Saturday 28 February 2009

Who's to pick up the bill?

Father Longenecker has posted an insightful piece on contraception and the current economic trouble which makes a lot of sense to me. It is certainly a part of the picture but I suspect that the demographic consequences of abortion on a massive scale in so many of the most developed countries of the world is more immediately causative. The present crisis has been compared with that of the late 1920s and 1930s, a period which, interestingly, followed on from the vast slaughter of the First World War and the great influenza epidemic which claimed even more victims. By contrast the unparalleded growth in prosperity seen in the last half century , although unequally shared, accompanied and followed the so-called "baby boom". While we have been enjoying unprecedented wealth, however, the culling of the next generation has continued apace.

I suspect that where the population control people have it wrong is in their view of humanity as comprising something like mere passive consumers- a threat to limited resources and to each other. Looked at that way we are all problematic. That, however, is to forget that, made in the image of God, we have something that I like to call "magical" about us- we are, all of us, potential solutions. I heard somewhere that by Malthus's predictions we shouldn't have survived this long but that, thanks to human ingenuity, agricultural yields had increased vastly since his day. We humans can indeed be very clever. Alas, sometimes we fail to see what is staring us in the face- perhaps because we'd rather not see it. "I heard your voice in the garden and hid myself because I was naked."

Thursday 26 February 2009

The Altarpiece- some thoughts 1

The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London houses most of the earliest paintings in the collection. Almost exclusively panel paintings, the vast majority are either panels from what were formerly altarpieces or represent more or less complete altarpieces. The earliest examples date from the second half of the thirteenth century and are executed in egg tempera and gilding upon a gesso ground. At the outset the gold background is ubiquitous. In the fifteenth century century we see both the retreat of the gilding from the surface of the image to the frame and the development of naturalistic settings for the iconic or narrative figures whether in the form of architectural or other environments. The discovery of the rules of linear perspective was vital in bringing about this change, however, when altarpieces are compared with murals it is fairly clear that the arrival of the naturalistic background is later on the altarpiece. Masaccio's "Virgin and Child" in the National Gallery, originally part of an altarpiece for a church in Pisa, is a striking example. The figures and throne, while demonstrating the masterly grasp of perspective one might expect from the painter of the "Trinity" in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, does not here extend that demonstration to the background and, for decades after this, similarly contrasting examples from many other advanced artists are to be found. In short we see a certain lingering conservatism regarding the gold background of altarpiece paintings. Nevertheless in the course of the fifteenth century the artist's newfound skill carries all before it and the once gilded panel with its coloured figures becomes, in concept, a window. Elsewhere the sculpted reredos is adopted and subsequently increasingly elaborate structures employing architectural, sculptural and painterly elements framing tabernacle and exposition throne are developed and form an elaborate backdrop to the altar.

There is doubtless an interesting history to be charted from the emergence of the first retable altarpieces to the imposing structures furnishing churches on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. Once upon a time, however, there were no altarpieces, retables or reredoses. There were simply altars behind which, so one was led to believe, the priest would stand to celebrate mass until this practice was changed some time in the twelfth century. This much is asserted in "From Giotto to Durer" - the National Gallery's own guide to the art of the period. If this was indeed the case the emergence of the altarpiece can be seen as resulting from a need to screen off the area to the rear of the altar.

Unfortuanately I have never been able to find corroborative evidence for this change and when no less an authority than Pope Benedict XVI suggests that mass with the priest facing the people was never widespread it is clear that some other motive needs to be sought.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Darwin or dar-lose

I remember being very impressed many years ago by a television documentary about a monk of Buckfast- a Brother Adam, I think- who was attempting to breed, so it was said, the perfect British bee. In other words a bee best suited to the British climate and environment. This was about thirty years ago and it was a programme I had come upon by chance so I remember little enough but I was powerfully struck by the realisation that there was something very special - very appropriate - about the monastic setting in which he was able to carry on this work. He had been at this project for decades and there was a parallel with Mendel formulating the laws of genetic inheritance also within a monastic setting. Mendel's steady patient work, experiments with humble pea plants carried out in the monastery garden, was of profound and lasting significance.

I have to admit to being puzzled by the attention given to Darwin. Were his discoveries really all that momentous? Perhaps I am a blockhead but the theory of natural selection sounds like something out of a pruning manual. Things do well under the conditions that suit them. They don't do so well under conditions that don't suit them. Genius?

