O Jerusalem…

Three Young Men

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” Matthew 23:37.

Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Zionist state is the tragedy of Western Christianity laid bare. The strange, eschatological view of Protestants (and some Roman Catholics) towards Jews is nothing new. It was very much at the heart of the Puritan dictatorship in this country, and certainly the principal ideological force in Oliver Cromwell’s decision to reverse Edward I’s pious edict of 1290. And just as Oliver Cromwell’s government was financed by Jews so too is Donald Trump’s. The Puritan idea was that the conversion of the Jews would bring about the Second Coming of Jesus. Rubbish. The Jews do indeed have an eschatological rôle but it won’t be a benevolent one, and, except in rare cases, Jews cannot be converted to Christ. When they “return” to Jerusalem, and rebuild their temple, then the Sanhedrin will elect a false messiah who will not bring about Christ’s Second Coming but the grievous reign of the Antichrist, whose rabbi vassals will be given supreme lordship over the goyim. The United States is just facilitating this, partly because of the evangelical vote (and the evangelical money pouring in) but mostly because the United States government is controlled by Jews.

All we can do is pray. Pray against the Evil Empire over the sea; pray for the conversion of the Jews (for with God all things are possible); and, in this Nativity fast, pray with the three holy youths: O Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, bless ye the Lord: praise and exalt him above all for ever: for he hath delivered us from hell, and saved us from the hand of death, and delivered us out of the midst of the furnace and burning flame: even out of the midst of the fire hath he delivered us.

A Dwarf and an homosexual

Transfiguration

I recently read Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf by Peter Madsen. The book reminded me in parts of The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp, sharing flashes of insight which are humorous in nature and even having a similar worldview. Now that is interesting given that Quentin Crisp and Giuseppe Amadonelli (or “Peppe,” Madsen’s protagonist) are diametrically opposed. More on that later. I reckon Madsen is familiar with Crisperanto and may even be an homosexual himself. This is based not only on the many detailed and flattering descriptions given of the artist Raphael (and I have to say that this book rekindled my own interest in Raphael), but also a moment in which Serapica, Peppe’s own effeminate counterpart, surrounded by antique statuary in a Florentine palazzo and looking rather Greek himself, tells him that he is in a state of being, and that that was his private hobby; a very Crispian thing to have said. This scene also brought to my mind an image of a 1940’s art studio, a nude Crisp, pale and thin from his ascetic life, hennaed hair, celery and paintbrushes. It also brought back personal memories from childhood. Except I didn’t paint myself white and imagine I was a Greek athlete; I was a saint in a church wrapped in bath towels; loved rather than despised, and prayed to rather than shunned.

There is a conscious duality throughout the book; order against chaos; dogma against heresy; matter against spirit. Madsen’s investigation of Gnosticism takes both a serious and frivolous form (which I imagine is deliberate); truth and falsehood; pain and delight; things lofty and things sordid, all enveloped in a kind of bawdy, somewhat camp, style. The most interesting theme for me is the view implicit in the characters that hypocrisy and integrity are the same thing. For example, Leo X (ironically, for me, the most likable of all the characters!) can rise from his bed in the morning, sore from another night of buggery, and pray to God in silent lacrimation. Whereas Andrea de’ Collini, patrician of Rome and oracle of esoteric wisdom, can engage in sadistic sex acts, the trafficking of ruined lives dumped by the Inquisition, and even murder. The question as to who is superior is a redundant one since the corruption of Renaissance Italy is taken for granted. In other words, few people actually care. The few who do care, fanatics such as the Dominican inquisitor Tomaso della Croce, are just as hypocritical in their own way since they turn a blind eye to all kinds of situations when it suits them. I would put that down to Original Sin, the futility of aspiring to morality in a world of moral relativity, but the Gnostic view is that the forces of good and evil, spirit and matter, are equally opposed. Nonetheless, the fact that not one Gnostic character depicted in the book could be described as a good person, even by their own exalted standard, has not escaped my attention.

