arts, books, other reviews
Genius at work
until 25 June 2006
The exhibition at the British Museum of Michelangelo’s drawings allows us an insight into his working methods that he never intended us to see. Michelangelo never intended or wanted his drawings to be made public, and indeed he destroyed many of his working drawings himself. However there are over 90 drawings in this exhibition, not all of them his, and they are a revelation. They give a vivid insight into the way he used the human, usually male, body to express emotions, ideals, patriotism and religious faith.
Michelangelo worked in Florence, Bologna and Rome, at a time of constant political turbulence and unrest in Northern Italy. His main patrons, the Medici family, were very powerful and controlled the political and social life of Florence. Throughout his long working life, and he lived to the age of 88, Michelangelo was admired and revered as an artist and sculptor of genius, as a man of letters and a poet.
His drawings are meticulous. He studied the human body as a thing of complex beauty in all its aspects. The preparatory studies for his paintings show arms, legs, feet, knees, elbows, necks twisting, moving, turning, and at rest. Sometimes he draws the muscles only, sometimes the lines are faint, delicate and thread-like, and at other times the musculature of the shoulder or back is highlighted with white chalk to give it the gleam and shine of marble. Some of the lines are fuzzy and blurred.
Michelangelo was renowned as a sculptor, and his Pieta, now in St Peter’s, was instantly famous. In Florence he carved the heroic and colossal statue of David which stood in the main square in that city. His sketches for these and other sculptures, notably the Medici tombs, show his working methods, with careful studies of parts of the figures which would never be seen by the public.
He and Leonardo da Vinci, were commissioned to paint frescoes to celebrate the victory of the short-lived Florentine Republic, and though his own Battle of Cascina was never completed, the cartoon, or preparatory drawing for it, created a sensation. The huge and complex group of men are preparing for battle in a composition of hurried movement, shouted orders, and wet draped figures emerging from a river.
In 1508 Pope Julius II commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The exhibition shows some of the hundreds of figures that made up the ceiling’s composition. The most famous must surely be the Creation of Adam and there are three wonderful life studies that relate to this. He painted the ceiling standing on a scaffolding, and there is a light-hearted little drawing of himself doing just this. In the centre of this part of the exhibition a projection shows you how the ceiling would have looked to Michelangelo as he was painting it.
He had many pupils, and some of the exhibits show his teaching methods. There are sketches made for his pupils to copy, their not always successful attempts to do so, and his written comments on the results – a very human side of a great artist.
As well as the drawings and cartoons for his pictures and the sculptures that made him famous, there are many that show him exploring ideas and thinking about the themes that were never made into finished works – a wonderful Resurrection where an apparently weightless Christ emerges from the tomb, an Annunciation where an angel whispers confidentially in the Virgin’s ear, the Virgin seated on the ground in a tragic Pieta with a group of grieving figures around her.
The exhibition’s final pictures, made at the end of his life, show Michaelangelo considering and meditating on the Last Things. Three Crucifixions are shadowy and mysterious, the figures worked and reworked as he seems to struggle to make them express the truths of faith.
ICA, The Mall and
Leeds Metropolitan University Studio Theatre
In the early 1960s there appeared a different kind of dramatization of Our Lord’s Passion and Crucifixion. ‘A Man Dies’ by Ewan Hopper and Ernest Marvin, originally written for members of St James’ Presbyterian Church youth club at Lockleaze in Bristol, was not only using modern dress but modern music and technology. Producers could avail themselves of sound tapes and slides for projection onto a large screen. So the narrative of the temptations was, for example, accompanied by the pictures and sounds of worldly power in the form of the large Nazi gatherings of the Thirties.
The mixed-media interpretation has moved on since then, and this short but intense piece of theatre shows that there is a contemporary battle in this area. Are multi-media techniques being used as cheap publicity generators, according to the programme notes ‘bolted on to a production in an inappropriate way with no real artistic justification?’ Or are the technical features integral to the production so that the performers and entire artistic team interact?
At the centre of this production is an encircling screen that dominates both actor and audience. On it is projected a kaleidoscope of past and present images that relate to the central question being posed: is the doctor before us guilty or innocent of the murder of his latest wife? The evidence given is patchy; bits of the previous trial, statements of witnesses, past indiscretions, and present preoccupations with the accused’s state of mind. All are thrown on the screen to supplement the actor’s words and movements. It is as if Judgement Day is here as the doctor sits or stands in isolated introspection, awaiting the verdict.
