Sunday, 27 November 2011

An Embarrasment of Titles

The Catholic Truth Society's website is a mostly unremarkable corner of the internet, so that when I went to order one of their titles I was surprised to discover the most comprehensive list of titles I have ever encountered in a website's checkout.  It starts off with the usual, "Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms." and then adds in a couple of others that one might reasonably expect to find on the website of a Catholic publishing company, such as "Father" and "Sister."  Pretty soon, however, it starts to look like they're really trying to cover all their bases.  There are a lot of ecclesiatical titles which one would almost (but not quite) expect of them, up to and including "Cardinal" (the Pope, presumably, having secretaries to do his online ordering for him).  "Ambassador" is a bit of a surprise.  There is "Baroness" but not baron and both "Lord" and "Lady."  Best of all, they have an option for "Prince."  The only glaring omission, I feel, is for "other."  Perhaps they feel their list is sufficiently comprehensive as to render it unnecessary. 

Monday, 21 November 2011


A conversation I had this weekend with a friend of mine, whose background is firmly Protestant and who therefore relates to the Bible quite differently to me, has made me think a little of how I relate to scripture.

I've been thinking for a while about how I should go about establishing a regular habit of actually studying scripture.  As the Liturgy of the Hours is a significant part of my prayer life, it constitutes my most frequent exposure to scripture.  Every day I read a few of the psalms, the short readings at Lauds and Vespers and a much bigger chunk of something either from the Old Testament or from the Epistles at Matins.  There are a lot of snippets from scripture in the antiphons and in other places.  There are also the readings as Mass, when I get to church.  Most of my exposure to scripture is in the context of liturgy, then, I suppose.

When I was preparing for baptism, I spent a while working my way through the Bible methodically, reading each book (although not starting at Genesis and working straight through to Revelations) and also reading brief overviews of them in order to give myself a little context and understanding.  I'm glad that I did, because I feel I do now have some general idea of what most of the books are about although there are some bits (especially some of the New Testament epistles and the minor prophets) that have completely failed to stick in my memory.

Once I had finished this initial read-though, however, I lost momentum and didn't quite know where to go from there.  I think the liturgical use of scripture is good in that it does make sure you are exposed to a lot of the Bible in the course of its cycle, but if this is my only exposure then it will just wash over me.  The books are also split up in a why which can be unhelpful.  There a some bits, the psalms especially, which are actually quite suited to this kind of reading but I have long wanted to look at one book at a time in depth and pick it apart. 

There is lectio divina, of course, and I have considered this although I find it very hard indeed.  It takes some discipline to read slowly and mindfully, and it would do me good to make a habit of it, if I can.  But I feel that I also need a more knowledgable grounding in scripture.  What do the various books set out to do?  What is their historical context?  How have they been used in Church teaching?  That sort of thing.

I decided a while ago that I would start with Romans, as I find the Pauline epistles a difficult challenge and Romans in particular addresses some fundamental issues.  Perhaps I can work out some sort of schema for myself and apply it to Romans, then see when I go from there.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Parish Websites

The Pope, I understand, has quite frequently mentioned that the Church ought to be tech-savvy and capable of getting the good new of the Gospel out into cyberspace.  The last time something this important happened to the written word was with the invention of the printing press. 

What's less exciting than this new opportunity for evangelism, but I think just as important, is that churches get better at putting out basic practical information.  I'm currently trying to plan my weekend, which will be spent mostly travelling, in such a way that I can hopefully still make my Sunday obligation and I am immensely pleased to have discovered that both churches I am likely to be near enough to attend have decent websites which give me Mass times and such. 

In the past I have tried to find Mass times in other parts of the country whilst travelling and have found that parish websites are frequently unhelpful or non-existent.  This, I believe, will be a generational thing.  As the cohort of priests to whom computers are alien makes way for the priests who grew up with the internet, this will naturally be sorted out.  Of course even taking the long view of things it is still frustrating when one finds a parish whose website is not so helpful. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

The New Translation

Because I have had a couple of busy weekends away in the last few weeks, I have attended Sunday Mass at three different churches on three consecutive weeks.  On each of the past three Sundays, I have heard the announcement "from next week, we will be using the new translation of the missal." 

I can only assume the new translation is trying to avoid me. 

Anyway, I'm sure I will finally get to hear it this week.  Even if I'm lazy and don't go to a weekday Mass, I should be in York at my usual parish church next Sunday. 

As for what I think?  I'm not sure what I think and I'm trying not to have too much of an opinion of it until I get it internalised.   I've been hearing the older translation, on and off, since the age of five and I'm fond of it.  When I came to the Church two years ago, asking to join, I slipped into the words of the Mass like a comfortable, comforting pair of slippers.  But that doesn't mean the translation to which I have an emotional attachment is better, and I'm not sure I trust my own prejudices in this matter. 

