THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (1)
My daughter Rachel in England sent me an email recently which she headed: “A Haiku that could have been written by you”
Somewhere at the heart
of the universe sounds the
true mystic note: Me.
She was having a crack at that ego of mine. I love her for it. It needs cracking and often is, but it does mend itself with alacrity.
To the airport and Ivanhoe
Diana managed to evade the Chilean ash cloud on Wednesday, just as I did the Icelandic one last year. So as I write she is on her way to Toronto, there she will spend a week with family and friends before heading on to London. She has left me a freezer full of meals, a weeded garden, leaf-raked lawns and lots of expressions of love and affection.
After seeing her off I called on John and Kate Horder in Ivanhoe and had a lovely chat with them, my mobile phone pinging with messages from Diana as she waited to board her plane. John is stoically undergoing both radiotherapy and chemotherapy which have very far from pleasant side effects. His sense of humour remains active and infectious though, and his interest in the parish focussed and wise. It was his birthday and so I was able to leave a little gift and card and wish him well. He is an exceedingly good egg.
I was told last week of a funeral homily that I had delivered some years previously which had offended a relative of the deceased. That cracked my ego alright! My immediate reaction was regret, self-admonishment, chest-beating and a rueful acknowledgement of that tendency in myself to sail verbally too close to the wind. However, in my funeral homilies, over which I labour long, lovingly and hard, I usually manage to avoid giving offence, so I was surprised.
Fortunately I keep a copy of all my homilies and so revisited the one in question. I was reassured. It was one of my best. I would not want to retract a word of it, for it was complimentary, appropriately humourous, well argued, strong on faith and most felicitously expressed. The offended person I assume (possibly wrongly) to have been a hyper-sensitive ninny, one of those sorts who expect from mother Church the unctuous pap and comforting platitudes that undertakers are paid so well to deliver. I regard the homily so highly I am considering posting it on the net, with the name of the deceased person it celebrates tactfully disguised, of course.
The last time I saw Hilder Lidgaard was but a few days before her death. I called in on her at Acacia House after a Hospice Board Meeting that finished earlier than is usual. She was lying peacefully on one of those wonder-beds that can be electronically raised and lowered with such ease, and so she was but a few inches from the ground. I stretched out on the floor beside her and chatted about choirs, churches, her husband, her widely admired nursing prowess and so on. She could not respond verbally, but managed to do so with the slightest of little nods of the head whenever she was in strong agreement with any sentiment that I expressed. There re-mained the suspicion of a sparkle to her eyes.
A few years ago, when my daughter Rachel sang in the choir, Hilder was her very favourite chorister, she loved her and liked to sit beside her. It was all to do with Hilder’s sense of humour and fun, her love of music, her remarkable voice in one so aged, her lively interest in all that happened, and her “cheerful countenance”. May Hilder Lidgard rest in peace.
Anglican parish church choirs of the sort that both Hilder and I love so dearly are endangered species in Australia. All our efforts to “modernise” and “enculturate” our worship I can undertake only half-heartedly and merely from a sense of duty. I would really far prefer to embed us more firmly and surely in the 17th and 18th centuries! Unable to attend Hilder’s Funeral I played to myself, but in her honour, a setting of Evensong by my favourite Anglican composer, Orlando Gibbons (1583-1685).
All true Anglicans should be aware of Orlando Gibbons. Not least because he is responsible for several glorious hymn tunes, notably the ones we sing to the words: “Forth in thy name O Lord I go....” and: “O Thou who at the Eucharist didst pray...”
Gibbons was born in Cambridge and christened at Oxford the same year. Between 1596 and 1598 he sang in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, where his brother Edward Gibbons, eldest of the four sons of William Gibbons, was master of the choristers. Orlando entered the university in 1598 and achieved the degree of Bachelor of Music in 1606. James I appointed him a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, where he served as an organist from about 1615 until his death. In 1623 he became senior organist at the Chapel Royal. He also held positions as keyboard player in the privy chamber of the court of Prince Charles (later King Charles I), and organist at Westminster Abbey. He died at age the age of 41 in Canterbury, of apoplexy of all things. It is the sort of end that I fear I might make. Shaking off my mortal coil in a fit of apoplectic rage! There is a monument to him in Canterbury Cathedral.
He is up there with the greatest of composers and his anthems are superb. However perhaps the most remarkable of his compositions is a fascinating montage of the advertising jingles of his day: “The Cryes of London”. Set for five voices and five viols, the composition makes use of the street cries and songs of the hawkers and vendors in the London of his time. Lovely to listen to, the words go as follows:
God give you good morrow my master, past three o’clock and a fair morning. New mussels, new lily white mussels. Hot codlings [cooking apples], hot. New cockles, new great cockles. New great sprats, new. New fresh herrings. New haddocks, new. Now thornbacks new. Hot apple pies, hot. Hot pippin pies, hot. Fine pomegranates, fine. Hot mutton pies hot. Ha’ ye any old bellows or trays to mend? Rosemary and bays, quick and gentle. Ripe chestnuts, ripe. Ripe smallnuts, ripe. White cabbage, white young cabbage, white. White turnips, white young turnips, white, parsnips, lettuce. Buy any ink, will you buy any ink, very fine writing ink, will you buy any ink? Ha’ ye any rats or mice to kill? I ha’ ripe peascods, ripe. Oysters, oysters, oysters, threepence a peck at Bridewell dock, new Wallfleet oysters. Oyez! If any man or woman can tell any tidings of a grey mare, with a long mane and a short tail, she halts down right before, and is stark lame behind, and was lost this thirtieth day of February. He that can tell any tidings of her, let him come to the Crier, and he shall have well for his hire. Ripe damsons, ripe fine damsons. Hard garlic, hard. Will ye buy any aqua vitae, mistress? I have ripe gooseberries, ripe. Buy a barrel of Samphire. What is’t ye lack? Fine wrought shirts or smocks. Perfumed waistcoats, fine bone lace or edgings, sweet gloves, silk garters, very fine silk garters, fine combs or glasses. Or a poking stick with a silver handle. Old doublets, ha’ye any old doublets? Ha’ ye any corns on your feet or toes? Fine potatoes, fine. Will ye buy any starch for a clear complexion, mistress? Poor naked bedlam, Tom’s a-cold, a small cut of thy bacon or a piece of thy sow’s side, good Bess. God Almighty bless thy wits. Quick [live] periwinckles, quick, quick, quick. Buy a new almanac. Buy a fine washing ball. Buy any small coal? Good gracious people, for the Lord’s sake, pity the poor women, we lie cold and comfortless night and day on the cold boards in the dark dungeon in great misery. Hot oat cakes. Lanthorn and candlelight, hang out maids for all night. And so we make an end.
We have just ripped out our aubergine plants and so have been eating the last of a good crop. I have invented a new and simple way of cooking them. I slice them almost a centimetre thick, make a pocket through the skin into each slice and insert thin slivers of garlic and tomato. I then lightly spray them with oil and grill both sides a handsome bronze. More than tolerable. I don’t bother with all the salting away of a bitterness that doesn’t exist.
Touché Chris, touché!
Most people appear to be unaware that Christopher Hitchens once did a demolition job on Mother Theresa, writing a book that questions everything she was and did, calling her among other things, “Hell’s Angel” and accusing her of extreme dogmatism, blinkered faith, and of being a fanatic, a fundamentalist, a fraud and much worse. That after all is Hitchen’s style and some of what he says is doubtless partly true. All motives are mixed, mine certainly are. However I was delighted to read someone say of Hitchens himself: “.....it would be unfortunate if he were to be remembered not as the person who had fed the poor and comforted the dying, but the person who had given a good kicking to the woman who did. Touché Chris, touché!
On Tuesday Gail and I go to Harrietville for the annual Priests’ Retreat. I notice that this year we have only one full day, for we return on Thursday. The Diocese is obviously cut-ting costs. Chris Shields will be taking the Wednesday Eucharist. One of my favourite poems is called “The Retreate”. It is by the seventeenth century priest and parson Henry Vaughan and looks back to a happy childhood with eloquent longing, assuming the Platonic notion of the preexistence of the human soul, and so of us arriving at birth trailing Wordsworthian “clouds of glory” which we lose as we grow up, it ends memorably thus:
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.
In a recent article entitled “Warm to Sin” I noted a comment about a colleague that I had made in conversation to Diana and recorded in my journal.......”he is only an anglo catholic in gloss, not the real thing, his relationship to sin is not warm enough to be a genuine anglo catholic”.
I have just read an excellent little article by Greg Melleuish in “The Australian” which makes, in passing, much the same point. He says “Wowsers (We Only Want Social Evils Remedied) are traditionally as Australian as meat pies and Holden cars. They were responsible for Australian institutions such as the six o’clock closing and the shutting of shops on Sundays..... wowserism has never really gone away and, like any great tradition, has bided its time waiting for new opportunities. It has simply changed its spots. Once it had a strong religious colouring; now it is taking on an increasingly secular tone.
Wowsers want to improve people and make them better. To do so they have to prevent them from engaging in activities that they find immoral: be it gambling, eating meat, drinking alcohol, smoking or consuming junk food. My father used to say that for such people if you were enjoying yourself there must be sin involved......
Melleuish goes on to talk of eugenics in relation to the desire to force improvement upon humanity in the spirit of wowserism and makes the point that in the past: it was not politics so much as religion that determined whether a government would seek to go down this road. Protestants generally did, Catholics did not. Fortunately, Australia had a significant Catholic minority.
It is an excellent, short article which, if you google his name and the word “wowser” will make itself available to you.
How I love the Christian Faith
How I love the Christian Faith! It is so beautiful, so life enhancing, so culturally profound and enriching. Why is it so hard to get the vacillating, wimpish, politically correct, lumpen intelligentsia of Shepparton, all those mugs who play their endless, hedonistic rounds of golf, revere and take as scripture only “The Age”, and who mouth the cliches of anti-faith so slavishly and ignorantly, to step out or their selfish, indecisive, stupid scepticism to take seriously the glorious, ancient, mysterious, compelling faith that gave rise to a poem like this, written all those years ago in the seventeenth century:
To Christ on the Cross
I am not moved to love you, Lord, to gain
the heaven you have promised in return.
And God, what moves me never to complain
is not the fear of hell where sinners burn.
You move me, Lord. It moves me when I see
they mock you as you draw your dying breath.
I’m moved before your body’s injury.
I’m moved by what you suffered, by your death.
At length what moves me is your love, and thus,
if heaven were not real, I’d still love you;
if hell untrue, I’d fear you nonetheless.
You owe me nothing for loving you like this,
since if I did not hope for what I do,
I’d love you, Lord, with equal tenderness.
Miguel de Guevara (1585-1646)
translated from the Spanish by Robert Schechter
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (2)
It is a dark, wet, windy Tuesday morning as I begin this diary column. I love bitter, blustery, wintry gloom. The oasis of warmth and light that is my study is accentuated and emphasised by what it keeps at bay. Outside are the cold, wet, leafless trees, “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang....”. But inside all is lightness and warmth as a Boccherini quintet plays delicately and melodically from my computer’s fine speakers, building up to a frenzy of glorious melody before returning to a quiet and simple delicacy to end “as it was in the beginning”. I love Boccherini, his music is ideal for dark and gloomy early mornings, there is something incurably optimistic about it.
Before settling with a cup of coffee to write, I ventured outside into the pitch dark and blustery wet to to have a look at the rain gauge. Nine millimetres so far, a life saver, the garden was beginning to look pinched.
The daily round and common task
Because I go off this morning to the Priest’s Retreat in Harrietville I had to give away most of Monday, my day off, yesterday. I dealt first with some of the regular weekly tasks that I usually postpone until Tuesday. The preliminary work for this pew sheet, for example, putting in all the liturgical stuff and making sure that this week, unlike last, the psalm sung by the choir will be the same as the one in the pew sheet! The cartoons have to be selected and scanned and a joke searched out and chosen. Once this is accomplished I email my efforts to the parish office so that Heather, when she arrives on Wednesday, can add the rosters, timetables and notices as the week rolls on.
After this I selected and printed the music for Sunday. This is a time consuming but enjoyable task. I trolled through some of my many hymn books, playing promising looking melodies on my recorder. I discovered a new hymn with fairly ordinary words but a catchy tune for the 10.30 Eucharist, and so in my high-handed fashion fiddled with some of the words to make them more suitable for the baptisms this Sunday. I then scanned the music into the computer and on to the choir sheet and saved it as a PDF file to email to the two Christines.
It was then the turn of the service sheets and intercessions. They too were sorted out and are now, on this Tuesday morning, ready for use once Sunday’s notices and the lists of the sick and anniversaries of death are updated and added later in the week.
My last such chore was the most time-consuming of all. I labouriously put the 10.30am service into Power-Point mode to enable it to be projected on to the screen. This is a skill that I am slowly mastering, and will then, hopefully, pass on to Heather each week.
Ringing bulls at Undera
In mid morning I gathered together thurible, incense and holy water, and headed out to a farm near Undera. I had arranged to bless a little cottage that is being refurbished on the property and in which there was felt to be evil vibes. It is an old cottage in a lovely setting and I wouldn’t mind living there myself. I did the blessing assisted by the farmer’s wife and then we went over to the cattle yard and watched her husband and two other fellows put a ring into the nose of a young adult bull. This was fascinating, the beast clamped in a tight, strait-jacket of a stall while the job was done, and without too much bellowing. There were about sixty five fine looking beasts, all with new rings in their noses. Their destin-ation is Indonesia, for breeding not butchering and so they are not under a ban. I wonder what animal rights activists would make of the nose ringing though. The bull I watched seemed not overly distressed by the deed, like having a tooth out without anaesthetic.
The farmer runs a fascinating business flying live beasts over to various countries in Asia, for breeding purposes or to form dairy herds. I gather that traditionally the Chinese have not been great consumers of dairy products, but that their huge and burgeoning middle class is beginning to change in this regard, hence the need to develop a dairy industry. The bulls I observed are apparently selected from here there and everywhere in Australia, brought to Undera and then flown out, three to a crate and worth an estimated $10,000 each by the time they get there.
Italian meat balls
In the afternoon I did manage a little bit of time off to make some Italian meat balls from veal and pork mince. I had bought the mince in case I needed it to feed Elizabeth, Nathan and the girls who were over for the weekend because I had asked Elizabeth to play the piano at the 10.30 service, to give Audrey a break. However we ate other things and so on Monday, as if back in kinder, I happily spiced up, augmented and rolled out as if they were plasticine, lots of little balls and then cooked them in a rich vegetable and tomato mix. I tucked in to a great pile of them on noodles for dinner and they were delicious, though the vegie “sauce” was possibly a bit too worthy, full of beans and lentils as well as fresh vegetables.
I ended the day by going over to the hall to sample and judge the cooking skills of the Youth Group. Three teams produced three courses for a collection of judges to taste, weigh up and consider. Some of their efforts were excellent, others rather less so, but an enjoyable exercise. Mary Pearson does a wonderful job with the youngsters, as too does her back up team, which last Monday comprised Bev Condon and Dorothy Cook.
Iridescent bubbles of happiness
With Diana away, when I awake in the night I have reverted to listening to the BBC to take my mind off my own preoccupations and so encourage the return of sleep. On Tuesday morning I listened to an account of a woman sent with her sister, as little girls, to Australia for the duration of the war. Her story about the wrenching apart of a loving family for five long years was heart-breaking, the wretched lachrymae rerum, the tearfulness of things. My Brisbane brother rang up that night and we had a good chat about this and that, some of it to do with the lachrymae rerum.
When we are on our own the fun and cheerfulness of things is too easily swamped by their opposites. Optimism and humour spark best in the banter and repartee of good company. The best of friends or spouses burst the grim globules of gloom and sadness, effervescing the shrapnel into the iridescent bubbles of laughter and happiness.
Much ado about noting
I have been reading a tome so huge I wonder if I will ever find the time to finish it, but it is very, very good. It is called “A Secular Age” and is by Charles Taylor, a hugely erudite and impressive scholar. In it I came across this quotation from Bede Griffiths’ autobiography, a book I read years ago but have largely forgotten. Taylor uses the piece as an example of the experiences we all of us have, believers and non believers, of fullness, joy and fulfilment.....
One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song, which can only be heard at that time of the year at dawn or at sunset. I remember now the shock of surprise with which the sound broke on my ears. It seemed to me that I had never heard the birds singing before and I wondered whether they sang like this all year round and I had never noticed it. As I walked I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and again I thought that I had never seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before. If I had been brought suddenly among the trees of the Garden of Paradise and heard a choir of angels singing I could not have been more surprised. I came then to where the sun was setting over the playing fields. A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where I was standing and poured out its song above my head, and then sank still singing to rest. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.
Our retreat conductor (for I am now at Harrietville) is the sort that I relish, widely acquainted with, and thoroughly at home in the great heritage of literature, music and art that informs, enriches and illuminates our lives, faith and civilization. She commented in her first address that in Elizabethan English the word “nothing” was apparently pronounced as “noting” and so the phrase “Much ado about “nothing” could just as well be “Much ado about noting” which is a cue to what spiritual awareness is all about. Namely noticing what merely is, for what in reality and in more than fact, it really is, as happened with Bede Griffith in the passage quoted above.
My own personal and doubtless far too simplistic theory of art is that, if it is authentic, it draws aside or twitches for us the veil between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the human and the divine, in order to reveal the “otherness” of everything, the “otherness” in everything, reality as suffused with divinity. Hence the use of art, music and literature in my devotional life.
The monastery cat
She delighted me too by quoting a prayer of George Appleton’s which I used a fair bit once upon a time but had forgotten. Searching for the prayer in one of the many files on my computer I came across another by Appleton that is lovely and might well be useful at funerals:
O Christ, the little girl on her deathbed, the young man on his way to his grave, and Lazarus three days in the tomb, could all hear your voice. May each soul as it passes through death, hear your friendly voice, see the look of love in your eyes and the smile of welcome in your face, and be led by you to the Father of all souls. Amen.
She told us an amusing story about a monastery that was given a cat upon which the monks doted, but which was a little wayward and so disturbed the daily mass by jumping up where it shouldn’t and meowing inappropriately. They resolved the problem by tying it up before mass each day and so this became a little ritual necessary before mass was said for fifteen long years. Then the cat eventually died. Consternation! They found thereafter that they were unable to say mass at all, so necessary and essential to the rituals of the mass had become the tying up of the cat beforehand! The story illustrated the necessity of being able to let go of what is unnecessary or redundant in the spiritual life.
I found the Appleton prayer I was actually looking for in a scheme of prayers I once put together and published in this pew sheet during several Lents:
O Christ, my Lord, again and again I have said with Mary Magdalene,”They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him.” I have been desolate and alone. And thou hast found me again, and I know that what has died is not thou, my Lord, but only my idea of thee, the image which I have made to preserve what I have found, and to be my security. I shall make another image, O Lord, better than the last. That too must go, and all successive images, until I come to the blessed vision of thyself, O Christ, my Lord.
The retreat is now over, and I am home. Don’t for a minute imagine that the experience was all spiritual delight. The food was largely excellent, not least the full, cooked breakfasts and I slept long and well. It rained coldly and gently for pretty well the whole time we were there, but I did manage one good and longish walk, greeting sodden kangaroos in a cheerful fashion as well as currawongs and kookaburras.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (3)
My computerised daily journal dates from 1998. As of Monday night it consists of one million, two hundred and two thousand and four words, most of them inconsequential and of little interest to anyone except myself.
Reverential and admiring
I am glad, though, that I have developed and maintained the discipline of journalising my life. Not least because if ever I have cause to read past journal entries I reacquaint myself with the self I used to be. Fascinating of course because (as I never tire of confessing) my relationship with myself has always been reverential and admiring. The person I discover myself to have been in the past is less different from the self I now am than I am wont to suppose. I can see few signs of progress, or any improvement in goodness, spirituality and wisdom. I console myself by reflecting that goodness, spirituality and wisdom are blind to themselves, except in others!
I recently set about typing out some longhand journals from 1977, the early days in my first parish in Rhodesia. It brought back vividly to mind those happy times and reminded me of all sorts of people and events that I had nearly forgotten.
The very first journal I kept was when I went to England in my twenties to teach. This was a very significant period of my life, during which I turned myself back full face to God and eventually offered myself for ordination. Sadly I destroyed this first journal, deeming it too personal and revealing to risk anyone else ever getting hold of it. I regret destroying it enormously.
Jokes, cartoon and fun
Unless too pushed for time I really enjoy putting together this pew sheet. It is great fun searching out decent cartoons and jokes and assessing the risk factor in them. The recent assault upon the Christian faith by cocksure atheists has taught me that it is dangerous to allow the hypersensitivity of a few pew-sitters of simple faith to muffle blunt truth or to stifle debate, doubt and questioning. Most atheists attack and destroy a childish version of the Christian faith that no intelligent and thoughtful Christian espouses, but which you still often hear from pulpits and read in parish publications. Many of the clergy feel pressurised to avoid saying or writing any-thing that might disturb or challenge people of “simple” faith. To give in to this pressure is not only unwise, it is counter productive.
Many people send me jokes, but only a very few of them appear in the pew sheet. This is not usually because I do not like them or consider them too weak or disgusting, but rather because I know them and over the years have already used them, or versions of them. The cartoon on the front page of this week’s pew sheet, of a rabbit in a hospital bed with the sheet pulled over its face to indicate its death, and a rabbit doctor, saying to a rabbit nurse “He’s left his body to medical research and his feet to the lucky-charm factory,” might well be considered to verge on bad taste. To my mind it is very funny in its irony.
I came across a good aphorism the other day: “suspicion of others stems from self- knowledge.” Now there is a fine little sermon in miniature.
A new priest for Seymour
On Friday evening I went to Seymour for the induction to that parish of a new priest, Fr. Thevathasan Samuel Premarajah, known as Fr Prem. There was a full church and a good atmosphere. I travelled there with Michael Jones the Rector of Yarrawonga who picked up both me and Kim Benton the Rector of Numurkah. On the way back we stopped and had a Thai meal in Nagambie. There continues to develop among the clergy in the diocese a sense of collegiality and friendship, a tribute to the end of stormy diocesan weather and the arrival of a new and blessed episcopal era.
Nagambie always seems to me to be a lovely town, though once the bypass is finished I presume that we will rarely give ourselves the opportunity to contemplate that loveliness. Any sadness will be more than mitigated by a drop in the number of fines we garner for speeding through it at over fifty kilometres an hour.
Combined Eucharist July 31st
It is customary in the Parochial District of Murchison and Rushworth to combine their two congregations for a single Parish Eucharist, followed by a meal, on fifth Sundays of the month. They have suggested that on the 31st of July they combine with us all at St Augustine’s for the 10.30am Eucharist, with a “Bring and Share” meal to follow. This seems an excellent idea, and if St Luke’s Dookie and St Mary’s Katandra would like to join in the fun, so much the better! Note the date in your diaries, please.
“People Supporting People”
On Saturday “People Supporting People”, the local charitable organisation of which I am President, but which is inspired by and centred around the fascinating personality of Azem Elmez, held a great function to thank the very many people and organisations that support “People Supporting People”. As you would expect the food was bountiful and delicious, and the company excellent and varied. Before great meals such as this one, those of us who are believers feel compelled to offer a public Grace of some sort in gratitude to God for his goodness and bounty. How can one do this, however, if the company is made up of many faiths, diluted by a sprinkling of agnostics and spiced with a few thoroughgoing atheists? I did my best as follows:
A sort of Grace
“Gatherings like this one tonight bring together people of all sorts of faiths, races and backgrounds. We are a fair old slice of the whole world’s pullulating populace; of the, colourful, diverse, rag tag and bobtail mix that is humanity in general. This, of course is what “People Supporting People” is all about. The word ‘people’ is all inclusive. We are indiscriminate in support. We will assist anyone in need.
“As a Christian priest, if I was at a gathering of Christians, I would say before a meal like this a Christian grace. That is, I would thank the Triune God for his bounty and love, and ask his blessing upon our food, our fellowship and our endeavours.
“But I am not at a gathering of Christians, I am at a gathering of people of all sorts of faiths, races and backgrounds, a fair old slice, as I say, of the whole world’s pullulating populace, of the colourful, diverse, rag tag and bobtail mix that is humanity in general, and so what can I say gracefully as Grace to include every single one of us?
“Simply Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! The best of religious people in the world are characterised above all else, I think, by gratitude. All religion at its best and purest is a way of saying thank you to the author of being for the gift of being. The religious, if they are fair dinkum, are those who are grateful for their existence and express their gratitude in generosity, openness of heart, care, love, awe, reverence and worship. All worship, foundationally is the saying of thank you. Certainly Christianity is.
“But then too, surely, the best of non- religious people in the world are those who are grateful for being, are the opposite of whingers, are those filled with gratitude for their existence, and who express their thanks by generosity, openness of heart, care, love, and by secular forms of awe, reverence and worship. “Gratitude unites us then, gratitude, sweet gratitude. So thank you for being here. Thank you for People Supporting People. Thank you for good tucker and good fellowship; thank you for humane humanity, for generosity, concord, sacrifice, love; thank you for Australia, for diversity, for difference, for people of all sorts of faiths, races and backgrounds; thank you for the world’s pullulating populace, thank you, thank you, thank you, for the, colourful, diverse, rag tag and bobtail mix that is humanity in general. Thank you....thank you, thank you, thank you! Amen. Amen. Amen. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.”
The week’s greatest folly
I did a very foolish thing on the Saturday night that I went out to the People Supporting People do. Because the Football Club Rooms are so close I walked, but left by way of my garage. The side door to the garage from the Rectory garden can only be locked from the outside, which is most annoying, If you want the door locked when you go out, you have to walk all the way round from McKinney Street, lock it and then return to your car. To avoid this I have drilled a hole above the metal bar of the lock that turns with the handle as you open the door. Into that hole I place a screwdriver which prevents the lock from moving and allowing the door to open. Simple and ingenious, I like to think. It does mean, however, that you cannot open the door from outside, even with a key. There is only one battery-operated, main garage door opener and that is kept in the car.
Having secured the door in my ingenious fashion, I opened the main garage door by pressing the button on the wall, then pressed it again to close the door, skipping delicately beneath it without quite being guillotined, and so strolled on my way. The next day, on trying to access my car, I found myself locked out. It is a very secure garage, with a well barred window. I phoned the resourceful John Pleming who, good man that he is, said he would be right over. However, before he left I worked out a simple remedy. I would like to tell you what it is, but of course if thugs and thieves read Steven Hawkins, (see the latest copy of “Outreach”) they might aspire to read even greater and more interesting authors like the composer of this article and so discover how to get into my garage. So I am obliged to leave you in ignorance.
Season of mists
I had to go and visit someone in the psychiatric wing of the local hospital last week. It was on one of those still and very beautiful misty mornings and as is my wont these days, I made my way there on a bicycle. It was a beautiful ride, but the mist got thicker and thicker so that by the time I arrived I was amazed at how poor visibility had become. Mist so thick is unusual in this part of the world. It was only as I dismounted and de-helmeted myself that I realised that the mist had fogged up my glasses and so that I had been doubly mystified.
Diana has now deposited, at Australia House in London, her great labour of love, the huge file containing all the information, forms, statements, proofs, photographs and bumf required to achieve, possibly and ultimately, permanent residence status in Australia. Much lightened she has made her way go Bristol to visit friends and gardens.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (4)
With Islam resurgent and playing a growing part of our society it is important that we know something about it, especially in relation to Christianity. With this in view I have ordered a sample copy of a thirteen week Church Group Study Course on Islam in relation to Christianity. If it is as good as it sounds I will be offering a weekly evening session at the Rectory soon. Should enough people be interested we might also put one on in the daytime. There will soon be a list in the narthex for the names of those interested.
St Philip Larkin for Atheists
Every time I drive back from Melbourne to Shepparton I am reminded of Philip Larkin, a favourite poet. This is because on the Hume Highway, somewhere near Tallarook, there is a road sign for Dockery Road. One of Larkin’s best and most characteristically pessimistic poems is called “Dockery and Son”. It ends:
Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.
I love Larkin and consider him to be the perfect patron saint for atheists. An un-believer, he wrote one of the most despairing, depressed and unutterably bleak poems in our literature. It is called “Aubade” and ought to be read at the funerals of atheists, especially arrogant ones. It is brilliant, a superb depiction of terror and funk at the prospect of death and annihilation and of the hopelessness of existence without the Gospel. Mind you, it dismisses religion as any consolation at all, calling it memorably if unfairly: that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die.
The poem is ruthlessly honest. Few atheists would be fair dinkum enough to ask for it at their funeral just because of that. On such occasions, in my experience, they tend still to cling to the farcical notion that an individual life makes some sort of sense and has some sort of purpose, even when there is nothing to be viewed of it except the backward glance over the shoulder, no hope, no promise.
Apparently one of Larkin’s most favoured aphorisms was: “Life is so flat that you can see your own tombstone at the other end.”
I went to a delightful birthday party on Sunday, for which I wrote a special Grace, though it was hardly a Grace, more a tribute to the birthday girl. God will forgive me, I am sure. It was rather different from my usual verse graces, more reminiscent of a W. S. Gilbert “patter song”, consisting largely of a long, polysyllabic, rhythmical catalogue of the birthday girl’s many virtues.
At the party I sat between two delightful ladies and enjoyed some animated con-versation. We touched for a while upon a great interest of mine, namely “nostalgia”. I wrote a sermon on the subject not long ago, noting that nostalgia was once known as the Mal du Suisse, because the infamously effective sixteenth and seventeenth century Swiss mercenary soldiers were particularly prone to an intense form of it. It was appar-ently so severe that it sometimes led to their death, the only remedy being to send them back home to the mountains, alp horns, cattle bells and edelweiss they pined for. The word nostalgia means literally “aching for home” or more generally “aching for the past”.
Music and nostalgia
Later that day I was typing away at a letter to Diana while listening to a magical piece of Mozart, one of his lovely, easy to listen to piano variations. I remarked upon this in my letter, going on to say that on reflection it was the theme itself, rather than the variations upon it, which seemed especially magical to me. The variations held my attention in part, simply by promising to redeliver the theme in its perfection, but they didn’t. All they offered were versions, reminders, snatches and hints. Which is a bit like nostalgia. The past is irrecoverable, the magic moment departs forever. To revisit it is never to recover it. Even when apparently unchanged on a revisitation, its context is very different, in that we view it from a different time and place and so our perspective has radically changed. Nostalgia is always therefore bitter sweet. Things can never be the same again, the aching never entirely goes away.
Nigh unto death
A part of growing old, it seems, is learning to accommodate yourself to decline not only physically and mentally in the self, but also in much of what we hold dear outside of the self. I love the Church, especially in its classic Anglican forms, but its decline, especially in Australia, appears inexorable. Then there are all sorts of traditional pursuits that are nigh unto death as well, not least of them Scottish Country Dancing. In days gone by there would surely have been an active group in a town of the size of Shepparton, but not nowadays, and many of the large groups in Melbourne have all but died. On Tuesday evening I headed all the way to Wodonga to participate in a resuscitated group in my old parish. I have to admit that this was less because I love Scottish Country Dancing than because I find it difficult to say “no” to heart-felt requests. It was fun to be back dancing at St John’s, a parish of which I was Rector in my prime, but it was a small and elderly band of dancers and the dickens of a long way to go. The survival of the group is in the balance. I got back by midnight.
Decline need not lead to despair, for which there is no room in sure faith. The decline of the Church in the only form that I find congenial should not worry me over much. That whatever is good, true, lovely and of God cannot die permanently, is part of what the doctrine of Resurrection is about. I have great faith that this is so.
The fact that the only successful forms of Anglicanism these days seem to me to be loud, unsubtle, banal and even ugly, is no cause for despair. Judaism, during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, became narrow, fanatical, xenophobic and lost any notion of Isaiah’s great vision of the nation and faith being a “light to the Gentiles”. However it was arguably the ugliness, narrowness of vision and xenophobia that helped Judaism to survive in difficult times, so enabling the great burst of light to the gentiles that occurred in Bethlehem a few centuries later. All will be well, all manner of things will be well. We simply hold on to all that is good, beautiful, lovely and loving and trust God and his goodness.
On Wednesday mornings for Mattins and on Saturdays mornings for both Mattins and the Eucharist, John Price and myself are usually on our own. We therefore indulge ourselves with the old rite. We love it, not least for the escape it offers from the grammatical contortions that are necessary to accom-modate “inclusive language,” and for the sweet music and anachronisms of Coverdale’s translation of the psalms. Best of all, though, is a sense of solidarity with one’s parents, grandparents and ancestors in allowing their worship to chime more exactly with ours. The actual, worn Book of Common Prayer I use for Mattins is the one that my father’s eyes traversed for years and years and years before he died. Lovely. The Roman Catholics have a new translation of their missal. I have not looked at it except cursorily, but wholeheartedly approve of the change back to the old response to the versicle: “The Lord be with you”. It is now once more the sweet, traditional form “and with your spirit” instead of “and also with you”.
Roz at rest with us
We laid the ashes of Roz Dunlop to rest in the Memorial Garden on Thursday, the anniversary of her death. It is a simple little service but altogether lovely, especially for someone to whom St Augustine’s was a spiritual home. I love the whole idea of having the mortal remains of the faithful as part of the very fabric of the Church or gardens. When we are at Eucharist our loved ones are closer to us spiritually than at any other time, a truth easier to apprehend if their physical remains are with us too. Which reminds me of the lovely poem by John Betjemann called “House of Rest” which tells movingly of an old clergy widow and ends:
Now when the bells for Eucharist
Sound in the Market Square,
With sunshine struggling through the mist
And Sunday in the air,
The veil between her and her dead
Dissolves and shows them clear,
The Consecration Prayer is said
And all of them are near.
The can of worms
Trolling the newspapers on the Web early this morning, I noticed an advert for a program on Channel Ten called “Can of Worms”.
I never watch Channel Ten because I cannot abide adverts and so am unlikely ever to see the program advertised. The form of the advert in the newspaper on the Web was so vivid that my evasive eye simply could not escape it. It blinked, winked and beckoned me to say either “yes” or “no” to the question Is it wrong to tell your kids there is no God?
Not only do I avoid adverts as assiduously as possible, I also refuse to participate in polls. So I averted my eyes and instead went on to read all about carbon taxes and Julia Gillard. That soon drove me to get on with this pew sheet. Much of what we skim in the daily papers is tedious enough to make the dullest of sermons appear exhilarating.
Is it wrong to tell your children there is no God, though? Strictly speaking it surely is. No one, to my knowledge, has ever been able to come up with irrefutable proof of God’s non-existence, let alone of his existence. God, by definition, is outside of and beyond what we normally mean by “proof”. So to tell children unequivocally and without qualification either that he exists or does not exist is wrong. We can tell them that we personally are sure that he does or doesn’t exist, and why, but also, should they enquire, that in such matters “proof” is impossible and undesirable.
This was implicitly acknowledged by the Richard Dawkins sponsored atheists who decided to spread their “good news” by way of adverts on London Buses. All they could come up with was: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” A pretty feeble slogan, but not dishonest. The the weak word “probably” is debatable though.
Richard Dawkins said of this bus-slogan campaign (in his nasty and arrogant way): “....to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think - and thinking is anathema to religion.” This is such arrant nonsense that you cannot help but wonder about the sort of person Dawkins is. The medieval Christian philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas is one of the greatest thinkers of all time. His philosophy remains of huge interest and relevance to philosophy today. Moreover there are hugely significant and impressive twentieth and twenty first century Christian thinkers too. Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann and Rene Girard for a start. No wonder that a postgraduate philosophy friend of Rachel’s said to her once, “Dawkins makes me almost ashamed of being an atheist”.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (5)
Whenever I feel lethargic, disconsolate, aim-less and appear to be suffering from the sin of accidie (spiritual sloth; indifference, apathy; torpor), I find one of the best remedies is to click on to the web page of Rowan Williams. I am almost invariable strengthened and heartened by what I find there.
A remedy of accidie
Too few people appear to realise just what a gem of a Christian and human being we have in our Archbishop of Canterbury. Not only is he a pro-found and subtle thinker, he is also saintly, or so it seems to me, and deeply so. I love him, and for me to be able to say that of such a card-carrying leftie is a little miracle in its own right.
I have just read two items from his web page. The first is a short sermon on the Ascension, preached at a BBC broadcast Eucharist in St Martin’s in the Fields. The musical setting for the occasion was Haydn’s Nelson Mass. O would that I had been there. The sermon is a concise, crystal clear interpretation of the Ascension that makes such sweetly relevant and coherent sense of it, that it gladdens the heart.
The second item is a transcript of an interview with David Hare. It ranges hither and thither, granting a glimpse of the man for the attractive, and perceptive person that he so undoubtedly is.
David Hare is an intelligent and sympathetic interviewer: “Williams often speaks in public in a regulation-issue churchy voice, so tone can tune out content. But this is a man, remember, who in 1985 was arrested during a protest outside the US air base at Lakenheath. What was his offence? He was singing psalms......”
“......Like Barack Obama, Williams seemed a good man dealt an impossible hand. If you had happened, at any point, to follow the unending rows about gay clergy and women bishops, then it was obvious that the archbishop had endured a great deal from some insufferable oafs in the higher reaches of Anglicanism who had always been ready to pretend that their lack of Christian kindness towards colleagues was somehow justified by faith. A friend of Williams had even described his period of office as a crucifixion. But even so, I had read enough of his distinctive theology to know how strongly he felt that Christianity should be an escape from self, not an indulgence of it. ‘Jesus,’ he had written, ‘is the human event that reverses the flow of human self-absorption.......’
The reluctant fairground boxer
“........It’s striking that throughout his eight years in charge, Williams has been touring as God’s fairground boxer, willing to go five rounds with all comers. Up steps AC Grayling (atheist philospher), next day Philip Pullman (atheist author). But his fondness for quoting Saint Ambrose – ‘It does not suit God to save his people by arguments’ – suggests how little store he sets by such encounters. ‘Oh, look, argument has the role of damage limitation. The number of people who acquire faith by argument is actually rather small. But if people are saying stupid things about the Christian faith, then it helps just to say, “Come on, that won’t work.” There is a miasma of assumptions: first, that you can’t have a scientific world view and a religious faith; second, that there is an insoluble problem about God and suffering in the world; and third, that all Christians are neurotic about sex. But the arguments have been recycled and refought more times than we’ve had hot dinners, and I do groan in spirit when I pick up another book about why you shouldn’t believe in God. Oh dear! Bertrand Russell in 1923! And while I think it’s necessary to go on rather wearily putting down markers saying, ‘”No, that’s not what Christian theology says” and, “No, that argument doesn’t make sense”, that’s the background noise. What changes people is the extraordinary sense that things come together. Is it Eliot or Yeats who talks about a poem coming together with an audible click? You think, yes, the world makes sense looked at like that.......’
Uncompromising on God
“......Williams speaks so gingerly about human beings, always unwilling to impute motive, that it’s shocking when you move on to theology and realise how uncompromising his version of God is. He rarely uses the word ‘faith’. He prefers the word ‘trust’ because, he says, ‘it sounds less like product placement’. In print, he goes out of his way to emphasise that God doesn’t need us. ‘We must get to grips with the idea that we don’t contribute anything to God, that God would be the same God if we had never been created. God is simply and eternally happy to be God.’ How on Earth can he possibly know such a thing? ‘My reason for saying that is to push back on what I see as a kind of sentimentality in theology. Our relationship with God is in many ways like an intimate human relationship, but it’s also deeply unlike. In no sense do I exist to solve God’s problems or to make God feel better.’ In other words, I say, you hate the psychiatrist/patient therapy model that so many people adopt when thinking of God? ‘Exactly. I know it’s counterintuitive, but it’s what the classical understanding of God is about. God’s act in creating the world is gratuitous, so everything comes to me as a gift. God simply wills that there shall be joy for something other than himself. That is the lifeblood of what I believe.’
“I say that’s all very well, but how then can he be so critical of self-absorption when he himself is a poet? Surely self-study is necessary to create art? ‘Ah, yes, two very different things. Self-absorption means thinking the most interesting thing in the world is myself. Self-scrutiny, on the other hand, is very deeply part of the Christian experience.’ So is his religion a relief, a way of escaping self? ‘Yes. We are able to lay down the heavy burden of self-justification. Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, “Am I right? Am I safe?” then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong. In my middle 20s, I was an angst-ridden young man, with a lot of worries about whether I was doing enough suffering and whether I was compassionate enough. But the late, great Mother Mary Clare said to me, “You don’t have to suffer for the sins of the world, darling. It’s been done....”’
Methought I heard one calling Child
The interview ends with a comment on the great Anglican poet George Herbert: “Herbert’s very important to me. Herbert’s the man. Partly because of the absolute candour when he says, I’m going to let rip, I’m feeling I can’t stand God, I’ve had more than enough of Him. OK, let it run, get it out there. And then, just as the vehicle is careering towards the cliff edge, there’s a squeal of brakes. ‘Methought I heard one calling Child! / And I replied My Lord.’ I love that ending, because it means, ‘Sorry, yes, OK, I’m not feeling any happier, but there’s nowhere else to go.’ Herbert is not sweet.” Hare:”And you like that?” Williams: “Non-sweetness? I do.”
Kindled at last
Having stood shivering on the brink for months I have at last taken the jump and purchased a Kindle. As I write it is winging its way towards me. I hope that it will be all that I expect it to be.
A Kindle is an electronic book reader and an electronic book is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as an electronic version of a printed book. However, there are already books that exist without a printed equivalent, and now, in America, the sale of electronic books exceeds the sale of conventional, printed books.
E-books can be read on computers and i-pads, but they are too bulky and unsatisfactory for lengthy reads, as well as comparatively expensive. This is where e-book-readers like Kindle come in. Kindles are devices produced by the huge online book store called Amazon, and are the size of a small paperback, though slimmer. In their cheapest form they cost a little over a hundred dollars and come with free access to the internet to enable an owner to download in a matter of seconds, any book he wishes to buy. One Kindle holds 3,500 books. Best of all, thousands and thousands of books that are out of copyright can be downloaded for nothing. For example, the whole of Dickens, Trollope, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and so on.
Once I have organised myself I hope to be able to read Mattins and Evensong on Kindle, when away on holiday. The print size can be varied to suit a viewer and the screen is non-reflective, exceptionally clear and can be read even in sunlight. An owner can subscribe to newspapers and magazines if desired though the Kindle does not specialise in graphics, nor is it in colour. Most of the books I am likely to download will be free and the first book I intend actually buying is “A History of Christianity” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, a mighty tome that will cost me about half of the price of a printed version and with no postage either, of course.
AND THE OTHER (6)
I feel envious of Diana experiencing an English summer. Mine there last year was glorious, I revelled in it. Especially long country walks in Dorset beneath trees so deeply foliaged that the shade itself seemed deep green and breathable, or through butter-cupped meadows and alongside hedgerows and river banks splashed with scarlet poppies. Then all of it ruminated over during lovely, lingering, sweetly interminable twilight evenings of beer and talk.
Dreaming of summer
Perhaps because the winters are so long, grey and dreary in Britain, the summers are all the more glorious. People enjoy them to the full, stripping their shirts off, as do lizards their skins, to bask and blister marmoreal bodies on the lawns of public parks whenever the sun appears for more than a minute or two. Everyone seems to go a little bonkers inebriated on sunshine and daylight. The long, long summer evenings, the sheer delight in and appreciation of the sun, the joyfully anticipated and easily arranged Continental holidays, the glee taken in barbecues that manage now and then actually to coincide with warm sunshine and the relish taken in picnics and al fresco dining are infectious and a joy to be a part of.
Our summers in Shepparton are lovely too and by winter’s end eagerly anticipated, but there is also a harshness to them, and the oven-like, north wind days, as well as the innumerable flies, detract from their glory as much if not more than the often too frequently cold and wet days of an English summer do.
It is altogether fitting that the oldest surviving piece of polyphonic music in the world should be an English celebration of summer. This is the famous “Sumer is icumen in”, written in the mid thirteenth century. It is a fairly complex round with a two part ostinato melody sung over and over again while the round itself is sung on top of it. The original is translated from the early English thus:
Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows
And the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t you ever stop now,
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!
The last two lines are the repeated ostinato. I am informed by a little research that although some translate the middle English “bucke uerteþ” as “the buck-goat turns”, the current critical consensus is that the line is “the stag farts”, apparently “a gesture of virility indicating the stag’s potential for creating new life, echoing the rebirth of Nature from the barren period of winter”. A somewhat po-faced and over-intellectualised reading of the word “fart”, it seems to me!
A skewed view of things
Because newspapers and news broadcasts feed on disaster and on what is extraordinary, we tend to get a skewed view of human existence. The more we listen to or watch the news the more skewed becomes that view and we forget just how good and tolerable the lives of so many of us are.
Whenever we hear of some appalling atrocity, hundreds murdered in a suicide bomb attack, or thousands crushed in an earthquake or drowned in a flood, or starving in a drought, we need to remind ourselves of the billions of folk not murdered, not crushed, not drowned not starving.
Even living in such peaceful and bountiful times as we do here in Australia, we can easily fall into deeper pessimism than ever our ancestors did who lived in times far more fraught with disease, disaster and danger than ours. We hear, watch and listen to far too unbalanced an account of the way things are.
Audi alteram partem
As well as Rowan Williams there is another impressive religious figure with a high profile in the United Kingdom, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. He is quoted in a recent Spectator as saying ‘We’re in an age of the breakdown of shared discourse, and when that happens, the loudest voice wins. So everyone learns to speak in a very loud voice — Richard Dawkins is just one product of it, but you find it is also in angry religious extremists. No one listens properly to the other side any more. But justice is.... Audi alteram partem, listening to the other side. You don’t get justice without listening to the other side.’
Mary Wakefield in her interview with him in The Spectator says that Sacks maintains that the increase in anti-semitism and the growth of intolerance in our society is a direct product of the decline of religion. That this does not mean that man cannot be moral without faith — but that without the practice of religion, ethics are subject to entropy. She then quotes his book “The Great Partnership”, where he puts it like this: “When the burden of law-abidingness falls on the state and its institutions, when people define right and wrong in terms of externalities — punishments and rewards — then society begins to erode. Like an orchestra without a conductor, they lose the habits that sustain the virtues that create the trust that preserves the institutions that shape and drive a moral order.” Excellent!
Lawrie Tinning remembered
Last week my round at the hospital was taken earlier in the week than usual, on Tuesday. There I was delighted to be reminded of Lawrie Tinning, because in the rehabilitation ward I met Val Simm from Tongala who is his sister. We had a lovely reminisce about that most amiable, gentle and quiet St Augustinian, who worked so hard and devotedly for us. May he rest in peace.
Hospital visits are usually very interesting to me. The week before last I met a man who years before had undergone a combined heart and lung transplant most successfully. Even more remarkable was that he met up periodically with the person to whom his own heart had been donated. It was his lungs that had failed, not his heart and so that had been passed on successfully to someone else.
Visits to hospital are a reminder of how mixed the achievements of medicine are. I visit people who have had fairly routine operations and yet remain in hospital for ages because their wound has become infected, we cannot even ensure that this doesn’t happen. On the other hand I meet patients who have undergone the most amazing of operations with truly wonderful results.
Each morning when I make my first, welcome cup of coffee, I think of Peter and Joy Ross Edwards. This is because while staying in their lovely unit in Caloundra last year I bought myself a single-cup coffee plunger which has been in daily use ever since.
To be a part of other people’s lives we need simply to give useful little gifts for daily use, and hey presto, our life is extended into the imagination and memory of others.
I am now enjoying reading “A History of Christianity” by Diarmaid MacCullough, using my Kindle, an electronic reader. I ordered, paid for and received the book in a mere 60 seconds. The Kindle has dictionaries inbuilt, and to receive an instant definition of any word you simply place a cursor in front of it. Pages are turned by pressing a button and passages can be highlighted or book-marked. There is much to learn, but so far so good, it is already easy reading.
We hear a lot of bad news these days about churchgoing, how congregations are ageing and in terminal decline. I have just read an article in the New Statesman by Rabbi Sacks, (mentioned above) and there is a bit of good news, Rabbi Sacks says:..... in his new book “American Grace”, Robert Putnam sets out the good news. A powerful store of social capital still exists. It is called religion: the churches, synagogues and other places of worship that still bring people together in shared belonging and mutual responsibility. The evidence shows that religious people defined by regular attendance at a place of worship actually do make better neighbours.
A survey carried out across the US between 2004 and 2006 showed that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity. They were also more likely to do voluntary work for a charity, give money to a homeless person, donate blood, help a neighbour with housework, allow another driver to cut in front of them, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job.
