Sunday, August 21, 2011

Horror and Holiness

Perhaps it's wrong of me: I do enjoy a good horror film. I'm not quite sure what it is about the Horror genre that sets me off. I guess it's the allusion to the fact that there is more in Heaven and Earth (and indeed under the Earth) than is dreamt of in my Philosophy. Perhaps the Anglo-Catholic mind is especially susceptible to the sense of the Gothic, the cold stone and gargoyle of old church buildings coupled with the Medieval monstrosities of Hell so graphically depicted in old Dooms and inhabiting the eldrich recesses of the mind of Hieronymous Bosch.

For me, it is the stories of Montague Rhodes James that have delighted me most. These are tales of ancient evil, of revenants and guardians of forbidden knowledge and secret treasure. Very few of them have really made it into the realm of the movie. There have been some pretty good adaptations made for television. There have been two versions of Oh Whistle and I'll come to you, My Lad the better version being played with Sir Michael Horden, detailing the tribulations of a pernickety Cantabrigensian Professor with no fear of the "supernatural" whose life comes a-cropper when he happens upon a whistle near a barrow on the Suffolk coast. A later version with John Hurt worked very well until they spoiled the story.

The only film that I know of M. R. James' work is Night of the Demon based on the short story Casting the Runes again with a skeptical protagonist being faced with something beyond his understanding. It may be black and white but it is a very good film.

I like a good horror film. It's a shame that very few are being made at the moment! There has been a big shift in the way that horror is being done now. As Roddy MacDowell's character (Peter Vincent) says in the original version of Fright Night, "All they want to see slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins." He's right. (Interestingly, I believe that this film is being remade with Doctor Who Actor David Tennant as Peter Vincent).

It seems that most horror films today are obsessed with showing off most of the outside of nubile young ladies and then finding some awful way of showing off their insides thanks to digital special effects. We have reached the era of Torture Porn which seems to be more concerned at killing someone off in the most elaborate and gory fashion and observing their suffering (from behind the sofa) until their life is finally snuffed out by the coup de grace. And that's it. There seems to be very little to point to the beyond, these days. Final Destination may be about Death and Fate, but that's as far as it points: the centre piece is the manner of death and avoidance of it, and the Saw films point to nothing other than man's depraved ingenuity of finding out ways of taking someone to bits. To my mind, this is not horror, this is disgusting, a cheap way of getting a reaction from an audience not from the head or the heart but through the stomach - sometimes literally. Gone are any references to Good and Evil. Only Nasty Things happen and have no moral identity.

That says much for a materialist culture where Death is the enemy to be overcome, despite the fact that it is inevitable for us all. Yet one contrast this with the sublime Pan's Labyrinth which juxtaposes the trials of the fairytale with the brutal realities of the Spanish Civil War. The sight of the zombies wandering through the shopping mall was a definite comment on the culture of today. Bluewater Park is filled with the mindless searching for a life!

Harsh? Maybe a tad. Much of what I've said above is opinion, but there is something which I feel is an important statement about our society.

On Wednesday 24th, the Church celebrates the life of St Bartholomew. Tradition has it that St Bartholomew was skinned alive and then beheaded. Of course, the horror movie makers would deeply relish this idea, and I'm sure that they would want to work this into the next installment of Saw. But how they would miss the point!

If one reads the daily instalments of the Martyrology, one again is faced with some hideous deaths. Admittedly, I think some of them have been dressed up to heighten the drama. Tradition has St Laurence roasted alive, scholarship has him simply beheaded. I know which one Wes Craven would depict in a film! However, one reads the Martyrology not to act as some rubberneck at a car crash searching for the most nasty way of dispatching a saint, but to connect with real, genuine human beings whose faith points beyond the material world. The more tortured the saint, the more we marvel at the tenacity that this person had for the love of Christ, and the more we question the depth of love that we have for the Lord. Saying "yes" to God could see us roasted on a grid iron. it's true.

Should we feel inadequate that we could not undergo torment for Christ? No. That way lies some unhealthy attitudes to suffering. We are bound to suffer for our faith - The Faith - and there is no getting away from that, but we remember God's faithful words to us in that He will not allow us to be tempted beyond our means, and any suffering we undergo has a purpose, a question for us to answer posed by God Himself. One can read that in Job. The fact that some martyrs suffered horribly is a testament to their belief, and it is reasonable for us to venerate them and praise them for their steadfastness.

A good horror film says something about the life beyond the material. It may be just a story but that's what stories are for, making statements about Life above television sets, toasters and turntables. Contrast this with the real lives of the saints, martyrs and all those who have in any way suffered dreadfully at the hands of men. The modern stalk-and-slash, torture porn films really do trivialise the latter at the expense of entertainment.

Opinion again? Perhaps.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Assumpta est Maria in Caelum

1 alleluia laudate pueri Dominum laudate nomen Domini
2 sit nomen Domini benedictum ex hoc nunc et usque in saeculum
3 a solis ortu usque ad occasum laudabile nomen Domini
4 excelsus super omnes gentes Dominus super caelos gloria eius
5 quis sicut Dominus Deus noster qui in altis habitat
6 et humilia respicit in caelo et in terra
7 suscitans a terra inopem et de stercore erigens pauperem
8 ut collocet eum cum principibus cum principibus populi sui
9 qui habitare facit sterilem in domo matrem filiorum laetantem

PRAISE the Lord, ye servants : O praise the Name of the Lord.
2. Blessed be the Name of the Lord : from this time forth for evermore.
3. The Lord's Name is praised : from the rising up of the sun unto the going down of the same.
4. The Lord is high above all heathen and his glory above the heavens.
5. Who is like unto the Lord our God, that hath his dwelling so high : and yet humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth?
6. He taketh up the simple out of the dust : and lifteth the poor out of the mire;
7. That he may set him with the princes : even with the princes of his people.
8. He maketh the barren woman to keep house : and to be a joyful mother of children.

