Tag Archives: perfection

9 January: Follow the Verger

Here’s another story by Eddie Gilmore from the Irish chaplaincy blog. I recall all too well the tension felt when acting as MC, master of ceremonies, at the old Latin High Mass. The priest, deacon and subdeacon – in daily life all three priests, but concelebration had not been heard of back then – would sit during the singing of the Gloria and Creed, wearing their birettas, rather odd black hats, which had to be removed at certain points as a sign of respect. And at a signal from the MC, who stood beside them, his – yes, his – hands together in prayer. Get it wrong – well, it depended on who was celebrant what might be said afterwards in the sacristy. So I appreciated Eddie’s reflection that follows!

I was spending the weekend in York with Ann and Andy, old friends from Uni. Thanks to Andy being a verger at the Minster I got to sit with Ann in a prominent position for the service, and afterwards got invited to join the vergers and their partners for a drink in one of York’s many olde worlde pubs. They were a great bunch and it was a fascinating insight into what happens ‘behind the scenes’ in a major cathedral. A verger, by the way, is the person in the Anglican tradition who leads the celebrants to their position before and during a service. They hold aloft a virge which is a kind of long rod, and they walk very slowly and solemnly, which means that the procession behind them also walks very slowly and solemnly. The tradition, I believe, is from the middle ages when cathedrals would be filled with people milling around and the verger would almost literally have to barge their way through the throngs to get the celebrants to the altar. Nowadays it’s purely ceremonial and it’s all done with almost military style precision. The vergers even have ear pieces so they can communicate with each other regarding exactly when to set off with the procession and when they need to ‘land’ in a particular place.

There were lots of good stories from the vergers about occasions when things hadn’t quite gone according to plan. Andy told of how a verger once led the procession the wrong way at the beginning of a big important service. The other vergers were looking on helplessly as their colleague (perhaps overawed by the occasion) led the motley crew of choristers, priests and bishops first one way then another until everyone finally arriving at the altar. I told in a recent blog of the day a few months back when Evensong began again in Canterbury Cathedral following the lockdown restrictions. It was in the huge nave instead of the choir and the verger hesitated on the way in, and the Dean and canons behind her came to a temporary halt. I knew straight away what had happened and sent a message to Ann later on: “Tell Andy that the verger didn’t know where to go!”

I’m sometimes not that keen on big solemn church services, where everything is perfectly choreographed but it’s almost too perfect to the extent that I feel like I can’t really be myself. One of the riches of my years at L’Arche was being alongside people who really knew how to be themselves (i.e. people with a learning disability), even in church settings and even if it may have invoked some feelings of discomfort in those around them. Back in the early 90s I used sometimes to go with one of the learning-disabled women in my house to her local church and sometimes during the service my friend, who was very tactile, would get up and walk towards the vicar and give him a big hug. And that memory is especially poignant now in this time when we cannot share physical touch with one another. Another woman who I accompanied occasionally to that same church would let out a big scream just as the gospel reading was coming to an end (i.e. just before the homily). I would have to take her into the hall for a cup of tea and she was happy to return for the remainder of the service. It meant I also got an early cup of tea and didn’t have to sit through a long sermon, so everyone was a winner!

When things don’t go exactly according to plan it makes it all a bit more human somehow. And who could have planned how and where, according the Christian tradition, God chose to be revealed in the world: as a tiny baby born to unmarried parents in a smelly stable in a backwater town on the fringes of the Roman empire. The kingdom of God is indeed an upside-down kingdom.

And so if occasionally the verger leads the celebrants the wrong way, then in my view we’re all the richer and all the more human for it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent and Christmas, Daily Reflections, L'Arche, Mission, PLaces

16 March, Desert XIX: Detached lives

crux (427x528)

In the hands of the wicked

Revisiting ‘The Imitation of Christ’ after many years, in my Grandmother’s 1936 edition, I realise that it is very self-centred. Here Thomas A Kempis takes the Desert Fathers and Mothers as examples of the Christian life; ‘They hated their lives on earth that they might have life in eternity. ‘ Is that what the Lord asks of us? Do we have to be strangers to the world in order to be intimate friends of God? I think not. Walking in charity and patience surely demands that we live in the world, and love the people in it and indeed the whole of creation, and our own life in it. Loving God’s creation which we can see, is to love the God we cannot see. Love of creation, rather than contempt for it, will bring us back from the brink of destruction. But here is The Imitation: I hope the time spent reading it is profitable!

Consider the lively examples set us by the saints, who possessed the light of true perfection and religion, and you will see how little, how nearly nothing, we do. What, alas, is our life, compared with theirs?

The saints and friends of Christ served the Lord in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in work and fatigue, in vigils and fasts, in prayers and holy meditations, in persecutions and many afflictions. How many and severe were the trials they suffered — the Apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all the rest who willed to follow in the footsteps of Christ! They hated their lives on earth that they might have life in eternity.

How strict and detached were the lives the holy hermits led in the desert! …  They used all their time profitably; every hour seemed too short for serving God, and in the great sweetness of contemplation, they forgot even their bodily needs …

Strangers to the world, they were close and intimate friends of God. To themselves they seemed as nothing, and they were despised by the world, but in the eyes of God they were precious and beloved. They lived in true humility and simple obedience; they walked in charity and patience, making progress daily on the pathway of spiritual life and obtaining great favour with God. They were given as an example for all religious, and their power to stimulate us to perfection ought to be greater than that of the lukewarm to tempt us to laxity.

Taken from the translation by Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton, Digitized by Harry Plantinga, planting@cs.pitt.edu, 1994. This etext is in the public domain.

2 Comments

Filed under Daily Reflections, Lent