For some minor acts of help, there was no difference between frequent and non- churchgoers. But there was no good deed that was more commonly practised by secular Americans than by their religious counterparts. Religious Americans are simply more likely to give of their time and money to others, both within and beyond their own communities.
Their altruism goes further than this. Frequent worshippers are also significantly more active citizens. They are more likely to belong to community organisations, especially those concerned with young people, health, arts and leisure, neighbourhood and civic groups and professional associations. Within these organisations they are more likely to be officers or committee members. They play a bigger role in civic and political life, from local elections to town meetings to demonstrations. They are disproportionately represented among local activists for social and political reform. The margin of difference between them and the more secular is large.
Tested on attitudes, religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance turns out to be the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race. On the basis of self-reported life satisfaction, religious people are also happier than their non-religious counter-parts.....
Interestingly, each of these attributes is related not to people’s religious beliefs, but to the frequency with which they attend a place of worship. Religion creates community, community creates altruism and altruism turns us away from self and towards the common good. Putnam goes so far as to speculate that an atheist who went regularly to church (perhaps because of a spouse) would be more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than a believer who prays alone. There is something about the tenor of relationships within a religious community that makes it the best tutorial in citizenship and good neighbourliness.
AND THE OTHER (7)
On Monday, my day off, I read at one sitting a little book about a very fine priest I used to work with and who ended up a bishop, poor fellow. It was a tribute to him, and so far less a biography than a hagiography. It certainly made him seem saintly, but neither nauseatingly or untruthfully so.
In the years that I worked closely with him, even to my sceptical and cynical eye, he appeared to be a truly remarkable, talented, godly, benignly and pleasingly eccentric, very English sort of person and priest.
On finishing the little book and reflecting upon it, I found myself wondering, in the absence of any critical appraisal of the book’s subject, whether he didn’t illustrate, just a little, the truth of the first two lines in Yeats’ brilliant little poem “The Choice”
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work....
In other words, did his priestly vocation (ie his “work”) consume him to the detriment or at the expense of his private and family vocation (ie his life)? Did his saintliness and success come at the cost of his humanity? How easy is it for the family of a saintly priest to tolerate that saintliness?
My reflections along these lines might well have been more self-justification of my own lack of saintliness than anything else of course. Certainly the priest I talk of was a far, far more accomplished, prayerful and devoted priest than I am, or have ever been. In reading the book there were moments when I was moved to tears, which says a lot for the man and his story, because it was a fairly pedestrianly written tribute.
The Yeats poem refers more to the choice between life and work for an artist than for anyone else. But in the case of a priest the choice is all the more interesting for being in fact not a matter of choice at all. We all of us expect in our clergy life and work to be one, to be all of a piece. You cannot be a profoundly effective, successful and good priest, unless you are a profoundly effective, successful and good human being, socially and familially. It is not a matter of choice, the one cannot be complete without the other.
For the artist it might well be that...
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work....
We almost expect artists to be “bohemian”, that is, randy, sex-sodden, selfish swine. If they are not, can they be the real thing? Are they not “bourgeois” pretenders?
For the priest not so. Holiness is also wholiness. Perfection of life and of work need to be yoked. Pity me! Pity us!
A busy week
I might have had a good day off, but since then I have been too busy to diarise and so I conclude this weekly column with an article I wrote some years ago, one that is based upon another wonderful poem.....
Loss of Faith
One of the greatest and most moving of nineteenth century poems is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”.
It is set in Dover, and Arnold is staying at an inn with his bride. They are on the way to honeymoon in Europe. He stands looking out of a window over Dover Beach and the English Channel on a lovely evening....
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d sand,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
He goes on to reflect upon what Sophocles made of the same sad sound of waves on the beach of the Ægean Sea many centuries before, and then pens the most famous of the poem’s lines.....
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.........
The poem is suffused with sadness, regret and unease at the ebbing of Christian Faith among the intelligentsia of his day, including himself.
How far removed from Arnold’s sensitive regret and unease at Faith’s retreat, is the response shown today to its continuing decline by so many gurus in the media. Faith is widely decried, diminished and despised. Its demise is predicted and anticipated with relish. The influence of the Christian Faith upon our civilization is portrayed as largely inimical, and it is not infrequently argued that loss of faith will improve the world enormously.
Behind much of the apparent fervour and glee displayed in publicising the Church’s failures, behind much of the hounding of a Governor General who happened to be a bishop, behind much of the chronicling of sexually wayward priests and of the absurdities of fanaticism and fundamentalism, lies an ignorant hatred of the Christian Faith that is disturbing, and annoying as well as very often stupid.
Our civilization arises largely out of the Christian faith. Christianity has provided not only most of its foundation stones, but also much of its cement. The continuing decline in Faith will have and indeed is having incalculable consequences.
To replace as role models the extravagantly self-sacrificing Saints of old with the extravagantly self-indulgent pop stars of today, is bound to have enormous and almost certainly regrettable consequences. To swap sacrificing Love’s great symbol the Cross for the logo of MacDonald’s or Nike likewise. A retreat from the awe and reverence associated with traditional worship of God into navel gazing, self obsession and narcissism could well be as dangerous as it is deplorable. Even today’s widespread concern for the environment often seems to be based less upon its God given beauty and intrinsic worth, than upon a carefully orchestrated fear for our future. This reveals it to be as essentially selfish (and so no less absurd) as primitive Faith’s use of the fear of hell and damnation to frighten people into goodness!
The catalogue of reasons for regretting Faith’s decline rather than rejoicing at it could be extended for pages. I resist the temptation in order to point to an irony that arises out of Arnold’s great poem.
The only answer that Arnold in his poem finds to the sadness that arises within him at the Sea of Faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar...”, is human love.....
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Well, human love might indeed in Arnold’s day have still seemed to provide some sort of consolation and realistic substitute for love of God, but only because the Christian view of married love as lifelong, exclusive, faithful and sacrificial was still largely aspired to if not always adhered to. Now, however, the retreating tide of faith has washed that view of marriage and human love away.
Wherein then lies any consolation in the brave new liberal world of our faithless intelligentsia? Nowhere. So stand firm in the faith!
AND THE OTHER (8)
How very early are the promises of spring in this part of the world.
Blackbirds, ravens and owls
On returning from the church to the rectory on Wednesday morning, while it was still dark, having let Geoff in to say his prayers and have a cup of tea, I heard the first blackbird song of the season. This is always a great joy to me, because not only is it a very lovely song, it also brings the England of my childhood back to me.
The two great ravens that have nested for the last couple of years in the large gum tree on the front lawn have also been swaggering and lumbering about for several weeks, preparing for their brood. On the same Wednesday that I heard the first blackbird song I also observed a barn owl, disturbed from its roost in the little fountain garden on the south side of the church. Pursued by the ravens it flew insouciantly and silently into one of the Maude Street plane trees, disdainful of the ravens. Then it turned its pale, wide face to me, didn’t like what if saw, and glided off.
I like the thought of owls about the church. Perhaps because they symbolically emphasise the ancient wisdom of which our church is the guardian. I have heard and seen boobook owls about the church before, but never a barn owl.
Wednesday and Saturday mornings are good for another reason. We say Morning Prayer from the old 1662 Book of Common Prayer and I particularly love its version of the psalms. They come from the very first complete English version of the Bible, which was produced by Myles Coverdale (1488 – 1569). To me their music is incomparable.
In Psalm 59 there is talk of the wicked grinning like a dog and running about through the city. They.... run here and there for meat : and grudge if they be not satisfied. It is a memorable and apt simile because dogs at rest, with their mouths open and their great pink tongues resting on their teeth, do indeed look as if they are grinning a mirthless grin; and sometimes, like the wicked, they do appear to grudge if they be not satisfied.
Dogs in the ancient world
Certainly the sorts of dogs that the Israelites kept would have. There is very little reason to suppose that the ancient Jews kept dogs as pets in the sense of having warm relation-ships with them, of the sort that I have with my cantankerous Pippin. The Egyptians did though. Hundreds of carefully mummified dogs have been discovered in the tombs of Egypt.
In the bible references to dogs are all uncomplimentary, and the word dog, like the word bitch to us, is a term of contempt and abuse, reserved usually for enemies, the wicked and particularly for the gentiles.
There were house-dogs in ancient Israel, it seems, but even so, all references to them in the bible lead us to suppose that dogs, by and large, were scavengers, pi-dogs, waiting to eat, for example, the dead body of Jezebel, thrown in all her finery from an upstairs window.
Psalm 68 puts us graphically in the picture by praying that the King’s foot: ............. may be dipped in the blood of his enemies and that the tongue of his dogs may be red through the same.
Jesus and dogs
It is startling that Jesus in the Gospels is reported as applying the term “dog” to people in his conversation with a Canaanite woman in distress. It is not fair, he says to her, to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs, that is, to the Gentiles.
Although he is depicted as being open to and accepting of the Gentiles in his healings and in his parables, be they the Samaritans, Roman Centurions or whoever, he none-theless did appear to see his mission, as exclusively to the Jews. So much so that in talking to this non-Jewish woman, he picks up the dismissive Jewish phrase for Gentiles in current usage, “dogs”.
We have no way of knowing with what nuance, inflection or tone he invested the insulting words. Judging from his sympathetic attitude to non-Jews, such as to the Roman Centurion, and from his teaching in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is not unreasonable to suppose that his tone in this case would have been such as to render it acceptable and non-insulting. Perhaps it was said with obvious irony, eyebrows raised, as if to say: “Fancy you, of all people, asking help of a hated Jew, knowing, as you must, how we Jews regard you as dogs.... Is it fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs...”
Certainly the woman appeared to take no offense, for she grasped Jesus’ metaphor and wittily elaborated it: Ah yes sir, but even dogs can eat the scraps which fall from their master’s table, and Jesus is amazed at the faith and acceptance of this Gentile,
Universalism versus exclusivity
Jesus did, for the most part, confine his teaching to the Jews. So much so, that after his Resurrection and Ascension, the Church’s first big internal argument was over whether or not his Gospel should continue to be preached only to Jews, or to everyone.
Universalism won, probably as much on the strength of Jesus’ willingness to drop scraps of healing, sympathy and acceptance from his Jewish table to the gentiles, as from the very strong advocacy of St Paul. So the Gentiles were welcomed in, and invited to dine at the Christian altar. They were not expected to subsist on mere scraps dropped from that table. From the time of the Emperor Constantine, Western society as a whole, has sat round the Lord’s table, and has fed on the bread of Christ.
Christ and his values have nourished our civilization. The candles on the altar have lightened our history, and bread from the altar has sustained our culture.
Since the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and the gradual and then swifter parting and distancing of our culture from Christianity, crumbs from the altar none-theless have continued falling down through the centuries and humankind has picked and chosen and gobbled selectively. We continue to do so even now, in the twenty first century, a century in which affluence and materialism have contributed to a massive retreat from Christendom and faith.
The vast majority in our society is not of the faith at all, is not of Christ, but rather, like the Samaritans and Gentiles of days gone by, is composed of dogs picking and choosing randomly from the scraps falling from the master’s table. It is small consolation that in the evening of their lives they often return, grin like a dog ...running here and there for meat (in the form of a good funeral) and grudge if they be not satisfied.
Muslims are right
There was an interesting article in the ‘Spectator’ some time ago that was headed: Muslims are right about Britain. It pointed out just how vile, decadent and far from Christian grace our Western societies have fallen: The alienation felt by young blacks and Asians is not a result of any intolerance shown towards them, but of the endless tolerance of those who would allow everything and stand up for nothing. It is the excesses permitted by a culture.... that have produced a generation that feels rootless and hopeless. The young crave noble purposes as children need discipline; neither get much of them in modern Britain and the void is filled by disrespect, fecklessness, mindless nihilism or, worse, wicked militancy....
.....Safely gated, the liberal elite .....Voyeuristically feed the masses with “Big Brother” and legislate to allow 24-hour drunkenness. In answer to the desperate call for much needed restraint, we hear from those with power only the shrill cry for ever more unbridled liberty.
The candles on the altar have blown out, darkness closes in. Even the crumbs of bread, the mere scraps, have all but stopped falling. Look around our church, all those empty spaces. Where are our children? Where are all those adults who twenty years ago were here? They’ve dribbled away into a sort of gutless, mindless, petulant hedonism, they haven’t even had the guts to stop believing, they’ve just dribbled idly and spinelessly away, blind to and uncaring of their part in what promises to be a disaster.
A weasel word
After a funeral some weeks ago I was momentarily flattered when a woman said to me, “What a truly wonderful homily you preached.....I am an Anglican who doesn’t practice, you almost persuaded me to come back.....” But that word “almost’ is a weasel word on the lips of a hundred rodents, or rather, in the context of this column, a hundred dogs who have similarly deserted Christendom’s sinking ship over the past twenty years.
They will deserve Sharia law when it is triumphant, and compared to the selfish, sentimental slushiness of their own faux morality, they might even find it bracing.
As for me, as for us, we’ll hold on to the Gospel of love, of dutiful, sacrificing, beautiful, tough love.... and, unfailingly present at the altar every week, we’ll reach out for more than a crumb, more than a scrap, we’ll reach out for Love incarnate and so continue to fight the good fight of faith.
AND THE OTHER (9)
A busy week in prospect makes for a fragile day off. My study desk calls me from more restful pursuits to tackle looming tasks well ahead of time so that they don’t get on top of me. I need Diana back home to declare my desk out of bounds.
Second hand roast
I did manage a happy hour or two in the kitchen on Monday morning. So absorbed was I that I forgot to take my car to be serviced. One of my current enthusiasms is concocting little meat balls in a variety of flavours, and cooking them in a rich sauce. With Elizabeth, Nathan and the girls over for the weekend, primarily for Elizabeth to play the organ on Sunday, we had enjoyed a roast leg of lamb. This meant that there were its remains to do something creative with. I decided to attempt the almost impossible, and turn it into something that didn’t declare itself to be inadequately disguised second-hand roast meat, no favourite of mine.
When we were children our parents served up the remains of Sunday’s roast in all sorts of time-honoured ways that never, ever really disguised the fact that it remained what we children called “dead meat”, with its unmistakable and less than lovely taste. The week’s first serving was usually cold slices of Sunday joint with hot vegetables, not at all favoured by us children. The heated vegies made the meat sweat, but didn’t resurrect it to anything like the joys of the fresh roasted delights of Sunday.
The next day the meat might well be minced and very modestly spiced to make stuffed tomatoes. These were not too bad and infinitely preferable to stuffed marrow, the blandest of insipid meals, always served with a horrible white sauce and with the second-hand, cold-meat flavour still very evident.
The following day, if the joint had been large, there might well be cottage pie, which in my youth was never ever made with fresh mince, but always with the Sunday joint. Again the second-hand flavour of the meat was very noticeable, though liberal dashes of Worcester sauce did help disguise it. An alternative which was possibly worst of all, was what my mother considered a delicious curry. Little cubes of hard Sunday joint floating in a yellow gruel, along with bloated raisons and pieces of onion. The banality of this was ameliorated slightly by it being always served up with slices of banana, a mixture of raw diced tomato and onion, desiccated coconut and pulverised peanuts.
My mother was a very fine cook. It was just second, third and fourth hand Sunday joint that defeated her.
It is little wonder then that one of my great culinary goals, a sort of cooking holy grail, has been to discover how to disguise the distinctive taste of cold roast. Minced and made into small meat balls with an equal amount of good quality sausage meat, plus coriander, parsley, a little lemon zest and a couple of chillies is just the ticket. This, when cooked in a rich pulse and tomato sauce is splendid. I ate well on Monday night and have five double meals frozen in the fridge for future busy weeks such as this one.
Funerals and “poverty”
The middle of Monday was taken up by a funeral. Although all the preparation for this one had been done the week before, funerals are always a little draining. This is not least because I am obsessive about not being platitudinous and so actually try to say something worth listening to in my homilies. I then wonder if I haven’t said something unappreciated, because a lot of people desire the platitudinous and conventional, especially at such times.
In the afternoon my study desk caught and held me, though not for church work. I tackled my tax return, discovering that with the crashed share market my savings and superannuation have diminished by thousands and thousands of dollars. Ho hum! The Rectory might have to be my retirement home after all. I will not use my losses as an excuse not to raise my giving in response to the Stewardship Campaign. Anyone who tries that ploy on me will get a coldly withering and contemptuous stare!
The census and the Post Office
I filled in my census form on line. This was beautifully easy and satisfying. The only down side was that I wanted to put a dozen ticks next to “Anglican”, but online this was impossible.
I took a large envelope to post at the Post Office on Tuesday and on discovering that I was five cents short of the sum necessary for its posting, the Post Officer let me off, instead of requiring me to break into a note! I was impressed. It seemed a tiny example of someone understanding in a secular context that the Sabbath is made for man, rather than man for the Sabbath.
I have to confess that I dislike much inclusive language. Especially in hymns. Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, changed by the tin-eared editors of our hymn book to Dear Father Lord of humankind annoys me beyond telling. One of my favourite hymns, with the superb descant we sang a couple of weeks ago, is Holy Holy Holy. So unbearable is our new hymn book’s version I have to put the old one in the pew sheet for us to sing. The new one encourages me to contemplate suicide.
In writing articles these days you are expected to violate basic rules of grammar to avoid giving offence to the hypersensitive or the ideologues! We are expected to use third person plural personal pronouns such as “they,” “their,” or “them,” to refer back to an indefinite singular antecedent like “everybody”. For example: “Everybody should be aware of their [rather than his] right to do whatever......”
Language should be allowed to change and develop organically rather than be forced to by ideology. In saying this I expose myself as a hopeless fuddy duddy and would probably be denied a degree if studying at university, because inclusive language is de rigeur in such institutions these days.
The plea to change the definition of marriage to include homosexuals is a similar case of ideology forcing language to change. I have nothing against homosexual partnerships enjoying equal rights with heterosexual partnerships, indeed I would encourage this and be happy to bless such partnerships, but marriage, by definition, is between a man and a woman. Heterosexuals have copyright on the word.
My opposition will have no effect. The ideologues will win the day and so whenever in discussion or writing there is a need to discriminate between what are two very different sorts of relationship, we will have to resort of circumlocution or the invention of a new word. Grrrrr! From ideologues and fanatics, good Lord deliver us.
All appears well with Diana’s visa applications. We gather that the major one, which is to become a permanent resident, is likely to be issued (with all its provisos and its “temporary” preliminaries) in late November. She will return to Australia on the 26th of August on a different, three month visitors’ visa, which should last a few days beyond the November date. Because she can only receive the major visa outside of the country we plan a short holiday in New Zealand for late November. Hopefully all will synchronise.
How fragile our society seems. The share market collapse and the riots in London, remind us how easily things can fall apart. As I write this, early on Tuesday morning, the little round we used to sing as school children comes to mind:
London’s burning, London’s burning
Look yonder, look yonder,
Fire, fire. Fire, fire.
Pour on water, pour on water.
Deracinated yobbos are not confined to distant parts of the world. They are every-where. Believers in the sweet reasonableness of human nature, like the “new atheists”, who appear convinced that we need to cleanse humankind (inclusive word out of courtesy to those for whom it is important) of all religion and superstition, need to look carefully at such arsonists, looters and wreckers.
It is not religion or superstition that motivate the mobs. We are told that it is deprivation, well yes, in part perhaps, but it is also because “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” and needs redemption.
My favourite Dickens novel is Barnaby Rudge, a fascinating read which is really a historical novel about the Gordon Riots of 1780. During this riot the rioters daubed the slogan “His Majesty King Mob” on the walls of Newgate prison, after gutting the building. I fear that this is one monarch who never dies.
My granddaughters were with me this weekend. Beautiful beyond words. R S Thomas, curmudgeon and Anglican priest does his beautiful and elusive best though:
We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven.
AND THE OTHER (10)
I rather like the idea of composing my own funeral oration. I wonder how truthful I would dare to be.
Autobiography is usually less truthful and revealing than biography. This is because self-regard and pride tend towards a selectivity with the facts and truths about one’s personality and life that preclude any pretence to dispassionate truth. A funeral oration written by oneself is likely to suffer from the same faults.
In the case of funeral orations and eulogies, left to the bereaved however love, grief and sometimes guilt tend to result in far too close an adherence to the principle de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (speak no ill of the dead) and so the person eulogised is often all but unrecognisable for who they really were.
I like to think that even in my self-love I would be far harder and more truthful about myself than anyone who loved me half as much.
One of my many favourite, excellent, but relatively minor poets is a fellow called John Heath-Stubbs. He died in 2006 and for much of his life was totally blind. In his comparative youth he wrote an Epitaph on himself which I love. It begins as follows:
Mr Heath-Stubbs as you must understand
Came of a gentleman’s family out of Staffordshire
Of as good blood as any in England
But he was wall-eyed and his legs too spare.
His elbows and finger-joints could bend more ways than one
And in frosty weather would creak audibly
As to delight his friends he would give demonstration
Which he might have done in public for a small fee.
My favourite stanza, often quoted because it is as applicable to me as a university student as to him, goes:
Orthodox in beliefs as following the English Church
Barring some heresies he would have for recreation
Yet too often left these sound principles (as I am told) in the lurch
Being troubled with idleness, lechery, pride and dissipation.
The final stanza:
Now having outlived his friends and most of his reputation
He is content to take his rest under these stones and grass
Not expecting but hoping that the Resurrection
Will not catch him unawares whenever it takes place.
Planning a funeral
These observations and reflections result from leading a discussion on “planning a funeral” for our “Grief Support Group”a couple of weeks ago. There was a good crowd present to share a meal as well as ideas, and it was altogether a good and enjoyable evening, a pleasing mixture of humour, honesty and genuine feeling.
Right at the beginning someone suggested that it is far preferable at a funeral to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one than to mourn his demise. I do not entirely agree.
Grief needs to be acknowledged not ignored. Merely to celebrate a life now past, done for and finished with, can be evasive, a cop out, a cowardly refusal to face the devastating reality and totality of loss. I cannot bear histrionics, choked blubbering and emotional incontinence, but satisfying funerals tell the whole story not just part of it.
To make my point I read a splendid, tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless honest verse by Roger McGough. It comes from his latest collection: That Awkward Age.
I Am Not Sleeping
I don’t want any of that
“We’re gathered here today
to celebrate his life, not mourn his passing.”
Oh yes you are. Get one thing straight,
you’re not here to celebrate
but to mourn until it hurts.
I want wailing and gnashing of teeth.
I want sobs, and I want them
uncontrollable. I want women
flinging themselves on the coffin
and I want them inconsolable.
Don’t dwell on my past but on your future.
For what you see is what you’ll be
and sooner than you think.
So get weeping. Fill yourselves with dread.
For I am not sleeping. I am dead.
A recent funeral was of a splendid and lovely old fellow who for many years had been an S P bookie. This form of book-making was of course illegal and associated with corruption and crime. Judging from the character of the man I buried, however, there was a side to the activity that had less to do with crime and corruption than with that attractive, laid-back, anti-the-authorities side of the Australian character we know as larrikinism.
To bury such a fellow enabled me, with some delight, to link gambling to theology in my little homily which ended as follows:
“In the eighteenth century there lived a remarkable French mathematician, physicist and philosopher called Blaise Pascal. Among many, many achievements he anticipated in his mathematical speculations the computer, but he is also famous for a simple argument for believing in God which has fascinated philosophers down through the ages.
“I mention this because Dave (the deceased) was a bookie, a man well versed in betting, wagering and gambling, and Pascal’s famous argument is called “The Wager”
“It has been simply put as follows: God is, or God is not. So a Game is being played where either heads or tails will turn up.
“According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions. You have to wager. It is not optional.
“So, says Pascal, let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. So wager, without hesitation, that He is.
“It is a bit more complicated than that, actually, but my point is to honour a good bookie at his funeral with a religious, philosophical, theological bet.... not to expound an argument. So that will do.
“And I will end with another wager. I bet all of you, a hundred to one, that Dave will pass through the mythical Pearly Gates with ease....
“Rest in Peace, old fellow, and rise in Glory. Amen.”
I was telling Diana on the phone about Pascal’s Wager, and the very next day, she later informed me, while listening to the radio, she heard it expounded, much as I had expounded it, in a conversation between two radio jocks. How gratifying to realise that the BBC is behind me, not ahead of me. How coincidental too.
Last Sunday was Diana’s birthday. After Dookie and Katandra services I made my way to Benalla where not only did we raise a glass in her honour, over an excellent evening meal, but we also celebrated the birthday of the family cat (and its twin who resides next door) with afternoon tea. Neighbours and friends joined us, and a single-candled cake (eggless and satisfyingly tacky because little Susan has a minor allergy to eggs) was brought ceremoniously in for the candle to be lit, blown out, relit and blown out until every little child present had had a go.
Here, however, lies another strange coincidence. Not only does the family cat share a birthday with Diana, it is also, quite by chance called Artemis. Artemis, you will of course be aware, was not only one of the most venerated of all ancient Greece’s deities, but her Roman equivalent is Diana!
There is a passage in the Acts of the Apostles that fascinated me as a child. Chapter nineteen tells of St Paul’s time in Ephesus and how a riot was initiated by the local silversmiths, alarmed at St Paul’s success in turning people away from idols and so damaging their trade in silver shrines to Diana. The mob, we are told, shouted frenziedly over and over again, for three hours: Great is Diana of the Ephesians. Modern translations, to my nostalgia fuelled chagrin, change this to Great is Artemis of the Ephesians. I appear to be soft on Diana.
Rest in Peace Pippin
Pippin the Rectory dog is no more. On Sunday morning she very suddenly became groggy on her feet, refused to eat and started moping. On Monday afternoon the vet discovered a cancer in her bladder and so she was sent off gently and permanently to sleep. What a gap she leaves after being so much a part of the family for fourteen years. Rachel was still at primary school when she arrived as an irresistible puppy. Her greatest achievement, certainly in her own eyes, was catching a wild rabbit after a frenzied chase in a paddock alongside the Murray river. In our eyes it was simply being who she was.
AND THE OTHER (11)
Last Monday I managed to shake myself free from my study to spend most of the day in the garden. In the evening, however, I sneaked back to my desk. My purpose was to visit that happy no mans land between work and play, privileged territory in the life of a parish priest for whom vocation and recreation so frequently merge.
F X Mozart
I went looking on the internet for music that might be suitable for the choir. There is an excellent site called "ChoralWiki" which offers a great variety of free sheet music that has simply to be downloaded. I search for melodic music in two parts that is not too elaborate or difficult, but which will challenge as well as delight us. One of my discoveries was a little piece for two soprano parts by one of Mozart's two sons, a person of whom I was only dimly aware, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart (1791–1844).
He was born in Vienna only five months before his father's tragically early death and received an excellent musical education from three composers dear to my heart, Antonio Salieri (much maligned in the film Amadeus), Johann Nepomuk Hummel (of whose fine music I have several disks) and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (whom I love beyond telling because he wrote several delightful, if unlikely, concertos for Jewish Harp).
Like his father, Franz Xaver Mozart started to compose at an early age. He became a professional musician, but enjoyed only moderate success, both as a teacher and a performer. Unlike his father, he was apparently introverted and given to self- deprecation. He constantly underrated his talent and feared that whatever he produced would be unfavourably compared with what his father had done. He never married, nor did he have any children.
What really interested me, however, was just how large the shadow of his father loomed over him. Etched upon his tombstone is an inscription that is both moving and telling. I sent it off to my daughter Rachel in an email as follows.......
Should you ever be puzzling over what sort of epitaph you might prepare for yourself, you might take as your blue print that of Mozart's son: "May the name of his father be his epitaph, as his veneration for him was the essence of his life."
Love, Me (as I know you do!)
She was so delighted with it that she posted it, just as I sent it, on Facebook!
The patron saint of tanners
Wednesday last week was St Bartholomew's Day and so I couldn't resurrect an old sermon to preach to the good folk who come to the 10.00am Eucharist. This was because among my nine hundred and fifty sermons on file there is not a single one devoted to St Bart.
This being so I did a bit of very speedy research and produced a work of startling unoriginality. Except that is for one thing.
The New Testament is not very forthcoming about St Bartholomew. He is listed in all three Synoptic Gospels (i.e. in St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke) and his name there is linked to St Philip.
In St John's Gospel there is no St Bartholomew at all, but there is St Nathaniel who is also linked to St Philip and so it is assumed that they are one and the same person. There is also a little snippet or two of information about Nathaniel. He is described as initially being sceptical about the Messiah coming from a place like Nazareth, and so commenting, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?", but he accepts Philip's invitation to meet Jesus and Jesus immediately characterizes him as "a man in whom there is no guile." Nathanael, in turn, acknowledges Jesus as "the Son of God" and "the King of Israel". He also reappears at the end of St John's gospel as one of the disciples to whom Jesus appeared at the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection.
All of which is interesting enough and sufficient to inspire a sermon of startling unoriginality. However early Church traditions and legends supply more interesting material.
For example, it is claimed that St Bartholomew was martyred by being skinned alive and then beheaded. As a consequence he is often depicted in art with a large knife, holding his own skin. Little wonder then that he is the patron saint of tanners!
All of which means that instead of the accompaniment of a piano for our offertory hymn last Wednesday we should have used a digeridoo and sung:
Tan me hide when I'm dead, Fred,
tan me hide when I'm dead.
So we tanned his hide when he died Clyde,
And that's it hanging on the shed......
The trouble with the lovely little piece of music I have discovered by F X Mozart is that it is in German, and although it starts with a familiar piece of scripture which means that I can translate it, loses me thereafter. To suggest that our choir sings German is too much. We try a bit of Latin now and then, always so well ozzified you would never recognise it as such, and in our lovely setting of the Reproaches we try to get our tongues around a little Greek, again well ozzified. German would be a step too far.
Some time ago I took a secular drinking song with German words that was composed by Salieri and replaced them with my own. This is a far more difficult task than you might imagine. They say, for example, that Handel (being a German by birth) is far inferior as a setter of English texts than is Henry Purcell, a native Englishman, because the latter skilfully unites the natural rhythms of English to music more delicately and perfectly than Handel. There is far more to the task than simply assigning syllables to notes! I was able to perform the task with my Salieri drinking song because the text I used consisted of only one word: Alleluia!
At Diana's suggestion I am considering sending the F X Mozart piece to the fine musician who composed the Recessional for our wedding (a contrapuntal dialogue between Rule Britannia and Waltzing Matilda), whose wife is German speaking. She would be well able to translate the words and he could then fit the words to the music for me admirably I am sure. All for a bottle of the best Australian red. We shall see.
From September the Reverend Patti Matthews from Euroa will be coming up to work for our parish one day a week, on Thursdays. This is an example of parochial cooperation and mutual support that should be a sign of hope for our whole diocese and a possible model for the future.
Euroa is having what we trust is only temporary difficulty in paying for full time priestly ministry. We in Shepparton, with the extending and deepening of our parish life that comes from linking up to Murchison and Rushworth, are finding ourselves stretched to the very limit ministry wise, especially if one of the two of our stipendiary clergy is on leave.
By Patti coming to Shepparton to do mostly nursing home and hospital duties, (which carry little if any homework) she will assist us where we sorely need assistance and we will provide much needed cash for her own parish. The cost to our parish is more or less met by an impost upon Murchison and Rushworth to which they have readily acquiesced. Patti is a delightful and accomplished priest and so is yet another priestly presence to add to what is already a very talented team of full time and honorary clergy.
The arrangement with Euroa will be reviewed at the end of the year to assess how well it is working.
The flip side
It is all very well to herald and celebrate approaching spring's first blackbird song or daffodil, but I have just heard the drone of the first blow fly (duly hunted down and messily squashed) and already there are cabbage white butterflies laying their crisp little eggs on the leaves of my turnips and cabbage, grrr!
When people are bed-ridden and approaching their end I sometimes suggest to them that they remember walks they used to make when children. From home to school, perhaps, so as to stroll them again in their imagination, remembering particular puddles, trees and whatever. To do so can bring all sorts of blessings and graces and is a way out of the boredom that so easily immobilises immobility.
There are some lovely walks in Shepparton. Possibly the most beautiful to me is the one I make on so many early mornings from the priests' vestry in St Augustine's, down the dark, narrow, arched ambulatory to the glittering oasis that is the Lady Chapel to celebrate Mass. It is a little walk to be savoured, relished, and etched deeply in one's imagination for future happy recall. It brings with it deeply appreciated hints and suggestions of cloisters, monks and medievalism, and the glittering, candle-flickering Lady-Chapel of the exotic Eastern Church, Constantinople, Byzantium.
Why do I bother to write this diary column? Firstly because I enjoy doing so. Secondly because in a parish with a variety of congregations in different locations, it is a way of having a word with everyone even, when I am not present on Sundays. Thirdly because I myself enjoy the diary columns I regularly read in The Spectator. There is something satisfying and perhaps even important about taking what is largely inconsequential or fleeting and granting it significance, meaning and consequence, simply by drawing attention to it.
This, in a sense, is what prayer is about. Daily life is usually far too busy to ruminate much over all the commonplace encounters, occurrences and events that make it up. To set apart a time to be quiet in order to do just that, to ruminate, remember and notice what is ordinary allows us to discover and detect meaning, significance, goodness, pattern, purpose and God. It also enables us to respond with genuine penitence, praise, gratitude, intercession and action.
This week's column has pulled from the oblivion that is my fading memory, a Monday spent in the garden, an encounter with F.X Mozart and his rather sad though moving epitaph, my daughter Rachel, Jewish Harp concertos, the patron saint of tanners, Rolf Harris, Purcell, Handel, Patti Matthews, blow flies, cabbage white butterflies and much else. Simply to single them out is to honour them, invest them with significance, and to be grateful for so much to be found in so little. Deo gratias.
AND THE OTHER (12)
Last Sunday was our wedding anniversary. We celebrated it the night before with a succulent, though amusingly minuscule, rack of lamb. On the actual day, after peaceful services at Dookie and Katandra, we ate a picnic lunch on heavily lichened, granite boulders atop a hill that overlooked glorious countryside, a patchwork of golden canola and livid-green wheat paddocks. The sun was warm, the breeze cool and a flock of sheep baaed peacefully, apparently unaware or possibly just astonishingly forgiving of the previous evening’s rack of lamb.
After a short snooze lullabied by sheep song, we walked the Warbies, encountering on our way out and again on our way back, a large, ferocious looking goanna, and Diana was introduced to one of those fascinating hugger mugger clusters of spitfires on a small gum tree. They appeared to be spitting something rather more noxious than fire.
We then headed to Benalla for a splendid meal with Peter, Elizabeth, Nathan, Meg and Susan.
From then on it was all downhill. A week with two funerals as well as a whole day extracted for meetings in Wangaratta collected yet another funeral. It is hardly appropriate to complain though, it is, after all, what I am called to and paid for.
What a pleasure to receive a condolence note from the Vet upon the death of Pippin. The pleasure was diluted somewhat by the enclosure with it of a bill for $320.
How delightful as well to chinwag with and open my mouth to the dentist for five minutes at a cost of $52 and with the promise of more action and many, many more dollars to come in a few week’s time. Interestingly, however, is that the charge of the dentist has not inflated too hugely over the years. $50 for five minutes is $10 a minute and 16 cents a second. About fifteen years ago it was 10 cents a second. This I know this because I celebrated it in a piece of aggrieved light verse as follows:
Ten Cents a Second! Flaming Hell!
With barefaced gall and practised ease,
My dentist, for his expertise,
At my last visit charged per second,
(I’ve worked it out, it’scarefully reckoned)
Ten cents!And with a smile as well.
Ten cents a second! Flaming hell!
So just a minute’s idle chat,
To laugh with me at this and that
Or sixty seconds idle patter
Or sixty seconds worth of chatter
Mean I’ve bid goodbye, farewell
To six good dollars! Flaming hell!
Meddling in an orifice
Shouldn’t cost as much as this,
For filling teeth and fitting dentures
Is hardly one of life’s great ventures!
Can scarcely cause a head to swell.
Ten cents a second! Flaming hell!
A novel way of commending churchgoing to the reluctant could well be to talk up the value of boredom. Children these days are hugely intolerant of boredom. One of their greatest putdowns is to say “boring!” with the first syllable attenuated and given exaggerated emphasis. When not being ferried by car (because there could well be a paedophile behind every tree) to school, or ballet, or football, or music lessons, or tennis, or parties, or the cinema, they are glued to a mobile phone, games console or computer screen.
How unusual then, how novel, salutary and altogether beneficial must be a trip to church to be bored witless for an hour or more! It encourages the growth and development of the imagination. I have spent hours and hours of hours of my life in church. Many of those hours, I have to confess, bored me, but not witless or to tears, rather to the development of my imagination and a rich inner life!
I remember with great pleasure during one sermon on Tristan da Cunha, my brother and myself as little boys licking our black prayer books to make them shiny. We learned that it not only blackened our tongues and tasted not unpleasingly acrid, but that is also, eventually, bubbled and faded the prayer books to a most useful unsightliness which rendered them unattractive to the thousands of thieves so prone to and desirous of stealing Books of Common Prayer.
The greater the number of children in church, the more imperative it is that the priest be boring! All this bending over backwards to be stimulating, innovative, attractive, and relevant is to the detriment of little ones. Viva boredom!
The bell of Ararat
When I first arrived in Australia, about twenty six years or so ago, I spent three months as an assistant priest in the parish of which four years later I became Rector, Ararat. On my first morning I made my way over to church to say mattins and to celebrate the Eucharist with my Rector and a local retired priest. Before going in to church I automatically went over to the bell gantry and gave the big church bell thirty three good rings.
This was something I did with such meticulous regularity on the Island of St Helena that many islanders maintained they used to get up in the morning to the bell’s ring. I liked to think that those hard working souls who, as the author of Ecclesiasticus says, maintain the fabric of the world, and whose prayer is the handiwork of their craft, were reminded by the bell’s daily ring that their parish priest was offering verbal prayer and the Eucharist on their behalf and for their welfare.
Only once did I fail to ring the bell on time. That was on the morning that my St Helenian daughter Elizabeth was born. As good an excuse as a married priest could ever find for dereliction of duty.
On my second morning in the Australian parish of Ararat, as on the first morning, I again gave the bell thirty three good rings. Just as I finished, the door of a nearby house burst open and the raucous voice of a local harridan, a female equivalent of Barry Mackenzie, ripped the air apart and poured appalling abuse and calumny upon my head for so disturbing the peace! My Rector refused to let me call the harridan’s bluff and so Ararat, sadly, never grew accustomed to being woken by the tolling of a Matin Chime.
Bells of Shepparton, Swindon & Oxford
Shepparton is more civilized. Every morning at a quarter to eight, our sonorous bell, fittingly the most pleasing sounding bell in all of Shepparton, just as our church is the most pleasing building, rings out thirty three dongs, one for each of Jesus of Nazareth’s years of life.
I love bells. So did that most attractive of Anglicans, John Betjeman. His blank-verse autobiographical poem is entitled Summoned By Bells. I too have been summoned to worship many times by glorious peals of bells in lovely English country towns and villages. Diana is an accomplished bell ringer and like all such finds well hung belfries irresistible. Bells peal throughout Betjeman’s verse, one of his poems is called: On Hearing the Full Peal of Ten Bells from Christ Church, Swindon, Wilts., an admirable mouthful of a title for a poem. It is bettered by that of another of his splendid verses: Church of England Thoughts Occasioned by Hearing the Bells of Magdalene Tower from the Botanic Gardens, Oxford on St Mary Magdalene’s Day, which really is a mouthful, here are a few lines........
....A multiplicity of bells,
A changing cadence, rich and deep
Swung from those pinnacles on high
To fill the trees and flood the sky
And rock the sailing clouds to sleep.
A Church of England sound, it tells
Of “moderate” worship, God and State,
Where matins congregations go
Conservative and good and slow
To elevations of the plate.
And loud through resin-scented chines
And purple rhododendrons roll’d,
I hear the bells for Eucharist
From churches blue with incense mist
Where reredoses twinkle gold....
A bell in Grahamstown
The bell of my theological college chapel was an awkward brute with a mind of its own. All students were required to take on, in turn, a weekly stint of chapel-bell ringing. To ring the Angelus properly on that College bell, without unwanted extra little pips and pings, required great skill and was a matter of some pride to all the anglo-catholic students. Those of a more protestant persuasion used to delight to make a hash of it!
One student in particular took too great a pride in his efforts though. He had some excuse because he’d developed the art of ringing the angelus on that awkward bell flawlessly. So much so that a prankster climbed the chapel’s roof and tied fishing line to the clapper. The Angelus began: dong, dong, dong.... The first nine rings were meticulously, crisply rung, there followed the customary devotional, reverential, though proud silence, and then suddenly a frenzied, d.d.d.d.d.d.d.d.dong, on and on and on as the fishing line was pulled and jerked and pulled! How we, and I hope the angels, laughed.
I once repaired the rope attached to the clapper of the bell on St Helena with the help of a large jubilee clip, and some judicious drilling. A difficult job of which I boasted to Edwy, a bass in the choir and the ringer of the five minute bell. At Evensong the following Sunday, Edwy rang for only three minutes of the requisite five. He then appeared with blood trickling from the bridge of his nose and a reproachful look. My proudly boasted jubilee clip had detached itself and conked him one! Thus, perhaps, my laughter at the sabotaged pride of an Angelus rung many years previously was appropriately avenged!
An African bell
People were summoned to worship in the mission station churches of my youth, in Africa, not by a tolling bell but by the clang of a piece of railway line dangling from a tree branch being banged with a large bolt. This was not a memorably musical sound, but simply to recall it for this little diary column fills me with nostalgia. Not so much for the noise itself, I think, as for the vibrant African worship it promised. So perhaps means have not quite become ends and my love of bells might well be part and parcel of my love and worship of the one true and living God to whom be all honour, praise and glory.
The good Fitz
The amount of quiet, effective work done by Heather Fitzgerald in the parish is astonishing and inspiring. She does it all with quiet grace. As the Stewardship Campaign she has largely coordinated and run, with good help from Dorothy Cook, draws to its close she needs to be acknowledged for the star that she is. A famous sonnet by Keats begins: Bright star, were I as steadfast as thou art...... Indeed.
AND THE OTHER (13)
It was good to welcome Gail back from her holiday, relaxed, well-shorn and with a set of snazzy wheels. Although delighted to have her back, to my shame I did not welcome her publically last Sunday, and so because she was out at Dookie some of you were unaware of her return. Herewith, then, a belated public welcome back to Gail, already immersed as she is in the maelstrom of parochial activity! Her return enables Diana and myself to go away this weekend, God bless her indeed.
We will be on the road a fair bit, enabling Diana to acquaint herself with more of the best of Australia. Snowy weather permitting we head over the mountains to Malua Bay, south of Bateman's Bay, where my son Peter is house-sitting. This weekend off is also enabled by the arrival in the district of Barry Slatter and his wife. Barry is a priest living and working in England but who with his wife has a property near Katandra. They come out most years for a visit and so the folk at Katandra and Dookie benefit from a different and most amiable priestly presence. Welcome to them too, and many thanks.
Asparagus and love bites
Possibly the most appreciated sign of spring's arrival is a bundle of asparagus spears left hanging on my door knob. The first of many to follow. Lorraine Noonan keeps me well supplied for as long as the season lasts. God bless her.
Asparagus is the most splendid of vegetables. Nowhere in the world have I glutted myself so shamelessly upon it as here in Australia. Until arriving in this fair land I had only experienced the mushy, tinned variety. It was another generous parishioner, Alice Knight of Linton in the parish of Skipton, who first fed me crisp, fresh asparagus. The first crunchy bite proved to be a love bite.
I have a couple of asparagus crowns growing in our garden. They were given to me some years ago by Bev Condon. It is good to have them and I often eat the young spears raw in the garden as I cut them. They go nowhere near to satisfying my voracious appetite for the vegetable though. At the end of the season I allow them to feather, flower and fruit, the foliage turns a beautiful autumn yellow. Apparently the little red berries are poisonous to humans.
There is evidence of asparagus being eaten 20,000 years ago near Aswan in Egypt. The Greeks and Romans ate it fresh when in season and dried the vegetable for use in winter; apparently the Romans even froze it, high up in the Alps, in order to keep it for the Feast of Epicurius. The Emperor Augustus reserved an "Asparagus Fleet" for hauling the vegetable, and coined the expression "faster than cooking asparagus" for speedy action. The oldest recipe book in the world, Apicius's third century "De re coquinaria", has a recipe for it.
Like Rhino horn it has been celebrated in the East for its aphrodisiacal power and also as a counter for fatigue. By 1469 it was cultivated in French monasteries, though hopefully not for its aphrodisiacal powers. Louis XIV had special greenhouses built for growing it.
One of its most interesting properties is the pong it gives to one's urine, often as soon as fifteen minutes after ingestion. It is for this reason that in England it has sometimes been called "Chamber-maid's horror", though that greatest of French authors, Marcel Proust maintained that it "......transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume." Given the propensity of scientists for idiotic as well as useful research, it is hardly surprising that there have been all sorts of studies of who can smell asparagus-scented urine, who cannot and why.
The Chinese are far and away the largest producers. In 2005 they harvested close to six million tons.
Out to Dookie
Diana and I recently headed out to Dookie and Ian and Jenny Shield's farm to relieve them of a little sheep manure. We have expanded our vegetable garden and I have a long and loving relationship with sheep dung.
In the parish of Skipton, kneeling down in mature manure beneath local shearing sheds to fill bags with the stuff to raise cash for the parish was a regular part of my life. Raking, shovelling, dragging, sweating, toiling at such a task, helped this new immigrant parson to Australianise himself as well as get the sheep and shepherd imagery of the bible into sharper than usual focus.
Manure, Urine and Damp Wool
When a malicious old ewe, standing in the shearing shed above you, voids her capacious bladder through the grating on to your bald head, to the amusement of the parishioners toiling with you, the bible's sheep and shepherd imagery loses some of its romantic aura.
When you bless a fleece in a shearing shed, accompanied by a cacophony of corellas in chorus outside, fidgety sheep as well as fidgety parishioners inside, and with a natural incense rising to God as prayer, not from a thurible, but from a strangely pleasing blend of manure, urine and damp wool, then the sheep and shepherd imagery of the bible is absorbed in a rather more intimate and realistic way.
When you watch sheep castrated in the old fashioned way with the teeth, when you assist in the slaughter and butchering of sheep and observe them sheared, dipped and dosed, the sheep and shepherd imagery of the bible loses the last of its stained-glass sentimentality and is appreciated far more for its gutsy realism.
It all is too easy to be a book-bound, study-bound, lily-white-handed parson; a theorising, hypothesising, theologising parish priest; one obsessed with liturgical minutiae, or with fine points of doctrine, or with diocesan politics or with what General Synod is up to. Particularly if you are the Rector of a wealthy and well endowed suburban parish.
The Authentic Shepherd Stinks of Sheep
The desperation for cash experienced in small country parishes, which is the most debilitating and depressing fact of life, is also, paradoxically the most invigorating. It forces the parson out of his study and away from parsonic preoccupations to get alongside people in all sorts of ingenious schemes, enterprises and undertakings. It enables a mutual and realistic appreciation of each other to begin to grow between parson and people, and allows the bible, theology, liturgy, common worship and prayer to coarsen into the rude vitality of real faith.
An authentic shepherd has to stink of sheep. All of which, when Rector of the little country village of Skipton, I celebrated in verse:
Under a shearing shed
Crouching and grunting
and down on his luck,
An Anglican Rector
discovered the way
To keep cash-hungry bishop
and diocese at bay.
The offertory plate
each Sunday was light,
But he didn't despair
at the pitiful sight,
Or rant and harangue
his faithful few,
He flopped to his knees,
but not in a pew!
Under a shed he got down
to his praying,
In sweat and in effort,
in action not saying;
And so there were filled
lots of offertory sacks,
Piled up high,
a great mountain of stacks.
This wasn't accomplished
He didn't perspire
and beseech on his own.
came to kneel in the dung,
To pray with their muscle,
not with their tongue.
In Carngham they did it
without their Rector,
Hundreds of sacks
from this hard-working sector,
And in Wallinduc's rain
and in Wallinduc's mud, The hand of Sue Robertson
split and poured blood,
But still she dug on,
with the hard working Netta,
Inspiring the men
to do better and better!
So Christ Church Skipton
was solvent on dung
And happy am I
dung's praise to have sung.
The stuff has its merits
is far from obscene,
Its smell is not noxious,
though pungent its clean,
How well it dissolves
a church's debts
And eases a Rector's
worries and frets.
All praise then for muck,
it's most wonderful stuff,
A church in the bush
simply can't have enough.
Like roses and lilies
we need it to thrive
And keep mother church
fragrant, lovely and live!
