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

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Remembrance of Things Past

It is coming up to a year since my grandfather's passing away. He was 93, and my sister was with him faithfully during his last night as many before, when, his mind wandering, his soul took anchorage in possibly the first thing he had learned to recite as a child at Ballygilbert Presbyterian Church near Helen's Bay, County Down: the Lord's Prayer. My aunt is collecting reminiscences from family and friends to put together, and when I thought of writing something, there was one incident that stood out for me above all others.

Some very early childhood memories are vivid but very much separate and distinct, and without a sense of chronology. One remembers a mild summer's day and playing with a kitten in the orchard on a blue tartan rug; or crying for the loss of a cork from one's popgun at the end of the garden. One does not, however, remember any preceding or following events. The memory is like a miniature picture in bright colour, sharply and finely detailed but distant. Such a memory is mine, a memory of "Nanda" as his grandchildren called him, paying a visit one evening to our home unexpectedly, arriving on foot. His house was about a mile's walk distant over barley fields and pasture land, but there was no direct path. There would have been a few ditches to jump and fences to climb, some made of barbed wire strung along wooden posts to pen in the sheep where the hedgerows had thinned and could not be trusted to stop them from straying. As we were still living at the cottage at Hillhead, it was certainly before 1987 and I was less than six years old. Something tells me that I was a lot younger. It must have been an evening between late autumn and early spring, for it was already dark outside and I was not yet sent to bed. The fire was lit in the sitting room.

When he came in, his hands were red with blood, and amid the excitement of my elder sisters' talk I gathered that in his walk he had come upon a sheep tangled in barbed wire and had freed it. He must have washed his hands by the time I saw him sitting on the settee beside my sisters, his face as always like the youthful David's "ruddy, and of a fair countenance", his hair snow-white, and his smile... but to describe his smile would be to give a definition of the man and that is an impossible thing. At the time, in my child's mind I did not quite grasp that the blood fresh on his hands was the animal's: I think that I thought it to be his.

There was something about the moment that gave the child a kind of holy awe, something of what I imagine a boy of Greece would have felt if the figure of ancient Nestor had darkened the hall, a man who had known the demi-god Hercules, had seen the siege of Troy and was living still. But there was more than pagan awe of the man half-hero, half-legend in that feeling. Crossing that low hill, those dark, long and lonesome fields already seemed a journey of epic; and then to free and save the life of a struggling lamb, shedding his own blood in unhesitating compassion, made my grandfather in my eyes to be a living image of the Good Shepherd. At that moment, his white hair, weather-red face and smile were transfigured, and I saw the One who "giveth his life for the sheep".

I do not think this vision ever quite left the form of my grandfather, even when the moment was forgotten, and shortly before he died the memory arose again, clear, whole and blessed.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Victor Hugo on Architecture

Before anyone, wavering over their next choice of reading material, picks up Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, please pass on to another book. And if according to the law of reverse psychology you decide that this is a book you must read because someone said not to, you will soon find out your error in the first chapter, before page ten in fact. You will realise that you are not roaring with laughter (as are the crowd) at the Parisian students' supposed witticisms, and in fact you are struggling to smile.

Unlike Les Misérables where the imperfections as a novel are endearing, the faults of the Hunchback just make things worse.

For the long diversion in Les Misérables on the Battle of Waterloo which could stand alone as a truly dreadful depiction of war, as a great and noble piece of patriotism, as an elegy to human suffering - we have instead some endless insertions on the buildings of medieval Paris, or medieval justice. It is bad enough that the diversion on Paris before the Renaissance is unintelligible to anyone but a specialist in the history of Paris who has lived there for twenty years as a tour-guide, but the stuff about the Middle Ages shares all the retrospective silliness of the nineteenth century where the sins of the Renaissance, e.g. hysterical witch-hunts, are visited on the rational men of two hundred years earlier. And I am quite certain there is some nonsense too. Executing animals for witchcraft was "common"? Oh, really? Those dreadful medievals!

For the improbable but giant figure of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables who strides through the book like a myth, we have the rather ridiculous demonic archdeacon, or again the hunchback himself who goes from a senseless clod who is somehow simultaneously viciously cunning, to a sensitive and gentle soul, and all in a couple of chapters.

