Friday, August 11, 2017

In and Out of Churches in England and Wales

St. Andrew's Church, Mells
I spent my first night overseas in a room over the White Horse Pub in Clun, a small market town in the Shropshire Hills.  If the bucolic English countryside is what appeals to you, then mark off an area encompassing 20 miles on both sides of the borders between Powys, Shropshire, and Herefordshire--basically the old Welsh Marches.  You will not find any prettier.

My itinerary the first day was not straight-forward; first north to Oswestry, then falling back into old Radnorshire on the Powys/Herefordshire border, before ending my day in the Black Mountains.  I chose Oswestry for three reasons:  first, the Holy Well of St. Oswald; second, the memorial to Wilfred Owen; and third, a small shop that sells icons of the British saints.  This last named did not disappoint and I quickly picked out a few for myself and gifts for others.  And, I had no problem finding the holy well (of which more later.)
At the Wilfred Owen Memorial, Oswestry

Wilfred Owen is a literary figure that I wanted to tag in this particular journey.  He is considered perhaps the preeminent “war poet” of The Great War.  Owen was already a budding poet when the conflict began.  He enlisted early and fought throughout most of the war. After suffering from shell-shock and other injuries, however, he returned to England for convalescence.  Here, he made the acquaintance of Siegfried Sassoon, also recuperating.  The latter had already made a name for himself as a writer and poet.  Owen’s background was lower--or possibly middling--middle class.  Sassoon moved in higher circles and he introduced the younger poet to a world he could have only imagined before.  Like Sassoon, Owen was homosexual, and he became infatuated with his new mentor.  But more importantly, through Sassoon’s influence, Owen came into his own as a poet and his work soon surpassed the older poet’s.  Owen determined to return to the front, and Sassoon threatened to shoot him in the foot if he insisted on that course.  Consequently, the younger man left secretly, leaving a note for Sassoon.  Wilfred Owen died in battle in November 1918, in the very last week of the war, and lies buried in France. "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." A memorial to Owen exists on the grounds of St. Oswald’s Church in Oswestry, his birthplace.
Health Club/Cafe/Shoe Store

I found a Sainsbury parking lot and then headed off for St. Oswald’s Church.  Along the way, I passed a Victorian-era church which may well be indicative of the current state of Christianity in the U.K.  I’m not sure what the name of the church once was, but it now houses Body Tech Health Club, Scotty’s Cafe, and Shoes by Camilla.  Now I admit, this may be low-hanging fruit, but I think it may be fairly representative.  The U.K. has lots of church buildings, probably too many by half even before the purpose for them faded away.  From a 1865 letter from young poet Digby Mackworth Dolben to Robert Bridges:

What can be the reason that Protestants build Cathedrals...since they have absolutely no use for them.  I saw Chapel after Chapel which are never entered from one year’s end to another.  I saw the anointed Altar-stones put as paving-stones near the doors that all might tread on them; the ruins of shrines innumerable in honour of Saints whose relics were thrown away by order of Henry VIII.  On the whole a visit to an English Cathedral is not a pleasure.

And that was in 1865.  So, I’m not at all sure what they’re going to do with all of them.  Even at best they often seem more like museums, mausoleums and/or memorials that are periodically used for religious observances.  Renting them for particular venues seems popular.  Some have opened for “glamping.”  And some are just locked up.

Truth be told, unless they contain the bits and pieces of a shrine, or a Saxon foundation, or an intricately carved rood-screen, or perhaps some recently uncovered wall paintings, then they are not of that much interest to me.  The soaring Gothic ceilings, and the cold stone pillars and walls leave me unmoved.  I am used to smaller, more intimate Orthodox worship spaces.   

I suppose this is the post-Christian landscape that so many social conservatives write about.  If so, a few general observations:
  1. A departure from Christian belief does not necessarily imply a return to barbarism.  The people I met along the way were the nicest and most courteous people one could ever hope to find.  In the long declension of Christian belief, the Faith apparently eventually came to stand for little more than being nice.  And that stuck, it seems.
  2. This is not necessarily our future.  We like to think that Great Britain is just a step or two ahead of us in social trends.  From the very beginning, however, our country has been infused with a religiosity that was already fading from the U.K. even then.
  3. My unscientific observation is that the small chapels, in out of the way places such as Capel-y-ffyn, St. Brendan’s in Brendan, St. Beuno’s in Culbane, St. Issui’s in Patricio, may be holding on better than larger churches in towns and villages.  Many of these churches share ministers and meet only twice a month.  But the statistics they post are their boards speak of an ongoing parish life that is appropriate for the size of their churches.
  4. Nonconformists seem to have fared no better than the Church of England, if not worse.
  5. For the vast majority of British citizens, the Church is simply not a factor one way or the other; and hasn’t been for several generations now.  Of course, I have my own ideas about how this came to be.  I hold to Eamon Duffy’s characterization of the English Reformation cutting a deep ditch between the English and their history.  You might say that between Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, then Black Bess, and finally the English Revolution and the latter Cromwell, that the heart was torn out of the English church.  The edifice was so majestic, however, that it took a couple of centuries for the hollowness to become apparent.  You are welcome to think otherwise.

When I reached St. Oswald’s Church, a service was just ending.  The vicar was standing in the doorway, chatting with the last of the elderly handful of parishioners.  This is nothing to make a judgment upon, for maybe their church is full of young parishioners who just happened to be at their jobs this morning.  But somehow, I think not.  They instructed me as to the location of the Wilfred Owen Memorial and I went and paid my respects.

