Monday, 6 July 2009

Love … a ‘many-splendoured thing’

Wedding flowers bedecking the door into the chapel at Sidney Sussex College … the view from my bedroom window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Tenth Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS) opened in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, today with an array of presentations on the summer school topic, “Love,” drawing on music, poetry, literature, spiritual writings and music.

Over 40 people are taking part in the summer school, and we come from Iceland, Ireland, Greece, England, the Czech Republic, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Canada, Australia, India, and even from Oxford … which may be further away from Cambridge than many of the countries represented here.

Dr Marcus Plested, Academic Director of IOCS, introduced the theme with his discussion of divine love, “A Many-Splendoured thing.”

Dr Plested, who has been a visiting scholar at Princeton in the past year, is the author of a major study of Macarius, and is now completing a book on relationships between the Orthodox Church and RC in late mediaeval era

He told us that the fundamental fact of our summer school is that God is love. We may speak of God in many ways, but love is first and is a theological reality. When we confess and experience God as love, we must then respond in the way we relate to and deal with others.

The Beatles may have told us that “Love is all you need,” But God is all we need. There is a danger of making an idol out of love. God is love, but the reverse does not apply: love is not God, and all our loves are not always rightly oriented towards God. Love can be destructive and consuming, and has an awe-inspiring power for good and evil.

Turning to the first Epistle of Saint John, he compared Saint John the Divine’s attitude to love with our current tendency to dive head and heart, to contrast reason and emotion, but said this is not biblical.

The Psalms speak of the steadfast love of God, as does the Song of Songs, and he prepared us for this as a liet motif or recurrent theme throughout the week.

The Church Fathers and patristic writers were not afraid of talking about eros, and even spoke about it as intense agape. Should our relationships be governed by passion?

Drawing on Socrates, Plato, and other classical philosophers, he went on to make the connection between love and knowledge. The person who loves God longs to know God. Love is not merely an affair of the heart, and it is devalued in society when we identify it with passion only on one hand, or on the other hand use the word casually when we say things such as “I love cake …”

Dr Alexander Lingas, senior lecturer at the City University London and an expert on Byzantine chant, drew on the music of Wagner, Mahler, Theodorakis and Tavener when he spoke later in the morning on “Music, Psalmody, and the Love of God: ancient traditions and modern challenges”

He reminded us that the connection between music and love has always been so, going back though Purcell and the troubadours to the ancient Greek lyricists and poets. The etymology of the word music shows how it has always been associated with the muses and linked with gods and demigods.

Plato too wrote about music in 4th century BC Athens, describing its components as harmony rhythm and text. Classical tragedy was largely sung, but music also included dance and in classical Greece, poetry was always sung. Even the Olympic Games had a musical component,

Even then, music was not just about portraying or describing emotions and feelings, but also about allowing them to enter us. Music is a divine gift that brings the soul into harmony with the wider cosmos.

He told us how Saint Basil described the Psalms as summing up the rest of Scripture, and it is how difficult to regard someone as an enemy when you have sung Psalms with them. The relationship between music and love was laid out by the early Church Fathers, who saw music as a way to express the love of God and to give him praise.

Classic texts and poems

In the afternoon, Professor David Frost introduced us to readings of a number of classic texts with his own reading from the Song of Songs.

Father Alexander Tefft of the Antiochian Orthodox Church read “Rococo” by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1906):

Take hands and part with laughter;
Touch lips and part with tears;
Once more and no more after,
Whatever comes with years.
We twain shall not remeasure
The ways that left us twain;
Nor crush the lees of pleasure
From sanguine grapes of pain.

We twain once well in sunder,
What will the mad gods do
For hate with me, I wonder,
Or what for love with you?
Forget them till November,
And dream there’s April yet;
Forget that I remember,
And dream that I forget.

Time found our tired love sleeping,
And kissed away his breath;
But what should we do weeping,
Though light love sleep to death?
We have drained his lips at leisure,
Till there’s not left to drain
A single sob of pleasure,
A single pulse of pain.