This fusion of one actor with technical back-up is appropriate to a play where the focus is on a particular character’s grasp of reality, or lack of it. The play comes from a book by Max Frisch, a twentieth century playwright and novelist, whose plays were performed at the Royal Court and the National Theatre in the Sixties. Crime and guilt are themes that are handled from the perspective of the disintegration that follows from them, the process of self-delusion and the faltering sense of identity. Here the visual and the spoken certainly complement one another, and together they display powerfully the doctor’s predicament of not knowing where he stands.
Patrick O’Connor plays the doctor with a sure and wearied touch. His brash and brutal prosecutor is played by Mark Nash with steely energy. The producer, Amanda Leeds, spins the performance along at a brisk pace.
Two questions came to the mind of this churchy reviewer. The first had to do with the presentation of the Liturgy. How integral are the various technical accompaniments, and with what effort do we ensure their appropriate use? Do all church sound systems have a temperamental component? Why does church lighting so often look like Tesco’s, all glare and no shadow?
The second question relates to the confessional. The sacrament is rightly available to all who recognize their sins of deed and thought and omission. What, however, of the troubled and confused who are in need of forgiveness but whose present condition puts them outside the parameters, not of belief, but of making a positive self-examination?
Mass for the housebound
Eternal Word Television Network
In past decades, when the British television companies still broadcast church services each Sunday in the God Slot, I often used to set the video to record before leaving for Parish Mass and could then look forward to armchair sermon tasting, or to enjoying the architecture or appreciating the choir at St So&So’s at my leisure. It also gave one an insight as to the wide variety of ways in which the Mass was celebrated in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches up and down the country. Alas no more. Nowadays, one is lucky to find a televised Eucharist at Christmas or Easter; the rest of the God Slot, where it is still part of the schedules, is largely non-Christian and in many instances not worth watching.
As a layman, the demise of broadcast church services did not really touch me until two years ago, when my wife had two serious accidents; it meant that for considerable periods I was unable to get to church, and even now I cannot get there every Sunday. This is a loss I have felt considerably.
One evening, while idly scanning through the myriad Sky channels, I chanced upon a Mass being broadcast on the Eternal Word Television Network. I then found that each day of the year this channel broadcasts a daily Mass and Sermon, albeit a Roman Catholic one, three times a day at 12 noon, 6 pm and 11pm (11.30 pm on Sundays). The broadcasts are from the Convent of the Franciscans of the Eternal Word in the USA.
My first reaction was a rather churlish one – that we Anglicans can celebrate Holy Mass with a bit more style. This soon gave way to realization that these Franciscan brothers believed and lived the traditional Catholic faith and since then, whenever I have been unable to get to Mass on a Sunday or major feast day, I have turned to them.
EWTN was founded 25 years ago by Mother Angelica of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. She is the Mother Superior of the Convent of our Lady of the Angels in Alabama. The station broadcasts 24 hours a day and has a wide range of programmes. Some are simply too American for my British Anglo-Catholic tastes, but others are excellent. There is a weekly broadcast of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with Sermon, and an excellent series of Meditations Christ in the City by Fr George Rutler, ‘an ex-ECUSA refugee’ into the RC Church, as well as the chance to see the world as viewed from Rome. I particularly enjoy the televised Benediction, as our last two rectors would have nothing to do with such a late medieval rite! If any reader is housebound or unable to get to Mass, I would recommend it. It is currently on Sky channel 769.
Ian Miller is a Scottish Episcopalian
from Galashiels and member of
the Scottish Council of FiF
Mind the ladies
The Real Da Vinci Code
Channel 4, May 13
The lessons were clear. First that you can broadcast any offensive nonsense as long as it is about the Christian religion; second that the one group whose sensibilities must not be offended are the feminists.
Quite perversely (but no doubt intentionally on the part of Random House, publishers of both books) the plagiarism case with Dan ‘all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate’ Brown has given a posthumous but spurious respectability to Holy Blood and Holy Grail. That book, a work of elaborate fiction masquerading as history, has given programme makers an excuse for some extraordinary television. The only intelligent piece in this Dan Brown festschrift was Tony Robinson’s ‘The Real Da Vinci Code’.