Late July and early August is the season for the traditional English church “fete,” just like you read about in “All About Lucia,” listen to on “The Archers,” and watch on “Keeping Up Appearances.”  During these “fetes” the nave is commandeered for musical recitals, theatrical productions, and arts and crafts exhibits.  I encountered three of them:  at the Church of St. Nonna in Altarnon, the Church of St. Endellion in the village of the same name, and the Church of St. Nectan at Stoke, all more or less in Cornwall.  I was actually stopping in Altarnon to see the Holy Well of St. Nonna (since I had neglected to do so when close to her well in St. David’s).  There was no evidence of it anywhere in the vicinity of the churchyard, so I did give the inside of the church a peek, as well as the art show in the Hall.  The interior of the church was a bit unusual; three aisles, more or less equal in size.  The distinctive thing about the church was the carved pew ends, but nothing much else caught my eye.  I purchased a small pamphlet on St. Nonna and left.  I was more purposeful in my seeking out of St. Endellion, named after a 6th-century sa
St. Beuno's, Culbane
int, daughter of Brychan of Brecon and sister to St. Nectan and St. Morwenna, among many others.  My interest here was two-fold:  the base of St. Endellion’s shrine was still intact, though the relics were scattered like all the others in the English Reformation; and this was the home parish of Nicholas Rosscarrock (1548-1634).  The Rosscarrocks were the leading family in the area, occupying a modest manor house nearby since just after the Conquest.  During the English Reformation, they refused to go along with Henry’s “reforms,” becoming recusants.  As I understand it, in the reign of Black Bess, attendance at Anglican services was required at least once a month.  Nicholas steadfastly refused and was eventually jailed in the Tower of London for four years, during which time he was tortured on the rack.  He was eventually released and a benefactor scurried him off to Yorkshire, where he spent the rest of his long life.  Roscarrock compiled an 800-page hagiography of the early British saints.  While the work was not original, it represented a remarkable feat of compilation.  Though never published in its entirety (now safely housed at Cambridge), selections have been reprinted.  The folks at St.  Endellion were keen enough of Roscarrock's significance to have several items for sale pertaining to his life and work.  The “fete” was underway at St. Endellion when I arrived.  The pews had been pushed back a bit and a small orchestra, or ensemble was playing.  Twice, a singer went up to the podium and warbled out a song or something (not to my taste).  A few spectators watched and listened, if a bit listlessly.  The one thing I particularly wanted to see was the shrine to St. Endellion.  Surely it would be too big to miss, I thought.  I finally found it, nearly hidden.  A bunch of chairs had been pushed up against it, and the musical cases had been piled around and atop it.  I didn't linger as it was clear it was of no special import to the good St. Endellionians. I chose St. Nectan’s more for its adjacent holy well, rather than for the church itself.  But the church is of some historical significance, so I wandered inside.  The stained glass windows were more appealing to me than most, and it contained a unique painted ceiling, but beyond that, it was another mass of cold, gray stone (the huge, empty interior being far in excess of any actual need, ever.) In one corner, someone had painted them an Orthodox icon of St. Nectan. I've seen that in quite a few Anglican churches. I'm not at all sure they know what to do with it, however.  The fete was ongoing and the sanctuary of the church had been converted to an art gallery and pottery show.  I found a nice little pitcher with a peacock motif, the perfect gift to carry home to my wife.
Shrine of St. David of Wales

St. David's Cathedral

I visited two cathedrals along the way, St. David’s Cathedral in St. David’s, and Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.  My visit to St. David’s was late in the day and a bit hurried.  The cathedral has restored the shrine of St. David, and one can pray at the shrine and light a candle, which I did.  I saw the impressive tombs of Rhys ap Guffydd and Gerald of Wales.  And the stonework inside was not to be dismissed.  But at the end of the day, the big empty space was as cold as most the others.  The choir was practicing while I was there.  I heard the director tell them to liven it up, and when they broke out in song again it was certainly peppy.  If you are looking for an antonym of reverent, I believe a good one would be “lively,” or “peppy.”  I ventured into the Cardiff area primarily to the wall murals on the Church of St. Teilo near St. Fagan’s on the outskirts of the city.  The church is now within the confines of the National Museum of Wales which would have necessitated five quid to park and whatever entrance fee was required for the compound.  I opted out.  I found a number of things to interest me in Llandaff Cathedral, however.  The place was all abuzz with vacuum cleaners running and flowers being arranged.  On the following day, their new bishop was being installed.  The docent breathlessly informed me that her name was June.  I checked out the Rossetti triptych, the Burnes-Jones tiles in the St. Dyfrig Chapel, as well as the relics and shrine of St. Teilo.  In the center of the nave, a huge four-pronged concrete platform supported a modernistic depiction of the Ascension.  I’ve seen worse.  The Germans bombed the cathedral during the Second World War, so the ceiling dates from the immediate postwar era.  When I left, it was, of course, raining again, so I made my way back towards Llanthony.

Before the English Reformation, British churches were an altogether different thing than what one sees today. They would have been largely without pew or pulpit. The side aisles would be lined with shrines dedicated to particular saints, maintained by the various local guilds. Wall paintings in rich colors, somewhat similar but not as stylized as Eastern iconography, would have covered the walls. Candles would flicker throughout. In short, the worship space would have been very familiar and comforting to an Orthodox believer of any era. But all of that went away--the shrines were ripped out and the relics dumped; pulpits were installed, followed by pews so that they parishioners could now be lectured to. And the wall paintings were covered with whitewash.
"Death," St. Issui's Church, Patricio

In recent years, a few have been uncovered and preserved, though many were lost during Victorian "restorations." I sought out several last year, and found a couple on this trip as well. The first was the small church of St. Issui in Patricio. This was the most remote active church I have ever visited, until I walked to the Church of St. Beuno at Culbane a few days later. Maybe somewhat perversely, my favorite iconographic depiction is of the Last Judgment. In the East, the format is fairly uniform: Christ and the angels above, the scales of judgment, the angels protecting and ushering the redeemed into Heaven and the demons pulling the unrepentant into the Jaws of Hell. Almost invariably, these depictions are on the west walls, visible as the parishioners leave a church. St. Issui is a small chapel, without much room for extensive wall paintings. But they have uncovered and abbreviated reminder of the Last Judgment on the west wall. It is of a skeleton, holding an hourglass in one hand, a scythe in the other, with a shovel draped over his arm. That gets right to the point of the matter. The other church was the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Chardon, a semi-rural village inside the M25. They have uncovered a more elaborate depiction of the Last Judgment, complete with sin-specific punishments for dishonest tradesmen.
Last Judgment, Chardon

