Friday, 25 May 2007

The Rosary

Having spent a good chunk of today - with assistance - unloading & then reloading all the stuff on my computer - I had to re-install Windows - I'm rather more aware than usual of what I've got on it. One little programme I keep on my desktop is called Virtual Rosary. If you don't know it, it's worth having a look at. Clicking a mouse instead of clicking a rosary bead takes a bit of getting used to but it's one means of following the Apostle's dictum that we should 'pray without ceasing'.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Ascension Day

I've just discovered that the Church of Rome on both sides of the Atlantic is celebrating Ascension Day next Sunday (the Seventh Sunday of Easter) and not on Thursday. I'm grateful to Fr Longenecker for having a well justified rant. I had realised both Rome and Canterbury had Sundayfied some other feast days but not Ascension Day for goodness sake. I'm somewhat relieved to see that in this respect Anglicans have for once got it right and kept to the time-honoured date.

OK there's only one biblical reference to the ascension occurring 40 days after the resurrection but it's one of the relatively few dates Christians don't seem to have squabbled about. So why change it except to dumb down religion so it can all take place in the God slot on Sunday? How very feeble. What next? Good Sunday?

The beginning of disestablishment?

Christopher Morgan who writes for The Times and the Church of England Newspaper has this on his website Religious Intelligence. Who knows, we might actually come to love Presbyterian Gordy? Disestablishment has always seemed rather a distant proposition. Might this 'home rule' proposal be the start of such a process? Good news for anyone who, like me, tends to wonder whether in the long run - the very, very long run - history will judge the Constantinian establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman State as a step of questionable benefit to the followers of Jesus Christ.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Tridentine Mass

For 'the latest' see Ruth Gledhill in The Times. It seems the delay in issuing the motu proprio has been caused by the Germans not the French.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Requiem aeternam

Today to Hampshire to assist at the requiem mass of a long-standing member of the 'congregation' of the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady and St John at Alton.

Anglican Benedictine communities are not supposed to have 'congregations'. 'They should be worshiping in their parish churches' as a newly-appointed bishop said to the Abbot before he discovered he had as much hope of stopping people coming to the Abbey as King Canute had of turning back the waves. Today there were 70 or so people in the little Abbey Church which normally seats 40. Half of them were such members of the regular congregation who could get away on a Wednesday afternoon and the other half friends and relatives of the deceased lady. Most of those in the latter category clearly seldom darkened the door of any church let alone one in which I am perfectly certain the Pope (and this Pope in particular) would have felt as liturgically comfortable as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Such things can happen in a monastery but the secret lies in Chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict which instructs that 'all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me.' Every single person who came to the Abbey this afternoon to mourn a much-loved friend or relative was welcomed as Christ whether they recognised their honoured status or not.

The picture is of the cemetary at Alton Abbey taken a month ago in Holy Week. Today it looked very different. A month's growth at this time of year is transformational. And it was raining. But they always say it's good if it rains at an interment. One can be sure the coffin is well bedded in.

Rest in peace, Paulene.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

M*** P******

Dare I say it? The fifth of May has come . . . and gone . . .

St John before the Latin Gate

This morning I took myself to St John’s College, Cambridge for a Solemn Eucharist for the Feast of St John before the Latin Gate. The what, I can hear you ask. There’s certainly no mention of such a feast in my 1962 missal but it’s there in the 1928 BCP and also in my copy of The Anglican Breviary which is based on the 1911 reform of the Latin Secular Breviary.

For those who need a memory refresher, the episode commemorated is the occasion when in AD 95 the Emperor Domitian convicted the Beloved Disciple St John of atheism and ordered him to be boiled in oil. He was immersed in the cauldron ante Portam Latinam but emerged completely unscathed He was exiled to Patmos and died a natural death as foretold in the final chapter of St John’s Gospel.

Anyhow St John’s College are keeping the Feast alive and long may they continue to do so. I’ve always thought Ss Stephen and John get a bit of a raw deal coming as they do immediately after Christmas – a bit like children whose December birthdays get subsumed within the generalised seasonal festivities – so for St John to get another go in the middle of the year is no bad thing.

Actually this was my second consecutive Sunday at St John’s. Last week I went on the spur of the moment without first checking only to find that the service was the College’s annual act of thanksgiving for its benefactors. Not exactly my cup of tea – a sort of BCP Matins but without the Benedictus – but it did provide me with an opportunity to remind myself just what a good choir St John’s has and to reflect that there’s now clear water, if you’ll forgive the rowing analogy, between the top half dozen or so English cathedral and collegiate choirs and ‘the rest’. It’s not that the rest are any worse than they used to be – indeed some of them are excellent – but that the front runners – St John’s, King’s, St Paul’s, Westminster Cathedral and a handful of others – are absolutely superb. Last week we heard Britten’s Te Deum and what in all honesty is probably the best performance I have ever heard of Parry’s I was glad. Hearing Sir Hubert’s coronation anthem for George V these days is a bit like hearing yet another performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. Everyone does it and it has become so familiar that for a performance to raise more than an appreciative eyebrow it has to be superb. This was, believe me, superb.

But even that paled when compared with what was on offer musically this morning. Frank Martin’s mass setting is no pot boiler. It’s difficult to perform and even harder to bring off. This morning the combined choirs of St John’s and Clare College blew our socks off. It would be difficult to imagine anything more thrilling.

And yet this was not a concert but a church service, a celebration of the holy mysteries. Self evidently there came to mind the old accusation that the worship of the Church of England represents the triumph of style over substance. And yet the substance was present this morning if only in the words of Common Worship which, like those of the ASB that preceded it, are so very close to those in the Roman Novus Ordo. The choreography had been meticulously rehearsed and was well done and the mood was prayerful. Perhaps the one criticism that could be levelled at the proceedings was the fact that because a solemn eucharist is a relative rarity in this chapel it had to be well rehearsed and it was this that showed up the artificiality of the occasion. Like a well-acted play, it was so well done that just for a moment one might be fooled into thinking it was the real thing. But it wasn’t. But in spite of that, I’m glad I was there.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Two much-loved cats in need of a new home

At the end of June I will be moving from Ely and for reasons I needn't go into here the two much-loved and hopelessly indulged creatures pictured here cannot come with me. Parting from them will be among the more difficult things I have had to do in my life but it will be made marginally less difficult if I can find a good home for them (together) in which they will be pampered in the style to which they have become accustomed.




Harry (as in Potter), pictured at the top, and Boots (less imaginatively because of his feet) are half brothers born respectively on the 1st and 8th June 2002. Harry is the extrovert and a born communicator while Boots who is half as large again as his elder brother is more introverted and bestows his trust more sparingly. But watch out, he can become almost ecstatically loving when the moment is right.

Harry & Boots feature in Richard Surman's Cathedral Cats and in the June 2005 edition of Your Cat magazine. (Click back issues/back index page/June 2005.) I'm not sure whether the cover photo (left) of the recently-released compact edition of Cathedral Cats is of Boots but I think so. There's no doubt the photograph (below) of the inside cover of Your Cat. Ah, the price of celebrity!



If you think you you can help, either by providing H & B with a home yourself or by passing this information on to someone else who might, I will be in your debt. I can be contacted on +44 (0)1353 663071, +44 (0)7710 408288 or at swikner@fsmail.net .

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Motu proprio (yet again)

If and when the Pope's motu proprio on the 'old' mass ever sees the light of day, someone ought to put together a collection of at least some of the pieces that have appeared on the blogosphere on the subject over the past couple of months. Such a collection might well include this one from Fr Anthony Chadwick at In medio stat virtus. The original German can be found in Creative Minority Report .

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Motu proprio (again)

Latin Mass may offend Jews is the headline of the latest version (in today's [London] Daily Telegraph) of what is surely the reddest of red herrings in the present long-running motu proprio saga. And I'm afraid many so-called 'traditionalist' Roman Catholics are to blame. Why? By referring, as they frequently do, to the pre-Vatican II eucharistic rite in the Catholic West as if it were a phenomenon that has remained unchanged for the best part of 400 years. In reality of course, the version set, as it were, in aspic in 1962 was but the point reached in a centuries-long process of liturgical evolution that was replaced by the rather different processes inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council.