I have just been reading a fascinating article on a man who spends nearly every spare minute of his life writing palindromes. He is an American called Barry Duncan and has completed one that is 400 words long, though it was not included in the article. Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same forward or backward. Here are some simple though ingenious examples: "Party booby trap." "Lisa Bonet ate no basil." "A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!" "I Love Me, Vol. I". Fascinating.
AND THE OTHER (14)
Ten years ago, on the day that a handful of hideously inhumane fanatics slammed planes into the World Trade Centre, I was on holiday in Merimbula. I spent pretty well the whole of September the eleventh in that year watching the atrocity unfold on television.
Bell birds, oysters and blossom
I remember the holiday more happily for other things as well. It was there that I discovered bell birds for the first time, whose chiming I initially mistook for musical tree frogs. I also sampled with gusto the large local oysters, walked round and canoed the beautiful estuarine lakes and revelled in the scent of the blossom of the ubiquitous, glossy leaved Pittosporum undulatum trees.
A couple of years later, on moving to Shepparton, I discovered to my delight that there is a very fine specimen of that tree growing in the corner of the Rectory garden. As I tap away at this diary column the air in the garden is heavy with its sweet scent.
Last weekend Diana and I passed through Merimbula while traversing some of the most beautiful countryside in south east Australia. The bell birds still chimed and the air was as sweetly scent-laden as ever.
A glorious journey
We headed from Albury through Tallangatta, Corryong, Khancoban, Jindabyne, Pambula, Merimbula, Bermagui and Moruya to Malua Bay, south of Bateman's Bay. There my son Peter was staying in the house of two friends overlooking the sea, while doing a painting job for them. He had suggested that we join him for a day or two, and so we did, thanks to Gail's return, and as a self-granted reward for four or five fairly onerous weeks.
The trip to Corryong is familiar to me and much loved, especially when so lush and verdant, though when we paused to survey old Tallangatta, covered by a very full Hume Dam, the wind was bitter, promising snow further along our route. The trip beyond Corryong was new to me and unutterably lovely and interesting, even if Khancoban proved to be something of a disappointment. With its romantic sounding name and situation I had imagined much more, but it seems to have been constructed for workers on the Snowy River Hydro project, rather than to have evolved over many generations and so it has a pre-fabricated look and feel.
Beautiful hydro electricity
After a brief look at Khancoban we pressed on to the nearby Murray 2 Power Station. There we managed to begin really to grasp some of the wonders of the great Hydro Electric scheme about which both Diana and I had first learned during school geography lessons, she in England, I in Rhodesia.
That anyone should have had the imaginative audacity to conceive and propose so wondrous and grandiose a scheme staggered us more even than the achievement of those who toiled so long and so well to make it a reality.
Hydro electricity is a most beautiful and usually beautifying form of human ingenuity and endeavour. I first became aware of its beauty and potential with the building of the great Kariba Dam in Rhodesia in the nineteen fifties, which is still one of the largest dams in the world and an "unnatural" wonder and asset that rivals and surpasses much of the "natural" beauty that surrounds it.
Over the divide
We pressed on up the mountains ignoring the advice of bossy road signs to do with snow chains, having ascertained from someone coming the other way that the road was clear, safe and free of snow and ice. As we got higher and higher there was a light sprinkling of snow on the ground beneath the trees, thicker in hollows and gutters. Near the highest point we passed through a very light and gentle snow shower, but nothing settled on the road, so all was well. We stopped briefly to take a photograph of the snow and skiers at Thredbo and then pressed on to Jindabyne where we lunched overlooking its cold but lovely lake.
We then took headed through Dalgety and Maffra over the sere, brown, rain-shadowed highland grasslands, their lack of verdancy probably due less to a want of rain than to a want of warmth. Eventually grassland turned to woodland and then forest as we descended to the coastal hills and plains to make our way through Pambula and Merimbula and up the pleasing and scenic coastal road to Bermagui and Tilba. There we joined the Princes Highway to Moruya and as twilight descended turned off along a beautiful estuary, arriving at our destination by about half past six.
Coastal bays and botanic gardens
The coast around Malua Bay is notable for innumerable and largely self-contained little coves, with rugged, rocky headlands and little islands.
We had a lovely full two days there in a comfortable house overlooking the bay. The well treed and densely bushed cliffs help disguise human habitation and our house had a resident and not too shy possum who allowed Diana to observe at close quarters for the first time the wide-eyed curiosity and alert translucent ears of its kind.
The main activity of our first full day was an extended visit to the Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Gardens. These are situated on a 42 hectare forest site, five kilometres south of Batemans Bay and they display entirely indigenous plant species that occur naturally in the region. Beautifully laid out and extensively and clearly labelled they were a delight to wander around, especially to Diana as she attempts to makes sense of Australia's unique and puzzling flora. The gardens were established in 1987 and some years ago were ravaged by a huge bush fire. There are only two full time employees, but an obviously very active and proud group of "friends" who volunteer their time, care, love and expertise.
We met and passed the time of day with an elderly lady and her daughter while wandering the gardens. Later, while visiting Bateman Bay's Anglican Church to ascertain service times, we coincidentally encountered her again, practising on the organ.
I had feared that Batemans Bay might be in the Diocese of Sydney, whose characteristic style of worship, let alone its theology, is extremely uncongenial to me. I was pleased to observe, however, that there were candles on the altar and that the parish is a part of the Diocese of Canberra Goulburn. The church building is a modern one, its architecture as is so often the case these days, of a sort conducive to and expressive of a theology more concerned with fellowship than with awe. Thank God for the "otherness" of St Augustine's.
The delightful old bird on the organ, summing us up well, advised us to attend the eight o clock Eucharist, describing the later one as "happy clappy". As it turned out we attended the early service in order to worship, but stayed on for the first part of the second, merely to experience and perhaps learn from it. At the first we underwent two "sermons". The first was a little dissertation on the September Eleven atrocity, the second a more substantial one on Stewardship, of all things. Neither of them was at all bad.
The parish is blessed by many retired clergy, and the deliverer of the second address was a Fr Peter Lord, retired from Warnambool in my first Australian diocese of Ballarat. We had a long and amiable gossip afterwards. He was at theological college with Bishop David Farrer and had some amusing reminiscences to share.
The "happy clappy" service was not much to my personal taste, but was interesting nonetheless. The two participating clergymen were unrobed and waved their arms about as the first twenty minute "bracket" of singing meandered on. Crucial to the music's success was an accomplished, middle-aged and articulate keyboardist who broke into enthusiastic, directive dialogue periodically, revealing the primary purpose of the music to be to soften folk up emotionally. The three female vocalists were less than accomplished, the middle-aged guitarist very good and the drummer restrained.
The service was well attended by a congregation less young than I expected. The arm-wavers tended to be middle-aged or elderly. There were about twenty children who went out to "kids church" once the singing session was over. Teenagers were very few, though there was a fair sprinkling of young adults. The bulk of the congregation was middle-aged or elderly.
Although most emphatically not to my taste, such worship illustrates, not surprisingly, that the cultural language most natural to the vast majority of Australians of all ages is "popular" and that therefore the organ and "high culture" are a barrier to most of our fellow citizens. The great challenge for Anglicanism (and Andrew David Irwin Neaum) is, on the one hand, not to abandon the minority who need to express themselves in worship by way of "high culture" and "good taste", while at the same time popularising for the majority without compromising the essential and distinctive truths and beauties of our tradition and sound, non-fundamentalist theology.
Too often, popularising Anglican churches cease to be at all distinctive and become mere and unnecessary rivals to various fundamentalist, protestant denominations.
Our return on Monday was by way of the spectacular Bemboka Pass, Cooma Adaminaby, Kiandra and Tumbarumba where we stopped for lunch. Then on to Jingellic and along the southern shore of the longest arm of the Hume Dam, beautiful beyond telling. At Talgarno we stopped to look at and photograph the lovely, simple little church where I had celebrated the Eucharist many, many times as Rector of Wodonga, likewise at Bethanga. Then by way of Wodonga we headed for home at exactly half past six. A memorable weekend.
At Diana's suggestion we have replaced the plastic flowers in the alcoves of the east end wall of St Augustine's with temporary icons. This is to get the feel of what something similar, but more permanent might look like.
AND THE OTHER (15)
I submitted my application for Australian Citizenship last week. Having been in the good land of Oz now for a mere twenty seven years, it still seems a little premature, but I can be a daring and courageous fellow at times, and so take the plunge.
Mind you, walking down Wyndham Street last week behind two very young looking policemen, I noticed with still very British surprise the revolvers hanging aggressively from their hips. I think the following joke is meant to be more sympathetic to them than to English policemen. It comes from a friend who lives in England:
Question: How do you tell the difference between a British Police Officer, an Australian Police Officer and an American Police Officer?
Answer: First, lets pose the following question: You're on duty by yourself walking on a deserted street late at night. Suddenly, an armed man with a huge knife comes around the corner, locks eyes with you, screams obscenities, raises the knife, and lunges. You are carrying a Glock .40, and you are an expert shot, however you have only a split second to react before he reaches you. What do you do?
A British Police Officer: Firstly the officer must consider the man's Human Rights.
1) Does the man look poor or oppressed?
2) Is he newly arrived in this country and does not yet understand the law?
3) Have I ever done anything to him that would inspire him to attack?
4) Am I dressed provocatively?
5) Could I run away?
6) Could I possibly swing my gun like a club and knock the knife out of his hand?
7) Should I try and negotiate with him to discuss his wrong doings?
8) Does the Glock have appropriate safety built into it?
9) Why am I carrying a loaded gun anyway, and what kind of message does this send to society?
10) Does he definitely want to kill me, or would he be content just to wound me?
11) If I were to grab his knees and hold on, would he still want to stab and kill me?
12) If I raise my gun and he turns and runs away, do I get blamed if he falls over, knocks his head and kills himself?
13) If I shoot and wound him, and lose the subsequent court case, does he have the opportunity to sue me, cost me my job, my credibility, and the loss of my family home?
An Australian Police Officer: BANG!
An American Police Officer: BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! 'click'.... (Sergeant arrives at scene later and remarks: ‘Nice grouping!')
For our wedding anniversary daughter Ray sent us the following lovely and amusing piece of verse by an American Poet called Jeffrey McDaniel. Among all the unutterable rubbish being passed off as poetry there is still so much good stuff about!
The Quiet World
In an effort to get people to look
into each other's eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.
When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.
Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.
When she doesn't respond,
I know she's used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.
You are wrong Johnny Price
John Price took pleasure in pointing out to me that in my last week's diary column there was an error. I had claimed to have passed through Maffra on my way from Jindabyne to Pamubla, and Maffra, he informed me, is in Gippsland, not New South Wales.
Well John Price, as is usually the case, is wrong! There is in fact a little township called Maffra in New South Wales and we did indeed pass through it. For his information and education its latitude is 36.542, its longitude is 148.968 and it is 138 kilometres south of Canberra. I suspect that I am destined to become a better informed Australian even than John. When I am subjected to the prospective Citizen's Test, and I cannot answer a particular question, I shall boast in mitigation my awareness of there being two townships called Maffra in Australia.
Another response to last week's column came from England, in the form of an email from a friend of many years standing and a thoroughly good egg who has recently turned from Anglicanism to Eastern Orthodoxy. His comment was in response to my musings upon our encounter in Batemans Bay with happy clappy worship and our struggle here in Shepparton to make the 10.30am Sunday Eucharist more culturally relevant:
How right you are in Ipswich
Yes, you have a reader in far-off Ipswich...
As an Orthodox Christian (for so I consider myself, at last - I have not attended an Anglican service since 17th July) I attend the Divine Liturgy at (usually) the Monastery or (occasionally) at St Helen's in Colchester. In both, there is 'all-age' worship in a timeless ritual that makes no concessions to modernity and is conducted in half-light. No guitars or organ; instead, age-old chants, a mixture of English, Greek, Russian, and sometimes French or Romanian. Children (well behaved), teens and other young people, adults of all ages, an atmosphere of intense reverence and prayerfulness. Icons are devoutly kissed, reverences made, and there is much crossing of oneself - done carefully and correctly, in the Orthodox manner, by all ages. No gabbling and chattering in Church. Every Holy Liturgy is a powerful experience, as it has been without exception for the sixteen years I have been attending them regularly, and as I remember from my youth when I nearly converted.
I have a wonderful sense of liberation - no more Anglican Agonies!
Eleven years ago I attended the monastery he mentions with him, and the worship was indeed lovely, a balm to my soul. Any flirtation with happy clappyness on my part is a matter not of taste, inclination or conviction. It is all grimly to do with "when duty calls or danger, be never wanting there."
About eleven years ago I visited the museum of the Black Watch regiment in Perth, Scotland. It was there that it first struck me that the primary loyalty of soldiers in the British Army is more to their regiment than to their country. Many of their incredible acts of bravery, memorialised and celebrated in the museum, were obviously more inspired by a deep devotion to and pride in their regiment rather than by mere patriotism. This, I reflected at the time bears some sort of relevance to church membership.
When local churches grow really large, with great swags of parishioners, it is easy for individual worshippers to begin to feel unnoticed and anonymous. Once you begin to feel unnoticed and anonymous it becomes all too easy to drift off and away.
The great "mega-churches" cope with this problem by devising and brilliantly maintaining an elaborate network of small-groups into which every member is carefully knitted. A sense of "belonging" is thus granted to everyone, and so the drifting away problem ceases to eat away at attendance.
Traditional Anglican churches rarely become "mega churches" and I, being the sort of parish priest that I am and blessed with the sort of vocation that I have, would find such a church extremely uncongenial. Not least because the head minister of such a church has to be a manager more than a pastor, with no real and personal relationship with his ordinary parishioners.
However, even in a traditional Anglican parish such as ours, if we are really to feel a vital part of the parish's life, it is best to belong to at least one of the many groups that contribute to making the parish a vibrant whole.
Members of the choir, for example, have a personal loyalty to each other and their group that helps reinforce their loyalty to the parish and to God. Likewise the members of EfM, the Guild, the Friendship group, Youth group, and so on.
The Gardening Group likewise is a great source of joy, fellowship and common enthusiasm that reinforces its members pride in and sense of belonging to the parish and God. The gardens are looking splendid at present and one of our next projects is to refurbish the fountain in the garden on the south side of the church, to clear the stagnant pond and reline the watercourse to enable the merry babbling of water once again to grace the south side of the church. Once this is done we will put a plaque there in memory of Peg Galt and her husband. Peg designed the garden and help to maintain it in the years before we had the fine and large gardening group we now have, though Norm Mitchelmore, a vital part of the present group remembers providing Peg with much of the labour required for the garden's creation.
AND THE OTHER (16)
Heading to Benalla and then Wangaratta last Tuesday we listened to Margaret Throsby interviewing a fascinating and very articulate monologist, author and actor called Mike Daisey. One of the songs he chose to play during the interview was so unutterably and "in your face" pessimistic, we could hardly believe our ears. We were transfixed.
There is something compelling about pessimism. My mother's favourite Old Testament Book was Ecclesiastes, a splendidly pessimistic, hopeless read if ever there was one, and I too love it for that..... Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun.... and so on. Many of us like such sentiments because, perhaps, we feel it is necessary to acknowledge the all too apparent futility of things. Relentless optimism is wearying because it refuses to acknowledge that it is only half the picture.
The song that transfixed us is called "No Children" and is sung by a band called "The Mountain Goats". The second half goes:
I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow
I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it's darkest
before the sun rises
We're pretty sure they're all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn't over
I hope you blink before I do
And I hope I never get sober
And I hope when you think of me
years down the line
You can't find one good thing to say
And I hope that if I found the strength
to walk out
You'd stay the hell out of my way
I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You're are coming down with me
Hand in unloveable hand
And I hope you die
I hope we both die
Listening to the song for the first time bowled us over. On reading its lyrics and considering them later, some of the shock was taken away by the realisation that it is the song of an alcoholic, and so rather than being sheer, unutterable, mind-blowing pessimism, it has possibly a didactic purpose, namely to depict alcoholism in such a way as to pass judgement on it. If so it is a pity really. It was one of the week's great experiences!
The Damnation Army
The cartoon on the front page of this pew sheet might offend a few of the po-faced. Let them be assured that it in no way mocks the Salvation Army. It simply presents a comic antithesis to it, the "Damnation Army"! The expressions on the faces of the two saucy, net-stockinged, high-kicking band girls are particularly well done.
Anglican agnostics and atheists
On Sunday we delighted in the first and surprisingly long episode of the television series derived from Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana novels "The Ladies No 1 Detective Agency". These books and now the television version of them are notable for presenting a positive, thoroughly attractive and undoubtedly authentic face of Africa. They help make clear why so many of us who have lived in Africa so love it.
Afterwards, on "Compass", Alexander McCall Smith was interviewed. He appears to me to be one of the most delightful, lovable and engaging of intelligent human beings. Although probably not a Christian he represents in his personality and outlook the very best of what I would regard as essential Christianity of an Anglican sort. Tolerant, humourous, forgiving, wise, perceptive, acute. I loved him. If he is not a Christian he reinforces a deeply held conviction of mine, namely that the fellowship of the faithful is wider than those who profess the faith. There are those who follow "the way, the truth and the life" without it's Christian signature. He is one of us.
Another likeable fellow, it seems to me, is the undoubted and quite pugnacious atheist Phillip Pullman, a hugely successful and accomplished children's author. In a recent article he attempts to answer a request from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to explain what he means by calling myself a "Church of England atheist". It is an honest and rather lovely article that reveals him to be more agnostic than atheist. He ends it by inveighing against the "demented barbarians" who, he maintains "....are doing their best to destroy what used to be one of the great characteristics of the Church of England, namely a sort of humane liberal tolerance, the quality embodied in the term "broad church". A broad church is exactly the sort of church I like. Inclusive, not exclusive; more concerned with helping people in distress than in maintaining strict forms of worship and a literal reading of the Bible; and, above all, characterised by a dislike of fanatical inquisition into beliefs and motives. What goes on in people's minds and hearts is their own business and, what's more, it's likely to be largely unknown even to them. What matters is not what they believe, but what they do.... The Church of England, at its best, knew that and acted on it and, while any scraps of that tradition remain, I'm happy to be known as a Church of England atheist." He too, I feel in my bones, is more on the right side than the wrong.
Gazanias, gazanias everywhere
On Monday we attached our bicycles to the car and headed to Nathalia where we ate lunch beside Broken Creek and then cycled the town. This we find to be a good way to familiarise ourselves with strange towns, and we have already done the same in Tatura. Nathalia was looking particularly beautiful, the creek full and colourful carpets of gazanias everywhere. We are not ideal tourists for we take our tucker and drink with us and so buy little or nothing. However we did look for, find and buy some rubber rings for our Fowler jars in preparation for a bountiful harvest of fruit to bottle this year. The great loop of Broken Creek upon which the town is sited makes orienting oneself quite difficult, and the tracks along the river are particularly lovely.
Islam at last
For the first and long heralded Islam Study, even with four or five apologies, there were still twenty one of us in the Rectory. Such a large group presents particular challenges, requiring thoughtful management to ensure participation by all and domination by none. We achieved this I think, thanks to some good prior advice from and discussion with Diana, an accomplished and experienced teacher. It will be good, as the study continues, to get away from a stereotypical view of Islam to view it for what it really is.
At this first session, the final, biggest and to me most interesting and crucial question we considered was: "Do you think the God revealed in Jesus in the First Century and the God revealed in the Quran in the Seventh Century are one and the same?"
Interestingly the word for God used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews is "Allah". What is more, Christians in Indonesia and Malaysia also use "Allah" to refer to God in both the Malaysian and Indonesian Language. The mainstream Bible translations in both languages use Allah as the translation of Hebrew Elohim (translated in English Bibles as "God")
All this acknowledges, surely, that we do indeed worship the same God. What is different and distinctive is our perspective on God. So the reason for remaining a Christian is not that we are right and they are wrong, but rather is because we consider our pers-pective to be the most focussed, clear and revealing perspective. Our doctrine of the Incarnation, for example, with its concomitant assertion that sacrificing love lies at the heart of the Godhead and provides humanity's raison d'etre, is a life enhancing insight and truth unique to our perspective, and one that we cannot live without. That there are glimpses and hints of this great truth in Islam and indeed in other great faiths goes without saying, but they are but hints and glimpses. However, Islam's perspective on God has its own unique and lovely features that we need to appreciate and even appropriate.
Unless one approaches other faiths (or even denominations) with some such sort of fairly nuanced understanding and respect that allows them their own validity and integrity, dialogue is impossible, competition inevitable and conflict likely.
A white rabbit and a bonfire
Saturday the 24th of October was unusually full. It began with a Men's Breakfast in the Parish Hall at Euroa, a cool enough morning for there to be an open, blazing and most welcome fire. Those present appeared to enjoy my Africa talk as much as I enjoyed their egg, bacon, sausage, tomato and company.
Afterwards Diana and I went on to Benalla for a seminar all about finding Christ in films and the media. The best part of this was the personality of Rob Whalley and a film from the early fifties called "Harvey" with James Stewart in the leading role. It was most enjoyable and extremely well acted, a thought provoking film about a man whose best friend is a "pooka" named Harvey — in the form of a six-foot, three-and-one-half-inch tall rabbit. Only he can see the rabbit, although others occasionally seem to be able to as well. When his sister tries to commit him to a mental institution, a comedy of errors ensues. As with many of the best comedies it provokes much thought as well as laughter and the sweet nature of the main character has something of the "holy fool" to it. In the evening we went off to the Pearsons, after the Vigil Eucharist, to participate (late) in the BBQ and to enjoy a wild bonfire in good company and a bitter wind.
As it was in the beginning
J.S. Bach's great Magnificat in D ends with the same melody as it began, to match the words: "As it was in the beginning..." So too I end as I began with an example of pessimism, more rueful than shocking though:
My ranks of friends are getting serried;
Another one has just been buried.
I often wonder what I'm doing -
Mourning their loss, or simply queuing?
AND THE OTHER (17)
One of the greatest of those simple moments in life that make everything worthwhile occurred when I was on holiday on King Island some years ago. On a beautiful, calm evening I was lying with two of my children, on a pebble beach, the sea gently sighed as larger waves intermittently gathered to crash more emphatically as dusk fell.
On the shore side of us, beneath low scrub and bushes, were little passages and burrows. As it became really dark small penguins came out of them to stand like miniature guardsmen, silent for the most part, but occasionally barking and churring too. Then, on the lip of the steep part of the pebble beach, we became aware of company. A row of penguins, fresh from the sea, their crops bulging with mangled fish, were simply standing there, leaning forward and eyeing us suspiciously.
After a while, slowly, quietly, they shuffled forward. Several of them were a mere foot from my foot and had to make a detour round us all because we were in their way. It was a beautiful, awe-inspiring experience and with what joy the returning seafarers were greeted by their mates.
I have always loved animals, birds, reptiles and insects. I cannot walk through a paddock of cows without mooing companionably to them, or baaing my best wishes to sheep. If a blackbird whistles, I whistle back.
In my time I have had a pet penguin, on the island of Tristan da Cunha, a pet mole snake, at my bush school in Africa (we found a nest of them and used to take them to class in our pockets). I have had a pet pied crow, budgies, a dog, and at present have a bowl of over sixty comical tadpoles. They dart around in sudden spasms of energy, delicately nibble at floating lettuce leaves until there is only a fragile tracery of leaf ribs left, and they drift vertically with their mouths upward piercing the water's surface skin, to blow bubbles and kisses to our airy, other-world. A world into which they will one day leap to claim as their own.
I have kept chameleon eggs in damp soil in a little tub on my study windowsill until they hatched into exquisite, tiny, baby chameleon's and were released. I have placed their wary parents in the centre of a lawn to observe them flick out their astonishingly long and sticky tongue to transfix and then gobble grasshoppers. As a boy my school holidays were largely spent walking the African bush with binoculars bird watching. I have been to some of the world's best game parks, and seen lion, elephant, leopard, cheetah, and once, on horseback, almost bumped into a great rhinoceros.
Still one of the most thrilling experiences in life for me, is to discover a bird's nest in my garden, with a clutch of bright, neat, crisp-shelled eggs in it, returning sweet content to the word "nestled".
Why do we love nature so? Why do we love animals, either wild or as pets? Humankind uses them and abuses them. They are made to work for us and are killed to feed us, but we also love them, are inspired and awed by them. We consider cruelty to them a most heinous crime.
There is a contradiction, a paradox to our relationships to animals. What is it all about? It has got something to do, I think, with a paradox or contradiction within ourselves.
We are all of us materialists to some degree or other. Our lives are busied, muddied, cluttered with activities to do with earning a living, with acquiring enough money and possessions to ensure our own and our family's security, well being and comfort. We cannot be otherwise, it is part of the human condition, but unless we are careful it becomes obsessive. We are so busy, busy, busy that we lose sight of greater values, or if not greater, at very least essential complementary values.
The natural world, in its uncomplicated beauty, the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin, the birds of the air that neither sow nor reap, nor gather in to barns, remind us that there is more to life than security. That there is simplicity, beauty, innocence, and perhaps above all, there is simply being. The beauty of just being who we are.
Why do we love a daft little dog?
Why do we love a daft little dog? Or a rainbow lorikeet, or even a house sparrow? The answer is, simply for being what or who they are.
To acknowledge that beauty and respond to it, and its right simply to be, is the beginning of reverence and awe, which are also the impulse to worship.
Worship, reverence, deference, paying someone their worth, is not a characteristic of our day and age. We live in a world that debunks, deprecates and decries, that cuts down tall poppies, devalues the sublime and beautiful, cocks its leg against so much that is good and lovely and traditional.
Church-goers don't though. For we practice worship and reverence, regularly, Sunday by Sunday, we learn to bow the knee and respond to what is "other". We are all the better people for doing so.
Those who are not church-goers have to turn to nature to learn a little of what we are on about, namely, reverence, awe and worship.
It is no wonder that environmentalists and greens often appear quasi-religious, sometimes even to the point of fanaticism. They are closer to religious practice than they imagine or dare admit.
In bringing our pets to be blessed we acknowledge their worth, the important part they play in our lives, and simply our delight in their being, in that they are.
More than that, though we acknowledge that they are also a blessing to us, for they take us out of our self and point us to reverence and worship, like the lilies of the field.
Thank God for nature, for animals, for our pets, and for St Francis who reminds us of the importance of sweet simplicity and joy in what is natural, given and free.
AND THE OTHER (18)
I was still a bachelor when I went to Theological College, though in my late twenties. Understandably then, I was pleased to learn while there, that a cassock or dog-collar on a fellow caused the hearts of women to palpitate. That women, or at least, certain sorts of women, simply adore priests. So opportunities for marriage and love would proliferate embarrassingly when once I was ordained and had begun to mince around in a cassock, no matter how ugly the face above my dog collar.
I can't say that I really found this to be so. Perhaps the face above my dog collar really is beyond the pale, but I don't think it was that. It is more likely that the information given to me was wrong. Certainly I would surmise a stethoscope around the neck to be far more potent a palpitator of hearts than a dog collar could ever be.
Doctors as heart throbs
Doctors are more 21st century heart throbs than priests. Firstly because they earn more money, and money is no mean aphrodisiac, but also because doctors are the natural heroes, heart-throbs and gods of a materialistic world. In a world where this life is the only life, then preservers and prolongers of this life are bound to be highly valued, well paid and idolised.
Of course we complain and grumble about doctors, but many of our brightest children aspire to get into medical school and we are very proud when they do. Furthermore our grumbles at doctors are grumbles that arise when they fall short of expectations, they are not fundamental grumbles. You come across not a few folk who are anti-clergy, and to whom the sight of a dog collar is worse than the sight of dog dirt, but you don't come across many anti-medicos. Even those who reject conventional medicine and orthodox doctors in favour of natural medicine, homeopathy, or quackery, are simply swapping denominations, going sectarian. They are venturing out to the fringes of medical orthodoxy where there remain doctors of a sort, health-mediums, quacks and gurus to worship by the score.
The Beloved Physician
This evening, at 5.30pm, we celebrate St Luke who is the patron saint of doctors. He is St Paul's "beloved physician". It invites us to consider medicine and doctoring in relation to our faith.
Not only was St Luke termed by St Paul the "Beloved physician", he was also the self-effacing author of St Luke's Gospel, and of the Acts of the Apostles. A man whose writings suggest that he was broad of sympathy, compassionate to the poor and to the outcast, pious, joyful, urbane and deeply loyal, remaining with St Paul right to the end, ministering to him and doubtless doctoring him in gaol. The beloved physician indeed.
Beloved, though, not as a prolonger and preserver of life, as an extender of materialistic horizons, but beloved as a person and personality.
A close relationship
The relationship between the medical profession and Church, between doctor and priest isn't what it once was. Our paths have diverged. In primitive times the priest and doctor were one. If you were ill you'd come to see witch-doctor Andrew Neaum at his shrine, temple, church or cave. There incantations, spells, trances, prayers and magic would play by far the larger part in his doctoring, though there would also be primitive unguents, pastes, noxious brews, herbs and purges on offer as well.
This is what it is still like in parts of the world. I remember one Sunday afternoon in urban Africa being called away from listening to Telemann or Mozart to go and see the parish church's African caretaker in his little house on the premises. He was apparently very sick.
When I got there he was lying still on his bed. I gave him a shake. He was stone cold. Dead as dead could be. He had drunk some "muti" Some medicine, an evil concoction of witch-doctor's leaves and berries and it had killed him.
Perhaps it is as well that the path of priest and doctor has diverged. Though it is wrong to blame religion for such mishaps. The man was killed by primitive medicine, not primitive religion. It is as well to remember that both medicine and religion were once primitive, and the witch's brew of
eye of newt, and toe of frog,
wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlets's wing
is the forbear of penicillin and cortisone. Just as the slaughtering of animals and even humans, the burning of them on altars and the sprinkling and splashing of blood is the forbear of the Eucharist.
Not so primitive
A primitive forbear doesn't give the lie to or invalidate its more sophisticated descendent. If it did, then our own ape-like forbears would give cause to write us and the whole of humankind off.
Indeed the one area in which primitive medicine and primitive religion were not as primitive as they seem, was in their marriage, their oneness, their togetherness. They belong together not apart. Though there divergence might well have been a necessary part of their growing to maturity.
We realise more and more nowadays how important the whole person is in the matter of healing. That there is a very real and important relationship between the spiritual and the physical person, and between mind and matter. Healing is hastened by peace of mind and acceptance.
We realise too, with the witchdoctors of old, that a great proportion of sickness is psychosomatic, that to be spiritually at peace and at one with God, and able to see purpose and meaning in existence, helps enormously in any journey towards full physical health.
This is how we interpret many of Jesus' remarkable healings. His presence and personality, his love and forgiveness helped those who were sick to see themselves as they really were, and yet still as loved and accepted by God, as forgiven. Their sickness as possibly self-inflicted, but certainly not God-inflicted. A realisation that sometimes brought remarkable physical results.
And so the priest's job in hospital today is seen by discerning doctors as complementary to their own role. The priest is there to assure of God's reality, love, forgiveness, and healing power. It is to comfort, set minds at rest, feed the spirit.
Religion in hospitals
There is, of course, no room for religious cranks and crankery. Too many fanatics and crackpots foul the pitch for true religion and virtue in the eyes of the medical profession.
So much so that although I am quite often called out to the hospital in Shepparton to minister to those in extremis, sometimes at the instigation and on the initiative of the medical staff, any general visiting is all but impossible because of over-protective privacy rules and rulings.
Yet the need for the priest in hospital and sickness is very real, and the atmosphere in Catholic hospitals is very different from that in non-religious hospitals.
The overt presence of Jesus the healer in statues, nuns and crucifixes reassures patients of an essential balance and sanity that is immensely comforting and healthy to most of us. Certainly, if you are elderly and very ill, but abominate any suggestion of euthanasia, you feel safer in such a hospital.
My old father would ask, whenever he visited a doctor for the first time: "Do you believe in euthanasia?" If the doctor said "Yes" or even equivocated or "ummed" and "ahhed" at all, my Father would never go back to him.
Acceptance and healing
And so we celebrate St Luke this week and in doing so thank God for all the wonderful workers of healing miracles in our local hospitals and clinics. If Christian we also resolve to take our faith beyond outward observance and into the heart. That is, in prayer, to take our anxieties and fears, our insecurities and sins, our worries about the future and all our doubts and failings, as well as any illnesses to God and in the quietude of devotion accept them all, and his love and forgiveness. Our acceptance, our saying "Yes" even to difficulties, illnesses and misfortunes as well as to gifts and to God, allows grace to operate in our lives, opens the door to love and sometimes even to physical healing.
AND THE OTHER (19)
It is unfortunate to have a Clergy Conference during the week before a parish Fete and parish Confirmation, with our amiable Parish Secretary away too. It means I have had to pack two weeks into one.
Not all drudgery and deadlines
It also supports my contention that it is deadlines that make the world go round. Things simply had to be done, and so they were. I made a list of all of them and as far as I can judge they have been accomplished. The worst thing of all, I think, is translating orders of service into "Power Point" in order for them to be screened at the 10.30 service. Tedious indeed, made bearable only by the lively, optimistic music of Boccherini.
Nonetheless, during the past week it wasn't all drudgery and deadlines. We prepared garden beds and planted capsicum, aubergine and butternut squash. We had a delicious ratatouille on the banks of one of our irrigation channels and popped in to see John Horder on his farm, and Peter Ross Edwards in Tatura. We biked to Mooroopna on a beautiful afternoon to visit the hospitable Plemings and admire their garden, especially its avocado tree. We learned a little bit about downloading BBC programs from the internet from my son Peter, so as to be able to allow the first of a series on Islam to be watched by the group that meets each week at the Rectory. We released most of our tadpoles who were beginning to fling themselves suicidally onto the kitchen bench. We repaired the gauze on our bedroom window and explored the most interesting shop in Shepparton, the newly expanded Sikh grocery store on the corner of George Road and Hayes Street where we bought some potent pickles, samosas, a small sack of rice and a big bag of Aloo Bhujia (spicy potato noodles). Although as early as 5.30 in the morning as I tap away at this little column, I munch and crunch my way through a couple of handfuls of the last mentioned item. Delicious. We have also embarked on the long process of turning Joyce Aldrige's lemons in to a spicy lemon pickle. The Indian recipe uses no oil, but requires us to slow cook them for two whole months by placing the jar of pickling lemon pieces out in the sun! Our garden is shady, and so the jar has to be moved from sunny spot to sunny spot during each day.
A face like a warming pan
I have also read this morning the review of a scholarly biography of Ben Jonson the 17th century poet, playright, critic and much more. It is a book I intend purchasing once it has been kindled. It describes the man thus: Jonson was a bruiser, intellectually and physically. He was poet, soldier and brickie. That was when poets were hard. He once walked to Edinburgh and back for a bet. He put his own shoulder to the wheel when scenery needed rotating for his masques. Towards the end of his life he weighed 20 stone. Ugly bugger, too; he was described by his sometime associate Thomas Dekker as ‘a staring Leviathan' with ‘a terrible mouth' and ‘a parboiled face ... punched full of oilet holes, like the cover of a warming pan....'.
An irresistible book surely, one with the space too to list the items on the menu that was rustled up by the Merchant Taylors' Company to welcome Prince Henry into their ranks in the summer of 1607...Swans, godwit, shovellers, partridges, owls, cuckoos, ringdoves, pullets, ducklings, teal, peacocks, rabbits, leverets and a great turkey... along with 1,300 eggs, three great lobsters and 200 prawns, salmon, salt fish, plaice, sole, dory, carp and tenches, sirloins and ribs of beef, mutton and lambs' dowsets, neats' tongues and sweet breads, and to conclude the evening, figs, dates, prunes, currants, almonds, strawberries, gooseberries, cherries, pears, apples, damsons, oranges and quinces. Twenty-eight barrels of beer were provided to slake the diners' thirst, together with more than 440 gallons of wine.
What a wonderful thing it is to leave the contemporary world (just as full of interesting folk if only one knows where to look) in order to lose yourself in that mad, bad, religiously tumultuous, fascinating seventeenth century! If anyone is interested the book is Masques of Beauty and Blackness by Ian Donaldson: OUP, 533pp.
Homilies at weddings no more.
Almost invariably I enjoy my time with couples who come to be married in church. Few if any of them these days are church attenders and their appreciation of anything other than the building and its gardens is minimal, if not non-existent, but for the most part they are delightful and provide me with one of the few opportunities to engage with young people other than members of my family.
I no longer give a well wrought homily at weddings. The wedding guests at most ceremonies I perform are unlikely to understand them, let alone appreciate them. Instead I attempt to impart a gem of wisdom or profundity in my opening remarks, lightened with a little humour and then we get on with the business in hand.
There are exceptions. I whipped up a homily for my daughter's wedding. She understands me alright, too well in fact. Had I said anything unacceptable there would have been a loud bridal raspberry blown my way!
I composed one too for a friend whose marriage I performed in the Western Districts some time ago. He and his wife are keen Scottish Country Dancers and he had been part of a group who danced weekly at St John's Wodonga when I was Rector there. The homily (names changed) went as follows:
Orangutans and violins
The majority of husbands, said the French novelist Balzac, remind you of an orangutan trying to play the violin.
How true that is, how devastatingly true. We have all witnessed it over and over again, have we not? It makes us want to weep.
Women, like violins, are subtle, delicate and mysterious creatures, of infinite tonal possibilities, moods and character; sonorous, dark, rich, devious, ambiguous, deep, mother-earthy; silvery pure, ethereal, light, glittering, graceful; humorous, quirky, bouncy, buoyant.
They require the sensitivity, understanding, imagination, empathy and dazzling technique of a virtuoso, to sing the melodies they have it in them to sing.
Yet all they get, usually, is an unmusical, fumbling, philistine of an orangutan.
Jacqueline Russells and bagpipes
The majority of wives, though, remind you of a Jack Russell, trying to play the bagpipes. Darting, yapping, whining, nagging, attempting to draw a sweet melody from a lazy, uncomplicated bag of wind, from a great bladder of blah. When all it is capable of is a droning, burping, squawking, belching, cacophonous caterwaul.
Ah well! That is marriage. Attempting the impossible. A sweet duet on a violin and bagpipes, played by an orangutan and a Jacqueline Russel. Hopeless. Why do we bother with it?
Because it can work has worked, does work, and not infrequently. The impossible, like God, is worth reaching for, aspiring to.
Bach and the Tudelsack
My very favourite composer is Johann Sebastian Bach. He, in his sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, has worked greater miracles on a violin than any composer on earth,
And although it is inconceivable that such a genius should stoop so low as even to notice, let alone write for the bagpipes, we nonetheless find in the very final chorus of his charming Peasant Cantata, which is all about a bucolic wedding ceremony, that the bagpipe and the violin do converge, after a fashion.
The violin plays its sprightly melody to the words:
Wir gehn nun, wo der Tudelsack
der Tudel, Tudel, Tudel, Tudel, Tudel, Tudel sack......
In unsrer Shenke brummt........
And the word Tudelsack, as I am sure you all know, is German for bagpipes. The im-possible has been achieved. The bagpipes and the violin have come together in sweet harmony to celebrate a marriage in the music of the greatest of all the world's composers! Nothing is impossible! Not even a happy marriage.
The marriage miracle
The musical miracle is pulled off by the genius of Bach, but what of the happy marriage miracle, what is it that makes possibly possible such an impossibility?
It is the vow, the devastating vow, which, if profoundly meant, and therefore resolutely kept, binds Peter and Rosemary together, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death.
The groom today, Peter gives as his wedding present to his bride, Rosemary, the assurance that he will never ever, ever reject or turn his back on her, will never, ever in any circumstance whatsoever, abandon her.
She is freed to be herself then. She doesn't have to pretend to be other than who she is in case she loses him, or in fear of him abandoning her. She can play the melody that she has it in her to play, she can be the melody that she has it in her to be. She can find herself in his steadfast, uncompromising love, secure, in complete trust, that he will never abandon her, ever.
She is given love's freedom to be herself, and vice versa. This is also Rosemary's gift to Peter.
The wedding present of wedding presents this, far more precious than anything money can buy. It make possibly possible the impossible. An Organutang and yet a Paganini. A Tudelsack so melifluously euphonius as to blend with a violin. A man and a woman one flesh.
It is no wonder that in Bach's little cantata they sing at the end of it all:
We're going to the tavern
where the merry bagpipe drones
and shout full of glee
Long live Dieskau (or Peter, or Rosemary) and their kin,
May they be granted whatever they desire
and whatever they have set their heart on.
Grace at the Reception
At the Reception that followed the wedding I gave them a grace composed for the occasion as follows, Rosemary, as well as being a dancer, is also a church choir chorister:
We thank you Lord for song and dance
Both of which can spark romance
That kindles into wedded bliss
And so to happy days like this.
With Rosemary espoused as wife
Peter's hobby's made his life,
For love his life has so enhanced
His every step from now is danced.
While Rosemary as Peter's wife
Has had her hobby made her life
With Peter's love declared life long
Her every syllable's a song.
Lord, let your music of the spheres
Inspire their marriage down the years,
And every step of their romance
Adumbrate the cosmic dance.
If you'll excuse my French, "un peu",
Grant them a heavenly "pas des deux",
And may a deep harmonious chord
Best symbolise their sweet accord,
And now let wit and mirth resound
And copious food and drink abound
Fuelling joy beyond all measure,
And happiness, delight and pleasure.
AND THE OTHER (20)
I prepared for one of the most hectic of the year’s weekends by departing for a peaceful diocesan Clergy Conference in beautiful hills east of Melbourne. I returned last Friday afternoon.
There was a funeral interview that evening as well as the funeral itself to prepare for and then conduct on Parish Fair Saturday. There was also the Fair to play my full part in as well as a sermon to compose (or select and edit from my archive) for 8.30am on Sunday morning. Then there was Sunday’s Confirmation liturgy and a power point version of it to knock together. There were pew sheets, service sheets and funeral sheets to finalise, print and fold.
However, things that have to be done are done. It is deadlines that keep the world functioning. Among life’s greatest pleasures are deadlines met and challenges faced. It was an exhilarating weekend. All went off extremely well.
The great Fair and Garden Party
The Fair was a triumph. At its end both Diana and I were too weary to sleep, but to be a merry insomniac is infinitely preferable to being a miserable one. To share, laugh and gossip one’s insomnia into guffawed irrelevance renders insomnia a pleasure not a curse. We joked, laughed and tittered ourselves dilly until well beyond midnight.
To be an authentic St Augustinian parishioner is to all but stew and drown in our annual Parish Fair. Those who drop out, fall out, pull out, miss out almightily.
For the week leading up to the great day the place murmurs, buzzes and hums with purpose, single-minded good will, effort, strain, perspiration and jollity. It is good simply to be a part of it all. (So why was I away at a conference then?)
In the Fair our parish unites in a stupendous, common effort. One of the reasons for this is that Pat Gibson, our leader, director, and inspiration is guided not by mere goodwill, duty or even faith, rather she has a coherent and compelling philo-sophy to guide and direct her. She, more than any of us, sees that St Augustine’s, in its Parish Fair, is the City on a Hill and Light to the World that it is called to be in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Her primary motive, therefore, is to pull in to shine out, anyone and everyone who in anyway belongs to us. Success lies not so much in money being raised as in all sorts of people’s sense of belonging to us being reinforced and emphasised. The family becomes extended family. Community and Church meld.
The sense of purpose and joy is palpable. I love it. We all should love it. If we don’t it is time we reread our Gospels. Grizzles and moans approach blasphemy.
My gratitude to Pat Gibson is as boundless as my admiration of her meticulous attention to detail and irrepressible good humour. She is a star at the centre of a galaxy of parishioner stars. Well done everyone.
How did we do?
Just because our purpose transcends mere money- raising, we raise a great deal. Once more we appear to have surpassed the previous year. Our takings at the time of writing, including all the raffles, come to well over $24,000. Expenses are likely to be about $1,800. This is wonderful.
Betty Bush’s appeal for each family to support the Cake Stall was itself well supported and hugely successful. That fact that we sold out of BBQ “ingredients”, as well as Gourmet Luncheon salads and quiches, strawberries and cream and “exotic” desserts, and that the Ham on the Bone looked very bare, indicates a record attendance.
The Gem Club and “Arms” displayers were delighted with attendances. The most enjoyable and varied free concert was attended by approximately 90 people.
It was altogether a great day. The final meeting of the Parish Fair and Garden Party Planning Group is on Thursday 10th November at 4.00pm in the Narthex. Do come along. We need and appreciate suggestions for the future and we must discuss what went right and what went wrong.
A new word
I learned a new word this week. One I am unlikely to forget: nosism. It means the use of “we” in referring to yourself instead of “I”. It comes from the Latin word “nos” which means “we”. It would also indicate that the pronunciation of the word is more likely to be “noss-ism” than “nose-ism”
A common example is the “royal we” (Pluralis majestatis), which is a nosism used by a person of high office, such as a monarch, earl or pope. It is also used in certain formal contexts by bishops and university rectors.
Apparently the expression was first used in England in 1169 when the King Henry II, hard pressed by his barons over the investiture controversy, assumed the ancient biblical principal of the “divine right of kings,” namely that the monarch acts conjointly with the deity. Hence, he used “we” meaning “God and I...”.
There are also editorial nosisms and authorial nosisms, such as: “by adding four to six we obtain ten”. In this sense it is cosily inclusive of the reader with either the author or editor.
If, like me, you spend any time at all in nursing homes, you are almost certain to have come across what is known as the “patronising nosism”. Here the word “we” is used not instead of “I”, but instead of “you”. For example: “how are we feeling today” or “aren’t we looking grumpy?”
Witty Mark Twain once said, “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.”
Biblical and Islamic nosisms
The reason I stumbled upon the word was because in our weekly Islam Study Group at the Rectory we noticed that in the Quran, Allah sometimes uses the first person plural for his singular self and we wondered why.
A little research shows this usage to be a feature of literary style in Arabic. A person may refer to himself by the pronoun nahnu (“we”) for respect or glorification. He may also use the word ana (“I”), or the third person huwa (“he”). All three styles are used in the Quran.
In discussing this in our group Helen Malcolm reminded us that in the Book Genesis God refers to himself similarly in the first person plural: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness....”
There is much scholarly debate about this. Can it be a relic of a former belief in many Gods? Is it simply yet another example of the plural of “majesty” or “excellence”? Might it perhaps be a very early hint of a Trinitarian God? Or does it bear reference to angels, archangels and all the heavenly hosts?
Scholarly consensus, insofar as I can determine it in a busy week, seems to settle on it being a combination of the plural of majesty, though with likely echoes or hints of the heavenly hosts.
Such speculations are fascinating to the likes of me. They might well get right up the nose of others, proving to be “nosisms” of a rather more literal, physical and brutal sort.
Many years ago I remember shaking hands with a formidable woman after church who instead of saying “Good morning,” or, “That was a brilliant sermon, Andrew”, said: “Your shoes are dirty!” A useful piece of information this. A reminder that when people come up to Communion, all they see of the priest are shoes, and that therefore some sort of an effort needs to be made by those who administer communion to ensure that their shoes don’t distract people either by their dirtiness or by their peculiarity. On those hot days in summer when I wear sandals, I suppose that I should make sure that my toe nails are well manicured. With the attention to detail that Anglo Catholics pride themselves on, the toe-nails could be painted in the liturgical colour of the day.
In biblical times priests performed their duties in the temple barefoot. I would love that. I love to get out of my shoes. Like Nelson Mandela freed from gaol, my toes luxuriate in liberation from the close confinement of shoes, which, because they are such dirty things, used always to be discarded before entering any holy place.
Moses at the burning bush was told to remove his, even out there in the desert, because God was present and the place holy. Muslims today still remove their shoes before entering a Mosque. Before entering even an ordinary house in biblical times you removed your foot-gear and in many households here in Australia this is becoming more common.
The disciples of Jesus were instructed to shake off the dust from their feet as they left any place which refused to listen to them. This is what all strict Jews used to do when they arrived back in Palestine after travelling abroad. At the border they would take off their sandals and give them a good shake to get rid of all the foreign dirt and filth clinging to them. They did so as to avoid contaminating the holy land of Israel.
A clever reversal
Some time ago I came across a clever reversal of Jesus’ famous saying about dust and feet: the whole point of ‘shaking the dust off your feet’ is that, actually, you can’t. The dust on our shoes has to be rubbed and polished off. It can’t be shaken off, more’s the pity.
So too it is with the dust of doubt and disbelief, of materialism and self-centredness, the dust of cynicism and despair, of worry and fret, the dust of self-doubt and indecision, of fear and aimlessness. All of which settle upon us in our daily tread out and about in the world as disciples, away from the centre of the Kingdom of God.