My favorite churches were the small chapels I mentioned earlier.  But two other churches were particularly intriguing:  St. Andrews in Mells and the Watts Chapel outside of Guilford.  I found my way to Mells primarily because it is just up the road from The Chantry, the long-time home of Anthony Powell.  The late author was, in his words, “non-croyant,” so there is no tomb to visit.  I believe his ashes were scattered on a pond or something.  The best I could do was to take a picture of the gatehouse at the entrance to his estate.  Between The Chantry and Mells, I passed a large quarry, which probably served as the model for the one depicted at the beginning and end of Powell’s twelve volume magnum opus, “A Dance to the Music of Time.”
Gatehouse to The Chantry (I think)
 I wanted to visit St. Andrew’s for two reasons; first, the churchyard contains the graves of Ronald A. Knox   and Siegfried Sassoon (to be subjects of a later post), and second, the church is the repository of several interesting works of art.  It’s hard to avoid the Horner family here, whose manor house is hard alongside the churchyard.  There’s a large tapestry depicting a Pre-Raphaelite angel.  Lady Frances Graham Horner wove it based on a design by Edward Burne-Jones for whom she had modeled before her marriage. At the rear of the church is a stunning relief carving of a peacock, carved by Burne-Jones in honor of Laura Lyttleton.  This is another appropriate place to play Six Degrees of Separation.  Laura Lyttleton was one of the noted Tennant sisters.  Another was Margot Asquith, whose step-son Raymond Asquith married Katherine Horner, daughter of the aforementioned Frances Graham Horner.  Raymond Asquith was killed in the Great War, along with his brother-in-law Edward Horner.  The Horner estate then passed to Lady Katherine Asquith.  She was a patron of Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, and after the war converted with her family to Roman Catholicism.  For good measure, Raymond Asquith’s sister, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, grandmother of actress Helena Bonham Carter, is also buried at St. Andrews.  But back to the art; the nave of the church is dominated by a large equestrian statue of Edward Horner, mentioned earlier.  I know that Orthodox churches often incorporated the donors into the iconography somehow, but some of these English churches can become little more than warehouses for the memorials to the local squireocracy.  I found, nevertheless, the setting, the church itself, and the surrounding churchyard to be altogether of interest to me.
Statue of Edward Horner inside St. Andrew's Church, Mells

The Watts Chapel is not really a church at all--though there is an altar of sorts within.  The famous artist George Frederick Watts lived on this property and had his art studio in his home.  He and his wife created a cemetery on part of the property and both are buried there.  After his death, she designed this quirky Celtic-Norse-Byzantine-Art Deco temple as a funerary chapel on the cemetery grounds.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.  Queen Marie of Romania’s private apartment in Pelisor Castle comes as close as anything I’ve seen.  Also of interest is the grave of Aldous Huxley, just outside the chapel.
Interior of Watts Chapel
Watts Chapel

In my travels, I also found two Orthodox churches; the Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea in Shrewsbury, and the Church of the Three Hierarchs and Saint Cybi in Lampeter.  The Orthodox found an abandoned medieval 900 square foot chapel stuck off in the corner of a field and purchased it for 50 quid in 1994.  They repaired the roof and made it into a proper worship space.  Some medieval wall paintings depicting Thomas a’ Becket were discovered under the whitewash.  Aidan Hart painted the iconography over the altar and on the iconostasis.  A tiny loft area holds the choir, the library and who knows what else.  A housing estate is now crowding in around the church, but Fr. Stephen welcomes the new neighbors.  I asked him about attendance and he replied that they normally numbered about 60.  He went on to add that there were 400 parishioners associated with the parish but many of them lived great distances away.  We have parishioners who drive eighty miles for Liturgy, but that type of distance is an altogether different thing in the U.K.
Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea, Shrewsbury

Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea

Saxon font fashioned from Roman column

Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea

I was pleased to learn that their youth organization was known as the Varangian Guard.  How neat is that?  The parish is a mix of a number of ethnicities, with a healthy percentage of “renegade former Anglicans,” as one of them so described himself.  I believe that where Christianity continues on the island, it will be incubated in small chapels such as this, and not necessarily in lofty cathedrals.  Later in my journey, I attended Divine Liturgy at the church in Lampeter, a small college town in central Wales.  A Victorian Methodist Church had, in better days, built a Hall annex at right angles to the rear of their main building.  They are no longer much in need of even the main chapel, much less the annex, so the Orthodox use the back portion of the church.  They have converted it into a warm and inviting Orthodox church.  I had a chance to visit with Fr. Tim and the altar servers and others during Coffee Hour.  We were only a small number--15--but I think that was perhaps a reflection of it being in the summer with most of the students and professors away.  There were hardly more in the adjacent Methodist chapel.  Fr. Tim gave me better directions to St. Cybi’s Well (subject of a later post) and the ruins of the old abbey at Strata Florida, an important site in Welsh history.  There, I visited the grave of the medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwlym, under the ancient yew tree in the adjoining graveyard (below).  Dafydd died young, and apparently frustrated if the following poem displayed at the abbey is any measure:

“I bend before this passion:
A plague on the village girls!,
Since, o force of my longing,
I have never had one of them!
Not one sweet and hoped-for maiden,
Not one young girl, or hag, nor wife,
What recoil, what maiicious thoughts,
What omission make them not want me?
What harm is it to a thick-browed girl,
To have me in the dark, dense wood?
It would not be shameful for her
To see me in a den of leaves.”