A couple of months ago I bought a copy of the Baronius Press's 2004 edition of the The Daily Missal and Liturgical Manual from the Editio Typica of The Roman Missal and Breviary 1962. In the Foreword one reads that, 'while this volume is essentially a reprint of the edition published in 1962, certain elements of it have been updated to reflect modifications and additions that have taken place since that time, such as the norms contained in the Enchiridion of Indulgences promulgated by Pope Paul VI and the inclusion of the Mysteries of Light of the Holy Rosary recently proposed by Pope John Paul II. While the changes are few, they reflect an important fact, i.e. that the traditional rites are not antiques frozen in 1962, but are very much alive and continue to bear spiritual fruit in the Mystical Body of Christ in the 21st Century.'

Just so.

My 2004 edition replaced a (genuine) 1962 edition as well as one dated 1947. All three differ from one another and the changes between 1947 and 1962 are quite substantial. Given the present Pope's unquestioned liturgical literacy, I am perfectly certain that an officially sanctioned 2007 edition could at the very least address the sensibilities of our Jewish brothers and sisters and those in the English and French hierachies who would appear to be somewhat pre-occupied by such matters.

Of course I write as a mere Anglican who is pleased to record that the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer no longer requests divine deliverance 'From the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities.'

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Child abuse

I suggest we need to think rather carefully about some of the issues raised by the case of the latest choirmaster to be found guilty of abusing choirboys. Much of what I have read and heard on this subject so far today betrays an above average level of muddled thinking.

We can all, I hope, agree that the abuse of children is wrong. It would also seem that procedures now in place to safeguard children in this country are pretty stringent and, for the most part, effective. However these procedures and the attitudes that both feed and result from such procedures have changed markedly over the past ten or fifteen years.

What happened before then was different in that although most people thought the 'abuse' of children (I continue to use the catch-all pc term) was wrong, methods for dealing with such matters had not then been codified as they are now and therefore practice varied considerably. While by today's standards many aspects of the way responsible, competent individuals and organizations dealt with instances of paedophilic abuse were not at all satisfactory, we must, I think, be careful to avoid one of the besetting modern hypocrisies of judging the events and attitudes of the past through the narrow prism of current thinking. As a society we simply have to be able to accept that over time collective pre-occupations, to say nothing of notions of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour, change and it serves no useful purpose to exercise our other obsession with apportioning blame for current mishaps, retrospectively.

I write as a former chorister at a very well-known English cathedral. I was never abused in any meaningful sense nor am I aware that any of my contemporaries experienced such abuse. What I do recall is behaviour by certain adults which, if it were to occur today, would result in these individuals’ instant dismissal but probably not their prosecution. We were taught how to handle such situations and in doing so learned one of the many lessons children in every generation have to learn about a world and human environment beset by risk and danger.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

A tale of four cities and two walking sticks

Late last year I was planning to walk the last 100 kilometres or so of the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela with a group of friends. Sadly, other commitments got in the way so in the end I didn’t go. However in the meantime I had been shopping - for a pair of walking boots and a walking stick that would comply with the new restrictions on airline luggage. Clearly it was no longer possible to pitch up at a check-in desk with a stick of any kind so I found one that could unscrew in three parts and be packed in a suitcase.

I was rather proud of my new brass-headed cane so when six weeks ago I decided to realise my long-cherished wish to visit the Holy Land it was duly packed along with the ‘Spanish’ walking boots. Both proved extremely useful not least because the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem are in places extremely slippery and rubber soles and a stick with a rubber ferule forestalled a number of hard tumbles.

Then I took a bus to Bethlehem. The journey is described here. What I didn’t record was the fact that when I was talking to the driver on my way off the bus in Bethlehem, I omitted to pick up my stick! Given the interest shown in it previously by Jerusalem street traders, I imagine he will have got a good price for it. I certainly hope so.

Last night I browsed relevant sites on the internet for a replacement and at just after 1 am I placed an order. At five past nine this morning I had a call from the suppliers to say that, rather than putting the new stick in the post, could someone who wanted to come into the Ely market drop it off personally? At 9.35 - eight-and-a-half-hours after ordering it on line - I was the proud owner of a new walking stick. It is not a precise replica of the one now in or near Jerusalem but near enough.

St Alphege

Born about 953, St Alphege was successively a monk of Deerhurst in Gloucestershire, a hermit in Somerset, Abbot of Bath and, in 984, bishop of Winchester in succession to St. Ethelwold. He was used as an emissary to placate the Danish invaders who came to London and Wessex in 994, converted their leader to Christianity, and persuaded them to withdraw. In 1005 he became Archbishop of Canterbury. Another Danish force now overran southern England (1011) and the king, the famously named Ethelred the Unready, was unable to cope with them, despite the payment of the tribute tax known as the Danegeld. They besieged Canterbury and took Alphege hostage, demanding an enormous ransom which the Archbishop refused to allow the people to pay. Finally, on this day in 1012, after a drunken feast, the Danes had Alphege axed to death at Greenwich.

Under King Canute, he was enshrined at Canterbury in 1023. Later, the Norman archbishop Lanfranc suspended the celebration, questioning whether Alphege was actually a martyr for the faith. The answer, supplied by St. Anselm, was that, like St. John the Baptist, Alphege was a martyr for justice and truth; the feast was then duly restored. By an act of prescience, St. Thomas Becket, in his last sermon at Canterbury before his murder, praised Alphege as the first Canterbury martyr.

I am grateful to the the website of The Sacret Heart Parish, Waterlooville for the above text and to Orthodox England for the icon of St Alphege.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

I prayed

A good short piece from Ruth Gledhill of The (London) Times about the shootings at Virginia Tech may be read here.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Anonymous comments

Earlier today I sanctioned the publication of an anonymous comment on the piece I wrote on 12 April (concisely) entitled Et unam sanctam Catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam. While I'm loath to play censor, I do think if people have something to say they should come out into the open and say it and not hide behind a cloak of anonymity. So, reluctantly, I shall not in future publish comments by anyone unwilling to sign their name to what they've written. After all, if I'm prepared to make a fool of myself by what I say then so can you.

Ad multos annos


16 April 2007: Pope Benedict at 80
Ad multos annos, Father Joe


If there's anyone out there who is not aware of the fact, today also marks the latest 'deadline' for the publication of the promised papal motu proprio in terms of which priests will enjoy greater freedom to celebrate the 'Tridentine' mass. Needless to say the day passed without publication. Those wanting a chuckle on the subject will find it here. My thanks to the former Confused Anglopapist who since his trip across the Tiber is, I see, now merely a Confused Papist.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham


Fr Keith Straughan celebrates Mass for members of the St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.

Afterwards Fr Keith blessed a newly-planted tree outside the Cathedral Centre. The tree has been donated donated by the Cell








Thursday, 12 April 2007

Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam

The current trials and tribulations within the Anglican Communion have understandably attracted a good deal of interest in and comment from the Catholic blogosphere and from those Anglicans on its fringes seen by the Romans as ripe conversion fruit. There's been a good deal of discussion on the Roman claims that it and it alone is 'the one holy catholic and apostolic Church' and I attempted to pull together some of the threads in one such discussion in my posting of 28 March entitled Roman Claims.