The Gnostic brotherhood, a Renaissance revival of mediaeval Catharism of which Peppe is a member, is made up of undesirables; they’re all deformed or pathetic in some way. Peppe, the eponymous dwarf, was stunted and twisted from birth, lives in constant pain, and had an abusive mother. The master of the Gnostic brotherhood, under a veneer of deep learning and noble dignity, is actually raving mad. There are others too, miserable so-and-so’s on the slag heap of human depravity, rejected by society. In a sense, the Gnostic brotherhood is the counterpart of the travelling freak show for which Peppe performed for seven years. In both cases Peppe was just one of a number of “freaks;” renegades and criminals who performed in obscene acts garlanded with anecdotal or liturgical fantasies in front of a crowd. Whether the crowd were fellow Gnostics or just rustics makes no moral difference. The essence of both the Gnostic liturgy and the “Tragedy of Nature” (Peppe’s freak show act) is the opprobrium heaped on the idea of sex as the regenerative force in this world. And so, be he a patrician of Rome, clad in argent-gold and wanking into a chalice in a parodic ritual or a misshapen midget performing felatio upon a beast-man for vile spectators; both are equally orgiastic and ultimately nihilistic. Quentin Crisp said that sexual intercourse is a poor substitute for masturbation. Giuseppe, who said that prurience is one of life’s equalizers, would undoubtedly agree.

There’s something bogus about all this. Contrast the Gnostic view of sex with the monastic ideal of chastity and it just looks insidious and hypocritical. The Gnostic liturgy, as described in this book at least, seems less a lofty ritual of profundity and true knowledge than a sordid coven in which reprobate persons indulge their jaded sexual appetites, and from which, in their pretended disdain for things material, they derive a perverted pleasure in desecrating something ordained by God (whom they confuse with Satan). Quentin Crisp at least had the integrity to admit that he was a materialist. It seems to me that for the “perfect ones,” beneath the esoteric rubbish the animal lusts just seethe away! And the fact that the Gnostic brotherhood is made up of “freaks” makes this even worse; not in the sense that the concupiscence of the flesh is any more or less reprehensible in a freak than in somebody else but because by implication the “freaks” have been driven into this kind of perversion by the prejudice of the majority. Perhaps we ought to reflect not on what that means for them but on prevailing attitudes in society.

Religious fanaticism is a prominent theme in the book. The interesting thing here is that this is not a majoritarian matter. The impression I get from the freak show audience, the miasmal taverns and alleyways of Trastevere, and even the pope’s kitchen staff is that such things as fornication and homosexuality are generally accepted; whereas piety, as the untimely end of Girolamo Savonarola bears witness, is, for most people, more like an embarrassing piece of furniture. Quentin Crisp observed the same pattern in England, saying: “In 1653, when God took a turn for the worse, the gusto with which the English took to a life of self-restraint undoubtedly contained an element of debauchery.” Integrity, hypocrisy; I’m quite sure that puritanism and prurience proceed from the same source. And then there are the machinations of the unholy Inquisition, personified by Tomaso della Croce. I saw a lot of my adolescent self in della Croce. At a time when my contemporaries were seeing (to) pretty girls, I was the most appalling, homicidal Papist. I would have set up an Inquisition over night and burnt anyone who disagreed with me! You’ll be pleased to know that I have moved on from worldly utopianism (or dystopianism) even if the contrary feelings of irritation and resignation about the world remain. But della Croce is a pitiful case; just like Cromwell or Lenin. Who mourned when they died?!

The Inquisition burnt Peppe’s friend and lover Laura Beatrice de’ Collini for heresy. This event colours much of the book, from the grievous turn of Laura’s father Andrea, patrician of Rome, who became bent on personally killing Tomaso della Croce, to the (somewhat incredible) conclusion of the book. Given the Gnostic attitude to capital punishment, it’s ironic that the scene is so beautifully described:

“She was a human salamander, so that even in an unimaginable agony her beauty demanded veneration – from the flames themselves it seemed, for they flickered and darted and sucked around her like desire-maddened tongues, craving an appointment with private, vulnerable contours, spitting love-burns, their deadly caress all consuming seduction; then she was a goddess of some exotic pantheon, a numen whose devotees worshipped her with living images of death, the sun and the moon and the stars her garment, and she moved, smiling, in the heart of the fire; then a star itself, a distant orb glowing between tenebrous spaces in which stirred not the vast ethers of the heavens, but the sickening, convulsive appetite of an inhumanity that gorged itself, satiated, on her expended light. Then – and then, again! – oh then, she was just a poor, dying girl tied to the Inquisition’s stake.”

