31 March 2014

Understanding and Compassion:
three Bible studies for Lent

Patrick Comerford

Whitechurch Parish,

Rathfarnham, Dublin,

31 March 2014

This evening in Whitechurch Parish, we are continuing the series of themed Bible studies suggested by BACI (the Biblical Association for the Church of Ireland).

The overarching themes are: Church and Culture, Church in Culture, Church through Culture, Church against Culture, Church beyond Culture.

This evening we are looking at Study 3: Understanding and Compassion, through the lens of three Bible studies: Ezekiel 34; Matthew 9:35-10:7; Luke 15:11-32.


The introductory notes to this evening’s study and these passages say:

It is one thing to bemoan/demonise/write off the culture that surrounds and presses in upon us. If, for example, we think in terms of a consumer culture, it would be very easy to explain exactly what it is that we are “against”.

Matthew’s comment on Jesus’ compassion for the crowd invites us to view it in a different way: Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35 ff.)

Here it is not the culture that is in view so much as people.

Now think about viewing our culture and its practitioners with compassion. Assuming, for example, that we are thinking about a consumer culture, or simply our 21st century “western” culture as we understand it, what characterises it? Ruth Valerio, at a Christians in Science seminar in Belfast in July 2013, suggested the following hallmarks (amongst others):

● lack of time
● illusory happiness
● transience of relationships e.g. marriage

Another feature of the culture that surrounds us is the sense that we have been let down by so many institutions and their leaders: banks and other financial institutions, newspapers (hence the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry), the BBC, churches, politicians and the political process. There is also increasing scepticism that science and scientists are not altogether to be trusted, particularly if they tell us what we do not wish to accept. Hence the widespread suspicion that those who talk about man-made global warming are engaged in a conspiracy. Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann links compassion to a ‘radical form of criticism’ of the way modern governments and institutions work.

(Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1978, p. 85 f.)

Who, then, is to be trusted? How is this uncertainty expressed in modern culture?

As we consider the culture of which we are a part, it is important that our reaction should not be one of censure, but should be people-oriented and one of Christ-like compassion. How is this to be expressed?

The Good Shepherd ... a stained glass window in Saint Mark’s Church, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ezekiel 34: 1-16

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them – to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:
8 As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep;
9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord:
10 Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land.
14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.
16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Matthew 9: 35 to 10: 1, 5-7

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.
36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
37 Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,
6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Luke 15: 11-32

11 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons.
12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them.
13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.
16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.
17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!
18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’.”
20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;
24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.
27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”
28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.
29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”


The BACI study provides the following Notes on the readings for ‘Understanding and Compassion’:

Old Testament reading (Ezekiel 34):

Matthew’s memorable phrase sheep without a shepherd comes from the Old Testament, where it refers especially to lack of political leadership (Numbers 27: 17; 1 Kings 22: 17; Ezekiel 34: 5), but also encompasses a lack of spiritual care and guidance as well (cf. Zechariah 10: 2–3).

Harassed and helpless is literally “torn and thrown down,” continuing the metaphor of sheep unprotected from predators, or even suffering from unscrupulous shepherds (cf. Zechariah 11:16). The ordinary people of Israel are “lost sheep” (10:6; 15: 24) awaiting the Messianic shepherd (Ezekiel 34: 23; Micah 5: 4; Zechariah 11: 4 ff.; etc.). So God undertakes that he himself will be their shepherd.

New Testament readings

Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός

1, Matthew 9: 35-10-7:

The cause of Jesus’ ceaseless activity is traced to his compassion for the crowds. The vivid verb “have compassion” (literally referring to a “gut reaction”!) is always in the New Testament used of Jesus himself (except in three parables: 18: 27; Luke 10: 33; 15: 20); like his “mercy” (see 9: 27) it regularly issues in action to meet the need which evokes it. Similar sentiments will well up in Jesus again at the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6: 34).

Jesus himself is the shepherd of his people according to many New Testament references (cf. Matthew 25: 32; 26: 31; John 10: 11–16; Hebrews 13: 20; 1 Peter 2: 25).

His compassion increases because Israel lacks adequate leadership, despite the many who would claim to guide it. The Twelve begin to fill that vacuum, foreshadowing the institution of the church. As in the days of the prophets, the rightful leadership of Israel had abdicated its responsibility, as demonstrated by its inability or unwillingness to recognize God’s true spokesmen.

Thus Michael Green writes: “Jesus saw the situation: people were tormented, exhausted and led astray. Jesus perceived their need, as Ezekiel had done before him. This is the supreme motivation for mission, to see the need of those who are perishing outside the kingdom. Motivation comes when you see people harassed by pressures, exhausted by the pace of life, going nowhere, and being led astray by many false ideologies.”

(Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven. The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester: IVP 2000: 133–134.)

New Testament 2. Luke 15: 11-32

This is another key passage emphasising the unconditional compassion of God. This Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Forgiving Father, introduces another element of cultural awareness – in that it would have spoken more strongly to Jesus’ original audience than it does today. Modern western Christians read this passage as heart-warming; Jesus’ original audience would have received it as scandalous. Let Philip Yancey explain:

‘A missionary in Lebanon once read this parable to a group of villagers who lived in a culture very similar to the one Jesus described and who had never heard the story. “What do you notice?” he asked. Two details of the story stood out to the villagers. First, by claiming his inheritance early, the son was saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!” The villagers could not imagine a patriarch taking such an insult or agreeing to the son’s demand. Second, they noticed that the father ran to greet his long-lost son. In the Middle East, a man of stature walks with slow and stately dignity; never does he run. In Jesus’ story the father runs, and Jesus’ audience no doubt gasped at this detail.”

(Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1997, p.80.)

Thus the parable offers a radical portrait of a forgiving and loving God, whose love is absolutely unconditional. We do nothing to deserve it. This may be very different to a view, common both within and beyond Church boundaries, of ‘justification by works’ in which God’s love is seem to be restricted to those who are thought to deserve it.

This then raises at least three immediate questions for us to ponder through all our considerations of Church and culture:

1, we think we know how a passage of scripture ought to be read. But might it mean something very different to someone from a different culture – an “outsider”?

2, Might an “outsider” teach us to look at it in a new, more incisive way?

3, We may be comfortable enough with what happens in church on a Sunday morning. But might it look very different to an “outsider”? How is that gap to be bridged?

BACI also provides some questions and discussion starters on understanding and compassion, which are also asking ourselves this evening:

1, What does God’s call to compassion, as seen in these readings, mean to you personally? How might it change your attitude to “outsiders”?

2, What should we do, as Christians, to encourage leaders in government and industry to understanding and compassion? Does power inevitably corrupt? What sorts of people do we trust?

3, Why do you think Jesus sends his disciples only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (see Matthew 10: 6; 15: 24)? What would (or would not) have happened if this had become a lasting ordinance?

