Archive for February, 2013

StonhengeUnlike each other as we are, in so many ways, my brother and I nevertheless have some interests in common: books; genealogy; maps; sightseeing; good food; all things French.  One such focus of our mutual attention is Stonehenge, the world heritage site which, helpfully for us, lies midway along the route of the three-hour drive between our respective homes.  We’re always alert for new information and theories about the obvious questions.  Who built it?  When?  Why?

I’ve recently been reviewing all the latest theories to answer the principal question: what was Stonehenge for?  Ideas about its function range from seeing it as an observatory, categorising it as a place of healing or culture-reinforcing processions, through to imagining it as a necropolis, a city of the dead.  Simply to list these alternative roles, however, is to raise an objection immediately.

Only we, in our fact-driven, post-Enlightenment, reification-prone perspective, seem to demand that Stonehenge have one or other of these functions.   The people who built it five thousand years ago probably had no such desire to stipulate that the building be exclusively this or that.  More likely, it was all of these things, mixed up together and mutually reinforcing each other in ways in which they saw this fully evidenced and life-enhancing but which we cannot any longer imagine.

If the builders designed the monument to be aligned with the winter solstice, for example, for therapeutic reasons, who are we to condemn the mindset that saw life as inextricably intertwined with the changing positions of the stars and sun?  What do we believe that will seem risible to generations yet to come?

Thinking about this, I recall Philip Larkin’s poem Church going on this very theme (listen to the poet himself reading it).  In its final verses, he imagines how it will be when churches have lost their meaning and fallen into ruin. Enough will remain, he writes, to show that the purpose of such places is always to remind us, with all our impulses and fears, that we are human and what that means; and that such a presence in our scheme of things is still more than a good enough response to our permanent human need to be connected with our own and others’ mysteries: connected for reassurance, explanation, forgiveness, love.

All these things in us are interwoven.  So let it be for Stonehenge, too:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

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The new Pope has not yet been elected, but it’s not difficult to forsee how it will be played out in the media.  As soon as the name is announced (“Habemus papam!”) the dialogue will go something like this:

OB correspondent (shouting):  Well, there you have it, Hugh: a controversial choice!  Cardinal X has been mentioned as a possibility, but few commentators would have put money on him…

Newscaster in studio (shouting):  Would it be fairer to say, Robert, a shock result?  Let me turn to Professor Drone, a specialist in Vatican matters.  Professor Drone, rather a surprising choice, wouldn’t you say…

Professor:  Not at all, I predicted that Cardinal X would be able to garner enough votes from his fellow cardinals…

Newscaster:  Let me interrupt you for a moment, we’re going live to the country where Cardinal X has been a prominent figure for the last x years: clearly a lot of jubilation…everyone out in the streets…a lot of pride…

Reveller (shouting):  You know, this is not only the greatest event ever but a real triumph for our country…

Monsignor Y (smoothly):  The whole world will welcome the news that we have a Holy Father again.  Cardinal X is of course the perfect choice: a man of towering intellect but also deep spirituality who will know how to knit together the divisions which afflict the church… speaks seven languages… the first pope to have a pilot’s licence…

OB correspondent: We have to remember, Hugh, that Cardinal X has a reputation as something of a hardline conservative…

Professor:  As I predicted, the conclave has gone for a pope very much on the liberal wing of the church…

Newscaster: A surprising choice of name, wouldn’t you say?  Innocent XIV?  There hasn’t been a Pope Innocent since (glances at notes) 1724!  What does that mean?  Are we read into it a sign that the abuse scandal can now be left to rest?Let’s talk now to Sister Grim…

Sister Grim:  As far as most nuns are concerned, this is not a welcome choice.  Cardinal X has repeatedly shown that he does not have anything to say about the many challenges facing the religious orders, such as…

And so on and so forth.  In the midst of it all, a man suddenly feeling very much alone.  Habemus papam.


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Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI

As far as I can tell, popes have always been able to resign if they wanted.  From the later Middle Ages onward, none did so; till now.  Why this should be so takes only a moment’s thought.

Up till the Reformation and beyond, popes ruled in a world of absolute power, in which rulers were forever calibrating their magnificence and heft against each other.  The popes saw themselves as supreme overlords who like Gregory VII could summon emperors or, like Julius II appear on the battlefield or remodel Rome.  Who would ever give up such power?

Pius IX and his five immediate successors let the papacy curdle into pietistic irrelevance and concealed its waning power and influence beneath a phaoronic gloss of confidence.  When Harold Macmillan met Pius XII in 1944 he described him as at once tremendous and pathetic.  None of this sextet would have considered resignation for a moment.  So we have grown accustomed to the idea that, on principle, popes go on till death and die in office.  Now we know they don’t have to.

Now we live in a world where executives and heads of state and government lose their jobs under pressure.  The system cannot afford passengers, or so we are told.  Thus it seems only right that an 85-year-old chairman of the board, with a pacemaker and accumulating infirmities, should chuck it in.

Benedict XVI has not been a good pope, but nothing becomes him more than his willingness to stand aside a let a younger, fitter, bolder man take his place and brace the church against its multiplying challenges.  Who will it be?

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When two or three are having an argument, it helps if all of the participants at least agree on what they are talking about.  Alas and alack, this is not always possible; in marital rows, for example.  In debates about religion, the mismatch between the parties is well-nigh catastrophic. (more…)

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