Tag Archives: John Betjeman

7 April, Desert XXXVII: Fear 6, the watches of the night.

Church and graveyard of St Mary, Nonnington, Kent.

My brother has a small business with just a few employees. One of them, a smoker with compromised lungs, phoned him in the early hours of the morning. This man had developed a cough which he was worried might be the Corona Virus and he was self-isolating at home.

What struck my brother most was the palpable fear in the man’s voice and his words: at 2.00 a.m. What thoughts went through his head? There are times when Faith is challenged in the face of death. Here is Sir John Betjeman among the mourners at Aldershot Crematorium.

But no-one seems to know quite what to say

   (Friends are so altered by the passing years):

“Well, anyhow, it’s not so cold today”—

   And thus we try to dissipate our fears.

‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’:

Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife.

Betjeman knew doubt and fear: so did Jesus in the Garden:

And they came to a farm called Gethsemane. And he saith to his disciples: Sit you here, while I pray. And he taketh Peter and James and John with him; and he began to fear and to be heavy. And he saith to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death; stay you here, and watch. Mark 14:32-34.

Let us pray that all facing an unlooked-for death may face their end with due courage and may the Angels welcome them into Paradise.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, Easter, Lent

20 April: Telling the Truth IV: Poetry.

path.charlottenberg.mausoleum

A few more thoughts on telling the truth. It is not just setting the facts down – that is always going to be a selective exercise, and an interpretive one, as I am discovering writing my biography of Arthur Hughes. Poetry is truth telling in yet another mode. Here is John Betjeman, sometime Poet Laureate:

What poetry is, I do not quite know. Maybe it is the right words in the right order. For me it requires rhythm and, as an extra flourish, rhyme. It is the shortest and the most memorable way of saying what you want said.

In Lovely bits of Old England. Gavin Fuller, Ed. London, Aurum, 2012.  P96.

Betjeman was building on a previous poet’s definition:

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Note the link between Fran Horner’s quest for succinctness (see yesterday’s post) and Betjeman’s  ‘shortest and most memorable’ way of saying something!

With that, I’ll hush up!

MMB

Charlottenberg Park, Berlin.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

Light VI: Silent as light.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

IMGP5519 (425x640)

To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee.

Walter Chalmers Smith.

John Betjeman commented on the first line of this hymn, ‘Happily wisdom isn’t the only attribute of God – clever people can be very tiresome.’ He has a point: all the apocalyptic imagery here can be off-putting. Nevertheless, I return to the last line, ‘only the splendour of light hideth Thee.’ Light pollution can be physical but also mental and spiritual.

Like Newman, we should be wary of the garish day, and join Vaughan, deciphering the glimmers in the night sky – after all, until GPS came in the stars were used for navigation, even leading the Wise Men to Jesus. If it is dark outside, may we trust with Therese and John of the Cross, who   ‘had neither guide nor light, except the one shining in my heart’, who will lead us home.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, poetry

July 9; Relics VII: Wow! And is it true?

256px-Sainte_Chapelle_-_Upper_level_1

The case of Saints Jucundina and Verecunda at Folkestone illustrates why relics are looked at sideways by many of us. If we know nothing of these two women, however can we call them saints? And how is it that John the Baptist has at least three heads (my daughter Naomi having visited two of them)? Understandably, today the Church insists that it is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful credibility placed beneath it.[1]

Father Knox reminded us on Monday that ‘people used to use relics rather freely in the Middle Ages’, so it was worth bringing some home from one’s pilgrimage or crusade. Louis IX of France came back to Paris with the Crown of Thorns and built the Sainte Chapelle to house it. Was it truly the Crown of Thorns? He thought so.

La Sainte Chapelle has the ‘wow’ factor to get into all the guide books, but the Crown of Thorns means more than the building – and yet, even if it was truly Christ’s Crown of Thorns – it means less than the answer to John Betjeman’s question:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.[2]

It matters not if the bread and wine are consecrated by a bishop in la Sainte Chapelle, or on a rickety table by a military chaplain, or in a parish church somewhere near you. God lives today in the Universal Church; that is you and me and all saints, living and dead. Relics can remind us of that but they are no substitute for the daily miracle of the Eucharist. And far less of a challenge to us as we live our lives from day to day.

Saint John the Baptist:                           Pray for us.

Saint Louis of France:                           Pray for us.

All saints, known or unknown today:      Pray for us.

