Poetry and the Decline of Civility

Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.

One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found  small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.

Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.

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Instruct, Inform, Infuriate

I very nearly called this blog post ‘Advice for Mothers-in-Law of Either Sex’. The desire to instruct and inform others is something most of us suffer from. Some are able to keep the desire more or less in check because we are afraid of showing our ignorance. Others are less cautious and quite happy to give everyone the benefit of our superior knowledge and wisdom. The trouble is, our generous-hearted instruction of others can be infuriating to those on the receiving end.

I daresay I shall be accused of sexism or worse when I say that, in my experience, men are actually more prone to giving unasked-for advice than women. I have sometimes listened enthralled as someone dug a deeper and deeper pit for himself, laying down the law on a subject about which I happened to be marginally better informed (that’s nunspeak for something less modest). With half an ear, I listened; meanwhile my mind was running along quite different channels. What had suggested to my interlocutor that I was in need of instruction? What had I said or done to prompt this outpouring? What sort of assumptions were at work and why?

I have never fathomed the mystery, but it has made me think about situations in which there is a very fine line to tread between giving instruction/information and infuriating one’s audience. Preaching the homily at Mass, for example, is reserved to priests and deacons, which means that we Catholics only ever hear from our pulpits the male view of the Gospel or Church teaching. At one level, I have absolutely no problem with that, so please don’t think you can sign me up to any dissident pressure group or similar; at another, I do wonder whether the result is that younger women in particular need to make a bigger imaginative leap than their male contemporaries. I remember when I was young being in an agony of laughter at Lavinia Byrne’s ironic description of how to describe oneself as a Catholic woman: ‘I am a child of God, well, son, actually . . .’ It is so true. Theologically, we understand being ‘sons in the Son’, but expressing our identity as sons of God does require a bit of a double-take (for me, at least).

I have, of course, no solutions to suggest and am not even sure that the problem I have identified is a problem for many. It affects me because I spend so much of my time working with Church documents, listening to homilies and dealing with  questions addressed to the community via our vocations portal or other online resources. I am wondering where the increasingly didactic tone of many Church communications is going to lead. Today’s section of the Prologue (vv 14 to 20) is about longing for life and a right use of speech and action which allows us to hear the voice of the Lord. That, surely, is what we are all aiming at. I just wonder whether we need to think more deeply about how we achieve our aim.

I’d love to know your views, but please, no trading of insults or imputing base motives to others (even if I have been a bit hard on the men myself).

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A Question of Language

I don’t think it appropriate for a Catholic to comment on the debate about bishops within the Church of England, but @ellenloudon and @fibrefairy reminded me on Twitter this morning of something that irritates me profoundly: the use of ‘woman’ as an adjective. A woman is always a person, never a mere adjective. Use as an adjective is as demeaning in my book as calling a mature adult woman a ‘girl’. I’m not very keen on the use of ‘male’ or ‘female’ as nouns, either, unless we are talking about animals. Used as adjectives, no problem; though I often wonder why we need to make the distinction in the first place. Is it really so strange for a woman to be a lawyer or surgeon, for example?

Rocco Palmo has an interesting report of an interview with Lucetta Scaraffia, head of the new ‘women’s section’ of L’Osservatore Romano, in which she argues that, had the Church been more open to women in positions of authority in the Church, we might not have had so many of the scandals that have burst upon us in recent years. I have to say I agree with her in many ways. Perhaps the language used about women is an area we might all reflect on, because for a woman to be able to exercise authority — in whatever sphere, not just the Church — there is need for respect; and our use of language is indicative of the respect we have, or don’t have. This isn’t a question of political correctness, which tends very often to be anything but correct, but of simple justice, reverence and, dare I say it, accuracy.

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Them and Us

I like Americans. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of that fact and would probably be indifferent if they did. However, I am very conscious that, although we speak the same language (more or less), our ‘thought worlds’ are different. A politician’s ability to speak French marks him out as one of a privileged elite in the States; here an inability to do so marks him out as a bit of a liability. We value what’s left of our welfare state, believing that everyone should have access to healthcare and education irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay for it; in the States that’s often condemned as creating an ‘entitlement culture’ at odds with the pioneering spirit of self-help and advancement. As with Americans, so with some of our nearer neighbours. The Scots member of the community has often interpreted for me ‘what is really being said’ in some of the more surprising statements about Scottish independence.

We have the same problem with liturgy, except that it’s worse because we are handed a text which needs the mediation of a human voice to disclose its meaning, and every voice interprets. I was thinking about this at Mass yesterday, when a different priest celebrated Mass here in Hendred. The words and gestures were ostensibly the same, but a completely different kind of celebration took place because the priest gave them a slightly different emphasis. Sometimes liturgical ‘discussions’ end in an unholy row, with all participants claiming that theirs is the ‘right’ (=only admissible) way of saying/doing anything. The world is divided into them and us, with us the good guys and them the baddies. I doubt if it is so simple. Perhaps we need to think harder about the meaning of the words before we assume that we know what is being said.

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Talking about God

Monday’s post about the language of filation and sonship brought a number of interesting emails. I should like to quote from one which expresses, better than I ever could, both the difficulty of predicating anything about God and the necessity of the struggle to do so.

These [reflections] are all bound up with my growing sense of the relative irrelevance of words. I say this as one for whom words are an overriding passion, and of course they remain the way into the Word: there are combinations of words which slit open the eternal like knives. That is just one of the paradoxes so fundamental to our religion that I am beginning to wonder if anything non-paradoxical can be true!

. . . My true refuge from linguistic problems, minor and major, is Pseudo-Denys and the unknowability of God. If one cannot even say ‘God is good’, then surely one cannot, in any literal sense, say ‘God is our Father’. From the darkness of Denys I fly to the Syrians and specifically to St  Ephrem, who describes God as ‘clothing himself in language’, now putting on metaphors for our sake, now stripping this one off again and fetching another out of the wardrobe – all because our minds are small and limited. For Ephrem the whole of Scripture is one great metaphor. I find this infinitely consoling, probably because my mind is at ease with metaphor: it creates a great space in which one can move around unimpeded; I leave systematic theology to the seriously clever.

I know the writer well enough to take that remark about systematic theology with a smile of complicity. The point is, however we talk about God, however helpful or indeed unhelpful we may find the language of scripture or theology, the language of prayer transcends all limitations. It is wonderfully subversive, because types and shadows fall away in the face of the reality of God.

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Sons in the Son

There is a line in the first reading at Mass today, from Romans 8. 12 to 17, which has been bothering me all morning: ‘Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God.’ Theologically, I understand the importance of our being ‘sons in the Son’, and I have no shortage of references in my memory bank to tell me why; but much as I delight in meditating on those words, deeply significant though I find them, they are still immensely difficult for me. I’m a woman, and emotionally I can’t connect with them. My primary human relationship is daughter, not son.

I think this may be why some liturgical discussions leave me (and others) cold. I care about words, I care about beauty and history and all sorts of other things connected with liturgy, but calling myself a son of God just doesn’t work. I notice that the new translation of the Missal is inconsistent in its translation of homo/homines, sometimes using ‘people’ (as in the Gloria), at others ‘men’ (as in the Creed). I can find good theological justifications for the two usages, but still I am left wondering: what am I in the sight of God? As a son in the Son, am I to be defined as a man? In which case, being a woman is profoundly irrelevant, which strikes me as absurd. I don’t have an answer to my question. Indeed, I expect to spend the whole of my life trying to work it out, but it’s a question that concerns a large part of the human race.

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