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Faith

Pope Francis – A Man Of His Word

Monday, 16 April, 2018 0 Comments

German director Wim Wenders will be back at the Festival de Cannes (8 to 19 May) with a new documentary titled Pope Francis – A Man Of His Word. According to Wenders, it’s “a personal journey with Pope Francis rather than a traditional biographical film about him. A rare co-production with the Vatican, the pope’s ideas and his message are central to this documentary, which sets out to present his work of reform and his answers to today’s global questions from death, social justice, immigration, ecology, wealth inequality, materialism, and the role of the family.”

Note: Today is the 91st birthday of retired Pope Benedict XVI. Felix dies Natalis tibi!


Buona Pasqua!

Sunday, 1 April, 2018 0 Comments

Easter Sunday dawns to the choir of Clare College Cambridge celebrating the Resurrection. Aurora lucis rutilat is a unique example of Venetian polychoral technique in motet form by the Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus. Happy Easter!


Sabato Santo

Saturday, 31 March, 2018 0 Comments

Questo è il giorno che arriva prima o poi nella nostra vita
quando la tenebra sembra vincere sulla luce,
ogni porta è chiusa e sbarrata,
il silenzio inghiotte ogni voce
e la morte sembra aver l’ultima parola.
Ma noi speriamo la luce al di là della porta chiusa!

Enzo Bianchi

Ma noi speriamo la luce al di là della porta chiusa!

For our friend Jim Martin, because we all hope for the light beyond the closed door.


The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John

Friday, 30 March, 2018 0 Comments

This powerful image of by Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen was painted around 1624 for a Catholic “hidden church” in the city of Utrecht, where Catholicism was tolerated but not encouraged. The colour combinations and the light evoke Ter Brugghen’s experience of Caravaggio in Rome, but the angular figure of Christ and the reverential figures of Mary and John are very much his own. The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John expresses the devotional intensity that Good Friday has evoked down the centuries.

Good Friday


Last Suppers

Thursday, 29 March, 2018 0 Comments

Today, Holy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. That simple meal of bread and wine was to be the last time he dined with his disciples.

The English journalist A. A. Gill set out to write about “Last Suppers” in September 2009, but he abandoned the project on the grounds that it was one of those things like “Make a list of the 10 sexiest women ever.” He said: “You have all the anxiety of choice but none of the pleasure of execution.” So, in the middle of the project he switched from last suppers to the challenge of picking the food he would choose for the rest of his life, if he had to live with other people’s national cuisine. Gill couldn’t settle on one, so he picked four regional cuisines:

South-west France: “Foie gras and cassoulet, all sorts of duck, figs and Roquefort… This is the food of old Gascony, of Cyrano de Bergerac: a cuisine for the last leg of life, of post-prandial naps, of meals that soak into each other, of a languid, replete and easy life. I could live with that.”

Northern Italy: “Piedmont and the Po Valley, where they grow rice, make risottos, collect truffles, cook with butters, lard and the light olive oil of Genoa and have the youngest veal. I’d have to stretch it a bit to Parma, to take in hams, cheese and ice-cream, but that would do me.”

The North-West Frontier: “The mountainous, tribal lands of Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan: the very best lamb curries, biryanis, pilaus, apricots and quail, Peshawari naan, yoghurt and pomegranate juice eaten with gusto and arguments.”

Vietnam: “I love the food of Vietnam. It is an ideal combination of delicacy and panache. It has enormous variety of flavours and textures without being irredeemably twee. It’s refined but it’s also assertive. It has tiny little finger food and dog.”

In the end, Gill came to the following conclusion: “If you’re going to have a perfect food retirement, it would be Vietnam for breakfast, northern Italy for lunch and then alternately south-west France and the North-West Frontier for dinner.”

Background: A. A. Gill died of cancer in London in December 2016, at the age of 62. Adrian Anthony Gill was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29 and he followed the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) “12-step plan” to recovery. In tribute to the fellowship, he began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. His finest writing is collected in The Best of A. A. Gill and it covers his observations on food, television, life and travel.

The Last Supper


Bob Dylan: Trouble No More

Monday, 26 March, 2018 0 Comments

Back in 1979, Bob Dylan announced to the world that he had converted to Christianity. He then became a man of The Word, touring inexorably, performing concerts only of songs that expressed his born-again message. One of the concerts was filmed but the material was never released. There was talk in recent times that it might form basis for a documentary, but Dylan intervened and demanded the commissioning of a series of “sermons” to be preached between the songs before the film could be screened. The writer Luc Sante was contracted to compose the sermons and Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon was cast as the Preacher. Jennifer LeBeau was tasked, as they say, with directing the “gospel service.” The result, Bob Dylan: Trouble No More, will be shown on Good Friday night on BBC Four. Praise the Lord!

