Page 10, 7th September 1979

7th September 1979
Page 10
Page 10, 7th September 1979 — The poet of divine love Charterhouse !Chronicle

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The poet of divine love Charterhouse !Chronicle

PERQUISITES — vulgarly referred to by men in trade as "perks" — are in the news because the Government wants to reduce them or tax them or something. I suppose they include those large chauffeur-driven cars which meet businessmen arriving first class at Watertoo to take them to their City offices.

Journalists have perquisites, too. Some have a creative attitude to their expense accounts which is not strictly licit and, if caught out, is almost as squalid as the defalcations of county councillors. But they are allowed to accept books freely sent to them by publishers and authdrs in the hope of publicity. They are allowed to keep the review copies sent to them by their papers or learned journals and there are several shops which will buy the book if they are new and in decent condition.

I have just received such a perquisite. It is a Collins paperback, costing 95p, and its possession has given me intense pleasure. It is a copy of the "Poems of St John of the Cross", translated by Roy Campbell, with a perlucid introduction by Fr D'Arcy. The terse Spanish is also there. The book is not light reading; it conveys a galvanising shock; I think that every questing Catholic should have a copy in his house, presbytery or palace. It will not change your life, but it might make you begin to understand how deep and mysterious and how beautiful and unexpected the depths of our institutionalised faith are.

Fr D'Arcy was an outwardly worldly Jesuit who lived in a private austerity and a complete centring upon God. Roy Campbell was . a considerable poet, somewhat to the right in politics of Genghis Khan, a South African whose art and courage and pleasingly outrageous life style made even the equally intolerant Lefties admire him. He had a passionate affair with Spain, its culture and its way of life.

St John of the Cross was brought up poor. He was adequately but not indulgently educated. He was born in Toledo in 1542 and died in 1591. St John became a Carmelite monk, but finding the community somewhat relaxed in discipline, decided to climb to that peak of monastic austerity which is the Carthusian order.

He was a small, sh), strict man, and he fell in with the great St Theresa, who gave him a dog's life. She was busy reorganising the female side of the Carmelite Order and she got St John to do the same for the men, founding the discalced (unshod) Carmelites. This unshoeing was a usual sign of a return to primitive observance. At least they've all got sandals on now.

But St John's reforms angered his brethren and he was imprisoned for nine months by his unreformed brethren. And very harshly. It was at this time that he wrote some of this poetry. He had actually to escape like a felon and, indeed, he died under the C ondemnation of his own reformed brethren.

A miserable life? Read these poems, slowly and again. No one has ever so successfully groped to express the e.yerience of God which is, to Inc. the unattainable height of mysticism.

St John's poetry is ardent, elegant and austere. Our nearest equivalent is the exiled Fr Richard Crashaw (1612-49; they didn't live long then, did they?). And he is one of our daunting and intoxicating greats.

St John wrote of love. His love was for God. It is expressed at times in terms that the puddle deep Freudian could easily explain away.

Fr D'Arcy puts it this way. "To appreciate intelligently the songs of a mystic like St John of the Cross it is essential to grasp the nature of true mysticism. Otherwise .:. (these poems) will in all likelihood be thought to be the description of an intense and very human emotion of the love we know. The truth is that they mystical love cannot even begin until the emotions we are thinking of have been hushed and put to sleep."

"En una noche oscura-. perhaps the most famous poem, begins:

Upon the gloomy night With all my cares to loving ardours flushed (0 venture of delight!) With nobody in sight I went abroad when all my house was hushed.

There appear to be no human words except those of human love to express the intensity of the experience. But read these poems with the poet's God in mind and they batter you to the ground.

Nothing to celebrate

THE PRESS, if nobody else, has for the last few days been "celebratingthe fortieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War. Personally 1 only have the vaguest recollection of the occasion when it began. I

never foresaw the war. I dimly recollect the horrid, complacent, nasal voice of Mr Chamberlain announcing that we were at war with Germany. He did it over the wireless. It caused no profound emotion.

It was even rather amusing. I remember rolling about with laughter at the first sight of a friend dressed in the shapeless battledress of a private. For me it meant that I somehow found myself. after a brief interview with dons, moved from the heaven of Oxford to the hell of Sandhurst. Still, we did not think it would last long.

I recall that in that now boring debating society — in our timewe were remorselessly witty — the Oxford Union Society. we passed U motion saying that its proceedings and officials would only be provisional while war lasted— i.e. until we got back. So I reckon that makes me still the treasurer of the society, and subsequent presidents, like Tariq Ali, Miss Bhutto, our new ambassador in Washington and almost everyone else you have ever heard of, are outrageous usurpers.

