Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Triumph of Faith

Just finished Triumph, by HW CRocker III. It's a breathless romp through 2,000 years of the Catholic Church's history; well footnoted and very triumphalistic. Unputdownable and a great spiritual tonic; full of hilarious anecdotes for Catholic dinner conversation too.

Triumph on AMAZON (UK)

Friday, 17 August 2012

Why a run or a fight can solve your emotional problems ...

Well, if you are a boy, at least. If you are a woman, it seems talking is the best therapy. 'Catholic schoolmaster' has a thoughtful article on the subject, here.  The odd thing is that we are - it seems to me, perhaps thanks to the influence of feminism  - conditioned now to think that talking through problems is the superior way of dealing with them, and yet it is difficult to replicate the feeling of well-being one gets from a swim or a long walk. I even felt it after my rather meagre efforts in our staff vs. boys football match at the end of term ...
I remember an old priest of the Diocese of Aberdeen, Canon McQueen, who used often to be sent wayward priests by his bishop. The story is twenty years old, so it is safe to tell it, and the Canon must have gone to his eternal reward by now. The angst-ridden young priests would arrive pleading that they had lots of problems to discuss. He used, he claimed, simply to give them a packed lunch and tell them to climb the mountain near his house. While the young priest was up on the mountain, the old priest would spend all day cooking a fine meal (he was a great cook). Then when the young priest came back, radiant from his exertions, the Canon would serve him the fine meal, with a couple of bottles of good wine. Then, over the desert he would say : "Now, about those problems ..." and the young priest would usually say something along the lines of how the problems now seemed to have become less of a worry to him and that he really felt much better; everything was now in a better perspective.

Recent Boys vs Master game.
Schoolmaster makes the point that men do need to learn how to talk about their feelings too, but that for a teenage boy it does not come easily and should be done, if at all, with caution, and - I guess - not in front of the ladies.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Is Paris worth 6,000 Masses?

Henri de Navarre, ancestor of Louis XV,
who said "Paris is worth a Mass".
I have been reading Louis XIV by David Ogg, who has a very entertaining and fast-paced style. It's an old book, first published before the Second World War. He talks about Louis XV, great-grandson of the Sun King and quotes some interesting statistics:
In 1744 the new king, Louis XV, was dangerously ill and it seems that over 6,000 citizens of Paris spontaneously arranged for Masses to be said at Notre Dame for his speedy restoration. The king made a miraculous recovery. About a decade later, the same thing happened, and this time 600 Mass stipends are recorded in the books of Notre Dame. And the monarch revived again. When the king really was on his death bed, in 1774, only three Masses were said for his health. And the king passed on to his eternal reward.

Now, three possible conclusions could be drawn, I suggest: first, King Louis XV became less popular as time went on, or, secondly, the belief in the Divine Right of Kings (which is of course an erroneous belief, anyway) waned, so that he was less important to people in their spiritual heart of hearts, or lastly that over those three decades the cosmpolitan population of Paris became steadily less religious, so that by 1774 they no longer believed in the miraculous intervention of the Almighty.
It can all happen very quickly, after all. Fifteen years later, the French Revolution triggered a wave of sacrileges: the bodies of saints and kings exhumed and exposed to public ridicule, statues representing the godess of Reason enshrined upon the altars and given public adoration, priests and nuns, murdered, raped and exiled ...

In Ireland, in my lifetime, Sunday attendance at church has fallen from about 90% to 25%. It is a fairly young population, so many of these people have just stopped practising their religion.

Henry VIII:
"Monks, monks, monks."
A last thought about Masses: Henry VII left £250 for 10,000 Masses to be said for his and other souls. The will of  his son, Henry VIII, made on 30 December, 1546, contains a provision for an altar over his tomb in St. George's Chapel in Windsor where daily Mass shall be said "as long as the world shall indure", and it sets out a grant to the dean and canons of the chapel of lands to the value of £600 a year for ever to find two priests to say Mass and to keep four obits yearly and to give alms for the King's soul: all this, despite the fact that Henry VIII had outlawed, in 1531, all provisions for Masses to be said any more than 20 years after someone's death. Henry VIII died on 28th January 1547, and the stipulations of his will regarding the Masses for his soul were soon ignored. (Source, Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911.)

