Irish Papist

Irish Papist

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Pleasures of the Essay (1)

I've written a good bit on this blog about my liking for the essay format, and my hope is that some of these blog posts might be considered essays. I've usually written about this in passing, however, and tonight I feel like writing more directly about it.

As I've mentioned before, most of my favourite writers are essayists, in one form or another. My hands-down favourite writer is G.K. Chesterton, and I'm strongly of the opinion that, for all the many strings to his bow, he was an essayist at heart. (He would have described himself as a journalist, of course-- and I don't really see any huge difference betweeen a newspaper column and an essay.) After Chesterton, my second favourite author is C.S. Lewis, and he is also, perhaps more obviously than Chesterton, an essayist. (I'm counting long works of non-fiction like Miracles or Orthodoxy as book-length essays.)

Here is a list of some of my favourite 'essayists', though their essays might come in the form of blog posts or film reviews or articles, rather than more conventional essays:

Keith Waterhouse (writer of the novel Billy Liar, and veteran newspaper columnist)
Flann O'Brien (AKA Myles Na Gopaleen and many other aliases), whose legendary Irish Times column Cruiskeen Lawn is still regularly plagiarised by Irish newspaper columnists;
Peter Hitchens, the English journalist and writer who has been wittily described as the "fulminator-in-chief" of the Mail on Sunday;
Roger Ebert, the film critic who sadly passed away only a few years ago;
Edward Feser, the philosopher and blogger;
Mark Shea, the Catholic blogger and author;
Barbara Mikkelson, the main writer of the Snopes website about urban legends;
David Sedaris, the American humourist;
John D. Sheridan, an Irish newspaper columnist who died in the seventies, amd whose work I've described here.

There is a deeply ingrained prejudice in our society that, when it comes to reading and writing, fiction is the gold standard. If someone asks you what your favourite book is, there is almost an unspoken assumption that they mean your favourite novel. Literary prizes awarded to novels are those that draw most attention.

I'm not really complaining about this, or disputing that the novel is the pinnacle of literature. (Well, I'd say poetry is actually the pinnacle of literature-- but, while most people would agree with this, even the most enthusiastic fan of poetry is not going to spend most of their reading time on poetry, since it requires too much mental exertion, and the rewards-- though sometimes spectacular-- are usually disappointing. As far as I can tell, nobody reads long poetry anymore; I've tried to do so, but I take no relish in it. I share the modern assumption that poetry is a burst of intense lyricism, so intense that it can't be sustained for more than a couple of pages at most. I don't know of anyone who reads long poetry except academics.)

But I digress. As I say, I don't quarrel with the prestige of the novel format. I just regret that I spent so many years reading novels that I didn't want to read, because otherwise (I thought) I would be ill-read.

Here are a list of the novels that I've read and which I might as well not have read: The Trial by Franz Kafka, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott, The History of Henry Esmond by Sir Walter Scott, A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, The Biographer's Moustache by Kingsley Amis, The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silver Beeches by Maeve Binchy, Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, London Fields by Kingsley Amis....the list goes on. And on. And on.

I'm sure some readers are reading this and thinking, with irritation, "all that proves is that you're a philistine". And maybe so. But I don't see why there is such a taboo on admitting to disliking, or being bored by, classic fiction. (I know not all of the titles I've listed are classic fiction, but most are.) Such a taboo doesn't exist when it comes to movies or television. Most people wouldn't hesitate to admit that they didn't enjoy Citizen Kane or Casablanca. Or even that supreme borefest which somehow gets nominated repeatedly as the greatest movie ever, Battleship Potemkin.

