With my work on Archbishop Arthur Hughes I’m finding how what is left out of a story can change the reader’s perception even without the narrator meaning to do so. I well remember how my daughters would complain if a paragraph was left out of a well-loved bedtime story!
There are details that give a more rounded picture of the human being but which are unlikely to appear in official obituaries. Arthur Hughes, as Papal Nuncio in Egypt, writing to his sister – a nun and a headmistress – about a forthcoming world heavyweight boxing match, or punning in French about his post in Egypt (before it was confirmed) ‘My position here is provisional, I am in effect near Cairo/precarious’.
‘Ma situation ici doit être provisoire; je suis, en effet, près Caire.’
We’ve met Fran Horner before: she works at the John Rylands library in Manchester on Dom Sylvester Houedard OSB, monk, artist and poet. Now she has turned up some odds and ends that bring him to life in ways that supplement words on a page. Read and reflect!
Dom Sylvester’s bus ticket
AWH is front row, centre; about to leave for Uganda in 1933.
We are reflecting on the kind of knowledge that the saints have and we are looking at the theological virtue of faith. It seems to me that there is a wonderful simplicity about the quality of ‘knowing’ that goes with faith. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that God is simple: God is, he says, and “faith grasps that in a simple act” (II.II Q 1:2). Faith has content, then, and that content is God Himself.
Faith is not wishful thinking. It circumscribes and protects a relationship with God. That is what it contains. Once this content has been grasped in what Thomas calls a ‘simple act’ we also find, he says, that faith does involve knowing on a more ordinary level. Faith inspires us to learn about God and his life, to discover what He has revealed, to learn about the articles of belief, and so on. And, this kind of inquiry gives joy, I find. And increases love. Here it becomes possible to see the interconnection of theological virtues. Love of God is increased through the kinds of study that are an expression of faith.
Thomas goes on: it follows that, “…it is proper to the believer to think with assent.” Let’s pause here. It is proper to the believer to think with assent. This is not the way we learned to think in school. Ordinarily, thought means taking a stance not of assent but of disagreement. It goes something like this: ‘Why should I believe that any given statement is true? Chances are, you are trying to get something out of me that is not in my best interests to give.’ Now that may well be true, and faith does not mean that we abandon all capacity for critical distance in relation to the outside world. But faith is not really a dialogue with the outside world per se. It is a dialogue with God. Therefore, a different kind of thought process goes with it.
St. Thomas explains: “The act of believing is distinguished from all the other acts of the intellect, which are about determining the true and the false. In faith, [by contrast] we accept that what God has revealed is true” (II.II Q 2: 1). Why? Because God is Truth. It is simply not necessary to doubt this. On the contrary, faith calls us to absorb God’s truth more and more fully.
We met the poet John Betjeman again last month. He was a devout Anglican, if one beset by awareness of his own sinfulness as well as intellectual doubts. In his autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells he wrote:
What seemed to me a greater question then
Tugged and still tugs: Is Christ the Son of God?
Betjeman was also aware of the natural aversion of people to self examination and repentance. We can see it in all sorts of situations of course; he exposes this hypocrisy in a Church community. Let’s take note, not just how we treat our clergy, but also in all our dealings. I’d recommend seeking out the poem as well. I feel I am at times guilty of trying to ‘keep us bright and undismayed’, mea culpa!
Blame the Vicar
When things go wrong it’s rather tame
To find we are ourselves to blame,
It gets the trouble over quicker
To go and blame things on the Vicar.
The Vicar, after all, is paid
To keep us bright and undismayed.
Thomas Becket did not keep King Henry bright and undismayed.
Life is always in process, and all possible developments cannot be foreseen; there is a time-lag between the first experience of a new way and the discussions of theologians, and then the new way of formulating a doctrine. This means that the practice of the faithful will be in place before official pronouncements; which means that even when the pronouncements are made, life will again have moved beyond that point and the theologians will be trying to follow life.
However, some seem to think that the developments that happened in the past completed everything, save a few minor points. Before Vatican II this was a widely accepted view; but anyone who has taken care to read the documents of Vatican II will see how development of doctrine is very much a work in process; with any issue being revisited for further discussion. As regards the past we can judge what in fact true development was. For the present and the future we must live with risk, not having access to absolute certainty. This means remaining open to truth, no matter from whom or from what it may come. Just another way of saying – we live by faith and not by sight.
Life and growth of the Church, including the development of her teaching, cannot be without conflict; sometimes conflict is painful, but need not involve bitterness or hostility – exclusions and condemnations are not necessary. Those who have most furthered the doctrine of the Church have usually been persons who acted discreetly and patiently, without fearing the truth of their own experience, insight and learning.