From ravished girl to exotic goddess, Peppe clearly idolised this woman. Howbeit, before we get carried away, it behoves me to remind you that Peppe himself says at the beginning of the book that “it would take someone with a very peculiar vice indeed to find anything sexually attractive about a crook-back dwarf.” That speaks volumes about the patrician’s daughter. But the terrible beauty of her death contrasts with the vulgarity and sadistic yearning of the crowd, voyeurs who were less idle spectators and rather active participators in the brutal and sanguinary penal code of the Inquisition; people who otherwise might not care that much about dogma. It’s a very lively combination. Public executions of this kind throughout the Middle Ages and into the late 18th century served almost exactly the same purpose as the Liturgy, other state events (like the Two-Minutes Hate), or Da Vinci’s planets. Peppe writes with sullen contempt of the ecclesiastical procession to the stake, with acolytes, thurifers, fat friars and merciless monks chanting hypocritical bilge in a “plangent threnody of her hour of death,” all to “enrich the lurid liturgy of her death-rites. Oh yes, why yes, if there’s to be a show, make it a damned good one!” These days I have come to agree with Quentin Crisp, who like me and at about my age, gave up on culture and literature, when he said that beauty is a complete waste of time. But there’s an interesting paradigm here, a double helix pattern of simultaneous progress and regress. Nowadays I’m sure that most people would be horrified by a public burning, and some are even appalled by a swift, merciful hanging, for the crime or sin of holding an opinion; and yet in such a time of swift death and little bliss, we have Master Raphael’s Transfiguration. In our own time, of banality and bureaucratic ugliness, we have conceptual art. It’s ironic that so much grandeur and beauty should come down to us from savage ages. Perhaps beauty and ugliness are the same thing? Or perhaps true beauty demands a refiner’s fire; the palpable knowledge of sorrow and suffering to fulfill its own quality?

One reason I have made the comparison between Giuseppe Amadonelli and Quentin Crisp is because of something Crisp said in the World in Action programme broadcast about his life in the early 1970’s. Forgive me for quoting at length but it’s so important:

“If you’re on a tightrope, when you first set off you don’t know how much play there is in the rope. But when you get into the middle, between the ages of twenty and forty, the thing rocks like mad and it’s too late to go back, even to look back. But if you go on as carefully as you can, you see the other platform and then you just make a dash for it, not bothering with what the audience thinks, or waving your arms, or looking dangerous, and difficult and prodigious. What you seize hold of when you get to the other side is, in fact, the edge of your coffin, and you get into it, and you lie down. And you think, ‘my cuffs are frayed,’ ‘I haven’t written to my mother,’ and all those other things, and then you think, ‘it doesn’t matter because I’m dead.’ And this is a message of hope. It will come to an end. It will come. We cannot be blamed for it, and we shall be free.”

Or, if you’d prefer to hear Mr Crisp’s patrician tone:

Crisp was by no means suicidal; indeed, he lived at least another thirty years after uttering this harrowing story. But the sentiments he expressed are echoed by Peppe in chapter two of Memoirs. It’s interesting that for a Gnostic as much as for a Materialist the ultimate aspiration is exactly the same: release from prison, escape from the dreadful doom of life. Perhaps it’s because they share a frontier, the same error. Or perhaps it’s because life under the Sun of this world had dealt unkindly with them and so they were driven to the polar opposite (or “perfect”) heresy against the Truth? Aesop might call that sour grapes. Nonetheless, I don’t actually believe that either of them were purists. Peppe lived at the Papal court and despite his commitment to the Gnostic creed he was scandalised by the more extreme perversions of his master and confesses to a certain kinship with his friend, pope Leo X, who somehow managed to separate the lustful, worldly prince from the tearful, devout, indeed rather simple, supplicant. As for Crisp, he often spoke of a personal God (he was probably raised Anglican) and later in life embraced a kind of ascetic chastity, deploring the gay movement. We’re all hypocrites and come short of the glory of God.

