Monday, 11 March 2019
Memories - 1940's London - Caryll Houselander, 'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral'; 'In an occupied Country'
(The following post was originally posted in 2015, and after I updated the 'label', mysteriously appeared as a new post dated today! Rather than lose the post altogether it seems sensible to retain the post here. Thank you.)
Tragically, war is always with us. Every day through the media, we are assailed with details and images of death and destruction, terror and suffering, experienced on a wide scale in different parts of the world. We hope and pray that we will not be caught up in these horrors, and pray for peace in the world. I am of an age for which life in Britain during the Second World War has a particular relevance, for this was the time of my childhood, a period which I lived through, and certain details of which I can remember quite well.This is no place to enlarge on these memories, however it so happened that in 1946 I was enrolled as a boarder at Westminster Cathedral Choir School when it re-opened after the war. As choirboys there were very few days on which we failed to be involved in one or other of the liturgical services in the Cathedral, and I have never lost that sense of mystery and of God ever present in the Cathedral, even to me as a small boy. The following extract from the poem 'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral' reinforces these impressions.
'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral'
Caryll Houselander (1901-1954)
‘In the cathedral
through ages and ages of men,
the people come and go.
They sorrow, but One endures,
they falter, but One is strong,
they pass, but One remains,
they change, but One is unchanging.
Christ is there,
in a corner behind a lamp,
He is in the world,
as a man’s heart in his breast,
until a lover,
lays her head on the piteous ribs,
of the cage of bone,
the mysterious beat
of the pulse of life.
We have rejected
the yoke that is sweet,
and bowed to the yoke of fear.
We have feared discomfort and loss,
pain of body and mind,
the pang of hunger and thirst,
we have been abject
before the opinions of men.
We have been afraid
of the searching ray
Of the simple laws
of our own life.
We have feared
the primitive beauty
of human things.
and of birth
and of death.
We have lost
of the human heart.
We have gone to the dying embers for warmth,
to the flickering lamp for light,
we have set our feet on the quicksand,
instead of the rock.
We are the mediocre,
we are the half givers,
we are the half lovers,
we are the savourless salt.
Lord Jesus Christ,
restore us now,
to the primal splendour
of first love.
To the austere light
of the breaking day.
Let us hunger and thirst,
let us burn in the flame.
Break the hard crust
Quicken in us
the sharp grace of desire.
Let us not sit content
by the dying embers,
let the embers fall into cold ash,
let the flickering lamp gutter and die.
Cover with darkness
the long shadows
thronging the lamp.
Make the soul’s night,
absolute and complete,
the shrine of one star.
Shine in us,
Flame in us
Fire of Love,
Burn in us,
Go with us!’
'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral' (extract)
From 'The Flowering Tree'- selected poems by Caryll Houselander. (Sheed and Ward)
As a child during the war I was evacuated out of London, but occasionally was taken by my mother to see friends and relations who lived in London, travelling by train and bus or tram. I cannot remember much of these visits but the following description of London during the hours of darkness, with blackout regulations strictly enforced, has a familiar ring about it. I seem to recall in particular the blue lights in the buses, the lighted cigarettes of pedestrians, and the red, amber, and green crosses on the traffic lights. I am grateful to say that on these visits I was never in the vicinity of bombing raids.
