Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Moving beyond fiction
to the cost of real love
on Christmas Day

The Christmas Crib in the Square in Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas Day, Wednesday 25 December:

Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick

11 a.m.: The Christmas Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1: 1-4 (5-12); John 1: 1-14 (15-18)

Franz Kafka Street in the heart of the Old Town in Prague … his story is a reminder of incarnation, redemption and resurrection, a story of unconditional love, a story that reminds of me of how ‘love came down at Christmas’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

My travels this year began in the deep mid-winter, in Prague.

Perhaps the best-known literary figure of the 20th century associated with the Czech capital is Franz Kafka (1883- 1924). He was born in Prague, and when he died near Vienna he was buried in Prague. His best-known novels were published after he died, and include The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and America (1927).

In Prague, we saw Kafka’s statue in Dusni Street beside the ‘Spanish Synagogue,’ the streets named after him, and a collection of items associated with Kafka in the ‘Spanish Synagogue,’ close to where he was born.

There, in the snow and the biting winter-cold, we were also reminded of the story, ‘Kafka and the Travelling Doll,’ written by the Catalan children’s writer Jordi Sierra i Fabra.

His story is based on a real-life event in the life of Franz Kafka, based on the memoirs of Dora Diamant. She had lived with Kafka in Berlin, and he died in her arms.

It may not immediately strike you as a Christian or Christmas story. But it is a story of incarnation, redemption and resurrection, a story of unconditional love, a story that reminds me of how ‘love came down at Christmas,’ and a story that reminds me why children should take centre stage during our Christmas celebrations.

There are many versions of this story of Kafka. And, I thought, rather than preaching a Christmas sermon this morning – because the Gospel reading is dramatic enough a Christmas story – that I would read a wonderful adaptation of the story for RTÉ a few years ago by Caitríona Ní Mhurchú:

One year before his death, Franz Kafka sees in one of Berlin’s parks, Steglitz City Park, a girl who is crying because she has lost her doll.

The writer calms her down by telling her that her doll had gone on a trip and that he, a doll postman, would take her a letter the next day.

Over 13 days, he brought a letter to the park every day in which the doll tells of her adventures, which he himself had written the night before.

‘Your doll has gone off on a trip,’ he said. ‘How do you know that?’ the girl asks.

‘Because she’s written me a letter,’ Kafka says.

The girl seems suspicious. ‘Do you have it on you?’ she asks.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I left it at home by mistake, but I’ll bring it with me tomorrow.’

He’s so convincing, the girl doesn’t know what to think anymore. Can it be possible that this mysterious man is telling the truth?’

The next day, Kafka rushes back to the park with the letter. The little girl is waiting for him, and since she hasn’t learned how to read yet, he reads the letter out loud to her.

The doll is very sorry, but she’s grown tired of living with the same people all the time. She needs to get out and see the world, to make new friends. It’s not that she doesn’t love the little girl, but she longs for a change of scenery, and therefore they must separate for a while. The doll then promises to write to the girl every day and keep her abreast of her activities.

‘Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures.

After a few days, the girl had forgotten about the real toy that she’d lost, and she was only thinking about the fiction that she’d been offered as a replacement.

Kafka wrote every sentence of this story in such detail, and with such humorous precision, that it made the doll’s situation completely understandable: the doll had grown up, gone to school, met other people.

She always reassured the child of her love, but made reference to the complications of her life, her other obligations and interests that prevented her from returning to their shared life right now. She asked the little girl to think about this, and in doing so she prepared her for the inevitable, for doing without her.

By that point, of course, the girl no longer misses the doll. Kafka has given her something else instead, and by the time those two weeks are up, the letters have cured her of her unhappiness. She has the story, and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear.

For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.

One day the girl got her doll back. It was a different doll of course, bought by Kafka as a last gift for her.

An attached letter explained, ‘My travels have changed me.’

Many years later, long after Kafka’s death, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll.

In summary it said:

‘Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.’

In the end, love will return.

But, there are so many differences … Christ’s love for us is not fiction, but is true; and he is with us, not just at Christmas, but always. And, in the end, he will return.

In the deep mid-winter, Love came down at Christmas. Have a happy and a holy Christmas.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Pages from Saint John’s Gospel, the first complete hand-written and illuminated Bible since the Renaissance, in the recent Holy Writ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The statue of Franz Kafka by the sculptor Jaroslav Róna (2003), in a small park at Dusni Street beside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical colour: White (or Gold)

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect (day):

Almighty God
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)

Preface:

You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:

Post Communion Prayer (day):

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

Blessing:

Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

Hymns:

177, Once in royal David’s city (CD 11)
184, Unto us is born a Son (CD 11)
172, O come, all ye faithful (CD 10)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The first Christmas depicted in a mosaic panel in Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Love came down at Christmas

The first Christmas depicted in a mosaic panel in Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church, Waterford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas Day, Wednesday 25 December:

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

9.30 a.m.: The Christmas Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Readings: Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1: 1-4 (5-12); John 1: 1-14 (15-18)

The statue of Franz Kafka by the sculptor Jaroslav Róna (2003), in a small park at Dusni Street beside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

My travels this year began in the deep mid-winter, in Prague.