It's not that I've never enjoyed fiction. In my teens, I was a big fan of the Irish writer Walter Macken, who wrote in the middle of the twentieth century, and who was very skilled at capturing the stream of thought in his characters' minds, with all its quirks. (Some little pieces of psychological observation that stick in my mind; in I Am Alone, the central character-- an Irish emigrant to England-- finds himself surprised that English grass is just as green as Irish grass, since so much is said and sung about the greenness of Irish grass. In the same book, he goes to see a strip show after having a marriage proposal rejected, finds himself feeling sympathy for how chilly the naked woman on stage must be, and concludes that he's not as heartbroken as he thought he was.) In my teens and twenties I was infatuated with the writing of J.P. Donleavy, the Irish-American writer of prose-poetry farces. (I even visited his house to interview him.) Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse is a book I read over and over again in my childhood, and one that I enjoyed in the way that you're supposed to enjoy a novel, according to E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel-- savouring its form, its atmosphere, its grace notes, and so forth. At different times in my life, I've been a fan of Isaac Asimov, Tom Sharpe (another writer of bawdy farces in elegant prose), George Orwell, Stephen King, and a good few others.

But somehow....fiction hardly ever excites me the way non-fiction writing does. And it especially fails to excite me the way the writing of ideas does. For an example I'll take the books of Stephen King. I found both The Stand and It to be highly compelling, despite dull stretches-- both books overflow with example of King's ability to make you feel something is really happening on the page, through his wealth of incidental detail. He also has an uncanny ability to evoke the excitement of life-- to remind the reader that he or she is alive. But my favourite Stephen King book, by a country mile, is his Danse Macabre, which is, in my view, the best study on the horror genre ever written, as well as being a work of considerable insight into the condition of being human.

Fiction maddens me by its indirectness. It's like listening to someone who won't make eye contact-- and who is, furthermore, covering his mouth with his fingers. I realise that a novel is more than a dramatised tract, and that, the better the novel, the less tract-like it should probably be. Perhaps I am simply missing the point when I find myself itching for the author to say what he means, but I do. (Of course this applies more to 'literary' novels than it does to popular fiction, which is more likely to be written entirely for the sake of the story, rather than to make some kind of point, or express a philosophy, or to dwell upon some theme.)

Both popular fiction and literary fiction bore me through their use of descriptive writing. In this, I think I am the victim of how my brain works. I've always suffered from a spectacularly poor sense of direction, the foggiest grasp of spatial relations, and next to no visual memory. It's even a hindrance in my job-- I work in a library which contains over a million books, spread out over four floors. A large part of my job is giving directions. But, if the directions are in any way complicated-- if they involve more than a couple of turns-- I have to bring the reader there myself, or ask a colleague to give directions instead. And I've been working there for more than thirteen years. Constructing imaginary landscapes (and even a remembered landscape is, in a sense, imaginary) is not something my brain likes to do. I don't have this problem with the imaginary worlds of cinema, of course, since they are conveyed visually. I think this is why I prefer story-telling on the big screen, rather than on the printed page.

This is turning out to be a longer post than I'd anticipated-- and yet, I have a lot more to say. I think I'll publish this much and come back to it later. (And I really will this time, despite my propensity to make such promises and then never take up the thread.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Wit and Wisdom from Mr. Chesterton

I've posted the latest five instalments of my Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton column from the Open Door magazine on the blog of The G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, here.

They may only be 420 words each, but I try to make them filling.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Should We Have Scientific Proof that Prayer Works?

Here is an answer in the negative by the Oxford philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne. It's a response to a scientific study of prayer on behalf of hospital patients, which showed no correlation between prayer and recovery. This passage is especially well-put:

"Suppose that I am a rich man who sometimes gives sums of money to worthy causes, and that I am very well informed and I know just how useful (or not) different gifts would be. I receive many letters asking me to give such gifts. Some foundation wants to know if there is any point in people writing such letters to me - do they make any difference to whether I give money to this cause or that? So the foundation commissions a study. Many people are enrolled to write letters to me on behalf of several causes rather than others in order to see whether subsequently I give more to those causes rather than to the other causes. In fact, let us suppose, I am normally moved by such letters; I think that the fact that many people take the trouble to write to me on behalf of some cause about which they care a lot is a reason for giving to that cause. But I now discover why I am suddenly bombarded with a stream of letters on behalf of certain causes; and I realise that on this occasion, unlike on other occasions, the letter writers have no deep concern for the causes for which they write. So of course on this occasion I pay no attention to the letters."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Who Goes Here?

