Wednesday, 15 August 2007


A poem on the Assumption by my confrere, Joachim Smet:

No painter ever caught the magic other going--
This was a matter of an inward growing,
Simple and imperceptible as thought.
It was no pageant wrought
Of sounding splendor,
Flurry of quick angels' winging,
Bursts of their laughter ringing
In wild bliss.
The simple fact is this:
Love conquered at long last.
Her eager soul fled fast
With a great gladness like a song
Unto to her Spouse above,
And her pure flesh would not be parted long
For sheer love.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

How does the light get in?

For Claire, who asked for a post, and was dubious about Leonard Cohen.

I like this Leonard Cohen lyric “Anthem”, sad and wise and a nice piece of theology, and especially the lines “Every heart / to love will come / but like a refugee” (Origen?). Admittedly, it works better as a song lyric than a poem. There are lots of Cohen performance videos on the web, but not for this song, so below is a amateur youtube version that someone has made with the soundtrack from The Future (1992), when the marvellous Jennifer Warnes and Perla Batalla were singing backup.

The birds they sang / at the break of day
Start again / I heard them say,
Don't dwell on what / has passed away
or what is yet to be.

The wars they will / be fought again
The holy dove / be caught again
bought and sold /and bought again;
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs / the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed / the marriage spent;
Yeah the widowhood / of every government—
signs for all to see.

Can't run no more / with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places / say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned up / a thundercloud
They're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts / but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march / there is no drum.
Every heart / to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

The man with half a face

In the largest ward, the old one,
in the corner, behind a screen,
the ravaged part of him turned discreetly to the wall,
lay the man with half a face.
No eye, no ear, no nose, no teeth,
from cheekbone to broken chin
was left to him only
a great hole covered with a graft of pale skin
and bordered with a twist of lip.

He accepted company with grace,
and spoke little in a whisper,
mainly to give thanks:
for warm bed and cool drink,
for hot food (though it was not)
and blankets softer than his own,
for kind nurses and blue skies
(we had to look out the window),
for mystery gifts,
a rose from the florist,
unexpected healing.

An old recluse, they’d said,
who had no-one to visit him:
but there was always a patient
or nurse or doctor sitting quiet and
awestruck there
listening to the silent music of his
thank you, thank you, thank you.

I saw a sunbeam move across his bed
and, I swear to you,
every mote of dust was dancing.

Saturday, 26 May 2007


Send me no more messages
or messengers,
even if they come from heaven.
You come. Please.
I'm begging.

Help me not to feel so poor;
shed some light in my heart;
bring what no-one else can give,
dearest house-guest of my heart.
You are sweet refreshment,
rest from this toil,
cool in this heat,
relief for this pain.
Help me to believe again.

Make some glimmer in this deep.
Shine on wealth where I see naught.

Wash over all this grime;
water this dry parched earth;
heal these tired old wounds.
See me taut and bend me;
feel me cold and warm me;
find me lost and bring me back.

I can count your seven gifts,
make me know then that I need them.
Give me reward, too, for small dear efforts,
salvation at the end,
joy that lasts.

After Veni sancte spiritus, 13th cent.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Dylan and the Pope again

Sean Curnyn, who is writing a book on political and moral themes in the work of Bob Dylan, has a thought-provoking post at First Things which takes up once more the reports of Benedict XVI's criticism of Dylan being invited to perform before John Paul II in Bologna in 1997. While Ratzinger worried "whether it was really right to allow this type of ‘prophet’ to appear," John Paul — perhaps spontaneously, or was it a speech writer? — riffed easily on Dylan's lyrics:

A representative of yours has just said on your behalf that the answer to the questions of your life “is blowing in the wind”. It is true! But not in the wind which blows everything away in empty whirls, but the wind which is the breath and voice of the Spirit, a voice that calls and says: “Come!” (cf. Jn 3:8; Rv 22:17).

You asked me: How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? I answer you: One! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said: “I am the way” (Jn 14:6). He is the road of truth, the way of life.
Curnyn is very polite in suggesting that Benedict XVI probably doesn't know much about Dylan. But his main point is that Dylan's greatness as an artist has not been any attempt to give ultimate answers, but that he keeps proposing, in the face of an often superficial culture, the pressing need to ask important questions:
Dylan’s songs, and in particular his greatest songs, have often derived a great deal of their power by posing questions that compel and fascinate the mind of the listener. While most of our popular culture (from TV commercials on down to the latest pop song) tells you what you should want, what you should need, whom you ought to envy, or whom you ought to blame, Bob Dylan’s songs tend to shift the spotlight in a quite different direction. Leaving aside his three albums of gospel-oriented compositions—which, by their nature are indisputably about providing an answer—Dylan has made a career of writing songs that bring the listener face to face with questions and mysteries as timeless as they are also, sooner or later, urgent.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Easter Sunday

...Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, ' joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. ' Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ' world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Quote: Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.
Eskimo Nebula.
In 1787, astronomer William Herschel discovered the Eskimo Nebula, which from the ground resembles a person's head surrounded by a parka hood. In 2000, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged the nebula that displays gas clouds so complex they are not fully understood. The Eskimo Nebula is clearly a planetary nebula, and the gas seen above composed the outer layers of a sun-like star only 10,000 years ago. The inner filaments visible above are being ejected by strong wind of particles from the central star. The outer disk contains unusual light-year long orange filaments. Image credit: NASA/Andrew Fruchter (STScI)

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Holy Saturday

Faithful Cross! above all other,
One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peers may be:
Sweetest wood, and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For awhile the ancient rigour,
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of Heavenly Beauty
On thy bosom gently tend!
Quote: Venantius Fortunatus (530-609), Pange lingua gloriosi, tr. E. Caswall.

Friday, 6 April 2007

Good Friday

If you willingly bear the Cross, it will bear you, and will bring you to the end which you seek, even where there shall be the end of suffering; though it shall not be here. If you bear it unwillingly, you make a burden for yourself and greatly increase your load, and yet you must bear it. If you cast away one cross, without doubt you will find another and perchance a heavier.
Quote: Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ 2.12.5.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Holy Thursday

And God held in his hand
a small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
as through water,
he saw
a scorched land of fierce
colour. The light burned
there; crusted buildings
cast their shadows; a bright
serpent, a river
uncoiled itself, radiant
with slime.
On a bare
hill a bare tree saddened
the sky. Many people
held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
for a vanished April
to return to its crossed
boughs. The son watched
them. Let me go there, he said.
Quote: R.S. Thomas, “The Coming”.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Thirty pieces of silver

He prays, but he hears prayer. He weeps, but he causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was man; but he raises Lazarus, for he was God. He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but he redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the price was his own blood. As a sheep he is led to the slaughter, but he is the shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also. As a lamb he is silent, yet he is the Word, and is proclaimed by the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He is bruised and wounded, but he heals every disease and every weakness. He is lifted up and nailed to the tree, but by the tree of life he restores us; yes, he saves even the robber crucified with him; yes, he wrapped the visible world in darkness. He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine? Who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is sweetness and altogether desire. He lays down his life, but he has power to take it again; and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. He dies, but he gives life, and by his death destroys death. He is buried, but he rises again; he goes down into hell, but he brings up the souls; he ascends to heaven, and shall come again to judge the living and the dead...
Quote: St Gregory Nazianzen (†390), Theological Sermons 3.20.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Endured many things in many people

This one is the passover of our salvation. This is the one who patiently endured many things in many people: this is the one who was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonored in the prophets.

This is the one who became human in a virgin, who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven.

This is the lamb that was slain. This is the lamb that was silent. This is the one who was born of Mary, that beautiful ewe-lamb. This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night; the one who was not broken while on the tree, who did not see dissolution while in the earth, who rose up from the dead, and who raised up mankind from the grave below.
Quote: Melito of Sardis (†180), Homily on the Pasch 69–71.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Outrage and the chocolate Jesus

Someone, I'm sure, has developed an offendability scale from 1 to 10. If you rate 1 or 2 you can’t be offended: you’re insensitive or a numbskull or you just don’t care. If you rate 9 or 10 you must wake up in the morning just ready to take offence: you roll over, listen to the clock radio, and there it is, you’re offended before breakfast; offence energises you and a day would seem empty without it. I think I might rate 4 or 5: I don’t want to be offended, thanks, but I’m not super-sensitive either. I think everyone, including me, deserves a bit of respect, and if you don’t get it you’re entitled to insist, but politely, with respect, because respect, like offence, tends to be a mutual thing.

We level 5’s and under just don’t get the fuss over Cosimo Cavallaro’s Sweet Jesus, a life-size sculpture of the crucified Christ made of chocolate, which has caused such a commotion in New York. Cardinal Egan is reported as saying it is “scandalous”, a “sickening display”, “an offence to faith and sensitivities”. The Catholic League says it is “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensitivities ever”, though as it only takes a few seconds to think of a whole list of worse things this can hardly be true. The gallery director, on the other hand, says it is “a meditation on Holy Week”. The artist seems to have run for cover: at least no-one is reporting anything from him.

