Thursday, 6 December 2007

Protestants and Pagans

Who is the more Catholic: a witchdoctor or a Calvinist minister? It is a question I have often asked myself ever since I made friends with a very charming young man called Darren. Darren came from a typical lukewarm Protestant background. Old-style ‘public school’ (in the British sense) in pre-Mandela South Africa, with freemasonic Anglicanism and vicious bullying. Then national service in the Army (more bullying).

By the time I met him, he had found his way to Catholicism, ‘via paganism’, as he said. He was devouring Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and encouraged me to do the same.

At university there were plenty of nerdy mathematicians and scientists in the Christian Union. They broadcast their conviction that Catholics were no better than pagans. After I had made friends with Darren, I began to wonder whether in fact those geeks were on to something.

On the face of it, it is undeniably true that Catholics seem to worship statues, mutter incantations and generally do all sorts of things that pagans do, and even at exactly the same times of year.

I happened to be reading at that point the most celebrated anthropological study of magic and religion ever written in English, Sir James G Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It is hard work, but rewarding. Frazer is not at all a believer, but he tells a good tale.

We are all vaguely aware that most of our exciting and picturesque religious customs have pre-Christian antecedents. We also have a sense that more and more ancient folk traditions are becoming extinct every year. Frazer catalogues them with maniacal precision and thoroughness. Every possible ritual combination of fire, water, sacrifice, fancy dress, nakedness, singing, dancing, drinking, eating, praying and any other taboo or symbolic behaviour is evinced in a string of bizarre but compelling anecdotes from all ages and places.

Pagan parallels of every beloved Catholic devotion and belief are to be found within the pages of this book, for they are found truly in the pages of human history. None is more striking than the cult of the beautiful youth Adonis (from the semitic Adona├», ‘the Lord’). In the earlier Babylonian tradition he is called Tammuz.

The prophet Ezekiel saw the women of Jerusalem weeping for him at the north gate of the temple. It was an abomination, and yet the name of the god survives to this day as a month in the Jewish calendar.

It was something they did in Babylon every midsummer, weeping with Ishtar, the great mother-goddess, over the beautiful body of her young lover (and virginally conceived son, in some versions). He dies, and descends to the underworld while Ishtar mourns. But he is destined to rise again, bringing new life in the following year:

“A tamarisk that in the garden has drunk no water,
Whose crown in the field has brought forth no blossom.
A willow that rejoiced not by the watercourse,
A willow whose roots were torn up.
A herb that in the garden had drunk no water.”


His death appears to have been annually mourned, to the shrill music of flutes, by men and women about midsummer in the month named after him, the month of Tammuz. The dirges were seemingly chanted over an effigy of the dead god, which was washed with pure water, anointed with oil, and clad in a red robe, while the fumes of incense rose into the air, as if to stir his dormant senses by their pungent fragrance and wake him from the sleep of death. In one of these dirges, inscribed Lament of the Flutes for Tammuz, we seem still to hear the voices of the singers chanting the sad refrain and to catch, like far-away music, the wailing notes of the flutes:

“At his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
‘Oh my child!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament;
‘My Damu!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament.
‘My enchanter and priest!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
At the shining cedar, rooted in a spacious place,
In Eanna, above and below, she lifts up a lament.
Like the lament that a house lifts up for its master, lifts she up a lament,
Like the lament that a city lifts up for its lord, lifts she up a lament.
Her lament is the lament for a herb that grows not in the bed,
Her lament is the lament for the corn that grows not in the ear.
Her chamber is a possession that brings not forth a possession,
A weary woman, a weary child, forspent.
Her lament is for a great river, where no willows grow,
Her lament is for a field, where corn and herbs grow not.
Her lament is for a pool, where fishes grow not.
Her lament is for a thickest of reeds, where no reeds grow.
Her lament is for woods, where tamarisks grow not.
Her lament is for a wilderness where no cypresses (?) grow.
Her lament is for the depth of a garden of trees, where honey and wine grow not.
Her lament is for meadows, where no plants grow.
Her lament is for a palace, where length of life grows not.”

So what does a Catholic make of all this? Does it mean, as many Protestants (and rationalists) suppose, that Catholicism is simply the latest reincarnation of these ancient middle-eastern superstitions?

The best way I have been able to explain it to my pupils is through their knowledge of Tolkien. (Thank goodness for Hollywood …) I tell them that man’s prophetic soul is like the Palinteer; a sort of crystal ball, best not looked into if one can help it, which shows us glimpses of the past, the present and the future. The deep truths of our existence sometimes make themselves known through a dream or an instinct. Sometimes they can manifest themselves in a distorted way to those who seek them with evil intent through divination. Some of the truths have existed in half-remembered prophecies that have been passed down for thousands of years; others are the remnants of the knowledge of our first parents.

Viewed in this way, one would expect all of man’s religious search to have been pointing to the centre of the universe and human history: Jesus Christ. And, in fact, so it does. One would expect the ultimate revelation of the one true God to answer all those yearnings that have beset man from the dawn of time and which have prompted him to express himself in fumbling religious devotion. And so it does.

For the Catholic religion is about grace perfecting nature, not - as a good Protestant would hold - about grace supplanting nature. Man’s cup is already half-full. His history, his nature, his heart; these are all damaged, but not beyond repair. His prayers have been heard, and in Christ his fallen nature can be brought to holiness again.