As we walk and stamp our way about the world, we raise just such a dust. It settles on and blurs for us the things that really matter: the joy of simplicity’s beauty, of sweet self-forgetfulness, of life’s many, simple little acts of love. We can’t see any shine at all because of all the dreary dust accumulated, as it were, upon our shoes which cannot simply be shaken off, but needs wiping, polishing, shining, buffing off.
Blue but beautiful feet
This is one of the many reasons for remaining active members of the family of God. In the life and worship of God’s family we wipe, polish, shine, buff off the dust of materialism, busyness and fret with and among good, lovely and openly Christian folk, before our beloved Holy One.
It might also be a good thing to emulate our Islamic brothers and sisters and symbolically leave our shoes at the church door.
The first baptism I ever performed was of a little baby who, on a frosty but sunny winter’s day in Zimbabwe, screamed from the service’s beginning to end. This, it turned out, was not in horror of me or of baptism, but because its Dad, though instructed to put its booties on under the christening robe, had forgotten to do so. Its feet, although beautiful, were blue, poor little thing!
I trust that over thirty years later the baptism has borne its fruit. That those little feet, now pink rather than blue, much larger and possibly callused and corned, yet meet with Isaiah’s approval, because “how beautiful, upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good tidings, who publish peace; who bring good tidings of good, that publish salvation; that say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”
AND THE OTHER (21)
I have been resident in Australia for twenty six years. This means that I have now lived longer here than anywhere else in the world. My time in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe lasted for about twenty five years, and during that time there was a year and a half in England teaching, and two years and a half studying in South Africa.
A new citizen
With this in mind, a few months ago I decided to apply at last for Australian citizenship. It proved to be remarkably easy compared to the hugely complicated business of applying for a provisional Permanent Resident Visa for Diana. After submitting my application forms and certified copies of this, that and the other, I was phoned after but a few weeks by a friendly man with a strong Indian accent. He told me that all was well and that I would soon be receiving a letter from Canberra informing me of the approval of my application.
He went on to ask me why I had waited so long to apply. I told him that it was a mixture of idleness and inertia, which raised a chuckle. I then asked him if I would have to undergo the Australian Citizenship Test and he replied, "Oh no, there will be no need, we respect senior citizens far too much for that!" It was my turn to chuckle.
Oddly, when I am in England I feel happily Australian and when in Australia happily English. In the United Kingdom I support Australian sporting teams, in Australia English ones. This ambivalence might be supposed to derive from uncertainty as to my identity and confusion as to exactly where I belong, perhaps arising from an early childhood spent in a variety of outlandish places. However I suspect it has more to do with a hard to account for, but deep-rooted perversity and scepticism in me that finds it easier and more comfortable to define myself by opposition rather than by belonging.
A born sceptic I tend to dabble in and worry myself frazzled in the writings of atheists in order to be assured of and hold on to God. I appreciate his likely presence by dwelling on his undoubted absence. I love paradox.
Needless to say then, my favourite piece of Australian verse is not a rollicking bush ballad, nor a patriotic jingle like our less than admirable national anthem. Rather it is A. D. Hope's famous poem "Australia", expressive of an ambivalent, subtle, understated love of his native land that arises out of and also in spite of a clear-sighted, honest, critical disdain:
.....her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.
Exercising the vote
Once I am pledged I will be required to vote. I have never voted in my life. My few years as an adult teacher in England did not coincide with an election. Nor was I ever a Rhodesian or Zimbabwean citizen in all my years as a resident there.
Will my first trip into a polling booth be as exciting to me as it was for all those long- deprived, black South Africans after the fall of apartheid? When it comes to voting in local government elections, will I be able to resist the blandishments of Mr Muto?
Walnuts once more
The walnut tree is covered with little green walnuts, and the cockatoos regularly send spies overhead to monitor their edibility. We eye them similarly ourselves because Diana has a Canadian/Greek daughter in law, Olga, who has introduced her to a Greek recipe for delicious, sugar-glazed, green walnuts (Glyko Karythi). We hope this year to beat the cockatoos to the immature nuts and work wonders with them.
This week we used nuts collected over the last few years to make walnut marzipan again. We wrap it around date and walnut cake to eat as a dessert with natural yoghurt and home made lemon curd. A curious but delicious combination of flavours and textures.
You can of course pickle green walnuts. However, like pickled eggs, they rarely live up to expectations, being too mouth puckeringly vinegary.
Down by the riverside
Last Sunday Diana and I enjoyed a splendid meal and the excellent company of the Murchison and Rushworth folk. After a pleasing Eucharist in the lovely Murchison church there were tasty nibbles in the church hall over a cuppa, then many of us made our way to the home of Robert and Heather Smith, which is set on the edge of the woodlands that flank the Goulburn river and which are alive with the calls of birds.
On every fifth Sunday the two congregations get together for a single service followed by an excellent meal in someone's home. There is an open invitation to all of us for these, the more the merrier. The cost is usually $20 and for catering purposes numbers need to be phoned in. So when notice of one such feast is given in this pew sheet, do take up the offer. The Fennels joined us last Sunday and were royally welcomed. A lovely day.
House blessing and Islam
On Melbourne Cup day Diana and I went to bless the fine new home of Handson and Lynett Nhanhanga on Verney Road North. The house blessing service I have refined and developed over the years is lovely, full of good biblical quotes and fine prayers. With young Comfort sprinkling the holy water, and robust little Blessing in his Dad's arm, it was pleasing to note that the word "blessing" and the word "comfort" both occur in the service, a fact noted by an alert Comfort. It was good too to bless a kitchen in full use, emitting delicious aromas to blend exotically with the incense. After a lovely meal we dashed off home to consider Islam in the good and lively company of our study group.
Next week's study will be the last until after Christmas. Diana and I head for New Zealand on the 14th of November for two weeks. We will reconvene the group to finish the course early enough to complete it well before Lent.
One of the most amusing facets of applying for Diana's permanent residence was the need to explain our relationship, and to give an account of its history. Mere friendship began twenty seven or eight years ago, and as proof of this we turned to my daily journal of the time. There we discovered not only compli-mentary comments about Diana and her family, but also rather less flattering ones, to her amusement and my embarrassment. Diana, Michael, Pula and Martha arrived on the island of St Helena in 1984. On July 31st my journal contains the following: "On Sunday though cold, to the Houghton's after St Martin's for what proved to be a very pleasant afternoon. Still think they are excellent..... roast chicken but with little imagination or finesse and bread and butter pudding - bottle of wine and sherry before. Went walk in afternoon round Mundens....." As Diana points out, she was feeding our family of five with her's of four after a morning involved at their church which included managing a Sunday School in her vicarage with sixty children. We were lucky to receive a cooked meal at all, with or without finesse!
A first journal
The first most personal, perhaps lurid and certainly most interesting journal I ever kept was when I was teaching in London in the very early seventies.
It was a time when I was courting a very Roman Catholic girl, was teaching in a succession of truly terrible schools and re-discovering the Christian faith. My faith, though not my attendance at church, had been sorely tried and all but shelved during my last years at school and right through university. I imagined at the time that it was reason and intellect that brought on my doubt. The wisdom that comes with maturity, coupled with hindsight, suggests the more probable cause to have been a combination of libido and hedonism.
Sadly I destroyed my first journal in a fit of timidity. I feared that it might reveal too much of what lay behind "the face that we prepare to meet the faces that we meet". Certainly I could not bear the thought of any unauthor-ised person reading it. So the record of one of the most significant periods of my life has gone for ever. I regret this enormously. I would love to make again the acquaintance of the man I used to be.
The man I used to be was one who in an unlikely bed-sitter in Chiswick had at that time a most significant religious experience. He also had a kindly landlady who expected him to bath only once a week and who turned off the hot water for the duration of summer.
So perhaps it was cold water that doused my libido and hedonism sufficiently to allow faith to re-emerge and recapture me. If so it was cold water combined with listening to the singing of Psalm 37 on a cold weekday afternoon in Westminster Abbey choir stalls: "Fret not thyself because of the ungodly...." If so it was cold water combined with attendance at the Eucharist and evening Benediction in the smoking, gold-glittering gloom of All Saints' Margaret Street. If so it was cold water combined with a religious experience that came upon me as I was kneeling by the maroon bedspread-covered, narrow pallet of my tiny bed-sitter and reciting the Sanctus at the end of a poor attempt at prayer. As I did so I was overcome by a sensation of light and heat and a sureness of God's reality and presence.
After many vicissitudes these experiences led me to an ACCM Conference in Woking, to a theological college in South Africa, to a diaconate and first curacy in Salisbury, Rhodesia, to a rectorship in Gatooma in Rhodesia which while I was there became Kadoma in Zimbabwe, then on to a vicarship and archdeaconry on the Island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean and then to four rectorships in Victoria, Australia.
How stupid to destroy a journal that recorded the beginning of all of that!
Celebrating Rectory life
Since my time in London I have kept journals intermittently, and for the past ten years regularly, but no journal has ever been allowed to be too personal. I remember once reading an edition of Evelyn Waugh's journals. After making some more than usually outrageous statement he would add in brackets "future editor please expunge that comment", or words to that effect. My private journals also take account these days of possible future readers, authorised or unauthorised. I am careful and so nowhere near as interesting as I might otherwise be.
Like Waugh's journals, this diary column in the parish pew sheet, much of the raw material for which is extracted from my private journal, has an editor, myself, who all too readily expunges anything truly outrageous. My purpose is to celebrate priest-hood, parsoning, parish-life and pastoring, rather than to startle or dazzle.
In 1972, a large, jovial, big-bellied Arch-deacon at my Selection Conference in Woking said to us all at the end of the Conference that he had been a parish priest for thirty eight years, and that to be one had been the most interesting, glorious, and varied of privileges and vocations that could ever be. I could not agree more.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (22)
Welcome to summer. The church windows were flung open last Sunday, casually tearing six months worth of draught insulating gossamer, kindly spun by churchy spiders to seal them for winter. The ease with which the spiders webs were torn proved their amazing endeavours to be as ephemeral as life itself, disillusioning even spiders into a morbid contemplation of the transitoriness of life.
Blackbirds, lorikeets and bats
Between the Rectory and the Church white mulberries have begun to fall, squelching beneath churchgoers' feet. Although white their juice stains the rectory carpet if brought in on shoes, and so we favour discalced feet on our visitors. I fear for this lovely mulberry tree's future. Idle puritans would sooner be shadeless than have to sweep a patch of pathway daily for a month. The blackbirds already gorge themselves on the first ripe berries and we wonder if last year's bats will return. These denizens of the night, the purported reservoirs of vile diseases, with their leathery wings, ferocious appetites and uninhibited dropping of dubious juices upon curiously upturned faces both fascinate and repel.
The rainbow lorikeets have returned to dazzle us during the daytime as they feast, offering an unmusical and incomprehensible squawking to rival or complement worship inside the church. I will again be attempting to attract them to our bird tray with food especially manufactured for these nectar and pollen eaters. They relish not only mulberries and nectar, they also delicately nibble at the grain I put out for other birds. This is frowned upon by ornithologists who maintain it could well damage their delicate brush-like tongues.
To my dismay one of the loveliest gardens at our end of Orr Street has been utterly destroyed by developers. Particularly fine was a huge elm tree, possibly the best specimen in Shepparton, which was crudely lopped and uprooted as if worthless. Likewise a divine persimmon tree whose light golden leaves and deeper orange, golden fruit beautified the street for months. It was ruthless, total devastation. I am told that the place is to be turned into some sort of eye surgery or optometrists rooms, and that the beautiful garden is to be its dull car park. Fancy enabling people to see only by destroying all that is worth seeing.
There is a kind of heroism in the daily life of some of our parishioners that is both surprising and heartening. Some of them are folk who without realising it take to heart the words of Samuel Becket: "Don't lose heart, plug yourself in to despair and sing it."
A Great Panegyrical Repast
On December 11th at 12 noon we will be celebrating with a great "Bring and Share" luncheon in our hall some very special and remarkable folk. Not least Norm Mitchel-more, who after years and years of meticulous and devoted service as Parish Treasurer is passing on the task to Jeanette Smith. Also Heather Fitzgerald, one our wisest, most eirenic and lovely of parishioners and ex churchwardens. There will be another remarkable person to celebrate as well, who at the moment I cannot reveal, but will do so when all is certain and ready to be made public. So book the date, and if you don't know what a panegyric is, google it!
Farewell to another Heather
The coming year is to be one full of change for the parish. This is not least because our Parish Secretary, Heather Camm, leaves us at the end of the year. She and Roger having sold their house in Euroa will be moving to Melbourne. We will celebrate her more lyrically later, but her going is a great loss to us, for she has been a very dear friend to pretty well all of us, a very special, loving Christian.
So invaluable has she been we have had to aim as stratospherically high as possible to replace her. With the Vestry's concurrence I have asked Diana Neaum to take over her job for an initial stint of six months and she has agreed. She is too responsible a woman to accept such a position lightly and without due consideration. She even rang the wife of a former dean known to us both who had been the secretary in her husband's parish for some years to ask how it all worked. Amid much good and sensible advice was the comment "you will have to be content to stand in the shadow of your husband." To which I could only respond, "Small chance of that! It is far, far more likely that I shall have to grow accustomed to standing in hers."
Although a Landscape Architect by profession Diana is not without secretarial experience. When George Carey retired as Archbishop of Canterbury he asked Diana to become his P.A, which she duly did for a year and a half until he and his wife left Bristol to live elsewhere.
Names and faces
Many years ago Joan Harder put together a display of photographs of parishioners which is now about thirty five years old. How fascinating it is to see present parishioners as they were then, and to remember those who, aided by the prayers of mother Church, now rest in peace.
Diana has been putting into effect over the past few weeks a long-time scheme of mine. Namely to take a photograph of all present church-going parishioners who are willing. With digital photography this costs nothing and provides a visual record of who we are at this time to enable ruminative reminiscing in years to come. It will also assist new clergy (as well as parishioners) to sit quietly at a screen and troll through the flock in an attempt to fix names to faces in the memory. This is becoming vital for your present Rector, never very good at fitting names to faces and getting worse. Names, not faces, tend to be lost in the chaotic maelstrom that is my subconscious. There they jostle with all sorts of less consequential fragments from a full, varied and unutterably fascinating life.
We have now about 160 photographs on file. Already they are fun to troll through. Any we consider unflattering we replace.
Eels and sphincters
On Monday Diana and I head for New Zealand for two weeks. This is a holiday initiated by the Department of Immigration. Diana's provisional Permanent Residence Visa to be activated requires entry from another country. Goodness knows why. One assumes a good reason even when there is no evidence of it. While in New Zealand we will be throwing ourselves upon the hospitality of friends. The first of these is a doctor we both knew on the Island of St Helena. I did not get to know him as well as Diana because it was his predecessor who parted me from my appendix, assisted in the birth of Elizabeth and accompanied me down precipitous cliffs to fish. On one such trip he filled me in on the details of a then current and fascinating Island tale.
One of the tastiest of fish to be caught from the rocks was what the islanders termed a "Conger", but which in fact was a Moray eel. Not only are these eels ferocious and likely to give an unwary fisherman a nasty bite, they also have Y-shaped bones running down their backs. These are totally indigestible and so if swallowed pass right through the system, if you are fortunate. Given their shape, however, before their journey is complete they often lodge themselves somewhere to irritate, fester and cause nasty problems.
On the island at that time there was a woman who was somewhat strange, to put it delicately. On all festive occasions such as processions and weddings she would feature prominently in front of the band always dressed up in homemade wedding gear, prancing and cavorting, her withered shanks all atremble with excitement and joy. The doctor with whom I fished confirmed some of the bizarre details of a story about her that one would normally have dismissed as fanciful. She had once fed her husband "conger" eel without ensuring that all the bones were removed. These he had swallowed and most unfortunately one of them in its passage through his body lodged itself maliciously in his sphincter. This soon began to cause him much dire distress.
Like all good wives his was something of a soother and healer, and she determined to sort his problem out. Without tweezers to hand she resorted to a pair of pliers, causing him such agony, by all accounts, that the unfortunate man rushed from his house bellowing like a bull to pull up a banana tree by the roots before repairing back to bed to allow septicaemia to establish itself and bring on easeful death.
Egotists can still be good company, but only if they are articulate, witty and well informed and so able to feed and parade their ego by dazzling as much with accounts of others as of themselves. The very, very best of company, however, is that which attends. The sort of person who is so comfortable with himself that he is free fully to attend, listen to and take you seriously. Their lovely worth, by its very nature, is largely unremarked upon, but they are to be treasured and loved.
Most people who rabbit on incessantly about themselves are damaged folk, compelled to push themselves forward for constant affirmation and reassurance because denied it as little ones. They tend to be unconscionable bores. In a competition for the most boring title for an autobiography the winner was: "No, I tell a lie, it must have been Tuesday."
Two highlights of each day. A scalding hot shower in the morning. Getting into a crisp bed at night. All the rest is parenthesis.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (23)
Back home from New Zealand, with a Sheila on my arm.
The prime purpose of the trip was achieved with so total an understatement and lack of fuss it seemed more characteristic of Britain than Australia. The culmination of hours and hours of painstaking work, phone con-versations, photo-copying, document endorsing, form filling and exasperation, was simply to hand over Diana's passport to an Immigration Official at Melbourne Airport on our return, have it stamped as perfunctorily as was mine, and then handed back.
That was that! An English lass had become and Australian Sheila, albeit provisionally.
Had we not asked if there had been any change of status, there would have been no evidence or acknowledgement of the fact! The Sheila behind the counter did smile when I suggested that there might be a little more fanfare for so notable an achievement, and she reassured us that Diana's change of status was all electronically noted, if not passported.
Having one's cake and eating it
There is almost as great a joy in homecoming as there is in getting away. Our fifteen days in New Zealand, in being spent entirely in the homes of friends, were in a sense days at home as well as days away from home. A case of being able to have one's cake and eat it.
Our home is, or should be, a foretaste of and insight into the very fellowship and happiness of heaven. It is where we retreat to be ourselves, or as my great hero Dr Johnson puts it, is where we "sink to our natural dimensions". "...... The great end of prudence," he says at the end of a passage of profound wisdom, "is to give cheerfulness to those hours, which splendour cannot gild, and acclamation cannot exhilarate; those soft intervals of unbended amusement, in which a man shrinks to his natural dimensions, and throws aside the ornaments or disguises, which he feels in privacy to be useless encumbrances, and to lose all effect when they become familiar. To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution."
To be allowed by others to be a part of their homes and lives was a privilege of privileges to Diana and myself and it added another great dimension to our holiday. We were observers and discoverers of not only a very beautiful land, but also of often beautiful and always fascinating and generous lives.
Tuesday 15th November in New Zealand
I sit on the bed of a lovely, wooden, high- ceilinged house in a sylvan setting of North Island, not far from Keri Keri. We left the Rectory at about ten past five yesterday morning. The flight itself was easy and pleasant. We had booked with Virgin Airlines, but the flight itself was with Air New Zealand and they offered us a decent enough lunch, which was welcome as we had had but one piece of toast before we left at 5.00am.
Diana had organised a "travel card" for access to cash, but we have messed it up a bit by my pulling off the pin number backing too impatiently. This means that we haven't the number for one card. Even worse, the money I put on to it electronically doesn't seem to be there yet, and we were charged seven dollars for extracting $200 at an ATM.
There was a long trek to the domestic terminal at Auckland on a cool pleasant day, and then again a trouble free trip on a little plane with only one row of seats of each side of a narrow aisle. The cockpit door was open all the time and so, seated second from the front, we were able to see what the two pilots were up to. How green the countryside, and how varied: great bays and islands with large areas of mudflats, the tide being out. Little sign of beaches around the bays over which we flew near Auckland. As we came down towards the Bay of Islands we noticed with interest lots of tiny fields with strangely tall hedges, apparently protection for Kiwi Fruit. Peter and Primrose our hosts were there waiting for us at the little airport.
Peter and Primrose
Peter was the surgeon on the Island of St Helena when both Diana and I were there. He did several stints on the island, his time there coinciding much longer with Diana and her family's time, than with me and mine. He was easy to place in the small crowd waiting for our flight, not at all ravaged by time, a gently older version of the man I remembered. Primrose, his delightful and sparkling wife he married after my time. She, as is he, is English and they met on Alderney in the Channel Islands. Hugely hospitable and kindly to us, they live in a lovely wooden house that overlooks a forested hill face. There is a little river at the bottom of a very lovely garden that melds into pleasing wildness as it drops steeply down to the riverbank.
The guest room, an upstairs eyrie with its own little balcony, was lovely to settle into for a couple of days. The illustrious doctor himself has not been well, which necessitated a slight curtailment of our stay with them. They have a little cabin cruiser and had planned taking us round some of the islands in the lovely Bay of Islands, but this was not to be. Instead they took us sight seeing with Primrose at the wheel of their car.
Our first trip was along winding and hilly roads with a short ferry trip to a peninsular upon which is the town of Russel, the original and short lived capital of NZ. This part of New Zealand was the centre of all the turmoil and antagonism between the British and the Maoris that culminated in the Treaty of Waitangi, the site of which is nearby.
Russel is nowadays a pleasing little town. All its houses and buildings appear to be made of wood and are painted much the same colour. We looked over the oldest still-in-use church in the country. Outside its front door is a tomb of the wife of a local surgeon who, it informed us, was once the surgeon on St Helena! On enquiring about this strange coincidence in the interesting little local museum, we discovered the tomb to be fairly new and not dating from the nineteenth century as we had presumed. The surgeon had remarried and was still around in the nineteen forties, actually remembered by the informative lady in the museum.
The town has a lovely bay front, lined with large, sprawling Pohutukawa trees. There, on the verandah of its old wooden hotel, we had a very good fish and chip meal, sharing a table with four gross Australians, who were on shore from a great floating cruise ship. In conversation with them we, snooty seasoned sea-travels for the real and utilitarian purpose of getting from A to B, had some of our prejudices about mere tourists turned into unjustifiably incontrovertible truths.
Peter is a neat and tidy fellow, serious though with a good chuckle whenever the humour becomes irresistible. Like me he takes the Spectator, but largely for the articles I tend to skip, namely the political ones. He intimated no appreciation of the magazine's "lowlife" correspondent, Jeremy Clarke, whose column reduces Diana and myself to immoderate laughter almost every week.
He is one of those doctors who during the height of the British Empire appear to have been more common than they are nowadays. Widely travelled, interested in far more than just making money or in a stable and static career, fascinated by outlandish places. Such doctors are in a sense relics, pieces of imperial jetsam. He was once a ship's doctor, and was a surgeon on the Falklands as well as St Helena, doing shorter stints in Borneo, Anguilla, the Orkneys, Channel Islands and goodness knows where else. He has lead a most interesting life, one that he doesn't make enough of in exaggerated anecdote and tall story.
His wife with the delightful name of Primrose is a bright, artistic, spark of a woman, who paints fine pictures, walks, gardens, thinks, reads and laughs a lot, even at my jokes. She took us to the oldest surviving building in New Zealand, which is part of an Anglican CMS mission that played a large part in the early history of the place. There we caught the tail end of a tour of the old Mission House, a tour which was taken by a tall woman guide dressed in period clothes. She told us that she was half Fijian, and seemed very relaxed and unapologetic about the cannibalism that used to be a part of Polynesian culture, saying that in crowded circumstances it seemed a not unsensible expedient! However, as far as I know, the motivation for cannibalism had more to do with absorbing the power and spirit of enemies than anything else. When asked if she was a volunteer she said "Oh no! I am well paid." A rare and welcome viewpoint. Very tall, she explained her height as being the result of her half Polynesian makeup, "we are big people thanks to our diet of yams and taro...."
The well maintained and kept old wooden Mission house is set in a lovely spot and has a traditional garden round it, overlooking the Keri Keri river. The almost as old and imposing Stonehouse next door is a museum, around which we had a good ramble. Most of its exhibits are to do with the missionaries, many of whom were heroic, and with the Maori wars and the Treaty of Waitangi.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (24)
The week's best comment would have to be the complaint made to me, that with the Rector's wife in the Parish Office parishioners will have no one to whinge to! That is probably not a bad thing. We don't employ a secretary to field, absorb or suffer whinges and whines. Affirming, not whingeing, should characterise Christians. However, as a long time clergyman's wife, Diana is well practised in the art of listening to whinges and criticism in order to filter them judiciously into forms suitable to the tender susceptibilities of sensitive clergy. Most of us at times need a whinge, and now and then they carry some justification. Perhaps at out next AGM we should elect a Parish Whinge Receptor, to listen to and filter whinges of dross and rubbish and then pass on any small residue of legitimate criticism.
Too beautiful this year
My children have some close ties to New Zealand, mostly through a family that was warmly connected to ours when I was Rector of Ararat. I wonder if they will be reading this account of our two weeks holiday there with more than usual interest.
On our return we received a card from Rachel in Jerusalem where she is helping to run courses at St George's College. She says: "I could live in Jerusalem a thousand years and not come close to getting a handle on its glorious, passionate beauty." She precedes this comment by quoting the second half of a glorious sonnet by Edna St Vincent Millay.....
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
Somewhere in this pew sheet I will print the whole of the sonnet, it is lovely.
New Zealand Birthday
Back to New Zealand. It was only when I lay on the bed of our little eyrie in the lovely house near Keri Keri, opened my small travelling laptop and pressed Control-D to begin the day's entry in the Journal which is the quarry for this article, that I noticed it was my birthday, the 16th of November. Needless to say Diana had not forgotten the date.
After a proper breakfast of scrambled egg, followed by toast and lovely Manuka honey, my birthday was duly recognised with presents and little candles stuck into a pair of very sweet oranges from the orchard behind the house. A mere remnant of an orchard now turned over mostly to kiwi fruit vines, which are grown in hugely high-hedged paddocks on trellises which are high enough to walk under to pick the fruit dangling invitingly and conveniently down. Pruning on top of the trellises must be something of a hassle.
Summing me up well, the Summers gave me a book called Preposterous Proverbs, its subtitle being my mother's very favourite proverb "Fine words butter no parsnips". Diana gave me a book on New Zealand and two seat belt covers.
The loveliest of loos
After breakfast we set out for the airport to collect our hire car and travel south to Tor Bay to stay with our second host. The trip was trouble free, with one little shower of rain early on, and mostly sunny, though cool, thereafter. The countryside was beautifully lush and green and for the most part, as in England, it was either cultivated, or rich pastureland so well grassed that sometimes the ubiquitous dairy herds were all but invisible in wind-waving unmown hay. There seemed to be little flat land, it was very much up and down along a curvaceous road with very many grassed hills that were for the most part, sharp angled beneath their turf, indicating relatively recent volcanic origins.
Our first stop was at a place called Kawakawa, famous above all else for its public conveniences — the Hundertwasser toilets. Hundertwasser was an anti-rationalist artist, environmentalist and architect. As an architect he was an enemy of straight lines and so his work is vaguely reminiscent of the more famous Gaudi architect of the great church of flowing lines in Barcelona. Hundertwasser's brightly coloured toilets in Kawakawa are indeed a delight to use, different and fascinating. Relieving oneself was more than a mere convenience, I felt that I was participating in a work of art. Sculptured columns, flowing lines, mosaic tiling, tufts of native grass adorning the roof, a tree incorporated into the structure, copper handwork, sculptures and cobblestone flooring, it was amazing. Of all rivals to being the most uninteresting place in a city or town the public conveniences would win. Not so in Kawakawa.
Our next significant stop was twenty of so kilometres south of Kawakawa. We headed off the road and up into lovely, well grassed hills, all buttercupped and daisied, the unmetalled road lined with cow parsley. We had spotted a signpost to a famous Pa: Ruapekapeka. A Pa can be the site of a fortified village, but is more usually that of a fortified hilltop defensive position. Ruapeka-peka is a very fine example of the latter. It is the site of the final battle between the British and Maori in the "War of the North". We parked the car and walked through a fine carved wooden archway at the beginning of a path up the hill. On reaching the site itself there was very clear and striking evidence of long gone palisades, earthworks and trenches. There is now too a great big and very fine carved commemorative Maori pole, with the characteristic, glaring, fierce faces.
Apparently the British victory over their opponents had been aided by an unfair attack on a Sunday, when the newly converted Maoris were at prayer! Nothing is beyond perfidious Albion. Though ironically accounts of colonial history nowadays, both here in Australia and in New Zealand, do appear so to bend over backwards in an anti-colonial and pro-indigenous fervour, that they transfer the deplorable triumphalism of our own proud accounts of our history in days gone by, to those we conquered all of whom are painted as having been heroic and faultless. An ironic colonial legacy.
After a lovely walk all over the beflowered and grassy Pa in bright sunshine and a brisk, cool breeze, we headed back to the car and made our way to the port of Whangarei. There we found a grassy park adjacent to what appeared to be a large yachting berth, empty of yachts, and ate what was to become our standard lunch. A fresh and crisp baguette, with a delicious New Zealand avocado pear each, supplemented this time with a modestly sized blue brie cheese. We abandoned cheese in later lunches for the unutterably delicious Manuka honey.
We then headed on south towards Auckland, avoiding the toll road and finding our destination with ease. So much so we arrived before scheduled and were able to do a beach walk around the eponymous Tor of Tor Bay. Of particular interest to our inquiring minds and salivating mouths were the great clusters of small mussels, oysters and other little molluscs on the rocks we walked across. The sea and fine seafood of course play a big part in the life of New Zealand. To my shame, however, I never sampled the much vaunted, but unappetising looking mussel fritter.
We had arranged to stay with a cousin of Margaret's, Penny, who lives in a two-bedroomed flatlet at street level beneath her daughter's house. In her eighties, for she is the oldest of all Margaret's cousins whereas Margaret was the youngest, she has been very, very ill, but remains the doughtiest and bravest of persons, the family archivist and focus. She offered us the alternative of going out to eat, or pork chops at home and we decided on the latter. I cooked them, keeping half an ear cocked as Diana interrogated her about the Margaret's extensive and interesting family.
One of the most interesting things about a second marriage, and sometimes the most difficult, is the melding of two families. Immediate family is one thing, but even if that is achieved, there remains a vast network of distant and then more distant relatives and their stories who have helped to make the present the present. All need to be absorbed, appropriated and at least in part understood if one's sense of belonging is to be complete. A vast hinterland awaiting exploration then. It is like emigrating to a new country. All the history, geography and literature learned or absorbed during one's school years fades into utter irrelevance in a new land, leaving a great gaping hole which, if you are an adult, is never, ever quite adequately filled.
Our time with Penny was spent mostly talking. Much of it to do with family matters, but also with faith as well. Most of her family are church involved, some of them intimately so. She herself remains a stalwart, thoughtful, traditional Anglican, some of her family of more enthusiastic varieties of the faith. We had two lovely walks while with her, the first up a steep valley, almost opposite her house, through thick forest with large trees and many tree ferns, very lovely and wild considering it is situated in the middle of a suburb. The second walk was more extensive, several miles along a wide flat beach, muddy coloured presumably from being estuarine. Along its landward side were splendid examples of the sprawling Pohutukawa trees with their seaward side roots exposed in impressive, snarled tangles.
AND THE OTHER (25)
The lemon pickle that we have been cooking for a couple of months by sunlight in the garden has now been bottled and broached. Simple, delicious and beautifully fiery.
In the Rectory
The Rectory bursts with life. It hosts the Gittens family, who are here all the way from North London for a couple of weeks. There are Llew and Martha (Dad and Mum), with Max and Bella, their lively children. Martha is Diana's daughter whom I first knew as a shy little girl at about the same age as far from shy Bella now, who is six. They fly off on the 2th to stay for a while in Thailand before heading back to the winter-gloom of London.
It is good to have the garden in production once more. We have both sweet corn and maize growing, the former already tasselling, the latter reminding me of the thousands of acres that used to characterise Zimbabwe. Already six foot high it is dark green and robust. My memory tells me that maize cobs, if picked young, are infinitely preferable in taste to sweet corn. I look forward to putting that judgement to the test. Another much loved plant we have growing and which reminds me of Zimbabwe is a less than robust looking gem-squash. The fruit, perfectly round in shape, when eaten young with a dab of butter, I love. For a brief while some years ago they appeared in our supermarkets here in Victoria, but no longer. I gather they are not uncommon in Queensland.
All those farewells
Last week's farewells and thanksgivings went off swimmingly and the Carol Service was better attended than usual, due largely, I suppose, to its linking to our Panegyrical Repast.
The amount of work (and pleasure) that goes into this annual service deserves a good attendance, and so the linkage was inspired. For many years now, in several parishes, I have balanced scripture readings with secular readings at Carol Services. This is because to do so provides a refreshing and unusual perspective on a story that commercialism and sickly Christmas cards conspire to turn banal.
The main secular reading this year was a particularly poignant and compelling story by a Frenchman called Henri Bordeaux. Beautifully read in four segments by four of our regular lectors it was most moving. I visited Nola Brewer last week to give her Communion and she told me how she had read the story at home, and that it had moved her to tears. Because it was so beautifully sad I had hesitated to use it, for Christmas is marketed as relentlessly cheerful (all that dreadful "ho, ho, ho, hoing"!), but Diana gave it the thumbs up and so use it we did.
The choir and organist, as usual, sounded lovely. Many thanks.
From the heart
The meal that followed was joyous, well planned and great fun, containing not a few highlights. The first of these were the two speeches by Heather Fitzgerald and Norm Mitchelmore given in response to two well wrought panegyrics from Bev Condon and Norm Weaver. They were from the heart by two devoted parishioners whose achievements over so many, many years underline the truth that it is parishioners, far more than transitory clergy, who authenticate and characterise a good parish.
Another highlight was the presentation of gifts. Heather's lovely necklace was solemnly paraded into the hall, right around and through the hall, pinned to a cushion held by young Comfort Nhanhanga, preceded by an even younger Robert Shields holding a large farewell card signed by all present. There was something very touching about the natural grace and seriousness with which they performed this task. Norm's gift was a very long, non-kinking hose. This was paraded in and around the hall, unravelled. An exceedingly long, green snake supported by members of our fine Gardening Team.
Perhaps the strangest highlight of the evening was the cleanup in the kitchen at the end of it all. The place hummed with hard working, happily harmonious parishioners making light of a big job with joyous good humour.
We farewelled another departing parishioner with a gift and words of gratitude, in the person of Jenny Moran whose faithful and reliable work as lector, sidesperson and flower guild member was duly acknowledged. We then thanked in absentia, Greg and Verna Pestell who soon return to Benalla parish at the expense of ours, but who for several years now have been all but indispensable as 10.30am Sunday attenders and participators. We recalled too, with gratitude, John and Gaye Gaylard who for many, many years have been hugely generous to our emergency food cupboard, to the tune of thousands of dollars.
It was a great Panegyrical repast indeed. As so often, I am hugely grateful to Pat Gibson for her creative, meticulous and detailed planning.
Fawning, flattering twerp
The word panegyrical has been lurking in my subconscious, awaiting its moment, since my days as a student of English Lit., in the glorious 1960's when it was so good to be young and alive and frisky.
Poets in ancient times and also in the 17th century, were expected and sometimes paid to write great paeans of praise for all sorts of unworthy swine: Charles II and Oliver Cromwell to name but two.
It is a difficult task wholeheartedly to praise people without beginning to sound like a hypocritical, fawning, flattering, boot-licking, and sycophantic twerp. So I was glad to be merely MC and toast maker rather than panegyricist. It was Bev Condon's and Norm Weaver's task to peal forth the paeans of praise. They were fortunate that it was not to dubious characters like Charles II or Oliver Cromwell, but rather to two of the finest of St Augustinian flowers.
On Wednesday at the 10.00am Eucharist we farewelled Heather Camm, our Parish Secretary. She has endeared herself to that congregation in particular and has regularly acted as Eucharistic Assistant to them, which she did last Wednesday. The Gospel for the day admirably suited the occasion enabling or inspiring the following little homily:
Good news for the poor
Jesus said: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.... The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them ..... blessed is he who takes no offence at me...."
It is rarely arguments and discussion that bring people to God, rather it is example. It is God lived in people's lives. It is love and sacrifice; it is kindness, compassion and forgiveness demonstrated in people's relationships and living.
When John the Baptist wanted to know if Jesus was fair dinkum, if he was the expected one, the Messiah, God's anointed one to trust and back as such, Jesus didn't argue his case to John's messengers. He simply pointed them to what he did and was doing. He simply carried on living his life in front of them, healing, loving, and imparting hope and good news. Especially and most interestingly, we are told, to the poor.
He didn't argue his case, even before Pontius Pilate. He lived his love, loved his love, died his love, and converted a world. Authenticity demonstrated, not argued.
So too, ultimately it has to be with us. Unless we live love and die love; unless we love sacrificially, live, give and love extravagantly, over the top, whole-heartedly, we remain unconvincing, unimpressive, easy to dismiss, easy to ignore, easy to take for granted. "Christian? Oh yeah, so what! I'm just as good as you are...."
Through the Narthex window
For the past seven years, there has been a little window in St Augustine's through which authenticity has shone more brightly than most. It's the window in the Narthex that looks into and out of a gloomy parish office.
From the gloom has shone the face of Heather Camm, with its halo of blonde hair. Always welcoming but, as with Jesus in the Gospel, especially to the poor.
Not only has she spoken love to such folk, she's sacrificed her time for them, walked the second mile with them, a third mile for them. She's sacrificed her own money for them, gone to Melbourne with them, worried over them, cried alongside them. She's listened to them, sometimes interminably, she's badgered, bothered and harassed the Rector on their behalf, encouraged, cajoled and urged him to love them.
She has loved widely and welcomed hugely not only the poor. She's been a beacon of tolerance and acceptance to everyone. But it is her love of the marginalised, more than anything else, that has defined her ministry among us. In the words of Jesus himself, the poor have had the good news preached to them, and blessed is he who takes no offence at her.
The Kingdom of God in Shepparton
The Kingdom of God here at Shepparton, for the past seven years, has shone particularly brightly from the gloom of the parish office through its little narthex window, in the face of Heather Camm.
That we will miss her goes without saying, for she has certainly loved us all, but that the poor, the fringe-dwellers, those often despised, forgotten and overlooked, will miss her too, and she them as well as us, probably even more than us, makes her a true sister of the Jesus she dearly loves. It also authenticates her, makes her the genuine article, fair dinkum,
She is too, of course, a sinner, has her own shortcomings and failings. These are as nothing though, in the light of an authenticity, that has helped turn our narthex into a refuge, a respite, a little outpost of the Kingdom of God. God bless you Heather, and thank you.
THIS AND THAT (26)
A highlight of this Christmas Season for me was the Carol Concert given in our Church on the 16th December by Sempre Cantare.
This was not just because of the unutterable loveliness of the music, or of its setting (the church glowed beautifully with unanticipated late evening sunshine from usually unnoticed windows), nor was it just the young loveliness of the five girl singers and their guest.
There were two other particular graces. The first of these was the modesty and lack of affectation on the part of the choristers. Not one of them was in anyway a showoff. There was no evidence of what I like to call diva-ticulitis. The second grace was their generosity in giving of their beauty and huge talent not only to the audience (a mere voluntary gold-coin donation was all that was requested for so superb a concert) but also to charity, because what was given (over $500) went to Anglicare.
Whenever, or wherever beauty and charity (love) coincide for us, believing or not, we are in Jesus of Nazareth territory, the kingdom of God is at hand. For me, a passionate believer, it was one of Advent's most blessed and blessing of experiences. Deo gratias.
Another highlight of the season has nothing to do with Christmas at all. I discovered last week that when I cancelled the last part of my nostalgia binge in 2010, the trip back to Tristan da Cunha, I had the foresight to book a voyage there for two in 2012. This being so and all being well, in September next year Diana and I will be boarding a South African Antarctic research vessel, the S A Aghulas, to retrace a voyage made when I was a little boy to the most isolated community in the world. In 1952 I travelled there on a Royal Navy frigate and left in 1956 on a British Petroleum tanker, both those journeys gratis. Not this one I fear, but what is cash? Mere dross!
I send to family and friends around the world a "round robin" at Christmas. We also receive and enjoy a good number in return. They keep folk in touch with what is happening, and time and distance attenuated relationships alive to be rekindled if ever circumstances permit. These letters are usually over positive, but none the worse for that. Mine is on the website, a tad sermonic possibly, but there for anyone interested. The previous 25 episodes of this ongoing diary column are also on the web.
AND THE OTHER (27)
On Australia Day I take the pledge and become an Australian Citizen. The event is to be marked by a public holiday I believe. I am mildly flattered.
The Reverend Gail Bryce
Gail said her farewell as our Associate Priest by celebrating Midnight Mass as lightning flashed, thunder grumbled and holy smoke filled the building. Celebrating the Eucharist is for her the acme of priesthood, she does so with care, precision and devotion. It was a lovely celebration and she was able warmly to greet and farewell all present, as they left the church. We wish her well as Rector of Tatura and thank her for over six years of devoted priesting among us.
On Tuesday we took Martha, Llew, Max and Bella to the airport after two very pleasing and lively weeks with them. Martha is Diana's daughter and it was lovely to have our Australian family augmented by a contingent of the English family. Our biggest family day was Christmas Eve, when Nathan, Lil, Meg and Susan all from Benalla, as well as Peter from Albury (soon to be Tamworth), joined us for a feast of feasts. The four grandchildren got on together delightfully well and they enjoyed setting up the altar crib-scene as well as later, with some excitement, attending the Children's Christmas Eve Eucharist.
It was fascinating having a family of vegetarians in the Rectory. It in no way inhibited our diet, but rather expanded it, indeed, the visitors did most of the cooking. Being broad-minded vegetarians, they don't mind sometimes cooking meat for others.
Having dropped them all at the airport, Diana and I found our way to Diggers Rest, of all places. Over many years Diana and Michael (her late husband), had a lot to do with a monastic community called the Society of the Sacred Mission. One of the Society's Australian Priories we knew to be sited at Diggers Rest and so resolved to call in and say hello to any monks still resident there. At least one or two of them Diana was bound to know. We were disappointed. There appear to be no residents at the Priory at all. We peered into all its windows only to discover that it is empty of all but a few sticks of basic furniture and a shelf half full of books. So we lunched on a neglected patio, in heavy shade, overlooking nearby gentle hills, surrounded by a pleasing variety of twittering and very active birds. Egg and guacamole sandwiches were supplemented by our very own speciality of specialities, homemade date and walnut cake with homemade walnut marzipan both within and without. Quiet bliss.
We thought Diggers Rest itself an unprepossessing place. It did though contain a pleasing surprise, namely a monument in honour of the great escapologist and magician Harry Houdini. Apparently in 1910 at Diggers Rest, in a Voisin biplane (purchased in Germany prior to the trip) Houdini made the first ever controlled, powered flight of an aeroplane in Australia! Perhaps every Australian child picks up such fascinating information during their schooling, and so this strange little tidbit is widely known and appreciated. It came as a complete surprise to us.
Back to the New Zealand Trip
On November the 19th we left Margaret's cousin Penny's place at Tor Bay, North Auckland, to head south for Hamilton. Penny is a kindly, godly and courageous woman. Recovering with good humour from extreme ill health and vicious though effective medicine, she was hugely hospitable to us, as well as good company. Our time with her was rewarding and before we left she gave us, on disk, a copy of the family history she has been compiling, with lots of old scanned photographs, to pass on to our own likely family archivist, Elizabeth.
The trip south through Auckland, which is far and away the largest city in New Zealand, was all on hideous motorway with a spaghetti junction in the middle that beggared description. There was little chance to see any beauty in what must be a fascinating city, so dominated is it by water from both the east and the west. The island comes here to the narrowest of isthmuses. All the significant ports are on the east side, the inlets on the west are apparently too shallow for ships of any size.
We turned off east after a while and headed through rolling, lush pastureland towards a place called Miranda, but bypassed it to look at a hot spring with the largest single pool in the southern hemisphere. We resisted the very minute temptation to enter, at a cost of thirteen dollars apiece, to have what would have amounted merely to a swim in an ordinary looking swimming pool whose only novelty would have been tepid water. From there we headed along flat coastal plain, well grassed and heavily farmed, to the Coramandel Peninsular and a town called Thames, which I estimated to be about the size of Ararat, though once much bigger when it was the centre of a large and frenzied gold-mining boom. There we parked and walked right up its main street.
The peninsular is obviously very mountainous and well forested, the town itself being backed by mountains once famous for Kauri trees that are now all but logged out, as indeed are most of the great hard wood timber trees in New Zealand, necessitating strict preservation and much replanting.
As we walked up the street in a cool breeze there was a slight sense of being in a land other than Australia, but it was hard to put a finger on what made the difference. The buildings are not as well balconied or verandahed as in most Australian towns, there is less brickwork and more wood, but many of the businesses of Australia are present, like ANZ, Westpac, Dick Smith and so on. We were relieved to visit a bank's ATM and discover that the money on our travel card had now come through.
From Thames we headed over the mountains, stopping by a river to eat the left overs of a stir fry I had cooked the previous day. The river was spoiled scenically by dead, sprayed gorse, and a breeze so cool that we had to huddle below the bridge for warmth. There were many lovely places thereafter as we headed for a while down the coast, and then back inland through a variety of smaller towns through increasingly prosperous looking pasture land, with many acres of young maize plants sprouting, probably for silage. The area around Hamilton appears to be prosperous and productive.
We stopped at Morrinsville to see the railway station, one of Diana's little obsessions. It proved symbolic of the sad decline of the railways everywhere, because it consisted of no more than a gravel wasteland with a track running through it. There was a tiny relic of a platform, no rolling stock, not even a shed.
Eventually we arrived at Jan and Linda Joustra's house. When I was first Rector of Wodonga, the Joustras lived in Rutherglen, Jan being the Rector there. We became friends largely because of our common passion for Scottish Country Dancing. At the time of this New Zealand trip he was Dean of the Cathedral in Hamilton, but we learned that he had recently resigned and so in about a month's time we will be attending his induction as Rector of St Andrew's Brighton.
Their house on Riverside Road in Hamilton was their own, and had been sold only a couple of days before we arrived. It is a beautifully furnished, immaculate place in which they had lived, allowing the Deanery to be rented out and a proportion of its rent to be paid to them in lieu of accommodation. Many clergy would appreciate such an arrangement, but it would never do for me. I love to live next to the church in which I serve, and consider it an essential part of the job. Our bishop thinks likewise, so this arrangement is unlikely to be encouraged in this diocese.
Jan is a fascinating man of many and diverse talents and hobbies. He is an accomplished weaver, owning several great looms, he also embroiders beautifully, producing magni-ficent vestments, and he paints and makes icons. He appears to be a very effective priest, emphatically untrendy, and so both traditional and successful, a rare accomplishment these days. He certainly appeared to run a good show in Hamilton as Dean. While sociable and friendly he can be necessarily ruthless, demanding and expecting the very best, and he knows how to delegate and directs things d'haut en bas, managing to keep up his art work and weaving in all of this.
On our first evening he showed us the outside of the cathedral. It appeared to be beautifully kept, with the new porch he had been instrumental in adding to it, brilliantly achieved with three great glittering icons on the outside, at the top, designed and executed by himself. Linda his wife is a lively, petite woman of Chinese descent. She is an accomplished accountant, and for all the time they have been in New Zealand has worked for a European concern whom she joined during the three years that Jan was a priest in Monaco. This means that most of her work is undertaken during European business hours, during the night by way of the phone and computer. Before Monaco, they spent nine very happy years in Hong Kong, not far from Linda's parents home. I can remember encouraging him to go to Hong Kong from Rutherglen, not least because adventur-ousness should be a part of parish priesting, but also because the diocese had just begun its drift backwards into status-quoism with the appointment of David Farrer as bishop, and Jan, for all his liturgical traditionalism, is very much a liberal theologically and politically.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (28)
The departure of Monsignor Peter Jeffrey is a great loss to his parish, to the entire local Christian community, and to the whole city.
Getting it less than right
I was phoned by a gracious reporter from the Shepparton News to make a comment or two on his departure. Because I hate being mangled and garbled by reporters who don't grasp what I am on about, I said that I would email my comments to him and did. This, unusually, he gratefully acknowledged in a thank you email.
There was one notable and slightly embarrassing error even so. The word "often" was added gratuitously and inexplicably to my remark about Fr Peter having stepped in to take services for us at St Augustine's in my absence. It made it sound as though he was always moonlighting in St Augustine's!
He has taken part in a variety of ecumenical services at St Augustine's over the years, certainly. However it is only once (maybe twice, but certainly not "often") though far, far more remarkably, that he has stepped in to take a service (not a Eucharist of course) on a Wednesday for us, when no Anglican priest was available. Splendid fellow!
Here is what I actually sent (at short notice) to the Shepparton News....
Father Peter Jeffrey has been a splendid friend of St Augustine's Anglican Church and its clergy and people for all of the eight years that I have been the Anglican Rector of Shepparton.