Sunday 22 February 2009

Liturgical Reform- a personal view 4

My tutor for Art History was a wonderful man. A Viennese Jew, eleven of whose close relatives had perished in the Nazi death camps, he had escaped to England and told us of his experience of arriving at a YMCA establishment in London in 1940. "And when I saw people sitting about in armchairs in the foyer at two o' clock in the afternoon I knew this was a country where I could be very happy. They wouldn't have been sitting about in armchairs at two o'clock in the afternoon in Vienna under the Nazis I can assure you!" he declared. On the occasion I recall, however, we were just coming to the end of a seminar on gothic architecture, in his broom-cupboard of a room, in which we had looked at slides of some of the principal gothic cathedrals of France. "Of course," he said, "none of these churches makes sense now. Their meaning has been destroyed. Can anyone tell us what has happened?" No one volunteered a comment and so he added "What? Are there no Catholics here?" Put on the spot, so to speak, I found myself blurting out, "The Second Vatican Council...changes to the liturgy...the way mass is celebrated so that now the priest has to face the people from behind the altar."

"Ah, yes," he returned, "a great pity". The class broke up and conversation turned to other matters but before I left he asked if I was indeed a Catholic and, when I replied in the affirmative, he said, "I like the Mass. One can be a spectator." I do not remember what I said in reply to this but I have often recalled his words over the years - and my response.

At the time I had sought to answer his question without challenging his presumption that liturgical reordering had "destroyed the meaning" of our churches. Even at the tender age of twenty I had had some difficulties with the visual consequences of reordering but they did not amount to real doubts besides, as a student, I was never really interested in arguments- only in finding out the truth. I did believe that the reordering had been demanded by the Council and it was only in the late 1990s that I began to wonder if I had been somehow mistaken.

I have had a longstanding interest in the historical development of the altarpiece as an artistic genre. Its origins lie somewhere in the twelfth century but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the altarpiece emerged. Its final demise through the turning around of altars, having happened in my own lifetime, should be much easier to isolate - except it was not. I re-read Sacrosanctum Concilium: there was nothing there about mass facing the people.
As I read the Constitution on the liturgyI realised that I was reading it as a post Vatican 2 catholic. Surely I should attempt to read it with some historical imagination? For example the Mass as we know it today simply did not exist in 1963. What did exist in 1963 was what we had since come to call the Tridentine rite and from that perspective it became obvious that when the Council fathers were talking about the Mass it was this version and not some as yet non-existent reformed rite. Reform was most definitely on the cards but its precise form was presumably still in the future.

Unbeknown to me at the time that I was considering these matters one Cardinal Ratzinger was asserting that Vatican 2 had not demanded Mass facing the people and, contrary to what I had been told earlier, there had not been a time when the priest had changed place at the altar from the rear to the fore.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Les Miserables

The picture of crime and punishment in post-Napoleonic France in "Les Miserables" is a grim one. Jean Valjean has, at the outset, just been released from nineteen years in prison with hard labour having initially been convicted for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his starving sister and her child. I do not know if Hugo was exaggerating about conditions in the period- which concerns his own lifetime but I found myself recalling visits to the former abbey of Fontevraud. The abbey church held the tombs of some of our Plantagenet kings including Henry II and Richard I. Their effigies remain - their bones having been scattered at the French Revolution when the government had ordered the evacuation of all monasteries. From 1804 until 1963 the abbey served as a prison. The pattern of events seemed very similar to that described in Cobbett's "History of the Reformation in England and Ireland" where the dissolution of the monasteries resulted in poverty and criminality which in turn led to the Elizabethan Poor Laws which are the background to much of Dickens as well as the eighteenth century enthusiasm for capital punisment and transportation to the colonies.

I think it was Chesterton who declared that the Reformation was a revolution in which the rich had revolted against the poor and he was clearly correct but the same seems true in other cases, as in the French Revolution, where the Church was attacked. It is, of course, the well-heeled who make revolutions even if they are carried out in the name of "the people". Some two hundred nuns were expelled from Fontevraud, the last abbess dying in poverty in Paris, but I don't suppose they counted. They were not "the people".