For the operatic quality of Les Misérables, we have the bathetic scenes of the Hunchback culminating in its super bathetic ending (I don't care if this is a "spoiler") of thwarted mothers dashing their brains out on walls, innocent beautiful girls being strung up by hangmen, and deformed monsters turning patricidal and throwing Satan-worshipping priests off Gothic towers. And that's just the last three pages.

There are better things to read, and the interest of the story of the Hunchback - that it doubtless has, apart from the novel - would be better conveyed in a comic strip, a silent film, or a mime. But there is one exception, I think, in one of the diversions of the Hunchback (on architecture) that I think is startlingly original, and Hugo's own. At least I haven't seen the same things said elsewhere. There are two things that struck me.

The first is that Hugo says that the Gothic - as a new form supervening on the Romanesque - is a popular form of architecture. The Romanesque is arcane, he says, hieratic, and symbolical. The Gothic on the other hand is popular, accessible, and representative art. The Romanesque is priestly, the Gothic democratic. I suppose that this aspect of the Gothic isn't what would strike a modern visitor to Wells Cathedral or York Minster. But the more I think of it, the more I think that Hugo is on to something. He is picking up on a profound difference between the Romanesque - or even the Byzantine, for that matter - and the Gothic that is very stark if one compares say, St Mark's in Venice and the Duomo in Milan. In the Romanesque, the round arch or the dome often depicts an image of the celestial in traditional symbolic form, interpreted by the priest and his function. The Gothic, on the other hand, its likeness to a vast forest, its pointed arch producing the optical effect of a building much higher in an illusion of retreating perspective, appeals directly to the people's vertigo, their nerves and ultimately their aspirations. By representing the divine in three dimensions (and not just two as in the mosaic) the Gothic introduces the revolution of appealing "over the head" of the priest to the people. I am not sure if I would go the whole way with Hugo here, but he touches on something that I have felt obscurely on walking into a Byzantine-style church, or even older Roman basilicas, and I think he is at least partly right.

The second thing in the diversion that caught my attention was the idea that the printing press was the death of architecture. His idea is that a culture will always seek to leave its artifacts in the most durable materials. The temple made of stone is the most durable for every age until the late medieval period: and into the supreme art of building every other art is integrated and finds its place and purpose therein. Music is the music of the temple - the liturgy of the office and the mass; the icon and the statue find their setting and their significance there; and the sacred poetry reaches its highest expression within the sacred precincts. With the printing press, however, words can be reproduced indefinitely if one wishes: it no longer needs the great labour of the copyist. The book began to dominate, and soon dominated utterly. The other arts, cut off from their theatre, their stage, began to develop an unhealthy separation and privatisation. Architecture became a matter of decoration; statutory degenerated into sculpture; painting into virtuosity; and music into composition. In a striking sentence, Hugo says that St Peter's in Rome was the last original piece of architecture. Since then all has been imitation.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Anglican Breviary

There is a remarkable piece of history and liturgy in my hands - indeed I have hardly set it down since I came in the door to find a fat package from the States awaiting me. It is the Anglican Breviary, saved from oblivion by one determined and persistent enough to organise its re-printing. To read more, follow this link. The price is - well, don't tell my wife - not low but not ridiculous for what it is.

It was produced in the United States, in the heyday of Anglo-Catholicism, the early 1900s, when the Anglo-Catholics were the strongest and most evangelically active wing of Anglicanism. The Anglican Breviary was an almost direct translation of the Roman Breviary, using the Coverdale Psalter, the Authorised King James Version and Keble's translations of the Breviary's hymns. Even the extra-biblical readings of Matins are translated into antique English. Following the wane of Anglo-Catholicism, and the drastic Catholic reforms of the Daily Office after the Council, the book was little used and fell out of print.

It is a beautiful book, the entire office in a single manageable volume. I am looking forward to using it in bits and pieces - the Antiphons especially - alongside the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham. I have a dream of getting together various bits of the Divine Office in English, creating a massive bank of all its parts in small media files, and then creating "playlists" for each day and feast, of Lauds, Vespers etc. for people to play (and pray) in their earphones on their way to and from work. If anyone would like to pay to commission a college choir (King's or John's would be fine) to record it all for me, I'd be much obliged.

Postscript: I have since discovered that this book was out of print since 1973 when, in 1998, a twenty-two year old enthusiast decided to fund a reprint. This was not the vanity project or hobby of a rich man - astonishingly, he scraped the funds together for the printing from a series of credit cards, and was then able to pay for subsequent reprints from the money raised from the first sale. But at the time of the first print, there was absolutely no guarantee of this outcome. Now there is a story: of love for a book and a tradition, and a lot of faith.

