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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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Amid the controversy currently swirling in the US around Huma Abedin, a piece published by her late father Syed Abedin, as quoted in the Washington Post (26/07/12), stands out:

“For wherever there is a slaughter of innocent men, women and children for the mere reason that they belong to another race, color or nationality, or were born into a faith which the majority of them could never quite comprehend, and hardly ever practice in its true spirit; wherever the fair name of religion is used as a veneer, to hide overweening political ambition and bottomless greed; wherever the glory of God is sought to be proclaimed through the barrel of a gun; wherever piety becomes synonymous with rapacity; and morality cowers under the blight of expediency and compromise; wherever it be – in Yugoslavia or Algeria, in Liberia, Chad … in Los Angeles or Abuja, in Kashmir… there God is banished and Satan is triumphant; there the angels weep and the soul of man cringes; there in the name of God humans are dehumanized; and there the grace and beauty of life lies ravished and undone. When would men ever realize: in this game there are no winners.”

Amen to that.

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Bamboo, by Lin Li

Meng Haoran


How gladly I would seek a mountain
If I had enough means to live as a recluse!
For I turn at last from serving the State
To the Eastern Woods Temple and to you, my master.
…Like ashes of gold in a cinnamon-flame,
My youthful desires have been burnt with the years-
And tonight in the chilling sunset-wind
A cicada, singing, weighs on my heart.

From: 300 Tang Poems : a new translation; ed Yuan-zhong Xu. Bei-yei Loh. Juntao Wu. Translator Various. Commercial Press, Hong Kong 1987

Source: University of Virginia

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God prevents a church from falling down.  This little anecdote, collected and retold by Marco Polo, is of Samarkand the ancient city on the Silk Route to Cathay.  It can be heard in various ways including benign – one can imagine it in the mouth and gestures of a storyteller in the market place – or malign, as a relic of intercommunal strife in 13th century Central Asia: (more…)

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Worshipping in a strange church on Christmas night could have been a good experience or a bad one.  It is certainly a lesson in diversity and a good way to examine oneself, and critically: what sort of Christian, let alone Anglican, am I? (more…)

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There’s realism and there’s truth.  They are not necessarily always the same.  But many think they are.

Suppose for a moment that you live in a pre-industrial era or locality: somewhere like Venice in the 1240s, or Russia in the 1830s or Egypt in the 1890s, or certain places we might know of now.  Storytellers are an important part of your world.  They furnish your life and your imagination in several important ways.  Beneath all the magical things and people and places they speak of, you are being made aware; connected; more alive to possibilities.

The storytellers and their stories make a seamless whole; part of their trade is to act out some of their narratives with special gestures.  By these means they help, themselves and us, to navigate the difficult passages: bad luck, disappointment, betrayal, danger, death.  These things lie in wait for us, in the future outside the firelit circle of the listeners.  We shall have to go out to meet them.  The stories teach us what we need to know.  They teach us truths we need to acknowledge, again and again, as we go through life.

In that context, it does not much matter whether the stories are factually realistic.  Suppose for a moment that a stranger joins us to listen to the storyteller, but becomes more and more restless, more impatient, until he bursts out with questions.  Whoever saw a flying carpet?  It’s not possible!  Or heard a talking horse?  Or was raised from the dead?  It’s all nonsense!  Why are you asking people to believe stuff like this?  Why are you misleading us?  Why aren’t you telling the truth?


Ah, the truth.  Tricky thing, truth.  Who can say what it is?  Even Christ himself did not answer this question.  In so many ways, it is impossible to answer.  What we do know at this juncture, however, is the plight of the storyteller.  He is bewildered by the stranger’s questions.  Who needs to know where the ark ended up?  Or how many children had Lady Macbeth?  He has been telling his tales for years, shifting emphasis here, highlighting a mood there. However the details may change over time, the stories still embody truths.  Also the plight of the stranger.  He is cutting himself off from a world of meaning, impoverishing himself.

Detailed factual information is not the truth.  It may be part of it, but not necessarily the same.  Nothing is worse for the Bible than the kind of literalism which is unappeasably hungry for the comfort of certainties.  It devours, and is never satisfied, because it cannot be. Realism is not the whole story, as writers and artists have known for millenia.  It is not all our sustenance.

The Bible is not a workshop manual that inexplicably does not mention giraffes.  What it does tell of, in many pieces of sublime storytelling, is the often painful meaning of what is to live, and understand what others say and do.  In this it is, God knows, revelatory enough.

It is far too late for us to check the gifts the Wise Men brought, just as we haven’t seen for ourselves what exactly happened at the marriage in Cana, but we know the truth they represent and always will.

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