I often wonder who reads this blog, aside from those who comment and whose names (or aliases) I know. It's a rather funny (but pleasant) feeling, to have your words up on the internet and to know that anyone anywhere in the world might be reading something you wrote while you are asleep, or eating a chocolate bar, or watching Star Trek.

I often wonder how strange it must be to be a writer like Stephen King and to know that lots of people are reading your books at any given moment of the day.

I found myself wondering today if any agnostics or atheists regularly (or even irregularly) read this blog. I know my (internet) friend Johnny Stephens used to, and he described himself as an undecided, but I haven't heard from him in a good while.

Of course, everybody is welcome to read. I started this blog in order to defend the Church from attacks in the Irish media and on the Irish internet. I didn't stick to that purpose for very long and soon I was putting all sorts of stuff on it-- essays, memories, jokes, stories, poems. It makes me happy that they've all found readers. I no longer think of the blog as having a single purpose, any more than friendship has a single purpose, or a joke has a single purpose.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

That Christ is Proclaimed In Every Way

Recently I found myself reading a series of magazine articles on the life of Christ, and I found myself thinking, once again, what a wonderful thing it is that this story is so endlessly told, retold, analysed, celebrated and discussed.

The words of the Blessed Virgin's Canticle are relevant here: "My soul magnifies the Lord." (It's also translated "glorifies", but I personally prefer "magnifies".) I've always found these words thought-provoking. How can we magnify the Lord? How can we add anything to what is already perfect and infinite? Of course, we can't, in strict terms; but it's the great privilege of being in this earthly state that we can, in a sense, add to the glory of God, by praising him and seeking to serve Him.

We can even (to turn to my particular topic) "magnify the Lord" just by talking about Him, writing about Him, thinking about Him. I realise that I'm on shaky ground here and I am aware of all the warnings in Scripture about the dangers of pious lip service: "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven", and "Faith without works is dead." (James 2:17). I don't want to suggest that words or gestures are enough, or that words and gestures that are belied by unchristian behaviour are not scandalous.

I will, however, risk suggesting that talking about God and Christ and other sacred matters is a good thing in itself. As is writing about them, singing about them, painting pictures inspired by them, and so forth.

That's one defence I make for having this blog in the first place. I'm not a theologian, or a Scripture scholar, or a priest, or anything but an ordinarily-informed layman. I don't even think I'm a particularly good Catholic. But I think the sheer profusion of Catholic blogs is a good thing-- a wonderful thing, in fact. To regret the amount of Catholic blogs in cyberspace would be like regretting the number of daffodills in a meadow, or regretting the number of stars in the night sky.

And I do think the profusion of Catholic blogs (and other websites) is a form of evangelization in itself. If people take the trouble to write so many millions of words about the Faith-- unpaid, for the most part-- then doesn't that suggest to the casual browser through cyberspace that the Faith is a vibrant force today?

I am a contrarian by nature and I generally like doing exceptional and unusual things. And, in some ways, being a traditionally-minded Catholic in today's society is rather a contrarian stance. But, when it comes to the defence and proclamation of Catholicism, I have no desire to be unusual and every desire to be 'mainstream'. The more people there are agreeing with me in this regard, the better. I am always happy to hear someone is a faithful Catholic. And, if someone is not a faithful Catholic, if he or she disagrees with Church teaching in some way, but still considers himself or herself Catholic, I am happy for that much. And if a person does not call himself or herself a Catholic, but still goes by the name of a Christian, I am happy for that-- and so on, through all the degrees of Christianity, until we reach the atheist who respects Christ, as opposed to the atheist who derides him.

