Page 10, 7th November 1980

7th November 1980
Page 10
Page 10, 7th November 1980 — The crux of cross purposes

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The crux of cross purposes

THERE IS no good beating about the burning hush. The Catholic Church is a mite confu sed. I think that an aSsitreness of this is what makes Pope John Paul present an image that is at once both loving and strict.

Of course, much worse has happened in the past. There as time when three different men claimed to be Pope. There was a time when Popes hid from barbarians. There was a time when cardinals who dilly dallied so long over the eleetion had to have the roof taken off the palace where they did their work. There was L time when Popes were Public Sinners. These was a time when the seamless garment was begun to he torn into tatters. There were man tiines when we each killed each other for our versions of the Catholic truth.

So majestic a start introduces a symptomatic detail, this detail is the use of the crucifix.

Now. hs order. it must be displa) est in csers church. It was not always so.

The cross was once a disgraceful thing. Worse than the gibbet and the arena. It was kept for non-Roman malefactors and was an instrument of colonial discipline. Not even hanging, in England, with all its details of the last breakfast. the walk, the hooding. the ghastly expertise. can compare with crucifixion and the people in whose memos this i.tet was still real could not make it into a holiness until they made it into a triumph. Crucifixion was not practised by the Jews. The) stoned people to death and they must. mob-wise, have been among the earliest mass muggers.

But Cicero referred to the Cross as the arbor Wellsand Seneca called it the infelix magnum. In point of fact this appalling punishment was kept for noncitisens and there was a place outside one of the gates of Ronnic %thich was infested with the bodies hanging upon the crosses. Some lived for three days. The Emperor Constantine abolished this punishment which was reserved largely for slaves and he did this in memory of the death of the Christ in ys hich it is uncertain if he really believed.

Only in the 8th Century did the public presentation of the image of God who was Jesus hanging on the cross become respectable or for that matter. tolerable. Before that there had been images in which he was heasily robed. Almost certainlyI le was hanged on the cross naked.

Now we have a problem. We have adopt ,c1 this image of the man and God as our supreme mhol. Canon Laws 1 am told. sull sass that it must be displayed in every church. But how? In some churches where the altar has been brought forward there remains behind the 19th Century reredos with the crucifix in its familiar Mich at the centre of and above everything else.

In modern churches and cross can be carried on to the sanctuary and set into a socket beside the altar. Some priests like to have a cross upon the altar of sacrifice and so there ma), be a tins emcilix facing the priest while he does his sacred work.

Bat somehow none of these solutions appear quite satisfactory. It might be possible to argue that the image is no longer necessary. I would hate that. There is another possibility. In Rome in the Benedictine Abbey of St Anselmo, they have a large church of little architectural interest. They have slung across the altar what I would think io he a 16th (entur) painted cross of Christ, noble. serene. not going to any ( ierman extremities.

In our present muddle. and muddle we certainly are in. I would hai e thought that this was the perfect solution hut alas it is not cheap. A beautiful painted crucifix soaring across and high above your .iltar, hanging from alitnost inS isible wires, this seems to me at least for the time being the solution.

In Westin aster Cathedral. long ago, they hung up a vast painted crucifix over and within the arch before the sanctuarss I do not think myself that it is a major work of art. None the less it is a superb act of architecture and drives people to their knees.

There are so many ways or doing this thing. The empty altar. The little crosslet in front of the priest. The crucifix in its old place behind the new altar. A crucifix lain almost invisible on the altar in front of the priest. Or else the soaring crucifix which I suppose we cannot afford But that we should be considering such matters is some sign of our uncertainty about detail.

SI VI RA L years ago I made a tour of the Galapagos Islands, 1 hese are desolate and terrible places that are scattered in the Pacific off the coast of Equador. We rode around them in a wooden ship which was not quite a schooner but which was yet one of the most extraordinary vessles in which 1 have ever travelled.

I felt ill the whole way round. am not passionately attached to or interested in animals. The whole point of the trip was to see what Darwin saw the Llisco■cr the origins of the species.

Mind you there were marvellous moments. There was U moment on an uninhabited island whose name now escapes me where I faced a bird, a finch. or a curious redness. which appeared in have no fear of me at all. There was another moment when walking among the ruins of a hopeless commercial attempt to make money out of this impossible place. I sY diked quite alone except for the company or a rather large haw k who moved Front tree to tree because I was invading his territory. I am not, as I said. a naturalist, and my view is that if you have seen one sea lion you have seen them all. But on this small ship I shared a cabin with a most remarkable man. his nisme is Norman Hickin.