Now another rather different take on this with which I fully concur emerges in Fr Anthony Chadwick's always thought provoking site, In medio stat virtus. The piece in question is entitled Divided yet but one in Christ draws on an equally thoughtful piece in Daniel Mitsui's fascinatingly eclectric blog site which he calls The Lion and the Cardinal and which is well worth visiting. However in the context of the present posting, please follow the link Divided but yet one in Christ and thence to Daniel Mitsui's piece entitled Permanent Scars.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Holy Week

It's interesting to see how many bloggers have shut or are shutting down for Holy Week or at least for the Easter Triduum. There is considerable good sense in doing so and I am going to follow suit before leaving tomorrow morning for my spiritual home at Alton Abbey.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Sobrino: two Catholic perspectives

The frequently maligned (London) Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill is to be thanked for juxtaposing two opposing perspectives on a current Catholic cause célèbre. Jesuit liberation theologian Fr Jon Sobrino has recently been criticised (but not barred from teaching) by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith less for his liberation theology than for his Christology. He holds that the doctrine of Christ's divinity was a relatively late development in first century Christian thinking and that Jesus did not therefore think of himself as the second person of the Trinity.

First John Wilkins, formerly editor of The Tablet, speaks out in support of Fr Sobrino and then Chris Gillibrand sets out an opposing position.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Little Sisters of Jesus

One of the little beacons of hope I encountered on my recent visit to Jerusalem was at the Sixth Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. At the Sixth Station we are asked to meditate on one of the non-biblically endorsed incidents on Our Lord's journey to Golgotha: when a woman called Veronica wiped the blood and dirt from Jesus' face with her veil only to find that an image of his face remained on the cloth.

The Church of St Veronica now belongs to the Little Sisters of Jesus, one of the numerous interconnected orders of brothers and sisters who follow in the steps of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

I have been a quiet devotee of Charles de Foucauld since I read a biography in 1984. If there was ever a living embodiment of the 'poor in spirit' then it is surely he because his poverty of spirit is perfectly united with greatness of heart. His now increasingly well-known prayer extracted from a rather longer meditation continues to be a rich source of contemplation for me:-

Father,

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.

Whatever you may do,
I thank you.

I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

The Church of St Veronica, like most ancient sites in Jerusalem, is down a steep flight of steps. It is an oasis of peace and stillness, almost miraculously insulated from the noise and bustle of the Via Dolorosa above. At (current) ground level there is a small shop and workshop where the sisters earn their living by assembling and selling icon copies. I dropped in on two occasions and although in neither instance was there any form of religious service, Our Lord's promise to be present where two or three are gathered together in his name was clearly fulfilled. On the latter occasion the two or three were one of the Little Sisters, a Palestinian woman with a nasty tubercular cough who was having a cup of tea and me. It seemed just right.

Roman claims

In a post entitled Newman Hits the Bulls Eye, Fr Dwight Longenecker quotes from and then expounds on John Henry Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine which deals with, among other things, the unity of form versus unity of doctrine dichotomy so relevant to the current goings on in the Anglican Communion. (What follows is a digest of that post and resulting comments.)

Fr Dwight paraphrases Newman as follows:

If the faith is to be applied now and in all ages, then it needs to be adaptable, and for it to be adaptable you have to have someone (or some institution) who decides when and how far the adaptions can be made. This interpreter needs to be infallible. If you don't have this infallible authority you will argue and disagree and eventually fall into one of two errors. Latitudinarian error preserves unity of form, but sacrifices unity of doctrine. The Anglicans and other mainstream Protestant Churches are an example of this. You can believe anything as long as you don't break down into schism.

The other error is sectarian. Those who move into a sect maintain unity of doctrine, but lose unity of form. The multitude of Evangelical, independent denominations are an example of this error.

These are the only choices for non-Catholic Christians, and every individual or group falls into one camp of the other. The non-Catholic individual or group is either sectarian (and there are more and more sects as more and more divisions take place) or they are latitudinarian, and these groups (in their attempts to include everyone and allow everything) are now so far from historic Christianity that they will soon need to take a new name.

The only other option is the Catholic Church . . .

To which Brian Britton of Mandeville, Louisiana very reasonably asks, 'where do the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox fall in Newman's scheme?' Fr Longenecker replies, 'following Newman's logic, the Eastern churches not in full communion with the Holy See must fall into the sectarian error--they have maintained unity of doctrine, but sacrificed unity of form.'

Not, I would argue, if you look at the picture from the Orthodox perspective which holds (not without some merit, I think) that the Church of Rome was in error in the events leading up to 1054. And this surely illustrates the moral and intellectual absurdity of holding on to the defensive 'I'm right, you're wrong' school of argument. Sooner or later, if matters are to be resolved, people have to get off their high horses and engage in discourse withone another in a spirit of Christian humility.

And interestingly this is indeed what seems to be happening between (some) Catholics and (some) Orthodox, the starting point of whose dialogue is that both wings of 'the Church' made mistakes before the schism occurred and, among many errors, both were transparently guilty of the collective sin of pride.

Our Lord established 'the Church' on earth and left it in the hands of the all too fallible apostles (and by implication their successors.) From the outset theysquabbled about jusidiction and doctrine and have gone on doing so ever since. Of course that's not the complete picture and there's no doubt the Holy Spirit has guided 'the Church' but all too often such guidance has been in the face of the abject stupidity of His human instruments. (One can't help feeling sorry for the Holy Spirit: so often invoked, so rarely listened to.)

One has to look no further than the Holy Land to see this happening on an hourly basis. For a start one can see in action in one place the amazing and rich diversity of Christian practice. In Jerusalem alone there are eight, nine, ten (possibly more)institutionally-established ecclesial groupings which can reasonably claim apostolic origins going back to the first or second centuries AD. Their relations with one another cover the complete spectrum of full communion to mutual (even sometimes physical) antagonism. All claim that they either constitute or are at least part of 'the Church' established by Our Lord.

In a recent posting, Fr Dwight, wrote a piece entitled Size Matters in which likens the Roman Church to an ocean liner and the Anglican Communion to a sailing dinghy. I beg to differ not to defend the Anglican Communion but because I would contend that size of itself truly is not important. Again, I refer to the Holy Land which is nothing if not a great leveller. Alongside numerous examples of behaviour that I can only describe as fully justifying the contempt in which the Christian Church is held by much of the non-Christian world, there were little beacons of hope which amply fulfill Our Lord's promise 'that where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'

If you want to be impressed by size, I commend standing almost anywhere in the Old City of Jerusalem at about 1pm on Friday - any Friday, I suspect - to see wave upon wave of Muslim Palestinian men and women returning to their homes and to their work after Friday prayers. (I am grateful to Michael Freilich for the photograph.) That was impressive.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Lady Day


Angelus Domini nunciavit Mariae.
Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto.
Sculpture in the grounds of
The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

If you can't laugh . . .

From The (London) Times Saturday 24 March 2007

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

St Benedict

Icon of St Benedict with Our Lady and St John written by Dom Anselm Shobrook OSB which hangs in the Abbey Church of the Benedictine Community of Our Lady and St John at Alton, Hampshire, (England).

The Passing of St Benedict

In the year that was to be his last, the man of God foretold the day of his holy death to a number of his disciples. In men­tioning it to some who were with him in the monastery, he bound them to strict secrecy. Some others, however, who were stationed elsewhere he only informed of the special sign they would receive at the time of his death.

Six days before he died he gave orders for his tomb to be opened. Almost immediately he was seized with a violent fever that rapidly wasted his remaining energy. Each day his condition grew worse until finally on the sixth day he had his disciples carry him into the chapel, where he received the Body and Blood of our Lord to gain strength for his ap­proaching end. Then, supporting his weak­ened body on the arms of his brethren, he stood with his hands raised to heaven and as he prayed breathed his last

That day two monks, one of them at the monastery, the other some distance away, re­ceived the very same revelation. They both saw a magnificent road covered with rich car­peting and glittering with thousands of lights. From his monastery it stretched eastward in a straight line until it reached up into heaven. And there in the brightness stood a man of majestic appearance, who asked them, 'Do you know who passed this way?' 'No,' they replied. 'This,' he told them, 'is the road taken by blessed Benedict, the Lord's beloved, when he went to heaven.'

Thus while the brethren who were with Benedict witnessed his death, those who were absent knew about it through the sign he had promised them. His body was laid to rest in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist, which he had built to replace the altar of Apollo.