'The weather continued warm, but the nights were lengthening. People looked forward to the winter and the long cold darkness with no relish. The streets emptied now after dusk, and the black-out became largely the property of the wardens and the police; though in the West End there persisted a dogged and darkly hurrying crowd of revellers. A City bereft of electric and neon light took on a new beauty – by moonlight the great buildings assumed a remote and classic magnificence, cold, ancient, lunar palaces carved in bone from the moon; and angular overdressed Victorian eccentricities were purified, uncoloured, quietened by the moon’s ubiquitous sanity. But in clouded nights and moonless nights it was not so beautiful – in the total blackout nothing could be seen. Torchlight was rationed by a filter of paper, the insides of passing buses glimmered blue, cigarette ends became the means of demonstrating one’s passage. A match might not be struck, nor a headlight switched on. A glimmer of ‘starlight’ filtered down from some street-lamps in the main thoroughfares, the red, green, and yellow traffic lights were masked to show only thin crosses of their colour. This darkness flared into sudden relief – in the yellow flash of gunfire, in the whitish-green hiss of incendiaries, in the copper-red reflection of the fires, in the yellow flare of the burning gas main, in the red explosion of the bomb. In such light the gilt tracery of Big Ben’s tower flashed into colour, the sombre drab alleys round Covent Garden blazed with a theatrical daylight, the corrugated skylines of Park Lane and Knightsbridge showed black against the deep red sky, the streets of Pimlico and Soho saw the high scarfing columns of a naked gas flame flaring like some giant idealization of the naphtha flames that through the years had lit their fairs and their stalls.
These were the lights – but there were also dark streets, streets where suddenly a house of blackness collapsed with a roar, shifting down heavily like some bricked elephant lumbering to its knees, thickening the darkness with a poisonous cloud of dust, shrouding the moment after its fall with a fearful empty silence broken only by small sounds, the whispering of broken water pipes, slight shiftings of debris, moans and little cries of the injured; then into the torchlight of the wardens there would stagger those un-trapped, lonely figures in the dust-fog, bleached grey with powder and streaked and patched with black blood; or – there would be nobody, and not a sound, only a living silence in the knowledge that under a smoking, spawning mass of timber and brick and dust there lay pressed and stifled the bodies of warm people whose minutes were slowly ticking away, whose rescue was absurdly blocked by a mass of intractable weight that angered those standing so few yards above.
These are not pleasant memories, but they must be written – otherwise the picture that was essentially one of dirt and anguish becomes too clean. Death and wounding from such explosives was never as neat as a bullet in the head; but the details shall be left to a Barbusse. One of the few consolations was that the explosive force proved in most cases so great as to shock its victim into unconsciousness or at least into a physical incomprehension of what had occurred.'
Westminster in War (1947)
'London is London' by D.M.Low (Chatto and Windus) 1949.
Recently I saw a photograph of a dwelling house in the Ukraine, severely damaged by gun-fire. The photograph included two elderly women walking in front of the house, going who knows where. The whole scenario was one of tragedy and suffering, made worse by the knowledge of the futility of this war, and the helplessness of those caught up in it. The following short poem, again by Caryll Houselander, is particularly appropriate.
In an Occupied Country
Mother of God,
Save the walls of my cottage.
They are only bricks and mortar,
But they embrace
The memory of my son.
War is so cruel!
It not only treads
Our children’s faces
into the mud,
and waters the harvests of sorrow,
with their innocent blood,
but it shatters
the four walls,
where an old Mother,
(who asks no more in the end)
could cover her grief.
Is only a ruin,
But the four walls are sacred,
They hold and embrace
The memory of my son.
They are the shell
That once was around
My little chicken.
Mother of God,
By Christ’s empty tomb,
Leave me the walls
Of my ruined home.
From 'The Flowering Tree' - selected poems of Caryll Houselander (Sheed and Ward)
Wednesday, 20 February 2019
More years ago than I care to remember, I was a teenager at Wimbledon College in south-west London, a boy’s Catholic Grammar School, administered by the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). In the middle years it was customary for the boys to attend a Retreat lasting two or three days, the object being to reinforce knowledge and appreciation of our Catholic faith. The Retreat was given by a Jesuit priest, not necessarily from the school, and on two occasions in separate years, I was fortunate to attend a Retreat given by Fr Bernard Basset S.J., a well - known and much sought after Retreat Master. Father Bassett was an excellent speaker with the ability to capture and retain the attention of his young listeners on spiritual matters, no mean feat, with light-hearted humour a potent weapon in his armoury.