I would always rather hear the name of Christ invoked than not invoked. Many Christian shake their heads over televangelists and 'prosperity gospel' preachers like Joel Osteen, whose preaching seems 'Christian' only in the most tenuous and nominal way. Many people think it would be better if such preachers were to drop any pretence of Christianity at all. I can't agree. I might be wrong, and I am open to correction, but I tend to think it's better to have even the tiniest tincture of Christianity than no Christianity at all. I think nominal Christianity is better than no Christianity. Of course, I wish all Joel Osteen's admirers would drop him and take up a more serious form of Christianity; but I'd rather they went to a Joel Osteen service than to no religious service or (would-be-religious service)of any kind.

The same consideration applies to the arts. When I hear that some post-modernist artist has mounted some hideous and tasteless display (use your own imagination, or your own memory, to supply the details), and includes some form of Christian iconography, and further suggests that his work is informed by a deep Christian faith-- well, I regret the "art", and I regret the blasphemy if there is any, but I don't regret that he is inspired, in some way, by Christ. I am pleased that he is proclaiming Christ in some way.

I treasure the story-- not a famous story, though it should be-- from G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography: “A solemn friend of my grandfather used to go for walks on Sunday carrying a prayer-book, without the least intention of going to church. And he calmly defended it by saying, with uplifted hand: ‘I do it, Chessie, as an example to others.’ " (If that story doesn't make you smile, I don't know what's the matter with you.)

It stirs my imagination, perhaps like nothing else, to think how deeply-- and how widely-- the story of Christ has influenced the human race. How many hymns? How many books? How many statues and murals and canvases? How many lectures? How many tracts? How many millions of homilies and sermons? How many today? How many this very moment?

We very often hear writers and speakers express the wish that we could rediscover the freshness of the Gospels, that we could encounter them as though for the first time, as though we knew nothing about them. I can understand why someone would wish this, but personally I feel blessed to be reading the Gospels through twenty centuries of what I might, without irreverence, call hype.

When I read the Gospels, I am always aware of the contrast between the matter-of-fact, sparse nature of the narratives themselves and the unthinkable number of commentaries that have been made upon them, lives that have been inspired by them, movements that have grown out of them, works of art that have drawn on them, debates that have raged around them, depths that have been discovered in them, doctrines that have been crystallized from them. That, to me, gives them a unique flavour, a unique atmosphere.

In my view, there are two valuable aspects to the vast amount of writing and speaking and other forms of reflection upon the Gospels (and, indeed, upon the whole Bible, and upon Christianity in general) that has filled the world since the Word was first proclaimed. The first and more obvious aspect is the analytical one. If a priest is delivering a homily upon the story of the Prodigal Son, and he points out to his congregation that the father goes out to meet the returning son, and this mirrors the way God actively seeks to reconcile us to Him rather than waiting for us to approach Him, this is a form of analysis. If a newspaper writer takes a particular story that happens to be in the news and reflects on it in the light of a New Testament passage, this is a form of analysis.

But the other aspect of any reflection upon the Gospel, and one that might not occur to us most of the time, is the contemplative or meditative side. While the priest is delivering the afore-mentioned homily on the Prodigial Son, and while our conscious minds are preocuppied with the point he is making, a deeper and less conscious part of our mind is contemplating the parable-- just holding it in our attention, letting it seep into our souls, immersing ourselves in it.

This is the principle upon which the rosary works. Contemplative prayer is difficult because our mind gets antsy and restless. It always wants to be doing something. The rosary gives us the individual prayers to focus our conscious minds upon, while the deeper part of our mind is meditating upon the Annunciation or the Descent of the Holy Spirit or whatever mystery we happen to be praying.

What exactly this meditation does is harder to describe. I suppose whole books could be written about that in itself. Speaking for myself, I would say that it gives a kind of glow to its subject. It plants it in our imaginations, in our souls.

