All Are Drowned

A literal reading of the story of The Flood would surely see God in the dock for genocide. Apart from one family, life in the world is washed away by a Deity impatient with the sinful state of humanity. According the Genesis 5:7, it is a decision to ‘blot out form the earth the human beings I have created’. In the York Mystery Plays performing this week, it is only Mrs Noah who makes a ‘din’ at this sudden and devastating loss of life:

But Noah, where are now all our kin
And company we knew before?

The resonance of these words to audiences that lived through plague years can only be imagined. People survived and wondered what had become of their neighbours; their extended families; and their friends. All the guilds that performed in the plays would have experiences the painful deaths of colleagues, with the plays being performed after a gap caused by the worst excesses of infection. Perhaps a full cast was harder to find and familiar figures were noticeable by their absence?

Maurice Crichton as Noah in The Flood, York’s Mystery Plays in 2022 (picture in York Press)

Some of the problems of the story are touched on in the narratives of the play. At the end, when the waters subside, an innocent son asks: ‘how shall this life be led Since none are in this world but we?’ Populating a new world from one family raises its own problems and risks. There is humour in the son’s question but also a serious point about the regeneration of humanity. In the streets of York such blunt questions were permitted in a way that was unlikely to be acceptable in the Minster and churches of the city.

In England the Archbishop of York proclaimed that the plague was “surely… caused by the sins of men who, made complacent by their prosperity, forgot the beauty of the most high Giver”.

Beidler, P. G. (1981). Noah and the Old Man in the “Pardoner’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review, 15(3), 250–254. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25093759

Understandably, and perhaps addressing the unspoken questions of an audience wondering about the repetition of such a catastrophe, one son asks whether the empire of the world will now last forever. Noah gives the assurance that there will not be another flood – but that the world ‘shall once be waste with fire, And never worth to world again’. The final cataclysm will be a blazing end to God’s creation. In current circumstances it might indeed feel that this is where we are heading – although the Deity only needs to sit back and watch as we pursue lifestyles that may lead to this ultimate conflagration. As the Mystery Play wagons roll through York this week they will follow a pattern, and repeat the words, used back into the mists of time. In every age they offer food for thought and hopefully, entertainment, which reflects on both our place in the world and the consequences of our actions.

We travel upon the Ark, in mud and rain,
Our oars promises from God.   
We live—and the rest of Humanity dies.   
We travel upon the waves, fastening
Our lives to the ropes of corpses filling the skies.
But between Heaven and us is an opening,
A porthole for a supplication.

The New Noah, by Adonis, translated by Shawkat M. Toorawa

Donne and Dusted

I was very sad when John Donne died. This wasn’t recently (in fact, 1631), nor is it a plot spoiler, but is retold in the culmination of Katherine Rundell’s absorbing recent biography of the poet. Like so many in his generation Donne had a momento mori close by on his desk – a reminder of mortality present at all times. To modern sentiments this may seem mawkish, but in an era when sudden death was far from rare, it was wise to live with an active awareness that your current experience could came to an abrupt full stop.

The awareness of death is a characteristic consistent with Donne’s relentless attention to the material world, no matter how grim or gritty it got. There was nothing too impolite or unseemly to be dragged into the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral and shared with the multitudes. Life, Donne told his hearers, is like a journey between a goal and a place of execution. A short trip that ran from crime to punishment, darkness to death. Except that this wasn’t the lesson of his analogy. Donne was provoking the congregation to contrast our human inattention with the alertness of someone knowingly going to their death. As he put it, on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn, no one sleeps. Yet, Donne argues, we are heading towards the same certainty spending significant parts of the journey asleep. His call echoes the Biblical and Advent theme that ‘now it is time to wake out of sleep’. To be stirred up, ‘now, in the time of this mortal life’.

Donne is not a wholly attractive figure. As a financially challenged poet his obsequious letters to various grandees grate in a more egalitarian age. His rise to high office in the Church of England required careful nurturing of royal connections. Despite this, he brought to the Deanery a fierce intellect; an astonishing mastery of language; and a theological sensitivity to the complexity of the times. The combination of his gifts and experiences enabled Donne to further what we might now call ‘the Anglican Project’ – establishing the groundwork for an expression of Christianity shaped by the heritage and nuances of English experience. There was certainly an appetite for his approach, with large crowds flocking to hear him preach. A few years ago, an experiment took place to see how audible Donne’s sermons would have been from the outside pulpit at St Paul’s, surrounded by hundreds of people.

The memorial to John Donne, St Paul’s Cathedral

Perhaps the most curious, visceral and haunting detail in Rundell’s book describes Donne’s preparation for death. As the end approached Donne saw its prospect as one final dramatic moment. He ordered an urn and shroud to be made, then lay in the shroud so an artist could sketch his appearance at full scale. This became the image from which his statue was carved following his death – still in St Paul’s today, one of very few to survive the Great Fire of 1666.