Without compromising his own Church or its views, he has crossed denominational and faith boundaries with ease and confidence. He has been able to do this because he is no dogmatist or absolutist. His sureness of faith is in the God of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and love who is common to all believers and faiths at their very best, rather than at their all too often worst. He has not only preached in St Augustine's Anglican Church, he has also stepped in to take services for us in my absence.
To me he is a man of broad sympathies, wide experience and deep compassion, prepared to meet people where they are and for who they are. He loves people, is interested in people, listens to people. Not chained to his desk or pulpit he is a man of the community and as such has often shamed me for being less so than he is.
I admire him enormously, wish him God's greatest blessings and hope that his new role in the Church will be less onerous than the one he leaves, because he deserves that.
The Parish Office
Although Diana has not yet taken over the role of Parish Office Secretary, she is already ordering the Office to her liking. At present she is rigorously updating the Parish Roll and aligning it with all the new information garnered from the Stewardship Campaign. This means that we have had to do a little reordering of Rectory house-keeping duties. Not at all a bad thing. My serious listening to music (as opposed to listening merely as accompaniment to mechanical tasks) is now done while I perform the ironing. A very useful combination of two of life's necessities. Devotional listening to Bach's Sacred Cantatas is still done in the Lady Chapel with the assistance of my ipod.
Over Edom will I cast out my shoe
One of the great joys of the past week has been reading and finishing Stephen Fry's autobiography, "Moab is my Washpot".
Because I was brought up to say Morning and Evening Prayer with my parents as a boy, the title of the book was immediately recognisable. It comes from Psalm 60 and Psalm 108 "Moab is my washpot, over Edom will I cast out my shoe...." It is the sort of colourful sentence that stands out to stick in the mind of a young lad. It must have done so for Stephen Fry too.
The autobiography covers no more than the first twenty or so years of his life and is very candid and eloquent. It is often funny and sometimes very sad. It moved me both to tears and guffaws and caused me to love and admire the fellow enormously. He admits to doing some truly dreadful things, and towards the finish of the book ends up in gaol, a convicted thief. There is nonetheless something most appealing about the man. He is painfully honest and extremely clever, as well as vulnerable and compassionate. I am now a devoted fan.
Glory in a British Home Stores cardigan
He is no believer, sad to say, and he can sometimes say harsh things about those of us who are, but I like to think that he might just retain some sort of a soft spot for the Church of England. In his late teens, during one of his most troubled times, having been helped by an Anglican priest, he had a conversation with his bishop about being ordained. He was advised to wait awhile until God's grace became clearer.... Fry then goes on to say:
The Bishop was right of course, I had no vocation at all, merely the kind of vanity of a Henry Crawford in "Mansfield Park", the vanity that made me think I would make a better preacher, a more stylish preacher than the kind of soggy, incoherent priest that was beginning to proliferate all over England. I knew I couldn't believe in God because I was fundamentally Hellenic in my outlook. That is the grand way of putting it, I was also absolutely convinced, if I want to put it more petulantly, that if there was a God his caprice, malice, arbitrariness and sheer lack of taste made him repulsive to me. There was a time when he had on his team people like Bach, Mozart, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Laud, Donne, Herbert, Swift and Wren: now he had awful, drippy wet smacks with no style, no wit, no articulacy and no majesty. There was as much glory in the average Anglican priest as you would find in a British Home Stores cardigan. Of course what I didn't know was that - looked at in the right way - there is as much glory in a British Homes Stores cardigan as can be found in St Peter's, Rome, the Grand Canyon and the whole galaxy itself, but that is because I looked at nothing in the right way......
I would like to send his description and robust defence of homosexuality to all the poofter-bashers of my acquaintance. It would be a waste of time though. They are all too thick to make head or tail of it. (There is a nasty pun lurking in that comment which doesn't bear spelling out.)
Back to New Zealand again
So back to our sojourn in New Zealand. The Cathedral in Hamilton is very pleasing and set on a hill. I preached there on the Sunday we were staying with the Joustras, the Feast of Christ the King. At the early service, which on this particular Sunday of the month, I was delighted to discover, was a genuine 1662 rite, there were about thirty present in the congregation. At the later service, with a choir of about twenty or more and the sanctuary party, there must have been at least a hundred and thirty or forty folk present.
The choir was truly excellent and the service beautifully done. A real treat. It reinforced for me the truth that when what is traditional is presented beautifully it can work and attract a decent congregation. So long as it is accompanied by a theology which asks and attempts to answer, with honesty, what are real and contemporary questions, rather than merely peddle irrelevant platitudes. It needs too to be accompanied by good pastoral care, and education.
The young were particularly noticeable in the choir, but there was an active Sunday School too.
We don't have to sell out to the slap-happy-clappiness of other traditions. Rather we need to cherish our own as an invaluable strand in the whole ecumenical Christian mix, but strive to do it well, really well.
Most interestingly the parish Administrator at the Hamilton Cathedral turned out to be a man whom Diana knows because he was chaplain at the hospital where her father died and ministered there to her Dad most effectively and kindly. A soft spoken, well educated and gentle priest, he was at the centre of a great controversy in London in 2008. His relationship with another male priest/doctor was blessed in a famous old church, with 300 or so guests and much solemnity that included trumpets, bridesmaids, and a doctored 1662 wedding service, followed by a great reception with a ten tier cake, bridal waltzes and so on. Great fun by all accounts. However, because all of this hit the headlines and was against the Church of England's guidelines at the time, both he and his partner were stood down as priests.
His partner is a New Zealander and so they have now settled in that country, but cannot serve as priests there either, at least yet. On the evening before we left Hamilton we went round to have a drink with the two of them and found them unutterably delightful. I had the strongest two gin and tonics I have had in years, and it was most enjoyable to converse with two such fine and articulate people. They are in the process of building a large house and ultimately a chapel, to become a smart venue for weddings.
From Hamilton we took an afternoon trip which involved a walk in two woods. The first was but a remnant patch of great, buttressed kahikatea trees, whose strange swaying tops in a strong wind were eerily fascinating. We then walked a real forest, on the side of an old volcano, with monster trees and heavy vegetation. New Zealand abounds in beautiful walks, but there is little fauna of any description in evidence. The predominant birds appear to be sparrows and blackbirds. We spotted Eastern Rosellas which, according to Jan, were not introduced but blown over from Oz. We also saw Australian magpies and possibly an English thrush.
At dinner on the same day, a fine roast leg of lamb cooked by Jan, the mother of the English priest who had ministered to Diana's father was present, as was a churchwarden from the Cathedral, a retired judge. Our conversation ranged far and wide, some of it to do with Maori politics. We learned that the Maoris have a king, elected originally to provide a spokesman and figurehead for the Maori nation equivalent to the English monarch, and destined to become more or less hereditary. We were told that an excellent queen had married beneath her, and that the present monarch is a fairly inarticulate and very limited panel beater, though to my mind there is nothing wrong with panel-beaters and I have known some very articulate and intelligent ones.
Great settlements of cash and land were made to the Maoris some decades ago resulting in huge business concerns that seem to be largely successful nowadays, though there have been mistakes and scandals along the way. Our host, Jan, opens his church services with Maori greetings and calls himself a pakeha, his churchwarden refuses to do so, maintaining that she is not happy to be characterised by race, and pointing out that with Chinese and Indian immigrants the term pakeha (of European descent) has become an inadequate and inaccurate term for non-Maoris anyway.
As with the aborigines in Australia, the welfare system, we were informed, is dominated by Maori recipients and they are over represented in the underclass.
On another day in Hamilton we headed west to the coastal town of Raglan. A greyish, windy day turned into a grey and lowering day and ended with penetrating but light rain.
Raglan is a seaside town on the west coast, with black volcanic sand to remind me of my years on Tristan da Cunha and St Helena. It is a famous surfing venue. We footled a bit in the town, visiting an environmental centre and then bought a pineapple, baguette, two avocados and some juice, before heading off along a rather grim estuary, in strong cold wind. We walked and walked, the wind exhilarating, down the estuary to open and real sea, past wind surfers and kite surfers, one of them on a little wheeled trolley device scooting around on the wide expanse of black sand.
We assumed there to be no way out of the bay we walked to, and so decided to cut up the steep slopes that had once been cliffs, heading through thick pampas grass, which sliced up my arms and legs, and then encountered thick bushes covered with spines that forced us to retreat. Further up the beach we found some steps and a decent track all the way up to the top of the cliffs and then down though a wooded area with well maintained paths and planted here and there with some of New Zealand's great trees.
We got back to the car after a couple of hours invigorating walk as rain began to set in. We had half an avocado each and then lots of the lovely manuka honey we had bought in Thames. This was the only wet day we had during our two week visit.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (29)
What a delight on Sunday afternoon to find on my doorstep a copy of the second volume of Stephen Fry's autobiography, this one called simply and less imaginatively: "The Fry Chronicles". Many thanks to Charlotte Brewer. I am already deeply absorbed.
A contented existence
There are two important adjuncts to a contented existence for the likes of me. The first is to have a good and enjoyable book on the go. The second is to ensure a regular, concentrated music-listening session.
I remember years ago reading C. S. Lewis, in a collection of his letters, advising someone not to read books from duty, merely because they feel they ought to do so. Enjoyment, he maintained, is the all important criterion. If after a couple of chapters you are not enjoying a book, discard the thing. To my regret I have disregarded this sound advice with my electronic Kindle, and so have still only purchased one book on it. It is a book I feel I need and ought to read, but which does not compel me, so I am not even half way through it.
A person whose faith and integrity I greatly admire reminded me last week that for some good folk Stephen Fry's books are bound to be too strong meat. Fry uses extremely bad language, is no Christian and enthusiastically promotes views that many Christians would find hard to stomach. Be warned! I, however, love the man, not least for a vulnerability, honesty and compassion that chimes with the Gospel that I am so passionate about, in spite of all the aforesaid.
Style and substance
Fry's views on the relation between words and thought particularly intrigue and fascinate me. He says, in a recently published little article on the late Christopher Hitchens, that the "connection between style and substance is absolute. A true thing badly expressed becomes a lie". He goes on to quote what he calls an old complaint:
"How can I tell you what I think
until I've heard what I'm going to say?"
In "Moab is my Washpot" he quotes Oscar Wilde as saying that language "is the parent, not the child, of thought". All this I find to be true of my own experience. Until I have put my mind's vague, jumbled, inchoate, mere potential ideas down on to paper, dressed them, redressed them, ordered, reordered and punctuated them, I don't really know what I think or mean. Even in writing a simple, gossipy diary column like this, which I enjoy enormously, the greatest pleasure of all lies in getting the words just right, lies in making crystal clear and exact sense of ideas and experience. So too with sermons. I begin with a mind full of mere potential, a cloud of vague, jumbled possibilities, that is all. It is only when I have finished that I discover what I think.
If we do not love words, if we have no ear for their music, cannot balance them, arrange them and find the exact one or cluster from a good reservoir readily on tap, how can we even think? Though mathematicians and visual artists manage to so without words, do they not?
I have complimented Australia Post several times in this pew-sheet. Not least in the Sunday after Christmas edition's cartoon, which showed a wife looking at an envelope pushed through the letter slot in her door and saying to her husband: "Aren't the Post Office wonderful? Someone just put, ‘Miserable old git, Shepparton', and it found you!"
Sad to say I now have a complaint. The double-issue Christmas edition of "The Spectator" didn't arrive here in Shepparton until January the fourth! The magazine is posted weekly in Sydney on the same day. With Christmas this year on a Sunday the double issue should have reached expectant subscribers in good time for Christmas. Certainly my brother received his copy in Brisbane before Christmas, so what is wrong with the local mob? Or with Victoria? The Christmas rush cannot be blamed because it is a not infrequent failure. On January the 10th I received on the same day the editions for December 31st and January the 7th. Well done for January the 7th, but how disgraceful and shameful for December the 31st.
Italy, Greece and then Greeneland
I brought together Italy and Greece last Monday. There was a monster, home-grown aubergine from the garden to be made something of. Instead of tackling the traditional and somewhat finicky moussaka, I decided to hybridise it with a lasagne. Alternate layers of grilled aubergine with layers of pasta, all in a rich vegetarian sauce made for a delicious repast. Four meals worth too. Well done Andy old man.
That evening, full of moussaka/lasagne we visited Greeneland. There being nothing worth watching on television we decided to search out a DVD instead and before heading out to hire one we visited the library to see if there was anything going free. There we found the latest version of what I think was Graham Greene's first notable novel: "Brighton Rock", which both of us had read years before. The book was published way back in 1938 and the first film version, starring a young Richard Attenborough, dates from 1947. We found this new film version compelling, authentically bleak and extremely well acted. Its setting among the nasty, racing fraternity gangs of the thirties is moved forward to the sixties era of mods and rockers, successfully we thought. Our memories of the book were so partial and scanty that we couldn't be offended by any departures from the original plot. The Catholic Church nearly always plays a part in Greeneland. In this film, interestingly, it is the non Catholic Ida (Helen Mirren) who is far and away the most moral and attractively free personality, though this is made more clear in the book than in the film.
The Bible and Quran
I feared that our resumed Islam studies might appear a little anticlimactic after so long a break. Not at all, not at all. There was much robust and animated discussion in our comparing of the bible to the Quran. I find that for myself the study is deepening my appreciation of Christianity in its unutterable uniqueness, while at the same time opening me up to an appreciation of the many admirable qualities to be found in Islam. I was talking to a friend recently who told me that at a dinner party he had faced incredulity from a pair of barely even nominal Christians, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, and indeed my friend himself, should find it acceptable for Christianity and Islam to find and welcome common cause in facing down extreme secularism in our society. We do need to though. Islam at its best does have a lot in common with us. At its worst, like Christianity at its worst, it is vile.
The citizenification of a Pommy
The excuse for the barbecue on Sunday the 29th of this month is the Australian citizenification of the Pommy of pommies that is me, [pommy - plural pommies (some-times capital) slang. Definition: a mildly offensive word used by Australians and New Zealanders for an English person. Sometimes shortened to pom. Of uncertain origin. Among a number of explanations are: (1) based on a blend of immigrant and pomegranate (alluding to the red cheeks of English immigrants); (2) from the abbreviation POME, Prisoner of Mother England (referring to convicts)]. It is likely that there will be kangaroo sausages on offer, and probably a piece of light verse to honour the occasion. The last is likely to be too irreverent to take the form of a grace before the meal. If you intend coming please sign up in the Narthex. Some of us might like to bring either a dessert or a salad, but not everyone needs to. So please indicate if you intend so doing.
Toast for breakfast
My first job as a deacon and priest was at Harare Cathedral (then Salisbury Cathedral) in what is now Zimbabwe. Margaret and I lived at 5 Hadlow Place, a spacious flat which Diana and I visited on our trip to Zimbabwe in 2010. Mattins each morning was at 6.00am and the first of several Eucharists each day followed at 6.30am. To the Eucharist came an eccentric clutch of pious ladies, a mere couple of not dissimilar men and now and then a passing and usually odoriferous scallywag or two. Because some of those who attended were employed in the city and lived a long way out in the suburbs, and also because in those confident, blessed and lovely days, to eat before mass was forbidden, some of us would then gather in the hall to have a light toast and coffee breakfast and gossip. I remember them with joy. In February we hope to begin to do something similar for a few days of the week here at St Augustine's. At present the clergy tend to gather for gossip, banter and debriefing in the sacristy and porch after the daily Eucharist, but with one at least of the new team coming all the way from Goorambat, breakfast would allow and encourage us to indulge ourselves more expansively, creatively and thoroughly. Any aspirant pietists and eccentrics in the parish, as well as passing scallywags, ordoriferous or otherwise, will make for a perfect breakfast. Many, many thanks to the dear parishioner who has donated to us a new and very fine toaster. May she join us for breakfast now and then.
Goodbye to Hamilton
Back to our New Zealand trip. We left the Joustra household in Hamilton to make our way to Rotorua and then Tauranga. En route we stopped to have a look at a little place called Tirau, notable for its creative use of corrugated iron, parking the car and having a ramble round. It is one of those spots that is almost totally dependent upon tourism and pretty well every shop appeared to be of the tourist attracting sort. There was not even a decent supermarket or grocers, so we pressed on to Putaruru, off the main Rotorua Road, where, with an eye for lunch, we stocked up on a baguette, a couple of Kiwi fruit, a couple of apples and an avocado, and then headed on our way along a route that joined the Rotorua road further along.
On the way we spotted a "Walkway" beside the Te Waihou river and decided to walk it. It proved to be about 4.7 kilometres each way, and very beautiful. We spied a little kingfisher with a yellow breast, as well as a stoat, wrens, ducks and later on some decent sized trout in a more gently flowing portion of the river. In the end we spent about two and a half hours walking up and down the river, which wended its swiftly flowing way through well grassed, often hilly meadows, heavily stocked with grazing cows, then through a gorge, before opening up once more into lovely and hilly meadowlands. At times, when flowing over sand or white rock the water, which was beautifully clear, appeared to have a blue tint to it. I have since discovered that the water springs, with force, from underground and is considered as pure as any in the world. It is bottled and sold, collected where it wells up out of the earth's depths from deep and ancient aquifers.
The water flowed silently for most of its course, except over occasional rapids and in the gorge, and also almost eerily fast. We watched a duck float downstream, passing us from behind at some speed, faintly puzzled but insouciant seeming.
It was a good nine and a half kilometre walk, and totally unplanned. We arrived back at the car well after two in the afternoon, more than ready to demolish a large baguette with avocado and tomato and then manuka honey.
Stinking mud holes
From there we pressed on to Rotorua, having left little time to explore it thoroughly or allow it to please us. Though I doubt it would have much pleased us, no matter how much time we gave it. It is a large and not very pleasing tourist town. We had asked advice as to what could be seen without paying through the nose for, and so made our way to a central park where we found steaming, boiling, sulphurously stinking, unpleasant mud holes, fenced off and surrounded for the most part be ti trees. A mud hole is a mud hole, of limited interest and no beauty. We wandered around and took a few photos, noting how steam appears from holes and fissures in the ground in all sorts of places throughout the town. Diana, by the way, found the boiling mud holes unutterably fascinating and takes issue with my negative description of them!
Jan Joustra had told Diana to look out for Rotorua's Maori church, which we found sited on a little peninsular pushing out into the great lake. Brown and cream, mock Tudor on the outside, it was very lovely inside, the walls made of, or covered, by tightly woven patterns of brown and green, presumably flax, with lots of carved wooden pillars. The pillars had no faces, unlike the Maori statues seen elsewhere, though mother of pearl, staring eyes were very much in evidence.
We were told by another visitor, just leaving, not to miss the etched, glass west-end of a little chapel which, she said, was quite new and "stunningly beautiful". The full length window, which looks out over the lake is indeed lovely, though I found the etching of Jesus, as if walking on the lake's water sentimental.
Outside, a wander around revealed the lake to be no warmer than you would expect and so thermal activity is not that extensive. There were little emissions of steam here and there on the land round about though. A pair of black swans and a cygnet paraded before us and we delighted in two pied cormorants as well as ducks and gulls.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (30)
On facing myself in the mirror to shave on Tuesday morning, I discovered that there were blanks in my vision. I cleaned my glasses, but they were still there. This sudden lack of vision brought to my mind’s eye a sad vision of a life without vision. Equanimity returned as soon as I realised that I was suffering from one of the residual migraines that still affect me.
Migraines entered my life with ordination, so my fallible memory tells me. Were they the result of “expectation stress” then? One of the consequences of being expected to appear more godly than in fact I am? Or was I beginning to develop a halo too tight for the health of an ego-enriched and swelling head, which was restricting the flow of blood to vital areas of the brain?
Some time during my tenure at Wodonga they began to diminish in intensity, until now they are almost unnoticeable. I get no head-ache and no nausea, just blanks in my vision for a period of about twenty minutes. Their decline into insignificance could well mean that sanctity and sin, piety and mischief, good behaviour and bad behaviour have reached such a state of happy equilibrium in me that they ensure not only peace of mind but health of brain!
Important to a contented life is one’s attitude, is being in the right frame of mind. Every week at its beginning brings a list of chores for me that are very time consuming. At the top of that list is the weekly music that needs selecting, printing and emailing to various people. Then there is the pewsheet joke to select. This can takes ages, because over the years I have used almost every good joke that exists and I do not like repeating one. There are also the cartoons to select and scan, this article to write, Wednesday’s sermon, Sunday’s sermon and the Islam Study to prepare and so on and so on.
I have developed a routine for accomplishing all of these chores with no fuss or bother whatsoever. Indeed I enjoy them. However, when something extra pops up to disturb the routine, such as a funeral, or a call away to deal with someone’s crisis, or a day of meetings in Wangaratta, the even tenor of my life is roughed up, and I find myself worrying about things undone. Life begins to lose its edge of enjoyment.
Until, that is, I pull myself together, advise myself to adopt “the right attitude” and acknowledge and admit that what is really necessary to be done does always get done and moreover is easily doable. This sometimes actually works.
It is similar with the daily Eucharist. Even this great privilege can come to seem just another daily chore. It shouldn’t. After all the priest doesn’t “say” the service, nor does he “do” it, he “celebrates” it. All I need to do to acknowledge this, is simply notice and so enjoy the most lovely walk I make each day. Which is down the arched southern ambulatory of St Augustine’s from the priests’ vestry to the chapel. Through the last arch the view of a lovely chapel prepared and waiting for worship, is of a glorious little cave of wonder, warmed and brightened by flickering candles, so numinously and glitteringly alight that it allows a sense of celebration to overwhelm and consume.
A courageous atheist
The foibles, absurdities and excesses of faith are often mocked and sneered at by “cultured” atheists. We should be above resenting this, or responding in kind.
However, I do gain some amusement from their futile attempts both to have their cake and eat it. By which I mean having dumped God and religious practice, they still hang on to vestiges of our Faith’s moral teaching, still strive diligently to place their children in our schools, still pretend to their being some purpose to their existence and some real content to morality and love. They are as tepid and timid in their unfaith as are so many Anglicans in their faith. They appear to lack the guts to face the consequence of their unbelief.
In the light of this I was interested to read a review by Richard Marshall of a book called The Atheist’s Guide To Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. The book is by a different sort of atheist, a more honest and courageous one. He is a philosopher called Alex Rosenberg. According to his reviewer Rosenberg maintains that there is no purpose to anything, anywhere. Never was, never will be. There is therefore no meaning to life. I’m here because of dumb luck. Prayer doesn’t work. There is no such thing as a soul. There is no freewill. When we die, everything stays the same except without us. There is no moral difference between good and bad, right and wrong. You should be good because it makes you feel better than being bad. Anything goes. Love is a solution to a strategic coordination problem. It’s automatic, programmed so there’s no need to go out looking for it. History has no purpose .... because the future is less and less like the past. Ditto economics. Technology makes predicting the future a guessing game and their rational choice theories are outrageously bad psychology..... belief in free will and purpose and all that .... is belief in hokum of the same order as belief in God. The atheists’ self-image as the hero nihilist choosing her fate is condemned as being just as hopeless as the religious self image....
I can only commend Rosenberg for facing the facts as he sees them and not attempting to both have his cake and eat it, like Dawkins and co, though the cake is one I would neither want to keep or eat.
Back to New Zealand
The port of Tauranga is apparently the largest exporting port in New Zealand. It is on the northeast-facing, white sand beached coast of the huge Bay of Plenty. It is also the site of the grounding of the container ship Rena, which was still all of one piece when we were there, clearly visible. It has since broken in two and is now in the process of being reduced to elemental junk.
Our hosts in Taurunga were David and Joanne Harricks. They had been parishioners of Holy Trinity Parish, Ararat, when I was Rector there. Their children were good friends of my children and played a lively and creative part in the activities of the liveliest youth group of my ministry.
We found their house with little difficulty, and David was there to greet us. He holds a franchise for snack foods which he sells all over the place, with no small success, but which means he can keep hours to suit himself and so was able to look after us well. The house in an old fashioned one, its most pleasing feature being a wide central passage. Modern houses are so parsimonious with space for mere passages, it is always a pleasure to find a generous one.
David and Jo appear happy with a simple life. Their backyard vegetable garden seemed to us to be impressively productive, with prolific egg-laying hens, fish, guinea pigs, a cockatiel, budgerigar and little quails. The sort of back yard that fascinated my children in long gone Ararat days, and does their own grandchildren now. Both David and Jo have always been creative and imaginative do-it-yourself types, interested in self-sufficiency wherever possible. David can turn his hand to most things.
There appear to be no fly screens in New Zealand. Unlike in Australia flies are hardly a problem, though they do get into houses now and then, as do mosquitoes. Every time David killed a fly he would take the trouble to carry the corpse outside to feed to the goldfish! That I consider to be a really impressive example of recycling.
Up the plug
The next day Jo went off to work, and we and David headed for “The Mount”. This is an impressive volcanic plug joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. On the one side of the isthmus is a harbour and on the other an excellent if sometimes dangerous surf beach. “The Mount” is the geographical feature that gave its name and character to a town immediately north of Tauranga called Mount Maunganui. The two towns are now one with the help of a bridge connecting them. As we drove down into Tauranga it was the volcanic plug that first struck us, adding geographical enticement to the place. There is a great volcanic plug on the island of St Helena called “Lot’s Wife” for obvious reasons.
We met David and Joanna’s daughter Emma at the base of The Mount, with tiny Caitlin on her back and young two year old Tristan in hand. He walked gamely all the way up the plug.
On the way up David pointed out an indigenous bird, the tui, one of the largest members of the honeyeater family. The English name of the bird used to be the “Parson Bird”. This is because at first glance the bird appears completely black except for a small tuft of white feathers at its neck and a small white wing patch, causing it to resemble a parson in clerical attire. Like parsons these birds are loquacious, and like your Rector intelligent. They are noted for mimicry and like parrots can be taught to imitate human speech.
There was a lovely view from the top of the plug. In the distance was the grounded container ship, in the harbour a moored, huge cruise ship. The link between the two which became apparent in last week’s news from Italy was of course unforeseen by us at the time.
Millions of dollars worth of church
On the way home we stopped at a church to which David goes at Christmas. It is a huge, ugly building, all concrete outside and built at a cost of some millions of dollars to replace one burnt down by an arsonist some years ago. It doubles as the city’s largest audit-orium, is in the round, has plush cinema seats and an upstairs balcony. It must seat hundreds, possibly a thousand. I took some photos but didn’t count.
We met the priest who kindly showed us around. He proved to be an interesting evangelical with a wife as co priest, both of them intelligent and lively and in no way narrow Sydney-type evangelicals. He said in response to a leading question of mine, that they had lots of trouble with an intrusive diocese.
Diana and I interrogated him thoroughly as he showed us all around an ugly building with everything that opens and shuts. There are still $700,000 owed on the building, but they obviously get large numbers at their main service.
Electronically there is all you could dream of or nightmare about. He talked of moving the big cross on the wall behind the “communion table” to one side so as to allow for a central screen, but was not offended at my comment to do with it possibly being seen as displacing Christ, acknowledging this to be a difficulty. We covered all sorts of topics amiably, agreeing to differ on some. He was a good fellow, with a sense of humour and an evangelical whom I felt to be of a genuine Anglican sort, an impression you don’t often get with Sydney evangelicals.
He implied that nearly all traditional churches in New Zealand would have congregations of little over 25 and suggested that they would wither away as time went on. Perhaps he is right, though he hadn’t even heard of Jan Joustra and his traditional cathedral which still attracts a large congregation. We were told that there was only one truly evangelical bishop in New Zealand. He was also interesting on the Maori church which he implied to be largely a political creation with almost no worshippers at all. Jokingly he suggested that the proportion of ordained to laity in the Maori Church was about 1 to 3. St Faith’s in Rotorua being an exception. Apparently the Maoris there were never at war with the settlers, and it was evangelised by someone outside, rather than a New Zealander, Maori or otherwise.
There appears to be a huge and growing reliance upon non-stipendiary ministry in New Zealand. He also claimed New Zealand to be far more secular a country than either Britain or Australia, something we did not pick up at all.
Fish, chips and mirrors
In the early evening we went down to a hugely popular fish place on the sea front. There both fresh and cooked fish were on sale and we queued to order fifty five dollars worth of fish and chips which we took to the home of Emma and her husband Ben. Ben and his father own what appears to be a very successful mirror making business. To make most mirrors these days, I learned, aluminium is sprayed onto acrylic. It is apparently very slightly less perfect than silver as a reflector but hardly noticeably so. The old backing to mirrors, which I remember learning of in my youth, Ben seemed to know nothing of at all, namely amalgams of mercury and silver or mercury and tin.
Mirrors are fascinating. They enable me to finish with a favourite quote from Saul Bellow: ‘Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.’
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER 31
In all the twenty seven years I have been resident in Australia, never once have I felt disadvantaged, seriously discriminated against or despised for being a Pom. Any disdain for the Pom’s that I have detected in people’s reactions to me, has been jocular, never anything but mild and undoubtedly well deserved. The Poms are, after all, a perfidious lot, or can be and have been.
On being Pommie
Socially speaking, to be English in Australia has for me seemed to be more an advantage than a disadvantage. People appear to love my apparently ineradicable English accent and to appreciate my Englishness.
The circles in which I usually move are of course Anglican, and for all the insistence among patriotic Australian Anglicans that we are no longer the “Church of England”, the word “Anglican” means, at least etymologically speaking: “English”. So in what is a typically ironic English way we have replaced three anachronistic words (indicative of what has now come to be seen as deplorable, derivative, cringing de-pendency) with a single word that means much the same thing. I love it!
One of the main reasons that I feel so English is because I have lived there so little.
I was nearly seven when I left Britain for the first time. Since then, as an eleven year old boy, I resided there for eight or nine significant months, and as a twenty five year old teacher, for a year and a half. All other of my five returns to the beloved land of my birth have been extended holidays or long-leave visits of only a few months.
Except for the first seven years of my life, then, I have lived for longer periods on the island of Tristan da Cunha, in South Africa and on the Island of St Helena than I have in England. Without excepting even those first seven years, I have lived far longer in Southern Rhodesia, Zimbabwe and Australia.
As a reference point and part of establishing who I am, I have felt it necessary to cling to my Englishness and embed myself in English culture. Although revelling in and enjoying enormously my life as an exile by the waters of a variety of Babylons, I have always remembered Zion, my treasured geographical and spiritual homeland.
During my Rhodesian school days there was a largely taken-for-granted affinity between Rhodesia and Australia. We were both parts of the same British Empire. In geography lessons Australia received some prominence. Merinos, gold, the Great Artesian Basin, as well as Ballarat and Bendigo, let alone Sydney and Melbourne, were all familiar to me as a school boy, long before I ever thought about migrating here. Possibly from my history lessons and certainly from comics, courageous, swashbuckling, irrepressible, Australian diggers were a part of my childhood mythology too. So Australia has always seemed, if not home then an extension of home, a distant, admired relative.
My Australian evangelist
It was the year and a half in London as a teacher, however, that introduced me to Australia’s most successful evangelist for someone like me. Coincidentally, in honour of the Australia Day upon which I received my citizenship, this personal evangelist was awarded in London the honour of “Australian of the Year in England”. He is Barry Humphries, no less.
His relationship with Australia is possibly as ambivalent as mine. He too is a voluntary exile, though the other way. When I mention him to his fellow countrymen, not a few of them deplore him. Unsurprisingly, for satirists are rarely universally acclaimed. If they satirize well. Yet there is a bitter sweet irony involved in satire, if you happen to love what you mock, and I feel Humphries does. It is an irony that I deeply appreciate and which is peculiarly English, but also, in the case of Humphries, Australian.
Dame Edna, Bazza Mackenzie, Sir Les are absurd, sometimes even despicable, but also not entirely unlovable. Even when the satire is most savage there are traces of affection. This is not only piquant, it is also heartening because it betrays the satire into being fundamentally optimistic. The mockery’s intent is not merely to expose, tear down and destroy but is also an invitation to laugh at the self for the absurdities of the self in order to see the self in better and truer perspective enabling the transcending of the self’s absurdity.
My time as a teacher in London was when the satirical magazine “Private Eye” was at its very best. I loved it, especially Humphries’ and Garland’s little comic strip “the Adventures of Barry ‘Bazza’ Mackenzie”.
On the face of it Bazza did little to raise the esteem of Australia in the eyes of the Brits. He is a parody of the uncouth, Earls Court dwelling, Fosters’swilling, okker Australian: crude, unsophisticated, loud, drunk and aggressive. The comic strip pushed the boundaries of crudity to the limits of that time and eventually even Private Eye had to terminate the story. Yet there was that side to Bazza Mackenzie, already aluded to, that elicited a sort of wry affection in me and many others. He was not unattractively naive as well as boorish. In his own gauche way he was honest, candid, an innocent if boorish buffoon among pompous, arrogant devious Brits who were mercilessly portrayed as such. Although attempting to bed every English girl he meets with single-minded fervour, Bazza never, ever succeeds.
The Chihuahua and Kev the Rev
My favourite vignette is of him boarding a tube train very late at night, much the worse for wear from grog. He sits down opposite the only other passenger in the carriage. She is an exceedingly posh lady with a tiny, pampered Chihuahua on her lap.
The hot carriage and its swaying motion have their inevitable effect upon the inebriated Bazza. He suddenly and abruptly stands up to deliver a great technicolour yawn all over the lady and her Chihuahua. She jumps up in horror, and poor Bazza is mortified. “I’m sorry, Lady, I’m sorry Lady” he keeps saying. Then, looking down at the contents of his stomach on the floor, he spots something that puzzles him. He picks up a wriggling, chunder-smothered Chihuahua and says: “Geez I don’t remember eating that.”
I grew to love Bazza, Humphries, and with him a country that could be so readily satirised, laughed at and laughed with. What is more Bazza’s despised brother is a clergyman, “Kev the Rev”. An inspired example of prophecy, Kevin Rudd’s prototype!
Why did it take so long
So it was that when the time came to settle down and rear my young family after an idyllic stint on the Island of St Helena, Australia as a possibility was not discounted. I already viewed it favourably. Moreover, my brother had migrated here some years previously, and my father and mother had recently joined them. So I wrote to a couple of Australian bishops offering myself as one of the brightest stars in the Anglican firmament. John Hazlewood, the Bishop of Ballarat, was prepared to take a punt on me and offered a position in his diocese. So to Australia we came in August 1985. I have been resident here ever since.
A few months ago I was phoned by an immigration official with a strong foreign accent, who informed me that my application for citizenship had been successful. He went on to ask, in a very friendly fashion, why I had taken so long in applying. Off the cuff I replied: “Idleness and inertia”, but is that really so?
Not entirely. It was marrying an English Diana in England and then returning to Australia that tipped me over into applying at last, after 26 years. The balance of my family circumstances and identity has now shifted markedly England’s way. Not only is Diana English, two of my four Australian Citizen children reside in England and both of Diana’s two children and their families are English and reside in England too. Inevitably we are likely to be more frequently in England than heretofore, as well as more regularly in touch with England.
All of this caused me to recognise and acknowledge that as well as being ineradicably English, I am also ineradicably Australian, that I have lived here now longer than anywhere else and that it is the best of places in the world to live.
When I am in England not only do I feel Australian, I am proud to be so. Just as when in Australia I feel English and am proud to be so. Another irony then. It is the increase and influx of Englishness into my life that makes me want to make indelible my Australianism. So a Citizen I have become.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (32)
I first learned to swim, after a fashion, on the island of Tristan da Cunha.
A bald-headed, dog-paddling, dill
There, below the cliffs in front of our home, in the middle of the vast South Atlantic Ocean, the tide as it receded from the volcanic, black-sand beach, left lots of clear rock pools containing red-whiskered, baby crayfish, as well as a variety of small, darting fish and an occasional octopus. All of which my brother and I, as little boys, delighted to catch. It was in these pools that I first learned to put my head under water and, with a push, to project and propel myself from one side of a pool to another without touching the bottom.
I have loved water ever since, though, because never taught to swim, I am a hopeless swimmer stylistically, an unco-ordinated, thresher and swiper of the water, a bald-headed, dog-paddling, dill.
One of the great moments in learning to swim in the sea is when first you learn to open your eyes under water. Only then do you fully realise that you are in a another world, another element. You are buoyant, able to fly. An intruder in a new, silent world, where colours are strangely different, but rich and crystal clear. The landscape is altogether different too, not worn and moulded by rain and wind, but near the surface by sweeping currents and pounding waves, though deeper down hardly worn or moulded at all. A world profuse of life and growth.
Fear of salt water in the eyes
Being baptised should be just such a dive into a new world, a new element. A dive out of the everyday world into the loving, forgiving community of Christ. A different community where authority is crowned with love’s thorns, and where power manifests itself as love. A different community in which the dominant virtues are forgiveness, mercy, acceptance, honesty, generosity, love, understanding and empathy.
Such virtues are not dominant outside of this new and different community. Outside, too often, money and selfishness rule, and achievement is measured in cash and possessions.
The un-baptised, or those who for some strange reason reject or ignore their baptism, can often see little reason to plunge into our wonderful new world. They fear salt and water in their eyes, are frightened of love, generosity, self-giving, and of letting go of the material.
Hum-bug and hypocrisy
To excuse or exonerate themselves from such madness, they tend to focus on the negative, concentrate on the humbug and hypocrisy of the official Church and on the undoubted hypocrisy and humbug in nearly every single one of us.
“The Church”, they say, “is all hum-bug and hypocrisy, is no different from any other community, is as full of greedy, grasping, unremarkable humanity as is any other community. What is the difference? Why plunge into that world and life and community?”
I suppose they have a point. Too often the magical underwater world, the under-the-waters-of-baptism world of the Church is indeed unremarkable, not characterised enough by the sweet virtues of Jesus, of acceptance, forgiveness, mercy, generosity, open-heartedness and love.
And yet, there is nowhere else in our world and our society, where sacrifice and love and forgiveness are so unequivocally and emphatically preached, manifested and put on show, as in dear old Mother Church. The Church represents the ultimate alternative life-style.
Under the waters of baptism
Every Sunday, every Wednesday, every day, in St Augustine’s the rule and kingship of Christ is proclaimed. His astonishing sacrifice is recalled and represented on our altars, is reached for on our knees at the altar rail, his word and his Gospel of love proclaimed, his life is retold and relived.
Those of us who attend, even if we fail, do at least make our effort to be there, to be different, to listen, to say our "Amens". Our aspirations, our hopes, our desires are indeed different. We can open our eyes under-the-waters-of-baptism and even if love’s salt stings them, and the call to sacrifice seriously and radically, like great waves, buffet and frighten us, tempt us to footle in the shallows instead of fully plunging in, we do still catch a glimpse of the new world’s beauty. We come back for more, desire more fully and completely to enter into it and be a part of it.
How important it is, more important than our beautiful worship, more important than balancing our books, more important than filling our pews, more important than brilliant sermons, bible studies, and pew sheets, that the congregations of our parish, are truly loving and forgiving and accepting communities. Are a different world, a different element, an underwater world, an under-the-waters-of-baptism world. The kingdom of God himself, the kingdom of love, an irresistible under-the-waters-of-baptism world. A world enchanted by love, by Jesus.
Our congregations, in no small way, are in fact just that for me, and I trust for you too.
AND THE OTHER (33)
There have been three pictures of my good self in the Shepparton News over the past few weeks, with accompanying articles. This does not mean that I have suddenly become publicity hungry. They were all initiated by the News, not me.
In the press
Being reported on in the press is rarely pleasing. What you say is too often garbled and precised into incomprehensibility or idiocy. Far worse, however, are those off the cuff comments which are accurately reported and yet in cold print appear to be callous, obtuse, naive or worse, as indeed they are!
The first article was to honour Monsignor Peter Jeffrey, the second was about becoming an Australian Citizen. The third was just an overspill from the second. I had rabbited on so profusely in an interview that the reporter, doubtless short of other news, must have decided to give the rabbit a second run.
There was one small benefit from all of this. I visited in hospital last week a delightful elderly parishioner who has not been to church in years, for wholly excusable reasons. She pronounced herself only able to recognise my beardless self because of the photographs in the paper. My offer of a clean-shaven kiss for a hundred dollars was declined, though with no visible shudder.
Another positive spin off from my citizenship acquisition was that at the ceremony two delightful Muslim young women, Elaf Al Tuhmazy and Fatima Zaoli, were granted jointly the "Young Citizen of the Year" award. Diana was impressed enough by their speeches to ask them if they would like to address our Islam Study group and Elaf was free to do so. She joined us, with her younger brother Majed, last Tuesday and they delighted us all with their banter, sense of humour and good sense.
One of the most important distinctions to make when considering Islam in relation to Christianity is between culture and religion. Much of what the western world finds easy to criticise in Islam is in fact culturally rather than faith based. The Faith calls for modesty in both men and women, but how that modesty manifest itself differs hugely from culture to culture. The Hijab worn by Elaf is worn by choice, as much a mark of her delight and pride in her Faith, as a guarantor of her modesty. We threw all sorts of questions at her and she delighted us with her Australianism as well as her commonsensical and yet devout practise and understanding of her Faith.
Longing for death
I tap out these random thoughts for the pew sheet having just listened to a Bach Cantata while I did the ironing. I have a book with the words of all the Cantatas, in both German and English, open on the filing cabinet as I iron. This particular Cantata (BWV 161) is most wonderfully beautiful, though its subject is not the sort that would appeal to many. It is all to do with longing for beautiful death! Bach and his librettists seem to be so accepting of and positive about death. It is astonishing.
The Cantata begins with a heavenly tenor aria, accompanied by flutes and continuo, the words begin:
Come, O sweet hour of death,
When my spirit feeds on honey
From the lion's mouth;
Make my departure sweet,
Do not delay, O my last light,
The moment when I shall kiss my Saviour.
A fascinating reference back to Samson finding honey in the carcase of a lion he had killed earlier, just as the redeemed are granted the honey of Salvation from the body to the Jesus our forebears killed. Later on, in one of the recitatives there is a thrilling musical representation of an insistently ticking clock to the words:
Close in, then, happy day of death,
Strike, then, O final hour.
To turn a chore like ironing into devotion is a good example of creative "multi-tasking" I like to think. Bach spices up my devotional life enormously and impresses upon me how necessary it is to experiment with one's devotions, quiet time and prayer life and to be prepared to spend money in developing it. All of Bach's cantatas at the time I bought them were an enormous expense, but one that I have never regretted for a moment.
I love candles. To my mind, their flame imparts the softest and loveliest of all lights, fragile, flickering, warm and gentle.
In previous generations they had a happy association with bees and honey as well as with tallow. This last is not so sweet in all its associations of course, tallow being animal fat, but the word "tallow" is a lovely sounding word for all that and animal fat, in the hard days of yore, was treasured not despised as it is today.
The use of candles in Christian worship was to begin with entirely functional. In the early Church vigil services were held on Saturday night/Sunday morning, and so light was needed and candles and oil lamps provided it.
Like with so much in the church, functional use soon led into symbolic and ornamental use. A good example of this tendency can be seen on my cassock. Most cassocks have a row of buttons down the front. Over the years the number of these buttons has been granted a symbolic significance. There are thirty three of them to signify the probable number of the years of our Lord's life. Or, for those of a more Protestant disposition, thirty nine for the Thirty Nine Articles. In the 20th century however, an ornamental significance came to be added to the symbolic significance. Underneath all those buttons on my cassock, there resides a highly efficient zip which deprives the buttons of their function, which is simply to hold the two sides of the cassock together. The buttons remain however, because not only are they symbolic, they also look pleasing.
Something similar has happened with candles. At first purely functional they began to be invested with symbolic and ornamental significance. However, the Church has always had its quota of wowsers and killjoys and so even way back then there were those who deplored the "unnecessary" use of candles and lamps in daylight. Tertullian (about AD 200), for example, inveighs against "the useless lighting of lamps at noonday", possibly because this was associated with pagan worship. Happily, protests were in vain and by the 4th century both lamps and candles were very much a part of normal worship in the Church.
Much of the symbolism with which candles are invested is fairly obvious. For example, it is very easy to see that the flame of a candle can well signify the Holy Spirit in the form with which he descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Candles are also symbols of God's presence in the manner of the Burning Bush to Moses, or the Pillar of Flame to the Israelites. They also symbolize, especially those on the altar, our Lord as the Light of the World, like him, dying to give their light.
A rather less obvious but beautiful meaning attached to candles when used in worship is that wax symbolizes our Lord's body, born of the Virgin Mary, the wick his soul and the flame his divinity, thus setting forth the mystery of the Incarnation.
St Jerome says of candles that: "apart from honouring the relics of martyrs, it is the custom, through all the Churches of the East, that when the gospels are to be read, lights are kindled, though the sun is already shining, not, indeed, to dispel darkness, but to exhibit a token of joy . . . and that, under the figure of bodily light, that light may be set forth of which we read in the psalter ‘thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my paths'"
It was not until the 12th century that it began to become customary for candles to be placed upon the altar itself. It was only in the 13th century that it became important for a parish clerk, or an assistant minister, to hold up a lighted torch or candle at the elevation of the Host. It eventually grew to be accepted that there be six candles on the altar at high mass and seven when a bishop sings such a mass.
At the time of the Reformation there was a great turning away from medieval liturgical practice, for reasons both good and bad. Many Protestant churches did away with candles altogether, after the manner of the early Church's killjoys and wowsers. In the Church of England in the nineteenth century there was considerable litigation and dispute as to the legality of the use of lights or candles at the Eucharist, but since the Restoration under Charles II there is continuous evidence for their use, and some English cathedrals and greater churches possess altar candlesticks belonging to the seventeenth century. However, in many of the Anglican churches in the very protestant diocese of Sydney there are no candles to be seen anywhere even today.
The Paschal Candle
The great Paschal Candle originates very early in the history of the Church. Fully to appreciate all of its rich symbolism, which points towards the triumph of Resurrection over the darkness of death and sin, demands one's presence at the wonderful Easter Eve Vigil. That service begins with the lighting of the new fire outside the church, in the dark, then there is a procession into the dark church behind the great lit candle, whereupon everyone's own little candle is lit. This is one of the most richly symbolic and moving moments in the whole liturgical year.
Interestingly, in late English Medieval rites, monstrous Paschal candles were displayed. In Salisbury one thirty six feet long, in Westminster Abbey another weighing three hundredweight (740kilograms)!
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (34)
I thought last Sunday's services went with more of a zing than for a while. This, doubtless, is due in part because numbers at both services were up.
An exotic and eclectic mix
It was also because our guest preacher Rob Whalley, the Bishop's Chaplain, is such an amiable and engaging personality. What a great, big, lovable, teddy-bear of a well-read, ex-Californian hippy he is. He restores my faith in the Anglican Church. We can still produce and contain an exotic and eclectic mix of clerical talent.
His sermon contained just the right balance between story and message, and so was able to hold all of us who are not brain dead from beginning to end.
As if to underline that the exotic and eclectic still have a place in Anglican ministry, we also commissioned Grace Sharon and Jon Hanley as part-time members of our clerical team. Both of them are decidedly other than ordinary. As I trust we will all discover and delight in over the coming months.
Later last Sunday, over a meal at the Rectory with Jon, Netty his wife, Grace, Rob and Helen, we had one of the most stimulating and wide-ranging, sometimes intense, often humourous and yet very serious theological discussions I have had in a long time. Indeed, not since our table was host to members of our own dsiputatious family, most of whom are similarly theologically aware, fascinated and articulate. It was great fun, most illuminating, the sort of exploratory and open-minded dialogue that we all need to participate in from time to time.
There are other and less obvious factors at work that helped to give zing to last Sunday's services. Diana is managing rosters more creatively, closely and challengingly. Pastoral Care is beginning to be more comprehensively monitored and followed up. Phone calls here and there and now and then, sometimes bear unexpected fruit.
Nearly everyone who comes to church has now agreed to be photographed, so the names of newcomers or rare attenders can be fitted to faces and so more readily secured in the memory. Future baptism parents have name cards already tabled in the narthex awaiting their arrival, and so on. A multitude of little things will increasingly begin to pay their small dividends.
Not that one swallow will ever make a summer. We will still often be depressingly thin on the ground I am sure, but last Sunday was hopefully a first sign of better things to come.
Folk who don't come to church are missed in more than one way. Good numbers lift everyone's heart and do add a spark to our worship. So in its own small way, staying away affects for the worse everyone's worship.
Councillors and Council
We appear to have sufficient candidates nominated as Churchwarden and Parish Councillors, so I cease to call for more.
In all my years as a Rector I have never had a really troublesome Parish Council. Disagreements have been few and far between. Only once, in Wodonga, did a Churchwarden usher me outside to cool off just before a meeting started. It was because I was so angry she feared I might punch someone. She was wrong of course, I would merely have attempted to strip his skeleton bare of flesh verbally. The object of my wrath was an interfering observer, not an elected Councillor however. So doesn't really count.