Robinson is a winning presenter who has gained his audience’s confidence with solid programmes about archaeology. He was sent across Europe and the Middle East to investigate the facts. The result was solid and creditable. Claims about the Templars (more pioneers of international banking than ingenious heretics); the Priory of Sion (a surrealist fantasy by a group of Parisian eccentrics in the 1950s); the Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie (a painting containing no discernable code and no female apostle); Rosslyn Chapel (no connection with the Templars and not based on the ground plan of Solomon’s Temple), were all elegantly debunked. Then came Mary Magdalene.
There Robinson chickened out. Elaine Pagels was imported as an ‘expert’ on Gnostic texts, which were given quite disproportionate attention. On their (and her) evidence it was alleged that Jesus was known to have frequently kissed the Magdalene and that she had enjoyed a principal role among the apostles. Mary (no surprises here!) was subsequently air-brushed out of the historical record by a male conspiracy, and turned into a prostitute by the Papacy. There was no hint that this tendentious account deserved as critical a treatment as the rest of the Brown farrago. There was no indication of the baroque complexity of her legend, or that she has at least five accredited resting places from Istanbul to Vezelay – all of which might have sounded a note of caution.
Obviously: no rubbishing of feminist icons allowed on television.
THE KING’S REFORMATION
Henry VIII and the remaking of the English Church
Yale, 672pp, hbk
0 300 10908 3, £29·95
Revisionist accounts of the English Reformation have moved backwards and forwards. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars showed with meticulous local evidence that ‘mediaeval catholicism’ was neither so corrupt nor dead as earlier accounts had supposed. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography of Archbishop Cranmer portrays this ‘hesitant hero with a tangled life story’ as more conservative in his early years than some admirers allowed and later on as ‘more evangelical than Anglicanism would later find comfortable.’ MacCulloch’s more recent Reformation: Europe’s House Divided gives an often missing European perspective to the Reformation in ‘the Atlantic isles.’
Now we have another blockbuster of a book from the professor of Early Modern History at Southampton University. Here again is meticulous scholarship, drawing on a wide range of original sources, and focusing on the role of Henry VIII himself as the major progenitor of the English Reformation. Anglicans – and particularly Catholic Anglicans – tend to squirm when challenged by those who say that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII. Of course it was not founded by Henry VIII but it was certainly re-made by him, and Bernard’s story of a tyrannical and autocratic monarch imposing his will on the Church, and his insistence on Royal Supremacy (Supreme Head, not, as under Elizabeth, Supreme Governor) makes very uncomfortable reading at times.
Do we find here the roots of that ecclesial deficit in Anglicanism, with whose consequences we are now faced in the disarray in the Anglican Communion? It is not that the Renaissance papacy whose authority was repudiated was a paragon of Christian virtue; it certainly was not, but neither was Henry, whose rubicund, jowly portrait by Holbein is an assertion of kingly dominance, but whose behaviour was appallingly tyrannical.
Henry had a conscience, at least in respect to the legitimacy of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his deceased brother Arthur’s wife, for which he had received a papal dispensation. But his conscience was selective, his attitude self-righteous, his behaviour brutal, bloodthirsty and ruthless, and his treatment of loyal servants and monks expelled from their monasteries appalling. As Professor Bernard concludes, ‘The persuasion of monks to surrender their monasteries to the crown, together with denunciations of the religious life, make especially painful reading. Exemplary punishment intended to terrify was characteristic. Throughout, the king, while scrupulous in following legal procedures, nonetheless treated the law and the courts as mechanisms for enforcement and punishment, to be manipulated to secure the desired result, not as the arena where truth is established and justice done.’
Bernard begins by exploring the issue of the Divorce and Henry’s campaign for it to be granted, leading in the end to the challenge to papal authority and the Reformation Statutes. In a substantial section, he examines the sources of opposition to Henry’s policy – Catherine of Aragon herself, Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, the Observant Franciscans and the Carthusians; opposition amongst the nobility, in Parliament, and among the people, and by Reginald Pole, who was later to play a significant role as Archbishop of Canterbury under Mary Tudor. The two stages of the suppression of the monasteries are explored in detail, as are the rebellions in Lincolnshire and in the Yorkshire Pilgrimage of Grace.