Dream that the lips once breathless
Might quicken if they would;
Say that the soul is deathless;
Dream that the gods are good;
Say March may wed September,
And time divorce regret;
But not that you remember,
And not that I forget.

We have heard from hidden places
What love scarce lives and hears:
We have seen on fervent faces
The pallor of strange tears:
We have trod the wine-vat’s treasure,
Whence, ripe to steam and stain,
Foams round the feet of pleasure
The blood-red must of pain.

Remembrance may recover
And time bring back to time
The name of your first lover,
The ring of my first rhyme;
But rose-leaves of December
The frosts of June shall fret,
The day that you remember,
The day that I forget.

The snake that hides and hisses
In heaven we twain have known;
The grief of cruel kisses,
The joy whose mouth makes moan;
The pulse's pause and measure,
Where in one furtive vein
Throbs through the heart of pleasure
The purpler blood of pain.

We have done with tears and treasons
And love for treason’s sake;
Room for the swift new seasons,
The years that burn and break,
Dismantle and dismember
Men’s days and dreams, Juliette;
For love may not remember,
But time will not forget.

Life treads down love in flying,
Time withers him at root;
Bring all dead things and dying,
Reaped sheaf and ruined fruit,
Where, crushed by three days’ pressure,
Our three days’ love lies slain;
And earlier leaf of pleasure,
And latter flower of pain.

Breathe close upon the ashes,
It may be flame will leap;
Unclose the soft close lashes,
Lift up the lids, and weep.
Light love's extinguished ember,
Let one tear leave it wet
For one that you remember
And ten that you forget.


Father Tefft’s parish uses a Church of England Church in London, Saint Botolph’s Church, Bishopsgate, one of the two churches where the priest-in-charge is the Revd Dr Alan McCormack, former Dean of Residence in Trinity College Dublin and my former colleague in the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission.

David Frost read the Apostle Paul’s well-known commentary on love in I Corinthians 13: 1-13:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

We heard from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux on the four degrees of love.

David Frost then read one of the best-known poems by George Herbert, “Love (III).” He pointed to a buried pun in the poem where Christ is the host to the guest and the host in the Eucharist:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.



Who’s afraid of the ‘Song of Songs’?

Dr Christine Mangala Frost read from both Rabindrinath Tagore and Saint John of the Cross. Later she spoke on: “Who’s afraid of the Song of Songs? Love in Christian and other traditions.”

She was born in South India in 1945, into a Brahmin family distinguished for five centuries as devotees of Shiva, as Sanskrit scholars, writers and composers. She was the first woman to win the Nehru Memorial Trust Scholarship. This took her to Cambridge and here she became a Christian. Her journey to Christian faith offers many deep insights for today.

She looked critically at the way the Song of Songs has been misinterpreted and marginalised in the Church in the past. She was comfortable telling us that genuine erotic love can be life-enhancing and life-changing experience, but many Church figures in the past were not comfortable with this when it came to reading the Song of Songs.

She compared past Christian attitudes to the Song of Songs with traditional and holistic Jewish interpretations of the eroticism of the Song of Songs, uninfluenced by the soul-body dichotomy found in Neo-Platonism. In addition, she drew on Sufi mystical attitudes to sexuality, and the intense, burning love described by the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. The Sufi description of love for God is expressed in terms such as desire, yearning and grief at being separated. Similar themes were explored in Hindu mystical poetry and traditions in India.

Christianity keeps us firmly rooted in the world of sin, suffering and evil. She too quoted from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who speaks of the cup that Christ drank in Gethsemane as the loving cup. In Orthodox weddings, the loving cup is meant to be the Eucharistic cup. Christ heals and enriches the whole person through his whole body which is offered to us in the Eucharist. There is no limit to the extent and scope of this love.

