Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Roman Canon


It was the day the national lockdown started - Friday March 20th. I was in Llandudno - about four or five o'clock, I think - doing some run of the mill stuff - taking books back to the library, buying stamps from the Post Office, that sort of thing.

It was a lovely day, I remember - sunshine and clear blue sky, with the smell of the sea as enticing as ever. Yet it felt to me like I was a bit-part player in The Towering Inferno, taking one last gulp of air before the smoke overpowered me. On some deep level - even though on the surface everything looked the same as always - I think I knew that things would never be the same again.

My mind must have been in a bit of a haze with it all because I found myself in a part of town I had never been in before. I had no idea how I got there either - a tight network of streets and back to back houses, just behind the big hotels which run along the seafront. And there, between a house and a little builders yard, was a church. It was ordinary enough in appearance - late Victorian, I'd say - red brick walls with lots of ivy and a small, unobtrusive steeple. I had no intention of going in but the door was open and I could clearly discern the comforting and - for me - mentally cleansing scent of incense emanating from within. Instantly I realised how desperately in need I was of some close contact with the Divine, so without even bothering to read the sign I headed straight into the church.

A bell rang three times as I crossed the threshold and tried to get a sense of where I was and what was going on. The answer, at first sight, was obvious enough. 'Do this in memory of me,' I heard the priest declaim at the altar. He was celebrating ad orientem, so I could only see the back of his head and the purple chasuble he was wearing. He was a tall man with short brown hair and a bald spot on the top. He bowed down low then lifted the silver chalice above his head as the altar server - a teenage boy, I think, with flame-red hair - rang the bell.

There was a Mass taking place, and I had come in right at the end of the consecration. That was obvious, normal and welcome, but as I got my bearings I swiftly realised that this was a radically different Mass - in style and setting, if not in tone - to any I had previously attended.

The first odd thing was that this was a part of the Mass when everyone should have been kneeling - I very much wanted to kneel myself - yet there were no pews and no kneelers and no-one was kneeling down. All those present - about a dozen souls  - were standing around the altar, fanning out on either side of the priest. Some of them had hands extended out towards the consecrated gifts - in blessing, it seemed - as if they were priests themselves. Yet there was nothing impious or improper about the gesture. On the contrary, it struck me as rather touching. Maybe that was because of the kind of people they were - a variety of ages but all poor-looking and somewhat shabbily dressed. One elderly lady had holes in her mittens. A man who looked about thirty or so seemed to have some form of the shakes, as if he were a recovering addict or struggling with a health condition. There was a humility about them which I liked. Also a real focus and attention on the priest's actions at the altar. The atmosphere was at once homely and transcendent. There could be no doubt that something important was happening. 

The layout of the church clearly helped in this respect - lots of candles at the little shrines which ran the length of both side walls, each shrine with its own Eastern-style icon of an angel or saint. A second altar server with thick black hair and beard stood behind the worshippers on the left-hand side, swinging a sliver thurifer up and down. The incense swirled around the nave and I couldn't help but feel that I had somehow landed in a miniature version of the mighty cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The comforting, powerful words of the Roman Canon rolled on:

'In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through our participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and blessing. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.'

There was a stillness and inner strength to the priest which I greatly responded to. I hope I meet him again. I couldn't see the tabernacle, of course, because he as standing right in front of it, but directly above the altar, suspended from the ceiling by very thin cord, was a large reproduction of Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity. And as I focused my eyes on it, the great Eucharistic prayer lifted me up, as it were, until it felt like I was almost on a level with the holy image:

'To us also, your servants, who, though sinners, hope in your abundant mercies, graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia and all your Saints: admit us, we beseech you, into their company, not weighing out merits, but granting us your pardon through Christ our Lord.'

It struck me there and then, with sheer and absolute clarity, that this liturgy goes on in Heaven all the time and that the Roman Canon is prayed there without ceasing for ever and ever, and that this in some sense is what Heaven is. At that moment I wished so much that I was there and felt, in fact, that such a translation might be close at hand. It was an extraordinary moment, like the start of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when the picture of the ship on the wall grows bigger and pulls the children into the water and into Narnia. It seemed like Rublev's icon had somehow expanded in size and that the three figures were beckoning me in, inviting me to join them. But then I heard my phone vibrate in my pocket. I'd forgotten to switch it off. I'd better go out and answer it, I thought. It might be to do with the children.

As if recoiling from my distracted state, the icon shrank back to its normal size. But as I turned and walked back through the nave I was at least given the grace of hearing the end of the prayer - the end of the Roman Canon and in fact of all four Eucharistic prayers. Like a final blessing bestowed on me by the mysterious church, those ringing, holy words - sung now, not said - followed me out the door:

'Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, O God almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.'

And the 'Amen' that boomed out in response was so loud and resonant that it seemed to come not from a dozen poor and broken people but from a congregation of thousands.


The phone call was nothing to do with the kids. It was a mere administrative matter - the same 'person from Porlock,' perhaps - who interrupted Coleridge when he was writing Kubla Khan. But it had turned cold outside and to keep myself warm while talking I walked all the way down the street with the aim of returning to the church for the end of Mass. 

