For many the word ‘grey’ is now associated with pornography of a peculiarly mind-numbing banality, but for anyone who loves printing and typography, it is a beautiful word, shimmering between black and white. Grey is a soft colour, susceptible of an infinite variety of tints and gradations. It can be warm or cold, light or dark. What it can never be, to the eye that sees it aright, is dull or boring. It is a creative colour, as black and white are creative colours.
I was thinking about that this morning as I looked out of my window. The snowy fields and slopes are black, white and grey with, here and there, a touch of grey-brown where a tree trunk or wall has escaped the snow. It is the world as a printer might see it: all the important shapes sketched in; the blocks of type and margins allocated; the colours of ink and paper chosen; everything waiting for the moment when the book begins to take shape and meaning flows.
When the earth was without form and void, and the Spirit hovered over it, I wonder whether that was how God saw what he was about to create: a world of meaning from black, white and grey. I rather hope so.
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.
O King of the Nations for whom they long, the corner-stone who makes of both one, come and deliver man whom you made from clay.
Here are a few scripture texts to ponder before listening to the antiphon: Isaiah 9.7; Isaiah 2.4; Isaiah 28.16; Haggai 2.8; Ephesians 2.14; Genesis 2.7
We live in a world where ‘authority’ is conferred by the search engines or the ratings agencies and many individuals chase after Twitter ‘followers’ or Facebook ‘friends’ as a form of personal validation. The idea of inherent authority is quite alien to lots of people, so the imagery of today’s antiphon needs working at.
Christ is presented to us as King: one who, in the Ancient World, had absolute power, an unassailable authority, but who, as a consequence, had an obligation equally serious toward his subjects, best expressed by the idea of covenant. We are not talking about someone unconcerned with our fate but someone involved in it.
It is, however, the next phrase of this antiphon that I find most striking. The translation doesn’t quite capture the force of desideratus. To invoke Christ as the Desired of All Nations is to make a strong claim for his universality. This title for the Messiah rests on the second chapter of Haggai, and the promise that the temple will be rebuilt: ‘I will shake the earth and the Desired of All Nations shall come and will fill this house with splendour’ (following the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text). As though to say, there is in all of us, whether overtly religious or not, an impulse towards what is good and beautiful and true which will be gloriously fulfilled.
The reminder that we are divided among ourselves, needing a Saviour to redeem and reunite us, is hardly news, but so often we think salvation is some kind of self-help process we can achieve through myriad self-improvement projects. At a national/international level we rely on agreements and legislation which often fail at times of crisis. The truth is, with God everything is possible; without him, nothing is.
The antiphon ends with a reference to our creation from the dust of earth. It is full of hope. Who can forget that, according to the Christian understanding of things, our very humanity has been transformed:
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Jew and gentile have been made one through the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. He has become the corner-stone because he alone can save, can breathe new life into those he has formed from the dust of earth. This Christmas we celebrate not just the birth of Christ but our own birth in Christ, our own glorious recreation.
Last night I could not sleep (too much sitting during the day made my back painful). There is only so much prayer and reading one can manage when wriggling around trying to make oneself ‘comfortable’; the charms of the World Service quickly pall when every half-hour brings a reminder of the turmoil in Europe. Only the moon made the night bearable.
How beautiful it was last night! Older Catholics will remember that the moon was often referred to as ‘Our Lady’s Lamp’ (no green cheese or men in the moon for us). I suppose it was the inevitable consequence of the idea of Mary as Star of the Sea (one of the happiest typos in history). Anyway, I spent a pleasant hour or two recalling all the poetry about moonlight I’ve ever known and could only marvel that God should create something of such loveliness to lighten the darkness of night. In case you suffer from a sleepless night, here is Walter de la Mare enchanted by the moon’s silvery beauty:
Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.
Part of me wants to get very constitutional and say something about the relationship between Parliament and the judiciary, but super injunctions are less troublesome hereabouts than the wind to which we have been subject. We haven’t had the tornado the people of Joplin have had to endure with such terrible loss of life, nor even the gales that have battered Scotland — just a relentless, cold, dry wind. Everything is shrivelling. The sky, for the most part, is grey and presumably may become greyer still if the Icelandic ash affects our perception of the upper sky. It is a bleak spring, with wheat and arable farmers looking grave and gardeners becoming plaintive about the poor prospects for summer.
And yet this reminder of the power of the wind, of our dependence on the weather, is also strangely comforting. We spend much of life in an artificial environment, with light and temperature controlled, foods available irrespective of season, ignorant of our own fragility. Wind, unseen and uncontrollable, reminds us that there are forces at work which will never be tamed, that the wild survives even in the heart of the city. I like the thought that the Holy Spirit is blowing through the midst of our urban wastelands as well as through the wasteland of our hearts, don’t you?
Quiet Days We are hoping to have a few quiet days as a community this week, to recharge the batteries. There may be a few timetable changes, so please check beforehand if you are thinking of joining us for the Divine Office. Mass on Monday, 30 May, will be at 10.00 a.m.
Quiet Days Update
O foolish Benedictine! I thought that letting everyone know we are trying to have a few quiet days would gently warn people off visiting/making enquiries about visiting. It has had the opposite effect. However, we are genuinely tired and are therefore closing our doors completely, even for the Divine Office. The only public celebration during the next few days will be Mass on Monday. I hope you understand.