Was Paisley Right?

A few days ago I watched Darragh McIntyre's documentary "The Disappeared" about the abduction, killing and secret burial by the IRA of people who in one way or another knew too much. These people saw something that they should not have seen, or informed on the IRA, and in many cases their families still have no knowledge of where their bodies are.

I hail from the province, and was brought up there in the 80s and 90s, when one expected news of a bomb or killing on the local news bulletin at five minutes to six - and fairly often something big enough had happened to make it onto the national news after the dong of Big Ben at six o'clock. The archive film of the documentary, its ochre and bitter colours, put me back on the streets of Belfast that I had seen as a child, and the familiarity of that world came with a cold shock. It seemed so very normal at time, and was happening just a dozen miles from where I was raised as a boy, untroubled, playing with cats and inventing games with my sisters in the pastoral gentleness of wooded Crawfordsburn.

There was an interesting interview with Mr Gerry Adams in the documentary, who still denies that he was head of the IRA's operations in Belfast in the 1970s. Presumably, risible though the denial might be, it was felt necessary for the Republican movement to have a supposedly unbloody ambassador for those trips to the US to publicise their cause, and for the push for Sinn Fein to break through into the political scene in the Republic of Ireland, where they remain pariahs to a large extent to this day. He has apparently written knowledgeably about, and boasted about, the ambush of the British undercover operation in a laundry van in West Belfast. One of "The Disappeared" informed on the IRA, and then turned himself over to the IRA and gave crucial information about the laundry van operation that led to the successful ambush. For the informer, it wasn't enough to save his life. He was killed anyway. The late IRA commander Brendan Hughes claimed that Gerry Adams gave the order for his death, a claim that Adams has of course rubbished. Darragh McIntyre, in the documentary, skillfully manoeuvres Gerry Adams into admitting that he knew the man's family, and knew them pretty well. He then asks if, since Adams was at the very least a leading Republican in the area at the time, he knew that the boy (who was then killed as an informer) was the source of information, and if he knew that he had gone missing. Adams' evasive response is worth the watching. People, he says, come and go; rumours circulate. I have rarely seen anything so shifty.

But several things in the documentary prompted the following. For I have a question for Catholics generally, and I would be very interested to hear the responses to this from both the Irish and non-Irish variety. It is to do with the deep-seated suspicion about the role of some of the Church's hierarchy in the Northern Ireland Troubles among the Protestant people from which I come. Shall we say that there is a suspicion that certain actions during that period helped to foster the notion that the Irish nationalist cause was a Catholic cause, which is itself a questionable notion; but further, that the actions of the IRA were somehow given legitimacy by the association. Is this suspicion justified? There were individuals such as the late Cardinal Daly who earned the hatred of the Republican movement by a clear public opposition to their actions. But are there other incidents where there was a loss of such clarity of principle, giving rise to the suspicion that perhaps some in the Catholic hierarchy, as well as the laity, had forgotten that a movement which considers the murder of people out for their Saturday morning shopping to be regrettable but ultimately necessary is not exactly in line with the teachings of Christ? And which therefore ought not to be encouraged in any way? I am not talking here about the actions of an isolated priest who sided with and aided the IRA, but something that ran much deeper.

I will pick out one example, which may be emotive, but I think it illustrates my point very well. The hunger strikers have been almost beatified in Republican areas, and I can take you to a poem on a commemorative plaque in Newry, County Down, in which there is a clear parallel drawn between Christian martyrdom and the hunger strikers. I don't wish to be facetious when I say that no Christian martyrs have starved themselves to death to gain political prisoner status. I am not trying to rile convinced Irish Republicans, I am stating a point of theology. But it is not that issue that I am concerned with here. Nor am I sure about the qualities of the hunger strikers, e.g. Mr Bobby Sands. Now, removed from Ulster by a few years and leagues of sea and land, I can see what as a partisan youngster I could not - that the young Bobby Sands and his family were treated in a horrible way, and perhaps a violent fight against such treatment is not so strange. Nevertheless, the Republican movement carried out crimes which, if they wished to be treated as combatants in a war - as they did at the time - would be counted as war crimes e.g. the deliberate and premeditated killing of men, women and children who were not by any definition combatants.