As for me, while in moments of ambivalent despair I have questioned the fundamental goodness of the flesh, I believe that our present suffering will end and the least of our godly desires, begotten of faith, will have fruit. Because of my belief, Gnosticism, or at least the extreme form of dualism explored in Madsen’s book, seems a ridiculous notion because it holds up an ideal that is by definition unattainable; with the inevitable hypocrisy and hysteria that come from that. Just because a particular form of a particular portion of matter can be defiled or abused doesn’t mean that matter itself, hallowed by Christ’s Incarnation, is evil. Our experience of the Divine cannot but be a posteriori, and I take great comfort in the scripture: “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:6.

A perceptive Muslim

I came across this video on YouTube the other day. The Islamic scholar Imran Nazar Hossein is talking about Islamic prophecies about Christians “closest in love and affection to” the Muslim world. He is very perceptive about the uniqueness of Russia as centre of the Christian world, about the importance of monasticism, and the false Christians of the West who scorn Russia and embrace secularism. He is also very perceptive about the historic crusades and conquistadors, saying: “they [Western Christians] wanted Orthodox Christianity to bend its knee to Rome;” and “they treated the Orthodox Christians with contempt.” And looking forward he alludes to a future Christian-Muslim alliance. Zionism is mentioned too as part of the confidence trick of false Christianity. I must say it’s refreshing to see a non-Christian distinguish so clearly between the Orthodox Church and those unhappy ones who have ensnared by Satan.

 

The Reformation

van der Meulen, Pieter, b.1638; William III, the Duke of Schomberg and the Pope

Everybody seems to be marking the fifth centenary of Martin Luther’s famous protest against the sale of Indulgences in their own way so I thought I might share a few thoughts of my own on the matter. As many of you know, I come from a family of mixed English and Irish ancestry, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, and so my experience of the Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion (whose last frontier were the streets of Belfast) is an Anglo-Irish one. The island of Ireland is uniquely divided along religious lines and as I have grown older I have come to share Iris Murdoch’s contempt of Ireland, particularly Irish religion. Even Lord Carson, who became the lynchpin of the Unionist cause, found Ireland’s Orange culture distasteful. Terence O’Neill, an Irish gentleman of impeccable character and antient lineage, wrote with painful regret in his autobiography of how his attempt to bring about a peaceful solution to Ulster’s age old problem had been “wrecked by wicked men.” These wicked men, and Ian Paisley was certainly one of them, were partisans of the Reformation, the minority who lived in fear that the papist bog trotters would steal into their homes at night and smother them as they slept; who marched triumphantly down the Gavaghy Road on the Masonic Twelfth to celebrate the brutal suppression of the old Gaelic order; and from whose churches, grim sermon halls, had been banished all beauty and comfort.

What of their enemies? Well, the Protestant paranoia about Home Rule was justified in the days when the Republic was a brutal, theocratic state. The corruption of the Papal Communion in Ireland was so deep and its influence so great that nobody can say that it was ever a force for good for the Irish people. False imprisonment of young women; the physical and sexual abuse of children in schools run by religious orders and by secular priests; the discrimination against Protestants; the ignorance; the philistinism; the cruelty; and the hypocrisy. And why? Why were the Irish people interminably loyal to an institution that was ashamed of them, and oppressed them incomparably harsher than the British? When he visited Phoenix Park in 1979, John Paul II remarked disingenuously that the Irish people had always enjoyed the affection of the “apostolic see!” Since when? Did Adrian IV demonstrate affection for the Irish people when he ordered the Norman conquest of Ireland? Or Cardinal Rinuccini, whose abortive mission to the Irish Confederates was later exposed as a plot to re-establish Popery in England? Or, most infamously, pope Innocent XI who was secretly funding William III of Orange against James II, against Irish sovereignty and against Catholic ownership of land!

I suppose that’s all political, though. I would view the Reformation much less favourably if what the reformers had attacked bore any resemblance to the Gospel. As it happened, much of what they attacked was false or superstitious anyway. People are only going to tolerate false doctrine and corruption for so long before they revolt. That’s why the Reformation happened. It’s also why Protestantism is on its way out. Rome won’t be far behind. What does Western Christianity offer to people but worldliness? And the Western confessions, large and small, have embraced worldliness because they have been cut off from the Orthodox Church for a thousand years. Putrefaction has come slowly but in the end the balm accords with the relics.

