Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pentecost and Whitsun

I found myself wondering about the etymology of 'Pentecost' and 'Whitsun' today. 'Pentecost' is just about the earlier of the two words in English.

To be absolutely accurate, 'Pentecost' is recorded in various early Old English texts, 'Whit Sunday' is first recorded in c1100 and 'Whitsun' is first recorded in 1297. Here's the Whit Sunday reference: "On þisan Eastron com se kyng to Wincestre, & þa wæron Eastra on x kal. April, & sona æfter þam com Mathild seo hlæfdie hider to lande, & Ealdred arcebiscop hig gehalgode to cwene‥on Hwitan Sunnandæg." (The Anglo-Saxon D Chronicle for 1067)

The epithet 'white' in 'Whit Sunday', according to the wonderful Oxford English Dictionary, "is generally taken to refer to the ancient custom of the wearing of white baptismal robes by the newly-baptized at the feast of Pentecost".

'Pentecost' - "Judaism. The harvest festival observed on the 6th Sivan, fifty days after the offering of the Omer on the second day of the Passover. Also: a synagogue ceremony held on the same day to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai." - by contrast, derives from the post-classical Latin 'pentecoste'.

I suppose a discussion about pentagons, pentameter and Whit, the minor character from Of Mice and Men who will one day have a GCSE question all of his own, would be my way into this topic.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Noah and the Voice of God

I wrote recently about the voice of God in some recent fiction but incorporating the voice of God into literature is not a new idea.

This term I was involved with a production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde which is a version of the 14th/15th century Chester mystery play, a play which begins and ends with the voice of God.

I, God, that all this world have wrought,
Heaven and earth, and all of nought,
I see my people, in deed and thought,
Are set foully in sin.


My bow between you and me
In the firmament shall be,
By very token that you shall see
That such vengeance shall cease,
That man ne woman never more
Be wasted by water, as is before;
But for sin that grieveth me sore,
Therefore this vengeance was.

Where clouds in the welkin been,
That ilk bow shall be seen,
In token that my wrath and teen
Shall never thus wroken be.
The string is turned toward you,
And toward me is bent the bow,
That such weather shall never show;
And this beheet I thee.

My blessing now I give thee here,
To thee, Noah, my servant dear,
For vengeance shall no more appear;
And now farewell, my darling dear.

(Note: these are the words recorded in the Dent Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays edited by A.C. Cawley. For a slightly different version, click here.)

For a modern take on the play click here and for more information about Britten's version click here or here.

Several thoughts struck me while we were rehearsing:

1. Students as young as 11 had no difficulty with the language of the play, partly because the story was familiar and partly because it was being staged. Nonetheless, we can too easily assume that century (pre-Reformation) English is inaccessible. It is not.

2. God is both tender and just in this play. He says: "Man that I made I will destroy, / Beast, worm and fowl to fly; / For on earth they do me noy, / The folk that are thereon" but he also calls Noah "my darling dear". The contrast with the work of Irvine Welsh et al. could hardly be greater.

3. The play is funny. This is no pompous recreation. Noah's Wife, in particular, is a wonderful character. She has to be dragged onto the boat, whether she "will or nought', and so boxes Noah's ears - "marry, this is hot!" he responds. However, by the end of the play, she joins Noah and the rest of the family in offering sacrifices of thanks to God.

It's not a simple issue but maybe there is a place for the voice of God in fiction after all.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Beauty in the Word

Stratford Caldecott has just published a new and fascinating book which I would heartily recommend. It is extremely encouraging that such detailed educational thinking is going on in Catholic circles.

As he points out in his blog post, this is not the end but the beginning of a project: "Sequels to Beauty in the Word will include practical resources for parents and teachers, and we are looking for collaborators and advisers to join our working group in the coming months." These sequels could be extremely exciting for Catholic teachers on both sides of the pond.

You can purchase Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education here.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Authentic Education

Pope Benedict gave a fantastic address to some of the US bishops recently during their ad limina visit. Here is part of what he said:

First, as we know, the essential task of authentic education at every level is not simply that of passing on knowledge, essential as this is, but also of shaping hearts. There is a constant need to balance intellectual rigor in communicating effectively, attractively and integrally, the richness of the Church’s faith with forming the young in the love of God, the praxis of the Christian moral and sacramental life and, not least, the cultivation of personal and liturgical prayer.

It follows that the question of Catholic identity, not least at the university level, entails much more than the teaching of religion or the mere presence of a chaplaincy on campus. All too often, it seems, Catholic schools and colleges have failed to challenge students to reappropriate their faith as part of the exciting intellectual discoveries which mark the experience of higher education. The fact that so many new students find themselves dissociated from the family, school and community support systems that previously facilitated the transmission of the faith should continually spur Catholic institutions of learning to create new and effective networks of support. In every aspect of their education, students need to be encouraged to articulate a vision of the harmony of faith and reason capable of guiding a life-long pursuit of knowledge and virtue. As ever, an essential role in this process is played by teachers who inspire others by their evident love of Christ, their witness of sound devotion and their commitment to that sapientia Christiana which integrates faith and life, intellectual passion and reverence for the splendor of truth both human and divine.