Was it wise, therefore, of Pope John Paul II to send, or allow himself to be persuaded to send, his private secretary Father Joseph Magee, ostensibly to end the hunger strike? Was it necessary? Cardinal O'Fiach of Armagh, for example, had played a negotiating role in ending a hunger strike months earlier, but didn't go inside the prison itself. Could one say that the incident added the odour of papal sanctity to the myth of martyrdom that was already being written, even though the visit was supposed to be a desperate attempt to stop the strike? I cannot believe that churchmen were so naive as not to know what kind of emotional association their actions would create on this occasion. It is all very well to have a laugh about the Rev. Ian Paisley of the 1980s, roaring against the Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon, the enemies of Ulster. But on one count at least he has been proved right, for there was an unclean bird brooding in the temple: during this period there was a horrible cancer eating its way into the heart of the Irish Church, which has since been exposed in part. I am not so sure it has been excised. And what if he was right too, in the face of an unholy complacency on the part of some towards the notion that the Republican movement were serving not just an ideal of Ireland, but the cause of the Church?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Sorrow Not Sweet

For some reason our dog - the softest brute whom I have never seen go for the kill - was uncontrollable around a kitten that I brought home last week. After some hopeless attempts to make him less murderous, we, sore of heart, gave away the kitten to an eight-year-old girl on her birthday. We simply didn't have the space and time to make it work. It was surprising how little time it took for us to become very, very attached. Sometimes prose is not enough.

To a Kitten Named Fly: a Farewell

What muse whispered your name to me, what sprite?
  Too apt for you, whose crazed and dizzy dance
  Led hearts along the fleet path of your tail,
  Your ringed and ginger tail, hearts rested in
  Two amber eyes. Too apt, o clever cat
  Who conned well how to slip in cosy beds
  And make us answer to those gentle orbs
  Pleading for milk or fish. Too apt - for, raised
  Alas! a quiv’ring bloody eager rage
  In a mild dog who ne’er till now so shook
  To racial strings and old, you dared not stop,
  But flew, dear Fly, away. Five days we laughed
Then dropping salty tears, all, down to your bed
We gave and could not watch your parting head.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Why Science Needs Plato Baptised: Part 1, The Myths of Science

What follows is the groundwork for a second post that I hope to write soon: this is Part 1. Part 2 is an attack upon the Aristotelian notion of science. This is not because I think it is nonsense, but because I think it needs a Platonic foundation to make sense. (This might be a Part 3, I’m not sure yet. Let’s see how I get on.)

There are a few odd scientific myths around – at least I think they are myths and would be interested to hear what other people have to say – about “accurate” measurements and the notion of measure in general. When I talk about myths of science, I mean the popular version that leaks out – even from scientists – into public consciousness, whatever caveats are added in academia. I can give three examples of what I am talking about.

1)      Time: we are told that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down, meaning that the solar day is getting slightly longer and a leap second has to be inserted at various intervals. But the Earth is getting slower in comparison to what? To the atomic clock – which measures time very accurately indeed, deriving it from the frequency of radiation emitted when an electron moves from one energy level to another of a caesium-133 atom. But apparently colder atoms move more slowly, so the time measurements also need to be standardised by cooling caesium-133 to almost absolute zero.

2)      Space: a metre started out as one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator proposed in 1790 by the French Academy of Sciences after the Revolution as the basic unit of measurement. Because of a miscalculation (they reckoned on the Earth being perfectly spherical which, as they discovered in 1793, it isn’t) it is about 0.2mm short. Then, in 1889 the first “General Conference on Weights and Measures”, Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures, came up with the notion of having a prototype platinum bar made as a standard – it is still locked up somewhere – but of course the measurements have to be taken at a certain temperature (viz. the melting point of ice) because the bar expands a little with heat. There are other problems with the accuracy of this bar as a standard, too, and so in 1993 the standard definition was changed to something more accurate still: and the metre is now defined as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.

3)      Properties: we are told that certain colours correspond to certain frequencies of light on the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. But, in fact – and as every child who has pored over an optical illusion knows – how one sees a colour depends on the colours around it. So what is really (according to measured frequency) a certain shade of green looks, in certain conditions, a lighter shade compared to exactly the same frequency of green light in subtly different conditions of light.

Now for what I see as mythical about (1), (2) and (3) in the sense that people have so accepted a “scientific” version of these phenomena that they have stopped thinking about the most basic premises of the thinking involved.