Even in the cave at Subiaco, where he had lived before, this holy man still works numerous miracles for people who turn to him with faith and confidence. The incident I am going to relate happened only recently.

A woman who had completely lost her mind was roaming day and night over hills and valleys, through forests and fields, resting only when she was utterly exhausted. One day in the course of her aimless wanderings she strayed into the saint's cave and rested there without the least idea of where she was. The next morning she woke up entirely cured and left the cave without even a trace of her former affliction. After that she remained free from it for the rest of her life.

From the Life and Miracles of St Benedict (Book Two of The Dialogues)
by Pope St Gregory the Great

Photograph: wood carving of St Benedict at the Abbey of Our Lady and St John, Alton, Hampshire, (England)

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Hodigitria Icon

One of the unexpected highlights of my recent visit to the Holy Land was the snowy morning I spent at the Russian Orthodox Convent of St Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemene. There were many remarkable things about it, not least the associations with the Russian imperial family, one of whose number, the Grand Duchess (now Saint) Elizabeth, is entombed in the body of the church.

However pride of place has to go to the allgedly miraculous 16th century Hodigitria Icon. What follows is taken from a letter by Abbess Barbara who, as a young nun, witnessed the arrival and some of the subsequent miracles of the icon and later served as Abbess of the Convent between 1970 and 1983. I had thought initially to edit it down but now think it is better untouched, lengthy though it may be.

In 1939 during the sixth week of Great Lent, our Abbess Mary received a telegram from an acquaintance, a devout Orthodox Arab, with a pressing request to come to Beirut to accept an icon from Metropolitan Elias (Karama) of Lebanon. We decided to go without delay so as to be back by Lazarus Saturday, the patronal feast of our Bethany community.

Upon arriving in Beirut we phoned our friend and on that same day we were warmly received by him and his elderly mother in their home. The Metropolitan came with his secretary, who carried a rather large, flat box. Opening the box, the Metropolitan lifted out a Hodigitria icon of the Mother of God. The icon had become so dark with age that one could scarcely discern the figures or the colors. “Take the icon,” said the Metropolitan. “Such is the will of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos. I feel badly that the icon is so dark and unattractive, but I have great devotion towards it and always pray before it. Now I must give it to you.” His eyes were tearful. Mother Mary was also moved. The Metropolitan blessed her and gave the icon into her hands. Reverently accepting the icon, Mother Mary expressed her gratitude, adding that the icon could not be unattractive - it was, after all, an icon: “It is beautiful.”

Afraid to be late for the feast, we departed the next day. With us was our chauffeur, an experienced driver. Our new Morris was a small but good car and therefore we were bewildered when, shortly after leaving Beirut, it came to a halt. The chauffeur carefully inspected everything but could find nothing amiss. He was able to restart the motor and we proceeded, but we continued to have problems: the car knocked, it lurched, at times stopping altogether. Our progress was very slow, just when we needed to make haste. Jerusalem had a six o'clock evening curfew. We worried, we prayed. It was evident that what had transpired aggravated the evil one and that he was trying by all possible means to obstruct the passage of the Most Pure Mother of God.

We barely crawled to the border at Kinura. There we were stopped and asked to open the box. Although we explained that it was an icon, nothing helped. We went into the customs building and opened the box. They took out the icon, “Why is it so heavy? What do you have concealed behind the frame? Money, gold or silver coins?” We assured them that there was absolutely nothing there, but one young official demanded to take the icon out of its wooden case. The case would not open. They called in a workman. The official insisted, saying that he was doing his duty, that in such troubled times people were smuggling all sorts of things across the border, under all kinds of pretences. We showed the certificate the Metropolitan had given us, but to no avail. Poor Mother Mary was extremely distressed. She left the customs office and turned to the Queen of Heaven with fervent prayer.

But did we not have with us a wonder working icon?

I remained. The workman placed the icon on its side, fixed his chisel and was about to strike it with a hatchet. I was aghast. The wooden board on which the icon was painted was old, hundreds of years old. It could easily crack or fall apart. Dreadful!

At this very moment the door opened and in walked another official, also young. “Stop! What are you doing? Can't you see that this is an icon of the Virgin Mary? And you, an Orthodox Christian, how can you allow such a crime?! I am a Muslim, but I forbid you from touching Her. Return the icon at once and don't hold them up any longer!” It turned out that this man was the head of the customs office. The first official began to justify himself, but his superior did not relent. I took the holy icon, which had been placed back in the box, and went outside. There I found Mother Mary, immersed in fervent prayer. When 1 told her what had transpired, she was overjoyed. “Truly, it is wonder working! That is why the enemy of God is interfering so.”

We got into the car and drove off, trying to make up for lost time. Haifa was already visible in the distance when again something in the car began knocking and we came to a halt. At least we were in Palestine, glory to God! A man drove up and, seeing our predicament, offered to take us to a garage in Haifa, where we could get a taxi. We reached Haifa without further incidents, but no one would agree to take us to Jerusalem. “It’s too late; wouldn't make it.”

What to do? Then one driver declared he could get us there before six o’clock. Jerusalem was still some distance away. A policeman, a Jew, got into the car with us, in case we were held up along the way. And what happened? Five minutes before six we flew into the Holy City, and straight to Gethsemane. The sisters, alerted by our telegram, were at the gate together with our priest, Fr. Seraphim, awaiting the arrival of the icon. What joy! Accompanied by singing and the triumphant peal of bells, the icon of the All-holy Lady was carried into the Church of St. Mary Magdalene. Straightaway our priest began a service of thanksgiving.

Here we should add that Fr. Seraphim had been asking us all to pray for him, that he might live until the Holy Feast of Christ s Resurrection. He was fatally ill and was suffering terribly from stomach cancer. Suddenly, during the service, he turned around and said in a loud voice: “The icon is indeed wonder working. Power emanates from it; I feel it. I am no longer sick.” We all wept with emotion. Fr. Seraphim lived another ten years, and all this time continued to serve.

The next day was Friday in the sixth week of Great Lent, the day when a vigil service is usually celebrated at our girls' school in Bethany. That morning, upon entering the church, the sisters saw with amazement that the holy icon had become much brighter: it was clear and distinct. They immediately informed Mother Abbess, and everyone gathered and prayed with tears in their eyes.

A sister who painted icons related that she had been thinking of somehow cleaning the icon and strengthening the back side of the board in order to preserve it. But now, seeing the miracle, she gave up all thought of this. How could she? The Queen of Heaven manifested Her power Herself.

That day the icon was taken to Bethany School and placed in the cave chapel. When the chapel had first been set up, a niche for an icon had been carved out of the central wall. The niche had remained empty because there was no icon for it, but the Abbess said: "Never mind. The Most Pure Theotokos Herself will provide us with Her image." (The cave chapel had been dedicated to the Theotokos.) And so She did!

The next day, Lazarus Saturday, the service was held in the Bethany School church. Afterwards there was a procession. As was customary, we went to the place where there is an ancient rock with an inscription, indicating that at the time of the Empress Saint Helen there had been a church here, and that this same rock served as an altar. The rock is inscribed in Greek: “Here Martha and Mary met the Lord and heard His words concerning the resurrection of the dead.” This rock was discovered by Abbess Mary when she was overseeing some renovation work at the school. The workers were cleaning and leveling a playground area when they came upon a large rock deep in the ground. It was dragged out onto the surface and later archaeologists determined its provenance as indeed the place where Our Lord met Martha and Mary (see John 11 :25). What a holy site this is!

On Lazarus Saturday the holy icon was again installed in the niche of the cave. Over it was hung a perpetually ­burning vigil lamp. Many people came for the feast. Among them was a woman with a four or five year old son who was completely paralyzed. “Go and venerate the icon, the Most Holy Mother of God will help you,” the Abbess said to her. And what do you think happened? In about two weeks the woman returned with her son, now a healthy boy. She related that after fervently praying for her sick child, she anointed him with oil from the vigil lamp over the holy icon. The next day the boy felt better; and now he is completely well, walking and moving about.