The Orthodox Way

A priest once told me that he met a man so well-read in the Fathers, so well-rehearsed in the Liturgy and so well-versed in ecclesiastical politics that he might be mistaken for a monk by a less-discerning person. But he was a child murderer and in prison. On the other hand, the priest also knew an old, illiterate babushka from before the days of the Soviet Union whose earthy piety and sense put him to shame. I wish to God I could aspire to that woman’s piety. I never stop trying.

The Lady in the Van…

Maggie Smith

For many years now I have been fascinated by the lives and habits of eccentrics and vagrants. I am not entirely sure why, and I am suspicious of any attempt to bring the pseudo-science of psychology into the matter, but it may be because I am myself an eccentric (or at least a recluse), and I may one day end up a vagrant. I am familiar with George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as the extraordinary and ascetic life of Quentin Crisp. I recall the tragic life of Sebastian Flyte and the disheveled women of Grey Gardens. The sadistic brutality of “Shack” from Emperor of the North contrasts with the shuffling figure of Crayford, “Old Smoky,” resigned to his lot. Collectively, the stories here provide a sobering view of how difficult life can be for people who are different, whether by daring to be so or because life itself has dealt unfairly or unkindly.

***Spoiler Warning***

The latest for me in this series is Nicholas Hytner’s adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The Lady in the Van, starring Maggie Smith as the eponymous Mary Shepherd, whose true name, Margaret Fairchild, was “buried to sin;” and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. “Miss Shepherd,” as she is known throughout the film, is a crotchety old tramp who lives in the back of a van in Camden Town. The locals, well-to-do people of a somewhat liberal worldview, put up with her, due, in Bennett’s view, to their guilt at the disparity between their lot and hers. Accepting her as a mild nuisance, albeit a presence to plummet the value of their Victorian houses in the eyes of the Joneses, they live their middle-class, middling lives around Miss Shepherd, a woman whose talents are as multi-flavoured as her aroma. An accomplished pianist, she studied music in Paris under Alfred Cortot and drove an ambulance during the War. She spent some time in a convent, but was expelled; she also spent some time in a lunatic asylum, but seemingly gave them the slip. It seems that she was driving from the asylum when a cyclist crashed into her and died. She managed to avoid arrest by bribing a corrupt policeman but spent the rest of her days in fear of him. Now (or rather then) she spends her time selling pencils at the roadside and, like Blanche DuBois, living off the kindness of strangers, and her long-suffering brother in Broadstairs. She died in 1989 having spent fifteen years living in Bennett’s driveway.

The interesting thing about the garbled stories of her life is that they are all true. Unlike “Old Smoky,” who I once overheard telling a passerby that he’d tamed elephants on Brighton beach, Miss Shepherd really did fall from grace. This is interesting given her repudiation of her Christian name, ostensibly because of a perceived sin for which she spends her life atoning. Did she choose to embrace life in the van, the instrument of another’s death, and in time the very place of her own, or was she chosen? Can people live their lives any other way than they have chosen? Or what happens in people’s lives to make them the way they are? Bloody bad luck, as the Tramp Major said of George Orwell in The Spike, or other things? Pride, resignation and incorrigibility seem to be a common element.

I do recommend this film. It’s as funny as it is sad; gritty and frank. In fact, it’s so good I have ordered the book.

A word…

Maglor Casts a Silmaril into the Sea, by Ted Nasmith

I haven’t read The Silmarillion for years (these days I prefer The History of Middle-earth) but lately I have been thinking about this paragraph from Of the Voyage of Eärendil:

“Great was the sorrow of Eärendil and Elwing for the ruin of the havens of Sirion, and the captivity of their sons, and they feared that they might be slain; but it was not so. For Maglor took pity upon Elros and Elrond, and he cherished them, and love grew after between them, as little might be thought; but Maglor’s heart was sick and weary with the burden of the dreadful oath.”

The word that leaps out to me here is “cherished,” which I have never encountered before in any other of Tolkien’s writings. It’s of Latin derivation, which is uncharacteristic of Tolkien, related to caritas, and here seems to imply a sense of desperate longing, of embracing, of guardianship, and of loneliness. Whenever I read this passage I see the three figures in the fair vale of Sirion, in the land under the wave; an Elf-lord and the half-elven children, forlorn, bereft, caught between the overmastering power of Morgoth and the Doom of Mandos, with nothing left but each other. As a philologist, Tolkien had a gift for visualising landscapes but he could also perfectly convey sentiments and emotions, often in just one word. Cherish is the word most fitting here.