4, Many Christians tend to identify more with the older son in Luke 15 parable that with either the father or the prodigal. Why is this? Is this the reaction the one God wants from us?

5, A recent television programme (and also a Mothers’ Union report) detailed the deliberate process of the sexualisation and commercialisation of children. How far do we understand the pressures that modern children and young people are under? How can we respond compassionately?

6, Influential atheists Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and other influential atheists have written about what they see as the ultimate meaninglessness of life: “We know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow, is hell-bent on levelling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. (Richard Dawkins, 1996 article in The Humanist magazine) How do people cope with this? How deeply does this logical outcome of atheism affect our culture and our behaviour? How do we engage? Can we show there is another world view without reducing it to “going to heaven when you die”?

7, And our closing question as before: Where do we go from here?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College, Dublin. These notes, drawing extensively on material prepared by BACI, were used in a Lenten Bible study in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Monday 31 March 2014.

Anglican Studies (2014) 10.3: Is there an Anglican
culture? Rose Macaulay and ‘The Towers of Trebizond’

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

MTh Year II EM8825:

Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Mondays: The Hartin Room.

Monday, 31 March 2014, 3.15 p.m.:

Is there an Anglican culture? Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond


We have been asking this afternoon whether there is an ‘Anglican Culture’ that acts as a conduit for Anglican history, theology and spirituality, and for the Anglican story.

Earlier, we looked, as an example, at the writings of TS Eliot. As a second example I would like to introduce the writer Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) and her novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956). It was the last of her novels, and the most successful, and for it she received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.

The book was described in The New York Times: “Fantasy, farce, high comedy, lively travel material, delicious japes at many aspects of the frenzied modern world, and a succession of illuminating thoughts about love, sex, life, organised churches and religion are all tossed together with enchanting results.”

The famous opening sentence is:

“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.

For months after the publication of this novel in 1956, guests at London cocktail parties could be heard quoting those opening lines.

The author:

Dame Rose Macaulay (right) was the author of 35 books – 23 of them novels – and is best remembered for Potterism, a satire of yellow journalism; a biography of Milton; her haunting post-World War II novel, The World My Wilderness; two travel books, They Went to Portugal and Fabled Shore; and her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond.

Rose Macaulay was born in Rugby in 1881, the second of seven children in a family of Anglican clerics and eminent academics. She spent her early childhood in Varezze, a small Italian seaside town. In 1894, her family returned to England, and after studying modern history at Somerville College, Oxford, she began a career as a writer, supporting herself as a novelist, journalist, and critic.

After a time of spiritual questioning as an adolescent, she grew into a young woman with a serious approach to religion. After attending a retreat at Saint Alban’s, a High Church parish in Holborn, around 1909, she undertook the disciplined practices associated with Anglo-Catholicism, regularly going to confession at Saint Edward’s House in Westminster, which was the London headquarters of the Cowley Fathers.

During World War I, she worked as a nurse and as a civil servant in the War Office before taking up a position in the British Propaganda Department. There, in 1918, she met Gerald O’Donovan (1871–1942) from Ireland, a former Roman Catholic priest, a novelist, and a married father of three. O’Donovan was 45 and the married father of three; she was 36. They fell in love and eventually began a long affair that lasted until his death in 1942.

By 1922, Macaulay felt that she could no longer make her confession or receive Holy Communion. Her separation from the Church lasted for almost 30 years, during which time she continued to feel “Anglican,” as she put it, but she was “an Anglo-agnostic,” for whom Anglicanism had dwindled down to “a matter of taste and affection . . . rather than of belief.”

This long period of estrangement began to come to an end on 29 August 1950, when out of the blue received a letter from Father Hamilton Johnson. Less than five months later, on 12 January 1951, she went to Saint Edward’s House and made her confession to a priest.

In her 70th year, Rose Macaulay returned to the Church of England as a communicant. She adopted a rule of life, and each morning she attended the early Eucharist at Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street, a liberal Anglo-Catholic church with dignified services – high but not extreme, and a church later celebrated in poetry by John Betjeman.

In a letter to Father Hamilton Johnson in 1952, Macaulay spoke of the experience of “being in the Church” as “a wonderful corporate feeling of being carried along, being part of the body ...” The post-1950 Macaulay appears to represent the full, committed life of faith that follows on the stage that Austin Farrer called initial faith. Like Augustine, she knew that the strand of surety is an elusive beach; its shifting sands mean that Christian conversion is never complete and final.

Towards the end of her life, she told her sister Jean that “religious belief is too uncertain and shifting a ground (with me) to speak of lying or truth in connection with it. One believes in patches, and it [“believe”] is a vague, inaccurate word. I could never say ‘Ι believe in God’ in the same sense that I could say ‘Ι believe in the sun & moon & stars’.”

As Augustine makes clear in the Confessions, his conversion did not mean that he had now arrived safely in port; the harbour of the convert is regularly buffeted by storms.

Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity.” During the 1930s and 1940s, when CS Lewis, Austin Farrer, Dorothy L. Sayers and others were writing books that were imaginative yet consistently orthodox, Macaulay was a lapsed Anglican, alienated from the church. Even after her return in 1950-1951, she writes The Towers of Trebizond, whose heroine is to some extent her alter ego, and who occupies a place at the border or beyond Christianity.

She was sceptical about much that the Anglican tradition deemed essential, and for a long period described herself as an “Anglo-agnostic,” never certain of her unbelief, or free of spiritual guilt, or unable to appreciate a good sermon. Her brand of Anglicanism was high and broad – liturgically Catholic and intellectually engaged. She admired the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century and in her personal devotions often used the Great Antiphons.

A mentor to Elizabeth Bowen and a friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rupert Brooke, EM Forster, and Rosamond Lehmann, Macaulay was a well-known figure in London’s literary world and a fabled wit. She was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) shortly before her death in 1958.

The Plot:

The book abounds with historical references, including Saint Paul’s fourth missionary journey, the Fourth Crusade, English Christianity since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, 19th century travellers to the Ottoman Empire, World War I, and the archaeological search for the ruins of Troy.

The scene moves from Turkey when the two senior characters elope to the Soviet Union, and Laurie meets her lover and her semi-estranged mother in Jerusalem.

Gerald O’Donovan suffered serious head injuries in a car accident with Rose Macaulay in the Lake District, and the accident may have inspired the fatal accident on the return journey in The Towers of Trebizond. The final chapters raise multiple issues such as the souls of animals.

Back in London, Laurie is at the wheel of the car in which Vere dies. Her own pride and impetuosity cause her to reject her lover’s caution and to assert her rights against a bus that has crashed a red light. Now, without Vere, Laurie feels that she must live “in two hells, for I have lost God” and lost, too, “the love I want.”

Against an Anglo-Catholic backdrop, the book deals with the attractions of mystical Christianity and the conflict between Christianity and adultery, a problem Macaulay faced in her own life because of her 22-year affair with Gerald O’Donovan.