Capital Interlude

Back from a couple of days in London, highlights of which were the "Byzantium" exhibition at the Royal Academy and "Les Miserables" - my first ever trip to a West End musical. While the former lived up to my expectations the latter exceeded them and provided food for thought.

It was a powerful production and well-paced for the age of film and video with an intensively choreographed use of the revolving stage which allowed scenes to flow seamlessly one into another - a kind of stage counterpart to the cinematic techniques of inter-cut different camera angles. Both the music, which was satisfyingly textured and varied, and the libretto were free of the cliches normally associated with the musical theatre genre. The set was a wonder to behold as it underwent a series of origami-like transformations and permutations.
Aware that Hugo's work had been on the Index I was on the look-out for "angles" but the clear injustice of jean Valjean's opening predicament in post Napoleonic France had a certain plausibility about it especially as I saw parallels with -surprise, surprise - post Reformation England.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Liturgical Reform- a personal view 3

I remember, as a child, the Second Vatican Council and my mother explaining the news to me. "The pope," she said, "has called all the bishops to Rome to help him bring all the non-catholics into the church." Subsequently Pope John XXIII died and when the news of Paul VI's election came the whole of my primary school trooped into the church to sing "God Bless our Pope". Some time in the following year our teacher announced to the class that we were living in historic times and that soon we would be able to have mass in our own language. This was one of the results of the Council but there would be others in order to make the mass more accessible. In retrospect I can appreciate that he was talking about inculturation since he gave as an example African tribesmen dancing around the altar because, he explained, dancing was part of their culture. We were also told that mass would be celebrated with the priest facing the people. When, over thirty years later, I told my mother that I thought this change to have been a mistake she recalled my young self having written an essay in favour of it, "because we shall be able to see what the priest is doing on the altar".

In later years there would be much talk of the "spirit of Vatican2" as a justification of things which did not quite square with the letter of its documents and, in particular, Sacrosanctum Concilium. In recalling these personal memories I have the strong feeling that this "spirit" was not something that proceeded from the Council as from a source but something that was "in the air", so to speak,perhaps before the Council but certainly before the ink was dry on the documents. The Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool is an interesting architectural manifestation of contemporary thinking. Planned before the Council was over and completed and dedicated over two years before the Missal of Pope Paul VI was issued it nevertheless represents a radical development in the ordering of the church interior along lines which were soon to be all but universally applied.

Monday 16 February 2009


Having fallen asleep during the regional news this evening I awoke during The One Show on BBC 1 and a report concerning "white collar" employees who become unemployed during the current economic crisis. The complaint appeared to be that these unfortunate souls are treated no differently to any other unemployed person at the Job Centre- although no clear reason was offered as to why they should be. Unemployment may be a misfortune or a blessing. It all depends upon the nature of one's responsibilities; not upon whether one's former job was designated "white-" or "blue-collar". There is doubtless a case for helping people find the kind of work for which their past education and experience has equipped them but equally their current state may well indicate a reduction in the overall number of opportunities/vacancies in that specific area and the need to broaden the area of search.

Another curious thing was the reference to someone whose former work had been "in computers" as a "professional". This the week after a letter had appeared in The Times explaining that banking was not a profession.

Perhaps the most absurd belief in contemporary Britain is neither Mormonism nor Scientology but that which equates salary levels with moral worth or sees a high wage as evidence of (virtuous) hard work. It carries the risk that when poverty comes in the door sanity will fly out of the window. This is however not the only absurd belief.
The presenter on last night's Channel 4 History of Christianity suffered from a kind of moral tunnel vision. Although he had mentioned the human sacrifice of the Mayan religion his opprobrium was saved for the Catholic Spaniards who had tried to stamp on reversions to paganism among the native converts. Indeed his main theme seemed to be that of wanting a Christianity so inculturated as to be no longer Christian.

Sunday 15 February 2009

Liturgical Reform- a personal view 2

Three things which contributed to the prominence of the priest's personality in the new mass were the range of choice allowed with regard to texts of the ordinary, the instruction allowing the celebrant to introduce readings and other parts of the mass and the celebration of mass facing the people. It is difficult to imagine, in retrospect, that any of these were really thought through. We had announcements like "I shall be using the third Eucharistic Prayer with the second acclamation after the consecration." And this after the climactic words of the Preface and Sanctus! Then there were the priests who went to such pains to introduce the readings that when we finally heard them even a Jeremiah or a Saint Paul seemed to fall somewhat flat. There was also one priest who insisted upon barking "Response!" at the congregation after each verse of the responsorial psalm. Thankfully these kinds of performance mostly seem to have faded into history and although there is still the occasional "Good Morning, everyone! Good Morning, Father!" I am still waiting to hear the Bruce Forsythe dialogue: "Nice to see you, to see you...." "Nice!" Ultimately, however, the most distinctive change foregrounding the priest was the move to mass facing the people.