The sharp distinction between eros and agape that developed in theology is simplistic, moralistic and unwarranted, she said. She spoke of the tension in the movement between desire and yearning and union and fulfilment. The bridegroom is already here. It’s time for celebration, not pining and yearning. Yet, the Kingdom has yet to come, and the “eros of repentance,” as George Capsanis describes it (1992), calls us back to God.

Too much cerebral and desk theology has dislocated theology from the heart, which is the ultimate rendezvous point for the human and the divine.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin

Is Cromwell’s head buried in Sidney Sussex Chapel?

Oliver Cromwell … an alumnus of Sidney Sussex. But is he buried in the college chapel?

Patrick Comerford

When I was travelling as a journalist with The Irish Times, I often tried to find an Irish angle to add a bit of colour or charm to my writing. There was the Irish priest in Cyprus who spent a lot of his working time on weddings; the Wild Geese buried in far-flung fields, such as the Irish general buried in the corner of a cemetery in Athens; or the Irish missionaries working in Far Eastern countries such as China, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea.

This is my second year to stay at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. And each time friends from Ireland ask not is this the Cambridge college where Brian Lenihan studied law, but is this is the college where Oliver Cromwell’s head is buried?

We all accept the good reason for the Irish obsession with Cromwell. But Cromwell was once an undergraduate at Sidney Sussex, although he never finished his degree, and he is hardly the sort of man who would have delighted in the thought of his head becoming a “first-class relic.”

So, is the head of Oliver Cromwell’s head buried beneath the chapel floor in Sidney Sussex?

It is almost half a century since Dr Horace N.S. Wilkinson, an anaesthetist, donated a cranium to Sidney Sussex, claiming it was Cromwell’s head. The head was buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College on 25 March 1960, but the college keeps the precise location of this burial a secret.

Cromwell entered Sidney Sussex College as a fellow commoner in 1616, a few days before his 17th birthday. But very little is known of his year here. He came up to Sidney Sussex on 23 April 1616, the day William Shakespeare died. But we do not know why he entered Sidney Sussex, rather than Queen’s, where his father and uncle had been students. Even his entry in the college admission register cannot be read without reference to much later events.

It was said at the end of the 18th century that Cromwell’s room was “in the back court, middle staircase” – in other words on H staircase in Chapel Court, where I am staying this week. However, there is no contemporary evidence for this, and this part of the building may not have been built until about 1630.

During Cromwell’s days here, the Master of Sydney was Samuel Ward, a noted Calvinist theologian, one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, and an English delegate at the Synod of Dort in 1618. By then, Cromwell had left Cambridge without taking a degree after his father’s death in 1617.

When Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, he was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, and the spot where he was buried is still marked on the abbey floor. But how did his head come into Dr Wilkinson’s possession? And who could possibly prove that this head was Cromwell’s?

Although Sidney Sussex was a Puritan foundation, Sidney’s Master and Fellows supported Charles I during the English Civil War, and succeeded in sending £100 to the king in support of the royalist cause. Nevertheless, Cromwell had King Charles I beheaded in 1648. When Cromwell died in 1658, he was given a splendid funeral that was based closely on that given to Charles I’s father, James I, and he was embalmed and buried among the kings in Westminster Abbey.

But Charles I’s son, Charles II, was restored to the throne in 1660 he had Cromwell reburied by the gallows on Tyburn Hill. Around this time, Cromwell’s entry in the admission register at Sidney Sussex was altered with the addition of an emphatic Latin explanation that begins “Hic fuit grandis ille impostor, carnifex…”:

“This was that great impostor, that most accursed butcher, who when the most pious King Charles I had been disposed of by foul murder, usurped the throne itself, and for the space of almost five years, under the name of Protector, tormented the three kingdoms with unrestrained tyranny.”

Then on 30 January 1661, Cromwell’s body was exhumed, taken out of its coffin, hanged and decapitated. It took eight axe strokes to cut off Cromwell’s head, which was covered with several layers of grave clothes. The severed head was then stuck on a spike on the top of Westminster Hall, where it remained for at least 24 years.