“She said, ‘This man, this man, He must be a prophet’
She said, ‘This man, this man, He must be a prophet’
She said, ‘This man, this man, He must be a prophet’
‘He done told me everything I’ve ever done'”


Patrician peak

Saturday, 17 March, 2018 0 Comments

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh go léir! (Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you all!)

The holiest mountain in Ireland is Croagh Patrick, five miles from the town of Westport and overlooking island-dotted Clew Bay. According to local belief, Saint Patrick fasted for forty days and nights on the summit during Lent in the year 441 AD, and on the last Sunday in July every year (“Reek Sunday”), pilgrims from near and far climb the mountain in honour of Saint Patrick.

In 1972, the great Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka climbed Croagh Patrick and captured the quintessence of rural Irish Catholicism in one iconic image. The kneeling pilgrims pictured are, from left to right, Sean Pheat Mannion, Paddy Kenny and Martin Mannion from Connemara. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam.

Croagh Patrick


A day for shriving, for making shrift

Tuesday, 13 February, 2018 0 Comments

It’s Shrove Tuesday. It’s the day when many people get ready to sacrifice something they enjoy for the next 40 days and nights so that their lives will be filled, perhaps, with something different. The extravagant Mardi Gras feasting of today will be replaced tomorrow by Ash Wednesday’s cold embers, a reminder that so much of what we treasure is momentary, that the things we want to keep forever cannot be kept forever. T. S. Eliot addressed this, and much more, in his poem The Four Quartets, specifically in the fourth section, “Little Gidding“, from which this passage is taken:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.


The Magi for the Epiphany

Saturday, 6 January, 2018 1 Comment

Something unexpected took place in Bethlehem and the otherworldly magi, who “appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky”, are doing their best to comprehend the incomprehensible. It’s a long way from Bethlehem to Bloomsbury, but that was where William Butler Yeats was living in 1914 when he wrote The Magi. In a mere eight lines, he follows the journey of the three wise men with “ancient faces” that resemble “rain-beaten stones”, who are forever watching and waiting, “all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more” the thing that will satisfy their search for meaning.

Is Yeats saying that the world has yet to discover the meaning of Christ’s brief time on earth? Is it so that we cannot be fulfilled until “the uncontrollable mystery” is decrypted? Today, the quest for the secret of “the uncontrollable mystery” is increasingly fervent. Anthony Levandowski, for example, is the “Dean” of a brand new Silicon Valley religion called Way of the Future that worships artificial intelligence.

The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

William Butler Yeats

Yeats uses a series of “s”-sounding words — stones, stiff, still, silver, side by side, unsatisfied — to paint a picture of the mysterious Magi, who wear “stiff, painted clothes” and “helms of silver”. His use of alliteration and repetition underpins the characteristics of the “unsatisfied ones”. On this Feast of the Epiphany, let us hope that they, and all of us, find some satisfaction this year.

The Sacred Heart Lamp


Kavanagh’s Christmas Childhood was ours, too

Monday, 25 December, 2017 0 Comments

The world evoked in A Christmas Childhood by Patrick Kavanagh is both magical and real, and for those who grew up in the rural Ireland of the 20th century, this poem from a Christmas when he was six years old captures that mysterious childhood moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. “One side of the potato-pits was white with frost,” he notes factually in one line but in another three whin bushes on the horizon are transformed into the Three Wise Kings. The passing of time, says Kavanagh, erases the innocence of childhood but it does resurface, especially at Christmas. Then: “How wonderful that was, how wonderful!”

A Christmas Childhood is dedicated to Kit and Mick Fitzgerald, honourable people, who made our childhood Christmas wonderful.

A Christmas Childhood

I

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

II

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


The lamb and the wolf on 8 December

Friday, 8 December, 2017 0 Comments

The increasingly oppressive commercial Christmas begins on 1 October and then bludgeons consumers into submission with an incessant drumbeat of shopping commands and mawkish carols all the way until midnight on 24 December. The Christmas of the faithful, on the other hand, starts on the first Sunday of Advent and ends on 6 January, the feast day that commemorates the visit of the Magi.

But there is another date, and it’s to be found in the calendar of popular piety: 8 December. Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and it once marked the point when Christmas began in earnest. For my mother, the 8th of December was a serious shopping day and many essential “messages” were purchased in “Town” in preparation for the festivities.

Note: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was officially defined as an article of the Catholic Faith by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and the dogma professes that Christ’s Mother was exempt from original sin from the moment of her conception. Traditional belief in the Immaculate Conception long preceded its formal definition, however, which is evident in this 16th century Spanish villancico:

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank protects it.
God kept our lamb
From the wolf.
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God knew
How to defend her.
Riu, riu, chiu

The lamb there is a stand-in for the Mother of Christ while the wolf is the devil. The words “riu, riu, chiu” are meant to evoke the call of the nightingale — a bird whose call has traditionally served as a muse to poets down the ages.