In effect, faith by its very nature demands a constant and all-embracing conversion to the fullness of truth revealed in Christ. He is the creative Logos, in whom all things were made and in whom all reality “holds together” (Col 1:17); he is the new Adam who reveals the ultimate truth about man and the world in which we live. In a period of great cultural change and societal displacement not unlike our own, Augustine pointed to this intrinsic connection between faith and the human intellectual enterprise by appealing to Plato, who held, he says, that “to love wisdom is to love God” (cf. De Civitate Dei, VIII, 8). The Christian commitment to learning, which gave birth to the medieval universities, was based upon this conviction that the one God, as the source of all truth and goodness, is likewise the source of the intellect’s passionate desire to know and the will’s yearning for fulfilment in love.

Only in this light can we appreciate the distinctive contribution of Catholic education, which engages in a “diakonia of truth” inspired by an intellectual charity which knows that leading others to the truth is ultimately an act of love (cf. Address to Catholic Educators, Washington, 17 April 2008). Faith’s recognition of the essential unity of all knowledge provides a bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue; in this sense, Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today. Firmly grounded in this vision of the intrinsic interplay of faith, reason and the pursuit of human excellence, every Christian intellectual and all the Church's educational institutions must be convinced, and desirous of convincing others, that no aspect of reality remains alien to, or untouched by, the mystery of the redemption and the Risen Lord’s dominion over all creation.

Friday, 4 May 2012

May: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Hopkins wrote more than one poem about the Blessed Virgin Mary and the month of May. 'Ad Mariam' is perhaps the least well known, partly because there are some doubts about its attribution.

Given the weather we've been having in the UK, I particularly like the second stanza. But the final one is great as well!

Ad Mariam

When a sister, born for each strong month-brother,
   Spring's one daughter, the sweet child May,
Lies in the breast of the young year-mother
   With light on her face like the waves at play,
Man from the lips of him speaketh and saith,
At the touch of her wandering wondering breath
Warm on his brow: lo! where is another
   Fairer than this one to brighten our day?

We have suffered the sons of Winter in sorrow
   And been in their ruinous reigns oppressed,
And fain in the springtime surcease would borrow
   From all the pain of the past's unrest;
And May has come, hair-bound in flowers,
With eyes that smile thro' the tears of the hours,
With joy for to-day and hope for to-morrow
   And the promise of Summer within her breast!

And we that joy in this month joy-laden,
   The gladdest thing that our eyes have seen,
Oh thou, proud mother and much proud maiden—
   Maid yet mother as May hath been—
To thee we tender the beauties all
Of the month by men called virginal.
And, where thou dwellest in deep-groved Aidenn,
   Salute thee, mother, the maid-month's Queen!

For thou, as she, wert the one fair daughter
   That came when a line of kings did cease,
Princes strong for the sword and slaughter,
   That, warring, wasted the land's increase,
And like the storm-months smote the earth
Till a maid in David's house had birth,
That was unto Judah as May, and brought her
   A son for King, whose name was peace.

Wherefore we love thee, wherefore we sing to thee,
   We, all we, thro' the length of our days,
The praise of the lips and the hearts of us bring to thee,
   Thee, oh maiden, most worthy of praise;
For lips and hearts they belong to thee
Who to us are as dew unto grass and tree,
For the fallen rise and the stricken spring to thee,
   Thee, May-hope of our darkened ways!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Korean Catholic Literature

The Catholic Church in South Korea is undergoing a phenomenal period of growth and so it is perhaps no surprise that it has produced a good number of Catholic poets and novelists too. The good news for us in the west is that an increasing number of their works are being translated too.

Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mother, for example, can be bought from Aid to the Church in Need. I will review this Korean bestseller and BBC Book at Bedtime properly in another post and so will restrict myself to saying now that it's worth reading for the unusual but powerful second-person narrative technique adopted by the author. I've tried out the opening as an A Level unseen prose passage and it works very well.

However, there are plenty of other novels out there too. Park Wan-suh, for example, has written a number of bestselling novels and stories which are available in translation (and can sometimes be downloaded in Kindle format). She's even received the honour of a Google Doodle:

For a tribute from Seoul's Cardinal Archbishop click here.

There are even more poems available, thanks largely to the efforts of the rather remarkable Brother Anthony of Taize who was born in England, became a monk in Taize and then a Professor of English in Korea, where he eventually took Korean citizenship. A list of his translations is available here and a particularly interesting article on Korean Buddhist and Christian poetry is available here.

Time and again we discover that not only are Catholics writing fiction and poetry in Korea but that they are selling an incredible number of their books. Sr Claudia Lee Hae-in, for example, is a Benedictine nun who has apparently sold almost two million copies of her books of poetry. You can read more about her here and here and here.

From time to time we hear about the decline of Catholic literature. Perhaps we are just looking in the wrong places.