In chairing Council meetings the most creative and useful of emollients is humour. It usually and very easily breaks tension, dissolves anger and deflates pretension. A part of humour's success in such situations lies in it being, as often as not, self-deprecatory. The best humour doesn't have to be cruel, rather it invites and encourages you to pick on yourself rather than on others. The best butt for a good joke is nearly always oneself.
The best of Archbishops
I am grieved to hear rumours of Archbishop Rowan Williams' possible retirement. I love the fellow. I read last week of a non-believer called Alex Renton who sends his six-year-old daughter Lulu to a Scottish church primary school. Her teachers asked her to write the following letter: To God: how did you get invented? Alex might well have told Lulu that, in his opinion, there was no God; or he could have pretended that he was a believer. He chose to do neither. Instead he emailed her letter to the Scottish Episcopal Church (no reply), the Presbyterians (ditto) and the Scottish Catholics (a nice but theologically complex answer). However, for good measure, he also sent it to "the head of theology of the Anglican Communion, based at Lambeth Palace". This was the response:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It's a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this:
Nobody invented me - but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from.
They discovered me when they were very, very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn't expected. Then they invented ideas about me - some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible.
From time to time I sent them some hints - specially in the life of Jesus - to help them get closer to what I'm really like.
But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!
And then he'd send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn't usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too. + Archbishop Rowan
I love a good dose of pessimism. Possibly because looking on the dark side makes more bright the light side. One of my very favourite columnists is a fellow called Anthony Daniels who usually, but not always, publishes as Theodore Dalrymple. The snippet that follows comes from an article written to demonstrate the decline of Britain from the accession of Queen Elizabeth II until now:
In 1952, when the Queen came to the throne, the most popular female singer in the country, indeed the second most popular woman in the realm after the Queen herself, was Kathleen Ferrier, whom the great conductor, Bruno Walter, called one of the two greatest influences on his whole musical life, the other being none other than Gustav Mahler. To listen to her performance, when she knew that she was dying, of ‘Der Abschied', from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, under Walter's baton in the year of the Queen's accession, has been rightly called unbearably moving.
Sixty years later, the most popular female singer was Amy Winehouse, the stupidly tattooed militant vulgarian of disgraceful conduct. Like the British people, of whom she was emblematic, she behaved abominably without being interesting. The first singer died prematurely of cancer; the second of gross overindulgence, in her own vomit. QED.
We received from daughter Rachel last week one of her inimitable postcards. Now resident in Oxford she has just taken up a job with the Oxford University Press, having completed three months at St George's College in Jerusalem. As a member of the congregation of St Mary Magdalene's Church in Oxford she went with their Rector and a group of parishioners on a pilgrimage to Walshingham a few weeks ago. (Walsingham is known as "England's Nazareth"). The card goes:
Had a great time at Walsingham - if OUP doesn't work out I'm thinking of a career as an anchoress. The pay isn't great but the promotions are amazing. England's Nazareth is vastly more beautiful than the original, which is heaving and full of construction and rubbish - just where Christ would show up, the cheeky tyke! Much love, Ray.
Aha, I imagine someone saying. What is an "anchoress"? Easy peasey answer, with a little help from Google.
An anchoress is the female version of an anchorite and the word comes from a Greek word meaning "to withdraw", or "to depart into the rural countryside". So an anchoress is a woman who, for religious reasons, withdraws from secular society so as to be able to lead a single-mindedly devoted prayer-oriented and ascetic life. Often, if a church with a priest and congregation is within access, this life can be also Eucharist- focussed.
The anchoritic life is one of the earliest forms of Christian monastic living, and it became particularly widespread during the early and high Middle Ages. There are examples of anchorite dwellings that still survive in England and Europe. They are usually a simple cell (known as an "anchorhold"), built against one of the walls of a local village church. In Germany and its neighbours, from at least the tenth century, it became the custom for the bishop to say the office of the dead as the anchorite or anchoress entered her cell. This signified the anchorite's death to the world and rebirth to a spiritual life of solitary communion with God and the angels. Sometimes, if the anchorite was walled up inside the cell, the bishop would put his seal upon the wall to stamp it with his authority. But some anchorites freely moved between their cell and the adjoining church.
Squinting at the altar
Hearing Mass and receiving Holy Communion was possible through a small, shuttered window in the common wall facing the sanctuary, this was called a "hagioscope" or "squint". There was also a small window facing the outside world, through which the inhabitant received food and other necessities and, in turn, could provide spiritual advice and counsel to visitors, as the anchorites began to gain a reputation for wisdom.
Anchorites were supposed to remain in their cell in all eventualities. Some were even burned in them because they refused to leave even when pirates or other attackers were looting and burning their towns.
Julian of Norwich
The most famous of English anchoresses is the medieval Julian of Norwich. She is regarded as one of the most important English mystics and is venerated in the Anglican and Lutheran churches. She has never been canonized, or officially beatified, by the Catholic Church, probably because so little is known of her life aside from her writings.
She was born in 1342 in Norwich, Norfolk, and was last known to be alive in 1416 when she was 73 years old. Her birth name is uncertain, but the name "Julian" comes from the Church of St Julian in Norwich, where she was an anchoress. In the 11th century, the city of Norwich in East Anglia was the largest in England after London.
At the age of 31, suffering from a severe illness and believing she was on her deathbed, Julian had a series of intense visions of Jesus Christ. They ended by the time she recovered from her illness on 13 May 1373.
She was at home during her near death experience, and gives no mention of her personal life up until that point, so some scholars have suggested that she was unmarried or possibly a widow who lost her husband and children in the plague epidemics of the time.
Julian wrote down a narration of the visions straight after receiving them, which is known as The Short Text. Twenty to thirty years later she wrote a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions, known as The Long Text.
These visions are the source of her major work, called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love This is believed to be the first book written in the English language by a woman. Julian became well known through-out England as a spiritual authority. Her writings have left a lasting impression on Christian spirituality.
All Saints' Church in King's Lynn, Norfolk, still has its original 12th century Anchorhold, intact. It remains very much in use during the daily worship of the church.
AND THE OTHER (35)
How dark are the mornings when I get up these days. There is a hint of Autumn in the air too. How lovely. Sweet change, sweet variety.
The climate on the island of St Helena was all but perfect. Therein lay its greatest imperfection. Too uniform, too little difference between summer and winter. We require change. Winter is welcome, no matter how bleak it is.
Dusting off dust
So too with the Church's year. It was good to welcome back Ash Wednesday and usher in Lent. Minor-keyed music, the austere Lent Prose, no flowers, no "alleluias", gloomy purple. Lovely, at least for a while.
Over eighty of us welcomed in forty days and forty nights of sweet Lenten misery properly at the altar. There we were invited up to the rail where the priest put ash, made from old palm crosses, upon our foreheads with the words:
Remember that you are dust
and that to dust you shall return.
That brief and dusty sentence originates in the book of Genesis. God's words to Adam and Eve after the Fall, are a sentence of death delivered to us all: Dust you are and to dust you shall return.
Why, I wonder, are we admonished to remember so melancholy a truth? Surely there is no need to go around worrying about our mortality, contemplating our end? Jesus tells us as much in St Matthew's Gospel
Take no thought for the morrow, he says,
for the morrow will take care of itself.
Why then, on Ash Wednesday, fly in the face of such sound advice, mark ourselves with ash and remind ourselves that we, like Shakespeare's
golden lads and girls, all must
as chimney sweepers come to dust?
We do so to focus and sharpen our resolve to turn ourselves round, to live better the Christian life.
To be doomed adds spice to life
To be told by a doctor in his surgery, or even by a judge when on trial in court, that we are doomed, are sentenced to death, that it looks as though we have but a few months to live, might well at first paralyse us. Later it encourages us to all sorts of action that otherwise we are unlikely ever to get round to.
All sorts of unfinished business, or business pushed on one side until later, is suddenly attended to. Important things to do with relationships, unimportant ones like tidying up one's wardrobe.
Suddenly the whole world is seen in a new light. The commonplace, familiar and ordinary becomes dear to us. The mere smile of a loved one is seen to be poignantly beautiful, to be cherished, not just taken for granted.
Everything truly important is brought suddenly into sharp focus. We begin to live life far more as it is meant to be lived, to see things as they really are. We notice and appreciate the beauty and marvel in so much of what exists so ordinarily around us.
One little life
To remember voluntarily on Ash Wednesday that we are but dust, to remember it reflectively and ruminatively, can be a very positive and worthwhile exercise. It helps put Lent into perspective, for we do have but one physical and earthly life. Why fritter it away with idle idiocy and stupid self-indulgence?
We have one little life, that is all, accelerating to its end all the time. One little life.
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live and is full of trouble. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower; He fleeth as it were a shadow and never continueth in one stay.....
One little life. Why fritter it away longing for tomorrow, wishing away today, in anticipation of tomorrow? Which is what most of us do, instead of cherishing today. We are always looking forward to the weekend, to the annual holiday, to a loved one's visit, to retirement, to the school holidays, or even to the end of the parson's little sermon.
One little life, and we spend all our time longing for great chunks of it to disappear.
Look thy last on all things lovely
Paradoxically then, to remember our mortality, to remember that we are but dust, to look forwards to our death, helps us to live properly in the present, stops us being anxious about tomorrow. For problems in the present all pale into insignificance in the light of our end. All that is boring, grey and dull in the present, takes colour upon itself in the light or our approaching demise.
To remember that we are but dust, to grasp hold of and really appreciate that truth throws everything into a clear and proper perspective. Tomorrow is dust.
Love and appreciate our children now then, all too soon they will be adults and have flown the nest. Relish our job, or our daily routine now, we won't be able to in the grave. Buy our wife or friend a bunch of flowers now, flowers on the coffin won't mean as much to her. Love God now, learn to say yes to him now, this Lent. Its too late once we have returned to dust.
One little life. Every moment is precious, a gift from God.
Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return.
Look thy last on all things lovely,
every hour .
AND THE OTHER (36)
Diana's sister Janet and friend Jan are with us for three weeks from England. On Monday, the day the "big wet" began, we visited a couple of local wineries, Mitchelton and Tahbilk.
Wineries like churches
Lovely places wineries, though there is a lot of mumbo jumbo and hogwash associated with them. They are not unlike religion, in this respect. Perhaps that is why I enjoy them.
Mitchelton, for example, has its absurd tower. It is lovely to take the lift up it, to give yourself a lift from it, of the splendid views it offers. This tower, as well as the pleasing "buttresses" that are a part of the steep-roofed main administrative and factory building, more than faintly echo church architecture. The reverential hush of the wine tasting sanctuary (decorated with works of art), the solemn and ceremonial bottle handling and opening, the extravagant, effusive gobbledegook of the priestess who offered us sips to savour and die for, the discreet and unadmitted obsession with your wallet, all shout, after their fashion: "Church", "religion"!
Tahbilk is similar, though it is a traditional "church" in contrast to Michelton a modern one. The tower, because traditional and less pretentious, is not at all absurd and like St Augustine's, the main public building is dark, mysterious, yeasty of smell, a little cobwebby and lovely. It also has catacombs, filled with barrels that ooze and bleed dark wine.
As Rector of the parish of Ararat I remember on a perfect day in early May, beneath the outstretched, benedictory branches of great gum trees, blessing the new wine at Best's Winery, which was in the parish. The vines were in splendid autumnal colour and a chorus of perceptive corellas were reverentially silent as our parish choir sang, and derisively cacophonous while I spoke.
Every single day of my life in Ararat I blessed Best's wine. Not because I was then or am now a boozy old wino with a strawberry red and pitted nose, a spidery network of broken veins all over my cheeks, trembling hands and a weak bladder. Rather because every day of the week I made my way to the altar, took a cruet of Best's fortified wine, poured it into a silver and gold chalice, and invited down God's blessing and presence upon it.
Best's Winery supplied Holy Trinity Church, Ararat with Communion Wine. They had done so for many years and, if I remember rightly, at no cost. Their wine was well used to being blessed, more than blessed, consecrated in order to fortify, comfort, inspire, strengthen and Christianise the faithful.
Draining the chalice
When I was an inexperienced young priest at the Cathedral in Harare, I often encountered derelict drunks sleeping and twitching in the cloisters. A surprisingly high proportion of them, if ever engaged in conversation, would say, "I used to be a choir boy in this cathedral...." This is the drunkard's prosaic version, I suspect, of the adult Wordsworth's, Traherne's and Vaughan's view of a golden and divine-glory permeated childhood....
Happy those early days! When I
Shined in my angel-infancy....
In Harare's Cathedral, folk with rather too great a taste for wine would sometimes find their way to the altar rail. I can remember the Dean instructing me on how to administer the chalice in an economical way: "Hold it up hard against the upper lip, Andrew, that stops the greedy buggers (excuse his term, he was a rough diamond of a Dean) sucking the chalice dry!"
It is not only poverty stricken drunks who pose this sort of problem. The first time that Lady Bagot, the wife of the Rev. Sidney Swann, MA, Vicar of Lindfield, received Holy Communion from her husband, she drained the wine to the dregs, said, "Perfectly delicious, my dear!" and handed it back.
Wine is dangerous, but then so is everything in life worthwhile, not least religion. But who wants too much safety? Who wants a life with no risks, no spice, no challenge? Remember the words of the pleasing old toper and wit Jeffrey Bernard which I so often quote: "skating on thin ice is a far better exercise than jogging....." It is far more fulfilling to sail close to the wind and risk swamping, than to reef your sails, merely to ride out the gale.
There is risk involved in drinking. There is risk involved in religion. Both can intoxicate, inebriate, turn you into an obsessed, un-pleasant, self-destructive and dangerous fanatic. Drunkards and religious fanatics are about equal in unpleasantness.
So it was that we went with Jesus to bless a local vineyard's wine. It was more than a promotional exercise, more than just a little bit of fun. We were asking God to smile upon something the community was rightly proud of, something that had been laboured over, worked hard for, and that had taken expertise, skill and ingenuity, in an attempt to make it the very best: Best's best.
Because we sincerely believed it to be good, we brought it before God for his approval and his blessing, thereby acknowledging that God's approval and blessing upon any endeavour, is essential for long term good, fulfilment, happiness and contentment. To bless something is to ask God to make our relationship with it right, good and healthy for both its own future good, and ours.
Best's Winery, certainly in those days retained the atmosphere, warmth and welcome that comes from remaining a family concern. Its proprietors and workers were not in the wine game merely and only for profit. They endeavoured to produce good wine as because to do so was deemed good in its own right. Profit is not the only driving force in any truly healthy enterprise. Delight and justifiable pride in producing something worthwhile and wonderful is necessary too. To bless the wine was acknowledgment and reinforcement of this truth and to reinforce such a truth is indeed to bless.
So it was good to bless the year's wine at a lovely vineyard and winery. Wine made for profit certainly, but also and more importantly for the sheer delight of creating from excellent grape juice, something beautiful, good, worthwhile and lovely to enhance, throughout Australia and the world, wonderful meals, celebrations, great occasions. As well as and above all else, to provide our Lord himself with the means he chose for realising himself among us in the Eucharist.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (37)
On Wednesday, as part of the Victorian Council of Churches "Emergency Ministries", Grace and I headed north, with two DHS personnel, to help in flood affected towns. The two DHS volunteers were there to assess the eligibility of folk wishing to access emergency-relief cash. We were there to listen, calm the agitated and comfort the disappointed.
We passed through several stretches of road well covered with flowing water. Only four- wheel drives were officially allowed to traverse these roads, though any vehicle, driven gently, would have been alright. At lunch time we moved on from the sleepy and already post-emergency Katamatite to Numurkah. There the emergency was still alive and well. The main street was flooded, and the successfully sandbagged church and rectory reduced to islands in a lake.
It was all interesting and worthwhile, not least because we were able to be of real help to several people and the spirit of the local communities is so heartening. Only among the disgruntled few did we regretfully note how the offer of cash-relief can all too easily turn widespread good neighborliness, esprit de corps and community solidarity into anger, jealousy and resentment. Instead of delighting in the good fortune of those who have acquired some sort of cash compensation, there are folk who resent the good fortune of others out of envy at their own lack of it.
Australia through the eyes of visitors
Visitors from England encourage us to get out and look at Australia with fresh eyes. Even when confined to home by bad weather.
Janet and Jan, Diana's sister and friend, planned to cross the Snowy Mountains to visit and explore the south east of New South Wales the weekend before last. They only got as far as Corryong. There they spent the night as the inclement weather which turned into the big wet arrived in real earnest. They were advised to return home and did so by devious routes that avoided impassable roads. Having enjoyed this encounter with Australian climatic extremities and to defy the weather's attempt to thwart their desire better to acquaint themselves with Australia, they hired three antipodean DVD's for us to watch, none of which, to my shame, I had ever seen.
Because Janet, though not Jan, moves on from here to New Zealand, the first of these was "The Piano". This mud-squelching, rain-sodden film conspired with the weather and the leaks in our roof instead of cocking a snook at them. Although a fine film, I cannot say I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's gloom and the inexorability and inevitability of the impending doom implicit in fraught relationships and which culminated in the appalling finger amputation, I found almost unbearable. A relatively happy ending didn't entirely dissipate the gloom for me. It got us talking though, and that is a good sign. So it was thought provoking, if nothing else.
Hanging out at Hanging Rock
The second film, on Sunday night, was "Picnic at Hanging Rock". This is a film I imagine pretty well every Australian knows, certainly my daughters had to study the book at school. Up until now I had deliberately avoided it, imagining it to be all about a real and particularly unpleasant tragedy to do with the disappearance of children. It was a relief to discover that it is entirely fictional and what is more, that those who disappear do so not entirely reluctantly. In the girls' trance like drift into disappearance there is a hint of the willingness of those who followed the Pied Piper of Hamlyn into the mountain. Thus the strange disappearances and even the subsequent suicide, do not completely overshadow what somehow manages to be a sunnily mysterious and intriguing film, with stunning cinematography.
The next day, being my day off, we decided ourselves to picnic at Hanging Rock. We duly filled a basket with good things to eat and drink and headed there by way of Heathcote and Lancefield. What a fascinating place! Unutterably unique. I have never seen rock quite like it anywhere in the world, not even in Zimbabwe. Great, higgledy-piggledy boulders, rough, fractured and strangely weathered columns and stacks abound, much more extensively than the film had led us to believe.
The rocky hill itself, I discover, is a volcanic extrusion known as a "mamelon". This is an intriguing word in its own right. It derives from the French word mamelon meaning "nipple". In dentistry it refers to a protrusion on a newly erupted tooth. In history it is a hillock fortified by the Russians and captured by the French during the Siege of Sebastopol. In geography it is a hill in Sikasso in Mali. In geology it is a hill formed by the eruption of stiffer than normal lava through a narrow vent in the bedrock. Because the lava is not fluid, it does not flow away, but instead congeals around the vent forming a small hill on the surface. Successive eruptions add more layers on top.
What is particularly striking about the rocks of the mamelon that is Hanging Rock is their weird weathering. There are large and small indentations, holes and caverns in solid rocks that have formed to all appearances inexplicably. It has something to do with weather. Harder encrustations are formed by reaction with rain and weathering, while softer and more soluble parts of the ancient lava are leached away, or are weakened and split off. The rock is very different from granite, much rougher and rather more bronze in colour. The original lava apparently has a particularly high soda content and so the action of rainwater results in an unusual rock known as soda trachyte, which is the same rock found at the nearby Camel's Hump on Mount Macedon.
We climbed to the summit after our picnic lunch and discovered it to be a great accumulation and tangle of this strangely fractured and weathered rock, hugely enjoyable to scramble over.
Rabbit Proof Fence
On our return on Monday night we watched "Rabbit Proof Fence". This I found most moving and compelling, though only too aware that it presented but one side of a very complex and many faceted story.
Most people nowadays pick up their knowledge and interpretation of history from films which are made by producers and directors with an axe to grind and who are not historians. When I was a lad, I picked up most of my history from the writers of boys adventure stories. These authors tended to be extremely pro-British Empire, and were not historians either.
The difference between history and fiction we now appreciate is so hopelessly blurred as to render the one hardly distinguishable from the other. Interpretation is all. This has huge ramifications for reading and understanding the bible. The question: "did it really happen?" is now seen to be largely irrelevant, and no longer of the essence. Rather we should ask, "where in this story or account lies Truth?" An altogether different question. Ho hum.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (38)
I ended last week's sermon with an epigram that I have know and loved for years. It is by an American poet called Edwin Markham. As a good epigram should, it crystallises wisdom into clarity with wit and brevity:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!
Epigraphs and epitaphs
Epitaphs tend to be epigrammatic. They need to be, for who wants to read a sermon on a tombstone? Brevity, wisdom and preferably wit are de rigeur. A favourite of mine is by Walter de la Mare. It cleverly encapsulates something very true about many marriage relationships:
Here lies my wife, Susannah Prout;
She was a shrew I don't misdoubt:
Yet all I have I'd give, could she
But for an hour come back to me.
Both Edwin Markham and Walter de la Mare are enjoyable poets to read, but are well out of the fashionable mainstream of poesy. This is because they disdained the fashionable "modernist" movement which came into its own with Ezra Pound and T S Eliot. Much as I love a good deal of Eliot's verse, I do regret that modernism brought with it such obscurity and erudition. This drove away general readers seeking enjoyment and pleasure from poetry rather than struggle, mystification and angst. A great pity because good poets, like de la Mare and Markham abound. If more people read and absorbed them their critical faculties would be sharpened and we might be spared some of the dreadful and sentimental tosh that is too often read at funerals.
Another favourite epigrammatic epitaph comes, I believe, from a Scottish tombstone and is by the resourceful and self-effacing "Anonymous". It has something wise as well as witty to say about our expectations of God's mercy:
Here lie I, Martin Elginbrod.
Hae mercy on my soul, Lord God;
As I would do, were I Lord God,
And ye were Martin Elginbrod.
One of the wisest of epigrammatic verses I know is entitled: "To Death". It is written by the splendidly named and attractive character Oliver St John Gogarty and challenges death thus:
But for your Terror
Where would be Valour?
What is Love for
But to stand in your way?
Taker and Giver,
For all your endeavour
You leave us with more
Than you touch with decay.
I have written a couple of epigrammatic pieces myself, satirical rather than wise. The one I am most proud is the nastiest. It is a stab at a priest who conveniently might or might not have been called Ramsey:
An impeccable parson called Ramsey
His bishop's pet little lambsey,
Not inclined in the least
To women as priest
Was himself, though,
More ewesey than ramsey.
Then there was one on a bishop who aroused my disdain:
He gathers round him men so dim
that even someone dull like him
appears a beacon almost bright
for shining from so dull a light.
To show that great poets as well as mere versifiers like me stoop occasionally to such satirical depths, here is an epigrammatic epitaph by Lord Byron on Viscount Castlereagh, whom he appears to have had a low opinion of:
Posterity will ne'er survey,
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
The great Samuel Taylor Coleridge can have the last word:
What is an Epigram? a dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
Katandra Hill and Mount Major
On Sunday, after the two services at St Augustine's, we headed off with our two English guests, Janet and Jan, to Katandra. There I chaired the Annual General Meeting.
Afterwards we made our way to the modest, but nonetheless rather lovely Katandra Hill. There we had a picnic on the green verge of Kull Road, overlooking the Strathbogies in the far distance. Perfect weather and very peaceful and beautiful.
We then made our way to Dookie, up past the old cemetery that is the loveliest in our parish, to call on Heather and Harry Nichols. Their little farm on the slopes of Mount Major is a gem. Because we live in flat, irrigable countryside, most farm homesteads and their supporting buildings and sheds lack natural, topographical interest or beauty. Although valiant attempts are often made to grace farm homesteads with trees and gardens, when all has been said and done they remain a rectangle of flat land fenced off from lots of other rectangles of flat land even more featureless than themselves.
This is regrettable for someone such as me who remembers farms and farmyards from an early childhood in rural Staffordshire as being unutterably fascinating, mysterious and beautiful (or is this just nostalgia's sheen?). Nestling between hills, or in dells, beside streams or adjacent to great and leafy woods, they had an ancient orchard alongside them, an interesting, richly muck-scented farmyard, and small and semi-domesticated adjacent meadows and paddocks. They tended to be mixed farms, always more interesting than those devoted to the production of a single crop or animal.
Heather and Harry's farm, on the slopes of Mount Major, took me back to those farms of my boyhood. Splendid scenery with lovely views and a fascinating shed full of interesting bits of machinery, open on two sides to provide a perfect picture frame for a lovely, entirely natural landscape painting. There's a well loved and tended garden, a little wooded dell behind the old homestead and Mount Major gently rising behind it all.
Janet and Jan sat in the front of Harry's ute, listening to his wry and informative commentary. Diana and I sat or stood in the back on a perfect afternoon as we four-wheel drove the whole property, hopping down to open gates. We eventually made our way to the very top of Mount Major. All of this was followed by reminiscence and chuckles over a delicious afternoon tea. We headed for home mightily refreshed from a lovely visit to lovely people.
I have discovered a less congenial job than house painting. On Monday we took a trip to Benalla to help out at Elizabeth and Nathan's. Their third child is but three weeks away from birth and so a helping hand seemed a good thing. Diana did some upholstering and Nathan offered me two alternatives, gardening or helping to strip paint off the old portion of their house, a chore that has been taking a long time and which is less than soul-satisfying. I chose the latter because it seemed the most important. In bright and hot sunlight I laboured with Nathan for most of the day. The two beers at the end of it all, plus a fine meal of roast pork, hugely satisfying though these were, paled into insignificance when compared to the sense of achievement on all but finishing the foul job.
Our two English guests have now left us. Diana took them down to Melbourne on Wednesday for a final fling before Jan headed back to England and her food technology job, and Janet to New Zealand for the second part of her holiday.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (39)
One of the features on the fine Christian website "The Ship of Fools" is "The Fruitcake Zone". It provides links to some of the madder manifestations of the Christian Faith, and sometimes as well of other Faiths and pseudo Faiths.
It is a site that illustrates all to clearly that those who dismiss Christianity as unutterable farce do have a point, if their perspective is limited to Christianity's wacky fringe.
Jesus and Pizzas
There is a link on offer to a site called The Jesuspizza project. It appears to take itself entirely seriously though it is hard to believe it can be anything except a spoof. The Ship of Fools introduces it as follows: The face of Jesus appears all over the place, from chapatis to condensation, bringing succour to the faithful and faith to suckers. But what if he materialised in someone's pizza and they never noticed? The Jesuspizza project exists to avert that disaster. It gives you software that downloads images from pizzacams around the world, and compares them digitally to the face of Christ. Join the search for a cheese feast with anchovies and our Lord now.
Jesus is Lord.com
Another link to Jesus-is-Lord.com is introduced as follows: Many thanks to the scores of you who emailed us about this site. It's everything fundamentalist fruitcake should be: shot through with hellfire, judgment, hatred of Catholics and nothing remotely like a sense of proportion. It even uses phrases such as, "know ye not?" What makes it special, though, is its abomination of all translations of the Bible since (or before) the King James Version. Our host Tracy presents a legion of delightfully silly arguments, which will leave you convinced that all non-English speakers and anyone born before 1611 are justly damned. A biography that turns King James from an anti-Puritan homosexual into an evangelical icon is particularly tasty.
Hypocrisy and paranoia as an art form
A final example among very many, and I have avoided drawing attention to the unutterably vile, is to the Society for the Practical Establishment of the Ten Commandments. It is introduced as follows: Ever long for the good Old Testament days of no mercy or forgiveness? Well, join Pastor Robert T. Lee's crusade to overthrow the "heathen American constitution" and instil a theocracy based on the literal interpretation of the Levitical code. Of particular interest are his views on the "heathen" atheists, the "heathen" homosexuals, the "heathen" Jews, the "heathen"... well, you get the idea. Raises hypocrisy and paranoia to an art form.
The impending departure of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury is a blow. He has long been an inspiration to many of us. In the New Statesman a few years ago he told of a formative experience in Liverpool that helped define his approach as a churchman and an archbishop. "When I first went to train in a parish in the 1970s, I went to one of the worst council estates in Liverpool for a bit as part of my student experience, and the vicar said to me something I've never forgotten: 'The people here have doors slammed in their face every day of the week. I want to make sure they don't have another one slammed on the seventh.' That's a very central vision for me and that's what I try to work with."
Although I love his writing, especially his wonderful published sermons, his greatest quality, to me, is personal sanctity and goodness. Wicked old dog though I sometimes seem to myself, I do love goodness. People like Rowan Williams manifest it so attractively I can even aspire to it.
It is goodness of the sort peculiar to Jesus of Nazareth, rather than that recognised more generally in our poor old world. Goodness summed up, pinned down, epitomised and crystallised by the Cross, by crucifixion. Goodness that is self-sacrificially loving, open to others, open to the ideas and points of view of others. Goodness characterised by walking the third and fourth mile as well as the second and manifested in turning the other cheek, forgiveness and loving the loveless and the enemy.
In my pilgrimage of faith there have been significant encounters with a sprinkling of such folk, both in my family and parish life. Those who have lived and realised authentic goodness of this sort, and by so doing have authenticated the sweet Gospel I love so much. Without them I might still be preaching the Gospel, but hollowly, without conviction, without passion.
When it comes to authors, three Christians have been hugely influential for their goodness as well as their wisdom. The first, C S Lewis, the second John Austin Baker, the third Rowan Williams.
Lewis's greatest influence came when I was a wondering, doubting, questioning student of literature at university, obsessed by girls but still haunted by God. He offered in his children's books and novels as well as in his apologetics for the faith a vision of Christianity's moral beauty that helped keep me enfolded. When I came to read several biographies of him they confirmed my view of the quality of his life. I loved him, and still do.
When at theological college I was in danger of being drowned in the amorphousness of so much theology, by the lack of precision, definition, concision and conviction is so much of what I read. Then I tackled John Austin Baker's classic "The Foolishness of God". It remains, to my mind, the most compelling and convincing account of the Christian Faith that there is. A book of great depth and insight that demands effort from a reader, it nonetheless eschews technical language and while radical offers ultimately a convinced and convincing exposition of the Christian faith, showing that at its heart there lies a simple but profound moral choice. In a final, reassuring postscript he turns to the first person singular to set out his personal compelling and lovely creed. When on long leave from Africa I listened to his sermons, hanging on to every word, when he was a Canon of Westminster Abbey and Rector of St Margaret's next door. A great scholar, he became Bishop of Salisbury, and was Chairman of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England. A lovely man.
Then there is Rowan Williams. His intellect is second to none. Dawkins, Hitchens, the whole impressive array of today's intellectual evangelical atheists cannot match him for acuity and subtly as a thinker.
However, it is not the quality of his arguments that causes his atheistic opponents to seem pygmies in comparison to him. Rather it is his moral qualities, his goodness and sanctity. Indeed arguing, debating and "sounding off" is not at all to his taste, as this extract from an interview in The New Statesman shows....
We began by discussing a principle that sets Williams apart from his predecessors: a refusal to condemn. I reminded him of an interview he gave early in his time at Canterbury (he was enthroned in 2003), in which he said he would not seek to condemn or attack - say - an unmarried couple living in a flat in Kilburn, north-west London. "What I'm deeply uncomfortable with, I think, is saying things that really don't change anything, that don't move things on," he says now. "So much of the language that we use about scapegoats - whether it's the couple in Kilburn or whatever - doesn't change anything. It makes people feel safer, but it doesn't make the vulnerable feel any safer. And I am very worried about the morality of simply sounding off.......
One friend suggests his refusal to "speak out" is a reflection of Jesus's own approach, especially when Christ refused to answer Pontius Pilate's questions at His trial, as described in Mark's Gospel. "I think that, again, one of the things the Gospel ought to do is make us question the way we put our questions," Williams says. "So that, right throughout the ministry of Jesus as well as at His trial, a hostile person sitting there could say, 'He never gives a straight answer to a straight question: "Do we pay tribute to Caesar?"' And Jesus pushes it back and says, 'What are we really talking about?' I think it's always important to ask before we make the snap answer: what are we really talking about?"
Thank God for all those who inspire us to live the Faith more beautifully and devoutly. May Rowan Williams prosper in academe, and wisdom continue to pour from his pen to inspire us.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (40)
I have a mind full of fragments. Most of them inconsequential, redundant, past their use-by date, bizarre, unutterably irrelevant to life today and downright daft. Odds and bobs of this that and the other: snatches of songs learned at school, some of them bawdy some not, lines of poems, punch lines from jokes, my mother’s favourite proverbs, my father’s bon mots and so on and so on.
Diana and myself are almost exact contemporaries and both English born. It shouldn’t surprise us, but often does, just how many of the fragments in her mind chime with or relate to those in mine.
There’s another little room to let
Whenever I return from the cemetery after a funeral, I find myself singing quietly a little song with the recurring refrain: “There’s another little room to let.” It is wholly appropriate to the circumstances and suitably if only faintly melancholic. It comes from a song that I have always presumed to have been sung by George Formby, but I cannot find it anywhere. My father used to sing it, and there is only one verse that I can remember. It goes:
A pal of mine went fishing once
In a boat that was too thin.
He struck a hole in the bottom of the boat
And the water it rushed in.
To stop the water rushing in
He did his best you bet.
He made another hole for to let it out.
There’s another little room to let.
If anyone knows the song and can provide me with more verses I will be extremely grateful. You Tube provides no help.
Taking to the road
On the Wednesday before Holy Week, on the way back from taking a Eucharist at Banksia, I fell heavily from my bike and thought I had broken my arm. I hadn’t. I also developed a heavy cold. Neither of these minor misfortunes deterred us from setting off two days later to visit my son Peter (newly moved to Tamworth) and then on to Brisbane to visit my brother and his family.
We drove by car all the way and not directly either. Diana is someone who believes that one’s journey is as much destination as is the journey’s goal, and so much has to be made of it. There is a good philosophical parallel to draw between this and life’s journey. Doubt-less there will be a sermon on the matter in months to come.
This meant that in three days on the road we travelled a fascinating total of 3351 kilometres. This is roughly the equivalent of a journey from London to Warsaw and back and significantly more than one from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back. The countryside everywhere was green and lovely, the weather perfect. It was good to be on the road.
My Grandfather’s Clock
My brother announced that he had found on You Tube a song much sung and enjoyed by my father. Up until now we have never been able to find it, but both of us remember a fair bit of it with delight and so my father must have sung it often. It is a parody of My Grandfather’s Clock and it seems that it was composed and sung by George Formby Senior.
He sings it in his curious, dead-pan but broad Lancashire accent and it was fascinating to discover that there were two talented George Formby’s not one. The song goes:
My Grandfather’s Clock
was a Waterbury Watch,
It could live 90 days without food.
With a silk ‘at on its ‘ead and my father’s MecUntosh,
It was dressed up like a Piccadilly Dude.
It was kept in the hall,
Till the cup-board got too small,
And we had no place the food, for to stock.
So the butter and the heggs,
And the little mutton legs:
We kept them in me Grandfather’s Clock.
And the works of the clock,
Through the butter meltin’ in it,
Sent the fingers flyin’ round,
At a ‘undred miles a minute,
And Grandad, with a sigh, said
“I haven’t time to die,
So I’ll put it off until the clock’s repaired.”
My Grandfather’s Clock was me Mother’s P’rambulator,
Round the park in it we used to ride.
There was me, and Treacle Tummy,
Liza Ant, and Justice ‘Awkins,
Screamin’ “Jimmy,” and the twins
all stuck inside..... (...and more)
A splendid parody, and a link with my father to cherish.
One of the delights of Easter Day is the removal of all the purple veils. This year there is a special bonus in that Ella Egan’s two magnificent embroidered panels have quietly been put in place, under veils. They complete her “triptych” of the Death, Ascension and Resurrection. They are now revealed in all their splendour. About which there will be more in future pewsheets.
As usual many thanks to the good folk who help make Holy Week and Easter so memorable an occasion for those who take the trouble to immerse themselves in our worship. Carole Henderson as Sacristan is a rock of reliability and initiative upon whom I rely enormously. The choir, servers, flower ladies, organists and my ministerial colleagues also contribute enormously, as too our Parish Secretary, readers and devoted attenders at worship. I love you all for the part you play in easing the Divine into our daily stories....
AND THE OTHER (41)
Elizabeth McGrath (nee Neaum) gave birth to a third daughter on Maundy Thursday the 5th of April 2012, with comparative ease and equanimity. The very fine maternity ward of Benalla hospital is only five minutes from their home.
She was born as the Foot Washing, the Commemoration of the Last Supper, the Procession to the Altar of Repose and the Stripping of the Altar Ceremonies were taking place in St Augustine's. This being so Elizabeth whiled away the contractions and the pushing of the little girl into the world by singing to herself the beautiful "pange lingua". This hymn is sung during the solemn procession to the Altar of Repose during this most lovely service. She was with us in spirit. The little one is to be named Henrietta Lily (Hettie), and weighed 8lbs and 2oz. She appears to be a delightful little creature and was welcomed by her two little sisters, as well as Mum and Dad.
A brief, understated, but lovely tribute to the father of Craige Raine: Norman Edward Raine was a boxer who twice fought for England. Craige his son grew up in a "bookless" prefab in Shildon, a town near Bishop Auckland. He won a scholarship to Barnard Castle School, which was then a direct grant school. Of his time there he has recalled that "it seemed that everyone else's parents seemed to be: accountants or surgeons or something. I couldn't say my father was an ex-boxer who did faith healing, had epileptic fits and lived off a pension. So for a while I said he was a football manager. But by the end I was inviting my friends home and they thought he was just as terrific as I did......
I looked up Craige Raine, who is a poet and critic, having read a very perceptive and clever article by him in The New Statesman.
Jon and Netty
Jon Hanley has decided to pull the plug on his role in the Parish as "Missioner". This is a great pity, not least because I found his company extremely congenial and stimulating. He and Netty are Christians of a unique and special sort, radical in the very best sense of the word. They are searching, really searching for the best way to live out their Christian Faith, and are constantly on the look out for authentic ways in which to do so. They are also searching for new ways of understanding the Faith and making sense of it. It was great fun to participate in their journey, even if for so short a time.
In offering them the opportunity and facilities to do some serious mission work in Shep-parton, we unwittingly, I think, could well have caused them to make a decision before they were fully ready to do so. I asked Jon to knock together a paragraph for me about his decision to quit:
It is with some sadness and regrets that I write to all of you today, to say that I will not be continuing my position at St Augustine's as parish missioner.
As I have gone about this unique position of parish missioner these last weeks, I have been able to fully realise the breadth of requirements that I believe this position requires to make a success of it, some of which I did not foresee before I took this position. It is my belief that I would not be able to fulfil a number of those requirements and based on that realisation I have decided to resign.
This decision has not been taken lightly, as I have appreciated this opportunity to explore what our Christian community might look like in the future, as we have also appreciated the love and support you have all shown Netty and I in the short time we have been coming here. Netty and I will still occasionally fellowship with you and will continue to explore Anglicanism in general. We look forward to those times when we can catch up and chew the fat together.
Thanks again, God go with you, Jon and Netty.
Holy Week and Easter
The Holy Week and Easter Services this year went particularly beautifully, I thought. To experience and participate in all these services is to be granted an intimation of what our Faith is all about and how splendid and coherent it all is.
It was amusing that at the foot-washing we had more than twelve disciples feet to wash and kiss, fourteen in fact. Normally folk have to be encouraged and cajoled into participating. This year was different, Jesus had two extra disciples without even having to call or enlist them. Just as it should be.
Thank you Joan
Every Tuesday morning, half way through the Eucharist, we hear the sound of doors opening and then talk and laughter from the Narthex. It is the "Collection Counters", who gather week in and week out, one of whom, for many years has been Joan Harder. Last Tuesday was her last count, because she is on the verge of moving to the Mercy Retirement Home with Frank, and needs to sort our their affairs and offload or store away most of their possessions.
Her cheerful presence, salty wit and outrageous comments have been a great boon to those with whom she counted. Many thanks to her for all her good work over so many years.
The proximity of the Harders, over the road from the Hall, and their ready welcome whenever any of us call will be a deprivation to us. We wish them well in their move and will of course be keeping in contact with them.
Tristan da Cunha diaries
In September we are booked on a trip to Tristan da Cunha. In preparation for this, both Diana and I have undertaken as a weekly task to type a section of my mother's diaries written on the island. They are fascinating, not least for being so inconsequential. All to do with personal politics and local feuds, the trials and tribulations of making bread with inferior flour and problems with rats.
It is interesting to have Diana's perspective on them because, although written so long ago, (1952-1955) I cannot regard them with her detachment. I would like eventually to edit them and put them online. They offer a unique slant on a fascinating place. When we visit the island for a couple of weeks in September (it takes five or six days to travel the one thousand seven hundred and forty miles from Cape Town), it will be interesting to draw parallels, make links and compare the island, its inhabitants, flora and fauna now to what I can remember and what the diaries record from over fifty years ago.
I tremble to think what my children will make of my own diaries before they burn them in embarrassment, forty or fifty years hence. Hiding among all the observations of the common place and ordinary there are also snippets of interesting and gossipy matter.
Possibly the most dangerous aspect of diaries is that they are almost certain to reveal something of who the diarist really is. Obsessive about trivia perhaps, self-regarding almost certainly, insecure maybe, or even downright stupid. Oh dear, perhaps I had better burn them myself.
Would anyone, even one's most devoted child, ever have the stamina to bother reading them I wonder? I have fairly comprehensive diaries from my St Helena sojourn. They are likely to be as interesting as my mother's in time, just because of the circumscribed and fascinating circumstances of their composition. As for the rest, I doubt it. Their main use will be as an aide memoire to me when in my dotage forgetfulness begins to overwhelm me.
Pell and Dawkins
I watched Q&A for the first time last month. Probably the last time.
It bills itself as “Democracy in Action”. That is probably right because, as in our legislative assembly, there was little evidence of the protagonists listening to or engaging with each other. It was confrontation not dialogue, point scoring not listening, the defence of entrenched positions rather than a desire to press forward to new ones. It was entertainment not edification.
Lacking in subtlety
Argument is largely sterile and futile if it is indulged in to win rather than as a collaborative journey towards truth. Q & A is essentially a timid, twenty first century version of gladiatorial combat. The studio audience appeared partizan, as too did almost everyone who tweeted, twittered or phoned in.
The two protagonists were Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell. Professor Dawkins claimed to be jet-lagged and was certainly tetchy and far from dazzling. Cardinal Pell made a few good points early on, but then became embarrassing for want of any subtlety or nuance to his theology. There are far defter and more nimble theological minds in the Australian Church than his.
As for the Show’s host, Tony Jones, he suffers, as does Margaret Throsby sometimes in her interviews, from a propensity to be a participator rather than a facilitator. I certainly did not endure the show to hear him.
What a face
The best thing about Cardinal Pell was his amazing countenance. What a face! It suggests, quite erroneously I am sure, a dissipated, pugilistic, brawling past, rather than one spent gliding around church sanctuaries as an altar boy. So rugged and bashed-in a visage made a pleasing contrast to the smooth, well- groomed media luvvies that are Jones and Dawkins.
It was good to hear Pell allow atheists into heaven and evolution to be possibly fair dinkum. Conservative evangelicals are so vociferous in propounding the opposite that many folk do not realise that Pell’s view is more or less mainline Roman Catholic teaching nowadays and so a legitimate position for the majority of the world’s Christians.
That seventy six per cent of the audience decided religion did not make the world a better place tells us more about the composition of the audience than about the truth or otherwise of the statement. The chattering classes hate Christianity and have for many years now. We uphold radical love and selflessness as ultimate goods. That is enough to invite crucifixion, for it challenges and calls into question privileged life styles. We are hated too, and more justifiably for the sins and failings of the far too many of us who are (or have been) abusive, hypocritical, unforgiving, finger-pointing, fanatical and life-denying.
To answer and match Dawkins’ fervent and sincere evangelical atheism, there needs to be a different and less combative format and a more subtle and open-minded Christian counterpart. My choice for the latter would be Andrew McGowan, Master of Trinity College.
AND THE OTHER (42)
As I write settled, lovely autumn days are upon us. Cool evenings and sunny days that reach no more than twenty five or twenty six degrees are as perfect as it gets, especially if humidity is low. On the Island of St Helena, at seventeen hundred feet above sea level, the temperature never ever exceeded twenty five degrees on the hottest day, nor fell below fourteen on the coolest night. Humidity being the crucial determinant of tolerability however, it did sometimes appear to be hot.
The Currawongs are back, clumsily terrorising trees and smaller birds and lifting my heart with their musicality. I begin to look forward to open fires at night and to crumpets toasted thereon dripping with butter.
Through a screen darkly
I cannot say that I am a devotee of Power Point presentations and liturgy on a screen. The focus in a liturgical and beautiful church like ours should be the altar, not a screen, but screens are fast becoming the most important window into the world and "reality" for many of us. A "reality" which, for the most part, is manufactured and manipulated by Mammon and Profit, rather than the Divine and the Good. However, so complicated are modern books of "common" prayer, so difficult are they to navigate, that for services attended by those unfamiliar with the liturgy, a screen does appear to be the most satisfactory way forward.
At the 10.30 Eucharists we have been using a projector and screen for well over a year now, and it works. Last Sunday the church was filled with the friends and relatives of four little ones being baptized. It was a happily chaotic and relaxed service, but also purposeful and ordered in true Anglican fashion. That the babies were not quite perfectly at peace with the proceedings added spice to the fun. To be able to dispense with both prayer books and hymn books meant being able to dispense with elaborate and complicated directions as well. Anyone at all inclined to participate in the worship had no difficulty in doing so. Unless, of course they suffered from myopia and stupidly sat at the back. The screen is now an indispensable part of our effort to turn the 10.30 Eucharist into a "family" service.
We are planning very soon to mount the projector permanently on a rafter and as well to enlarge slightly and raise the screen. Our very able and accomplished technician and adviser found it hard to understand why we insist on the screen being retractable. So ubiquitous and necessary have screens become they are considered to be a suitable and indeed beautiful focus for any room. Certainly they dominate most lounges I visit these days. Even in a beautiful church like St Augustine's our technical adviser tried to convince us that a permanently displayed, always open, "beautiful" screen would enhance the building. The screen, he thought would be a friendly rival or complement to the altar. Not so! The screen will remain retractable.
It will be good to farewell the cumbersome, trolleyed projector, with its cords snaking and slithering dangerously on the floor. The operators will now be able to do their necessary work in a more discreetly Anglican fashion.
The eight thirty Eucharist will remain screenless. Those unfamiliar with the liturgy will have to negotiate and navigate the Prayer Book. Ideally, however, the liturgy becomes so familiar to us that we do not need to refer to a book at all. We close our eyes, or focus them upon the altar, allowing what is comfortably familiar to enable and allow the Divine to infuse our hearts, minds and wills. Beautiful.
A busy Sunday
For me last Sunday began on Saturday evening with the quiet Vigil Eucharist at 6.00pm in the glittering Lady Chapel. Then at 10.30pm the Easter Ceremonies for our Macedonian Orthodox brothers and sisters began. As with our own, Easter Eve Ceremonies, the previous Saturday, we began outside with the lighting of the new fire, and the procession into the dark tomb-like building, where everyone's candle was lit, to redeem the darkness with gentle, risen light and life. The service ended just after midnight with the blessing and distribution of blessed bread and then the merry cracking and eating of coloured, hard-boiled eggs. I am grateful to John Griffin, Joe Fernandes and Deacon Grace for their support in this lovely act of worship, as well as to Carole who so thoroughly and thoughtfully prepared everything for us. The next morning we zoomed off to the Eucharist at Dookie for 8.45am, after which we squeezed in a brief AGM before heading back to take the happy, well ordered and yet slightly chaotic Baptism.
Much of the rest of the day was taken up by interviews before it all came to a satisfactory, self-satisfied conclusion with Evening Prayer and a delicious little roast leg of lamb.
Holy emanations sing
I remember once praising something someone had said or written and being told, "Come off it Andrew, you are simply praising it because you agree with it. You are patting yourself on the back." Too true.
Little wonder then that I loved the following snippet that I came across last week in an article about the artist and poet David Jones: "His was a sacramental vision of celebration and praise, based on an understanding that transient natural beauty was but a reflection of eternal things. As Auden wrote of William Blake, he:
‘heard inside each mortal thing
Its holy emanation sing'.
In his art, David Jones proceeded from the known to the unknown, rediscovering the sacred in the ordinary."
I love that because it crystallises perfectly my own understanding of religious experience, my own understanding of how we apprehend the Divine and my own understanding of Art.