Bernard notes the influence of Erasmus, who could publish biting satires on the need for reform of the Church, on the young Henry, yet Erasmus would not have endorsed Henry’s wholesale destruction and iconoclasm. In the light of the evidence, Bernard is reluctant to say that Henry’s religion was, as sometimes described, ‘Catholicism without the pope.’ He was too opposed to those traditional marks of Catholicism, monasticism and pilgrimages, for that to be true; nor yet was it a reform necessarily set on a course towards a thoroughgoing Protestantism. It was in many ways sui generis and, although the reigns of Edward VI and Mary intervened, it left its legacy on what became the Elizabethan Settlement.
As Bernard comments, ‘That in doctrine and liturgy the church of England was, as it remains, what the modern jargon calls a ‘contested site,’ with rival interpretations of central doctrines and liturgical practices, reflects, in many ways, the preferences, by no means always logical, of Henry VIII. That the church of England was a church with bishops, cathedrals, and ecclesiastical courts but without monasteries and pilgrimages reflects Henry’s belief. Just as Henry justified his church as a middle way, so later writers would too. Just as Henry was convinced of his royal supremacy – his royal authority – so also was Elizabeth, prepared to go so far as to suspend an archbishop who defied her will.’
As the Psalmist wrote, ‘whoso is wise will ponder these things.’ An Anglican penitence is needed when we consider our origins, for the story is neither simple nor edifying. Professor Bernard’s meticulous scholarship is a sharp reminder of this.
SHAKESPEARE: THE BIOGRAPHY
Chatto & Windus, 546pp, hbk
1 85619 726 3, £25
Peter Ackroyd’s book Albion displayed his astounding range of literary knowledge and his command of it. At the heart of Albion – his study of the English imagination – is Shakespeare, and in this biography he dissects the forces that formed this wellspring of English culture. Although he never expresses the thesis directly, Ackroyd underlines the centrality of Shakespeare in the English mind.
Shakespeare is seen at the fulcrum of many conflicting forces: between the medieval and the modern world, between Catholic and Reformed England, between the pastoral world of the Forest of Arden and the metropolitan life of London, between the life of the court and the life of the Inn Yard. He is placed centrally in English society, obtaining a coat of arms but not a knighthood, and moving freely with nobles and groundlings.
As Shakespeare is revealed at a point of balance, so Ackroyd performs his own balancing act: drawing on primary and secondary sources, he weighs evidence and opinion minutely and offers steady conclusions. He does not rock the boat about mainstream views of Shakespeare, but he does give a clear narrative and many gaps in the story are bridged with well-weighed conclusions.
Ackroyd is not a romantic, and Shakespeare comes across as a hard-working entrepreneur, hanging light to convention, living on the edge of social circles and seizing opportunities with unbounded energy. He is seen as an archetypal Englishman – a shopkeeper’s son who through hard work came good, who enjoyed a pint and was not over scrupulous about religion.
The brilliance of this portrait is the illustration of the biography by carefully chosen illustrations from the prodigious output of the bard. Here Ackroyd is masterful in polishing up old gems with new light.
This is a very satisfying read. Like many of his other books, Ackroyd writes in short chapters, making a big book digestible. The use of English shows a breadth and depth of vocabulary that is rare but fine. Anyone interested in the mind of Shakespeare and its work will value this searching biography.
THE DA VINCI CODE AND THE SECRETS OF THE TEMPLE
The Master of the Temple
Canterbury, 146pp, pbk
1 85311 731 5, £4·99
There is hardly a dearth of comment and instruction surrounding the Da Vinci Code – movie rather than novel as it has now become – but it may well be that a young person of your acquaintance is genuinely troubled by the confusion of scholarships with cod-scholarship, biblical studies with feminist conspiracy theories, political commentary with residual anti-Catholicism.
Robin Griffith-Jones, ‘who every week welcomes scores of Dan Brown devotees,’ is indeed the Master of the Temple church in the City of London, and has written a clear, simple and fair-minded debunking of the supposed facts that are claimed to lie behind the popular fiction. If it seemed a little too simple or missed out some important details (to one who has already studied the Gnostic gospels) perhaps that is corroboration that this is an excellent book for a genuinely inquiring young person.