“Donne made himself ready; part, perhaps, of a desire to have things done exactly as he had imagined them – an artist of ferocious precision, dying precisely. His last words – ‘I were miserable if I might not die.'”

Rundell, K, ‘Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne’, Faber 2022 p. 290

It is fitting that Donne is most often remembered for his poem beginning ‘No man is an island’. Fitting because it addresses two themes which ran throughout Donne’s life: mortality and connectedness. He lived at a time when the fusion of the material and spiritual, the sensory and the abstract, was an acceptable way to write about the world. Given the ubiquity of death, including young family members, mortality made Donne’s life an ever changing landscape. Undoubtedly these losses were never welcome, but they contributed to a vivid celebration of life and determination to be awake and alert. Donne notices the world in a way that comes from an acute sense that each and every day is gift that will not be repeated.

Useless Beauty

Sadly, neither music nor sculptures stop tanks. Military bands, uniforms and insignia may all demonstrate the way art can be conscripted into morale boosting service, but these are details rather than the main event. Many people will be tempted to see artistic talent in current circumstances as a ‘nice to have’ at a time when many people in Ukraine are searching for bread, shelter, safety and warmth. Yet the countless social media clips of singing children, firefighter violinists, and heavily sandbagged civic statues, suggest a deep determination to make sure that a people’s culture endures.

I am a great admirer of the ceramic sculptures created by Antonia Salmon. In a recent circulation to her contacts, Antonia reflects on the state of the world and the point of art:

“In one sense it could be easy to regard the arts as frivolous at a critical time such as this. Both the quality of our Presence and regard for our fellow human beings, and for our planet as a whole, is vitally important at this time. I’m certain that in whatever way you are able you will contribute to the awareness and growth of human connection, to love and to beauty.”

Antonia Salmon, Spring Update 13 March 2022, email quoted with permission
Detail of ‘Winged Form’ by Antonia Salmon

In the same week as receiving Antonia’s email I heard an excellent reflection on lament. This was given by Wendy Lloyd in a Lent series for York Minster. With the title Prayer as Lament and Hope, Wendy set out the idea of prayerful lament as a way of ensuring we continue to hold the vision of how things could (or should) be, especially when life is at its most difficult and destructive. All the acts of art or culture we are seeing in Ukraine suggest that in adversity people need to sustain a vision that amounts to far more than nostalgia. It constitutes a progressive hope focused on a time when all these slivers of Sabbath become the life we lead. As we maintain and re-pattern our creative senses and connectedness, art can make us restless with many aspects of the world in which we are living. As such, lament prevents us colluding with the failings and distortions of the world. In her reflection Wendy quoted an excellent article from a recent issue of The Financial Times:

Lament understands that naming reality is part of what enables one to address it and move towards a new reality. It is a way of bearing witness to injustice when we see it, to the unfairness of life, and yet also to a deeper belief in a world where we can seek help and have the agency to make decisions and take action so that pain and suffering are not the accepted order of the day.

Enuma Okoro, The Importance of Lament, The Financial Times, March 4 2022

When we see courageous acts of creativity and beauty in the midst of horror it reminds us all that we cannot afford to abandon the very things that make human beings their best selves. The arts have an invaluable role in both naming the injustices of life whilst simultaneously expressing the hope and possibility of something far better. In Lent, for Christians, the temptations of Jesus illustrate the tawdry shortcuts that will never achieve the splendour of what might be – of the time when all creation finds its true peace and purpose.

The featured image is an overview of ‘Holding Piece’. Antonia Salmon’s website: http://www.antoniasalmon.co.uk

Watery Faith

Sermon preached at the Priory Church of the Holy Trinity, Micklegate, York Epiphany 2 2022

Today we continue in the season of Epiphany – weeks when in the darkness of winter we reflect the light of Christ come into our world. I was going to say, ‘reflect on’ – but the truth of Epiphany is not that we simply contemplate the light shining in the world, but that we invite this light into our lives – to bear something of the brightness of Christ in all that we do, day by day, and among those we meet.

It can feel at the moment, as we listen to the news, that there’s an awful lot of darkness compared with what we may feel to be our faint and flickering lights. Perhaps it was always thus – and our calling to hold our light steady is even more important when the shadows lengthen.

One of my most valuable books is a 1939 edition of William Temple’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Written in nearby Bishopthorpe, when he was Archbishop of York, his reflections on the Gospel are the wise words of both a pastor and a theologian. Yes, it comes bearing the marks of a different era, but many of the points Temple makes are pertinent today. Perhaps even more so in our recent experience because it was written in the upheavals of war. 