The Towers of Trebizond is part satire, part travel book, part comedy, part tragedy ... and at all times a spiritual reflection on the pilgrimage of life. It starts off as a comic novel, and there is scarcely a line in the first third of the book that fails to provoke laughter or, at the least, a pleasurable sense that someone is tickling your brain.

The characters:

The book is largely autobiographical. It follows the adventures of a group of people travelling from Istanbul – or Constantinople, as Father Chantry-Pigg insists on calling it, – to Trebizond. In this book, Trebizond is not simply the old name for Trabzon, the former Byzantine port on the shores of the Black Sea in north-eastern Turkey. Trebizond is the “fabled city” that the heroine Laurie feels cut off from; Trebizond can be read as symbolising the Christian faith, or the church; Trebizond could be Bunyan’s ‘Celestial City,’ Augustine’s ‘City of God,’ or ultimate, unattainable Truth.

● Laurie, the narrator, is a woman in her mid-30s. Like Macaulay, she too has a long-term love affair with a married man.

● Dorothea ffoulkes-Corbett is the otherwise the eccentric Aunt Dot. Barbara Reynolds suggests she is based on Rose Macaulay’s friend, Dorothy L Sayers. A hale, elderly woman, Aunt Dot justifies her love of world travel by claiming it to be in the service of Anglican mission work and a project to emancipate the women of Turkey by converting them to Anglicanism and popularising the bathing hat.

● Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, Aunt Dot’s friend, is an Anglo-Catholic priest who keeps his collection of sacred relics in his pockets, and who is “better at condemning than at loving.” Barbara Reynolds has suggested this character has elements of Father Patrick McLaughlin (1909-1988), the Dublin-born Father Gilbert Shaw (1886-1967), Vicar of Saint Anne’s, Soho, and Father Gerard Irvine.

● Dr Halide Tanpinar is a Turkish feminist doctor. She had once converted from Islam to Anglicanism, and she now acts as a foil to these main characters.

● Xenophon is a Greek-speaking, over-indulged young man.

● Aunt Dot’s addled camel was a present to her from a rich Bedouin tycoon. The anxieties over the half-crazed camel’s love-life are in contrast to the subsequent nurture of an ape named Suliman in advanced Anglo-Catholic ritualism.

● Vere, Laurie’s lover, is always in the background although not in the touring party.

On the way, they also meet magicians, Turkish policemen, juvenile British travel writers, and a BBC broadcasting team following Billy Graham on tour.

“I wonder who else is rambling about Turkey this spring,” wonders Aunt Dot at one point. “Seventh-Day Adventists, Billy Grahamites, writers, diggers, photographers, spies, us, and now the BBC.” As Compton Mackenzie writes, at times it feels as if Macaulay has blended love and lunacy to produce a kind of Alice Through the Looking Glass of modern life, or, as another reviewer says, has re-staged the Mad-Hatter’s tea party and has taken it on the road.

The Turkish woman doctor says in the book of Aunt Dot, “She is a woman of dreams. Mad dreams, dreams of crazy, impossible things. And they aren’t all of conversion to the Church, oh no. Nor all of the liberation of women, oh no. Her eyes are on far mountains, always some far peak where she will go. She looks so firm and practical, that nice face, so fair and plump and shrewd, but look in her eyes, you will sometimes catch a strange gleam.”

Reading the book:

The first half of The Towers of Trebizond reads as a satirical picaresque that lampoons Anglican narrowness, and the back-biting competition within English literary society. Set in what was once called “the Levant,” the book crawls with literary tourists, each determined to get their travel book out first. Dot is writing one, too, with Laurie providing the illustrations.

Aunt Dot is both adventurous and provincial. When Father Chantry-Pigg says one ought not to go to Russia because it would mean condoning a government that persecutes Christians, Aunt Dot replies: “If one started not condoning governments, one would have to give up travel altogether, and even remaining in Britain would be pretty difficult.”

When Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg slip over the border into the Soviet Union, leaving Laurie alone, the novel undergoes a subtle but complete tonal shift.

In the last half of the book, as Laurie wanders through Turkey on her camel, running into acquaintances and making do as best she can on the little money she has, the novel becomes a serious, though never heavy-handed, study of a crisis of faith, although Laurie knows herself too well to be thrown into a tizzy over her inability to give herself over to a faith, any faith:

“Nothing in the world, for instance, could be as true as some Anglicans and Calvinists and Moslems think their Churches are, having the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I suppose this must be comfortable and reassuring. But most of us know that nothing is as true as all that, and that no faith can be delivered once for all without change, for new things are being discovered all the time, and old things dropped, like the whole Bible being true, and we have to grope our way through a mist that keeps being lit by shafts of light, so that exploration tends to be patchy, and we can never sit back and say, we have the Truth, this is it, for discovering the truth, if it is ever discovered, means a long journey through a difficult jungle, with clearings every now and then, and paths that have to be hacked out as one walks, and dark lanterns swinging from the trees, and these lanterns are the light that has lighted every man, which can only come through the dark lanterns of our minds.”

Here we find a mature acceptance of uncertainty and confusion as part of our natural condition.

Yet neither Macaulay – who was reconciled with Anglicanism shortly after the book was published and before her death – nor her fictional counterpart can be fully content with that. Reassurance that hangs just out of reach is always a tempting thing, even when you know that the only way to accept it is to short-change your intellect and your own messy experience. Her lover accepts what he calls her “church obsession ... So long as you don’t let it interfere with our lives.”

Macaulay never denies the appeal of belief, the longing for reassurance, but like any adult, she never denies that life is a trade-off either.

While Father Chantry-Pigg is in most respects not a model of ministry to be closely emulated, sometimes his perceptions are accurate. One Sunday morning, he celebrates the Eucharist on the deck of their ship as they are approaching Trebizond. Afterwards, he finds Laurie alone and forces her to confront the seriousness of the dilemma in which she is caught.

‘Later in the morning, when I was on deck looking through glasses at the first sight of Trebizond, Father Chantry-Pigg came and stood by me and said, “How much longer are you going on like this, shutting the door against God?”

This question always disturbed me; I sometimes asked it of myself, but I did not know the answer. Perhaps it would have to be for always, because I was so deeply committed to something else that I could not break away.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s your business to know. There is no question. You must decide at once. Do you mean to drag on for years more in deliberate sin, refusing grace, denying the Holy Spirit? And when it ends, what then? It will end; such things always end. What then? Shall you come back, when it is taken out of your hands and it will cost you nothing? When you will have nothing to offer to God but a burnt out fire and a fag end? Oh, he’ll take it, he’ll take anything we offer. It is you who will be impoverished for ever by so poor a gift. Offer now what will cost you a great deal, and you’ll be enriched beyond anything you can imagine. How do you know how much of life you still have? It may be many years, it may be a few weeks. You may leave this world without grace, go on into the next stage in the chains you won’t break now. Do you ever think of that, or have you put yourself beyond caring?