He is as fair as anyone could be to the nonsense that is being peddled, and has obviously learned of the yearnings and anxieties of those who come to his talks. His essential response, as he draws to the end of the book and so to the necessity of presenting the positive message of the Gospel, is an evangelical one – simple and heartfelt. Maybe it will not matter, but I was deeply saddened that, although he gives Mary Magdalene full prominence as first witness of the risen Lord, he has clearly never known her as one of the communion of saints. The Virgin Mary too is spoken of in strangely distant and indifferent language. ‘The company of all faithful people’ seemingly does not include those who have gone before us and been taken into the fellowship of Christ.
LEX ORANDI LEX CREDENDI
St Joan Press, 150pp, hbk
0 9550707 0 8, £9·99
It is all very well as an Anglican studying the revisions of the Roman Mass during the twentieth century, and even knowing the modern English version more intimately than Common Worship, but what does it feel as a Roman Catholic to have gone through those changes? Academics will not be able to tell you everything, nor convey the mixture of anger and devotion that churns the heart of the confused faithful.
This book has the editorial freedom of a self-published work: the author tells it like it is, with no critical restraint from a copy-editor. Unusually for such writers he is well informed and has studied his sources with careful critical judgement. I found it most impressive, and at times moving. This is someone who prays the Mass and has done the study, reflection and research necessary to inform his judgement.
His thesis is simple. The old Latin, Tridentine Mass was the real thing, at one with the Mass of Gregory the Great; the new Mass, even if it were to be celebrated in Latin, is but a pale, popularized, Protestant shadow. We must learn from the mistakes of the post-conciliar decades, and restore a proper understanding and practice of the old rite. A simple enough argument, but well told, and full of damning evidence.
What worse condemnation of the new Mass could there be than commendation by non-Catholics? Bishop John Moorman was an observer at Vatican II and commented, ‘Listening to the debate, I could not help thinking that, if the Church of Rome went on improving the Missal and Breviary long enough, they would one day invent the Book of Common Prayer.’ Case proved.
The production is odd: the quality of the cloth cover and the paper is exceptional for this price: it is a most handsome little book. What a pity, then, to open it and find that the layout of the text has all the ugly inadequacy of a Seventies doctoral thesis – there is no excuse for such ugliness, especially from someone who is commending the traditional beauty of proper liturgy.
The illustrations are black and white copies of watercolours of medieval manuscripts, with added tweeness – quite bizarre; my favourite is on p.58: surely the celebrant of Mass here is a woman bishop! On the other hand, three appendices offer the full text of both the Tridentine Rite and the Novo Ordo, complete with English translations, and then a list of the changes, in which the Vatican II rite is shown in most cases to have followed the baleful example of Cranmer.
A delightful and angry book. Prayer Book Society members might like to learn of their RC counterparts.
Monastic Steps for Everyday Life
Abbot Christopher Jamison
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 182pp, hbk
0 297 85132 2, £10
In the first so-called dark age they say it was the Rule of St Benedict that saved humanity and civilization. Could it be that Benedictines have such wisdom for the darkness of our own age? The Abbot of Worth, whose community recently featured on BBC2 hosting five spiritual seekers, capitalizes on the interest in that series. Finding Sanctuary is both inspiring and intellectually stimulating, a work that will help many open-minded seekers engage with big issues of what it is to be human as well as how religion helps the attainment of a fuller humanity.
For those who are committed Christians, Christopher Jamison’s book provides a reminder that ‘God has revealed humanity to humanity itself’ (Vatican II) so that Christian faith is a school of humanity – that is of silence, obedience, humility, community and spirituality. What is especially powerful in the book is the way the Abbot calls the bluff on those who would discredit some of these elements so essential to full, generous living.
Take obedience, where the former Worth School headmaster comes out: ‘In those schools where there is no uniform, a powerful youth dress code often operates unwritten rules among the pupils…who are often too frightened to disobey.’ Obedience is about being true to oneself and as such is inseparable from humility, itself inseparable from community. All the spiritual wisdom offered, and there is a great deal, seems to come back to the practical test of how well we will end up relating to other people and especially to the disadvantaged.