[1] Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, Chapter II, 5

[2] John Betjeman, ‘Christmas’.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sainte_Chapelle_-_Upper_level_1.jpg Didier B (Sam67fr)

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, poetry

12 May, Thursday:Young Witnesses

It is Saint Pancras’ feast today. This was the starting point for this group of blogs. His station now is a place of great beauty, cleaned, restored; endowed with new responsibilities in the shape of European, Kentish and cross-London trains.

Before this great labour of love, inspired by Sir John Betjeman whose statue forever admires the station roof, there was a Greek-owned fish and chip shop in one of the arches on the Euston Road. One day I noticed an ikon of Agios Pankras behind the counter, and pleased the server by reading the title aloud.

As exiles they must have felt close to Pancras, a Greek immigrant to Rome, a teenager caught up in the persecutions, like next month’s martyrs of Uganda. Without wishing martyrdom on any of them, we underestimate our young people and what they could do when challenged. We should recognise that they are fully alive already, and indeed prepared for life’s challenges, so they should be endowed with new responsibilities. Pancras was a martyr at 14, my parents were earning their living at 14. I taught catechism at that age, I took my turn as MC at Mass.

We risk prolonging immaturity and alienation when we extend compulsory education to what must seem like infinity to non-academically minded young people.

At least the Church could offer them a few responsible voluntary ministries, couldn’t it; couldn’t we? And who knows where will they go on to, after helping at our station for a while?

 

MMB.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections

11 May, Wednesday: God’s Wonderful Railway?

kwvr.gwr (640x341)

I wrote disparagingly of commuters the other day; at least those who deplored being on the train to work. Today, I was in that number, when the saints go snoozing in; even sitting on the floor I snoozed. But the train got me to the end of the line: ‘our last and final destination’ as a guard on the Manchester to London run likes to announce.

I was now awake enough to start composing this mea culpa in my head!

To paraphrase John Betjeman, the saviour of St Pancras station:

The old South-Eastern Railway shakes,

The old South-Eastern Railway spins –

The old South- Eastern Railway makes

Me very sorry for my sins.

(See his ‘Distant View of a Provincial Town’).

Sometimes in life we are carried along, all but willy-nilly, all but unaware of who is next to us, where we are going, of anything but our own fatigue, depression or pain. Though we may not acknowledge it, at such times other people make life possible: our families, the shop workers who are the last link in the food chain that begins in farms across the world; the driver and guard on the train.

Just as the Mancunian guard’s announcement can elicit a prayer that we will reach a last and final destination more humane and divine than London Euston, so we can give thanks for the food we eat and the many people who make that meal possible. Such prayers hardly need words or thought. I suggest that if we dig out a smile and a friendly word for the train guard or the checkout worker, we can hope that at journey’s end the Lord will not have to dig too deep for a smile and friendly word, even if we have snoozed half way to heaven, missing many delights and many opportunities as we go.

MMB.

*Betjeman was writing of a journey on the Great Western Railway, ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’ to Bristolians! The picture shows a GWR engine at work in the South East on the Kent & East Sussex Railway.

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections, poetry

20 March: Palm Sunday

strasb.palm (270x393)

In this panel from Strasbourg Cathedral, Jesus himself seems to be carrying a palm branch – symbol, as we know, of martyrdom.

bofflesmem
And here we see the martyrs’ palm engraved on the War Memorial in Boffles, Picardy, France. These  men might have paraded through crowds in Amiens on their way to the front, and are counted as ‘morts pour la Patrie’ – dead for France.

1914-18 did much to tear the heart from Christian Europe: too many clergy supported their own country’s War. Too many people died and suffered.

How do we face that? We remember that Christ rode into Jerusalem as Prince of Peace; that he would not let his disciples fight; that he told Pilate his Kingdom was not of this world.

Holy Week sees the would-be Messiah and liberator snuffed out by High Priest and Roman Governor, his followers broken, betraying themselves as well as him.

We too betray him and his Kingdom: that is, if he was who he said he was: the Prince of Peace, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

If his claim is true:

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

John Betjeman, Christmas.

stbartspalm (364x309)If true, it changes everything. God lived a human life in Palestine, unto the bitter cup of disappointment and death.

 

We will never understand human wickedness and sin, however much suffering we see. But let us not despair: the palm was awarded to the martyrs because it was the symbol of victory in the ancient world.

Your redeemer comes, riding on a donkey, go out to meet him! Matthew 21:5; Zechariah 9:9.

The disciples’ courage after Easter testifies to the truth of what they learned about Jesus. Tradition says that Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed alive. This panel from his church in Chichester, shows his initials either side of the skinner’s knife, surrounded by palms. Picture: NAIB.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Daily Reflections