Not quite, never quite. I had tried, but never quite. From time to time I knew what I had lost. But nearly all the time, God was a bad second, enough to hurt but not to cure, to hide from but not to seek, and I knew that when I died I should hear him saying, “Go away, I never knew you,” and that would be the end of it all, the end of everything, and after that I never should know him, though then to know him would be what I should want more than anything, and not to know him would be hell. I sometimes felt this even now, but not often enough to do what would break my life to bits. Now I was vexed that Father Chantry-Pigg had brought it up and flung me into this turmoil. Hearing Mass was bad enough, hearing it and not taking part in it, seeing it and not approaching it, being offered it and shutting the door on it, and in England I seldom went.

I couldn’t answer Father Chantry-Pigg, there was nothing I could say except “I don’t know”. He looked at me sternly and said, “I hope, I pray, that you will know before it is too late. The door won’t be open for ever. Refuse it long enough, and you will become incapable of going through it. You will, little by little, stop believing. Even God can’t force the soul grown blind and deaf and paralysed to see and hear and move. I beg you, in this Whitsuntide, to obey the Holy Spirit of God. That is all I have to say.’

Possessing a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the Church, Laurie is better at loving than at praying: her affair with a married man has kept her away from the Church of England for ten years. “From time to time,” she says, “I knew what I had lost. But nearly all the time, God was a bad second, enough to hurt but not to cure, to hide from but not to seek.” She acknowledges the other pole of her ambivalence toward Christianity when she remarks that, although “the Church met its Waterloo . . . when I took up with adultery,” Anglicanism was still “in the system,” and, once in, “I think one cannot get it out.”

In a conversation in Jerusalem with a sceptical acquaintance named David, Laurie searches for an answer. After telling him that she has not got the answers and that he should take his questions to the bishop, she suggests that he read “some of the liturgies and missals.” Like a good Anglican, she reaches into liturgy for her answer.

Her reply comes by way of the Great Antiphons, recited during the seven days leading to the Christmas Vigil. Laurie quotes for David the Advent hymns to the divine wisdom (O Sapientia) and to the divine light (O Oriens, O Dawn of the East).

What holds Laurie back from a fully committed Christian faith is, in large measure, her attachment to her lover, Vere, who brings her great joy and contentment.

Laurie’s Augustine-echoing resistance to being delivered just yet is only one of the reasons behind her disinclination to rejoin the Church. There are also the faults of Christian institutions down the centuries. She observes how the Church “grew so far, almost at once, from anything which can have been intended.” It “became ... blood-stained and persecuting and cruel and war-like and made small and trivial things so important.”

Laurie’s objections are intellectual as well as moral. The church, she says, began “with a magnificent idea,” but that idea had “to be worked out by human beings who do not understand much of it but interpret it in their own way and think they are guided by God, whom they have not yet grasped.” She questions the historicity of the gospel accounts: “I wonder what was really said, how far the evangelists got it right, and how much they left out, writing it down long after.” She is aware that “some of the things they forgot and left out might have been very important, and some of the things they put in they perhaps got wrong, for some sound unlikely for [Jesus] to have said.”

She sees that “no Church can have more than a very little of the truth,” and therefore she finds it impossible “to believe, as some people do, that one’s Church has all the truth and no errors, for how could this possibly be?”

The book ends with Laurie in what she describes as a dual hell, though there is more acceptance than torment in her description. The revelations in The Towers of Trebizond are all of the earthly variety, and Macaulay makes that seem, if not everything, then enough for any reasonable person.

The impact of the book

Constance Babington-Smith writes that “many Anglicans, and also many would-be believers” responded to The Towers of Trebizond in a manner that Macaulay found profoundly moving. “Some weeks after the book was out she wrote ... that she was beginning to feel ‘almost like a priest,’ for so many people were telling her how much she had helped them in their religion.”

Macaulay delighted in pointing out that The Towers of Trebizond helped to convince many readers to turn toward the Church and what it stands for. Her novel had, she said, decided a young woman at a crucial moment in her life for the right course, and clergy read parts of it to ordinands besieged by doubt, without plunging them into deeper anguish. David Hein says many clergy and laity found their faith reinvigorated by reading The Towers of Trebizond.

The paradox of its popular reception by Christians and would-be believers is part of the mystery of The Towers of Trebizond. The book presents dilemmas and reveals their attractions, but it declines to provide easy answers and solutions.

The capacity of Anglicanism to hold together contradictions increased Macaulay’s appreciation of Anglicanism. She wrote The Towers of Trebizond after her return to the Church of England, but does not mark out for her readers the steps on the journey of faith they only they could take for themselves. She said it was “meant to be about the struggle of good and evil, its eternal importance, and the power of the Christian Church over the soul, to torment and convert.”

The ending is gratifyingly indeterminate, reassuring in its refusals. What makes the author of this book worthy of consideration as a spiritual mentor for 21st century seekers has much to do with her willingness to acknowledge difficulties.

In the days following Vere’s death, Laurie, stricken with grief and remorse, rejects what he rejected, giving up what he mockingly called her “church obsession.” She turns her back on the Church and all that it stands for, “knowing that God is leaving us alone for ever; we have lost God and gained hell.”

At the end of this novel, there is still much that restrains Laurie from moving toward the shimmering towers of Trebizond, and it is impossible to say in which direction she will eventually turn. As one literary scholar wrote: “It is the highest of ironies that a novel which ends on such a note of – perhaps even unchristian? – despair should be hailed as one of the twentieth century’s most luminous Christian novels.”

The Towers of Trebizond ends in silence and in waiting. It is an honest reckoning with the cognitive obstructions of Christian faith, and it throws out a line – albeit one that in the darkness might be hard to recognise – to all who struggle with doubt.

Additional reading:

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (London: Collins, 1956).

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (London: Fontana, 1962, 3rd impression, February 1970), the edition I have used while preparing this essay.

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (New York: New York Review Books, 2003).

Constance Babington-Smith, Rose Macaulay (London: Collins, 1972). Alice Crawford, Paradise Pursued: The Novels of Rose Macaulay (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995).

David Hein, ‘Faith and Doubt in Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond,’ Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2006.

David Hein (ed), Readings in Anglican Spirituality (Cincinnati, Ohio: Forward Movement Publications, 1991).

Richard H Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is an extended version of notes prepared for a lecture on the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, on Monday 31 March 2014.

Anglican Studies (2014) 10.2: Is there an
Anglican culture? The poetry of TS Eliot

‘April is the cruellest month’ … words that have come to mind constantly in April three years ago during the search for two fishermen off the shore of Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

MTh Year II

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Mondays: The Hartin Room.

Monday, 31 March 2014, 2 p.m.:

Is there an Anglican culture? The poetry of TS Eliot;

10.3: Is there an Anglican culture? Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond

10.2: Is there an Anglican culture? The poetry of TS Eliot


April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

These are the opening words of TS Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land (1922), which is regarded a one of the most important poems of the 20th century.