Thursday, August 03, 2017

First Day in the U.K.: And Six Graves Along the Way

My first day overseas is always the roughest. I cannot sleep on the flight over, and I slept only 2 and 3 hours on the nights leading up to the flight. A delay at JFK put me on the M40 later than I planned. Driving on the left doesn't throw me; in fact I kind of like the roundabout approach to traffic flow. What does give me problems are the narrow roadways with hard curbs, even on many country lanes. It takes a while to judge the distance to the curb. Once you are going at a certain speed, bumping the curb that first time will probably not do much harm; nor the second time. But the third time is usually the charm. Sure enough, I had a flat. I pulled down a little lane and parked in front of a nice home with acreage. This was not the first time I've had to change a tire overseas; or the second, or the third. I open the boot of the car to get the spare and jack and found that it was empty. I called Europecar and discovered that they don't provide spares anymore--they would call a service that would find me and change the tire. Well, okay then.

So, I settled in to wait. The owner of the house drove out in a black Range Rover to suggest I park somewhere else, but I explained my predicament and he left me alone. I could see my itinerary for the day slipping away. Truth be told, it was overly ambitious anyway. I had planned to tag Churn Knob where the preaching of St. Birinus converted the pagan Saxon king Cynegils in 637, the shrine of St. Birinus in Dorchester Abbey, the Church of St. Margaret and the Holy Well of St. Frideswide at Binsey (also the inspiration for the “Birnsey Poplars,” the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins), Hailes Abbey and the adjoining church with the incredible wall murals, St. Kenelm’s Holy Well, St. Kenelm’s Church in Romsey, Wightwick Manor (home of collection of Pre-Raphaelite art and William Morris decorative arts), and Much Wenlock and the Shrine of St. Milburga. This may also illustrate why I travel alone so much of time; I tend to wear-out traveling companions. But none of that was to be, and it was raining of course.

My rescuer arrived within an hour of my call. He turned out to be a bright-eyed young man with a thick accent. He said I could wait in the car while he changed the tire, but I answered I would stand out there with him. I asked if he were Russian, or from the Balkans. Poland, he said. His name was Pavel, and he has been in the U.K. for about 5 years, just returning from a holiday at a beach near Cardiff with his wife and daughter. He told me his dream was to go to America, but that visas were non-existent. Once he had obtained his British passport, however, he hoped to travel to the U.S. on holiday. He wanted to spend a month in our country, seeing New York City, the Big Canyon, and Detroit. I questioned his choice of Detroit, and he replied that it was his wife's idea, that she wanted to visit the home town of Eminem. I suggested that Chicago might have more to offer. I gave him my card and told him if he ever makes it to the U.S., to contact me and I would show him Texas. He promised he would do that. I told him that the number in my email address was the year of my birth. He looked at me funny, and said he would not have thought me older than age 45. Such intelligent,perceptive people, these Poles.

So, I was soon on my way again. I would like to say that I didn't bump any more curbs, but that would be a lie. And I didn't give my altered plans a second thought. What I was meant to do was talk with this young Polish immigrant, not check off sites on an over-planned itinerary.

I was able, however, to visit a few churchyards along the way, where I paid my respects to six individuals. That is an old fashioned habit of mine.  I show honor to the deceased by visiting their places of burial.  The current popularity of cremations dismays me, or at least in those cases when the ashes are not subsequently buried.  Apart from being unmoored from history, tradition and theology, uninterred cremations give one no place where one can honor the deceased.  I understand this is not absolutely true in all cases, but I still believe it is a consideration often overlooked today.  I would have liked to have visited the graves of Edith Sitwell, Christopher Dawson, and Steven Runciman, among others, but these sites simply were too far removed to be practical. I did, however, stop by Shepherd's Lane Cemetery in Beaconsfield, All Saints Churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, and Wolvercote Cemetery outside of Oxford where I paid my respects to the following disparate individuals:
G. K. Chesterton monument, carved by Eric Gill.

G. K. Chesterton:  Chesterton is an obvious choice for me.  One can easily find fault with something he wrote, considering the breadth of his writing.  His blatant militarism during the Great War, for example, is jarring.  But he certainly wasn’t alone in that, and faced with the sheer volume of his writings, I find myself largely in agreement.  Chesterton had no time or sympathy for the English aristocracy and class system.  He took a dim view of capitalism.  Although he is so closely identified with Catholic polemics, the fact is that it took him a long time to come around, and most of his work was written prior to his conversion.  Chesterton wrote with such clarity and good humor.  In contrast, I respect but never warmed up to C. S. Lewis.  I could easily visit his grave on this itinerary, but it is not at all compelling for me to do so.  Chesterton, on the other hand, is one of the most likable of authors, regardless of what you think of his positions.  
George Orwell's grave

Eric Arthur Blair:  George Orwell was undoubtedly one of the most consequential writers of the twentieth century.  And I think most would agree that his works have stood the test of time, being as popular and instructive now as they ever were.  After the November election, people started reaching for their Orwell.  I was not surprised to see cheap paperbacks of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” popping up in airport newsstands.  Orwell wrote with consistent moral clarity and authority.  And like Chesterton, he had little use for Great Britain’s entrenched class system, though recognizing how it had colored everything.  He died early, in 1949, and is known mostly for “Animal House,” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” though these works came near the end of his career.  He wrote much, much more.  My son’s favorite it “The Road to Wigan Pier,” from which he can quote selections.  From that book, Orwell mused that he hoped for a civilization in which ‘progress’ meant something more than “making the world safe for little fat men.”  So do I.  Memory Eternal, Eric Arthur Blair.