Do readers familiar with Tolkien have other passages to share?

Art: Ted Nasmith.

Pictures from Long Melford

IMG_2155

The font.

IMG_2156

Looking east down the nave. The bare bones of the church, white and grey where before was colour. This was where I saw the grey clergy and choristers. I imagine Roger Martyn’s priest intoning the Passion on Good Friday where the rood loft used, and ought, to be. And those blasted pews…

IMG_2164

Detail of the stone reredos depicting “the story of Christ’s Passion,” as Roger Martyn might say. Actually, this was donated in 1877 by the wealthy mother of the then rector of the church Rev. Charles Martyn (not related to the Martyns of Melford). Notice the Decalogue and the Creed on the north and south sides.

Lily Crucifix

Detail of the Lily Crucifix in the Clopton Chantry.

Easter Sepulchre

The tomb of John and Alice Clopton on the north side of the chancel (from the Clopton Chantry). It’s a classic benefactor’s tomb and sepulchre arch. You can’t see it but on the “roof” of the arch is a faded fresco of the Risen Christ with the words (in Latin): “whoever liveth and believeth in me shall not die forever,” from St John’s Gospel. I will not belabour the obvious symbolism of Christ’s triumph over Death vis-a-vis the liturgical use of the sepulchre but I think it’s telling of a profound understanding of the faith, and a mortal desire for union with Christ, liturgically, even in death. Well, it was a chantry!

Long Melford

IMG_2195

I spent some time in East Anglia earlier this week. On Sunday morning I visited Long Melford, a charming village on the Essex-Suffolk border, famous for its perpendicular church. The church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is a wool church, built upon a hill overlooking the village situated in a rather rich champaign of fair fields and trees astride the Stour river. I went up to the church during the parish Eucharist, at around 11am. I walked round the church to the east side and noticed quite a number of white doves perched among the parapets. I went round again from the north side and noticed a plump, tanned woman sitting in the porch. She told me she was from California and had traveled to complete her genealogical studies with her husband – she claimed to be a descendant through many generations from one of the benefactors of the church. I wished her all the best in her study and opened the door. She then laughed and told me that her husband, who by now had come in, had tried but failed to do just that. We all went in and sat down at the back. The sermon, halfway through I guess by the time I sat down, seemed to be about the enduring, irreversible decline of the Church of England. I could scarcely hear it because the rector was using a poor quality microphone that kept “skipping,” which, given the impressive acoustic of the church, seemed hardly needed. He ended his sermon on a positive note, saying that with prayer they might attract more young people. According to the rector, who cited a recent poll, only 4% of people aged 18-24 have anything to do with the Church of England. Well, I’m not going to consider that in detail but I do think that even if the ineluctable decline in the Church of England could be reversed it wouldn’t be worth it anyway.

IMG_2154

At 29, I was the youngest person present. We can allow for the demographics of a country village but still…

After saying his bit, the rector actually approached us late-comers and rather generously invited us to communion, or to receive a blessing. He was a young, enthusiastic man who seemed wasted in Anglican ministry. Possibly an homosexual, the polyester cassock alb and unshapely green chasuble he wore were at odds with his otherwise well-groomed appearance, and the church itself come to think of it! He would have looked much more at home in some urban, Pymly church than the bucolic idyll of Long Melford. When the rector went back to the chancel my companion and I decided, having no appetite for the worship of the place, that we would return for the tourist opening hours at 12:30. We drove back into the town to have a cup of tea, all the while thinking that we might be very happy in such a place in some time long past. Presently we returned, to find the rector (still in his vestments) speaking to the Californian lady and her husband. He then came to me and shook my hand and made such small talk as seemed fitting. I asked him about the church and made some shrewd observations about the architecture vis-à-vis liturgy of the kind long extinct in these old islands. His reply was: “I expect you know much more about the terminology than me,” so to save him more embarrassment, and seeing that he was in haste to be gone anyway, I let him go. Our interaction reminded me of many occasions I expected to be on the same wave length as a priest, only to be let down.

IMG_2157

Mediaeval stained glass.