Between 1684 and 1710, it is difficult to trace with certainty any accurate record of what happened to this head. According to tradition in Dr Wilkinson’s family, a high wind on a stormy November night eventually blew Cromwell’s head off the pole in 1688. Private Barnes, a solider in Lord Arlington’s regiment, was the sentry on guard and he secretly carried the gruesome head home and hid it in his chimney.

It is said that Barnes on his deathbed in 1702 disclosed his secret to his wife and daughter. They appear to have then sold the head to Claudius Du Puy, a French-Swiss calico printer who also ran a museum of freaks and curiosities.

A German traveller, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, reportedly saw Cromwell’s head in Du Puy’ show in 1710. There it was part of a ghoulish collection of marine monstrosities, idols, waxworks, musical instruments and strange footwear. When Du Puy died in 1738, it seems the head was returned to the Barnes family and eventually passed to Samuel Russell, “a dissolute, drunken and impecunious comedian” who married Private Barnes’s granddaughter.

Russell tried to sell the head around 1775 to Dr William Elliston, who was the Master of Sidney Sussex College (1760-1807), but Dr Elliston rebuffed him, fearing the head “might create some prejudice against him.” And yet, almost a decade earlier, in 1766, he had accepted a pastel portrait of Cromwell – “warts and all” – by Samuel Cooper from the eccentric republican Thomas Hollis.

This portrait still hangs in the Hall in Sidney Sussex, where I am eating my meals each day. However, this pastel portrait is very vulnerable to light, and it was often covered with a curtain – giving rise to the popular myth that Cromwell’s face was always covered during the Loyal Toast at dinner.

Eventually, James Cox, a London jeweller and moneylender, paid £118 for the head in 1787. Twelve years later, he sold it for £230 to three speculators, the Hughes brothers. They then exhibited Cromwell’s head in Old Bond Street, London, charging viewers half a crown (2/6). Their business eventually collapsed, but the Hughes family held onto the head, and in 1814 Josiah Henry Wilkinson bought the relic from the daughter of the last surviving Hughes brother.

Maria Edgeworth describes seeing the head in 1822, and the Wilkinson family, who kept the head in a velvet-lined box for almost a century and a half, often showed it to their visitors – one visitor even described how it was shown off after breakfast.

Eventually, requests from the press and historical researchers became too wearisome for Dr Wilkinson, and he offered Sidney Sussex a second chance to acquire the head of its most famous alumnus. In a secret ceremony, the head was buried in an unknown location beneath the floor of the ante-chapel, following a brief funeral service conducted by the college chaplain in the presence of only the Master, Dr David Thompson, three fellows, Wilkinson and his sister.

But can we be certain that this was Cromwell’s head?

From 1684 to 1710, there is no hard evidence of the whereabouts of Cromwell’s head. And there is a further gap between 1710 and 1775, when no-one describes seeing it. These gaps would raise serious questions about the provenance of a work of art, for example. If I wanted to determine whether the portrait of Cromwell in the Hall in Sidney Sussex is by Samuel Cooper or Sir Peter Lely, certain proof would be possible through a thorough forensic examination of the painting, examining brush strokes, the materials used and comparing the painting with similar works by each artist.

Without these thorough investigations, no-one would accept my conclusions. Yet, no-one knows precisely where Cromwell’s supposed head has been buried. Only a handful of people witnessed the secretive and furtive burial, and the plaque in the ante-chapel at Sidney Sussex is decidedly vague about the location of burial.

The plaque in the ante-chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

The plaque states simply: “Near to this place was buried on 25 March 1960 the head of Oliver Cromwell Lord Protector of the Common-wealth of England, Scotland & Ireland, Fellow Commoner of this College 1616-7.”

In addition, no-one can now carry out DNA or other forensic tests on the head. It may be a skull from Cromwell’s time. It may even be the skull of someone who was decapitated after death. But is it Cromwell's skull? And even if it is, would you want it buried in your church or college chapel?