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Our Lady of Eton, Assumed into Heaven

Once upon a time, pilgrims, wearing badges like this one (you can buy a replica for £3.50 from, received a plenary indulgence when visiting the Chapel of Eton College on the Feast of the Assumption. the pilgrimage was not the only mark of devotion to Our Lady at Eton: the boys also used to recite the Little Office of the BVM, starting with Prime as they made their beds.

As with many other pilgrimages, this one was abolished under Henry VIII.
But Eton continued to reverence the Mother of God

After the Reformation, under Cromwell, the boys fought back the Roundheads to protect their beloved Virgin, ensconced above the front door of their school. The soldiers got the message and did not come back; She is still there today, being lifted into Heaven by two angels.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Books and films for boys and men

Michael Fassbender,
a fellow Irishman,
pursued by bloodthirsy Picts
in the film CENTURION.
I suppose that when you spend your life with children and young people it's a good idea to be able to enjoy some of the same things they do. And so it is, somehow or other, that my taste in reading and films has reverted to what it used to be when I was a teenager: Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Ancient Britons ... with plenty of battles; and always the over-arching storyline of a young man growing to adult maturity and wisdom, or at least, trying to prove himself.

I began a while back with Simon Scarrow's Praetorian, which I picked up on special offer at the airport. I turns out to be number 11 in a series, so as I enjoyed it, I suppose I am now going to have to backtrack and read the others.

The story is about a young officer and his hardy, older sidekick who get involved in political espionage in the heart of Rome. Their job is to uncover the culprits of a plot to murder the Emperor Claudius.

It has the occasional bit of colourful language, as you'd expect with soldiers, even Roman ones; but it is otherwise a great book for any boy over 14, I'd say.

A common theme in books and films of this type is devotion to the military ideal alongside a questioning of the political realities that make wars happen. It must be the same for brave soliders in Afghanistan who sometimes wonder if they are fighting in a just cause, or whether they are - at best - wasting their time.

The same feelings are expressed in Centurion and also The Eagle, both recent films that take as their starting point the mysterious loss of the Ninth Legion in Pictish territory in about 60AD. As a scholar of modern Celtic languages I enjoyed the decision of both directors to have their Picts speak Scots Gaelic (which I understand) rather than ancient Welsh (which I do not, but which would have been more accurate). In fact, the best historical evidence is that the massacre of this Legion happened much further south, in the revolt led by Boudica (Boadicea). Although they espouse the military life, its action and its code of honour, the protagonists often come to despise what (and whom) they are fighting for.

Noble way of life and noble cause come more together in a novel of the aptly named Frank Slaughter, Constantine: The Miracle of the Flaming Cross. I picked this up, while tidying the College library, and discovered a gem. It is refreshing to see such an unashamed treatment of burning ambition coupled with religious vision. As an ambitious man myself, I found myself finding much of Constantine's story strangely familiar: Am I seeking God's will or my own? Why does it make me jealous when colleagues succeed on their own merits?  How does one recognise the signs of 'empire-building' for its own sake? Can ambition ever be a real virtue? And then, what happens when everyone is ambitious in the same way - when everyone wants to rule?

The book is also incredibly fast-paced, and short on long, 'boring' descriptive passages: ideal for boys! And the military detail, the tactics (Constantine is always outnumbered yet always wins the day), the second-guessing of everyone's motives ... all these make for a thrilling and easy read. The characters of Athanasius, Arius, Eusebius (both of them) are all convincingly brought into the story and one begins to understand how Ancient Rome has been called a kind of providential seedbed for the Christian Church to take root.

Constantine's conscience is real, and so is the way in which he struggles with the corrupting effect of power coupled with the mind-numbing caused by over-work.

I'm glad that Head Masters get a long summer holiday, unlike Roman emperors ...