Actually, I listened to Monteverdi's glorious setting of Vespers last night before I recited First Vespers. It was this psalm, psalm cxii(i) that spoke to me most. In the above video, the psalm follows the Antiphon Nigra sum alluding to the Song of Solomon in which the maiden, though dark skinned from being of common stock is still regarded as beautiful in the eyes of the king.

The psalm proper starts at about 03:50 and it's this psalm which, to my mind, sums up what the Assumption of Our Lady is about. Monteverdi does a splendid job of emphasising this musically. Listen to how he sets verse 7 in the Latin. It's dynamic, hurried, alive as Monteverdi sees a God active in His intention to lift the poor man from the dung heap (stercore). And why? Suddenly, the music slows into a stately pace and is filled with sumptuous suspensions which is repeated! The words are ut collocet eum cum principibus - that He may set him (the poor man) among princes - and lays bare the intention of God to bring His Church - rich man and poor man, the mighty and the humble - together to Him.

Our Lady is a synecdoche, a representative of the Church as a whole, and her fate is to be the fate of the faithful. Of course, there are disagreements between Christians about the Role of Our Lady in the Cosmic Drama of Creation, Redemption and Salvation, but at the very least we should be able to make some identification with her as the human being who possesses the most intimate relationship with the Saviour.

If Christians are ever to be united then it is through the deepening of the relationship that we have with Christ - Christ has to be the uniting influence if we stand a chance of being regarded as One Body. For Catholics, this means the development of our interaction with Christ sacramentally and ensuring that they are ever more aware of Christ's reality in that sacrament. For Protestants, this means an ever deepening of that "personal relationship with Jesus" so that the words of Scripture aren't just read, aren't just acted upon, but realised in the life and heart of the believer. If the Catholic and the Protestant are both honest and earnest in their attempts, then they will be united in the same Jesus Christ - there's only one of Him after all.

Wherever Our Lord is, Our Lady is not far behind. How can a mother ever be far from her beloved child? Catholics know that she is not an object of worship but an object of reverence and veneration. To look to her is to be directed to Christ and one can see Him through her. To ask for her prayers is to find a companion kneeling beside us, showing us how she prays and making our prayers her own. Her assumption is the assumption of the Church; her end is our end. This is God's promise to us and He fulfils that in Our Lady to show that He fulfils His promise.

If we Christians are to have any effect in demonstrating that God is faithful and loving, thus shedding the light of Christ within us upon a dark and rapidly declining Earth, then we are going to have to start saying "yes" to God a great deal more and start wanting to become saints rather than being passive in our sacraments and scripture. If one woman from common stock can change the world just by saying "yes" to God, then what can we do in addition? We have to want to become saints; we have to want to get ourselves into the state where we too may be assumed.

While we may be only saints in training now, why don't we start trying to be saints properly now? That may mean a lifetime of repentance (though a Benedictine would call that conversatio mores) but it doesn't matter who we are, rich man or poor. By being saints, we open ourselves to the possibility of being gathered cum principibus populi sui and into the courts of Heaven.

Friday, August 12, 2011

St Benedict's Priory Salisbury 2011

You can't keep a good Monastery down! The little Benedictine community formerly at Elmore has relocated to a converted vicarage near Salisbury Cathedral.

It's not the most monastic looking building, and it's not exactly in the usual remote setting that Benedictines usually favour for the necessity of contemplation and peace. The Oratory is half of a converted sitting room and there is nowhere where the monks can really separate themselves from visitors.

This might be rather negative sounding, but it has to be realised that the monks are much happier now that they've been allowed to settle. Any skepticism from the neighbours appears to have been resolved: these monks are not going to wake you at 05:30 with their chanting the Venite!

What has been rather ingenious is how the Monks have managed to integrate their Officium Divinum into their new environment. They now incorporate Lauds and Vespers with worship at the Cathedral and celebrate Sext (or rather "Midday Prayer" in the modernist vernacular) with Sarum College. Whatever views one can take on this, and I suppose one can be very "What would St Benedict say?" if one wanted to be, the fact of the matter is that the monks are engaging with their Christian community at large. Consequently, they are, after just 11 months, very popular within the cathedral precincts.

The whole set-up reminds me, and perhaps it should remind Anglicans in particular, that there are different facets of the Church and that sometimes these facets need to coexist.

The Catholic Church is essentially divisible into Parochial, Religious, Theological and Hierarchical quarters comprising of the parishes, monasteries, seminaries/universities and the cathedrals. Each adds a distinctive colour, a vital nuance to the life of the Church. Most people will only ever really meet Parish ministry and that's all they think the Church is. However, the body of Christ has organs - not all absolutely defined and definitive - but quite clear in their function.

The Parishes form the coal-face ministry with the secular world; the Religious, like lungs, seek the spiritual health of the Church; the seminaries and universities engage with the intellectual and theological aspects, training people for coal-face ministry, while the Cathedrals espouse the leadership and the figurehead of the Church.

If the Church is to survive, then it must make sure that all four of these organs are functioning at full capacity and fully integrated. The focus of attention should not just be on the whims of the Parishes, or the directives from the Cathedrals.

Let us pray for our Religious folk and our intellectuals that they may flourish in good, orthodox, catholic faith.