I will be lending this book to spiritual seekers I encounter because it is such a gentle yet incisive presentation of both the dilemmas of our age and of what is distinctive of Christianity. Finding Sanctuary starts with an innocent sort of question about why people are so busy nowadays. Having established that we do not actually need to conform to the external pressures of consumerism he points the way to a counter-cultural world, that of the spirit. It is well into the book before sin enters the scene through the commendation of the ancient orthodox prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner’ which captures both the essential doctrine of Christ and its relevance to any spiritual seeker. As a work of apologetics it is shrewd. As a work of spirituality it is true to the aspiration that the best evangelism is ‘the fruit of contemplation’.
THE ENGLISH OFFICE BOOK (Revised Edition)
Edited by Julien Chilcott-Monk
Canterbury Press, 250pp
1 85311 698, £25
Given the liturgical smorgasbord available to Anglicans, some might question the need for the reprint of yet another office book. In reprinting this one, the publishers have brought to light yet another part of our distinctive Anglo-Catholic heritage. Whilst you are now unlikely to find a parish which uses the English Missal, Ritual, Gradual, Hymnal and Office (with Ritual Notes thrown in for good measure), these books, given something of a facelift by Julien Chilcott-Monk, remind us of a more confident era for Anglo-Catholics, a time when we were sure of our own identity. The English Office keeps the grandeur and glory of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, adding to it antiphons and prayers from a range of sources, including both the Sarum and Roman rites. Liturgically it represents the coming together of the English Catholic tradition and the Roman Catholic tradition.
Many priests argue that the BCP Kalendar is rather limiting; it is good therefore to see in the Kalendar not only Charles King and Martyr but also St John Vianney. Both of these saints have long been venerated by Anglo-Catholics, although rarely in the same liturgical manual. Certainly The English Office would serve someone who, whilst wishing to say a distinctly Anglican Office, wished to do so in a more Catholic manner. Indeed it would not surprise me if Roman Catholics themselves might not find some use for this book should they be tired of the Sixties politically correct language of the post-Vatican II liturgy – there is no ‘and also with you’ in this text!
This is certainly not a book you can simply pick up and use. It requires some study and skill. As Chilcott-Monk himself points out, the rubrics ‘from time to time, have to be read twice before they become clear, but that is part of the charm of the book.’ The rubrics are at least printed in red in this volume, unlike in the reprint of the English Missal, which has made it almost unusable in a liturgical setting. The cost of printing in two colours is however reflected in the overall cost of the book, which might seem rather steep at £25 when the book has just over 250 pages.
Whilst it is a minor point I would have liked the book to have had more than one page marker – when a liturgical text requires you to move pages numerous times during a service this is most helpful. The English Office contains some beautiful liturgical texts, and these need to be read or sung with some solemnity and meaning; unnecessary pauses as the officiant flicks through pages to find the correct antiphon or prayer would aid neither his devotion nor that of the congregation.
This volume is full of useful material for those who are looking for a range of devotions and prayers to enrich their daily life. The prayers for before and after the Mass could quite conveniently be placed on prayer cards to be used by the entire congregation in a church, or by an individual wishing to enter more fully into the Mass. Certainly as a Master of Ceremonies recently returned from the liturgical minefield of the Triduum Sacrum, I can well appreciate the prayer to be used before and after the office which asks that God accepts our worship and that he ‘wouldst correct whatever is amiss, and supply whatever is lacking’ in our praise of him.
The English Office Book and its associated liturgical texts are part of our Catholic heritage. They remind us of a period of great confidence for Anglo-Catholics, when our seminaries, religious houses and churches were full, when it seemed that as a movement we would win over the Church of England and persuade her to fully accept her Catholic heritage. Times have changed and we may no longer have that confidence. What we must be confident of, however, is the need to worship God ‘in the beauty of holiness’ and to proclaim through our worship the ‘Faith of our Fathers.’
COMPENDIUM OF THE CATECHISM OF
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
CTS, 208pp, hbk
1 86082 376 9, £6·95
This is a beautifully produced vademecum (as the Holy Father describes it in his commendatory Motu Proprio) of the essentials of the Faith. In traditional, catechetical form, the Compendium takes the reader through the 1992 Catechism, summarizing, abridging, condensing, but always reproducing faithfully the lucidity of the original. I found the sections on the Virtues and the Ten Commandments particularly suited to the form; but really, the whole thing is excellent, and the Appendix of Common Prayers and Formulas of Catholic Doctrine a welcome and useful addition. The quality of the reproduction of the illustrations is outstanding, and the notes which accompany each are helpful. Buy it!