God is to be seen, if at all, in the ordinary. It is a matter of perspective. All art, at its best, certainly for the likes of me, is an attempt (as William Blake puts it at the beginning of his "Auguries of Innocence"):
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
I also love the Auden couplet in the quotation above simply because I love rhyming couplets. They can so satisfyingly, concisely and perfectly crystallise and encapsulate a truth. The supreme master of the couplet is Alexander Pope:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.
'Tis education forms the common mind,
Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.
Such neat couplets can be dangerous when used, as they were by Pope, for satire. They enable insults to be expressed so neatly and pointedly that a victim finds them unbearable.
In his huge, satirical masterpiece the Dunciad Pope pillories a host of "hacks", "scribblers" and "dunces" so effectively that the work has been called the greatest folly in Pope's life. It brought such hostility from those satirized and their sympathizers that they pursued him relentlessly ever afterwards, "with a few damaging truths and a host of slanders and lies...". According to his sister, Pope would never go for a walk without the company of his Great Dane, "Bounce", and a pair of loaded pistols in his pocket.
Many years ago now, in a far less polished and very much more inept way, I did something similar to Pope. When editor of the Ballarat Diocesan Chronicle I was not infrequently so outrageous, outspoken and satirical that I made mortal enemies. Some of my pusillanimous clerical colleagues binned ever copy of the paper they received, refusing to pollute the minds of their parishioners by distributing it! It was great fun and well worth it, but it certainly did not endear me to the less robust of the bishops of that time. Even now mention of my name can sometimes raise an eyebrow.
Pell and Dawkins
On reading my musings upon Pell versus Dawkins in last week's pewsheet, an atheist friend admonished me to come down from my ivory tower, informing me in an email: "Q & A does not purport to be a debating forum for senior students in the Theological College. It is a current affairs programme for folk who would otherwise be watching "Sex and the City" or "The Footy Show" or something similarly inane......" I remain, however, dubious about the value of "Q&A.
To me the most telling incident in this particular debate was when Jones took Pell to task for a comment he made about the Jews. Although Pell had made his point stupidly and badly, anyone listening knew what he meant. He had suggested that (at the time of Moses or thereabouts) the Jews were "inferior" to the Egyptians. It was plainly a historical comment not a racist one, for at the time in question the Egyptians were a hugely sophisticated and civilized people, whereas the Jews were most emphatically not. For Jones deliberately to focus not on what Pell obviously meant, but upon what he literally and somewhat stupidly said, indicates that "Truth" clearly is not what Q&A is about. It is argument as entertainment, as contest, as a decider of winners and losers. As such it is futile.
There is a technical word for it: eristic (from the ancient Greek word eris meaning quarrel or strife) "Eristic argument" refers to a manner of arguing that I sometimes engage in with my brother. It has no goal except to win, it is argument for the sake of conflict as opposed to the seeking of conflict resolution. Not really my scene, but then I have never been much of a sportsman.
Frank and Joan
On Tuesday I called in to see the Harders at their new residence in the Mercy Nursing Home. It was the day after their move.
Joan appeared already happily settled, reading in the lovely, daylight-bright and spacious multi-purpose area. Frank was eating a meal in his room. He looked a little weary, but relieved to be settled, if not to have left his beloved home.
The new wing at Mercy is very lovely, I was impressed. To have to move and leave so much behind in your old age is to opt perforce for a simplicity of life, freed from possessions, that is akin to monasticism. Wholly appropriate for the last stage of one's Christian pilgrimage. Joan sends her love and best wishes to us all.
AND THE OTHER (43)
I begin this week's column early on Monday morning and hope to have it all but finished by breakfast. It promises to be a busy week. There are already two funerals to arrange and perform and one day has to be spent in Wangaratta about diocesan business. Wednesday, of course, is Anzac Day. Unless an enjoyable task such as the writing of this "diary" column is accomplished early on, it will metamorphose into a worrying, tiresome burden later on in such a week.
Last Sunday we had the junior confirmation candidates and their families in for lunch. It proved to be a very happy occasion for us, and we trust for them. There were nineteen of us in all, and every youngster was assigned a task by Diana before the meal, to be made to feel a part of the successful outcome They rose to the challenge brilliantly and with joy.
The main course consisted of two huge "moussagnes". This is a term we use for a cross between a moussaka and a lasagne. Our garden has been very productive of aubergines (egg plants) this season, and we have discovered that the best way really to enjoy them is as part of this dish. The dish freezes easily and cooks up beautifully, so long as the cheese sauce on top of the frozen dish is uncooked. The recipe can be had for the asking, though each dish is a variant of its original in being dependent upon the garden's current fecundity.
There remain some intensely firm, beautiful, deep purple, penduline aubergines in our garden as I write. So one of my tasks, on this my day off, is to turn them into moussagnes.
You are unlikely to come across the word "penduline" except in ornithological books and the columns of Andrew Neaum. A fanatic bird-watcher as a school boy in Africa, I became aware of a family of little birds that made an elaborate bag nest, hanging from trees, usually over water. Hence the word "penduline" from pendulous. What is truly remarkable to anyone (like me) with a less than respectable sense of humour is that the birds are a species of tit and that there is a family termed "penduline tits". No need for further comment!
The offensive banana
It is disturbing to see those you love through the eyes of those who don't love them. This is a point made, somewhat obliquely, by an old joke that I once used in a Mothering Sunday sermon, and which offended at least one of my congregation:
A mother was sitting in a train with her little boy, when a man got into the same carriage and sat opposite them. He kept looking at the little boy, couldn't take his eyes off him, and not in a very nice way, either. Eventually he said to the mother. "Excuse me, Madam, I don't suppose I should say this, but I can't help myself, Your little boy is astonishingly ugly. He is the ugliest little boy I have ever, ever seen." The boy's mother, as you would expect, was very, very upset to be told this. She burst into tears, grabbed the little boy's hand, dragged him out into the train's corridor, and stood there crying her eyes out. Eventually the ticket-collector walked up and seeing her crying, asked her what the matter was. "It is that man in there" she said. "He has just said a truly terrible thing. He has insulted me awfully." The ticket collector was most understanding. "You sometimes get men like that on trains" he said. "It's best to ignore them, come into this empty compartment and I'll bring you a cup of tea, and also a banana for your pet baboon."
The mother of the boy loved him and so saw him differently from those who did not love him. Who then saw him most accurately for who he really was?
The hermenuetics of love
We might imagine that to see something or someone for what or who they really are requires objectivity and detachment. I disagree. To see reality and humanity penetratingly requires not detachment, but love. The mother of the boy in the story saw him far, far more closely for who he really was, than either the fellow passenger or the conductor.
Some years ago I read a book by a wonderful writer called Alan Jacobs. It is called: A Theology Of Reading: The Hermeneutics Of Love. A very learned but fascinating book, it explores what it means to read lovingly. He demonstrates how difficult it is to do this, but also makes a good case for it being the most satisfying, penetrating and liberating way of reading by far. Love is not blind, it is profoundly clear sighted.
In those halcyon days in the life of our Church when we argued and fought over new liturgies, rather than gender, women and homosexuality, I used to argue, I think rightly, that only those who loved the old liturgy should be considered qualified to revise and change it. Creative change as opposed to destructive change, needs to be loving. Evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change requires affection and reverence not hatred and contempt.
Critics of the Church, be they atheists, agnostics or disillusioned believers, unless they are in some sense loving, cannot really see the faith for what it truly is. The "New Atheists" hold in unutterable contempt what we love beyond telling. They cannot see what we are on about. They cannot see, full stop. Why is this so? Because they do not love. Their views are those of the Train Conductor for whom a loved and lovable little son and human being was essentially a baboon. To be love-deficient is to be love-blind.
Laughing at the Faith
One of the defining characteristics of a healthy faith is an ability to laugh at it and to take criticism of it in one's stride. Difficult to do if you dearly love your faith and God, but still necessary.
When people insult or ridicule those we love, the natural reaction is to take offense and retaliate. This is why one of the oldest provocations to engage in a fight singles out a man's mother: "You son of a bitch". Few of us do not love and respect our mother. Many of us would defend her honour at all cost.
A mature and confident love can cope with ridicule and insult. This is because there is little or no insecurity in such love and so no propensity to feel threatened or disturbed. The hurler of insults is either blind from want of love, or is being offensive for other and usually unworthy reasons. Such folk cannot be expected to see beauty and truth for what they are. Their disdain is hardly worth reacting to.
Over the Easter weekend a Zanetti cartoon in the local rag offended some Christians. It depicted the egregious Craig Thompson sitting on a likeness of Jesus' Cross, sticking his tongue out and blowing raspberries at two Roman centurions, one of whom is saying: "No matter how hard we try, we just can't seem to nail him!" Quite witty really, and certainly not deliberately insulting. It is merely blind, for a want of empathetic love, to just how dear to us is the Crucifixion of Jesus.
According to Peter Coleman, writing in the Spectator, a Fairfax cartoonist on Easter Sunday took advantage of the Resurrection's topicality by depicting Jesus as a clown in a nursery rhyme. Namely - a grinning Humpty Dumpty who on the third day was put together again.
Unlike Zanetti's effort this is a deliberate insult. Christians are being portrayed as believers in nursery rhymes. Who cares though? It is just another example of the ignorance caused by a want-of-love blindness. Such ignorance is widespread these days and is easy enough to laugh off. Coleman does go on to make a telling point though: "May we now expect our fearless cartoonists to depict on appropriate days, Islam or Judaism or other faiths as childish fables? Surely these free spirits are not so servile that they only take on easy targets....."
By the shores of Gitche Gumee
My mother was a woman of strong prejudices. One of them being an antipathy to the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and particularly to his poem "Hiawatha". Her scorn of the sentimental balderdash that is Hiawatha, appears to me justified, but I came across a little poem by Longfellow last week that moved me. It is sentimental without doubt, but as I have been having a lot to do with three lovely little granddaughters lately it greatly touched me:
Come to me, O ye children!
For I hear you at your play,
And the questions that perplexed me
Have vanished quite away.
Ye open the eastern windows,
That look towards the sun,
Where thoughts are singing swallows
And the brooks of morning run.
In your hearts are the birds and the sunshine,
In your thoughts the brooklet's flow,
But in mine is the wind of Autumn
And the first fall of the snow.
Ah! what would the world be to us
If the children were no more?
We should dread the desert behind us
Worse than the dark before.
What the leaves are to the forest,
With light and air for food,
Ere their sweet and tender juices
Have been hardened into wood, --
That to the world are children;
Through them it feels the glow
Of a brighter and sunnier climate
Than reaches the trunks below.
Come to me, O ye children!
And whisper in my ear
What the birds and the winds are singing
In your sunny atmosphere.
For what are all our contrivings,
And the wisdom of our books,
When compared with your caresses,
And the gladness of your looks?
Ye are better than all the ballads
That ever were sung or said;
For ye are living poems,
And all the rest are dead.
Slipper's slip-up and slap-down
The Slipper affair, is exceedingly unedifying. It is also, I have to admit, engrossing. High principle among politicians appears to be as hard to find as it is among journalists. The present moves by our politicians to muzzle the press is a case of pots calling kettles. There is the reek and stench of dissolution and decay hanging over Canberra.
Don't for a moment imagine that Mr Slipper is an Anglican Priest. He is a "priest" in the "Traditional Anglican Communion". This is a small and dubious group of ultra conservative, largely onetime Anglicans who broke away from the Anglican Church proper in 1991. They took issue with us over our acceptance of women priests, new liturgies and (how deliciously ironic) growing tolerance of homosexual practice! They are far too narrow for so broad a Church as ours.
"The reason there are so few female politicians is that it is too much trouble to put makeup on two faces," said Maureen Murphy.
AND THE OTHER (43)
We lit the first open fire of the season in the Rectory on Monday evening. A great delight.
The kindling we use on the first fires of the season is always augmented by carefully cut and stored pieces of the year before's Christmas tree. The resinous scent of burning pine needles and twigs inebriates with pleasure. A primitive, prehistoric, aeons-old joy settles upon us as we sit beside and contemplate an open fire. There's no need for them in our centrally heated houses, they are messy, dangerous, ash-dust-inducing, environmentally irresponsible and yet as completely necessary and wholly appropriate to a fully lived life, as is Faith and God! To venture outside on a frosty night for another log or two and sniff the wood smoke wreathing the garden, shivers my timbers with such a frisson of delight and joy as to deliver an all but knockout blow to any incipient atheism. The foolishness of open fires is of the same order of things as St Paul's wise "Foolishness of God".
Monday was notable for more than the season's first fire. It was almost entirely a day off and away from parish affairs. Even this column had to wait until Tuesday for once. On stress-free early mornings, at the beginning of what appears to be a less than daunting week, instead of getting down to work after only a very rapid skim of the news and weather, I succumb to linger longer over the news. I view it from a variety of angles: the ABC, BBC, Australian, Age and Guardian and then move on to look at some of my favourite online periodicals. Later when Diana joins me in my study, we laugh about and discuss the day past, and we plan the day ahead, listing absolutely essential tasks, possibly necessary tasks, hardly necessary but desirable tasks and entirely frivolous but altogether enjoyable tasks. We then we prioritize them.
A good day off
On Monday my first task after breakfast was to fix a drawer from a shoddy chest of drawers that has been falling apart for months. This eventually necessitated our first visit to the new W. B. Hunters. Most fascinating to me there was that all items in the store have their price electronically displayed at the shelf. It seems that changes in price can be made at the tap of a keyboard and in an instant, for better or worse. I suppose that in a less scrupulous shop than W.B. Hunters, if it was observed on closed circuit surveillance cameras that a really wealthy shopper was approaching an item at a cut price, the managers might, in an instant, double or treble the price, on the assumption that people of real wealth do not usually demean themselves to question outlandish prices! Doubtless this technology has been around for a while, but it is the first time I have noticed it.
We also bought some silicon, because on Saturday I had spent time on the Rectory roof trying to identify a leak. I discovered several smallish cracks in the roof's coping in need of some attention I then cleared the roof's valleys of tree debris, a bit daft with the leaves beginning to fall heavily. They will need doing again in a few weeks.
After this we together descended to less enjoyable but necessary house cleaning tasks for a while. Diana, at twice my speed and with thrice my diligence.
Compost, manure and other good tucker
More soul satisfying was to turn our attention to the garden. There we finished composting mulching and manuring our vegetable beds, bedded broccoli and chard and before planting a good row of snow peas erected a trellis to support them. It got dark before we could plant some rows of turnips, a vegetable I love when mashed with butter and pepper.
For dinner a delicious lamb chop, grilled with leeks (from the garden) in cheese sauce, parsnips (from the garden), carrots (from the garden), potatoes (from the garden) and mint sauce (mint from the garden). Only onion and tomatoes were from the greengrocer. We do still have some tomatoes in the garden, but only little ones, not suitable for grilling and spiking with slivers of garlic.
Tristan da Cunha
We are continuing to type out my mother's diaries from her stay on the Island of Tristan da Cunha sixty years ago. It is a slow task.
Diana has a connection with Princess Anne who is the Patron of the St Helena Diocesan Association, of which Diana has been an active member for a good number of years. The volume of my mother's diaries that she is typing records the island's celebrations of the Queen's Coronation. Diana is sure that this little account of celebrations on the loneliest of all the far flung fragments of the British Empire is likely to be appreciated by the Royal Family in this 60th anniversary year. She intends sending a copy to them.
I am tackling the volume before that one. It records our leaving England in October 1952 on the Athlone Castle, our stay for two weeks in Cape Town and our horrendous voyage to the island on the Royal Navy Frigate, H.M.S. Actaeon. During our time in Cape Town the following little incident, noted by my mother in this particular volume, nearly deprived you of your present Rector:
Mr Rowan (late manager of the Tristan Canning Co) called and took us to his house above Hout Bay. It is situated on a mountain slope in a lovely setting. Mrs Rowan is a keen ornithologist and biologist and their place is a sanctuary for wild life. Flowering shrubs grow in profusion. Just inside the drive there are lanky cranes and we also saw a peahen. There is a little stream, brown and sparkling among stones and boulders. The children bathed in it with Andrew Rowan an attractive little boy of 6. The sun was terrifically hot and we grown ups went into the cool stone living room for an orange drink (soft).
Later the children came to play near the house. Suddenly Andrew Rowan rushed in and before we could speak his mother dashed into the garden. We followed and I was just in time to see our Andrew dripping wet and looking ghastly. He had fallen into the swimming pool at the deep end which was over 6ft. He had nearly drowned and Mrs Rowan was just going to apply artificial respiration when he was sick and got his breath back. He was an amazing little fellow. He never panicked. Just tried to swim rather unsuccessfully. Susan and Peter didn't realise the danger and were laughing at the bubbles he made as he went down. Mrs Rowan managed to catch hold of him without jumping in herself. Thank God he was saved. He told us afterwards he thought he'd never see us again.
We dressed him in Andrew Rowan's clothes and it was a horrible sight to see his sun hat floating in the middle of the pool. It was so nearly a tragedy we never even realised it till afterwards.
I have been contacted by the Diocese of Cape Town and asked if I will be willing to minister on the island during our three week stint there in September. Needless to say I have agreed to do so. It will be good to celebrate Mass on the very same altar as my father did for three and a half years so long ago. While we were there he made some altar rails out of imported oak and I helped him with the sand papering. Are they still in place I wonder.
Although very different from my father as a parish priest I have in important ways modelled myself on him. Insofar as he was a successful priest, and he was, it had a lot to do with his view of himself as being one of his parishioners, rather than some exotic and holy import, to be deferred and genuflected to. He always tithed his income, and so was able to gave as much to his parishes as the best of his parishioners. He would never ask anyone to do what he was not prepared to do himself and often did end up doing it himself. He loved woodwork, plumbing, gardening, farming. He never ever claimed to be morally better than anyone else, or to be a saint, and wasn't. He was always prepared and only too willing to take up the cudgels against the diocese on behalf of his parish where necessary. He was a parishioner of parishioners as well as a priest of priests. Like all parishioners, of course, he had many failings. Like all priests, likewise, he had his flaws!
Breakfast and monasticism
If you come to the 8.00am Eucharist on Thursday or Friday you will be invited to attend breakfast with us in the Narthex. We have been doing this for a couple of months now and it is lovely to share toast, ginger marmalade, honey, jam, good will, real coffee and charitable gossip with fellow Christians. So far there has been but one morning only with no one except Diana, myself and Fr John Price present.
My two oldest friends, one from school days, one from university days and both of them priests have now retired. They have lived happily for many years in England and their joys, trials and tribulations in retirement begin to give me pause for thought and reflection.
Insofar as we are authors of our own story, it is necessary to begin to anticipate, and adumbrate in our story's present, any future plot developments that are either likely or inevitable. Retirement is one such. In a recent column I compared moving from a spacious and possession-cluttered house into a nursing home room to a form of enforced monasticism. The metaphor applies specifically to the letting go of possessions.
The thought of giving away nearly everything we own, to simplify, unclutter and dispossess ourselves, can either be resented, resisted and allowed to destroy contentment, or it can be embraced as a form of liberation and as an opportunity to allow grace and God to flower within us in new ways.
The Patronal Festival and Pastoral Care
Everyone should have received an invitation to our Patronal Festival, or will soon do so. These days we attempt to economise on postage and so a great deal of work has been put into arranging the roll into geographical "areas" to enable all of us to deliver invitations and parish magazines or notices by hand. This is important for more reasons than merely saving money. It helps us to get to know our church-family neighbours and so, if necessary and at all inclined, enable us either to befriend them or keep a caring eye on them. It is all part of our Pastoral Care.
The Patronal Festival Eucharist and Dinner is also to do with church-family. Everyone should determine to participate. It is a sort of family birthday celebration. Dookie folk forego their service to join us, and Katandra folk will hopefully be present as well. Please return your invitation slips to the Office in good time.
It is always a joy to go to Murchison and Rushworth. They are both lovely churches. I did a funeral at St Paul's Rushworth the week before last and was again struck by how the loveliness of the Church is so enhanced by its splendid setting. Last Sunday I took their combined Eucharist at Christchurch Murchison, a pleasing, happy service followed up by a splendid Parish meal near Toolamba. Yet another great, necessary and joyful celebration of family-of-God-belonging.
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER (44)
Last Sunday Diana noticed a rare mathematical conjunction in our family. My priest son in England turned 33. I am 66. My priest father, had he still been alive, would be 99. How satisfyingly and coincidentally strange.
Toad in the hole
We had Toadi in the hole for dinner on that day. You don't get more English than that, though for a change instead of normal pork sausages we used German frankfurters. Delicious. It left us so contentedly torpid we slept through Midsomer Murders, possibly the best way to endure that daft show.
When I mentioned Toadi in the hole to a friend who prides himself on a fine and delicate palate, he was scornful to the point of being insulting. In self-justification I suggested that both Diana's and my delight in the dish is primarily nostalgic. It is the sort of food we ate when we were young. Times were hard, and all the happier for being so. It is nostalgia that most drives me to relish Toadi in the hole, revisit Tristan da Cunha, and dearly love the Anglican Church.
For those so unfortunate as not to be acquainted with Toad in the hole, it is made from pork sausages that are cooked awhile in the oven and then at the right moment smothered with Yorkshire pudding batter. This ideally rises up to enfold, and embrace the sausages. A rich onion gravy is essential.
The origin of the name Toad in the hole is disputed. Though the ends of sausages sticking out of cooked batter, to someone with a good imagination and an obsession with amphibia, might well seem like toads peering from lairs, I suppose. The dish is also sometimes referred to as "sausage toad".
An 1861 recipe by Charles Elme Francatelli, a Londoner of Italian extraction, does not mention sausages. Instead it includes as an ingredient "6 pence or 1shilling's worth of bits and pieces of any kind of meat, which are to be had cheapest at night when the day's sale is over."
Francatelli wrote several recipe books, and among other prestigious postings was the chief cook to Queen Victoria. In spite of which however he wrote a recipe book entitled "A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes." Doubtless his "Toad in the hole" is to be found in this. In the first book of modern Italian cuisine of the nineteenth century, (L'Artusi 1891), this particular recipe was described, as "English cooked-again stewed meat" (Lesso rifatto all'inglese) or "Toad in the hole". The meat was nothing but left-over stewed meat cooked again in batter.
An earlier recipe but of a similar style is found in Hannah Glasse's 1747 "The Art of Cookery". She presents a recipe for "Pigeons in a Hole", essentially pigeons cooked in a Yorkshire pudding batter.
Children and the Net
Much of the information about toads in holes comes from the Net. I was listening to the radio as I made coffee last week and heard an interesting snatch to do with children and their use of the Net.
It is widely believed that, like immigrants, the second and third generations of whom are usually thoroughly assimilated into their new country, children brought up with and using computers are perfectly at home with the Net and thoroughly adept in using it. In fact this is not the case. Most are more ignorant of what is going on than their parents, particularly when it comes to discriminating between what is good and what is bad. Partly because the Net is a given in their life and they've grown up with it, they tend to accept what it says uncritically.
It would seem then that education these days needs to have little to do with imparting in-formation and knowledge, all of which can be had at the click of a mouse or the touch of a finger. Instead it should concentrate upon learning to sift wheat from chaff, good from bad and how to read critically and sceptically.
Trolling through some of my own files I came across the following, written when I was still at Wodonga, I think:
"While on retreat I finished a fascinating but very difficult book, one that I have been reading for months: "Telling God's Story" by Gerard Loughlin. Towards its end I came upon a very clear and interesting "re-write" of transubstantiation (transubstantiation is a Roman Catholic not an Anglican doctrine, but this fascinating ‘rewrite' makes sense of it, turning it into something more Anglican and Catholic".
Loughlin writes: An accessible re-writing of transubstantiation is offered by Gareth Moore in his short essay, "Transubstantiation for beginners" (1998). He suggests that for the believer, the consecrated bread and wine are understood no longer according to their appearance but according to their context. It is context which constitutes the eucharistic change. He gives the example of a five pound note. Apart from the institution of money it is just a piece of brightly coloured paper. But given the institution of money and the forms of life in which a five pound note function, it is no longer just a piece of paper. There is also a difference, a substantial difference, between a genuine and a forged five pound note. One is issued by authority, the other not. Institution and use makes the five pound note what it is.
In the same way, a piece of bread becomes something other than just a piece of bread by being taken up and used in a certain way in the life of the Church. A consecrated host differs from a perhaps identical piece of bread by being embedded within a certain institution and its way of life. To understand it we must look not only at it, but around it. To believe in paper money is to live in a money economy; to believe in transubstantiation is to live as part of the Church, ‘to live the life of the Church centred around the Eucharist'.
Liberal enough to be perfectly happy to bless gay unions, and to offer prayers for fidelity within them as well as for their permanence, I nonetheless remain uneasy about gay "marriage".
Why force a word to mean something other than what these days it patently does mean I wonder? If homosexual couples are "married", it cannot be in the same way as heterosexual couples are. There will be two very different sorts of relationship being confused by a single name. There is both distinction and sameness in the two forms of relationship. To give both the same name will in no way wipe out the distinction.
Charles Moore in the Spectator makes some interesting observations along these lines as follows: "With gay marriage will come gay divorce. If you look at civil partnership dissolutions (of gay couples), the numbers have multiplied more than ten times in four years, though this rate of increase will presumably level off. (The level is still much lower than that of heterosexual marriage.) What will be the grounds for gay divorce? The only legal ground for the dissolution of a civil partnership is that it has ‘broken down irretrievably'. You cannot, as in heterosexual marriage, cite non-consummation or adultery, although ‘unfaithfulness may be recognised as a form of unreasonable behaviour'. It is understandable that this is so, since consummation — viewed by both civil and religious law as the definitive act of marriage because it keeps the human race in existence — can have no such significance in the relationship of homosexuals, and so is indefinable. At present, the legal definition of adultery ‘involves two adults of the opposite sex'. If we have gay marriage, will this be changed? If so, what act would be considered adulterous? If not, how would the equality which reformers seek have been established? Once you consider the grounds for dissolution, you see that the thing being dissolved is not the same for gays as for straights: it strains common sense to call it marriage.......
The great return
From the end of July to the October the 16th Diana and I will be away. I take my annual leave of four weeks as usual, and then a month and a half of unpaid leave. Diana will also take her entitlement, what ever that is, and then unpaid leave thereafter.
We do this in order to visit family in Britain and then to enable us to catch a boat from Capetown to visit Tristan da Cunha. It is a complicated and lengthy business getting there, but of course great good fun.
John Southerden will fill in for me while I am away, which is good news indeed. Heather Camm will return to fill in for Diana, which is just as good news for she knows the job and loves both it and us. We will be working out her hours somewhat differently because she now lives in Melbourne, but she is likely to be staying here with Anne Russell for two nights each week. It will all be very satisfactory I am sure.
One of the more difficult but also enjoyable tasks I had to do last week was knock together a very short little talk for a Hospice Service at St Brendan's. I will be delivering it this afternoon. I am not altogether satisfied with it, but it did cause me to look again at one of my favourite poets, R S Thomas. I used one in my talk called Via Negativa. Here is another and it is splendid:
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
THIS AND THAT (45)
Although I admire Andrew Denton as an interviewer, I cannot bring myself to watch his new show on the ABC. It is daft how little things put us off. The use of the hideous neologism "funnerer" in the promotions of the show did that. As too did their line up of clowning "celebrities". Although hardly reticent myself, except possibly emotionally, I prefer reticence to swagger, and so don't appreciate the present day notion of celebrity, nor the dubious way the "honour" is usually conferred, by a skilful P.R. manipulation of the media. This surely is worse even than the canonisation process of the Roman Catholic church.
Big names trumped
Which is possibly why I found Fr Kim Benton, our preacher and guest speaker last Sunday, so enjoyable. Over the years we have invited as preacher and guest speaker to our Patronal Festivals, bishops, archbishops, top theologians and big names of all sorts. Kim, the mere priest from the parish next door, to my mind trumped them all. Not that he was at all reticent. On the contrary he revealed a fair bit of himself, (though mercifully not all), especially in his speech at the luncheon. However, he is no "celebrity", thank God.
Indeed, the Patronal Festival last Sunday was a pleasing and successful event altogether. It successfully blended each Sunday's two styles of worship almost seamlessly. It is good to be able to do this sort of thing well, and to realise that the differences of approach and taste at the 8.30am Sung Eucharist and the 10.30am Family Eucharist are in no way incompatible or mutually exclusive.
It was fortuitous that for this occasion we were able, for the very first time, to use a newly installed, higher and larger screen, though one reticent enough gracefully to retract into virtual invisibility at the push of a button when not in use. So too the projector, which has now been demoted from its front row and pedestalled celebrity to the virtual anonymity and dust of the building's rafters. Gavin, from "Power Audio", who advised us and then installed everything, was impressively meticulous and painstaking, a pleasure to deal with.
Many thanks to the team who arranged the meal in the hall after the service. They catered for the extra thirty diners who had not signed up with hospitable ease, and although there were not twelve baskets of leftovers, the achievement was impressive in a thoroughly New Testament way. Well done indeed. Thank you to all who contributed, and there were many, from the cooks, to the providers of cooking vessels. Heather Pearson was overseer, with some excellent lieutenants.
On the Saturday morning in the church, as I fiddled with the computer and new projector set-up to make sure that I knew how to make it all work, I noticed Carole quietly oiling up and dusting all the pews as her son Stewart assisted her with the vacuuming. She is a star.
Barbara Loxley asked me to print the "Grace" I wrote for the occasion. It is extremely painful for so reticent a parson as me to do this, but stoically I bear the agony:
Grace St. Augustine's Day 2012
It's cruel, dear Lord, and also wrong
To make good people sit too long
While lengthy prayers of gratitude
Delay enjoyment of their food.
Long, involved and wordy graces
Lead to glum and gloomy faces.
As guts begin to groan and rumble
So mouths begin to moan and mumble.
And so to your as well our relief
My thanks are short, this grace is brief!
Thank you Lord for Fr Kim,
For glasses filled right to the brim
For well-spiced, aromatic food,
And festive atmosphere and mood.
Thank you too for this our parish
For all the care and love you lavish
On its various congregations
Who worship you at five locations
For gifts and blessings by the score;
For answered prayers and even more,
For love that moves the heavenly spheres,
Makes sense of life, non-sense of fears;
That lightens burdens, tempers loss,
A love expressed upon the cross.
For all of this, our hearts we raise
In joyful gratitude and praise. Amen.
At three o clock that Sunday afternoon, well fed and wined, I trotted off to St Brendan's for a Hospice Service at which I was due to deliver a short homily. I based it upon some lines from the famous if somewhat strange poem by William Blake called "The Auguries of Innocence", lines I returned to and repeated throughout the short address:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Thro' the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
The whole poem is indeed a strange one, made up largely of couplets that appear to have been gathered together almost at random, some very beautiful, others little short of banal. Being Blake each image is doubtless symbolic of something. The poem begins with four incomparable lines:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
At the end of the service we all headed outside and lots of coloured balloons were released into a clear blue sky. They drifted upward until they seemed but a handful of colourful confetti. As always when this is done Diana and I found ourselves wondering what happens to such balloons released like this. On our return we partook of a little gentle research. Apparently ordinary helium balloons drift up to an altitude of around five miles, the height of Mount Everest. There they begin to freeze in the minus 46 degree Celsius cold. In addition, the strong differential between the gas pressure inside the balloon and the near vacuum outside causes the balloons at that altitude to expand to the point were they eventually burst. Because the latex is frozen, the bursting balloon tears into shreds (the exact scientific term is called ‘brittle fracture'). These tiny, spaghetti-like pieces then scatter over a wide area as they fall back to Earth, where they begin to decay.
The Quivering Upper Lip
One morning last week, preparatory to tackling my little Hospice homily, Diana and I were talking about "grief". Public and emotional expressions of grief appear to be not only expected these days, but also encouraged. This is not at all to the liking of my reticence preferring self. I prefer grief to be expressed in private. Once a reporter holds a microphone out towards a person traumatised by loss or disaster to choke their grief into, I turn the television off in distaste.
As we discussed this I recalled an article entitled: "The Quivering Upper Lip - The British character: from self-restraint to self-indulgence. It is by Theodore Dalrymple, a hero of mine.
The first half of the article provides an almost lyrical description of British reticence. It then moves on to mourn its dissipation into the self-indulgent, "let it all hang out" ugliness that appears to dominate the British character today.
Dalrymple begins his article thus: .... my mother arrived in England as a refugee from Nazi Germany, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, she found the people admirable, though not without the defects that corresponded to their virtues. By the time she died, two-thirds of a century later, she found them rude, dishonest, and charmless. They did not seem to her, moreover, to have any virtues to compensate for their unpleasant qualities. I occasionally asked her to think of some, but she couldn't; and neither, frankly, could I.
...... The British seemed to her self-contained, self-controlled, law-abiding yet tolerant of others no matter how eccentric, and with a deeply ironic view of life that encouraged them to laugh at themselves and to appreciate their own unimportance in the scheme of things. If Horace Walpole was right—that the world is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel—the English were the most thoughtful people in the world. They were polite and considerate, not pushy or boastful; the self-confident took care not to humiliate the shy or timid; and even the most accomplished was aware that his achievements were a drop in the ocean of possibility, and might have been much greater if he had tried harder or been more talented.
......André Maurois, the great French Anglophile, for example, wrote a classic text about British character, Les silences du Colonel Bramble. Maurois was a translator and liaison officer between the French and British armies during World War I and lived closely for many months with British officers and their men. Les silences was the fruit of his observations. Maurois found the British combination of social self-confidence and existential modesty attractive. It was then a common French opinion that the British were less intelligent than the French; and in the book, Maurois' fictional alter ego, Aurelle, discusses the matter with one of the British officers. "‘Don't you yourself find,' said Major Parker, ‘that intelligence is valued by you at more than its worth? We are like the young Persians of whom Herodotus speaks, and who, until the age of twenty, learnt only three things: how to ride, archery and not to lie.'"
Aurelle spots the paradox: "You despise the academic," he replies, "and you quote Herodotus. Even better, I caught you the other day in flagrante, reading Xenophon. . . . Very few French, I assure you . . ."
Parker quickly disavows any intellectual virtue in his choice of citations or reading matter. "That's very different," he says. "The Greeks and Romans interest us, not as an object of enquiry, but as our ancestors and as sportsmen. I like Xenophon—he is the perfect example of a British gentleman."
.......The English must have been the only people in the world for whom a typical response to someone who accidentally stepped on one's toes was to apologize oneself. British behaviour when ill or injured was stoic. Aurelle recounts in Les silences du Colonel Bramble seeing an officer he knew on a stretcher, obviously near death from a terrible abdominal injury. The officer says to him: "Please say good-bye to the colonel for me and ask him to write home that I didn't suffer too much. I hope this is not too much trouble for you. Thanks very much indeed." Tony Mayer, too, says of the English that when they were ill they usually apologized: "I'm sorry to bother you, Doctor."
No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. "I didn't like to disturb you, Doctor," he said. "I know you are a very busy man."
From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.
My wife, also a doctor, worked solely among the old, and found them, as I did, considerate even when suffering, as well as humorous and lacking in self-importance. Her patients were largely working-class—a refutation of the idea, commonly expressed, that the cultural ideal that I have described characterized only the upper echelons of society.......
One of my petty dislikes is to see people who are obviously mediocrities having honours of one sort or another showered upon them. the German poet Schiller gets it right:
Ich sah des Ruhmes schoenste Kraenze
Auf der gemeinen Stirn entweiht....
I saw fame's most beautiful wreaths
desecrated on a mean brow....
THIS AND THAT (46)
I still come across folk who joke about parsons having to work only one day a week. If this were really so, then how easy a life indeed the parson’s! For by the time Sunday arrives all the work has been done. The music has been sorted and practised, the liturgy sheets and power point’s assembled, the intercessions gathered and composed, the sermon researched, written and polished, the pew sheet created and put together, the church cleaned the sacristy and sanctuary prepared, thanks to our sacristan, and so on and so on. Sunday involves mere delivery, with a good team to back us up, and so is often a relatively easy and relaxed day.
A full Sunday
Last Sunday was rather more busy than most though. Although I didn’t take the 8.30am Eucharist I did of course open up the Church and say Mattins beforehand, and then greet folk before and after. In between I finished putting the evening’s Ecumenical Service on to power-point for screening. I then took the 10.30 Eucharist with two baptisms and almost straight afterwards an Orthodox baptism for which the babe cried throughout, poor little fellow. Then straight on to an Orthodox grave blessing at the cemetery and after a little meal there, on to a local hotel for a more substantial lunch with the family. Once home there were two interviews and then setting up for the Ecumenical Service. This went very well indeed, and Frank Purcell’s homily, delivered without a note, was spot on and thought provoking. Over the cuppa afterwards a little group of us went over the slowly crystallising plans for Bill Hunter’s requiem. Then and then only was there time for a little peace, but only of a sort, because an “Iview” watching of “Silent Witness” was too engrossing and horrifying to allow for relaxation. That came only with bed.
We have been taking out the rickety old wooden fly screens of the Rectory windows. A day off satisfyingly wiping away cobwebs, murdering their artists and cleaning glass is a day off indeed. We also did some touching up of their paintwork. A delicate business when it is the paint that helps hold some of the frames together. How damaging the sun has been on those that face north. We are spurred on by the thought of the Southerdens coming to live here for a couple of months soon.
We love the Rectory. As with ourselves, its flaws are honourable and venerable ones, the mere wear and tear of time.
Kentucky tucker, Internet weddings
The phone is always ringing in a rectory. It is one of many reasons why being brought up and living in one is stimulating. Never a dull moment, though some of the calls are dull.
There is one drunken old lag who rings me up whenever he is at the end of his tether to try to persuade me to go and collect a Kentucky fried chicken pack for him. His opening gambit is usually: “Father I’m starving....” I gave him the benefit of the doubt once and did indeed take him a carton of Kentucky best to accompany his carton of Fruity Lexia. I have also come to his rescue in several real scrapes at other times. Now though my heart, like Pharoah’s to Joseph, is hardened. All he usually gets from me these days is a joke, no Kentucky tucker!
Last week I had two interesting calls to do with weddings. The first was from a lass who asked me if I did “internet weddings”. What, I wondered, are those? You can obtain dubious “university” doctorates on line, and even unholy Holy-Orders, but surely not weddings. A little probing revealed the call to be an all too serious request, by a divorced person in her forties, to marry someone unseen of another faith, also divorced and from a very foreign land. Someone known only from three months of chatting together on line. (I have disguised some of this to preserve anonymity)
I pointed out that to marry anyone totally unseen is ill advised and that immigration laws are exceedingly strict, not least because many folk use marriage as a way to immigrate to Australia. I informed her too that Notices of Intention need to be signed and face to face interviews held before any wedding can even be considered. I suggested that she came to see me to talk things through. I have not heard from her again.
The other wedding request was from a local person who wished to use St Augustine’s for a photographic session depicting a “Zombie Wedding”. It was a lovely, honest and very frank person who made the request, nor was there anything at all sinister-seeming about her desire. She appeared to think that our lovely church would provide something special to what in essence is an absurdity. I declined to give my permission, reluctant to allow St Augustine’s to be used to promote what I suspected to be mere nonsense.
At the time I knew nothing about zombies or their weddings. However a quick google of “Zombie Wedding” offered me instant expertise in the form of access to 33,300,000 sites in .39 of a second.
A cursory eye balling of several of these sites revealed a popular obsession of which until now I had been unaware. Zombies feature in lots of horror books and films. Trivial and largely harmless nonsense by and large, an essentially superficial flirtation with revivified corpses, cannibalism and other un-pleasantnesses, tenuously linking back to Voodoo. My negative response to the request appears to have been right.
Talking of horror, however, I was delighted to welcome back to ABC 1, “Silent Witness” on Friday nights. It is gripping, intelligent drama, though I do find the sometimes balletic spasms of violence unbearable to watch. The realism in a drama such as this, based upon crime detection dependent upon pathology and emphatically un-revivified corpses, could well be more disturbing or even harmful than the obviously fantastical nonsense to do with “zombies”. Hmmm.
Bill Hunter R.I.P.
I have been asked to print the little homily I delivered at Bill Hunter’s Requiem. It began by referring back to the Gospel which told of the beloved disciple’s contemplation of the empty tomb:
There was more to that empty tomb than met the disciple’s eye. There is more to reality than meets the eye. There was more to Bill Hunter than meets the eye.
In the years that I’ve known him, as an honoured and dearly loved doyen of this beautiful Church (Shepparton’s loveliest building), he has been, to the mere eye, a gentle, soft-spoken, reliable, faithful, appreciative, mild, uncomplaining, all but saintly, generous and utterly supportive gentleman and Christian.
Merely to behold him, during his graceful last years, with his necessary head gear, whimsical smile and always positive little comments upon the sermon, was to love him. To see him with dear Dot his splendid wife in Church on Easter Day, at such great cost and effort, and moreover so glad to be here, was Easter’s validation. Love in its widest and most varied sense, triumphant against all odds.
However, one was always aware, or at least suspected, that there was indeed more to him than meets the eye. There was a glint to those pale and penetrating eyes of his that belied any suspicion of weakness or softness, but rather suggested fire in the grace, steel in the gentleness, stubbornness in the pliancy, a less than sentimental radical edge to the generosity, a wilful, single-mindedness behind any easy going-along-with-you.
You don’t build up a business empire without fire in the belly, guts, risk-taking, pushing boundaries. You don’t love the Church, take on the extensive, expensive refurbishment of its local building, challenge its turbulent priests, and vainglorious bishops, manage its scandals, fight its battles, play a part in its triumphs, if your faith is soppy-sentimental, wish-fulfilment, mawkish tripe.
It is this holding together of opposites, in his character, that fascinates, intrigues, and indeed enchants. Hard head, but soft heart; an aggressive and driven winner, yet compassionate to losers; shrewd, but without guile; tough, also gentle; a man of the world, a man of God; financially acute, hugely generous; complicated, simple; a fanatical follower of football, a student of theology; when soldiering in Palestine, a visitor and ruminator over its holy sites; a combative soldier, a man of peace; a man of action, a thinking man, and a listener to sermons, of all things.
Hand in hand
Paradox. Paradox, Paradox. Opposites, hand in hand and arm in arm. Fascinating.
The Christian Faith, so loved by Bill, is all to do with paradox. In today’s Gospel, the disciple looks into an empty tomb, sees nothing and so sees everything. Christianity is all to do with dying, but in order to live; letting go, so as to be able to hold on; losing yourself to find yourself; receiving, but by way of giving; believing just because it is impossible; loving the unlovable, forgiving the unforgivable; revering the bible as the very Word of God, while acknowledging it to be flawed, fallible and oh so very desperately human; Jesus, as God incarnate, well yes, but, oh so very, very, very human.
If you can’t see paradox and revel in it, if you have no appreciation of irony and layers of meaning, if you have no imagination, you are, of course a dull dog and boring buffoon. But also and more seriously are unlikely, in any authentically Christlike or attractive way, to be Christian.
Nor can you be what Bill was, an intriguing, paradoxical, more than meets the eye, multi-faceted, man of men, man of God; man of the Church, man of the world; tough, soft; calculating, open hearted; shrewd at money-making, profligate in disbursement; acquisitive, generous; narrowly and intensely focussed, broad of sympathies; lover of Jesus, humankind, Australia, Victoria, Shepparton, St Augustine’s and above all his splendid Dot and their talented brood.
To me he was the best of us. Not the goody, goody, soppy, soppy, wowserish popular caricature of a Christian, but the intriguing mixture that is the real thing. I love him and honour him for that.
But is that, that then? Is the sum total of all that was Bill Hunter from now on, no more than fading memories, dust and ashes ?
Of course not. It is paradox right to life’s usually bitter end. We die, of course we do. We cease to exist, or course we do. All that we are falls into the abyss of non-existence. Yes indeed!
But we fall into that abyss trusting that a Creator who called a whole universe from non-existence into being, who looked into emptiness and envisaged everything, will and can, call back into being the intriguing little universe that is a human personality, in some glorious unimaginable way.
Impossible, possible; unlikely, likely; unbelievable, believable. Paradox, sweet, sweet paradox. Like Bill I love, love, love this paradoxical Faith.
So, Bill Hunter, paradoxical old fellow, rest in peace and rise in Glory. Amen. Amen. Amen.
A moving last word
General De Gaulle on the death of his Down's Syndrome daughter said simply: “Maintenant elle est comme les autres.” (“Now she is like the others”) Very, very moving.
THIS AND THAT (47)
On Saturday the 2nd of June I pottered across to say Mattins. At exactly 7.45am I rang the church bell as usual. Unusual was that Fr John Price was not present. He happened to be sitting in St Brendan's Church wondering why the bell at St Augustine's was being rung, for it shouldn't have been.
On my return to the Chapel Deacon Grace asked me if I was not going to the well- advertised Mattins at St Brendan's. Each year on the feast day of the Ugandan Martyrs, who were both Catholic and Anglican, we join together with St Brendan's folk for a service and breakfast.
Ugandan Martyrs and a Pseudo Martyr
Diana and I made it to St Brendan's just in time to enjoy a lovely little service. Afterwards we were all invited by Fr Joe Taylor to the Presbytery for breakfast whereupon I faced a severe if minor challenge. The Presbytery was filled with the aroma of bacon, eggs and toast sufficient to fill me with anticipatory glee. However, in expectation of one of those unattractively healthy breakfasts of muesli, chipboard and sawdust I had previously determined to eat nothing, as part of the necessary fast before a blood test. I was due to head for the pathology lab at the hospital sometime after 9.00am. This was the final part of my annual medical checkup.
Had Diana not been present to impress with my strength of character, I would have succumbed to eggs and bacon and postponed the blood test until Monday. Because of her presence I watched everyone else tuck in while I ate and drank nothing, talking madly all the while to Fr. Joe to distract myself. I then self-righteously biked off for the blood test.
What reward did I receive for this impressive show of moral fibre? Diana seemed singularly unimpressed, she expected me to take so minor a challenge without a second thought and certainly with no write-up in the pew sheet. The only reward was nonetheless a good one, though in no way a consequence of my moral fibre. I learned on Tuesday that my blood is flowing well and that my cholesterol is slightly down from last year and so well within the safety zone. I could have eaten a couple of those eggs with impunity!
As our trip abroad begins to get closer (July the 30th) there is less and less time to do anything other than prepare for it. This means that my recreational and intellectual life, such that it is, withers away. There is no time to lose myself in a book, woe is me.
On Monday I devoted myself to preparing music sheets from this Sunday right through to Advent Sunday. Although this is made easier by dint of cannibalising sheets from previous years, each particular Sunday needs individual attention and, given the idiosyncrasies of our liturgical calendar, some Sunday sheets do need putting together from scratch. It took pretty well all day. This particular task having now been done, I need to tackle the liturgical portion of all the pew sheets for while I am away.
What will survive of us?
Although not lost in a decent book at present, I do still read interesting articles and on Monday found time to read one about Phillip Larkin and W H Auden, two of last century's very best poets.
The point of the article was made in a couple of little questions which I found interesting enough to pop into my file of quotations:
....has self-consciously highbrow culture made such a fetish of complexity, ambiguity, and obscurity as a measure of worth that we condemn or condescend to more simple, heartfelt exclamations?.... Is it always more mature and serious for a poet to be riddled by doubt and conflict, rather than to give way to transcendence? Perhaps we should pay attention to these near-ecstatic, almost vatic, outbursts, even if the poets in question are self-conscious about them. (The word "vatic" means "characteristic of a prophet".)
The article discussed at some length two lines, one from each poet, that have become very famous and are treasured and much quoted by many readers. Possibly because of this the two poets, have attempted either to eradicate them (in the case of Auden) or distance themselves from them in the case of Larkin.
An Arundel Tomb
One of Larkin's most sublime and famous poems is based upon a 14th-century tomb effigy in Chichester Cathedral. It is entitled: "An Arundel Tomb". The poem begins thus:
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock, His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.....
For anyone who loves poetry and for many who do not, this seven stanza poem is a poem of poems. It is perfect in every syllable. What is more, it is almost miraculous for coming from such a pessimistic, misanthropic, atheistic misery-guts as Phillip Larkin. Why and how should such a man even notice,
.....with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.....
Larkin's last great poem, "Aubade", is bleak and hopeless. It depicts brilliantly and honestly his own funk and terror in the face of death. It should be set to excruciating music and declared The Atheist's Halleluia Chorus.
However this marvellous poem "An Arundel Tomb" allows a glimmer of transcendence and hope into Larkin's honest if frigid and bleak world. The last stanza goes:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Larkin is far too fine and honest a poet to allow himself to suggest anything he doesn't mean. The famous line: What will survive of us is love is well and truly qualified by the words "untruth" and the double "almost" that go before it. Even so, however, the possibility of the transcendent and a hint of love being perhaps more than temporal is most emphatically present, even when the line is not quoted out of context, as it usually is. So much so that the line discomfited Larkin, almost embarrassed him. Though he didn't disown it entirely.