Sandhurst was a nasty shock. It's the only experience of my life that 1 look back on with misery. The most extraordinary people shouted at one. We wore cloth caps because there were as yet no uniform caps. Chauffeur driven cars used to come down at weekends to take the more splendid cadets to their country houses or to Whites Club. We were inspected before dawn standing in the snow — by lantern light. They tried to keep up the standards of a pre-war officers' mess on all rationed food — as a result the food was fearful. Personally, 1 lived on doughnuts and Burgundy — and got a biblical sort of skin disease as a result, One did not notice that all the years of one's youth were slipping through one's fingers. My career was undistinguished and I have no intention of writing about fighting. I was most frightened one weekend on leave when I was staying in an upper room at the back of the Ritz Hotel. You will simply have to believe that it was cheaper then and that I could not afford it. I had a perfect view of those flying bombs cutting out over London and like everyone else, prayed. "Not unto toe, 0 Lord!"

But there was one experience that has made me usually to hesitate before being crushing to the crushable. Through my own fault, I got my face pushed in in Normandy. I ended in a surgical ward in East Grinstead where great surgeons tried with plastic surgery to make the victims of face and hand burns presentable.

I was a very minor case. • It was a ward full of very fit young RAF men who had been appallingly disfigured. Now, East GI-instead is not a new Jerusalem; it has even a basic, prosperous vulgarity about it. It is very easy to mock. To me it will always be a holy place.

The whole town and hospital entered into a sort of caring and loving conspiracy. Some of the patients, as th as fleas, would go out drinking wearing balaclava helmets to hide their faces. If they got drunk they were chucked out of pubs. If they were rowdy they were arrested. If they were sick in the hospital they were made to clear it up. If they got cheeky with the nurses — and Irish Catholic nurses seemed best to stay this harrowing course — they were clouted. Young women took them out and flirted with them. They were asked out and made to help with the washing up. The town conspired to kill their self-pity.

But, lest I seem frivolous about all this appalling waste of time and energy and youth and life, there was one incident in the ward that seemed as terrible as anything on a battlefield.

One young man came back from his first operation, his face an Egyptian mummy of bandages with just a hole for his mouth. His mother, the wife of famous serving commander, was one day sitting beside this figure in bed, cutting up a precious peach and putting little squares or it on a fork into the hole. He could not speak. She kept up a bright upperclass prattle. And then, suddenly, she dropped the fork and laid her face on the bed and wept. And he could not move to help or to comfort her. I left soon after.

I have no doubt it was a just and necessary war. I have no doubt that our tentative and civilised attitudes contributed to its coming. It could have been prevented, but not, I fear, by love, There is war now in Indo-China. There are confrontations in Korea and on the Sino-Russian border. There are insurrections in Spain. Ireland and South America. Most people believe that there are things worth dying for, or to be more exact, killing for. We have forgotten almost everything and learned nothing. God! What fools we mortals be!

Not a dry eye in the house

MEDIEVAL saints used to pray for "the gift of tears". I cannot find quite what it meant. Certainly there are plenty of accounts of good men bathed in tears. Churchill was much given to weeping. Wellington wept quietly on the evening after his victory at Waterloo. Weeping was once regarded as no disgrace, rather as a sign of sensibility. Now it is an embarrassment and a disgrace to shed tears. And yet there stands the most arresting verse in all of scripture — "And Jesus wept."

It was a matter of jeering at Oxford before.the war if you were caught with a watery eye in the cinema. My sister and I were once asked to leave a cinema somewhere because she was weeping so loudly and

unrestrainedly into a handkerchief. I think the film was "Mayerling" — you know, one of the versions of the suicide of Emperor Franz Josers son and his lover. My sister was furious at having to leave. She was having a lovely time.

If you are caught weeping nowadays, there are a series of barren phrases designed to make you stop. They come like: "Now, now"; "Pull yourself together"; "People are watching"; "Don't make a fuss"; and "Be a man". Or it can be taken as hysteria and greeted with a therapeutic slap on the face.

I confess to weeping easily and to going to extravagant lengths to disguise it. 1 can weep for delight. I can weep at beauty. I can weep because I am moved by some great, slow ceremony. Like most people, I do not weep at moments of great tragedy. I don't think I ever wept during the war, except for the time when I first saw my face in a looking glass in that East Grinstead hospital and there was nothing noble about that.

When my mother was dying in St John's and St Elizabeth's Hospital in London, I did not weep for her helplessness and silence. The ward sister, and bless all nurses, gave me a glass of brandy as I left to return to my nespaper post in Washington.

Tears are something to express sorrow recollected in tranquility. Tears are an act of respect paid by the human body. Tears come unbidden at really rending examples of human mortality — not at the death of Lord Mountbatten, but at the death of the boy who looked after his boat.

Christ said something to the effect — "Weep not for Me, but for yourselves and for your children." And the squire trumpeting his nasal grief into a great silk handkerchief is a proper but antique image. Africans of every sort, Arabs, the Irish, every kind of Middle Easterner weep unrestrainedly. The stiff upper lip is the second ugliest act of nobility in civilisation.

It is a fearful sight to see a grown-up fighting back his tears. It is boring to see a child using tears as a weapon, yet the most beautiful sight to see is a mother trying to comfort the children with love. As far as I am concerned tears are socially OK. "Sun! berinrae !Trani-.

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