(1)   Involves the idea that (ultimately) seconds are gradually getting a bit longer. But this is a rather perverse notion when one thinks about it. We decide the length of a day (a “solar” day as the scientists have it) by measuring midday to midday: crudely put, by the time it takes between the shadows being at their shortest on one day, to the shadows being shortest on the next. If one then divides this period into 24 hours, and then divides the hours into minutes and seconds, one eventually has the “length” of a second. But it therefore stands to reason that there is really no other reference for the length of a second than the ratio of 1/86,400 to the length of a solar day. Just say that one picks, at random, today (which happens to be All Hallows’ in the year of our Lord 2013) and fixes on the length of the second at midday and sets this up as the absolute standard, one could then measure whether (relative to this arbitrary standard) the days are getting shorter or longer over time. But this raises another problem. One must then find some other way of fixing the exact length of the second, some reference to say this and exactly this is the length of our new standard second. Hence the need for the atomic clock as mentioned above.

But this raises yet another problem, and therefore another question. One then assumes, as the basis of all comparison for all temporal measurement, that the atomic clock is striking out a fixed and unchanging time period: that it doesn’t slow down or speed up. Now it might be part of one’s scientific theory that the atomic clock is indeed ticking along immutably at one standard second per second: but the problem is that, even if it did change, one wouldn’t know, because one has nothing to compare it too. There are three questions raised by this problem. (a) First, why advance the atomic clock as the absolute authoritative time, when it is obvious that all time must be measured as a comparison, and therefore in ratio, to something else? There neither is, nor can there be, such a thing as an absolute time measurement. All measurement of time involves a comparison or ratio (made by us) of one phenomenon with another e.g. the high point of the sun in the sky to measure a solar day. My objection isn’t to the use of an atomic clock for some purposes, but to point out that the notion of absolute time is a scientific myth. (b) And secondly, what is the rationale for the choice of one particular length of second as the “standard second” when – according to the atomic clock – no one second is the same length? Isn’t it just arbitrary? (c) And thirdly, why say that seconds are getting longer when they are, in the first place, a division of the solar day into 86,400 bits?

My points can be summed up as follows – we have a mythical notion of absolute time, when time is in fact always a comparison of phenomena made by us, and we have created a strange situation where we have so lost touch with the idea of what a second is, that we have set up a “standard” second whose length bears no present relation to the actual temporal phenomena of a second. Not only have we allowed science to set up an absolute standard where there can be none, but we have redefined the word “second” to mean something that doesn’t fit with what a second actually is, i.e. a small division of the solar day.

(2)   The objections canvassed above will give the flavour of what I am going to say about the measurement of space: again, there is and can be no absolute standard, because like time it involves a comparison, made by us, between phenomena, and the use of ratio. A platinum bar in a vault can never be an absolute standard, because it is measured against something else, which in turn must be measured against something else: and, to prevent the inevitable ad infinitum conclusion, one is driven to choosing something somewhere as the absolute standard, with all the problems and questions that that raises. This is exactly what has been done in the measurement of space. When one tries to fix time or space measurements, one finds that everything is altered by variables of heat, and every other kind of condition: so one gets right down to the most basic level of matter and energy that (in modern scientific theory) are the productive of all the other kinds of energy. And down at this level, one cannot measure time or space independently. [Here I must jump over a massive bit of modern physics to explain why one can’t.] By choosing the distance travelled by light in a certain time in a vacuum to standardise the measurement of distance, one introduces into the problem of distance measurement exactly the same collection of problems and questions mentioned above in (1) with regard to the measurement of time.

(3)   My final set of objections, about properties, is anticipated in what I have already mentioned about time and space. We observe a colour, for example: we then invent a scientific theory about the frequency of light to explain why colours are the colour they are. Subsequently, we discover that in certain conditions, what looked red looks more like purple, and because the measured frequency of light is still what we expect red to be, we then say that our eyes are in error. The colour is actually red, and our seeing purple is a mistake. But surely we cannot use a scientific theory to trump the very phenomenal observations on which the theory claims to be built in the first place? The myth here is that science tells us what e.g. colour really is – even though colours are simply observed phenomena, not measured frequencies of electromagnetic radiation.

There is, I think, something not quite right here - Part 2 will try to say why things are going wrong, and Aristotle will get some of the blame.

Warren’s Sarum Missal in English