Perhaps the best-known literary figure of the 20th century associated with the Czech capital is Franz Kafka (1883-1924). He was born in Prague, and when he died near Vienna he was buried in Prague. His best-known novels were published after he died, and include The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and America (1927).

In Prague, we saw Kafka’s statue in Dusni Street beside the ‘Spanish Synagogue,’ the streets named after him, and a collection of items associated with Kafka in the ‘Spanish Synagogue,’ close to where he was born.

There, in the snow and the biting winter-cold, we were also reminded of the story, ‘Kafka and the Travelling Doll,’ written by the Catalan children’s writer Jordi Sierra i Fabra.

His story is based on a real-life event in the life of Franz Kafka, based on the memoirs of Dora Diamant. She had lived with Kafka in Berlin, and he died in her arms.

It may not immediately strike you as a Christian or Christmas story. But it is a story of incarnation, redemption and resurrection, a story of unconditional love, a story that reminds me of how ‘love came down at Christmas,’ and a story that reminds me why children should take centre stage during our Christmas celebrations.

There are many versions of this story of Kafka. And, I thought, rather than preaching a Christmas sermon this morning – because the Gospel reading is dramatic enough a Christmas story – that I would read a wonderful adaptation of the story for RTÉ a few years ago by Caitríona Ní Mhurchú:

One year before his death, Franz Kafka sees in one of Berlin’s parks, Steglitz City Park, a girl who is crying because she has lost her doll.

The writer calms her down by telling her that her doll had gone on a trip and that he, a doll postman, would take her a letter the next day.

Over 13 days, he brought a letter to the park every day in which the doll tells of her adventures, which he himself had written the night before.

‘Your doll has gone off on a trip,’ he said. ‘How do you know that?’ the girl asks.

‘Because she’s written me a letter,’ Kafka says.

The girl seems suspicious. ‘Do you have it on you?’ she asks.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I left it at home by mistake, but I’ll bring it with me tomorrow.’

He’s so convincing, the girl doesn’t know what to think anymore. Can it be possible that this mysterious man is telling the truth?’

The next day, Kafka rushes back to the park with the letter. The little girl is waiting for him, and since she hasn’t learned how to read yet, he reads the letter out loud to her.

The doll is very sorry, but she’s grown tired of living with the same people all the time. She needs to get out and see the world, to make new friends. It’s not that she doesn’t love the little girl, but she longs for a change of scenery, and therefore they must separate for a while. The doll then promises to write to the girl every day and keep her abreast of her activities.

‘Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures.

After a few days, the girl had forgotten about the real toy that she’d lost, and she was only thinking about the fiction that she’d been offered as a replacement.

Kafka wrote every sentence of this story in such detail, and with such humorous precision, that it made the doll’s situation completely understandable: the doll had grown up, gone to school, met other people.

She always reassured the child of her love, but made reference to the complications of her life, her other obligations and interests that prevented her from returning to their shared life right now. She asked the little girl to think about this, and in doing so she prepared her for the inevitable, for doing without her.

By that point, of course, the girl no longer misses the doll. Kafka has given her something else instead, and by the time those two weeks are up, the letters have cured her of her unhappiness. She has the story, and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear.

For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.

One day the girl got her doll back. It was a different doll of course, bought by Kafka as a last gift for her.

An attached letter explained, ‘My travels have changed me.’

Many years later, long after Kafka’s death, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll.

In summary it said:

‘Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.’

In the end, love will return.

But, there are so many differences … Christ’s love for us is not fiction, but is true; and he is with us, not just at Christmas, but always. And, in the end, he will return.

In the deep mid-winter, Love came down at Christmas. Have a happy and a holy Christmas.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

Pages from Saint John’s Gospel, the first complete hand-written and illuminated Bible since the Renaissance, in the recent Holy Writ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Franz Kafka Street in the heart of the Old Town in Prague … his story is a reminder of incarnation, redemption and resurrection, a story of unconditional love, a story that reminds of me of how ‘love came down at Christmas’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical colour: White (or Gold)

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect (day):

Almighty God
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
and his name shall be called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 6)

Preface:

You have given Jesus Christ your only Son
to be born of the Virgin Mary,
and through him you have given us power
to become the children of God:

Post Communion Prayer (day):

God our Father,
whose Word has come among us
in the Holy Child of Bethlehem:
May the light of faith illumine our hearts
and shine in our words and deeds;
through him who is Christ the Lord.