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

These words came to mind constantly for me in April three years ago [2014] as I thought again and again of the people in Skerries who were searching desperately for two missing fishermen:

April is the cruellest month … I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Throughout the poem we find allusions to The Book of Common Prayer, and Old Testament allusions, where the narrator finds himself in a summer drought that has transformed the land into a desert, who is referred to as the “Son of Man,” with references to Ezekiel, and to the Gospels.

The American-born English poet, playwright and literary critic, Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), was perhaps the most important poet in the English language in the 20th century. And he is one of the greatest examples of how Anglican spirituality, Anglican liturgy, Anglican memory and Anglican history have been conveyed through the generations through the arts, particularly through poetry, drama and fiction.

The calendars of Anglican churches throughout the world recalls the saintly memory of some of the great creative figures in Anglicanism over the generations.

For example, the calendar in Common Worship commemorates the poets George Herbert (27 February), Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy “Woodbine Willie” (8 March), John Donne (31 March), Christina Rossetti (27 April) and John Keble (14 July), and writers like Julian of Norwich (8 May), Evelyn Underhill (15 June), John Bunyan (30 August) and Samuel Johnson (13 December).

To that list we might, perhaps, add writers such as CS Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. Or if we were to think of writers who been conduits of Anglican spirituality and Anglican thinking we might think of Anthony Trollope (1815-1882), author of the Chronicles of Barchester. Today, that tradition of Anglican writers who think theologically is continued by writers like Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox.

Is there an ‘Anglican culture’?

A mural by John Myatt on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Anglican culture has been expressed in architecture, poetry, literature, novels, and music.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is often remembered as the compiler of his great Dictionary, but forgotten as a spiritual writer.

In his last prayer, on 5 December 1784, before receiving Holy Communion and eight days before he died, Samuel Johnson prayed:

Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and his mercy; enforce an accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption. Have mercy on me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men. Support me, by the grace of thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

This afternoon, as we conclude this module in Anglicanism, I want to suggest that there is an “Anglican culture” that conveys and carries through the generations an Anglican approach to spirituality and theology. For those who are entering Anglican ordained ministry but who are not cradle Anglicans, I believe it is important to be sensitive to this, to grasp this but even more importantly to be enriched by this.

I want to look at this through the poetry and the writing of TS Eliot, one of the greatest poets of the last century, and later – if we have time – to look at it through the eyes of one novelist and one novel in particular, Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) and her final novel and masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

TS Eliot as an Anglican poet

The poem by TS Eliot (right) that made his name as a poet, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock (1915), is regarded as a masterpiece of the modernist movement. It was followed by some of the best-known poems in English, including The Waste Land (1922), The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and the four poems in Four Quartets (1943).

Of course, many of us may know him since our school days or childhood for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), a collection of light verse that inspired Cats (1981), the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Eliot also wrote several plays, including Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949), and he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Although he was born in the US, he became a British citizen in 1927 at the age of 39, a few months after his conversion to Anglicanism. When he renounced his US citizenship, he said: “My mind may be American but my heart is British.”

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the youngest child in a prominent Unitarian and academic family; his mother was a poet and social worker.

He began to write poetry at the age of 14 under the influence of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but he destroyed those early poems, and his oldest surviving poem dates from January 1905. He studied philosophy at Harvard (1906-1909), where the Harvard Advocate published some of his poems.

After working as a philosophy assistant at Harvard (1909-1910), Eliot moved to Paris, where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne (1910–1911), before returning to Harvard (1911-1914) to study Indian philosophy and Sanskrit. He then moved to Merton College, Oxford, but left after a year, commenting: “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.”

By 1916, he had completed a PhD dissertation for Harvard on Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of FH Bradley, but he never returned for his viva voce exam.

Meanwhile, in 1915 he had been introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and they married within weeks. Their marriage was a catalyst in his writing The Waste Land, and was the subject of the movie Tom and Viv (1994).

24 Russell Square, where TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber, is now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He took up several teaching posts, including teaching at Highgate School, where his pupils included John Betjeman, and lecturing at Birkbeck College, London. By 1917, he was working at Lloyds Bank, and on a visit to Paris in 1920 he met James Joyce. But in 1925, Eliot joined the publishers Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, where he spent the rest of his career, eventually becoming a director.

On 29 June 1927, Eliot was baptised and confirmed an Anglican; a few months later he would become a British citizen. He became a churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road, London, and specifically identified with the Anglo-Catholic expression of Anglicanism, describing himself a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” Later, he would say his religious views combined “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.”

When he was offered the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard (1932-1933), he left his wife Vivienne in England. On his return, he filed for divorce, and she spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital until her death in 1947.

Eliot first published his poems in periodicals, small books or pamphlets, and then collected them in books. His first collection was Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). In 1920, he published more poems in Ara Vos Prec (London) and Poems: 1920 (New York).

In 1925, he collected The Waste Land and the poems in Prufrock and Poems into one volume and added The Hollow Men in Poems: 1909-1925.

The Hollow Men was written when Eliot was going through difficult times in his work and with his first wife’s health. Writing about his earlier poem, The Waste Land (1922), Eliot concluded that “some forms of illness are extremely favourable to religious illumination.” This sets the background for the circumstances surrounding The Hollow Men, which was written when Eliot was going through a wilderness experience.

From then on, Eliot updated this work as Collected Poems. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) is a collection of light verse. Poems Written in Early Youth, posthumously published in 1967, is mainly poems published in The Harvard Advocate (1907-1910). Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (1997) includes works he never intended to publish but that were published posthumously.

Although the main character in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915) seems to be middle-aged, Eliot wrote most of the poem when he was only 22. It is well known for its opening lines, comparing the evening sky to “a patient etherised upon a table” – an image that was considered shocking and offensive. The poem follows the conscious experience of Prufrock, lamenting his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and his lack of spiritual progress.

In 1922, the same year as James Joyce published Ulysses, Eliot published The Waste Land at a time of personal difficulty: his marriage was failing, and both he and Vivienne were suffering from nervous disorders. The poem slips between satire and prophecy, and is marked by abrupt changes of speaker, location and time. Yet it is a touchstone of modern literature. Among its well-known phrases are: “April is the cruellest month,” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” and the Sanskrit mantra that ends the poem: “Shantih, shantih, shantih.”

While earlier commentators tended to read ‘The Waste Land’ as a secular commentary on life in London in the inter-war years, more recent studies see in this poem a description of Eliot’s pilgrimage to faith from the Unitarianism of his childhood and youth, through his readings in Hinduism to his preparation for his eventual Baptism in 1927 and his subsequent, life-lasting Anglo-Catholicism.