The turning of water into wine is the first miracle John describes in what we might call the long epiphany of his Gospel. Out of the four evangelists John is the most consciously theological – he conveys to us what the life of Jesus means for all places; for all times; and for all people. It is magisterial in its scope.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wedding_at_Cana#/media/File:Paolo_Veronese_008.jpg

Yet given the scale of what John addresses, his account of Jesus is rooted in the real and the everyday. There was a wedding. Across millennia and across cultures, weddings are profound moments of change. Two people become one. Families are bound together – friends rejoice and dance. If you’ve ever seen the Veronese painting ‘The Wedding at Cana’ you can’t miss the sense of overflowing conviviality on his vast canvas. Everyone is talking, laughing and rejoicing – apart from one figure: in serenity, Jesus gazes out at the viewer, a still point amid the commotion. In this picture the figure of worldly splendour is the groom. Decked out in his wedding finery he holds a champagne coupe, staring at it in perplexity as the chief steward tells his tale. ‘How could this have happened?’

John begins this account with the casual comment that it took place ‘on the third day’. Four words that for any Christian signify not the start of Jesus’ ministry, but its joyful conclusion. Another day of reunions and delight: the day of resurrection.

Christ is not a grim task-master in obedience to whom life becomes gloomy. He compared himself to children playing at weddings.

William Temple, ‘Readings in St John’s Gospel’ 1939, Macmillan

This is a miracle that marks the difference between the ways of men and the ways of God. The steward is bewildered. The organisers of this feast have not done what they were supposed to do: give the guests quality wine at the start, and then they won’t notice when you switch to the cheap stuff later. No. What God is doing in Christ isn’t about what we expect – it’s about what we need.

The 17th century Metaphysical poet Robert Crashaw described it with beautifully economy: ‘the modest water saw its God and blushed’.

Offered to God – brought before Jesus – what we may consider the modest water of our lives can be transformed. Perhaps we think the best years are behind us – that the time we have to offer now is weak and watery compared with our past vigour. Tell it to God.

Water become wine.

Faith is all about offering what we have, not what would be ideal. The disciples weren’t the intellectual stars of their generation. They weren’t conspicuously wealthy or influential, they don’t appear to have been known to the religious authorities. Jesus took what was offered and forged the foundations of the church. Time and again people came to him who had little to give, and he took it and blessed it and broke it – and it was transformed.

We may feel like we hold a flickering light of faith – so fragile a gust of wind might extinguish it. This Gospel says ‘don’t worry’. Bring to God what you have. Share what may seem watered down and weak, and Jesus will use whatever we have, and it will be changed. 

In a world where there is so much darkness God asks us to offer what we have. Because, when we place it into the hands of Jesus, who knows what it will become. Two thousand years ago they brought him water at a wedding: today we share wine that becomes the life-blood of our faith – and we go out refreshed, to be God’s light in our world.

Larkin Around

The Sunday after John Betjeman died Philip Larkin went to church. I was in St Mary’s Cottingham for Evensong when the familiar figure of the university librarian entered – just after the service had started. While Larkin was well known for church going, he preferred to make sure there was ‘nothing going on’ inside before crossing the threshold. I’ve no idea whether or not he stayed to the end, but his silent presence made a poignant homage to the senior poet. In death, Betjeman got Larkin into a church service, which would probably have raised a chuckle from the poet renowned for his passionate interest in all things ecclesiastical.

Like most undergraduates at Hull, I had very little to do with Larkin. He appeared during induction to speak about the library and offered the advice: ‘spending your grant on library fines is a very silly way to part with your money’. Once during a student all night work-in opposing Thatcherite cuts to higher education, Larkin stomped about in the theology and philosophy section, huffing and puffing, until a fellow student – unaware who was creating the noise – expelled a loud ‘sshhh’ in his direction. We were very studious in those days.

Although different poets, Larkin and Betjeman had a respectful and constructive relationship. In 1964 Betjeman interviewed Larkin in a BBC Monitor programme. It begins with an exploration of Larkin’s chosen context, the city of Hull. The isolation and ‘end of England’ ambiance chimed with the poet who felt so suited to its remoteness.

November often brings Betjeman to mind. His poem Winter at Home captures an England long departed. A season of quiet when the appearance of fog is welcomed as it grounds aircraft and adds to the sense of stillness. For Betjeman it is a time for reading long novels, and noting the small changes that mark the slow shift of the seasons. The moment when the Michaelmas daisies are too frost bitten for use in church and dried arrangements are put in place instead. An era when the limited supply of international goods meant people were compelled to work within the limitations – and opportunities – of the season.

John Betjeman’s devotion to the Church of England and the unique and prevailing Anglican temper of his character and imagination have been amply explored…

Gardner, K. J. (2014). Strange deliberations: John Betjeman and protestant nonconformity. Christianity & Literature63(2), 225-256.

