Sunday, 2 October 2016

'Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral' - Caryll Houselander


Westminster Cathedral

 Westminster Cathedral holds special memories for me, starting just after the end of the Second World War, when as a young boy of nine, I was sent as a boarder to the Cathedral Choir School. We attended daily Mass in the Crypt, and during the week were often required to serve Mass for visiting priests in one or other of the Cathedral side-chapels. The Choir sang regularly in the Cathedral itself, increasingly so as it became more proficient under the direction of George Malcolm, the inspirational   Musical Director. I loved my time there, but a combination of poor health and family reasons led to my leaving before my twelfth birthday. Over the years I have visited the Cathedral many times, and inevitably I experience a pleasurable feeling of ‘coming home’.
I admire very much the literary works of Caryll Houselander, particularly her poetry, and this post reproduces four sections of her poem ‘Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral’, written before the war ended, and published in her book of poetry ‘The Flowering Tree’. The poem is divided into nine verses, reproduced below are verses 3(part), 7(part), 8, and 9.

‘Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral’

v3 (part)

Christ is weeping over Jerusalem.
His tears hang in the mist
over the city of London.
His tears water the parched dust,
in Spain and in Mexico.
On the white snow of Holy Russia
His tears are frozen,
and the drops of His blood
fall down softly through the snowdrift,
like the leaves of a dark rose.

The world will not serve
a God, who is also a poor man,
Who has chosen
bread and dust
for the revelation of love.

The world will bow
to a God,
Who is out of the reach
of the common people,
remote, like a jewelled icon
set in a circle of flames,
an ineffectual loveliness,
that neither demands nor rebukes.

On the loom of iniquity,
with black and cunning fingers,
the hands of the world have woven
a golden garment,
to put on God.

Now with a gesture
of terrible patience,
Christ submits,
to the ignorance
and the misery
of an exasperated people,
who think it is He,
who despoiled them,
that the shepherd struck His sheep,
for a tawdry garment of gold
tarnished with tears.

They dress Him up
like a clown
in a red cloak.

Over the altar
there is a painted crucifix,
long ago
there was a painted cross
in Russia
and Mexico.

In Spain
there was a crucifix
carved in ivory,
each drop of blood
a dark and tragic garnet,
the hair engraved
and inlaid,
with threads of pure gold.

It is trampled into the mud.

'Holy Family' apse mosaic in St Joseph's chapel. Designed by Christopher Hobbs;   installed in 2003

 In England
there was a crucifix
carved in wood.
The face was a child’s face
that smiled.
The smile was the glow
of the heart that shone with love.

It is in a museum, behind a glass case.

Lifted up,
dire in His poverty,
stark in His nakedness,
nailed like vermin,
Christ is ruling
the inward kingdom.

The kingdom of God
is not
the works of the mind of man,
or the gathered treasures of art,
or the Churches built with hands,
or the defended city.

The Kingdom of God
is the integrity
of a man’s heart.

Lifted up above the ruins
of centuries of the dreams of men,
Christ is ruling upon the Cross.

      Nave and High Altar
   v 7 (part)
There are a few people confessing their sins,
a whispering, like the rustle of rain in leaves.  

Each one who brings his story
of tedious little failures,
over and over again,
brings in his patient hands
and his contrite will,
all who have failed,
all who will not come
to the source to drink.

When the rain falls on one soul,
it falls on the parched dust
of the whole world. 

When one man is driven
by sorrow for sin,
to the everlasting arms,
through the dark waters,
his soul is drawn
by invisible light.
Like a fragment
of broken glass,
worn smooth and round by the sea.
It shines with the strange beauty
of the salt of his sorrow,
and in his single heart,
the whole world
is at rest
on the limitless shores of peace.
Like a sea jewel laid at last,
by the unresting waves,
on the quiet sands in the sun.

A few are confessing their sins.
There is a feathery rustle,
like birds in the wide branches,
of an old spreading tree. 

 Lady Chapel - Tree of Life (mosaic), designed by Richard Anning Bell  (ack. Cambridge 2000 gallery)

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,
almost forgotten,
until a lover,
lays her head upon the piteous ribs,
of the cage of bone,
and hears
the mysterious beat
of the pulse of life. 


 Westminster Cathedral - mosaic of Our Lady of Walsingham
  (picture by MOtty - Wikimedia Commons)


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 truth.
Of the simple laws
of our own life.

We have feared
the primitive beauty
of human things.
Of love
and of birth
and of death.

We have lost
the integrity
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
of complacency.
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,
Shadowless Light.
Flame in us
Fire of Love.
Burn in us,
Morning star.
Go with us!

Caryll Houselander

 High Altar and Crucifix  (ack. London and Neighbourhood website)

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