What gives offence exactly? That the figure is chocolate? Our local baker here in Rome had a bread Jesus (and Mary and Joseph) for Christmas and no-one was offended. Is it the title “Sweet Jesus”? Pie Jesu has been an invocation through the ages. Is it the suspicion of irony? More than suspicion is required for a hanging offence, and anyway there’s plenty of highly-respected religious art
suspected of irony still hanging in museums and churches round the world. Is it the nudity? Christ almost surely hung naked on the cross — it’s humiliation and torture in any age which is really shocking, not its depiction — and anyway there’s nothing really new here: Michelangelo, one of the most genuinely devout Christian artists of the Renaissance, did a nude crucified Christ in 1492 and another in 1495 and another, tender and heart-breaking, at the end of his life, and more besides. Is it the timing, just before Holy Week? There’s no better time. Is it the quality? I’ve only seen a fuzzy picture or two (have the critics seen more?) and Cavarallo’s Christ seems pretty good to me, maybe a lot better than much of the second-rate art in our churches.

Some people are saying, They wouldn’t dare show a naked Muhammad, and I’m sure they wouldn’t, but he wasn’t crucified,
was he? — offensively, unjustly, shockingly, cruelly crucified. So where, exactly, is the offence?

Perhaps the artist is dumb, or insensitive, or faithless, or post-Christian, or post-modern, or exploitative; perhaps he intended to give offence, or p
erhaps he’s as devout as Michelangelo. He seems to be saying nothing just now, so we can’t know and should be slow to judge. I’d like to reserve my offendedness and take any opportunity, even if it’s chocolate and six feet tall, for a Holy Week meditation. If there’s real offence, I think we should insist on respect, but do so respectfully and without rushing to impugn the motives of others; but if there’s doubt, conversation is more in order than condemnation.

I read a story about some guys who lost their faith: the high hopes they had were disappointed, the religious stuff people told them seemed meaningless, their sometime commitment seemed a waste, and, like so many people we all know, they just walked away. Even though they were heading entirely in the wrong direction Jesus went along with them anyway: first he listened to them, then he explained a thing or two in a way they could actually understand, then he had a bite to eat with them in Emmaus. Sweet Jesus.

Mass tourism

Here is Umberto Eco's take on mass tourism: insufferably snobby, and perhaps disturbingly true.

The house was filled with fragrance

I have already discussed two ointments with you: one of contrition that takes account of numerous sins — it is symbolized by the perfumed oil with which the sinful woman anointed the feet of Lord (“the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil”), the other of devotion that embodies numerous blessings… But there is another ointment, far excelling these two, to which I give the name loving-kindness, because the elements that go into its making are the needs of the poor, the anxieties of the oppressed, the worries of those who are sad, the sins of wrong-doers, and finally, the manifold misfortunes of all people who endure affliction, even if they are our enemies. These elements may seem rather depressing, but the ointment made from them is more fragrant than all other spices. It bears the power to heal, for “Blessed are the merciful, they will be shown mercy”.
Quote: St Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs 12.1.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

The following of the Crucified

Death... occurs in the whole of life and reaches its completion only at the end. Hence... it was legitimate for Christian piety in its entire history to seek to realize the following of the Crucified in Christian life, in the acceptance of everything that Christian usage even up to the present time describes as the “cross”: the experiences of human frailty, of sickness, of disappointments, of the nonfulfilment of our expectations, and so on. What occurs in all this is part of man’s dying, of the destruction of life’s tangible goods. In all these brief moments of dying in instalments we are faced with the question of how we are to cope with them: whether we merely protest, merely despair (even for brief moments), become cynical and cling all the more desperately and absolutely to what has not yet been taken from us — or whether we abandon with resignation what is taken from us, accept twilight as promise of an eternal Christmas full of light, regard slight breakdowns as events of grace. If in this second way... we take the cross on ourselves daily, we are accomplishing part of the following of the Crucified, we are practising faith and living hope in which death is accepted as the advent of eternal life, and the following of Jesus, the Crucified, reaches its completion.
Quote: Karl Rahner, “Following the Crucified”, Theological Investigations 18 (1984) 169–170.

Saturday, 31 March 2007

From that day on they planned to kill him

In the last resort what happens in death is the same for all: we are deprived of everything, even of ourselves; we all fall, each of us alone, into the dark abyss where there are no further ways. And this death... Jesus dies; he who came out of God's glory did not merely descend into our human life, but also fell into the abyss of our death, and his dying began when he began to live and came to an end on the cross when he bowed his head and died.

Jesus died as we die. When we say this... what we see is Jesus following in our way and not ourselves in his... If we believe also that our own human reality has been assumed by God, this is true also of our death. Since the eternal Logos of the Father suffered it as his own death, this death must be redeemed, sanctified, emptied of final despair and futility, filled with the eternal life of God himself.
Quote: Karl Rahner, “Following the Crucified”, Theological Investigations 18 (1984) 166.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Is it not written, I said, You are gods?

Understand that you are another universe, a universe in miniature, that in you there are sun, and moon, and stars too. If it were not so, the Lord would not have said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Do you still hesitate to believe that there are sun and moon in you when you are told that you are the light of the world?
Quote: Origen, Hom. 5 on Leviticus, 2.