I can remember the enthusiasm with which our Parish Priest, on a visit, announced the arrival of a new altar and of his looking forward to being able to celebrate mass facing the people on the following Sunday. Many years later, shortly before my mother died, I recalled this event with her saying that I felt that, of all the changes introduced, this was probably the least beneficial. I joked that "The trouble is that the priests now too often think that we are there to see them!" Her reply was more serious, "The thing about the new mass," she said, "is that it is very hard to say a prayer".

Just over half of her life had been spent with the old mass and until that occasion I had never heard her critcise the new. It wasn't a question of aesthetics or language or music or, as some of the new rite's loopier critics would have it, of legitimacy but one of prayer- the raising of the heart and mind to God. In responding thus to my observation I think she was, in part confirming it. How easy is it to direct one's attention towards the Lord when someone appears to be addressing oneself?

Liturgical Reform- a personal view

Today, for it is after midnight, is one of those days when, even before I discovered the Blogosphere, I was inclined to declare "Under the old calendar this would have been Sexagesima Sunday." I qualify that statement because I have been struck by how extraordinarily prevalent the world of the Extraordinary Form and its calendar appear to be in cyberspace. As one who recalls attending his first mass in English at the age of nine on the First Sunday of Advent 1964 and subsequently saw a whole series of changes leading up to the new missal in 1970 I feel entitled to speak with the authority of experience. So listen up, you young whippersnappers!
During that period I attended two masses on most Sundays, a low mass and a sung mass (Yes, I was in the choir) and so I can confidently assert that the most striking effect of the reform of the liturgy was that of turning most Catholics into liturgy critics. The fact is that before that event there wasn't much to talk about. Father So and so's sermons may have been a bit long or another priest might have been the subject of a speed warning: "If you are five minutes late he will have finished the Gospel." Now there was a lot more to do. We were sitting down and standing up more often and then we had changing translations. "Et cum spiritu tuo" first became "And with you" before becoming "And also with you." I certainly remember that but I also have a sneaking suspicion that we had two differing translations of the Gloria and Credo before we got the current one.
There were people who grumbled. Even as a child I was aware of that but for the most part we accepted that we were living in changing times. The Second Vatican Council was not over before changes started and clearly, whether we liked change or not, there could be no better authority for what was happening than it be mandated by an ecumenical council of the Church and the Pope himself. The good news in 1970 was that this was the definitive change and an end to the tinkering of the previous five years. What did become clear about the new mass- and very soon- was that unlike the old mass the personality of the priest became a major factor in one's experience.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Education Education Educashun

"If you can read this- thank a teacher". I saw these words together with the logo of the National Union of Teachers on a sticker in a car's rear window sometime back in the 1980s. A teacher myself at the time, I recall my first thoughts, "Jolly good show. Tell 'em how it is!" Almost immediately, however, I was pulled up short by the realisation that the teacher to whom I owed my literacy was not a member of the NUT nor, indeed, of the profession but my own mother! Limited as had been her own schooling, back in the late 1920s and early thirties, she put a considerable effort into teaching me to read. The extent of her success may be gauged by my first Junior school report, which I still have, in which I was ranked first out of forty-six and by the fact that I had the top reading age when, in the following year, my reading ability was assessed. I would not altogether dismiss the efforts of my schoolteachers but until I scored in the end of year tests I was so insignificant that the form teacher had difficulty remembering my name correctly. My mother had done very well and in remembering this I felt chastened.

It is very easy for teachers to imagine that what they do is important. It may well be, but despite the current obsession with assessment, the extent of their contribution in any given case is by no means certain. The news, yesterday now, that a thirteen year old boy had fathered a child with his girlfriend of fifteen brought the usual claims of the need for sex education. Am I missing something here?

If the story is true- and I think that a big if personally- then he clearly knows more on the subject than I did at that age. From this point such "education" becomes superfluous. Someone seems to have done the teaching quite successfully.