Recently I came across a copy of an old book entitled ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues – and other Stories’, by Bernard Basset S.J. published by Sands & Co. London. The stories are a delight to read and not too long, and I offer you one that I think you will enjoy and appreciate; an antidote to the current helping of gloom and doom within the Church, which of course is but a glitch in its divine mission, and one which will pass.
These stories first appeared in Stella Maris and the Southwark Record, with permission granted for the author to publish them in book form.
Mr. Bumbleby’s Outburst
The Church recommends that we should spend fifteen minutes in making our thanksgiving after Holy Communion, and the story is told of St Philip Neri that he once sent two altar boys with lighted candles to escort a culprit who had darted off the moment Mass was done. Of course we all agree with the Saint, and would not ourselves cut away without a suitable thanksgiving, but if two acolytes with lighted candles came and stood by us while we arranged our thoughts after Holy Communion, we might better appreciate the honour which is ours.
As it is, we must all admit with some confusion that our knees are often more impressionable than our minds and hearts at that time of the morning, and that with the best intention in the world we find it very difficult to pray. That at least is what we think, and when five minutes have taken half an hour in passing, we find it hard to believe that it is worthwhile struggling with distractions and hunger any more.
Perhaps it might help someone if I set down Mr. Bumbleby’s views on thanksgiving after Communion, for though I know all the theory and was already a weekly communicant on paper before I talked to him, yet he certainly helped me a great deal. Up to that time, Marjorie and I, suffering from the common complaint of inability to feel holy or prayerful before breakfast, had alas, become remiss about going to early Mass.
For six days in the week we proudly grouped ourselves among the regular congregation for the eight o’clock Mass on Sundays, and I would even stay in bed a wee bit longer on Saturdays to compensate for rising early on the next day. Yet by Saturday evening I invariably had a scraping feeling behind the nose, or a tooth which might give trouble, and I would decide after much humming and hawing that it would be inviting trouble to go to early Mass.
Marjorie used to laugh at my complaints but she too had a battery of excuses on occasion, the children looked peaky, or she was so behind with her housekeeping, and after all, she must sometimes think of cook. Why cook should have a figure in our spiritual pie was a question that I could never answer, but Marjorie seemed satisfied, and in the end, after a long discussion, I would announce that we’d better go to late Mass just for this once, while Marjorie would say, “No, let’s leave it till the morning and we’ll see what the day is like.” We both know what that meant.
Now Mr. Bumbleby was the newsagent from whom I always bought the Sunday papers on my way home from Mass. This was easy, for Mr. Bumbleby had no shop but used to open his pitch on the pavement not far from the church. His glaring posters were strapped to some railings, his stock of papers screamed their headlines at you from the tarpaulin cover on which he had laid them, while Mr. Bumbleby sat by the side reading all about the latest murder, hoping that no purchaser would remove the last copy before the police had inspected the body. I had seen Mr. Bumbleby inside of the church on occasions, for he was a Papist, but usually he was already doing a brisk trade on the pavement before we arrived for Mass.
It so happened on the particular Sunday in question that I had for once overcome the temptation which beset me, and had struggled from bed to early Mass. Either the children were looking peaky or cook was being thought of, for Marjorie had remained at home. I remember feeling that I might as well have stayed at home myself, for after Holy Communion I found it almost impossible to pray. And this disturbed me, for if you firmly believe as a Catholic that Our Lord is truly present on the altar, and that He comes to you in the literal sense at Holy Communion, then it is very humiliating when the mind pops off on to trivial subjects at the most sacred moment of His arrival.
Well, my mind was certainly on the spree that morning, though I clutched firmly at my prayer book, rattled my rosary, compiled a long list of petitions to be asked for, and generally set about the duties of prayer. I thought of Marjorie and cook, Jimmie’s bad leg, Joe Stalin and Tottenham Hotspurs, and then returned with shame to my own lack of gratitude and respect. Unfortunately my rosary on the seat in front served admirably as a rough map of the Mediterranean, and in the midst of remorse I was planning naval dispositions. Within five minutes it was clear to me that progress in prayer was no longer possible, and following the mood of the moment I swept the Mediterranean coastline into my pocket, seized my hat and went.