ON HEALTH AND SAFETY GROUNDS
You know that the lunatics have taken over the asylum when you are advised, in all seriousness and with much sage condescension, that you ought to go on a course of instruction to learn how to climb a ladder. The leitmotif of modern life and twenty-first century living is that something which has innocently occupied mankind for hundreds of years is now to cease; abandoned and curtailed, not because it is unpopular – it is invariably flourishing – but because it has been banned ‘on health and safety grounds.’ Those deadening, dispiriting, dismal words have become part of the sound-track of our existence; a regular punctuation mark, usually a full stop, to our pleasure, amusement and enjoyment, as well as to the normal pursuit of our work and play.
You will understand that the Health and Safety consultants have been in; the report has arrived, thudding on the desk as thick and clunking as its prose. My chair, my comfortable chair which is perfect for my imperfect posture (it makes me sit up straight), solidly constructed, generously proportioned, arms at just the right height and angle, a triumph of the designer’s art and British craftsmanship, is deemed unsuitable. It is not adjustable, it does not swivel.
My protestations that it is the perfect height, the most comfortable office chair I have ever had, that I would adjust the adjustable chair to precisely this height and I do not need nor wish to swivel, and the fact that the last adjustable, swivel, all-dancing chair that I had collapsed under me and left me floundering on my back like a beached whale, are met with bland incomprehension.
But they are not finished with me. ‘Why is there a step ladder in your study, when everything is within reach?’ I am asked with deep suspicion. My explanation that, while it is true that everything is to hand without the use of ladders, at lunchtime I like to ascend the ladders to reach the chandeliers and swing from one to another for twenty minutes or so, is met with a basilisk stare. I simply cannot be bothered to explain that they are in my room because they were removed from another room where visitors to be entertained were expected: dull isn’t it?
But life is never dull for the Health and Safety consultant. Life is not a constant adventure but a constant, real and present danger. As if to prove Darwin’s theory of evolution, and to disprove the theory of the survival of the fittest, local busy-bodies and doom-mongers have evolved into Health and Safety consultants; and it is a lucrative growth industry for these tyrants of the clip-board. They must live lives of unadulterated fear and terror. Every step they take must be fraught with danger and the potential for disaster. Every artefact contains the possibility of damage or injury. Every encounter or social interaction must be a source of trepidation. Fear must stalk their lives as the angel of death once stalked the land. What a life!
But they have already succeeded in re-writing the rule book of life. There is no such thing any longer as an accident. Someone must be held responsible; someone has to be made to pay. And when somebody has to be made to pay there will be those ready to make a fast buck; and the lawyers will be leading the charge to the trough of gold.
You do not have to pour over the entrails of a chicken (take care to wear protective clothing: remember, chicken entrails may cause you to predict the future) to know that worse is to come. Ordinary activities have become so hedged about with restrictions and bureaucratic controls and risk assessments as to be not worth the effort. Everything now has to have warning labels attached: ‘sitting on this chair reading a Health and Safety Report may cause buttock-numbing.’ Everywhere there has to be signs (or signage as we must now call it) telling you where to go, how to go, how not to go: ‘Proceed with caution: Do not walk, run, skip, jump or crawl but saunter in a stately and dignified manner.’ Where will it all end?
Health and Safety issues may have been born of tragedy but as an immutable law of history and experience they will end in farce. Beware of kneeling on this hassock in a cassock. Excessive use of lace may damage your credibility. Danger: candles may burn. Warning: incense may get up your nose. Take care: fasting may induce feelings of spiritual awareness before ecstatic fainting. Be advised: your prayers may be answered. Kneeling may damage your knees. Genuflection may cause undue devotion. Contemplation may make you think about God: be warned. Exchanging the peace? Just say no. Hammering nails into the hands and feet of your Lord and God may cause pain.
When the Health and Safety consultant next comes to call, perhaps he or she should produce a little laminated card with the warning ‘Health and Safety consultants may cause apoplexy.’
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