Perhaps we should thank a teacher?

Friday 13 February 2009

Time Check

Yesterday evening I succeeded in attaching most of the blogs I follow and today I put my photograph on. My latest effort has been to attempt to correct the time given for the postings. For some reason or other that given was correct for somewhere in the Pacific Ocean but clearly not for this neck of the cosmos. Now I can cope with the east coast USA bloggers being five hours (or one meal) behind and with the important bits of Europe one hour(i.e one or two cups of coffee) ahead of me but the idea of people tucking in to a hearty lunch when I am tucked up in bed is just too much!

I gather that a list such as I have attached is called a "blogroll". Is this the sort of language one should be using in polite company? It rather gives the impression that the whole business was invented by a bunch of lads after a night out on the booze - and a vindaloo to boot!

It is late: at least lunchtime on Easter Island and so, as Pepys and Zebedee would have it, to bed!

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Who says so?

I am surprised to have seen so little comment on the Anne Widdecombe programme in the history of Christianity series, "Reformation", on Channel 4. The general idea of the programme might be outlined thus: Church was corrupt, Luther set in motion Reformation (a good idea), things went wrong, people started being beastly to one another and, golly! some of them are still being beastly. Much as I sympathise with her for the treatment she got at the time of her conversion I suspect that, in her case, the abuse derived from her long-standing persona in the gutter press as "Doris Karloff"- the woman they loved to hate. Add to that the animosity of the pro-abortion lobby and it is not difficult to imagine her conversion being as much the occasion as the cause of the "no popery" outbursts. Channel 4's selection of Miss Widdecombe and Mrs Blair for the series is interesting. If one has few friends in the media then it is to be doubted if the other has any!
The idea that the medieval church was corrupt and therefore in need of reform is a mainstay of protestant historiography. It is given some credence by the observations of reformers within the Catholic Church. There was much hand-wringing and individuals like Cardinal Pole declared, "We have only ourselves to blame!" as the whole bloody business unfolded. Such claims should, however, be seen in perspective and thoroughly questioned. The only specific example offered in the programme was the so-called "sale of indulgences",an indulgence being defined as "a piece of paper saying that your sins were forgiven". Please! Later the monasteries were said to have become too wealthy and once more the accepted protestant view was reiterated.
On the plus side, it was good to see Professor Duffy putting in an appearance - alas all too briefly.
All in all I feel that, were I not a christian, the programme would have simply confirmed the view that religion is simply a force for setting people at one another's throats.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Message in a bottle

I am still somewhat bemused at finding myself in the blogosphere- being a late convert to computers, the internet and such like. I have, however, been reading blogs now for somewhat over a year and have found Catholic blogs a joy.
In my youth I was a great reader of the catholic press but over time I became increasingly depressed with the standard of many articles and the sometimes alarming ignorance and doubtful orthodoxy of journalists. I am not against freedom of speech. I simply would rather not waste my money on such uncongenial stuff. Among the bloggers I have found much that is uplifting and often well informed and, such is the nature of the medium,that even if it is not, there is room for comment and discussion. Since I have begun to make comments it is only fair that I begin to share something of my own knowledge - such as it is - values, views et cetera and provide some indication of where I am coming from. Now! How about that? And you, dear reader, thought it was pure vanity and self-conceit!
Well, youcan take that as read!

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Snow Business

Well here I am again in the Blogosphere. Physically I am at approximately 800 feet above sea level but I conceive of this place as somewhat higher still. Perhaps it is what is meant by a "parallel universe"- a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. We would have to speak of a "duoverse" or, better still, a "polyverse" - an unusual poetic form, perhaps. Like a sonnet that worked simultaneously as a set of limericks!
I was tickled by the image of a stranded London bus on the one day the buses didn't run, yesterday. It bore the legend "There is probably no God"! !! D'ya wanna bet?

Monday 2 February 2009


If you have come upon this by accident please do not be alarmed. It is quite safe (I think). As a matter of fact, come to think of it, that is how I got here. I clicked some buttons; filled in some boxes and then whizz bang! Lo and behold. Here we are! Who knows? Like so many things it may yet prove providential. Or a complete waste of time. I suppose it depends upon your point of view. Oh well. Must be going. I may be back later, or tomorrow. For now: Good day to you!