Before Pascha we brought the icon back to Gethsemane. Here on the night of Holy Saturday the icon became brighter still, the colors and features became totally renewed, and it has remained so to this day. Then the icon was taken back to Bethany for a time. The pupils attended morning and evening prayers in the cave chapel. Fervent prayers wrought miracles of healing, just as they had in the case of the paralyzed boy.

Once our late sister, Mother Anastasia, came to read an akathist before the icon. She was joined by the Arabic language teacher; a devout man who had come to the cave to pray. Suddenly Mother Anastasia noticed that he had fallen to his knees. “Look, look!” he exclaimed. She looked at the icon and saw large tear drops falling from it. “I couldn't believe my eyes,” she said later: “We saw tears coming out from dry wood. “All of us quickly gathered and began praying. In an outburst of faith one of the sisters pressed her head to the icon and wiped the tears with her hail; but new tears continued to flow. We carefully collected these tears on pieces of cotton. The liquid was a unique substance, neither oil nor water; “Why is the All Pure One weeping?” we asked one another: “Perhaps She is weeping over people's sins and suffering,” many suggested.

We began more and more to sense the Divine power that emanated from the holy icon. We noticed that the expression on the face of the Most Holy Virgin would change: some days it was sad, other days severe. At times it conveyed an almost maternal tenderness. At the present time the Lady appears to be looking intensely into each person's soul; the expression is both - bright and severe, strengthening the faithful. We call Her Queen of the Heavenly Powers.

There were times when our holy icon was subject to persecutions. Some "important" personages demanded it to be returned to Lebanon. Why? No explanation was given, we only received orders and threats. The Second World War began and Metropolitan Elias of Lebanon brought us another icon for safekeeping. It had also been the object of great veneration in Lebanon. The icon was called “Nuria”, meaning “radiating light”. In spite of its name the icon was totally black, like coal. It was impossible to make out who or what was depicted. Little by little, however, it began to lighten, until finally we could see the Holy Virgin, and to Her left, Archangel Gabriel. But one day the Metropolitan came and took this icon from Gethsemane. We do not know anything more about it.

Our holy icon remained with us. It was kept for a time in Bethany, but later it was transferred to our Gethsemane church, where it is located to this day.

I forgot to mention that when Metropolitan Elias gave us the icon that day in Beirut, we also received certification that the holy icon has been given into the possession of Abbess Mary and the convent, and that it was called "Hodigitria" (meaning "the Way" or "the Path"), "Unburnt Bush", "Healer", and "Quick-to-Hear". The document also stated several miraculous occurrences explaining this various names.

In 1554 there was a great fire in the village of Rikhani (Lebanon). The entire village burned,
including the church ­with the exception of the Holy Gifts and this icon. From that time the Church authorities called it "Unburnt Bush ", and the people began to have special veneration for it and received help and consolation through their prayers before it. A plague broke out. Many people died. The bishops and clergy began leading church processions through the contaminated areas, carrying with them this icon. Every­where the processions passed, the epidemic quickly died out. Seeing such a miracle, the Church gave the icon a second name, "Healer". People began coming in great numbers to pray before it and received speedy help by their faith and their prayers. Then the leaders of the Church decided to add yet another name, "Quick-to-Hear". The icon remained in Rikhani and was greatly venerated by the Orthodox inhabitants.

When Archbishop Elias was appointed Metropolitan of Lebanon, he made a tour of his diocese and, of course, visited Rikhani. Metropolitan Elias had a profound devotion to the Mother of God, and wherever he saw Her holy icons he conducted services of thanksgiving and supplication (molebens) before them, praying fervently. The people in Rikhani, seeing his great reverence for their sacred treasure, decided to give it to him as a gift. Vladika was overwhelmed and deeply touched that they should be willing to part with their treasure, but they insisted, saying that such was the will of the All-holy Virgin Herself, and asking him only not to forget them in his prayers before Her. Vladika then took the icon with great joy and gratitude. Every day thereafter he served a moleben with an akathist before the icon.

I do not remember the year, but this is what happened: It was the fifth week of Great Lent on the eve of the "Laudations of the Mother of God". The holy icon stood in the center of our Gethsemane church, adorned with garlands of flowers and illumined with coloured vigil lamps. The akathist began. The sisters sang beautifully. The services continued the next morning. After the Liturgy there was a moleben. All of us, together with our Abbess, Mother Mary, knelt in a thanksgiving prayer to the All-holy Virgin. Suddenly the door opened and in came Metropolitan Elias. We were all very happy to see him. He quickly went up to the icon, made many prostrations and venerated it with great emotion, tears in his eyes. He read the troparion hymn in Arabic and made many prostrations, all the while tears streaming down his cheeks. Finally he blessed us and said, "I now understand why the Most Holy Lady desired to be with you, sisters. She sees your love towards Her, your faith and your prayers and sighs. And now I shall tell you what I did not tell you before.

"When I still had this holy icon in my quarters, I sang an akathist before it daily, praying that I be granted wisdom and help in various circumstances. I became very attached to this icon and esteemed it as a great treasure. But here is what happened. Once I dozed off after my evening prayers and I saw a dream, like a vision. Two Greatmartyrs, Katherine and Barbara (they gave me their names), appeared and told me that the Most Holy Theotokos is asking me to give Her icon to Abbess Mary in Palestine, and that it should remain there. Shortly thereafter I awoke and began pondering this dream and the Holy Virgin s strange request. I went to the icon to pray and thought to myself: 'Of course, that was only a dream. After all, who is this Abbess Mary? I don't know ha I've never heard of her. ' My heart all but calmed down. But the dream repeated itself The holy greatmartyrs told me that I must fulfill the injunction without delay. When I came to, fear took hold of me. I began thinking how difficult it would be for me to part with the holy icon. Then I decided that I would give away another Hodigitria icon I had which was similar to this one, only smaller. But the greatmartyrs appeared to me yet again and said that if I did not fulfill exactly the will of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, I would be punished for my disobedience. I awoke trembling. Falling to my knees before the icon, I begged the Theotokos to forgive me and with tears promised to fulfill everything without delay. Again peace filled my soul, although I was very sad that the Most Holy Lady was taking away from me Her wondrous image.

The next morning I began making inquiries: Did anyone know an Abbess Mary in Palestine?
And then a Fiend, a very devout man, said that he knew Abbess Mary very well. I entrusted him to make contact with her and to ask her to come and take the holy icon. Thus did I fulfill the will of the Queen of Heaven, and now it is clear to me why She desired to be among you, sisters, with your Abbess. Remember me, a great sinner, in your holy prayers before this holy icon.” The Metropolitan sobbed as he spoke, and we were all deeply moved.

And so we live beneath the protection of the Most Holy Mother of God in Her revered church in Gethsemane, defended from the anxieties and catastrophes of the world by Her holy icon
“Hodigitria “, “Unburnt Bush”, “Healer”, “Quick to Hear”, which was pleased to be with Abbess
Mary in Palestine, in this our holy community. Now wouldn't you agree that we are fortunate? We have seen Her glory and miracles. During the first Palestinian war we took the holy icon of the Mother of God and proceeded with it along the convent s walls, singing a moleben to Her and to Greatmartyr George. Stopping at each of the four corners of the property, the priest blessed the entire convent with the holy icon. We prayed to be defended and protected from the bullets, which fell around us like rain. The ground was littered with splinters of shrapnel, but beneath the protection of the Most Holy Lady not one of us was injured. And in the last Six day War we again experienced the miraculous protection of the Mother of God, which was extended over us, sinners and unworthy ones, in answer to our faith in Her maternal love and unconquerable power.

Gargoyle Code

Click here for chapters 1 - 9 (in reverse order) of Fr Dwight Longenecker's evolving Gargoyle Code and here for chapter 10. I'm certain I'm not alone in hoping this will in due course find its way into print. It's already made me reach for my very battered copy of Screwtape.