For this reason, I think that even the dullest homily, the most pedestrian article in a Christian newspaper, or the most witless Catholic blog post has a positive value. They fix our attention, in some way and in some degree, upon Christ. And as St. Paul wrote: "Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition...What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Mansions of Memory

I've just finished reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. It's a book I read in my twenties, and which rather disappointed me, since I was expecting the archetypal university story and it isn't a university story at all. (Whenever anyone refers to an idyllic view of university life they always speak about 'dreaming spires' and Brideshead Revisited.) In more recent times, I felt I should give it another chance, as it is considered one of the great Catholic novels in the English language-- or perhaps the greatest Catholic novel in the English language, since I can't think of another more celebrated example.

Well, I enjoyed it a little more, though I'm still not bowled over. Along with many readers, I'm bothered by Waugh's snobbery-- not for its own sake, but because he seems to give some kind of spiritual significance to good taste and elegance. Nor does the story ring very true to life to me. I know scads of baptized Catholics who don't show the slightest sign of being haunted by the faith from which they've turned away. And having a Catholic upbringing doesn't seem to make all that much difference when it comes to this. I have no doubt that there is a supernatural grace to baptism and confirmation, but I don't think it operates as obviously as it does in Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps Waugh had to exaggerate it in order to dramatize it.

In any case, I think I might be prejudiced against Waugh because he is one of that trio of Catholic fiction writers before whose shrines every thinking Catholic is expected to burn incense-- Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Of them all, Waugh is the only one who has given me any pleasure at all. That might make me a philistine, which doesn't bother me very much. (I should also admit that Graham Greene did give me some pleasure, through the title of his book of film criticism, Mornings in the Dark-- which I haven't read, but may yet.)

That's all by the by. The reason I mentioned Brideshead Revisited is because one particular passage-- in which Waugh is describing a passage on an ocean liner-- got me to thinking about memory, about the flavour of particular passages of time in our lives, and this thought has been haunting me ever since.

We live our lives a day at a time. This is a very pedestrian observation, I know-- but, somehow, when I think about it, it seems very odd. On any given day, we are inhabiting an island of consciousness, surrounded by an ocean of sleep. And each day has a unity of its own-- a unity of mood and atmosphere, as well as of circumstances-- no matter how various the events of that day. (I guess one of the reasons that my favourite film of all time is Groundhog Day is because few films have paid such attention to a single day-- even if it happens to be a day that is being repeated over and over, with variations. How it continues to be the same day is an interesting philosophical question.)

I find it our attitude to days fascinating. Days are the small change of our lives. We spend them heedlessly. Rather than disapproving of this, I find it inspiring. The idea that you should live each day as though it was your last sounds good as a slogan, but seems to miss the whole point (so to speak) of days. The point of days is that there are lots of them. Obviously this is not true of people who are in the last stages of terminal illness, or facing imminent death for some other reason. But most of human life is not spent in such a condition. Even people who die tragically young experience more days than they can remember-- nobody could give a day-by-day account of their lives, even if they started from the dawn of the age of reason. Even very old people have an indefinite number of days before them.

I'm not sure that living each day to its fullest is a good idea-- not if we take 'fullest' to mean 'busiest'. Would a lifetime of busy days really be living life to its fullest? What about lazy days, dreamy days, humdrum days? What about sick days, indeed? Would a person who quite literally never had a day's sickness, who never spent a day 'laid low' in bed, be a lucky person? I think few people would answer 'yes' to that.

A few years ago, in winter-time, a female friend of mine had a very traumatic break-up and told me she was going to ignore Christmas that year. I have always been a devotee of Christmas, and at that stage of my life I was particularly intent upon making every Christmas as Christmassy as it could possibly be-- a determination that can be very stressful. So her declaration shocked me, but even then, I think I felt strangely attracted to the idea of just skipping Christmas-- for once. We have enough Christmasses to afford it, and Christmas will happen with us or without us. We can talk airily about the 'year we didn't bother with Christmas'. I'm not exactly sure why I find this such a pleasing thought, at this juncture in my life, but I do-- even though I remain a fervent lover of Christmas.

