of all things and ruled over them. In one of the best passages in the book, the heroine, Chloe, has a rather terrifying vision of Solomon enthroned, crowned and ruling with the Stone.

The story is apparently drawing on Islamic or Jewish oral traditions about Solomon, because it mentions a number of stories that are not in the Book of Kings - for example, that Solomon was replaced on the throne by Asmodeus for a few years (apparently a demon king mentioned in the Talmud) among other legends I had never heard before. But the story centres around the Stone itself, by which one can travel in time and space. At least, that it how it seems, but as the plot eventually makes clear, the Stone actually contains all time and space: by using the Stone one enters into the Stone, in which all created things are contained. For the Stone is Prime Matter, that which was made in the beginning and then differentiated into all the individual things of Creation. Another property of the Stone is that when one attempts to divide it, one can (because it is matter), but because it is Prime Matter the fragments chipped from it are utterly identical with the original Stone. And more than this, they are not just identical in size and appearance, with the Divine Name written upon them, they are also essentially One Stone although many. Entry into (by use of) the Stone or one of its Types will give one access to all the Types.

Williams writes here, as ever, with infuriatingly turgid prose, and has unconvincing or poorly-drawn characters and events strewn through the story. But the longer one reads, the more one is drawn into his metaphysics, and the spiritual advancement or debasement of his characters in their willed progress to either glory or damnation. And the longer one reads, the more one wonders whether the story that Williams wanted to write could have been written in a better way. It is part of the effect of the story that the events are so awkward and the characters unimpressively sketched: the spiritual truths that he somehow manages to communicate take on a vivid and masterful life of their own, shining through his art. There is something rather like an Orthodox icon about the apparent crudity and stiffness of his representations and their power to pierce deeply: they seem to speak profoundly to one because of, and not in spite of, these very features.

Williams is doubtless writing from a profoundly sacramental theory of Creation, and even if his heroes are agnostic or initially unaware of the sacramental nature of reality, their practice of truth or compassion draws them inevitably towards this truth. The Stone could quite obviously be taken as a metaphor of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: it isn't what Williams meant to suggest (as the Stone is consistently represented as Prime Matter), although I strongly suspect that there was a drawing upon the Eucharistic doctrine in his imagination. But the parallels between the two (Williams imaginative vision of Solomon's Stone and the Eucharist) set me thinking about an idea that I have tried to communicate or express rather unsuccessfully several times.

One hears it said that the Eucharist is a microcosm of Christian life: its liturgical summit. It gathers up all the elements of Christian and human living (eating the fruits of Creation, song, poetry, ritual washings, sacrifice) and offers them all to God in union with the "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction" of the His Son Jesus Christ. But I wonder if this isn't the wrong way round; or perhaps only half the story. The other way of expressing it is that the Eucharist contains (like Williams' Stone of Solomon) all else within it. Within the consecrated elements the whole of Creation is in fact contained; together with the whole Eucharistic act of the priestly people, the entire Cosmos, God's ordering of Heaven and Earth, is complete. The Eucharist is therefore not (or not only) a microcosm of our daily life brought to a summit in the offering to God atop the mountain of the liturgy, it is (also) the Macrocosm, the completeness of the Age to Come, all that there is and will be made present and perfect in Christ. When we leave the church doors we are not (in metaphysical terms) going back to the "bigger picture", we are in fact going back to a small and rather limited participation in God's total act of kenosis and regathering of all things that has taken place that Sunday morning at church.

In the little dark sad concrete hut one goes back to, with its cramped scientists, its grasping and neuroses and its malicious politics, its narrow practice and distortion of the Real, one is not returning from "religion" to "real life". One is leaving real life behind: at least unless one is gifted with the courage that it takes to behave normally in the place that is called the world.

And by the way, if you read Charles Williams Many Dimensions, there is a thud of a shock in the last few pages. It is the best kind of literary shock: one that seems inevitable and forseeable once it is sprung. Even though one has already been prepared for it by the entire book, one still shuts out from one's mind the possibility that the author will have the audacity to follow the truth of his plot to its conclusion.