Lady “Margot’ Asquith:  Lady Asquith seems an odd choice, coming on the heels of Chesterton and Orwell.  She was the second wife of Lord Asquith, the British Prime Minister in the years leading up to the Great War.  Margot Asquith was, however,  a formidable personage in her own right.  Even so, I never knew of her before studying the life of Stephen Runciman.  

Even a superficial reading into the literature of the interwar period of English history leaves one with the distinct impression that the same people were all at the same cocktail parties, all lounging about the same drawing rooms, all at the same country house fortnights, all sneaking a bit of sex with the same other people’s wives, etc.  Margot Asquith offers about as much insight into this incestuous and self-perpetuating web of connections, power and influence as anyone.  
The relatively modest tomb of Lord Asquith and wives

I enjoy playing Six Degrees of Separation with these people, but usually takes no more than three degrees.   Margot’s stepson died a war hero and lies buried in France.  He had married Katherine Horner of Mells, Somerset, daughter of a simple country squire of ancient lineage and the former Frances Graham, also Margot’s great friend.  Frances Graham was the hauntingly beautiful model of Edward Burne-Jones, and other Pre-Raphaelite painters, as well.  Burne-Jones was the uncle of Rudyard Kipling (fun, isn’t it?)  

Margot was aunt to Stephen Tennant, noted aesthete and the “brightest of the Bright Young People.”  She was stepmother to Lady Helena Bonham Carter, the grandmother of the actress of the same name from all those Merchant Ivory adaptations of E. M. Forster.  The Asquith’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Romanian diplomat and aristocrat, Antoine Bibesco, also kinsman to the husband of author Marthe Bisbeco, which brings us back to Steven Runciman.

Both Runciman’s parents were Liberal Party politicians, immensely loyal to the Asquiths.  The good-humored historian was not a snob in the conventional sense of the word.  He used his lower-runged upper class status to open doors to archives, private collections and useful informants, rather than to social ascendancy.  Margot Asquith first enlisted Runciman to help nudge along her nephew.  Although the earnest and discreet Runciman shared the same inclinations as the flamboyant Stephen, he was repelled by Tennant’s indolence.  Later the young man would find a more congenial partner in Siegried Sassoon, and they were, in fact, a couple for a number of years.  Runciman parlayed his Asquith-Bibesco ties first to an interlude with Edith Wharton in France, and later into the Romanian aristocracy; the Bibescos, the Mavrocordatas, and the Cantacuzenes.  Similar doors opened for him in Bulgaria and Greece, and before long the young man had established himself firmly in Balkan and Byzantine studies.  To his credit, Runciman fully appreciated the advantages of his birth and connections.  As his grave in the Scottish lowlands is outside the scope of this itinerary, I will have to just note this bit player, you might say, in the life of Steven Runciman.
Luthien and Beren (the Tolkiens)

J. R. R. Tolkien:  If I made no others, this is one pilgrimage I was determined to make.  And concerning him, I will say the least, for there is simply no need to do so.  His life’s work speaks for itself.  One quote:  We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.  Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.

Prince Dmitri Obolensky: He was born into one of the wealthiest families in Russia, but that accounted for nothing as the Revolution broke out when he was just one year old.  The family made its way first to Malta and then to England.  Obolensky became a protegee of the older Steven Runciman, and the two formed a close and long-lasting academic bond.  Obolensky established an enviable reputation in Byzantine Studies.  I have two of his books, some of my earliest acquisitions as I was building a Byzantine collection.   
Grave of Dmitri Obolensky and Mary Tolstoy

Hamo Thornycroft:  Though largely unknown today, Thornycroft was the most noted British sculptor in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.  The Thornycrofts were an artistic family all around, in both painting and sculpture.  I learned of Hamo through the autobiography of his nephew, Siegfried Sassoon.  Some of his best known works include the famous statue of Alfred the Great in the roundabout at Winchester, “The Mower” at Kew Garden, and a bit closer to home, the statue of Teucer at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Thornycroft was a strappingly handsome man.  British authors Edmund Gosse and John Addington Symonds were both besotted with Hamo, apparently after skinny-dipping excursions in Goring Creek.  Thornycroft, however, was not given to that sort of thing, so their affections remained unrequited.
Tomb of Hamo Thornycroft

Monday, July 03, 2017

Some Thoughts on Patriotism this Fourth

Some Thoughts on Patriotism this Fourth

Wendell Berry had much to say about the nature of true patriotism.  The following quote is but a small sampling:

For a nation to be, in the truest sense, patriotic, its citizens must love their land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining, and protective love. They must not, for any price, destroy its health, its beauty, or its productivity. And they must not allow their patriotism to be degraded to a mere loyalty to symbols or any present set of officials.

On July 4th, I often think back to a conversation I overheard as a young boy.  My mother and her brother-in-law, my favorite uncle, were drinking coffee in the kitchen of our old house.  My uncle was a career Navy man who fought in three wars, circumnavigated the globe four times, and was, to my great pleasure, the fount of endless stories.  His life revolved around commitment, duty, honor and service.  It must’ve been around the Fourth and he was expounding on such themes.  When he referenced the flag, my mother replied, matter-of-factly, that “it was just a piece of cloth.”  She was blunt and plain-spoken, without an ounce of artifice to her.  I suppose one of her virtues was that she said exactly what she thought. But it was also her vice.  This flabbergasted my uncle and left him almost sputtering for a response.  Truth be told, he was a little put out with her.  And so was I, for although I loved my mother, of course, I idolized my uncle.

We were not patriotic in the generally accepted sense of the word.  We never flew the flag.  We didn’t pop fireworks (a waste of money).  We didn’t pontificate about “freedom,” or “liberty” or  “democracy” or such things.  The Fourth of July was a day off from work (unless we had hay on the ground and it was threatening rain).  My mother would fix quite a spread:  fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, her special rolls, fresh tomatoes, okra, peas, etc., and a selection of desserts.  My dad and I would be in the carport, taking turns with the ice cream freezer.  My sister and her family and my brother and his children would pile in.  My dad would be in an expansive mood and would tell the old familiar stories from his youth.  As often as not, neighbors or extended family stopped by for dessert and coffee.  That was what the Fourth of July meant to us:  our place, our family, our neighborhood and extended connections.  We would have been uneasy had anyone tried to make more out it than that.