We live a day at a time-- and every day has its own unique flavour. (I'm listening to music on 'shuffle' while I read this, and 'Days' by the Kinks has just started playing.) What gives a day its flavour? The weather. The time of year. The news. Work, or school, or its absence. The people we're spending it with. Travel. Physical location. Mood. Drama of one kind or another. Of course, the list could be expanded forever.

There are days, like September 11th 2001, where the entire world (or most of it, anyway) is focused upon one particular public event. I'm glad those days are exceedingly rare, somehow-- and not only because they are usually tragic events that create such a sensation. (The last one I can think of is the day that Robin Williams died-- or, rather, the day after he died.)

I started out writing this post about memory, but I find myself hundreds of words in, and having concentrated entirely upon the idea of days. I suppose it's because that's how we tend to classify our memories. When people are recalling a memory they say I remember the day that or That was the day when or It was a snowy morning. These little scene-setting phrases always give me a thrill. I suppose I am writing this post to analyse and try to understand that thrill-- the same thrill I felt when I was reading Waugh's account of a stormy day on an ocean liner.

I also like the idea of in-betweeny days, and I suppose this is part of why the passage in Brideshead Revisited appealed to me-- since days spent crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner is about as 'in betweeny' as you could get (although, of course, in the novel they are very consequential days indeed). In my experience of life the in-betweeny days are often the best days. 'The morning after the night before' (one of my favourite phrases) is usually invoked as something seedy and depressing, but I've personally found that the mornings after the nights before-- and the days before-- are the most delicious, in the same way that re-heated leftovers are often the most appetizing food.

The first example that occurs to me is one from a whole twenty years ago. I was a keen follower of the Irish national soccer team back then. (As were most of Ireland, since they were experiencing a lot of success.) The day before, Ireland (or the Republic of Ireland, as I should specify) had qualified for the 1994 World Cup in America with a dramatic 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland. The Republic equalized late in the game and, until then, it seemed as though they were going to be eliminated. There was a good deal of ill-feeling; the Republic had beaten Northern Ireland 3-0 in a previous qualifier, and the Republic's fans, rather unsportingly, began to chant "There's only one team in Ireland." So passions were running high. To a teenage boy these things are a very big deal.

Well, the memory that I am recounting is not that, but rather, the very next day. I remember myself, my brother and my cousin sharing a copy of The Irish Press between us-- we unfolded it into its separate pages, and then swapped them about, reading the various reports and analysis of the previous day's match. It may be a strange memory to pick out of almost thirty-eight years of life, but it strikes me as a perfect example of an in-betweeny kind of day. It's a very cosy memory.

Another memory that strikes me is a conversation I had in college, towards the end of my time there. It was in journalism college and at this stage I knew I was not going to be a journalist. (Though I do write for a Catholic newspaper now, so I suppose I did belatedly become a sort of journalist after all, even if it's not my profession.) I was speaking to a class-mate who was, in contrast, already writing front-pages stories for a Dublin daily paper. We were alone in the college's radio studio. He told me that he was so exhausted from all the reporting shifts that he'd been doing that he was looking forward to just switching off and watching television for a day. I found the idea of such an in-betweeny day extraordinarily appealing.

Another memory of an in-betweeny day; discovering the website Snopes, which has articles about urban legends (and which is extraordinarily well-written), one Christmas time, and reading article after article after article, for hours and hours, while drinking Coke. This was soon after I'd begun working in UCD; it was around the time I went to my first library Christmas party. Somehow, the fact that the memory of the Christmas party is stuck to this memory of reading Snopes for hours makes it less anti-social than it might have been otherwise.