Monday, 18 July 2011

Praise, Worship and the Unknown

I like liturgy.  I'm a very long way from being anything approximating an expert, but I like to leaf through missals and suchlike to see how things fit together.  I have spent hours and hours squinting at the liturgical calendar, to the point where I almost know how it works.

In part it's the same sort of geeky satisfaction I get from anything which piques my curiosity.  On this level it's no more pious than collecting train numbers.  It's a distraction, but a pleasant and (I hope) harmless one.  Particularly, I try not to get embroiled in the sort of bad-tempered arguments which foment over liturgy in some corners of the internet.

The other reason is that church makes me nervous.  Well, that's not quite true.  Let me explain.  Three years ago I'd never belonged to a church community.  I arrived at the door, breathless and enthusiastic, and didn't really know how people behaved in such contexts.  I forced myself to go to coffee after Mass so I'd get to meet people, and I went along to some of the other events like choir and Bible studies with the same intention.  Drinking coffee and making small talk with someone is the same wherever you do it, and I may not be a master of such things but I can at least feign competency.  The unspoken rules I thought might exist in these new social situations were, for the most part, imaginary.

Mass is, of course, always more or less the same.  It has been familiar to me from about the age of five, and once I started going to church it quickly all came back.  The Mass isn't about personalities, and it is, in my opinion, at its most beautiful when the celebrant and the other participants just perform their role simply and without ostentation.

Yesterday evening I finally got around to attending a Bible study at my parish in Halifax.  I've meant to turn up for ages, but it's only recently that I've had the get up and go and the opportunity to actually get there.  The lady who runs it did say before hand that it was prefaced with a little praise and worship, so I sort of knew what I was letting myself in for.  I've had a lot of invitations to be involved in more Charismatic activities, but I've usually been otherwise engaged. 

We did start off with some singing, lead by someone on the guitar.  I think it was "Maranatha" and a couple of other things in that vein.  It was pleasant.  When we got to the reading it was, unsurprisingly, the day's gospel reading, the parable of the wheat and the darnel from Matthew 13.  We reread and sat in silence for a short while before sharing our thoughts.

Unlike the Bible study at my home parish in York, it wasn't a question-led discussion, but rather a forum in which to reflect upon scripture and share one's personal insights.  In these settings I rarely feel moved to speak.  There isn't a safe script.  But there is something about them which I feel is an antidote to my usual stick-to-what-it-says-in-the-book, look-it-up-in-a-commentary-later attitude.

I left the meeting feeling I'd been forced to think about the reading in a new way, and being forced outside one's comfort zone is sometimes a good way to learn.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Confession: The Shop

I was going to post some Corpus Christi musings today, but there are two reasons why I'm not going to: i) it's not Corpus Christi in Leeds diocese until Sunday; ii) I don't have enough musings to go around. Instead, here's another chapter of the story of how I came to Christianity, with particular apologies to my readers, some of whom make up the subject matter of this latest offering.

I must now retrace my steps a little way, because there is one thread which, defying the chronology I have thus far attempted, runs consistently through from early in my second decade to the present day without significantly intersecting with my educational life.

Throughout most of my time at secondary school, the February half term saw me and my parents travel down to a holiday cottage at Riscombe Farm at Exford, a village in that smaller part of Exmoor which lies in Somerset. I still believe that Exmoor, with its bleak tops, precipitous coastline and green valleys, is a patchwork of the most beautiful landscapes England has to offer.

One of the children at the Farm, Sam, the eldest and closest to my own age, was a keen devotee of the science-fiction tabletop war game Warhammer 40,000. On my first visit, I looked at his collection of miniatures, a mixture of Space Marines (futuristic knights-templar) and Tyranids (aliens clearly inspired by the Aliens series of films) and had my curiosity piqued. I knew of a shop which sold the game back in Halifax, and I visited it upon my return home. At my next birthday (my twelfth, if I calculate correctly) I received the starter set for the Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000’s fantasy sister game, and began to accumulate miniatures.

I also began to accumulate friends. Wargaming is a first and foremost social activity, and through it I met a number of boys of around my age. Whilst I have fallen out of contact with most of the people I befriended at school, I still see many of those I met in the shop, and some of them are amongst my closest friends.

The shop was above a newsagent’s on Halifax’s Commercial Street. It was modestly proportioned, especially considering the number of boys who congregated there most Saturdays during its zenith. The shop’s layout altered a little over the years I frequented it, but it always had at least two gaming tables set out, and at some times more. On busy days people would queue for a game on one them. The shop was small, it was more than a little down at heel, and over the hot summer holidays it began to smell of overripe teenage boy. I would sometimes arrive at lunchtime, or before, and stay until it closed in the evening, gaming, hanging out and, if my modest means permitted it, adding to my collection.