Monday, 19 March 2007

St Joseph


Joseph, fili David, noli timere accipere Mariam conjugem tuam: quod enim in ea natum est, de Spiritu Sancto est. (S. Matt 1. 20)

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Tagged!

So, tagged - or is it memed (?) - by Mac!

Rules of the game: list six weird things about me (only six?); tag and identify three new people; leave notification of tagging on the blog site of the newly tagged.

Right, what dare I admit to?

1. Rather like Esther, I cannot bear throwing anything away but, unlike Esther, in my case this doesn't just apply to stuff from loved ones! As a result -

2. One of the characteristics of my flat and my office (when I've had one) is the presence of numerous strategically positioned piles of paper, made up of things I'm convinced I'll need again some day. This has been a life-long condition from which no-one - mother, wives, secretaries - has yet cured me.

3. One of my 'piles' is the pile of books by my bedside. I am an obsessive bibliophile. I usually have three - sometimes four or five - books 'on the go' at one. My present bedside pile consists of With Jesus in Jerusalem and With Jesus through Galilee according to the fifth Gospel both by Fr Bargil Pixner OSB, The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, The Technique of Icon Painting by Guillem Ramos-Poqui, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky and Liturgie Latine (from Solesmes). Nothing if not c(C)atholic!

4. I almost always fall asleep at night over a book which makes progress sometimes painfully slow.

5. In my life I've moved house no fewer than 32 times (11 times before I was 21 so it's not all my fault) to addresses in six countries. My 33rd (and final) move is coming up. Watch this space.

6. I've got a thing about blondes (just kidding, Mac). My genuine sixth weirdity (qv 5 above) will be announced on this blog site within the next few weeks.

I tag (1)Kasia whose Clam Rampant is well worth visiting, (2)Richard whose blog (click on 'coffee') is contained within his new personal website (he can also be found as Technical Director of Lantern Productions) and (3) Jeffrey who has a whole stack of excellent blogsites of which I will list just three: The Roving Medievalist, Just a Comment and Triumphant Baroque.

Friday, 16 March 2007

A tall tail

In Jerusalem people talk to one another. There is no room at all for English social reticence with strangers.

I’ve taken to having lunch at a rather good restaurant called Amigo Emil in Al-Khanga Street. At a nearby table this afternoon was a ‘properly dressed’ clerical gentleman who turned out to be Fr Michael Sellers, the former Dean of St George's Anglican Cathedral. We had a most interesting conversation and he is a mine of local information and of good stories. At the lighter end of the spectrum I’m grateful to him for the following:-

A black cat arrived at the pearly gates and St Peter asked her if there was anything he could do to make her stay more comfortable. ‘Well’, said the cat, ‘my owners never did seem to be able to provide me with a comfortable cushion’. ‘No problem’ said St Peter and found the most comfortable cushion available in heaven.

A little later a group of mice arrived. ‘And what can I do for you’ asked the Saint? ‘Well’, said the leader of the group, ‘we never seemed to be able get up enough speed when being chased by a cat. If you have any cats here, could you please lay on some roller skates for us?’ So St Peter rustled up sets of mouse-sized skates and all seemed to be well in heaven.

Time passed and St Peter thought he’d check up on his new arrivals. He found the black cat and asked how she was getting on with the cushion. ‘It’s absolutely wonderful’, replied the cat ‘and, by the way, thanks for the extras.’ ‘Extras, what extras would those be,’ asked St Peter? ‘Well’, said the cat, ‘I didn’t know you had Meals on Wheels in heaven.’

Vespers


Quite by accident I found myself outside the gate of the Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St Mark just as Vespers was starting. I was given to understand afterwards that the half hour office was slightly shorter than usual because the Community only breaks its fast after vespers in Lent so breakfast was waiting! The service was in Aramaic, sung throughout from memory. The only downside was the approximate nature of the tuning. Melodic tone clusters for half an hour can be somewhat trying but, hey, I’m not complaining. To cap it all and to make my day, I was invited to go up and receive a blessing from the bishop who was presiding.

The church is built on top of what is claimed to be St Mark’s family home and the door on which St Peter knocked after he’d been sprung from jail by the angel. They also claim this as the site of the ‘upper room’ and therefore of the Last Supper and of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost. There are of course rival claimants for the site of these events but St Mark’s Monastery certainly ‘feels right’ and over the past few days I’ve come to set some store by such feelings. My more rational friends and acquaintances therefore have one more reason to despair of me.
Oh yes, they also claim to have the original 'miraculous' icon of the Blessed Virgin writen by St Luke. The elderly lady who looks after the place told me an extraordinary story of something that had happened to her. If true it would certainly qualify as miraculous. I will write this up in due course.
The photograph which I'm afraid I snuk during the service was a two-second exposure (without flash or tripod) under very low light. That it is as clear as it is and shows no sign of camera wobble is certainly unusual. I make no stronger claims.

Of children and cats

Jerusalem is a city of children and cats! The children of the Old City, be they Palestinian or Jewish, are almost without exception beautiful. It is a sad indictment of Western society that for a man of a certain age – even if he is a father and grandfather – to be seen taking photographs of children renders him suspect. That said, political correctness in Israel does not seem to feature quite as prominently as it does in England. But in spite of that I’ve been cautious although, with their smiling agreement, I did get a super shot this afternoon of three youngsters sitting on a skateboard careering down a hill on Mount Zion.

Mercifully there are no sensitivities about photographing cats so I have. The picture shows just two of the felines I befriended during the course of today. The sandy-coloured one has only one eye and this is the second Cyclops I've encountered. Clearly tension within Jerusalem cat society is as endemic as it is in the human equivalent.

More to follow eventually if the demand is there.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Convent of St Mary Magdalene

The Russian Orthodox Convent of St Mary Magdalene is one of those remarkable places one is reluctant to leave once one's there. It was snowing hard when I arrived and the sun was shining brightly when - eventually - I left. While it is by no means as large as the Dome of the Rock on the opposite side of the Kidron Valley, the five striking and (I suspect) recently regilded onion domes of the Abbey Church on the slope of the Mount of Olives make it one of Jerusalem’s most easily recognizable landmarks.

It was built as a memorial to Empress Maria by her son the Russian Czar Alexander III and his brothers. Grand-Duke Sergei, one of the Czar’s brothers, and his wife Grand-Duchess Elizabeth - formerly Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and sister of the ill-fated last Empress of Russia - presided at the consecration in 1888.

The Grand-Duchess took considerable personal interest in the church and commissioned well-known Russian artists to paint the murals, paintings and many of the fine icons that grace an otherwise fairly straightforward interior.

In 1905 the Grand-Duke was assassinated and the Grand-Duchess responded by founding a convent in Moscow devoted to nursing and charitable work. She herself became a nun. After the revolution, in 1918, the Grand-Duchess together with her companion Sister Barbara and several members of the Russian imperial family were murdered by being thrown into a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks and left to die. Her remains and those of Sister Barbara eventually were eventually brought to Jerusalem. In 1920, they were laid to rest, as the Grand-Duchess wished, in a crypt below the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. They were canonized in 1981 and their relics were moved into the main section of the church where they rest today in marble open sarcophagi on either side of the iconostasis.

Princess Andrew of Greece (Princess Alice of Battenberg), mother of the Duke of Edinburgh stayed at the monastery in the 1930s. Her wish was to be buried near her Aunt ‘Ella’, the Grand-Duchess Elizabeth whose devotion to the church and to nursing and charitable service she strove to emulate. Princess Andrew died at Buckingham Palace in 1969. Her wish to be buried at the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane was finally realized in 1988 when her remains were transferred to a crypt below the church. One of the delightful sisters, once she knew I was English, took me to see her.

The story that attaches to the icon on the right side of the iconostasis is remarkable. Dating back to the 16th century, it comes from Lebanon and from the outset was associated with miraculous occurrences. In the late 1930s it belonged to the Metropolitan of Lebanon who had repeated dreams in which Our Lady told him - eventually in no uncertain terms, I gather - to give the icon to ‘Abbess Mary’ in Palestine. He had no idea who this might be but after an initial reluctance to act, he made inquiries and found there was indeed such a person – an English woman – at the Russian Orthodox Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane. And so the icon changed hands.