September 1, 1939
The Auden poem under consideration in the article is the one entitled: "September 1, 1939". This is the date of the Nazi invasion of Poland that began the slaughter of the Second World War. The poem opens:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade ...
The particular line that he very soon came to disown and attempt to eradicate from all future versions of the poem is the last one of the eighth stanza. As with Larkin's line, it is often quoted out of context:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Why would that last line embarrass Auden I wonder? Could it be that it sounds suspiciously Christian? Or is it simply too bald-facedly understandable and concordant with the views of the common man to be acceptable to someone who wishes to mark himself off as an intellectual? Like Larkin's line it certainly hints at something beyond nothing. It is the little word "or" that is so significant. It allows the possibility that "Amor vincit omnia" (Love conquers all). Rumour has it that God is Love and so such a line allows even God.
Some years after writing this poem Auden was converted to the High Anglicanism of his youth. His reputation as a poet never really recovered. Even way back then, to be Christian was to be suspect as an intellectual. Partly one suspects because Christianity loves, opens its arms to and can be embraced by the hoi poloi. To be "intellectual" you need to mark yourself off from the common man.
Most of the atheists I meet in Shepparton, seem to me to be singularly uninformed about the faith. Their disdain is linked, I suspect, to Auden's disdain and Larkin's discomfiture at the two lines under consideration. It has more to do with snobbery than reason.
On Monday evening we joined the Youth Group as judges for a cooking competition. I had done this before, a year of so ago and that time had found the food less than appealing for the most part. So much so that this time I contemplated taking a handful of antacid pills with me.
I was most wonderfully surprised. Diana and I with some splendid parents and Deacon Grace were treated to a meal of meals. Each of four teams produced a three course meal for us to savour and judge. This amounted, in effect to a twelve course mean for us all, and every course was good.
So it turned out to be a lovely and happy occasion and the demeanour and happiness of the children was a delight to share. It gives me pleasure to remark once more upon Mary Pearson as being in the forefront of our parish achievements in her work as Youth Group leader. Well done to her, her helpers and to the youth group members. All stars.
The woman in white
The Woman in White is a fine book written in 1859 by Wilkie Collins. It is one of the very first detective novels. From now on however "The Woman in White" for me will be the reserved and dignified little woman who was the centre of so much attention in England last week, the Queen. How I loved her reticence and quietude, and how I loved all those hundreds of thousands of daft Brits along the Thames, so determined to enjoy themselves come wind come rain. Best of all was the Thanksgiving Service in St Paul's, spectacularly filmed, beautifully ordered, gloriously and festivally melodious and with some of the great and loveliest of 1662 Prayer Book prayers. The Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon was also pleasing for being rather more than merely media or crowd pleasing.
THIS AND THAT (48)
Doing statistical returns for the Diocese last week Diana noted how drastically the number of baptisms has fallen in this parish. In 1994 there were ninety, in 2011 twenty two. It is an indication of how peripheral to our society Christianity is becoming.
We can wring our hands and declare all to be lost, or we can look forward with relief and joy to the Church reverting to its pre-Constantine state. Marginal, vibrant, often heroic, less than respectable, closer-to-the-Gospel and to Jesus of Nazareth, attractively different.
The waters of hypocrisy or baptism?
Is it better not to bring a child to be baptized, than to bring it knowing full well that you are not going to keep the promises you make, or bring the child up practising the faith?
I have always thought that to attempt to dowse your child in the waters of your own hypocrisy and lies at the same time as in the sacramental waters of the font, is worse than not baptizing your child at all. Diana, however, when I read this column through to her stating that opinion demurred. She considers that the baptism of a child, no matter how dubious or dishonest the intentions of its parents, still opens up a tiny rivulet of Grace into the child's life that would not otherwise be there. A rivulet that later in life might facilitate, even if only marginally and rarely, a fuller immersion into the life of the family of God. She is probably right, though I put my opposite case with some passion and vigour.
It is important that I always read this column through to her. It not infrequently needs adjustment, revision and refinement.
I was told of someone recently who refused to have his child baptized because of he strongly disagreed with the doctrines of "limbo" and "original sin" traditionally associated with baptism. Good for him for even knowing about such "doctrines".
However, the notion of "limbo" is not a part of Anglican teaching and even in the Roman Catholic Church has never been a required belief nor an official doctrine.
Its traditional connection to infant baptism is usually explained away these days. It is seen to be a speculative and charitable hypotheses, an attempt to reconcile compassion for deceased unbaptized infants and their parents, with too literal an understanding of certain passages of scripture. Like, for example, the words of Jesus to Nicodemus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit....."
Interestingly the word "limbo" is derived from the Latin limbus, meaning "hem" or "border". The medieval Church's limbo being a sort of borderline heaven, a destination not of punishment but of happiness for those who are good, though not in possession of a passport to the full beatific vision granted in Heaven proper. It is mere speculation, like all pictures and images of the afterlife, but at its best it is charitable speculation and so not to be despised.
Original Sin is another matter. This is certainly a part of traditional Church teaching and it is one that I personally have never had much quarrel with.
Needless to say there are many different shades of meaning and levels of interpretation to the doctrine. I have never had much sympathy with or espoused the full blown "total depravity" interpretation of Augustine of Hippo, for example. However it is self evident to me that we have a tendency or bias to "self" rather than "other", that we are born into the world screaming and yelling only for what we want and need. We all of us have to be painstakingly taught by word, deed and example the grace of selflessness and love.
This is best and most completely achieved in loving, forgiving communities, of which two are paramount: the human family and God's family the Church.
The human family ideally provides relationships not only of maternal, paternal and filial love but also of friendship love in a wider circle of family friends and relations. This community of love, centred on the human family, helps guide and lead young ones away from their original selfishness to the love of others.
The rag tag and bobtail community
The rag tag and bobtail community that is the Church widens and broadens natural family love and relationships. It does so by offering to the baptised a very different, huge, dynamic and varied family that transcends time and geography and which includes the blessed Trinity and the hosts of heaven as well as many a local rat bag, simpleton and enemy.
To deny a child full and active membership of this latter family, centred on the local parish church, is to my mind deprivation of a very high order. I speak of what I know. My own life without the Church's part in it would be immeasurably poorer. It would have lost a dimension so wonderful I would not and could not be who I am.
Many "post-Christians" and rejecters of baptism and mother Church have discarded it too easily, carelessly and thoughtlessly. Sadly because they have not deeply loved their God and faith, they have let it go sooner than arguing, growing and developing their understanding of it.
In this they are like serial polygamists who divorce a wife because she has not remained as she was the day they married her. Instead of growing and deepening in love they are stunted in love. So too with post-Christians. Instead of maturing in faith and grace as believers, instead of reinterpreting, developing, deepening and delving into their faith and its expression, their understanding has stuck where it was when they were at Sunday School, or Confirmation Class. It is pathetic.
Skittishness in Katandra
I had to cram three funerals into last week. Monday was fine, there was only one scheduled and I already had it well prepared. I was able to tackle with relative peace of mind the Rectory garden and the complicated Clergy Roster for while I am away. The second funeral announced itself with a call out at quarter past four on Tuesday morning, and the third not much later in the day. However all three involved rewarding encounters with interesting and lovely people, and so were accommodated and accomplished with little angst.
Mercifully the previous week was a little less crowded. One of its highlights was the combined Guild Luncheon at Katandra. There a power failure was cheerfully and resourcefully overcome by irrepressible and doughty dames who laid on hot soup, excellent sandwiches and an array of sweets so splendid they put all fears of diabetes to flight. Best of all though was a skit by a group of the ladies prepared to dress themselves up and ham around as school children. They delighted by taking us back to simpler times, in an old community hall itself redolent of such times when entertainment had to be made rather than simply had at the push of a button. A great occasion, well supported and a breath of the past's refreshing air for us all. Well done.
One of the deans I worked with in Harare Cathedral was a loud, larger than life, super-confident, rude, know-all. When you got really to know him, he turned out to be a timorous wreck of a man, crying out for acceptance. He had been rejected as a newborn infant by his parents and so adopted. He was then rejected by his adoptive parents. Doubly rejected.
Most people put up a front. They declare themselves to be other than they are. A cheerful countenance too often hides great grief and sadness. A show of confidence frequently hides uncertainty and unsureness. The psychologist Alfred Adler bequeathed to the world the concept of the "inferiority complex". He maintained that a sense of inferiority classically manifests itself in superiority and bombast.
The dithering, indecisive J Alfred Prufrock of T S Eliot's famous poem, talks of there being time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet...... It is something we nearly all do. We are not what we seem.
Which, in many ways, is what makes human relationships fascinating. They are voyages of discovery. The person who says: "What you see is what you get," if he tells the truth, which usually he doesn't, is a bore, is not worth knowing, for there's nothing to discover.
Relationships often break up, however, when the voyage of discovery reveals at best, someone very ordinary and unremarkable, at worst, someone contemptible, cruel, crass or dishonest.
Celebrating the ordinary
One of the reasons that in writing, conversation and sermons I celebrate the ordinary and the unremarkable and attempt to find beauty and good and God in them, is because all relationships, be they with Church, or fellow human beings or even mere things, if they are to last, depend upon us celebrating ordinariness and unremarkableness. Everything, everyone, at bottom, when known, when possessed, is unremarkable, ordinary, unexciting, boring even. And yet is still, for those with the eyes to see, wonderful. That is, they are full of wonder, full of the divine. It is a matter of bread and wine, and yet Jesus too, you see.
Consider other people's vaunted success and happiness, as revealed in their Christmas circular letters, which, too often, as well as containing useful family news and keeping us up to date, are so full of successful family achievement and happiness, that they make us feel totally inadequate. They leave us depressed at all the failures and mess in our own life. Father with no promotion, and no prospect of it, disillusioned, simply coping, drinking rather too much beer. Mother hanging on to her sanity by the skin of her teeth, driven to distraction by rebellious, idle, intractable children. Kids addicted to videos, idleness and revolting company; rude and uncooperative.
From the outside, judged by the public front presented in circular letters and suchlike, other people's lives and families seem too good to be true. Our own too bad to be true.
The song still in them
The real truth lies in one's own family and life. The public front is usually just that, a front, a lie. As Henry Thoreau, the sage of Walden Pond remarked: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."
The truth about the lives of others becomes publicly apparent and obvious only in the sudden eruption of crisis; divorce, separation, desertion, or even murder.
I overstate things, but for most of us there is a lot of misery and desperation in ordinary daily life. At times it seems all but to engulf us, begins to blow a gale. The waves start breaking into life's boat so that it is almost swamped.
Sanity, order, purpose, love, our religion, our Lord, are in the stern, head on a cushion asleep.
If we have any sense we wake them up and say: ‘Master, do you not care? We are going down!' And the master wakes up, rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, ‘Quiet now! Be calm!'
Sanity, order, purpose, love, our religion, our Lord, return. The wind drops. All is calm again. Our Lord says to us, ‘Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?' We respond with awe and say to one another, ‘Who can this be? Even the wind and the sea obey him.'
Would that it were quite so easy! Would that God and faith could so easily bring peace, calm and tranquillity. Would that there was no crucifixion. Would that the road was wide, winding and gentle, not strait and narrow.
But although it is indeed not that easy, sanity, order, purpose, love, our religion, our Lord, cannot be allowed to remain asleep on a cushion in the background of life if we are to cope at all adequately with the inevitable sad storms that erupt in life.
Faith isn't a tranquillizing sea-sick pill, it doesn't always ensure a smooth passage, but with the Lord sane and strong beside us, rather than asleep behind us, storms, if they are not always stilled and calmed, are all the better survived without shipwreck.
Life without the Lord, without the sanity of moral absolutes, and of obligations and duties willfully shouldered, without the primacy of sacrificial love, without reference to, dialogue with, and love of the Lord, without the love and support of the Christian community, is indeed too often a wild mess and storm of moral relativism, is purposeless, ruled by the ego, governed by greed, mammon, revenge, spite, hatred. Love is temporary and relative, the loved one discarded, aborted, put to death when useless. Life with out the Lord awake and active can all too easily be a wild, insane, frightening and desperate mess.
And so all the pious little cliches muttered by the simple minded, like ‘Say your prayers', know the Lord'..... ‘know your bible', ‘have faith'.... ‘take your Church family seriously'..... ‘sacrifice, come to Church very regularly'....don't be half-hearted'..... ‘believe', are all ways of saying the simple and profound truth that the disciples discovered in their boat in the storm: ‘Wake up, and properly wake up the Lord in the background of your life ........ Or, by God, you'll drown.'
THIS AND THAT (49)
It is about half past four in the morning. Suddenly the mobile phone rings. Startled, I leap violently from what seems to me to be deep, deep sleep, only to discover it is not ringing. It is the underworld that is my subconscious sabotaging slumber. Or perhaps the angst ridden voice of a troubled conscience, a sort of deus ex machina, ensuring an early start to what is certain to be a too busy day.
It has happened three or four times over the past few weeks. Unfair on a Monday morning though, the only legitimate day for a lie in.
It is now early on Tuesday morning and little grandchild Susan lies on the settee in my study sucking her thumb as nursery rhymes play on the computer. I find nursery rhymes very pleasing. My two favourites are "O Dear What Can the Matter Be" and "Aiken Drum". The first I consider to be a near perfect folk tune, the second, while not quite as perfect, is nonetheless a very pleasing and lively melody.
If I am to enjoy listening to nursery rhymes, which I do, the version is all important. American accents are unacceptable. There is something ineradicably English about those I was brought up with and love. American accents obscure this. Nursery Rhymes are also important vehicles of tradition in that they provide a very strong and pleasing sense of continuity with the past. This means that electronic instrument accompaniments will not do either.
Some years ago I bought and downloaded on to my computer a disk full of nursery rhymes as good as any version I have ever heard. It features Jeremy Barlow's "Broadside Band". This is an ensemble that specialises in English popular music and English dance music from 1550-1750. The vocalists are unaffected and crystal clear and the band's accompaniment is delicate, varied and very lovely.
While the sense of historical continuity is very real and important, many nursery rhymes are not all that old. Few can be traced further back than the seventeenth century and it was only in the eighteenth century that they began to be systematically written down. The oldest of all children's songs appear to be lullabies, intended to help a child sleep. They are found in every human culture and the English term lullaby is thought to come from the "lu, lu" or "la la" sound made by mothers or nurses to calm children, combined with "by by" or "bye bye", which is either another lulling sound, or a term for good night. The Roman nurses' lullaby, "Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, aut dormi, aut lacte", is the oldest lullaby on record.
Elizabeth and her three little girls Meg, Susan and Hetty came over from Benalla on Monday and stayed the night. How unutterably delightful they all are. The youngest, Hetty, is about ten weeks old and beginning to respond to those who take the time to communicate with her. In doing so she proves me wrong in my long held contention that babies do not pass from the palpitating blob of protoplasm stage into delightful and responsive little human beings until three months old at the earliest. I found myself changing a fouled nappy and am delighted to discover that disposable nappies are now disposed of themselves, in favour of far more sophisticated versions of the reusable nappies of yore. Happily without the thumb or bum pricking "safety pins" that my clumsy digits were never dexterous enough fully to master in my own children's infancy.
To be sitting in my study early on a Tuesday morning only to become aware of little Susan standing in the door, clutching her blanket and gazing at me with quizzical and friendly interest, is one of grand-parental life's most privileged moments.
Susan has some sort of fairly mild allergy to eggs and so is off them for while. To someone like me who loves eggs beyond telling this seems a terrible deprivation for the little thing. I spent a good slab of Monday morning making little meat balls to be cooked slowly in a rich sauce, but without recourse to egg as a binding agent. A tin of boiled lentils and their juice, plus breadcrumbs, sufficed deliciously and effectively.
Four year old and very pretty Meg had an appointment with the optometrist and will soon be wearing glasses. The wearing of spectacles is a characteristic Neaum family affliction. All the little girls' Neaum uncles and aunts wear glasses as too do or did their grandparents and great grandparents.
We light a fire for them when they visit us in winter, upon which to toast pikelets or marshmallows. They have now departed the Rectory for home in Benalla. Happily the fire still warmly splutters and flickers and I sit writing this column on my tiny little and very basic travel-laptop. I need to become inured to its limitations before I leave on holiday. My son has given me one essential and elementary tip. To type away at speed, without finding yourself suddenly violating paragraphs of your document already polished to perfection, it is necessary to turn off the finger pad. To do this you press the function key and F7 and all is well, your fingers can gallop their galliards over the keys with careless abandon.
Elizabeth and Nathan are becoming more and more a part of the congregation in Benalla and so instead of baptizing Hetty in Shepparton I shall be doing so in Benalla as well as preaching there on the 8th of July.
As far as I can remember I have experienced my first earthquake. Sitting by the fire on Tuesday evening, tapping away at my laptop there was a creaking sound from the passage and the fringe on the lampshade swayed. Diana took it to be an earthquake, forever the sceptic I assumed otherwise. She was right.
Pewsheets and donkeys
Being a fairly self critical sort I like to think, I do sometimes ask myself why I take so much trouble over this confounded pew sheet, especially its diary column. Would not my time be better spent about other parochial business? May be. However until I crystallize my experience and ideas in words they remain inchoate, vague and indeterminate. How can I know what I think until I have written or spoken it? Besides that, I enjoy writing, it is recreation. I type these words at half past seven in the evening, not only before a friendly fire but also with a belly full of very good fish pie. Why? Because I love doing so. There was once a time when I would have welcomed a wider audience and greater recognition. This is no longer so. I write not for recognition but for the joy of the job itself. Diana's approbation is enough. The rest of the parish, or indeed the world can take it or leave it, it matters not. Though, as I like to say, if a donkey looks into the mirror that is this pew sheet he cannot expect an apostle to look out.
In some ways these pewsheets make few concessions to donkeys. They tend to be unashamedly literate and wordy. Although there are cartoons, by and large even these demand a degree of perspicacity and learning to be appreciated. However, having said that, our pewsheets are thoughtfully and carefully conceived and attempts should be made to spread them wider than the congregation. Take several away with you to give to friends. The cartoons, the jokes, the articles, the news, the aphorisms, are all there for a purpose, namely to show the Christian Faith to be what it most definitely is, stimulating, fun, thoughtful, alive, and full of perzazz!
The pewsheets are promotional then. They are not just for our own delectation. They need spreading far and wide.
Someone once complained to me that the front page of a pewsheet should contain a secular cartoon. I explained that pretty well everything in the pewsheet is calculated and it is not only for church attenders. The cartoon is there to catch attention, to pull people deeper in and to turn the page. The front page cartoon is also a useful identification tag. We have observed people calling in to collect pewsheets they have missed and using the cartoons to identify them.
The Christian Faith is stimulating enough to interest even atheists. Although the pewsheet is unlikely to convert anyone, it can nonetheless give a glimpse into why intelligent, sensitive people like us, love our faith, are proud to live it, and might even die for it. So, spread the word. Spread the pewsheet.
I have a soft spot for pigs. This could be one of the most Christian things about me. All Christians should have a soft spot for the underpig. And pigs are always and most unfairly being insulted by unfavourable comparisons to human beings! So why not give pigs a buzz in this high falutin pew sheet?
Pigs are attractive and comical animals. They are very clean. If you allow them enough space in their sties they will never lie or sleep in their own muck, which is more than can be said for donkeys, horses and cows. When a boy I discovered that they have a taste for lumps of coal. Throw into a pig's sty a nog of clean black coal and he'll crunch and crackle it down with relish, as if it were a lump of butterscotch.
The pig in ancient Palestine was the domestic animal only of non-Jews and bad Jews. To the devout Jew the pig was an unclean animal and they would no sooner eat it or sacrifice it than they would a dog.
We don't know why the pig come to be condemned in the Law as unclean. No reason is given in the bible. Most of the nations round about had no scruples about eating or sacrificing pigs. Among the Babylonians the meat was sacred to various gods, and could be eaten at certain feasts. Among the Syrians it was sacred to the god Tammuz. Among the Egyptians the meat was usually taboo, but could be eaten at certain times. Among the Greeks it was the most sacrificed of all animals.
Perhaps the Jewish Law rejected the pig just because of this. Rejection expressed a revulsion from the habits of the nations around the Jews.
Pigs in the bible
The references in the bible to pigs, as you would expect, are not usually complimentary. The wild pig is mentioned for its destructiveness. Apparently it still exists in Palestine, because of course few people will hunt it to eat. In Proverbs there is the striking image of a beautiful woman without discretion being like a golden ring in a pig's snout.
The parable of the Prodigal Son in the New Testament has the younger son becoming a keeper of pigs. This expresses extreme degradation for a Jew. Also in the New Testament is the strange story of the man called Legion possessed by demons. When he is healed by Jesus the demons take possession of a herd of pigs and the pigs gallop over a cliff to their destruction in the sea.
My favourite reference is in St Matthew's Gospel. There Jesus says that pearls are not to be thrown to swine. I love this reference because only too often the beauty of the Gospel and of God are indeed presented to people, who like pigs with pearls, have not the slightest inclination, capacity or will to appreciate them, let alone respond appropriately to them.
You can tell a man that boozes
Because I am fond of pigs and so naturally feel guilty about my love of pork, I leave my piggy subject on a complimentary note to pigs: the famous Irish ditty which goes as follows:
It was an evening in November,
as I very well remember,
I was strolling down the street
in drunken pride,
But my knees were all aflutter,
and I landed in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.
Yes I lay there in the gutter
thinking thoughts I could not utter
When a colleen passing by did softly say:
"Ye can tell a man that boozes
by the company he chooses..."
And the pig got up and walked away.
THIS AND THAT (50)
Surely one of the foulest of all domestic chores is cleaning the oven. We tackled ours on Monday with toxic sprays and grim vigour. The impotence of human ingenuity to provide ordinary householders with an easy answer to oven cleaning surprises me. It is as inexplicable and inexcusable as the inability to eradicate the common cold.
My effectiveness as an oven cleaner increases a little each time I tackle the task. For the first time I took the trays outside into the bright light of day with a bucket of hot water and steel wool. It proved far more speedy than attempting this at the kitchen sink as up until now I have done.
When you are handing over your home to other people for a while, as we are at the end of this month, you do your best to polish the place up a bit. I like to think that this is commendable thoughtfulness rather than mere hypocrisy.
Monday inspired us to other and more stimulating domestic endeavour than oven cleaning. Entry to the Rectory up until now has been through the east facing door into what used to be my little study. These days this room is a mere ante chamber to my larger study next door, but also doubles as a cosy TV room. Neither of us like our main sitting room to be dominated by the vacuous window into the world of celebrity and balderdash that is a television screen.
However we do enjoy watching television sometimes, especially Silent Witness and Wallander. To do so in a room that is the main point of entry into the house and so a thorough-fare is less than satisfactory, so we have made some changes. The window blind that I affixed some years ago to the glass-panelled south facing Rectory door that leads into our hallway I moved on Monday. It is now on the outside door of the little television room, a door to be no longer used for Rectory ingress and regress except in emergencies. The main entry to the Rectory is the door that faces you as you leave the Church through its north side door.
For the first time last week I had a momentary flash of joy at the prospect of a long holiday. As the time of departure grows closer so the deadlines associated with it become more and more demanding and oppressive. This in turn spurs me on to meet them. So the pleasure of achievement ameliorates those oppressive demands, opening the heart to brief bursts of satisfied joy and anticipation.
This and that
I have just read a review of a biography of the acerbic Lillian Hellman, a woman very talented at making enemies. One of these, Mary McCarthy, said of her in a 1979 television interview "every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and' and ‘the'". A friend said that she had a face "that looked like a mouse had died on it." That really is an insult. There is no need to swear if you can come up with put downs like that.
On Saturday the 23rd of June Joan McCann held a party in the Supper Room to celebrate her eightieth birthday. It was a lovely and joyful occasion with Joan radiant and happy. One of the loveliest things about it was its informality and family flavour. Lovely and loving children and grandchildren helped with serving and welcoming and there was only one unaffected, utterly appropriate and lovely little speech. A fine tribute to a remarkable woman.
Most of Tuesday was spent in Wangaratta. Although Bishop in Council begins only at 5.30 in the evening, as a member of "Senior Staff" I have to be there by midday for a meeting that is held usually over lunch. We are a small group of clergy called together each month by the Bishop to discuss diocesan affairs, policy and problems. The meal this time was a particularly splendid one at the home of Father Alan Jarrad. I travelled up with Deacon Grace who needed to visit someone in Beechworth and so there was no danger of falling asleep at the wheel on the way home as is sometimes the case.
Bishops do not have an easy time. For every problem solved several more loom large or even gigantic. We manage to laugh some of these into proportion. When it comes to the trials and tribulations of clergy and their moves from one parish to another, a few of them urgent, nearly all necessary, some of them kicked against and resisted, the clergy chess board becomes a very, complicated matter. Most resistance or obstruction comes from the perspective of a single parish. The good sense and necessity of most moves and appointments can only be seen from a wider and episcopal viewpoint.
I always enjoy meeting up with the Rector of Albury. He is a larger than life, controversial, energetic and hugely effective priest. Without compromising our glorious tradition or stooping to pop culture and shoddy evangel-istic hectoring he remains unfuddy duddy and appears to be filling his church with lovely music, holy smoke as well as people both young and old. The best news in our diocese by far. He has a pony tail, wears a biretta, is as mad as a snake and I love him for it.
I am now writing this column at Wangaratta in the Registry boardroom between Tuesday's two meetings. I am becoming more adept at typing on my little turquoise laptop and grow more confident that it will not inhibit me too much while we are away on holiday.
I had a serious setback last week however. Typing madly away I decided that since I was sharing files with the parish computer on "Dropbox", I needed to "password protect" several files in order to keep them from prying eyes. Who would want strangers perusing one's journal, or finances for example? Sadly, in a fit of carelessness, I must have miss fingered the password I was using and so two files are now forbidden even to my own sight. All possible approximations of the password I thought I had typed in have failed to let me open the files. What is worse, for some reason one of them has become corrupt and so the Word Processor crashes as soon as I attempt to open it! Fortunately I had backups made a week before, and so haven't lost very much.
Last Sunday we were visited for the second time by a group of delightful folk from the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. This is one of the "Mar Thoma" Churches of Kerala in South India. Diana and Michael, her late husband, visited Kerala for two months about fourteen years ago in order to find out more about these fascinating and ancient Churches and so she was particularly delighted to meet them. There is a community of these good Christian folk in Shepparton, made up at present of about thirty five people from eight families. They now have a resident priest, Fr Boby Thomas whose wife has a job here. They would like to use St Augustine's for worship on one day a month, and so with our Parish Council's happy concurrence we have signified our delight in offering them hospitality. From the 7th of July they will be worshipping here on the first Saturday of every month from about 8.30am and taking up probably much of the morning. We hope that this will initiate a mutually enriching relationship between our Church community and theirs.
Tear gas and more
I went to university in tormented times in Rhodesia. While there I experienced my one and only whiff of tear gas as used by police to curb a riot. It is nasty stuff made up, I think, mostly of ammonia. Pungent and acrid, it shrivels, puckers and corrugates the mucous membranes of your nose in so exquisite and excruciating a way that it brings tears to your eyes, as well as a desire to commit murder or suicide or both.
Like tear gas and ammonia, some of the things that I, in my time, have written and said, have had a similar tendency to get up people's noses. I remember some years ago that a whiff of ammoniacal, maniacal Neaum got right up the nose of a prominent bishop in Australia.
I wrote a little piece in a church paper in praise of poverty. It was in relation to one of Jesus' less preached about statements is "Blessed are the poor....". It went on to point out that this was no pious platitude on his part but that he lived it out himself, embracing poverty in his own life. Moreover, he seemed most happy and content in poverty.
Why, the article wondered, does the Church spend so much time, bad-mouthing and vilifying poverty and trying to turn everyone in Australia who is poor, rich? Is the Church being true to its founder? Should we not be demonstrating, like Jesus, the beauty of poverty, instead of constantly nagging governments for bigger welfare payments to help the poor be less poor? Shouldn't we rather be urging poverty upon everyone? Shouldn't we be decreasing bishops' and priests' salaries, to make them more blessedly poor? It being harder for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle? Poor dears. "Blessed are the poor," said Jesus. And meant it.
The good Bishop did not like this at all, and wrote a refutation and the Dean of Ballarat preached a whole sermon vilifying the Gospel of Neaum! It was all very gratifying to someone who likes stirring pots,
But who is right, them or me? I am, of course! Though, as is my wont, I overstated my case.
Certainly blessed and happy poverty needs to be very carefully defined. Poverty to be blessed cannot be synonymous with destitution. It means having little, it does not mean having nothing. There can be nothing blessed about starving, or about being cold or about dying of untreated, treatable diseases.
Happiness and wealth
But having lived for many, many years among very poor people in Africa I have observed that there is as much happiness, contentment, fun and joy among such poor people, as there is among the likes of us. There is also a great deal more genuine and heartfelt religion and spirituality.
Happiness, contentment, the Kingdom of heaven itself, all lie within us, in our hearts and attitudes. They don't lie in possessions and riches. The more possessions and riches we have, then the more worries, distractions and often unhappinesses they tend to bring.
We are to labour says Jesus not for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life. " I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst".
One of the many reasons for coming regularly to church is to take especial note of Jesus of Nazareth, to listen to him and to take account of his teaching and example and love. We also in the quietude of Church attendance, freed from the busy flux of daily life, attempt to get our lives better into perspective and reflect that the most blessed moments in life and the most precious, are not those that bring in our salary or promotion, or possessions, or success, or material reward. Rather they are the little acts of charity and love, the glimpses of beauty, truth and simplicity, expressions of affection like the clasp of a child's hand, the joy in a loved one's eye, the scent of a flower and heart-warming examples of self sacrifice.
So many of us labour for the food which perishes, slave away for hours and hours at the expense of friends, and family, don't take enough time off to invite people round, don't take enough time to visit the miserable or the lonely, don't take enough time to play cards with the children, don't take enough time to sit and read a book worth reading, don't take enough time to listen, to notice, to share a hobby, don't accept what we have with gratitude and joy, don't accept what we are and who we are with gratitude and joy, don't focus and concentrate upon relationships and upon others.
Why? Because we're grimly pursuing either the dollar, or the widely admired tidy, large house and domestic dream of the advertisers. We labour for what brings no profound blessing, material things, success, praise and esteem, food that perishes.
The food which lasts forever, that doesn't perish, is different. Like the bread we receive at the altar rail. Materially pretty well worthless, unlikely to sustain a starving mouse let alone a human being. Spiritually worth everything, representing as it does relationships of love, God, friendship, community, communion.
Prayer and worship are important for bringing such truths back into focus. They help us to take stock, look at the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, and to embrace, accept, rejoice in poverty, to rejoice, that is, in what is non- material, in our relationships, in love, friendship, other people, fun, leisure, hobbies, in beauty, creativity, worship, recreation, in the immaterial, the spiritual, God.
THIS AND THAT (51)
I have been occupied this week in writing and article for "Outreach" as well as a clutch of four funeral homilies. So instead of a proper journal article I print an amusing piece of verse that I have always assumed to be familiar to everyone from my era. Not so it seems.
"The Jackdaw of Rheims" comes from the "Ingoldsby Legends", a copy of which I was given as a boy by the most irascible of my uncles, it is a copy I still have and sometimes take down to enjoy snatches of. The book comprises a collection of myths, legends, ghost stories and poetry, with some splendid Victorian illustrations. It purports to be written by Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor, but this is actually the pen-name of an English clergyman named Richard Harris Barham.
The "legends" first appeared in serial form in a magazine illustrated by John Leech and George Cruikshank, the latter famous for his wonderful illustrations of Dickens' novels.
The Ingoldsby Legends were hugely popular in the nineteenth century but have since fallen into obscurity. They are nonetheless a wonderful read. Several phrases from "The Jackdaw of Rheims" were often quoted by my parents. For example my father, whenever he couldn't find something, was prone to say "Some rascal or other has popp'd in and prigg'd it!" And my mother, a bit of an English language pedant, loved to quote, upon detecting a grammatical solecism: "heedless of grammar, they all cried, ‘THAT'S HIM!'"
Richard Harris Barham was fortunate enough to be one of those priests in a position that required little work of him. He was attached to to the Chapel Royal with ample time to read and compose stories. Although based on real legends and mythology, much of his "Legends" are deliberately humorous parodies or pastiches of medieval folklore and poetry.
THE JACKDAW OF RHEIMS
(Best read out loud to a friend)
The Jackdaw sat on the Cardinal's chair!
Bishop and abbot and prior were there;
Many a monk and many a friar,
Many a knight and many a squire,
With a great many more of lesser degree,
In sooth a goodly company;
And they served the Lord Primate on bended knee.
Never, I ween,
Was prouder seen,
Read of in books, or dreamt of in dreams,
Than the Cardinal Lord Archbishop of Rheims!
In and out
Through the motley rout,
That little Jackdaw kept hopping about;
Here and there
Like a dog in a fair,
Over comfits and cates,
And dishes and plates,
Cowl and cope and rochet and pall,
Mitre and crosier! He hopp'd upon all!
With saucy air,
He perch'd on the chair
Where, in state, the great Lord Cardinal sat
In the great Lord Cardinal's great red hat;
And he peer'd in the face
Of his Lordship's Grace,
With a satisfied look, as if he would say,
"We two are the greatest folks here to-day!"
And the priests, with awe,
As such freaks they saw,
Said, "The Devil must be in that little Jackdaw!"
The feast was over, the board was clear'd,
The flawns and the custards had all disappear'd,
And six little singing-boys - dear little souls!
In nice clean faces and nice white stoles,
Came, in order due,
Two by two,
Marching that grand refectory through!
A nice little boy held a golden ewer,
Emboss'd and fill'd with water, as pure
As any that flows between Rheims and Namur,
Which a nice little boy stood ready to catch
In a fine golden hand-basin made to match.
Two nice little boys, rather more grown,
Carried lavender-water, and eau de Cologne
And a nice little boy had a nice cake of soap,
Worthy of washing the hands of the Pope.
One little boy more
A napkin bore,
Of the best white diaper, fringed with pink
And a Cardinal's Hat mark'd in permanent ink.
The great Lord Cardinal turns at the sight
Of these nice little boys dress'd all in white:
From his finger he draws
His costly turquoise;
And, not thinking at all about little Jackdaws,
Deposits it straight
By the side of his plate,
While the nice little boys on his Eminence wait;
‘Till, when nobody's dreaming of any such thing,
That little Jackdaw hops off with the ring!
There's a cry and a shout,
And a deuce of a rout,
And nobody seems to know what they're about,
But the Monks have their pockets all turn'd inside out.
The Friars are kneeling,
And hunting, and feeling
The carpet, the floor, and the walls, and the ceiling.
The Cardinal drew
Off each plum-colour'd shoe,
And left his red stockings exposed to the view;
He peeps and he feels
In the toes and the heels;
They turn up the dishes; they turn up the plates,
They take up the poker and poke out the grates,
They turn up the rugs,
They examine the mugs:
But, no! - no such thing;
They can't find THE RING!
And the Abbott declared that, "when nobody twigg'd it,
Some rascal or other had popp'd in and prigg'd it!"
The Cardinal rose with a dignified look,
He call'd for his candle, his bell and his book!
In holy anger and pious grief,
He solemnly cursed that rascally thief!
He cursed him at board, he cursed him in bed;
From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head;
He cursed him in sleeping, that every night
He should dream of the devil and wake in a fright;
He cursed him in eating, he cursed him in drinking,
He cursed him in coughing, in sneezing, in winking;
He cursed him in sitting, in standing, in lying;
He cursed him in walking, in riding, in flying,
He cursed him in living, he cursed him in dying!--
Never was heard such a terrible curse!
But what gave rise
To no little surprise,
Nobody seem'd one penny the worse!
The day was gone,
The night came on,
The Monks and the Friars they search'd till dawn;
When the Sacristan saw,
On crumpled claw,
Come limping a poor little lame Jackdaw!
No longer gay,
As on yesterday;
His feathers all seem'd to be turn'd the wrong way;
His pinions droop'd - he could hardly stand,
His head was as bald as the palm of your hand;
His eye so dim,
So wasted each limb,
That, heedless of grammar, they all cried, "THAT'S HIM!
That's the scamp that's done this scandalous thing!
That's the thief that's got my Lord Cardinal's Ring!"
The poor little Jackdaw,
When the Monks he saw,
Feebly gave vent to the ghost of a caw;
And turn'd his bald head, as much as to say,
"Pray, be so good as to walk this way!"
Slower and slower
He limp'd on before,
Till they came to the back of the belfry door,
Where the first thing they saw,
Midst the sticks and the straw,
Was the ring in the nest of that little Jackdaw!
Then the great Lord Cardinal call'd for his book,
And off that terrible curse he took;
The mute expression
Served in lieu of confession,
And, being thus coupled with full restitution,
The Jackdaw got plenary absolution!
When those words were heard,
That poor little bird
Was so changed in a moment, ‘twas really absurd.
He grew sleek and fat;
In addition to that,
A fresh crop of feathers came thick as a mat!
His tail waggled more
Even than before;
But no longer it wagg'd with an impudent air,
No longer he perch'd on the Cardinal's chair.
He hopp'd now about
With a gait devout;
At Matins, at Vespers, he never was out
And, so far from any more pilfering deeds,
He always seem'd telling the Confessor's beads.
If any one lied, - or if any one swore,
Or slumber'd in pray'r-time and happen'd to snore,
That good Jackdaw
Would give a great "Caw!"
As much as to say, "Don't do so any more!"
While many remark'd, as his manners they saw,
That they "never had known such a pious Jackdaw!"
He long lived the pride
Of that countryside,
And at last in the odour of sanctity died;
When, as words were too faint
His merits to paint,
The Conclave determined to make him a Saint;
And on newly-made Saints and Popes, as you know,
It's the custom, at Rome, new names to bestow,
So they canonized him by the name of Jim Crow!
THIS AND THAT (52)
At the start of an important trial, a small town lawyer called his first witness to the stand. She seemed a sweet, elderly lady. The lawyer approached her and asked “Mrs Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. You’ve become a huge disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a brilliant lawyer, when you haven’t the brains to realise you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes I know you.” The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what to do next he pointed across the room and asked, “Do you know the defence lawyer?” She replied “Why, of course I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was youngster, too. I used to baby-sit him for his parents. He too is a real disappointment. He is lazy, bigoted, never has a nice word to say about anybody, and he drinks like a fish. He’s been divorced five times and everybody knows that his law firm is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.” The judge rapped his gavel to quieten the tittering among the spectators in the courtroom. Once the room was silent he called both lawyers to his bench. In a quiet, menacing voice, he warned. “If either of you aks her if she knows me, you’ll be goaled for contempt!”
Do not be anxious
Too many of us, I suspect are frightened, worried, anxious, fearful? In the Gospel we are told not to be. Jesus tells his disciples not to be frightened to have no fear, but he uses examples which, on the face of it, are not very comforting.
Have no fear of those who malign you, he says, “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered....” Well yes, perhaps, but how long before they are uncovered? Not until “thy kingdom come!” So what about the meantime?
‘Don’t fear those who kill the body.....” he says, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Well yes, perhaps, but heavenly bliss in the future doesn’t make the hellish present much less fearful.
“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows....” he says. Well yes, perhaps, but sparrows lead precarious lives. Dropping off the twig is a speciality of little birds. It was even worse, in Jesus’ time, for they were knocked off the twig and eaten by humans, the cheapest of all meats, the tiny turkeys of poor people.
Do not be afraid.....Well yes, perhaps, but sometimes asteroids as big or bigger than a footy pitch narrowly miss thumping in to planet earth. There was one some years ago, you remember. Our astronomers and boffins didn’t see it until a couple of days after it had passed, because, like a Japanese kamikaze pilot, it came out of the sun.
Do not be afraid. Well yes, perhaps, but cancers are cancers, road accidents road accidents, life is short, eternal life unprovable.
Do not be afraid. It is hard not to be!
An aphoristic paradox
What does Jesus offer in the Gospel to allay our fears of mortality and meaninglessness? The nub of his answer lies in the aphorism that ends his “do not worry” admonitions. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, will find it.”
An aphorism is a wise and pithy saying, and this one is so wise and pithy it deserves serious consideration.
It is, of course a paradox. A paradox is a self contradiction. As such it flies in the face of reason. In paradoxes black is declared to be white, white black. Save your life by losing your life. Nonsense. Unutterable nonsense. When you seriously think about it though, perhaps not such nonsense.
For are we are at our very happiest when we have, indeed, lost ourselves, by being utterly absorbed in something other. When we are totally lost in love for a loved one, or in a great enterprise, or project, or in the writing of a marvellous poem, or totally absorbed and lost in improving our garden, or in learning to sing a great song or aria, either for the song’s sake or for someone else’s sake?
We are most truly free, when we shake free from ourselves out of regard for the other. It could well be, that we are freest of all when we shake free of ourselves in love for what is other with a capital “O”, in love, that is, for God. Free, free, free of self, and fears for the self, for the self is forgotten, lost.
One of life’s fundamental principles
Jesus’ paradox is pointing us to one of life’s fundamental principles. Nearly all of us are dissatisfied, unhappy, anxious, melancholic, full of fear, only so long as our whole lives are devoted to protecting, securing, molly-coddling the self, instead of losing the self in the other.
One of Jesus’ prime resources was the Book of Isaiah. Sixty six chapters of sometimes repetitious prophesy, admonition and poetry. Written, we think, by at least three Isaiahs. Parts of it though, are indescribably beautiful and significant. Some of these appear to have helped Jesus to focus his role and identity as Messiah: Isaiah says: I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.....
That little snippet comes from several remarkable passages known as the ‘Suffering Servant’ passages. In these suffering accepted is shown to achieve a kind of redemption.
Jesus of Nazareth, actually lived out his startling aphorism, Save your life to lose it. Lose your life to save it. He did offer his back to those who struck, his cheek to those who tore the beard. He did offer his face to insult and spittle, his life to death, by crucifixion. He took the ultimate gamble on the truth of his aphorism and lived and died for it and by it.
He lost his life. Did he find it again? Easter day, declares the answer to be “Yes!”
The great challenge
We his followers, just as he did, are challenged to take our gamble on the ultimate truth of his aphorism, and either trim our lives to living by it, or not.
The aphorism obviously contains relative truth, for we are all of us, indisputably, at our most blessed, when lost to the self and found in the other. Lost in some great artistic enterprise, in the plot of a marvellous play, in the loveliness of a perfect melody, in the adoration of a loved one. We do indeed find life in the losing of it.
But is this life’s very purpose? Can we take the big gamble on it? Is my whole life to be the losing of self in the other and God, in battling with natural or original selfishness, with greed, egotism, meanness? Does to do so carry eternal consequences?
Jesus’ vindication, his Resurrection, shouts “Yes!” But the Resurrection was no clear-cut, ordinary event. It also, obviously, had its ambiguities, ambivalences, mysteries. It didn’t, for example, convince Ananias or Caiaphas.
So we are left with a decision. To take the ultimate gamble or not. To lose our life to save it. To save our life to lose it. To spit out the aphorism or to swallow and digest it. To take it as our guiding principle in life, and walk the path of Jesus of Nazareth, the way of the Cross, the path of the perfect love that casts our fear, wholeheartedly, fully converted, worshipping and loving, with Jesus of Nazareth in his sweet Church.
Insofar as my life is satisfactory and lovely it is because I have taken that decision and said my “Yes” to Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
THIS AND THAT (53)
When Jonathan Swift (yet another of the Anglican Church’s so many mad, splendid, sad priest-geniuses) was shown in old age something he had written when young, he remarked: “Good God! What a genius I had when I wrote that book!”
Oom yacka wurka
Faced with blank-page aridity and so in search of inspiration I have just reread the pewsheet I put together before I left for my last trip overseas. Among its many felicities was a transcript of the speech I made at my grand farewell “Boomerang Party”. As I read it, what should come to mind but Swift’s comment on his own youthful genius? The word “youthful” hardly applies in my case of course, for I penned the talk a mere couple of years ago, but the word “genius”, well, um, ah, hmm, (modest blush, self-deprecatory “ahem, ahem”, and a flurry of none too serious protestations as to my essential common-placeness).
To save precious time I am tempted to dish it up again in this week’s pewsheet, but as it is on the website entitled “OOM YACKA WURKA” to do so would be superfluous and a sign of unutterable desperation.
On this Monday morning as I write, the Confirmation is now behind us and it is a mere two weeks before we leave. I flounder beneath a welter of deadlines to be met and tasks to be done. Yet just now and then I detect within myself the merest trace, as elusive as the Higgs bosan, of “an unbearable lightness of being”. It is the first heartfelt and genuine twinge of holiday anticipation.
Confirmations involve weeks and weeks of preparation. There are adult “classes” and junior “classes” which take place for months before the actual Confirmation itself.
Mercifully the grim days of hordes of sullenly resentful and reluctant children being presented for preparation have long gone. Few parents nowadays retain sufficient residual Christianity to consider it expedient to steam-roller their children through the process that culminates in Confirmation. By and large these days junior classes are made up of children from actively Anglican, Christian homes. This means that candidates tend to be bright, well brought up and thoroughly delightful. Qualities characteristic of active Anglicans!
Certainly this has been the case this year. Diana took under her wing the group of eight candidates and found them keen, eager, lively, fun-filled, intelligent and responsive.
She chalked herself up into being a full time teacher when a new mother in Lesotho, many years ago. She remains extremely thorough, pays great attention to detail, is imaginative, graphic and creative. She is also far, far less verbally bound than I am. Her sessions this year attempted to link all that she was teaching to the fabric, symbolism and artwork in our lovely church. Her classes also involved invitations to a variety of parishioners to participate in a weekly session to get to know the youngsters and be known by them.
Candidates have also been encouraged to roster up and immerse themselves in Sunday worship. There should be much that this year's candidates retain, not least a realisation that their faith is grounded in and centred around something local, lovely and very real. Diana also took under her wing a late-coming adult candidate in Siobahn, who is already a committed and delightful server.
The adults classes on Thursday nights were taken by myself. There were four of us in all: Dianne Gribble, who like me was confirmed years ago but decided to accompanied her husband Gavin Gall and also Stacey Anderson from Kyabram. Our sessions were so good and lively that I almost regret the end of them. We talked animatedly about the Faith and much else as well. They really were delightful evenings. Thank you to the happy trio who, as so often is the case, turned my work into pleasure and therefore leisure.
I write this column listening to the music of Carl Maria Ditters von Dittersdorf. I love his name. It is almost as much music to my ears as are his many compositions. He lived from 1739 to 1799 and so is a representative of that all too short high classical period between the baroque and romantic eras. He was the music teacher of Johann Baptist Vanhal, another favourite of mine. The 8.30am congregation are familiar with Vanhal because whenever my daughter Elizabeth plays the organ here she invariably includes a melodic little piece by him which she knows I love. In years gone by I used to sit on the piano stool with her encouraging her to apply herself to learning this particular piece of music and much else. There is a report of Haydn, Dittersdorf, Mozart and Vanhal played string quartets together in 1785, the witness commenting that they played well but that the performance was not outstanding.
On Monday, possibly in response to that sense of “an unbearable lightness of being”, I splashed out and bought a book on my Kindle. A couple of clicks and hey presto, it was here in my hands, all the way from London, within thirty seconds! I will be taking all the books I want to read on holiday on this one little electronic booklet called a Kindle. Amazing.
The book I bought was Maurice Bowra: A Life, by Leslie Mitchell. Bowra was an Oxford don upon whom I come across in my reading over and over again. His life and times in Oxford I am particularly interested in.
Though he would have liked to be considered a poet in his own right and was a friend and supporter of those who were, he himself appears to have written only “sharp satires, in verse, on his friends (and sharper still on his enemies)”. It has been said of him that “.....his prose was unreadable and his verse was unprintable.” One of his most successful verses is a Betjemanesque parody of John Betjeman himself, who apparently had choked with emotion when presented with a literary prize by Princess Margaret in 1958 (as with all parodies you need to be familiar with what is parodied fully to appreciate it):
Green with lust and sick with shyness,
Let me lick your lacquered toes.
Gosh, oh gosh, your Royal Highness,
Put your finger up my nose,
Pin my teeth upon your dress,
Plant my head with watercress.
Only you can make me happy.
Tuck me tight beneath your arm.
Wrap me in a woollen nappy;
Let me wet it till it's warm.
In a plush and plated pram
Wheel me round St James's, Ma'am.
Let your sleek and soft galoshes