I have come to realize that both my mother and my uncle were each right and wrong.  She wouldn’t have know Wendell Berry from Adam, but she would have agreed with the sentiments he expressed.  My mother’s stark literalism, however, can leave one with a cramped view of the world and our place in it.  Material objects may very well have meaning beyond their mere materiality.  Their symbolism, however, cannot be in the abstract, but must be rooted in the particular.

Like my mother, I am naturally suspicious and wary whenever anyone speaks of patriotism by way of freedom, liberty, or democracy.  Frankly those terms have been so mangled and abused, stretched here and there to cover most anything, that they are now largely without any real meaning.  Patriotism to me is simply settled love and affection;  love of place, love of family, love of friends and neighbors.  We can stop it right there, particularly if we understand, as we are instructed, who is our neighbor.  The rest will take care of itself.     

Friday, February 24, 2017

Fun With Modern Day Heretic Detectors

This is fun.

Back in the early days (1837-1842) of the American Restoration Movement, now dubbed the Stone-Campbell Movement, there was a brotherhood journal named "The Heretic Detector." Their name tells you all you need to know about them. They flared out, and others took their place, but none with as nifty a moniker as "Heretic Detector." But their intellectual descendants yet survive.

Here’s the setup:  A Baptist seminary in Louisville, Ky recently held their annual lecture series.  I know nothing about the college or the lectures (other than they are named after a wealthy Louisville family to which I am distantly related, and who were not at all Baptist.)  One of their speakers was none other than Rod Dreher, an author and writer for The American Conservative.  But Dreher (whom I know) is a fairly public Orthodox Christian, and his talk concerned “The Benedict Option,” also the title of his forthcoming book.  This was apparently too much for some Baptists (though I suspect my subject is a fringe group).

A self-described Calvinist Reformed Baptist pastor, JD Hall, runs a site called Polemics Report.  In his most recent post, he took the Baptist seminary to task for inviting Dreher to speak, calling him out as a non-Christian.  I would consider Dreher to be a fairly innocuous choice, but I have half-forgotten how this mindset works.  We had such groups--plenty of them--back when I was in the Church of Christ.  A non-Church of Christ speaker would never be invited to speak at one of our Lectureships. Having been away for a dozen years, I don’t know if that is still the case--but it may not matter, for the lectureships themselves seem to be fading away from lack of interest.  I do remember my son being called down after a Wednesday night devotional for citing C. S. Lewis.  The preacher asked him, “You do know that C. S. Lewis was not a member of the Lord’s Church?”  Duh.  We were also told that his books should be burned.  That same spirit apparently animates Pastor Hall.

I don’t imagine that he has much sway in Baptist circles at large (and I don’t keep up that much).  In fact, my impression is that some Baptist leaders (Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, etc.) have a clear understanding of what is happening in the larger culture.  The Great Sluffing-Away has reached their ranks, with Baptist numbers actually declining in recent years.  Oh, there’s no danger of them going away anytime soon.   But still, some leaders realize that their coziness with our materialistic, consumer culture has transformed them, rather than the world; that a faith that survives is one that has a bit of substance to it, that their allegiance to the GOP has been a disappointing dead-end, and perhaps that they need to be something more than the Republican Party at Prayer, something maybe, well, a bit more Christian.  

Pastor Hall’s circle-the-wagons polemic seems almost like old times for me. (In my former church’s language, this was called “keeping to the old paths.”  Unfortunately, those paths only led back to the 1920s or so.)  Four times in the article, Hall drives home the point that Dreher is non-Christian.  His wording indicates that he is only superficially aware of the beliefs of Christian Orthodoxy.  He refers to it only as “Greek Orthodoxy” and he takes Dreher to task for finding inspiration in Dante, rather than Scripture.  And sometimes, he’s unintentionally funny--calling Dreher a “crunch-con,“ when he no doubt meant “Crunchy-Con,” his first book.  But here are his basic accusations against us (cleaned up a little for clarity):

  1. We deny Sola Fide
  2. We believe in the perpetual virginity and veneration of the Mother of God
  3. We venerate icons (he puts “icons” in italics--ha!)
  4. We pray for the dead
  5. Chrism for the reception of the Holy Spirit
  6. Baptismal regeneration and the baptism of infants
  7. We deny justification by faith alone, which puts us “outside the bounds of Biblical Christianity.”
  8. We deny penal substitionary atonement, which puts us “squarely outside Christianity”

Hoo-boy. What do you say to that? "Guilty as charged," I suppose.

Actually, I don’t really resent this at all.  I even feel a little sorry for Hall.  Calvinism does that to me; it makes me sad. But I much prefer this sort of in-your-face opposition rather than the usual broad-church-foyer smile in person followed by vicious ripping-into you when your back is turned.

A kinsman of sorts once remarked that he'd rather I'd become an Agnostic than Orthodox. No doubt Pastor Hall would agree. Sorry to disappoint.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Three Biographies

Over the last week or two, I’ve finished three biographies:  Steven Runciman, the historian; Edward Burne-Jones, the artist; and Francis Thompson, the poet.  There’s nothing particularly that unites these men together, though there is a slight overlap in the supporting cast of characters in the Burne-Jones narrative and Runciman’s story.  They were all English (despite Runciman’s Scottish affectations) and they were all middle-class in background.  The only real connectedness between the three, however, had to be their love of beauty.