Because I am selfish and then felt ill, and even though I was younger. he let me have the lower bunk. He is one of those gentle English scholars who adorn our nation with their learning and eccentricits.

However. he has written a book which is called Irish Nature and it is published by The O'Brien Press, in Dublin.

Ireland, for one reason and another, is not a place where one looks for wild life. Yorkshire. possibly. The Highlands of Scotland. certainly. But Ireland one thinks of in other terms which are gentle ill nature if not always in humanity. This person. Mr Hickin. who has spent his life as a high powered pest exterminator has produced an exquisite book of the other things that live in Ireland.

There arc books about the birds and the bees of Ireland and about their flowers which are less destroyed by pesticides than those of England. But here he produces Irish variants of such humble glory that one reads about them with a delight that is close to religion.

Mr Hickin, no Irishman he. has the closest sort or relations with Ireland and has produced something rare and beautiful. When Mr I lickin and I shared a cabin in that splendid but small wooden ship he allowed me to use a tiny table on which to write. I in my turn. allowed him to keep his specimens, which included sea slugs taken off the bodies of very dead sea lions. On the whole, between us, it was a successful symbiosis, Now he has produced this hook which I find slightly horrific because it is so honest about the nature of nature ansl because I am not entranced by this subject and yet I. the protestant. read it through.

But there was one thing which I \sent to in this book to find out if what they said was true. He has a chapter called Reptiles. Now, in Ireland. this sort of subject questions the authenticity of St Patrick. And I find that in Mr Hickin's book there are no snakes at all. There are lizasds and frogs and toads and newts. There is even a Kerry toad, but there is no Irish snake. Could Mr Hickin, who is not one of us. have hit upon a particle of the truth?

THE OTHER day. alone. Charterhouse heard one of' his telephones ring. It was the red and gold one under a rather inconvenient baldachino which communicates with The Catholic Herald at an address called Bunhill in I.ondon. They were telephoning, interalia. to complain of the fact that they were all feeling cold in the Sacred Offices.

Pausing onls to put two more logs on the fire that fails to heat our Great Chamber, 1 told them not to complain. One said it was difficult to type in gloves. Have they never heard of mittens? One had left her mink at home. I ordered a ration of Navy Rum for the lower desk and told them to buck up and pull themselves together. (Actually the oil in my central heating tank runneth out.)

Being cold is not an intellectual question over which the Church has much concerned itself. Once upon a time it must have been a considerable problem to Northern converts. How cosy the dance round the midnight bonfire must have seemed compared with Matins and Lauds in the dark in that new monastery beside the frozen lake.

I do not think that any scholar, bar me, has investigated the influence of the perishing cold on the spirituality of the British. We _now expects nay, demand that our churches be warm. But think of the plight of a Saxon Christian.

They did not even have stained glass windows. They did not have flat glass. They must have used something like translucent skins or alabaster cut as thin as bacon or shutters to keep out the cold that goes with being alive.

W'e are assured of — and indeed this Pope has told us so — the fact that Hell still gapes for the sinful. I once at luncheon in Washington D.C. heard the late Father Martin D'Arcy talk about the personal devil. He believed in Satan as he believed in God, as facts and entities. I confess I regard Lucifer as less than essential to my alretidy rather cluttered faith. But D'Arey on the devil was, at the time. utterly convincing. Alas, it was done after a good hneteratlhtetnddeltacialsn ll not quite rememrouniditedtbhe y ecteorinda!I fiSraetsa nan and t hseurredo exist pairsh priests still who anticipate these for the Catholic Herald. Just a whiff of these fires might now he welcome at Bunhill Fields.

Otherwise there is the Celtic Hell. a place of silence and endless, broken ice. This makes as much sense as the other with all the damned. hairy, frozen, spikey, too preoccupied to speak to each other in the great cold crowd. all looking for somewhere at least as warm as the office of the Catholic Herald and not able to go on strike like honest engineers when they won't put the heating up in some earthly

f. '

No rwonder medieval clerics wore much! It took quite a time for the frightened monks of Canterbury to strip St Thomas down to his vermin ridden hair shirt. so many layers of clothing encased the martyred corpse.

Once on altars — I suspect only on the better class ones — there used to he a round silver ball called. I think, a paume. It contained either hot water or a piece of glowing charcoal. On this the priest warmed his fingers before touching the Sacred Species with his frozen digits. Quite clearly, if the Catholic Herald is cold, it is in good and traditional hands.

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