And so, back to our original question about pagans and Protestants. Christ is man and God. And what He assumed, He redeemed. It seems to me that He assumed in His sacred humanity, all the good there was in man’s ancient sorrow for the Fall, all his longing for reconciliation with the Father. And that is why Catholics may rejoice to see in antiquity a foreshadowing of the events that have won, once for all, our salvation. I shall leave my question unanswered, as Frazer leaves his. This is how he ends his book, in the sacred grove portrayed in the famous painting of Turner.

The place has changed but little since Diana received the homage of her worshippers in the sacred grove. The temple of the sylvan goddess, indeed, has vanished and the King of the Wood no longer stands sentinel over the Golden Bough. But Nemi’s woods are still green, and as the sunset fades above them in the west, there comes to us, borne on the swell of the wind, the sound of the church bells of Aricia ringing the Angelus. Ave Maria! Sweet and solemn they chime out from the distant town and die lingeringly away across the wide Campagnan marshes. Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Ave Maria!

From my column in StAR ... www.staustinreview.com

Being a sign of contradiction for Catholic education

THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL (in the Constitution Gravissmum Educationis, 28th October, 1965) taught that Catholic education should be characterised by four key elements. They make a good checklist for parents searching for the right school for their children: 1. Promotion of academic excellence; 2. Breadth (an all-round education); 3. Moral formation (teaching children to choose what it is right); 4. A formation in prayer, especially how to pray with the liturgy of the Church.

The Council Fathers are clear that every one of the four aspects is geared towards evangelisation: Catholic education should make a difference not just to the children at Catholic schools, but also to the world of work they will enter when they leave full-time education.

Catholic schools today are like a shop window for the Church: they should show Catholic life and witness at its most authentic, preparing the young to bear witness to the faith and to become the movers and shakers in every sphere of modern life. A good Catholic school, then, prepares it students “for service in the spread of the Kingdom of God, so that by leading an exemplary apostolic life they become, as it were, a saving leaven in the human community.” (GE. 25.)

In most modern schools, even in Catholic schools, attention is concentrated on the first of those four aspects, to the detriment of the other three. Good GCSE results ought to be part of a good Catholic education, but they are not the be-all and end-all.

Five years ago, with a group of Catholic friends, I started a Catholic school that self-consciously took Gravissimum Educationis as its blueprint. Before we started planning this great adventure, I sought the advice of an old hand in the field of Catholic boys’ schools, Eric Hester, well known to readers of this journal. Eric and I had been working together for a few years on MENTOR, a Catholic education magazine that lasted for seven years and did some important raising of awareness in our Catholic schools. I like Eric a lot and was delighted that he accepted my invitations to join a group of advisors for the school project.

I still remember the moment – after months of prayer, discussions and reflection – that it became obvious to Eric that I hadn’t been joking. He called me to say that if he was going to be in charge of this advisory group, then he had a piece of very important advice to give me that he hoped I would think about very seriously: “Forget all about it, Ferdi. It is too ambitious and will only end in tears. Think about this advice. It might be the best I ever give you.”

After a few moments silence, he then said that if I decided to ignore his first piece of important advice (something he rather expected!), he would still be delighted to help with the project, and to carry out the advisory role that I had asked of him.

Eric proved to be quite right. The project is too ambitious, and there have certainly been enough tears along the way. But I remain convinced that our work has been – and continues to be – blessed by Almighty God, and that he permits the trials that come our way precisely for our own purification and sanctification.

Because of the cultural background of our first pupils and staff and the specific aims that the College sets for itself, it places its educational programme in the tradition of the pre-reformation public schools of England, such as Eton and Winchester. Schools such as these, as well as the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, were founded on the basis of a community of Masters and students who lived, worked, ate and prayed together.

This is the model for Chavagnes: a real Catholic community dedicated to teaching and learning, and to the praise of Almighty God. Based in a nineteenth century former junior seminary, with a beautiful neo-gothic chapel, the College is proud to continue the ancient heritage of prayer and study that goes back to the medieval Benedictine priory that once stood on the site of the College. We all feel the holiness of the place and feel a genuine spiritual link with the priests and scholars who have lived and worked here before us.

There has also been a deliberate attempt to create a strong culture for the College, mainly rooted in traditions that staff experienced in their own schools a generation ago, or in revivals of medieval traditions, such as that of the boy-bishop (a boy rules the College for a day on the feast of St Nicholas.)

This has proved a source of amusement for some secular journalists (particularly in the recent Channel Four documentary) who can’t see past the boy bishops, boars’ heads and Morris dancing, to see the seeds of faith that are flourishing and putting down deep roots in this rich cultural soil that we have created for our pupils: a environment characterised by an authentic quest of the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

In keeping with its medieval inspiration (and indeed with Gravissimum Educationis) Chavagnes places the liturgical life – which is at the heart of the Church – at the very heart of its own life as a College. The liturgy is itself a school for the soul and an inexhaustible source of grace, and this is why we make it available on a daily basis. Although at first it takes a little getting used to, pupils soon learn to appreciate the strong religious emphasis of the College, and find it a source of inspiration and support in their studies and in their personal development.

Isolated from our countrymen, like the Irish monks of the early middle ages, we have discovered that exile can be spiritually fruitful. It has probably made us rather eccentric, but also more ready turn to God in our difficulties and triumphs. (Sometimes, if one has fallen out with one’s colleagues over something, God is the only one left around who speaks English!)

Chavagnes is not, and was never meant to be, a model for other Catholic schools. Except perhaps in one respect: a Catholic school, like a Catholic family, should have a strong enough character, identity and sense of purpose to be a real sign of contradiction. Then, and only then, can it be a place of preparation for mission and a worthy shop window for the Church, providing a glimpse of the values of the kingdom of God, intensified and ornamented with all the energy and enthusiasm of youth.