The Runciman biography is Outlandish Knight:  The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman by Minoo Dinshaw.  The book weighs-in with 640 pages of text, plus copious notes.  Frankly, I would have been just as satisfied with 200 fewer pages.  But no matter, the book is detailed, and Runciman lived 97 years.  That takes a bit of telling.  I consider Runciman to be one of the greatest historians, of our age or any other.  Contemporary historians are prone to dismiss him because of the biases he supposedly harbored.  The fact that some historians think they write without bias is funny in and of itself.  Rather, Runciman’s biases were of a different sort than the ones popularly employed today.  He didn’t fret much over such criticism, just as he dismissed the thinly disguised jealousy of peers who questioned his methodology.  To one he replied, “but you must understand that I am writing literature.”  And by this he certainly did not mean fiction.  In the future, people will be reading Runciman for the same reason they still read Gibbon:  each was a masterful story-teller (and it is not without irony that much of what Runciman wrote was to correct Gibbon’s mis-tellings, in his eyes.)  Runciman recognized the role of chance and circumstance in the history of families and nations.  As a consequence, he remained skeptical of purely ideological interpretations or deterministic grand theories of history.  Once William Dalrymple (another much-admired writer) asked Runciman what he thought of the French Annalistes School, and more particularly their most famous adherent, Fernand Braudel, and his “The Mediterranean.”  Runciman said that he had tried to read it, but three pages in he realized that the author didn’t know what a dromedary was--this was the famous racing camel of the the southern Mediterranean world.  Not knowing this basic fact of life in the region, Runciman saw little need to proceed any further with the ponderous tome.  Broadly speaking, Runciman probably did more than anyone to shift the focus of European historiography south and east and away from the English Channel.

Of course, Runciman made a name for himself in his three volume treatment of the Crusades.  But his real love--and the focus of much of his scholarship--was the Balkans.  He developed a lifelong respect for the peoples and histories of Greece, Bulgaria and Romania.  He maintained warm relations there to the end of his long life.  In connection with this, he developed an abiding respect for the Orthodox Church.  He was raised in a teetotalling Calvinist environment, and Runciman reacted as one would hope and expect a young man of intellect to do.  He largely rejected it, but perhaps because of it, retained a lifelong skepticism of both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.  But he took to Orthodoxy like a duck to water--the friend and confidante of priests, monks and patriarchs.  He actually held the title of Grand Orator to the Patriarch of Constantinople.  Late in life he won the Onassis Award, which came with a $300,000 cash prize.  Runciman immediately turned over the proceeds to the monks of Mount Athos, but with a specific purpose in mind.  He funded the restoration of a tower at Vatopedi Monastery to house their priceless manuscripts and icons.  At age 97, the then wheelchair-bound Runciman was airlifted onto Mount Athos by helicopter for the ceremony--certainly something of a first.  And while Orthodoxy had no greater friend, he never converted, and was buried in the rites of the Church of Scotland.         

If one didn’t know better, one might dismiss Runciman as an effete aristocrat, a bored 20’s-era Bright Young Thing of the sort that one encounters in Evelyn Waugh novels.  He did move in those circles.  In fact, it sometimes seemed that most every name between the wars in England attended the same cocktail parties and could be found at the same country house weekends.  His parents were both prominent Liberal politicians, very much in the camp of Lord and Lady Asquith.  This association--and particularly with Margot Asquith and her Tennant and Wyndham connections and by extension even the Bibescu and Cantecuzene families of Romania--opened doors for the youthful Runciman which never seemed to close.  But for Runciman, these connections were never an end in themselves, but pathways to get to the people he needed to see, to ask the questions that needed asking.  

Since he was British, it goes without saying that he could be snobbish if the situation required it--to the unwanted visitor such as the gushing professor from Idaho, for example.  But this was the exception.  He had a very real sense of who he was--certainly not as “British,” or some faux Scottish affectation, but who he was as a Runciman, a family of Scots whom he described as coming south “to see what kind of money they could make off of the English.”  A family member thinks that his deep sense of family was a defense mechanism against the family’s creeping embourgeoisement.  Runciman’s grandfather had come up from a hardscrabble existence to forge a small shipping empire.  This funded his father’s career in Liberal politics and was, as Runciman always remembered, the source of all their good fortune.  But he was one of many grandchildren, and while Runciman was comfortable, he was never flush.  He lived frugally and without ostentation.  He took jobs for the same reason the rest of us do--because he needed the money.  During the 1920s and 30s, he was frankly disgusted by the aimlessness of many of the real upper classes.  Perhaps harkening back to his low-church Calvinism, Runciman set out to live a purposeful and useful life.  And he did just that.  In his late 50s, Runciman received a knighthood.  And while he didn’t reject it, he certainly took a jaundiced view of the matter.  When the Queen Mother asked him how he felt about it, he replied that for the first time in his life he knew what it meant to be both middle-aged and middle-class.  In his eyes, the honor could certainly be useful to him in his career, but as far as it being anything in and of itself, no.  For he was already a Runciman.

Runciman’s homosexuality was widely known in Great Britain.  There was no ambiguity about it at all, and he was certainly forthright among close friends in private settings.  But in an age when homosexual behavior was a crime, Runciman was fiercely protective of his privacy, which was never subject to publicity or scandal.  Runciman formed no lasting emotional attachments with his partners.  Again, this was done purposely on his part, and without regret, apparently.  From an early age, he accepted that his would be a solitary existence, though played out in the midst of a company of many.  That said, and without salaciousness, the author notes that Runciman lived a life of discreet but aggressive sexual adventurism, across many continents and throughout many decades.  Late in life he published “A Traveler’s Alphabet,” a book which takes each letter of the alphabet as the starting point for a short remembrance of a particular place.  Runciman confided to an associate that he could have done the same thing with his sexual partners, if only he hadn’t rebuffed the advances of Quentin C**** (and yes, there was an “X,” a young Greek named Xenophon.)