Blessing:

Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one
all things earthly and heavenly,
fill you with his joy and peace:

Hymns:

177, Once in royal David’s city (CD 11)
184, Unto us is born a Son (CD 11)
172, O come, all ye faithful (CD 10)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

The Christmas Crib outside Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

How Christmas 1940 in
Lichfield inspired three
poems by Philip Larkin

33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield … Philip Larkin spent Christmas 1940 here after the Larkin family moved during the Coventry Blitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985) has been described by Andrew Motion as ‘one of the two or three most important British poets of the last part of the 20th century,’ and Clive James, who died recently, once said ‘Philip Larkin really was the greatest poet of his time.’

Some years ago, Philip Larkin was added to the poets who are honoured in Poets’ Cornet in Westminster Abbey. The stone includes words from one of his best-known poems, An Arundel Tomb (1964): ‘our almost-instinct almost true What will survive of us is love.’

Peter Young, the former Town Clerk of Lichfield, has spoken on many occasions – to Lichfield Discovered (2014), to Lichfield Speakers’ Corner Group (2012), and to Lichfield Civic Society (2008) – about Larkin and his associations with Lichfield. Peter has joked that Larkin once said of Lichfield: ‘God this place is dull.’ But he wrote three poems in Lichfield that are anything but dull and form an important part of his collected works.

The Larkin family’s links with Lichfield date back to 1757, and many generations of the family are buried in the churchyard at Saint Michael’s Church. Some Larkin families lived at No 49 Tamworth Street, No 21 Tamworth Street, beside the former Regal Cinema and now the site of the Whippet Inn, and at No 21 Saint John Street.

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry, the only son and younger child of Eva Larkin and her husband, Sydney Larkin (1884-1948), who was from Lichfield. In October 1940, during the Coventry blitz, Eva and Sydney moved with their family to No 33 Cherry Orchard, Lichfield, the family home of an aunt and uncle. The house was too small for all the Larkins, however, and Philip Larkin moved out to another house in Cherry Orchard where he had a room to himself.

The sign of the Swan on Bird Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When Philip Larkin returned to Lichfield from Oxford for a Christmas holiday in 1940-1941, he regularly walked from Cherry Orchard into the centre of Lichfield to drink in the George and the Swan. During this time in Lichfield, he wrote three poems: Christmas 1940, Out in the lane I pause and Ghosts.

In Out in the lane I pause, the poet is standing alone under a starless sky beside a railway bridge. From his invisible vantage point, he contemplates the futures of the ‘Girls and their soldiers from the town’ whose steps he can hear on the steep road towards the shops, and the war-time disappointments to come.

Larkin wrote this poem on the nights of 18 and 19 December 1940, and included it in a letter to his school friend, James Ballard Sutton (1921-1997), on 20 December, along with two other poems, Christmas 1940 and Ghosts, written in Lichfield on the night of 19 December 1940.

Peter Young has suggested that Larkin may have referred to the Gazebo on Borrowcrop Hill in Christmas 1940, and that in Ghosts he is referring to the ghost story of the White Lady at the Swan on Bird Street, once the oldest pub in Lichfield.

Writing about Christmas 1940, Larkin told Jim Sutton: ‘I scribbled this in a coma at about 11.45 p.m. last night. The only thing is that its impulse is not purely negative – except for the last 2 lines, where I break off into mumblings of dotage.’

This poem was never published during Larkin’s own lifetime. It was first published in 1992 in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite (p. 8). It was included in 2005 by AT Tolley in Philip Larkin: Early Poems and Juvenalia (p 135), and more recently it is included by Archie Burnett in Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems (p 171).

Christmas 1940

‘High on arched field I stand
Alone: the night is full of stars:
Enormous over tree and farm
The night extends,
And looks down equally to all on earth.

‘So I return their look; and laugh
To see as them my living stars
Flung from east to west across
A windless gulf?

– So much to say that I have never said,
Or ever could.’

The ashes of Philip Larkin’s mother, Eva, were buried in Saint Michael’s Churchyard in 1977, and although the poet is buried at Cottingham, near Hull, both Eva and Sydney Larkin are named on tablets among the raised stones in Saint Michael’s.

Despite his well-known line in ‘This Be The Verse’ about parents, the poet visited the graves regularly, he witnessed his mother’s ashes being buried there in 1977, and he once asked for a plan of the churchyard. He died in 1985.

‘If only that so many dead lie round’ … members of the Larkin family are buried at Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield, and Philip Larkin’s parents are named on tablets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)