We were mostly shy and socially awkward, as boys of that age often are, especially the sort who gravitate towards geeky hobbies like wargaming. The manager at the time, Gaz, realised eventually that none of us had properly introduced ourselves. We did not know each other’s names. As a result, he bestowed on us nicknames, some of which have stuck long after we have come to know each other much better. My own nickname, on account of my accent and manner, is Posh.

Here I met Dave, who years later was to become my godfather. He has often mused that people called Dave do not get to have nicknames and indeed he never received one at the shop. In my first flush of irreligious enthusiasm, I found in his Christianity something to be argued over incessantly. I marvelled that someone could seriously believe such things.

Scarf had a very religious upbringing. He was polite and thoughtful, and remains deeply thoughtful and caring; if he is less polite now it is in part because he is forthright in his treatment of subjects upon which forthrightness is often appropriate. He studied politics and has a deep concern for social justice. This concern has lead him, along with several other mutual friends, to be an anarchist. If I disagree with some of his conclusions I have great sympathy for his concerns. Of all my friends he is the funniest and most entertaining, his sense of right informing his satirical tirades and his eloquence imbuing even the most mundane of his stories with great humour.

I knew of Camo first of all from the shop, but became a close friend only when, at about the time I started out on my A-levels, I diversified from wargaming into roleplaying games. As with many others, my experience of roleplaying began with Dungeons and Dragons. Roleplaying is in many ways more involved than wargaming and so we would meet at each others’ houses to play on Sundays. Our sessions generally lasted five hours or so, and we eventually diversified into one or two other systems, particularly Vampire: the Masquerade and Mage: the Ascension. These Sundays continued until I left for university.

For a little while after I left, the shop remained, and I visited it when I was in Halifax. Increasingly, however, our little group moved out into the pubs of Halifax and Leeds, and the shop itself has passed into history, now an empty room above the still-thriving newsagent. We celebrated each others’ eighteenth and twenty-first birthdays in house parties, some of which were raucous enough to live in legend, and made that progression from teenage boys to young men, moving away to universities in Leeds, York, Sheffield and Newcastle but still seeing each other frequently and still meeting up in Halifax when we could. Having once been too shy to properly introduce ourselves, our lives are now intertwined in close and enduring friendship.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A Confession: The Divine Comedy

Here is the next section of the story of how I got here.

One aspect of this period has had such an influence that I believe it deserves to be addressed separately. During my GCSE Drama lessons we were often sent up to one of the English department classrooms to practice as a smaller group. Supervision, I fear, was not always tight and so we spent much of the time we should have been reading from The Crucible lazing around.

Being a huge square even at so young an age I browsed the shelves for books which piqued my interest. I can’t remember most of the books I browsed through, and the English literary canon is still, for the most part, territory known to me only by hearsay. There are two books I do remember: Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. Both were far beyond me, and I cannot imagine either being particularly accessible to even A-level students, but something about them captured my imagination.

I have, to date, still never managed more than the first third of Paradise Lost. There is still time, I hope.

The Divine Comedy, however, is a marvel. I delighted in the maps of hell, purgatory and heaven and read each canto’s prĂ©cis and some of the notes, trying to figure out the structure and narrative of this fantastic book. I was fifteen at the time, so I had very little success but Dante went to the back of my mind and stayed there for three years until I arrived at university.

In my first semester at York St. John’s I came across the Inferno translated with notes by Dorothy L. Sayers in Goodramgate’s Oxfam, the same edition I had perused previously. I bought it and spent the next month or so slowly working through it. By the end of the second semester I had acquired and read Purgatory and Paradise.

Quite apart from the appealingly, Ptolemaically tidy vision of the universe depicted in the Comedy I was struck more deeply than I then realised by the “love that moves the sun and other stars.” This is Dante’s central theme and his final end, one which is lost upon those who only read his most famous and least lovely first canticle, Inferno.

Everything in the Comedy is somehow related to this central theme. In hell we see sin, which is not a new creation but rather a perversion of God’s perfect Creation, love unrestrained, misdirected or corrupted. Because Inferno has a certain grotesque appeal which is not at all reliant upon its spiritual or theological content it is easy to miss, and if one were to read the first canticle without reading any further one would be missing the better aspects of the work. Dante, the self-deprecating protagonist of his own tale, climbs from the depths of hell to ascend Mount Purgatory, upon which repentant sinners are cleansed (himself included), before he is taken up to heaven and converses with the saints.

Through all this, Dante is guided, either personally or by proxy, by Beatrice Portinari, the unrequited object of his courtly love. Romantic as well as divine love is an important theme of the Comedy.

I believe unreservedly that, if there is a God, love must be His most perfect principal. It is by following this belief to its sensible conclusion, maturing in my understanding of love as I go, that I have arrived in my present position.