My apologies for being gloomy on Good Shepherd Sunday! I was listening to the Gospel reading, until the words about the hired man running away when life got difficult.
It came home to me that public servants are now treated simply as hirelings. Successive governments have eroded the conception of vocation, checking simply whatever inspectors can measure. They price up every task and every worker but know the value of none: teacher, nurse, doctor, probation officer, bus driver. Mammon, alias the Market, is god in Britain.
Many find it hard to reconcile their sense of their vocation with these measurements. All too easily creeps in a culture of deceit. I have seen official advice to primary school teachers not to be generous in early assessments so that children can make progress – on paper. Something similar must be at work, if unconsciously, a few years into a child’s career. I’ve lost count of meetings where secondary teachers tell their primary colleagues their assessments are too generous, ‘so-and-so is a level or more beneath where you had her.’ While accusing neither of conscious dishonesty, both have an incentive to show that their school is enabling the pupil to progress through the levels.
And will the pupil become a better spouse, parent, neighbour, worker for all that measuring?
Many staff who leave cite overwork – especially paperwork – as a factor in their decision. What lies behind this is that they feel expendable, not valued. I am blessed to be at the natural end of my career but still able to work at the margins, where I pick up Pope Francis’s famous ‘smell of the sheep’, working one-to-one with young people who cannot get on with school. I’m not sure I could.
There’s no disguising the weather in which this mountain shepherd is gathering his sheep. On the slopes of Pen-y-fan, Brecon, Wales.
Today is the feast of Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. You can read about him at Anglican Resources. There, too, you can find this prayer.
I pray that I may so know you and love you
that I may rejoice in you.
And if I may not do so fully in this life
let me go steadily on
to the day when I come to that fullness …
Let me receive
That which you promised through your truth,
that my joy may be full
Some of the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral is from Anselm’s time (1093-1109).
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!
Charlottenberg Park, Berlin.
I recently read an article by a researcher at the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Fran Horner tells about her work. Do follow the link, especially if you enjoy being surprised poetically, and to follow up the short extract here.
Ms Horner has this to say about a particular mode of telling the truth:
It has been interesting learning about what categories of information are essential for the catalogue, for example: publisher, year published, volume and editor are all extremely important; whether I liked or disliked the poems… not so important. I have also discovered things about the appropriate type of language and structure I must use within the catalogue: the language must be succinct and consistent to ensure its reliability and usefulness as a finding aid. In the future, researchers may be using my catalogue!
Note the duty not to misinform her readers; readers she will almost surely never meet!
Let us never be slapdash with regard to truth: we may feel we are telling the truth, but are our words -and actions – as Ms Horner says, reliable witnesses in other people’s ears and eyes?
The Reader, Zakopane, Poland.
Edward Ardizzone was employed as an official War Artist during World War II, serving in North Africa, including El Alamein, then the invasion of Italy and the Normandy Landings. How does an artist convey the horrors and humanity of War? Ardizzone’s soldiers and civilians are human, drawn with a loving understanding of our fallen but persistently rising nature. This picture shows a scene on the beaches during the Normandy Landings and is from the Imperial War Museum, released on the public domain.
A couple of months before he had confided in his diary:
[I] have a feeling that painters should not be interested in metaphysics – should be simple people entirely absorbed in what they do. If they are big themselves, what they do is big – if little, little; but only a matter of degree like major and minor poets and not to be bothered about. A comforting doctrine for me who am feeling incredibly small at the moment.
Let us pray that sometime today we may experience the grace of being entirely absorbed in what we do: loving what we do, as Ardizzone loved his work and the humans he was painting.
Diary of a War Artist, Edward Ardizzone, Bodley Head, 1974. Worth seeking out.
JESUS FALLS AGAIN
A Lawyer who tried to trip Jesus up in his teaching sees him fall on the way to Calvary. The story is told in Luke, 10, 25-37
I know this man, I almost wish I didn’t. I helped to bring him to this, but I never wanted it.
Look at him, covered in mud and bruises, he can hardly see for blood and sweat.
Remember the story he told when I was arguing with him? The traveller battered half to death, no-one to help him but the Samaritan.
Even with that big African helping to carry the cross, Jesus will not survive. No-one can do much for him.
At least that woman has wiped his poor face but still he falls.
And gets up and goes on.
Let us Pray :
Lord, never let us forget that you are there, even among the most desperate people, and those we seem unable to help : at home, at school, at work ; in the street and in the wider world.
Lord in your mercy, hear our Prayer.