Mr. Bumbleby was in position when I bounded across the road to greet him, but he was not reading the paper as I had expected, but was sitting on his heels beside his posters with a huge prayer book in his hands. He was so busy that he did not notice me until I had said good morning, and then he shut his book and whipped off his glasses.
“Hello” said I, speaking without purpose or consideration. “don’t tell me you are saying your prayers?”
Mr. Bumbleby was not in the least embarrassed by my stupid question, but replied with alacrity that was exactly what he was doing, for what with the blooming trains running late, and the R.C.s going to church so early, he’d had the very dickens of a rush to open up in time anyhow, and that he had had to cut away from church with his thanksgiving half unsaid.
“What’s more” he added, pointing menacingly at the newspapers with his glasses, “it ain’t ‘arf ‘ard to be saying your prayers squatting on the public pavement with all them latest London editions to be read.”
Partly from surprise, partly as a result of my own experience in church that morning, I agreed that it was very difficult to make an adequate thanksgiving after Holy Communion, but my admission seemed to affect Mr. Bumbleby in a most unexpected way.
“That’s just where you’re wrong,” said he, looking fiercely in my direction, and then he flung open his battered prayer book, licked his forefinger and began turning over the pages as though they were treasury notes.
“I used to think it was hard,” he said, “ in the days when I was always fussing about my own feelings, because if I didn’t happen to be in the mood, then my prayer was a washout from the start. That’s what you think too, and you’re wrong. After all we’d never get nowhere in ordinary life if we only thought of ourselves. When the Master comes to us in Communion, He’s not thinking of Himself, is He? No, He’s out to give us a big help and pleasure, and so we in our prayers shouldn’t think about ourselves but about Him. It’s because we’re always watching ourselves, worrying how it’s going, wondering if it’s doing us good and can we possibly fill up the quarter of an hour, that we get all knotted up in five minutes.
“ ‘Let Him look after me, and I’ll look after Him.’ That’s how I see it now, but mind you, I’ve not always ‘ad the sense to see it. And then there’s far too much asking in our prayers. Of course, He told us to ask, that’s just like Him, and we have every right to do so, but it seems to me that we oughtn’t to overdo it, because ‘Hallowed be Thy Name’ comes well before ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ in the Lord’s Prayer. Our first job in prayer is to stage a sort of reception, such as a town might give to His Majesty, the King, God bless Him, with a guard of honour, streamers, flags and the like fluttering about. Now we can’t be waving no flags in church I know, though the flowers and vestments and our best clothes are for the same purpose, and there are one or two prayers that take the place of ‘God Save the King.’”
Mr. Bumbleby had been turning over the pages of his book while he was speaking and at last he found the required place.
“Ever heard mention of the song of the three young men in the furnace?” he asked fiercely, and then went on without giving pause for reply.
“I can’t rightly pronounce their names, not being educated, and I ain’t ever been in a fiery furnace myself either, but it seems to me that it is ‘ardly the ideal place for a spot of quiet prayer.
Well, there they were those three, all crammed into the blaze because they wouldn’t worship no idols, and instead of calling on God to help or preserve them they started singing about His glory for all they were worth. If they could do it then, we can do it in the cool of the church or even out here on this blooming pavement, and we can use their very words. That is what Holy Church thinks anyway for she gives their song in full for the priest to say after Mass.
“And that is what I was doing when you came along, for it’s an easy prayer to say when you’re stuck for words or don’t feel able to make much effort, for you’ve only to run through the list of hills and seas and mountains, and say O.K. to each one of them and see how good and how powerful God is to have made them all. ‘Mountains and waters bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all for ever; all ye priests bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all for ever; Ernest Bumbleby bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all for ever’.”