Runciman’s life crossed paths with another favored writer of mine--Patrick Leigh Fermor.  By the time he made it to Bulgaria, in 1933, in his now famous trek across Europe, Paddy looked more the part of a young, dashing desperado, rather than the teenaged English lad he was underneath.  And as the English do things, he had obtained a letter of introduction somewhere along the way--Hungary, I think--which would allow him entry into the front door of the British Embassy in Sofia.  A cocktail reception was underway, and the young vagabond was ushered into its midst.  Among the other guests was the young historian, Steven Runciman.  The two made a connection with they nurtured for the rest of their long lives (most notably in Greece during and after the war).  The book ends with a visit by Fermor and a female companion to the 97-year old Runciman’s home in Dumfriesshire.  After a night of reminiscences, Fermor and his guest start home.  This is how he remembers it:

“As we motored through the Cumbrian dusk, we imagined him helping to plot the circumference of the dome of St. Sophia, before a late supper with the Empress Theodora, or--he had a soft spot for crowned heads--or advising Princess Anna about the accuracy of the Alexiad.  In other scenes, he was shaking his head over the wilder tenets of the Bogomils and persuading a team of iconoclasts to drop their hammers, or calming rebellious prelates at the Council of Ephesus.  In yet other scenes, he was reasoning with Bohemond at Antioch or counseling Richard Coeur de Lion about his policy at Acre; or playing chess with Saladin, in his tent; then, a bit later, rallying Bessarion for accepting the filioque clause at the same time as a cardinal’s hat; consoling the eastern Comnenes for the loss of Trebizond; or, under Mount Taygetus, exchanging syllogisms with Gemistros Plethon as they strolled along the future Runciman Street.  Later on still, we imagined him hobnobbing with Phanariot hospodars in the snows beyond the Danube...It was hard to stop.”    

The next biography is The Last Pre-Raphaelite:  Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination by Fiona MacCarthy.  Like the Runciman book, this one is overly long, and I took to skimming passages--which I did not do with the former.  For some time now, I have been trying to become more knowledgeable and appreciative of art and art history, as long as that history stops before Modernism and/or Abstract Art.  I was vaguely family with Burne-Jones, having seen a couple of his paintings at the Met, but I was never particularly obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelites.  I’ve written about this before, but several years ago I stumbled across a Georgian Orthodox Church in a remote village in Samtskhe.  The Church of Alexander Nevsky is not at all ancient--funded in the 1890s by the Tsar’s brother, George, living in a nearby hunting lodge.  He commissioned Mikhail Nesterov for the iconography, and the finished product--I can only describe it as ethereal--is unlike anything I have ever seen, in any church, anywhere.  Art scholars might differ, but I connected it with what I imagined Pre-Raphaelite art to be.  And so, since that time, I have been more interested in these particular painters.  I will say this, however:  Pre-Raphaelite art is best appreciated in moderation.  

Burne-Jones came from the struggling middle class--not destitute, but not at all secure either.  His path was not easy, but in time he developed supporters and patrons who encouraged his efforts.  I don’t find myself drawn as much to Burne-Jones as I did Runciman.  The artist had a long-suffering wife at home, whom he frankly didn’t deserve.  He exhibited a predictable and bad habit of forming (or attempting) love affairs with all of his models.  And Burne-Jones has a pattern of running off on extended junkets to Italy for “inspiration.”   

As in the Runciman book, part of the charm of Burne-Jones’ story is the wide cast of supporting characters.  Seemingly every writer, poet or artist of note in mid to late Victorian England found their way to his studio.  One of his more interesting associates was Simeon Solomon--a wild and audacious young Jewish artist of the Pre-Raphaelite school.  And before there was Oscar Wilde, there was Simeon Solomon.  In the late 1870s, he was caught in the act, so to speak, with a stable hand in a public restroom.  In a mockery of equal justice, the other man received 18 months of hard labor while Solomon only paid a fine.  But the notoriety ruined his career, nonetheless.  Commissions were cancelled, patrons dropped him, and his peers abandoned him--that is, except for Burne-Jones.  He was the only one who stood with Solomon throughout this ordeal.  I find that to be his finest hour.  Solomon, however, was in a downward spiral, eking out an existence as an alcoholic street-artist in his remaining years.

The final biography is:  Strange Harp, Strange Symphony:  The Life of Francis Thompson, by John Walsh.  Unlike Runciman and Burne-Jones, I knew nothing of Thompson until a few months ago.  I stumbled across a short essay on Thompson by Joseph Pearce which whetted my appetite.  I then followed through and found a copy of his most famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”   I was hooked.  

Thompson’s life was a sad one, as he was an opium addict from a young age.  He was sensitive and well-liked, but it became increasing clear that he would never be able to conform to late Victorian norms.  And the more he struggled, the more dependent he became on opium.  Throughout it all, Thompson remained a devout Catholic.  Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of the book is its depiction of the close-knit, insular world of English Catholicism.  In fact, his story is also the story of one English Catholic family--his rescuers, the Meynells.  Before they came along, Thompson had been abandoned by his family (who thought him beyond hope) and was living on the streets, eking out enough money for his habit, occasionally being taken in by a kind prostitute.  The Meynells gave him the family support he needed, and encouraged his writing, and through their publishing connections, saw that it reached a wide audience.  Even during this time, his demons did not retreat, however, and he spent extended rehabilitations in Catholic monasteries in Surrey and Gwynd.  Thompson was able to stay more or less straight for a period of five to six years, and produced some of his most extraordinary work, including “The Hound of Heaven.”  But he was not to win his battles--at least not in this life--and he died too soon.  Put simply, the story of Francis Thompson and the Meynells has much to teach us about the nature of struggle and repentance and compassion.  I am memorizing “The Hound of Heaven.”  As it is a long one, I’ll be at it a while.  Knowing his story better makes the poem all the more meaningful.