In a recent study, A. Lee Fjordbotten, (‘Liturgical influences of Anglo-Catholicism on ‘The Waste Land’ and other works by TS Eliot,’ Fordham University, 1999), says ‘The Waste Land’ reveals a spiritually searching and developing Eliot who is anticipating his formal conversion in 1927. He points out that the structure of the poem is similar to the traditional process of conversion, especially as seen in the season of Lent.

In this way, the poem becomes the chronicle of Eliot’s own spiritual journey to conversion, and he analyses the five sections of ‘The Waste Land’ liturgically, in relation to the five Sundays of Lent and their respective themes, so that Part V, ‘What the Thunder says,’ relates to the Fifth Sunday in Lent and last week.

In her more recent study of ‘The Waste Land,’ ‘The Prefiguration of TS Eliot’s conversion in ‘The Waste Land’,’ in the Saint Austin Review (January/February 2012, pp 19-20), Paula L. Gallagher, says the beginning of Eliot’s conversion is prefigured in this poem and begins with his recognition of the emptiness of modernity.

She argues that the poem – far from being just the apogee of modernist despair – significantly prefigures his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism: “Eliot’s personal journey through the Waste Land – from the rejection of modernity, to the search for Christ, to the arrival of rain – contains imagery, allusions and ideas that prefigure that conversion to Anglo-Catholicism.”

Eliot’s major poem of the late 1920s, The Hollow Men (1925), was written in the context of post-war Europe. It is deeply indebted to Dante and wrestles with the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and with Eliot’s failed marriage. It concludes with some of Eliot’s best-known lines:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Not long before he reached the age of 40, Eliot made a decision that influenced his poetry and drama for the rest of his life. On the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, 27 June 1927, he was baptised and so began a life-long commitment to Anglo-Catholicism. Eliot was probably converted through reading the prayers and sermons of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester.

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral ... “his prayers and sermons were critical in TS Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism and had an abiding influence on his writings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In his essay, For Lancelot Andrewes: an Essay on Style and Order (1928), published the following year, Eliot argued that Andrewes’s sermons “rank with the finest English prose of their time, of any time.” Eliot spoke of his indebtedness to the bishop’s writings: he is “the first great preacher of the English Catholic Church,” he had “the voice of a man who had a formed visible church behind him, who spoke with the old authority and the new culture.”

For Eliot, “The intellectual achievement and the prose style of Hooker and Andrewes came to complete the structure of the English Church as the philosophy of the thirteenth century crowns the Catholic Church … the achievement of Hooker and Andrewes was to make the English Church more worthy of intellectual assent. No religion can survive the judgment of history unless the best minds of its time have collaborated in its construction; if the Church of Elizabeth is worthy of the age of Shakespeare and Jonson, that is because of the work of Hooker and Andrewes.

“The writings of both Hooker and Andrewes illustrate that determination to stick to essentials, that awareness of the needs of the time, the desire for clarity and precision on matters of importance, and the indifference to matters indifferent, which was the general policy of Elizabeth … Andrewes is the first great preacher of the English Catholic Church.”

On the other hand, he was deeply disparaging when it came to John Donne:

“About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive; and impure motives lend their aid to a facile success. He is a little of the religious spellbinder, the Reverend Billy Sunday of his time, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy. We emphasize this aspect to the point of the grotesque. Donne had a trained mind; but without belittling the intensity or the profundity of his experience, we can suggest that this experience was not perfectly controlled, and that he lacked spiritual discipline.”

Eliot was influenced too by the monastic life of Nicholas Ferrar’s community at Little Gidding, and admired the works of Richard Hooker, George Herbert and Jeremy Taylor – and the churches of Christopher Wren.

Eliot’s writings after his baptism reflect how much an impression Andrewes’s sermons had made on him. His sermons on the Nativity were a special favourite of Eliot. His poem, Journey of the Magi (1927), the first of the Ariel Poems and written shortly after his baptism, begins with a direct quote from Andrewes’s sermon on the Epiphany at Christmas 1622. In that sermon, “Of the wise men come from the East,” Andrewes opens with the words:

“It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter’.”

Eliot opens his Journey of the Magi with similar words:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

There are other references to Andrewes’s sermons in his poems. One phrase from Andrewes that figures in Eliot’s poetry – “Word without a word” – occurs three times in Andrewes’s Nativity Sermons in which he refers to “the eternal Word” as having always existed and the co-creator of the universe but now as a babe not “able to speak a word.”

Ash Wednesday marked TS Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism

Ash Wednesday (1930) was his first long poem after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, and has been described as Eliot’s conversion poem. It deals with the struggle that arises when one who has lacked faith acquires it, and with the aspiration to move from a spiritual barrenness to the hope for human salvation.

In Ash Wednesday, Eliot took that “flashing phrase” from Andrewes, “Word without a word,” to highlight that the world still lives in darkness as the Word is still unheard:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

In his sermons, Andrewes was critical of contemporaries who followed their own spirit rather than the Holy Spirit. He believed parish church is where the local community assembles to offer up their prayers and praises. Eliot lamented also that church community life no longer existed as families spent Sundays as a day off from religion, and so bells were no longer necessary in the city to summon people to church, as he expressed it in Choruses from ‘The Rock’ (1934):

That the country now is only fit for picnics,
And the Church does not seem to be wanted
In country or in suburb.

The Four Quartets ... regarded by TS Eliot as his masterpiece, led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

Eliot regarded the Four Quartets as his masterpiece. This is the work that led to his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is not one poem but four long poems, each published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942).

Each poem has five sections, each begins with a meditation or reflection on the place that gives the poem its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in a theological, historical or physical respect and its relation to the human condition. In addition, each poem is associated with one of the four classical elements, air, earth, water or fire.

Burnt Norton asks what it means to consider things that might have been:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

A terrace of almshouses in East Coker ... the village that inspired TS Eliot was his ancestral home and his ashes are buried at the parish church ... “In my beginning is my end”

East Coker, the second of his Four Quartets, is set in late November and ends: “In my end is my beginning.”

But it opens:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation …

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane …

Wait for the early owl.

‘Now the light falls ... I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.’ Dusk turns to darkness at Minister Pool in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Out of darkness, Eliot offers a solution in East Coker:

Now the light fails … I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.

East Coker ... TS Eliot’s ancestral village in Somerset (Photograph: The Guardian)

The Dry Salvages treats the element of water, drawing on images of river and sea. It strives to contain opposites:

... the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled.

Julian of Norwich ... All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well

Little Gidding treats the element of fire, drawing on Eliot’s experiences as an air raid warden during the Blitz in London. This is the most anthologised of the Four Quartets. In Little Gidding, the Four Quartets end with the well-known affirmation by Julian of Norwich:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

‘To make an end is to make a beginning’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Little Gidding, Eliot exposes the expression of the Catholic faith in Andrewes’s time. There are paradoxical lines that crystallise the significance of the Incarnation:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

… A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

The community at Little Gidding maintained 24 hours of prayer, including long hours of night vigils. Little Gidding was a place “where prayer has been valid” and where “prayer is more/than an order of words”:

… You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

The Four Quartets must be understood within the framework of Christian thinking, tradition, and history. Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics like Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration that inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road of sanctification.