When it came to Christianity and Church Larkin and Betjeman could not have been more different, yet the Monitor interview suggests that there were spiritual touching points despite the outward differences. Sitting with Betjeman in an overgrown cemetery, Larkin muses that ‘everything I write… has the consciousness of approaching death’. While having a very limited knowledge of churches, Larkin says that he developed a habit of visiting them (when empty). He comments: ‘I always welcomed the feeling I had going into a church’. There is a deep interest here in the liminal, the mortal, and the endless.

I am not sure whether Larkin’s silent Evensong tribute to Betjeman is recorded anywhere. Eighteen months later Larkin himself died, and two of England’s most significant post-world war poets were gone. A tribute by the English department took place the day before I left Hull for good. It was a highlight of my three years in the university city, with Larkin’s ‘loaf-haired secretary’ present along with others who were, in one way of another, caught up in his poems.

Writing about a theological approach to Larkin, Theo Hobson makes a persuasive case that the poet’s attention to the realities of life challenge a complacent secularism. At the same time, “his pursuit of ‘undeceived’ honesty… becomes a personal myth”. This leads Larkin to flirt with nihilism but not to succumb to it. For the complacent secularist as much as for those developing a deceptive ‘sub-theological gospel’, Larkin crafts poetry that disturbs seemingly self-evident narratives.

I wonder if anything in Evensong struck a chord with Larkin’s thoughts that evening? Was there the slightest lifting of an eyebrow as the words of the Magnificat cut through the blent air: ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’.

Remembering the Absence

Increasingly, I think of my grandfather on Remembrance Sunday. I can imagine that his arrival in the world would have attracted some kind and amusing comments. Thomas was a ‘Valentine’ baby – born on 14 February. So far so good, but unbeknown to his parents and family he was born in a fateful year: 1896. This meant that his eighteenth birthday fell in February 1914, and in the summer of that year he signed up for active service,

I know almost nothing about his military service. Sadly, we only overlapped in life for 11 months. I was born in the January and he died in December. I know that he enlisted with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and, because of the Battalion in which he served, he spent most of WWI in Gallipoli, the Middle East and West Africa. It appears that he continued to be in the army as a Private until 1920. As he had nothing that drew him into official records (such as injury) there is very little left to show for his six years of service. Like most other troops, he was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

I would love to have talked with him about those years. With an upbringing in a Lancashire market town, and a family trade of weaving, Tom probably never imagined that he would travel so widely or find himself in such danger. The Regiment he joined would have been full of people he knew, perhaps even distant relatives or school friends. Those years away from home probably had a number of consequences, not least marriage at the then relatively late age of 28. Equally, I have no idea either whether this experience contributed to his death aged 69. My non-combatant maternal grandparents lived into their 80s.

Across the twentieth century, and even today, people will be thinking about absent family members and friends. War has led to so many untimely deaths, and continues to do so. Given that peaceful co-existence is so clearly in the interests of humanity it seems remarkable that it is so elusive. Human greed and fear appear to be the characteristics that fuel conflict and despite all we have learned we find it impossible to resolve these feelings and live peacefully with one another. The astonishing development of technology and science is unmatched by any noticeable change in human maturity, wisdom or insight.

The father of the poet Ted Hughes served with the Lancashire Fusiliers during WWI. At Gallipoli he was one of only 17 men to survive from his battalion, giving some idea of the harrowing circumstances in which these young men found themselves. As so many of the troops were serving in the same units the consequent loss of life within the mill towns of Lancashire was devastating. As Hughes put it, ‘We are the children of ghosts / And these are the towns of ghosts’.

Hi father’s war stories were so vivid, his psychological wound so palpable that Hughes felt he himself had witnessed the apocalyptic carnage. 

Meyers, J. (2013). Ted Hughes: War Poet. The Antioch Review71(1), 30-39.

Only recently has some kind of understanding emerged about the enduring scars of conflict. The growing study and use of the concept of moral injury reflects an awareness of suffering that continues. Alongside PTSD there is recognition that terrible events in conflict reverberate down the decade and – as the quote above illustrates – even be passed across generations. When the cost of a war is estimated these kinds of injury appear to be omitted from the calculations. The lack of peace in our world comes at a terrible price.

The soldier and war poet Siegfried Sassoon imagines in one of his compositions that the devil visits a cenotaph. The prayer of the prince of darkness is that humanity will forget the damage done by war, and that human folly will be repeated. It feels that our task is the exact opposite – to remind any war-hungry politician that conflicts seldom end in less than a century, and that the greatest price is paid by ordinary men and women long after the guns fall silent. The absence of an estimate of emotional damage does not mean the damage doesn’t exist. There is no lack of testimony, like that of Hughes, showing the lasting trauma both in field participants and in the communities from which so many young people suddenly became absent.

We will remember them – and must never forget that hell on earth reaches far and wide.