A more detailed (and rather more gripping) account of the icon’s acquisition is told by one of the sisters present at the time who went on to become abbess between 1970 and 1983. I will attempt to summarize this account in a later posting.

Wishful thinking?

I touched briefly yesterday on the question of the authenticity of some of the Holy Land sites. Can we really be certain that the much-photographed silver star in the grotto under the Church of the Nativity marks the spot where Jesus was born? Did Our Lord’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection really occur in the places now indicated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Everyone will have a view – I certainly do – but at the end of the day the passage of time and the events of history have conspired to introduce greater or lesser elements of uncertainty about many of the key sites and each of us needs to decide to what extent that uncertainty is important. It’s easy to be cynical about the whole set up and to dismiss as unlikely anything that cannot be proven empirically. But such cynicism can be hugely destructive. To have historical sites as a focus of devotion is of immense value to countless numbers of people and if the provenance of some of the locations is somewhat dubious then, frankly, so what. If this or that event didn’t happen precisely where the guide books say then we are certain enough about placing other parts of the narrative not to have to ‘prove’ every single last detail.

Perhaps the one place over which there is no argument at all is the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of it. No-one doubts that this is the place Jesus used to escape to at night to pray or that he prayed there the night before he died. I wonder if I am alone in sometimes wishing to conflate the Garden of Gethsemane with the Garden near the tomb where Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus on the morning of the resurrection. That wish got a considerable boost this morning when I visited the Russian Orthodox Convent of St Mary Magdalene. Maybe I was just receptive to the convent’s patronage and the fact that a picture of the lady the Orthodox refer to as ‘equal to the apostles’ confronts one the moment one steps through the convent gate but I could so readily picture the Easter morning encounter happening right there.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Preconceived notions

I well remember the intense disappointment I experienced when attending Luchino Visconti’s now almost legendary production of Rigoletto at Covent Garden sometime in the early 1960s. I had been studying the work for my A level music exams. As a result, I knew it backwards from listening to a scratchy LP set I’d got out from the public library. It was long before videos and DVDs and television opera productions were as much a rarity as they are today so one conjured up a production in one’s mind based solely on the aural experience. And the better one knew a piece, the more elaborately comprehensive one’s mental production. It wasn’t that Visconti’s production was inferior to ‘mine’ – it was opulently wonderful – just that it didn’t fit the preconceived picture I had and was therefore a disappointment.

To generations that grew up first with bible stories at their mother’s knee and later with their own reading of the Scriptures, there can be few places more susceptible to personal preconceptions than the Holy Land. It would take a singularly unimaginative person who grew up like this not to have the clearest of pictures of the places where, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, the Feeding of the Five Thousand and other events in Our Lord’s earthly ministry took place. Well today I, like many before me, had the uncomfortable experience of comparing my own long-nurtured picture of many of these places with the modern day reality. It's not that I had expected this reality to conform precisely to what I had imagined, just that the old pictures have now to be discarded and replaced by ones that are by definition more prosaic and such a process cannot but be unsettling. It also brings into sharper focus the related matter of how certain can we be that particular events occurred in a particular place. Ultimately of course such certainty is unimportant and that unimportance sits more comfortably with a mental picture than it does with a map reference.

The picture at the head of this post is one I took this afternoon at the traditional location of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist. It will take my grey cells a long while to discard the desert landscape that has until now featured in my mind’s eye and in innumerable Hollywood biblical epics for the lush semi-tropical reality. In this case at least I'm somewhat relieved to find I rather prefer the new version.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Bethlehem

As of course has been widely reported, travelling between Jerusalem and Bethlehem these days is by no means straightforward. Indeed, Mary and Joseph may have taken a little longer to get there from Nazareth but they are unlikely to have encountered any thirty-foot high concrete walls. But more of that a bit later. Suffice it to say, I had anticipated a lengthy journey. So imagine my surprise when my No 21 bus from the East Jerusalem bus station deposited me a 100 yards or so from Manger Square just 40 minutes later. Of course we’d seen the ‘fence’; it’s not just in one place, such are the complicated demographics south of Jerusalem. However as we approached the boarder crossing the bus driver executed a nifty u-turn and we were up and away over the hills. I haven’t the faintest idea where we went but there’s clearly an open road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem known to the No 21 bus driver and, I suspect, a few others. Either his command of English wasn’t too great or he just wasn’t letting on – the latter, I suspect – but I got no clear answer when I asked him if this is what happened every day. One other small detail is worth recording. Between the u-turn and our destination, there wasn’t a single word spoken by anyone on the bus. You could have heard a pin drop.

Getting back was more complicated. First a word of warning. I wouldn’t advise anyone vaguely resembling a tourist to go anywhere near the Bethlehem bus station/taxi rank. If there was one taxi in line there must have been 200. As previous posts have made it clear, I have over the past few days become accustomed to fending off souk traders and taxi drivers. But nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught at the Manger Street Bus Station. Business is not good in Bethlehem at the moment and the chance of actually picking up a fare was clearly sufficient to warrant a stampede in my direction. I did the only sensible thing and high tailed it back to Manager Square where it’s possible to get a pretty good lunch at the St George Restaurant. (No need to book. There were at least thirty empty tables even after a Polish tour group had arrived.)

After lunch as luck would have it (but maybe not), there was a taxi right outside so I jumped in thinking myself lucky to have escaped the bus station mob. But I was in for a slightly different surprise. When I asked the driver how much he’d charge to take me to the crossing, he simply said, ‘what you want.’ It was only when we got to the boarder that I twigged he had meant precisely what he’d said. With the disappearance of tens if not hundreds of thousands of visitors, the bottom has dropped out of the Bethlehem economy and here was one lucky taxi driver trying to make ends meet by appealing to my conscience. He seemed pleased with 50 shekels (about £7.00) for the five minute ride. He’d be doing all right if he could find another 20 such customers but I rather suspect I was the last one he’d see today.

I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores of the ‘fence’. As a child of the Cold War who crossed the iron curtain on many occasions, I’d hoped not to see another one. It’s worse than the pictures show, far worse. I really cannot remember the Berlin Wall being quite so awful. This one’s certainly higher and there are watch towers every so often just to reinforce one’s sense of déjà vue. But perhaps the most worrying thing I saw was the Jerusalem Stone cladding being added to the pillars supporting the horizontal lengths of concrete: all very decorative, but one doesn’t indulge in such architectural titivation of a temporary structure.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Jerusalem Syndrome

I make full acknowledgement to the Insight Guides Jerusalem guide book as the source of what follows although you’ll find a no less good exposition in Wikipedia.

Every year apparently, several dozen visitors are dragged off to hospital where they are diagnosed as suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome. Typically these are young people, Christians and Jews alike, from North America and Europe who claim to be Jesus, God (more generally, one must presume) or one of the prophets.

Although the symptoms are as often as not of a psychotic nature – the sufferers frequently refer to voices from above – Jerusalem’s Herzog Memorial Psychiatric Hospital which sees most of the cases is not able to say much more on the subject. The main reason for this is that the Israeli authorities are eager to ship the unfortunate sufferers back whence they came as quickly as possible. This is understandable given the tensions that exist almost by default in this city of religion. The memory of a deranged Australian Christian who set fire to the El-Aqsa Mosque in 1969 nearly causing an intifada remains fresh in memories used to extended time frames.

Most of those diagnose with Jerusalem Syndrome have a history of psychiatric disorder and it may just be that religious mania, which is far from being an unusual psychiatric phenomenon, simply finds a ready outlet in those with generalised symptoms who travel to a city whose emotive power to excite is unquestionably considerable.