Eliot directed much of his creative energies after Ash Wednesday to writing plays. A pageant play, The Rock (1934) was first performed to raise funds for churches in the Diocese of London.

A former Dean of Canterbury, Bishop George Bell (1883-1958) of Chichester, asked Eliot to write his best-known play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935) for the Canterbury Festival in 1935. The play tells the story of the murder and martyrdom of Saint Thomas a Becket.

The Cocktail Party (1949) was Eliot’s modernising of Alcestis by Euripides. Professor Guy Martin once offered a course at Harvard Divinity School on the writer as theologian, focussing on the poetry, prose and the plays of TS Eliot, examining the way he contributed to the relationship between religion and literature. As part of their final examination, the members of the class produced The Cocktail Party.

Eliot was a member of a group that produced the report Catholicity (1947) as a contribution to the process that resulted in the Church of England’s Report on Doctrine (1948).

In 1958, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury appointed Eliot to a commission that produced The Revised Psalter (1963). Another member of the commission was CS Lewis, who had once been a harsh critic of Eliot. In 1935, Lewis wrote to a mutual friend that he considered Eliot’s work to be “a very great evil.” However, during their time on that commission their antagonism turned to true friendship.

In 1957, at the age of 68, Eliot secretly married his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, then aged 32, who had been his secretary at Faber and Faber for almost eight years.

The wall plaque in Saint Michael’s Church, East Coker, Somerset, commemorating TS Eliot (Photograph: John Snelling)

Eliot died in London on 4 January 1965. His ashes were taken to Saint Michael’s Church in East Coker, the Somerset village from which his ancestors had emigrated to New England in the 17th century. A wall plaque in the church commemorates him with a quotation from his poem East Coker:

In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.

He is also commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, where a stone quotes from Little Gidding:

the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond
the language of the living.


10.3: Is there an Anglican culture? Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is an extended version of notes prepared for a lecture on the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, on Monday 31 March 2014.

Art for Lent (27): ‘Samuel Johnson’ (1976),
a mosaic in Lichfield by John Myatt

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

For my work of Art for this morning [31 March 2014] I have decided to look at a mosaic of Samuel Johnson on a street corner on Bird Street, opposite New Minster House in Lichfield.

This mosaic by the controversial artist John Myatt is based on a portrait of Dr Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was donated to Lichfield in June 1976 by Lichfield District Arts Association and Berger Paints.

The mosaic depicts the recognisable face of Samuel Johnson in small blocks painted in a variety of colours. Myatt produced the mosaic in a studio at the now closed Arts Centre which stood near the street corner. Initially, the finance for the work was provided by Berger Paints. However, the company went out of business halfway through the project and after its completion the mosaic was left in the Arts Centre for four years until the present site was chosen. The mosaic was unveiled by the Mayor of Lichfield, Councillor Bob Blewitt.

A plaque beneath the mosaic says: “Dr Samuel Johnson / Born in the City of / Lichfield 1709 died 1784 / this mosaic by John Myatt after / a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds / was donated to the Citizens of/ Lichfield in June 1976 by / Lichfield District Arts Association / and Berger Paints.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) ... the portrait by Joshua Reynolds inspired John Myatt’s mural in Lichfield

The mosaic is made of plywood blocks, emulsion, marine varnish, and measures 2.32 metres high x 3.36 metres wide.

It was restored in 2005 by John Myatt and Stephen Sanders. The restoration was instigated by Lichfield Civic Society with additional funds from the Conduit Lands Trust, Lichfield District and City Councils, public and private donations.

Although Myatt has twice re-varnished the mosaic, the tough marine varnish probably needs replacing again.

A street view of John Myatt’s mural in Lichfield commemorating the cathedral city’s favourite son (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was one of the most important writers of the 18th century. Due to James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), Johnson’s personality has often eclipsed his writings and many famous Johnson quotes actually come from Boswell’s recollections of conversation, rather than Johnson’s own writing.

John Myatt is a controversial artist and a convicted forger. With John Drewe, he carried out what has been described as “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century.”

Myatt was born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1945, the son of a farmer. He attended art school in Stafford and discovered a talent for mimicking other artists’ styles, but at first only painted for amusement and for friends. After art school in Stafford he began teaching art in Wilnecote, on the edge of Tamworth, in 1968. In the 1960s, a grant also allowed him to open a studio in Lichfield, where he created original works.

Three years after painting this mural of Samuel Johnson, he wrote the single ‘Silly Games,’ which was a No 1 hit for one week for Janet Kay in 1979.

Meanwhile, John travelled from Lichfield to Birmingham each weekend to study the paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and by artists like Pissarro. It fuelled a passion which turned into quite a skill – undetectable fakes.

His first wife left him in 1985, and he gave up teaching to spend more time with his children while he tried to make a living by painting original works in the style of well-known artists. In 1986, while still struggling to raise his two children on an art teacher’s wage, he placed a notice in Private Eye offering genuine “19th and 20th century fakes for £200.”

At first he was honest about the nature of his paintings. But John Drewe, a regular customer who claimed to be a professor of nuclear physics, resold some of his paintings as genuine works. When he later told Myatt that Christie’s had accepted his “Albert Gleizes” painting as genuine and paid £25,000, Myatt became a willing accomplice to Drewe’s fraud, and began to paint more pictures in the style of masters like Roger Bissiere, Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Matisse, Ben Nicholson, Nicolas de Staël and Graham Sutherland.

Drewe then sold them to auction houses, including Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s, and to dealers in London, Paris and New York.

Myatt was arrested by Scotland Yard detectives in September 1995. He quickly confessed, stating that he had created the paintings using emulsion paint and K-Y Jelly. He estimated he had earned around £275,000, and offered to return £275,000 and to help to convict Drewe.

On 16 April 1996, police raided Drewe’s gallery in Reigate, Surrey, and found materials he had used to forge certificates of authenticity. Drewe had also altered provenances of genuine paintings to link them to Myatt’s forgeries and added bogus documents to the archives of different institutions to “prove” their authenticity.

Myatt and Drewe went on trial in September 1998. On 13 February 1999, Myatt was sentenced to a year in prison for a conspiracy to defraud and was released the following June after four months in Brixton Prison. Drewe was jailed for six years for conspiracy and served two years.

On his release, John’s arresting officer from the Arts and Antiques Squad in Scotland Yard contacted him and became the first customer for one his “Genuine Fakes.” Since his release, Myatt has continued to paint commissioned portraits and clear copies, and he has exhibited his works. His paintings are now marked indelibly as fakes, and can be bought on-line. Some have sold for up to £45,000.