Mr. Bumbleby slammed the book and began fishing about for my Sunday paper.
“That’s prayer,” said he, “real prayer, and it don’t matter a hoot what you feel while you’re saying it because you are calling on the mountains and other creatures to praise God, and mountains don’t have no moods like you and me. Just you stick to the song of the young men, whose names I can’t pronounce though I’ve said them every Sunday morning this last decade, and when that song is sung then move on to the next psalm in the prayer book, all about praising God with harps and cymbals and the rest of the band.
“We forget that we all look one way in church, Jesus Christ from the altar looks the other way. What does He see? He sees Mrs. Somebody in the front bench praying for a whole list of odds and ends and maybe He gives her some of them’, and further back He sees Mr. Somebody else and a crowd of others all asking for things, and because He’s so kind He listens. But right at the back or even out here on this blooming pavement He sees an old sinner like me saying ‘Glory be to the Father’ over and over again, and you may be sure that He’ll give me what I need too.
“Now I don’t say He isn’t pleased with all the others, because He’s bound to appreciate their effort, but I know what sort of prayer would give me most pleasure were I in His position, and what I would like best He would like best also, for Jesus Christ is God, but He’s a human being after all.”
Mr. Bumbleby resumed his prayer, and as I walked away I did not read the paper but I opened my missal and called on the mountains and waters to praise and exalt the Lord. It was certainly easy and I dawdled as I read so that I was very late for breakfast and Marjorie had to fall back on her favourite admonition, “We must think of cook, sometimes.”
Ack. 'The Seven Deadly Virtues & Other Stories' by Rev. Bernard
Basset S.J. published by Sands & Co. London. These stories first appeared in Stella Maris and in the Southwark Record, with permission for the author to publish in book form.
Monday, 7 January 2019
For many more years than I care to remember I have been meaning to read ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ by St Francis de Sales. I have occasionally dipped into it, but have never actually read it through. My New Year resolution is to remedy this, for it was written for the lay person to help them live their lives ‘in the world but not of the world’, and I certainly need to avail myself of this spiritual help.
Saint Francis de Sales
The book is divided into five main sections:- ‘Devotion’, ‘Prayer and the Sacraments’, ‘the Practice of Virtue’, ‘Overcoming Temptation’, and ‘Renewal and Preservation of Devotion’, each of which is divided into numerous sub-sections. Whilst the book is designed with the sections in the above order, which has a certain sensible continuity, each part can nevertheless stand on its own merits. This post will deal with St Francis de Sales’ advice on ‘Overcoming Temptations - Worldly Wisdom and Courage in Devotion’
As soon as worldly people see you bent upon the devout life they will shower you with mockery and detraction. The more malicious will attribute your change to hypocrisy and insincerity, saying you have turned to God only because the world has disappointed you. Your friends will raise countless objections which they consider wise and charitable, saying that it will only make you morose and unbearable; that it will discredit you in the eyes of the world; that you will grow old before your time; that your domestic affairs will suffer; that those who live in the world must live accordingly and that you can get to heaven without all these mysteries and so on. All this is but stupid and empty babbling, Philothea. They are interested neither in your health nor in your affairs. “If you belonged to the world,” says Our Lord, “the world would know you for its own and love you; it is because you do not belong to the world that the world hates you.” We have seen men and women spend, not only the whole night, but several nights in succession, playing cards or chess. Is there anything more dull, miserable and absurd than this? And yet it does not disturb worldly people in the least; but if we spend an hour in meditation or are noticed getting up in the morning earlier than usual to go to Holy Communion, they send for a doctor at once to cure us of melancholy and jaundice! They can spend thirty nights in dancing without experiencing any ill effects but if they have to spend one Christmas night in watching they are full of coughs and complaints the next day. It is quite obvious that the world is an unjust judge; gracious and forbearing with its own children, but harsh and rigorous with the children of God.