Monday, 13 August 2012

Brideshead Regurgitated

Brideshead Botched: the new film.
Just watched with a friend the recent (2008) film version of Brideshead Revisited, and I have to confess that everyone who had told me they would not watch it (because it was sure to be a travesty) was absolutely right.
It was absolutely terrible. First off, Sebastian falls in love with Julia right from the outset, and she is the main love interest on the holiday to Venice, so in no real sense is Sebastian 'the forerunner' as in the book and the orginal BBC series. But it is also part of a successful attempt to destroy any sense of development or direction in the character of Charles Ryder. The Charles we see at Oxford is exactly the same Charles we see at the end of the film. He does not become a Catholic and appears never really to have loved Sebastian at all. Even his passion for Julia is reduced to something animal, without any real depth of fellow-feeling.

Lord and Lady Marchmain both come across as incredibly vulgar, despite good acting from Michael Gambon, and the wonderful Emma Thompson. But these two are betrayed by their awful scripts. In the BBC version Sir Lawrence Oliver is curt with Father McKay the first time he comes to the death bed, but still charming; in the new version he is hysterically rude. And Emma Thompson throws Charles out of Brideshead in a nasty public scene which does not fit with her character at all.

Another oddity is that Charles is much better spoken that Julia and Sebastian.

Then, for some reason, Rex Mottram and Julia do actually contract a Catholic marriage, which Mottram offers to have annulled in exchange for three of Charles' paintings. Here annulment is used simply as a Catholic word for divorce, betraying a woeful ignorance of the theological subtleties of the plot. Bridie accuses Julia of living in sin before any such arrangement is shown to have started, and then Julia has her evening of hysteria by the fountain, bewailing the fact that she has been living in sin with Mottram (which, in this version, she has not been) and now wants to do the same with Charles. So none of her tortured guilt makes much sense.

Diana Quick, Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons:
the classic Brideshead.
Charles claims to be riddled with guilt at the end of the story, but it is not clear why. Ryder's own children are written completely out of the script, so although he has let down Cecilia, that is about it: he has not, as in the orginal, 'forfeited the right to see his own children'. Since he has not become a Catholic either, it is doubly odd that he should be feeling so guilty. There is simply some throw-away remark about having selfishly failed to see how closely the Marchmain family were tied to their religion. But it is completely unconvincing.

The three main contentions of the original story, to my mind, were that suffering has a meaning, that to have really loved another human being is the key to all wisdom and that God's love gives us freedom to roam to the ends of the world (in our sins), only to be hauled back into his merciful embrace, by a twitch on the thread. All three of these are completely written out of the story in the 2008 version.

In the original, the business of really having loved another human being brings redemption to many characters: Sebastian's platonic love for the disgusting and undeserving Kurt, and then for all the other patients in the hospital in Morocco, brings him a kind of peace at the end of his days; Charles' love for Sebastian, and later for Julia, help him to faith and to serenity in suffering; Julia's love for Sebastian which she sacrifices so that God will never quite abandon her at the end, is still the key to her redemption. And the love of the saintly Lady Marchmain for all of those around her, does, in the end, so it seems, assure the salvation of her entire family, so that she is ultimately vindicated as an influence for good.

In the new film Lady Marchmain, and the faith that she represents, are made to appear pathetic and ugly.

Lastly, and perhaps least importantly, the whole aspect of social comment (the General Strike, the end of an era, death of traditional values, new vulgarity of the middle classes, etc) is totally lost.

So, after getting all that off my chest, I just hope that this new version will fade somehow into obscurity, lest it succeed in sullying the memory of Evelyn Waugh for future generations.

I have, however, watched two great films about Roman Britain recently, and I'll talk about them next time.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Theatrical week in London

Just returned from a week of culture in London. For £5 per ticket, I enjoyed Henry V, Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew in Shakespeare's Globe, near London Bridge. Lovely weather, great atmosphere and nothing to do with the Olympics. Although London was looking very clean and tidy, no doubt to impress all the visitors; I was certainly impressed, with London in general and the Globe in particular.

The problem with the Globe is that it is unusable outside of the tourist season, because of the rain (it is open to the elements). So they are building another one, a Jacobean indoor theatre, for about 12 million pounds (!) just next door. This will enable them to stage Shakespeare plays with that touch of added Jacobean authenticity, all year round. And the new theatre is going to be lit, apparently, entirely by candles.

700 standing tickets are available for each and every perfomance at the Globe, but you need sturdy legs and you will get wet if it rains.