Before he left, the rector referred me to a “little purple book” about the history of the church which I bought eagerly. The book, entitled Five Centuries of an English Parish Church, contains a poignant account of the church as it was during the reign of Queen Mary by the churchwarden Roger Martyn (1526-1615), who, writing during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, hoped that his heirs would one day repair and restore much that he had stored in his house (in defiance of Elizabeth’s injunction of 1559 that “no person keep in their houses any abused images of feigned miracles and idolatry and superstition”). Here is a sample:

“Memorandum. At the back of the high altar in the said church, there was a goodly mount made of one great tree, and set up to the foot of the window there, carved very artificially with the story of Christ’s Passion, representing the horsemen with their speares, and the footmen, &c, as they used Christ on the mount of Calvary, all being fair gilt, & lively and beautifully set forth. To cover and keep clean all the which there were very good fair painted boards, made to shut too, which were opened upon high and solemn dayes, which then was a very beautiful shew. Which painted boards were there set up again in Queen Mary’s time. And at the north end of the same altar, there was a goodly gilt tabernacle reaching up to the roofe of the chancell, in the which there was one fair large gilt image of the Holy Trinity, being patron of the church, besides other fair images. The like tabernacle was at the south end.

“There was also in my ile \called Jesus Ile/ at the back of the altar a table with a crucifix in it, with the two thieves hanging on every side one, which is in my house decayed, and the same I hope my heires will repaire and restore again one day. And there was two fair gilt tabernacles from the ground up to the roofe; with a fair image of Jesus in the tabernacle at the north end of the altar holding a round bawle or bowle in his hand signifying, I think, that he containeth the whole round world; and in the tabernacle at the south end there was a fair image of Our Blessed Lady having the afflicted body of her dear son, as he was taken down from the cross lying along in her happ, and the teares as it were running down pittyfully upon her beautifull cheekes, as it seemed bedewing the said sweet body of her son, and therefore named the image of Our Lady of Pitty.

“Memorandum. There was a fair roodloft, with the rood & Mary & John of every side one, with a fair pair of organs standing thereby, which loft extended all the bredth of the church. And on Goode-Fryday a priest there standing by the rood sang the Passion. The side thereof towards the body of the church in 12 partitions in boards was fair painted the images of the 12 apostles. All the roof of the church was beautified with fair gilt stars. Finally, in the vestry – where there was many rich copes & shutes of vestments, there was a fair press with fair large doores to shut too, wherein there were made devises to hang on all the copes without folding or frumpling of them, with a convenient distance the one from the other.”

FullSizeRender (6)

The Lady Chapel, looking east. Then (1969).

He goes on in like manner, recalling with pride and regret the custom of his church throughout the year before the iconoclasts had their way. I have seldom read an account so sad. How could Roger Martyn conceive that four hundred years after his death another Englishman would go into his church and feel the same regret, and observe that the congregation there now followed a totally different religion, as destroyers and usurpers? I suppose the difference is that Martyn had been there for years, as had his father and grandfather before him, and wrote as one who had devoted his life to the ritual there, and enhanced and enriched it himself out of his own pocket. I, on the other hand, went as someone who felt no regret so singular or personal but as one born out of time. I can only dimly guess the grandeur of Holy Trinity at Long Melford in the days of its rising, and as I stood looking down the nave to the high altar I imagined spectral figures, grey with the passing years, processing with willows on Palm Sunday, or going out to meet the Sacrament chanting ecce Rex tuus venit as an echo out of the earth. They are gone, and who remembers them? Parts of the church, such as the design of the Clopton tomb (Easter Sepulchre) and a jut of the north aisle (used on Palm Sunday), were built with the liturgy in mind. Who uses them now? Now the church is just a nave and a chancel, spaces commodious for the elderly and the middle aged where they can sing hymns new and newer, and all else just quaint pieces of history, not even understood by the rector. It’s a sad place. I often wonder what the next fifty years have in store for such churches. Holy Trinity was only completed in 1497. Its builders and benefactors must have thought their religion so antient and so imperishable. Already it has seen reformation, and iconoclasm and a spasm of ill-conceived imitation of modern Rome in the last century; dwindling numbers, aging congregants. I imagine the people will just die off one by one and the church will become a museum of local history. It’s a cruel end to what must once have been a very lively place, the House of God in a Christian community.

IMG_2180

The Lady Chapel, looking east. Now.