Only the worldly stand well with the world; we can never satisfy its caprices. When John came, he would neither eat nor drink, and they said of him that he was possessed. When the Son of Man came, he ate and drank with them, and of him they said: Here is a glutton; he loves wine.
The worldly will be scandalized, Philothea, if we condescend to laugh, play or dance in their company, but if we refuse they will call us melancholy hypocrites. If we dress well they will attribute it to a bad motive; if we dress simply, they will attribute it to meanness. They will call our joy dissipation, our self-denial sadness, their jaundiced gaze never satisfied. They will magnify our imperfections into sins, count our venial sins as mortal and our sins of frailty as sins of malice.
Charity is kind, they are spiteful; charity never thinks evil, they always do; and if they cannot find fault with our actions, they censure our intentions. It does not matter to the wolf whether the sheep are black or white, whether they have horns or not, he will devour them if he can. The worldly are against us whatever we do; if we are in the confessional for a long time, they will express surprise that we have so much to confess; if we are only in there for a short time they will say that we have not confessed everything. They will watch us carefully; one word of anger and they will say that we have an ungovernable temper; if we show prudence in our affairs they will say we are avaricious; if we are gentle they will call us foolish, while as for them, their anger is courage, their avarice economy, their over-familiarity honest fun; spiders always spoil the honeycomb. We must ignore such blindness, Philothea; let them cry out like owls trying to disturb the birds of day as much as they like while we go serenely on our way, unwavering in our resolves; our very perseverance will convince them that we have dedicated ourselves to God and embraced a devout life. Comets are almost as bright as planets, but being only transitory they soon disappear, whereas planets shine constantly. In the same way , hypocrisy is hard to distinguish from true virtue externally; the test lies in the fact that hypocrisy is inconstant and vanishes like smoke, whereas true virtue is ever firm and constant. To meet with reproaches and criticisms at the beginning of our spiritual life helps to establish our devotion, for it prevents us from falling into pride and vanity which kill our works as soon as they come to birth, as the midwives of Egypt killed the male Israelites under Pharaoh. We are crucified to the world and the world should stand crucified to us; it counts us fools; let us count it demented.
Though light is beautiful and lovely it dazzles our eyes if we have been in darkness for any length of time; we are always ill at ease in a strange country no matter how gracious and courteous its inhabitants, until we become familiar with them. It may well happen, Philothea, that having embarked on this new life, your soul may feel ill at ease and that you experience a sense of sadness and discouragement in bidding farewell to the follies and vanities of the world; be patient a little while, it is of no importance, only the discomfort of unfamiliarity; as soon as it has worn off you will experience abundant consolation.
At first you may regret losing the empty glory with which flattering fools rewarded your vanity, but would you exchange it for the eternal glory with which God will in truth reward you? The futile amusements of the past may return to tempt your heart back to them; are you courageous enough to buy them back at the price of eternal happiness? Persevere and certainly your heart will soon be filled with such pleasant and delightful consolations that you will count the pleasures in the world but gall in comparison with their sweetness, and a single day of devotion preferable to a thousand years of worldliness.
Seeing the mountain of Christian perfection towering above you, you may doubt your ability to climb it; but take courage, Philothea. Unformed bees are called nymphs and at this stage are unable to fly for honey to the flowers or hills or mountains, but little by little, feeding on the honey prepared for them, they grow wings and are soon sufficiently strong to fly in search of fresh honey far and wide. True, we are no more than such nymphs in devotion, we cannot fly as we would like to the mountain tops of Christian perfection; nevertheless we are beginning to take shape by feeding on our desires and resolutions; we are beginning to grow wings and so may be confident that one day we shall be able to fly. Meanwhile, we must feed on the abundant honey provided by former spiritual writers, and ask God to give us wings like a dove; that we may be able to fly in this life and reach eternal rest hereafter.From 'Introduction to the Devout Life' by St Francis de Sales