I didn't pay much attention to where my feet were taking me, but when the call ended I found myself not too far from Mostyn Street, which is Llandudno's main thouroughfare, and realised that it was half five and that if I didn't get the bus soon I'd be late back home, and with all the hoo-hah about the lockdown I'd probably need to get back as soon as I could. 

Once on Mostyn Street I saw an X5 approaching. So I caught it and went back home, fully intending to revisit the church at the earliest opportunity. But as so many others have found out this year, Coronavirus and its associated myriad of restrictions have made havoc of all our plans. I took an extra job to keep us afloat as my main job had been affected by the lockdown. So now both of my jobs were in Bangor, a city about twenty-five miles west from Llandudno.

I worked full-time all through the lockdown and only started going back to Llandudno in the second half of the summer. I've had chance since then to look for the church again but every time I've the opportunity I've decided not to. And that's because I know deep down that both the church and the district do not exist on the maps, and that on the day the lockdown began - whether it was the stress of the situation playing on my mind or a deeper reality opened up to me by God - something exceptional happened, some level of supernatural insight, which can't and won't be repeated. Not in that exact manner anyway.

I've prayed about the episode since at Mass and given thanks to God for what occurred. But apart from recognising that it was something remarkable, I haven't been able to discern any meaning or pattern behind it. Until last week, that is, and Pope Francis' controversial remarks on civil unions for same-sex couples.

These comments confused and disorientated me, to be honest, but as I was standing on Deganwy beach last Sunday morning (the churches disgracefully shut again as part of the Welsh 'fire-break' lockdown) I felt again that same sense of certainty that came to me at the church when the icon drew me in. And what struck me very clearly was that the Mass in the strange church was a vision from the future - from a time not too far off now maybe - when the Western and Eastern churches will be united again. This, I realised, is Pope Francis' hidden work - his great task and secret project - and that all the hullabaloo about this, that and the other is a distraction, planted in the media to cause a fuss and keep the world's eyes away from this saving work until the time is ripe for Europe's two lungs, as Pope St. John Paul II put it, to breathe as one again. 

'Seems a long shot,' I said out loud to myself as I threw a pebble into the choppy waters. But then again, I reflected, when the disciples gathered in sorrow, shock and mourning on that most miserable of Holy Saturday's, the imminent resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour must have felt like the biggest long shot of them all. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Prayer for King Harold

We pray today, O God, for King Harold Godwinson, his thanes and housecarls and all the men who died with him fighting for this land on this day, 1066. Welcome them, O Lord, into the light of your face. May they find in your presence the light, happiness, refreshment and peace they deserve.

Harold lost at Hastings, as it were, out of the goodness of his heart. Had he been sensible, had he been prudent, he would have rested his troops after his triumph at Stamford Bridge and gathered as many extra forces to his standard as he could. But he knew that William was ravaging his own Earldom, Wessex, and he could not sit and wait and let his people suffer.

Even against a tired, denuded army the Normans could find no way through. Harold's tactics were spot on and he should have won the day. But as with Hector in his duel with Achilles, the gods had turned against him, and his supporters (myself, for instance) have to accept that at some level the Conquest must have been your will.

So when our time comes to take a stand, may we enjoy the luck that deserted Harold that day on Senlac Hill. He fought fand died for Old England, a Christian Kingdom that once formed part of the wider, united body of European Christendom, Catholic and Orthodox at the same time. This was a country that remembered the old gods too, and it is these religious impulses - at once universal and deeply-rooted - that we must seek and find anew at this hour. Because as Martin Heidegger put it so well, 'Only a god can save us now.'

The Normans were brutal and cold-heated but they at least believed in God and left us some wonderful cathedrals. Their descendants, however, who sit now in Westminster, have ceased believing in God. They have turned instead - subconsciously at first, maybe, but more and more openly now - to the Father of Lies who squats in the depths of Hell below.

As for ourselves though - sons and daughters of Albion - we turn to you, the Father of Lights, Blake's 'Countenance Divine', shining down upon us from above. Send Michael the Archangel to our aid, O God, and with him Athelstan, Alfred and Arthur. And at the heart of this sacred English host let us see once more the standard of King Harold - the 'Fighting Man' - rallying the men and women of this isle to the True King's side. Together again with our Sovereign - once fallen, now risen - we will cut to shreds the clouds of evil and illusion which assail our realm and build that New Jerusalem on England's green and pleasant land.

King Harold of England, pray for us. Pray for our country. Pray for Europe and for Christendom.

Christus Regnat! Christus Vincit! Christus Imperat!

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Beyond the Ruins (Update)

I am currently working on a condensed, poetically-charged (hopefully) version of this summer's Beyond the Ruins story. I'm hoping to submit it to a certain journal, which has featured my writing before, in a few weeks time.

I don't think I'll put it on the blog if they don't accept it. I'll probably try to use it as a base for a longer story-cycle. We'll see.

I will continue to post in this space, starting next weekend hopefully with a brief fictional meditation on what I feel (with no empirical evidence, mind you) might be the secret aim and destiny of Pope Francis' papacy.

Many blessings, and may all good things fall down, upon, and around you and yours, this week and every week.