I was able to close one of my posts yesterday with the ubiquitous ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose’. Here I go again. We are after all talking about a city with a verifiable history of more than three thousand years in which religion was a central issue. Nearly two thousand years ago the government was so concerned about unrest during religious festivals that the governor himself had to oversee security measures. And what was one of his recorded chief concerns? People proclaiming themselves to be the messiah. Which in turn begs the question, ‘what of the second coming? What indeed!

Church of the Holy Sepulchre (again)

In the absence of shouting Orthodox priests on my second visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre this morning (see yesterday’s posting under the same heading), I have made my peace with the place. Even at an early hour there were still a fair number of people about but the great majority of them were going about their devotions which not only allowed but encouraged me to do likewise. Thus I found myself on my knees in the tomb itself next to an unknown woman of, to judge from her headscarf, Middle Eastern origin. Her quietly restrained and immensely dignified weeping articulated more clearly than any number of words I might conjure up all that might possibly be expressed about such a moment. The veil between time and eternity was gossamer thin.

A similar concentrated stillness characterised the time I was able to spend in front of the three altars upstairs. Positioned side by side these are dedicated respectively to the Nails of the Cross, the Stabat Mater and the Crucifixion. As far as I could work out (from the décor) the first two of these are Catholic altars, while the third, illustated in yesterday's posting, is Orthodox. While such distinctions are, I gather, of continued intense concern to the authorities of these churches, I am happy to be able to report that such distinctions appear not to bother the faithful one little bit. I make this judgement after observing the manner in which those standing or kneeling in front of all three altars made the sign of the cross. As a mere Anglican I have often thought to follow Orthodox practice in such matters but I find I get myself in a muddle about where to go next and, such is my conditioning, it doesn’t ‘feel right’.

The stairs down from the three Golgotha altars are precipitous but I’m glad to say the only concession to issues of health and safety is a single hand rail. Indeed the (British) Health and Safety Executive would not be pleased on a number of counts. Pricket stands (of the Orthodox sand-in-a-bucket design) are surprisingly few in number. But this inhibits the candle-lighting faithful not at all and one sees candles waxed to horizontal surfaces any- and everywhere. To judge from quite substantial areas of blackened fabric – some looking quite recent – fires are by no means uncommon.

Which leads, more or less logically, to consideration of matters graffiti. The guidebook draws the visitor’s attention to the thousand upon thousand crosses painstakingly incised by medieval pilgrims into the walls of the staircase down to the crypt chapels dedicated to St Helena. Not commented on are the numerous, usually rather less beautiful more recent additions, particularly those on the glass or perspex sheets that protect vulnerable ancient stonework in the deeper of the two chapels where St H found the three crosses. Not for the first time I was left wondering how old does a piece of graffito has to be before it becomes interesting.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Mad dogs

The light relief in my progress around the streets of Jerusalem today has been provided by my attempts to run the gauntlet of souk traders and taxi drivers.

The art of not getting waylaid by traders is almost as fine a one as the art of haggling. By nature I do try and avoid being rude to people. So, if someone wishes me a good morning my reflex is to wish them one back. However in a souk that isn’t always a good idea because the average souk trader is a fly operator and he knows very well that ‘good morning’ leads ever so readily to ‘and how are you?’ And before you know where you are deep in conversation and once he’s showing you pictures of his son or daughter in England it becomes extraordinarily difficult not to buy something. Take my word for it. Actually in my case today such a conversation after buying something I did want distracted me sufficiently to forget about collecting eight shekels (about a pound) change. But the funniest incident of all related to my walking stick.

I have rather a nice brass headed walking stick which unscrews in four places. I imagine the sale of such sticks has gone through the roof since the recent increase in the restrictions on what may be taken on to an aeroplane came into effect. Although I’ve never seen walking sticks per se listed as restricted items, I cannot imagine it is possible any longer just to walk on to a plane with one. Four short pieces of cylindrical wood packed with one’s socks is a different matter. Anyhow, I have such a stick and it has been much admired since I bought it late last year. ‘Where did you get that from’, a voice behind me this morning piped up. ‘How much do you want for it?’ In spite of my repeated protestations that it wasn’t for sale, the price was at four times its value by the time I realised the only way to extricate myself from this one was to remove myself (and the walking stick) as quickly as I could. And a good thing I did because less than five minutes later it saved me from an undignified tumble on an uncommonly slippery paving stone.

Taxi drivers around here are even more of a menace. During the afternoon I walked to the top of the Mount of Olives and on the way up I was accosted more than once by three or four different drivers who were firmly convinced that this particular Englishman, mad dog or otherwise, simply ought not to be out in the midday sun. And indeed it did beat down as my pink brow this evening attests. Needless to say when I did want a cab once I had got back down from the Mount, there wasn’t one to be had. ’Twas ever thus.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It took me a while to find what most would agree is the holiest site in Christendom. The maps in two guidebooks made valiant by futile attempts to approximate the labyrinthine meanderings of the streets in Jerusalem's Old City. Things weren't made any easier by the fact that a good many of the street names in the guide books - both recently published - bore no relationship to the signs in three languages in the streets themselves. In the end I followed the bells. Goodness what a din. I love bells. The deeper and noisier the better. But those of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are in a league of their own. Karlheinz Stockhausen at his most dissonant would be hard pressed to match what I heard this morning. It was quite mesmerising and, once one had got used to it, thrilling.

I had been warned. You'll be appalled at the goings on, people had said. So I steeled myself. I was determined to see what I would see at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the context of what Jerusalem undoubtedly is in many other respects: an unholy hodge podge of poyglot humanity rubbing shoulders in a confined competitive space. Obviously there is friction. There always has been and there probably always will be. So I took a deep breath and tried not be upset. But I'm afraid I was. It wasn't the crowds; the place was heaving. It wasn't the noise. It wasn't the disorder; the lack of signage and of any 'system' was rather refreshing. It wasn't even the evident self importance of many of the clerics from a number of traditions taking part in a range of liturgical actions I witnessed. What really angered me was the Orthodox priest yelling - literally yelling at the top of his voice - at a group of Japanese tourists telling them they couldn't be part of a particular queue to go into the tomb itself. I have seldom witnessed anything so awful.

Having simmered down outside in the sunshine, I decided to come again, probably early one morning. My guide book tells me it's open from 4 am!

They did warn me . . .

. . . that the grilling one gets on arrival at Ben Gurion International, Tel Aviv is second only to the reception laid on at points of entry to the USA. They’ve always been a particularly grim lot a JFK but I gather they’re even worse since 9/11.

So there I was at seven o’clock this morning, my body still tuned in to GMT telling me it was two hours earlier, confronted by a humourless Gorgon asking me all sorts of damn fool questions the burden of which was why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to visit Israel?

As I say, I was forewarned so, having patiently waited my turn, I marched forward to the cubicle wearing my most winning smile and wished her the top o’ the morning. No, I didn’t assume my lamentable Irish accent, but I tried to put a bit of Irish enthusiasm into my greeting. But it cut no ice. She scarcely batted an eyelid let alone responded with anything resembling a smile and said not a word in response. Why was I visiting Israel? Was I with anybody? Did I know anybody in Israel? What did I do? That took a while because I rashly mentioned being bursar of Ely Cathedral until last July. She didn’t seem to have the faintest inkling of what a bursar might do and was clearly not too sure about English cathedrals. ‘Oh, so you’re a priest then’ she offered, finally and hopefully. Clearly she was used to priests. ‘No,’ I told her, ‘I’m not a priest.’ If it could have done, her face would have fallen. ‘But aren’t you afraid of being alone for a week in Jerusalem?’ I resisted the temptation of asking her why on earth she should think that and simply responded in the monosyllabic negative. She sighed and stamped my passport.

I’m sure this lady is the salt of the earth, has a loving husband, has a household full of the most delightful children and is the life and soul of every social occasion in which she participates. But this morning she did a most convincing imitation of the babushkas the Soviet authorities used to seat at the end of every hotel corridor and who seemed to have been programmed to respond to any question put to them with a dispiriting ‘nyet’.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.