His first originals exhibition in London in 2005 was opened by Anne Robinson and Magnus Magnusson and was a complete sell out. He is a well-known Sky Arts presenter, and is happily married to his second wife Rosemary and together they have between them five grown-up children. He is a committed Christian, is back living in Lichfield and plays the organ in his local church every Sunday. His story is told in a book by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, Provenance (Penguin, 2010); it is a story with a happy ending, and a story for Lent about wilderness times, fall, redemption and restoration.

Not so for Drewe though, it appears. In 2012 at Norwich Crown Court, he was convicted of defrauding a 71-year-old retired music teacher of her life savings of £700,000 and leaving her penniless. He was jailed for eight years by a judge who told him: “In my view you are about the most dishonest and devious person I have ever dealt with.”

Samuel Johnson’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street, now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum ... Lichfield loves Samuel Johnson as much as Stratford on Avon loves William Shakespeare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Lichfield loves Samuel Johnson as much as Stratford-upon-Avon loves William Shakespeare. I find Johnson’s last prayer, as he was about to receive Holy Communion for the last time, is an appropriate prayer to mediate on during Lent:

Almighty and most merciful Father,
I am now, as to human eyes it seems,
about to commemorate, for the last time,
the death of your Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer.
Grant, O Lord,
that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and his mercy;
enforce and accept my imperfect repentance;
make this commemoration confirm my faith,
establish my hope and enlarge my charity,
and make the death of your Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption.
Have mercy upon me and pardon the multitude of my offences.
Bless my friends, have mercy upon all.
Support me, by the grace of your Holy Spirit,
in the days of weakness and at the hour of death;
and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness,
for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Samuel Johnson bemoaned the fact that the observance of Lent had fallen into neglect in his time, and in Abyssinia he wrote: “During the great Lent, they eat neither butter nor milk, not any thing that has had life. They fast all Holy Week upon bread and water; … Thus Lent is observed throughout Abyssinia, men, women and children fasting with great exactness.”

On the other hand, he noted in contrast: “Abstinence from lacticinia [milk foods], which included butter, cheese, and eggs, was never strictly enforced in Britain, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries because of the lack of oil and other products that could serve as substitutes.”

Boswell notes that Johnson fasted so strictly on Good Friday that “he did not even taste bread, and took no milk with his tea; I suppose because it is some kind of animal food.”

Johnson’s diaries show that such fasting was a regular practice for him, including the anniversary of his mother’s death (23 January 1759), during Lent, and from Good Friday until Easter morning.

Samuel Johnson first went to school at Dame Oliver’s School in Dam Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Next only to Shakespeare, Johnson is perhaps the most quoted English writer. He was born in Lichfield, in 1709. A childhood infection left him deaf in his left ear, almost blind in his left eye, with impaired vision in his right eye, and with scar tissue that disfigured his face.

One day in his childhood, Johnson started home from school by himself. Coming to an open ditch across the street, he got down on all fours to peer at it before attempting to cross. Throughout his life, he feared that ill health would tempt him to self-indulgence and self-pity, and constantly resisted that temptation.

In his 70s, on a return visit home to Lichfield, he looked for a rail that he used to jump over as a boy.

The former Lichfield Grammar School in Lower Saint John Street where Johnson later went to school ... now the offices of Lichfield District Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

At the age of 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford, 1728, but was forced to leave a year later because of poverty and unpaid fees. But during that year he was deeply influenced by reading William Law’s Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life.

In 1735, he married the widowed Elizabeth (“Tetty”) Porter, who was 20 years older than him.

The newly-married Johnson opened a private school at Edial Hall, west of Lichfield, where one of his first students was David Garrick, who became a life-long friend and was the foremost actor of his day.

When the school closed, Johnson and Garrick decided to seek their fortune in London, where Johnson began writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine.

In the next few years, he wrote short biographies, poems in Latin and English; monthly articles on politics and other current affairs, and on literature, politics, religion, ethics, agriculture, trade, business, philology, classical scholarship, aesthetics, metaphysics, medicine, chemistry, travel, exploration, and Chinese architecture.

In 1746, he began work on his Dictionary of the English Language. He wrote definitions of over 40,000 words, with different shades of meaning, illustrating the meanings with about 114,000 quotations he had gathered. His work has served as the basis for all English dictionaries since.

Johnson completed his task in nine years, and his Dictionary was published in 1755. Oxford University honoured his work with an MA degree.

When his wife Tetty died in March 1752, his grief was overwhelming. In January 1759 his mother died at the age of 89, and the following Easter his diary records the following prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father, look down with pity upon
My sins. I am a sinner, good Lord,
but let not my sins burden me for ever.
Give me the Grace to break the chain of evil custom.
Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth;
to will and to do what thou hast commanded,
grant me to be chaste in thoughts, words, and actions;
to love and frequent thy worship,
to study and understand thy word;
to be diligent in my calling, that I may support myself and relieve others.
Forgive me, O Lord, whatever my mother has suffered by my fault,
whatever I have done amiss,
and whatever duty I have neglected.
Let me not sink into useless dejection;
but so sanctify my affliction, O Lord,
that I may be converted and healed;
and that, by the help of thy Holy Spirit,
I may obtain everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And O Lord, so far as it may be lawful,
I commend unto thy Fatherly goodness my father, brother, wife, and mother,
Beseeching thee to make them happy for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

For two years, from March 1750 to March 1752, he published the Rambler, a periodical, every Tuesday and Saturday. Each issue included one of his essays, and he wrote 208 essays in all.

Before writing these essays, Johnson offered the following prayer:

Almighty God... without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the Salvation both of myself and others.

Johnson also wrote a series of sermons for his friend John Taylor.

In 1756, after finishing his Dictionary, he was asked to supervise a new periodical, the Literary Magazine. But the magazine did not last. In 1759 he wrote a short novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

In 1762, he was awarded a pension for life of £300 a year.

Dr Johnson’s house in Johnson Court, off Fleet Street, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In Easter 1764, he wrote in his diary:

Almighty and most merciful Father, who hast created and Preserved me, have pity on my weakness and corruption. Let me not be created to misery, nor preserved only to multiply sin. Deliver me from habitual wickedness, and idleness, enable me to purify my thoughts, to use the faculties which thou hast given me with honest diligence, and to regulate my life by thy holy word.

Grant me, O Lord, good purposes and steady resolution, that I may repent my sins, and amend my life. Deliver me from the distress of vain terror and enable me by thy Grace to will and to do what may please thee, that when I shall be called away from this present state I may obtain everlasting happiness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

He began working on a new edition of the works of Shakespeare in 1756. It took nine years and was published in 1765.

In 1766, his friends Henry and Hester Thrale found him agitated, with acute depression. He became part of their family and he recovered his sanity.

He died quietly on the evening of Monday 13 December 1784.

Wise words from Dr Samuel Johnson in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)


Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know your Presence and obey your will; that, following the example of your servant Samuel Johnson, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what you give us to do, and endure what you give us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Tomorrow:The Ship of Fools’ by Hieronymus Bosch.