Another memory of an in-betweeny day, and again around Christmas-time; it was two or three days before Christmas, and I had gastroenteritis. I wasn't allowed to eat anything for two days, but I cheated by sucking lollipops. I was reading All's Quiet on the Western Front. I was sitting in the living room and the Christmas tree was up and decorated. I had reached that age where we feel ashamed to be childishly excited about Christmas. My cousin (who also featured in the above memory) was in the living room. My father asked him what he was getting for Christmas. "Bills", he said; because he had just entered adulthood. "Maybe you should give them back to Bill", said my father, and I remember thinking even then how better a witticism it would have been if he'd asked what presents he was getting for Christmas. But here I am, remembering it some two decades later.

"All our yesterdays", Macbeth says, "have lighted fools to dusty death". A wonderful line; but we die anyway, whether our lives are mundane and quotidian or not. And part of me thinks that we are most fully alive, not when we are scaling the Himalayas or witnessing history unfold before our eyes, but when we are cutting and pasting pieces of paper into a scrapbook while watching repeats of sit-coms in our pyjamas.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

On a Positive Note

I know I spend a lot of time on this blog (and elsewhere!) complaining about modern hymns, and I can almost hear the eyes rolling as I do so. So today I'm going to confound you all and say something nice about a modern hymn.

I'm just back from Sunday Mass, where there were a couple of nice surprises hymn-wise. The first was that the organ-player somehow made a muddle of the responsorial psalm (which is always a song adopted from the Psalms), and the choir were left singing unaccompanied for most of it. It sounded a lot better that way than it usually did-- but I didn't think it would be a good idea to suggest that they should drop the organ for all future hymns. The organist might not have shared my enthusiasm.

Secondly, there was one modern hymn, sung afte the final blessing, which I thought was actually quite good. It's not the first time I've heard it, though I haven't heard it in a while. It's Come to the Feast of the Angels by Liam Lawton (as I've just discovered), and I hope it's fair use to reproduce the lyrics here:

Will you come to the feast divine?
Bread of the earth and fruit of the vine.
Come and taste the heavenly wine
Welcome the lost and the stranger
Come to the feast of the angels.

Make of your hands now a humble cradle
As once I came to a humble manger
Make of your hearts now a lowly stable
Now be born again.

Will you come to the feast divine?
Bread of the earth and fruit of the vine.
Come and taste the heavenly wine
Welcome the lost and the stranger
Come to the feast of the angels.

I quite like the air as well, which can be heard here.

I'm not saying this is a great hymn, mind you. It definitely has its flaws. The line "Welcome the lost and the stranger" seems badly out of place to me. It's fine metrically, and I like the stress rhyme of "stranger" with "angels." But the song is in the form of an invitation to the listener; mixing it up with an injunction to "welcome the lost and the stranger" is too much of a digression in such a short verse. (I suppose it could be a greeting: "Welcome, the lost and the stranger." But, even if that was what was intended, it sounds all wrong.)

Also, "make of your hands now a humble cradle" assumes that you receive the Eucharist in the hand. I don't, and I actually wish nobody else did, either (though I certainly don't judge those who do, or think myself superior).

But, aside from those complaints, I like the simplicity and even the stiffness of the lyrics. "The feast divine" is an appropriately dignified inversion. The parallelism of "Bread of the earth and fruit of the vine" is pleasing and has a Biblical air. And "come to the feast of the angels" is a magnificent line. ('Angel' happens to be my favourite word.) I realise that angels are incorporeal beings and that they can't eat in a physical sense, but we're obviously not talking about a big nosh-up here, anyway.

It doesn't bother me at all that this is a 'happy clappy' hymn. I even like that it is a 'happy clappy' hymn. I think it is entirely seemly for Christian hymns to reflect the whole range of the spiritual life, just as the Book of Psalms does. Happy exuberance has a place, just as high solemnity does.

No doubt next week it will be back to "He sent his son Jesus to set us all free, and he said, 'I'll never leave you, put your trust in me'..."

These terrible hymns depress me so much that I've seriously thought about going to another church for Sunday Mass. I rejected the idea, though, after mulling on it for some time. I am a fervent localist and I do think parish loyalty should count for a lot.