08 June 2020

‘It is an easy thing to talk
of patience to the afflicted’

‘While … our children bring fruits and flowers’ … summer fruits on sale at Agios Georgios in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I am working on completing a package of liturgical resources for priests and readers to use in my diocese when our churches begin to open again for public worship on Sunday 5 July.

In my search for appropriate readings, hymns, prayers and other resources, I am challenged by trying to keep a balance between rejoicing at our church buildings opening again, the sufferings of many families and communities in recent months, and the anxieties people hold for the future.

It is the role of a priest to teach people how to pray. It is an easier task to teach people to bring their needs before God in prayer or to pray giving thanks for the blessings they know they have received in life.

It is a more difficult task to teach people to pray for the needs of others, or to give thanks for the blessings that others receive when there is no obvious benefit or ‘pay-off’ for the person who is praying.

And, indeed, it is much more difficult to pray for our needs, when we know those needs are never going to be met, or to pray in words of thanksgiving when we have nothing, when everything is slipping away, as a victim, as an oppressed person, as someone who has fallen, who is forgotten or who is deemed by others as not worth caring for.

In a similar way, it is easy for white people to assent to the demands of black protesters when we share emotional and righteous anger at the wilful killing of a man on the streets or the racist response of President Trump to protesters, especially when he abuses the Bible and a church building for a blasphemous photo-opportunity.

It is more difficult for white people to understand the underlying rage that finds expression in daubing or tumbling monuments and statues on city streets. But as long as we decide how and when to measure out our sympathy and support, then we keep deciding that white people ought to be in control.

We have all heard jokes about Victorian charities for the ‘deserving poor,’ as though poverty still allowed society to discriminate. It is not good enough for white people to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ but qualify this by saying things such as ‘… as long as they protest in ways that are acceptable to me’ or ‘… and of course, all lives matter.’

Institutionalised and systemic racism will not be eradicated until all white people accept that the answer cannot be found in waiting while white people are allowed to negotiate the terms on which it is eradicated.

Once again, in my prayers this morning, as I was using the Jewish prayer book Service of the Heart, edited by Rabbi John D Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, I found myself turning once again to the section on the theme of justice, and reading a poem by William Blake (1757-1827) that touches on many of these problems.

In this poem, which i have used many times before, William Blake writes about ease in prayer that often comes with everyday indifference to the poor in Vala or The Four Zoas, ‘Night the Seventh,’ ll. 111-29:

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs.

It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
To hear sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children,
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.

Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill,
And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:

Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: ‘but it is not so with me.’
‘Compel the poor to live upon a crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy.

Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit
In strong drink, though you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.’

‘While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door’ … a vine in the courtyard at the Hedgehog Vintage Inn in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

How Europe’s aristocrats
were better at breeding horses
than at breeding themselves

Philip of Habsburg with Juana the Mad … illustrating a book review in ‘The Economist’

Patrick Comerford

Throughout the lockdown, I have missed going into coffee shop and bookshops, and I have missed some of my favourite publications that have been part of my regular reading, including the New Statesman and The Tablet.

I miss reading regular contributors to the New Statesman such as Rowan Williams, Jonathan Sacks and Lucy Winkett, three of the great intellectuals and most thoughtful theologians in the England today.

Thanks to the kindness of neighbours and parishioners in Askeaton, I have continued to red The Irish Times and the Guardian almost daily, and thanks to family members I have postal subscriptions to the Economist each week and Private Eye fortnightly.

These have been regular reading all my adult life, and I have come to appreciate them even more during this time of semi-cocooning as a way of keeping in touch with ‘real life out there.’

The latest edition of the Economist has yet to arrive in the post, but the previous edition arrived late, in the middle of last week, and I am getting extended value out of it, from cover to cover.

Apart from its news coverage and insightful analysis, I also enjoy the Economist for its obituaries and especially for its cultural section. In particular, the book reviews are pithy and witty, informative and enjoyable, so much so that in recent months I have bought a number of books online after reading a review in the Economist.

These books include Sarah Abrevaya Stein’s Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019).

The previous edition of the Economist includes a review of The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady, recently published by Allen Lane and soon to be published in the US by basic Books.

This is an interesting combination of politics, history and genealogy, for it is impossible to imagine Europe for more than five centuries without the Habsburgs, described in this review as being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to marry.’

I have learned in recent weeks, as I explored the exotic claims to titles and aristocratic ancestry by a variety by people – from Count Henry Jerome de Salis (1740-1810), who was a canon and a priest in the Diocesan of Limerick or the two contemporary but unrelated incumbents in this diocese who claimed separately to hold the ancient title of The O’Hanlon, to Sir James Fitzgerald who lived in Lichfield and had no entitlement to the Irish title of baronet he used – that all genealogical explorations need to begin with a sense of humour and large pinches of salt.

It is a point made in another way by the reviewer in the Economist who writes, ‘If you ever wondered why marrying your uncle is inadvisable, the Habsburgs can enlighten you … The result was less a family tree, branching and widening, that a convoluted web.’

But to give an idea of the pungent wit and approach of the anonymous reviewer, here is a selection of quotations from this book review to illustrate the engaging quality of many of the cultural features in the Economist:

‘Philip of Habsburg … counted among his ancestors such unpromising genetic material as Albert the Lame, Leopold the Fat and, in age that excelled in the honest epithet, Frederick of the Empty Pockets.’

‘[This] book is billed as “the definitive history” of the clan. Not, it must be said, a hotly contested title.’

‘Once the names of Europe’s most powerful families – the Bourbons and Battenbergs and Garibaldis – were known across the world. Today, beyond the biscuit tin, they are largely forgotten.’

‘It is one of the abiding puzzles of European history that its aristocrats, so good at breeding horses, should have been so bad at breeding themselves.’

‘A list of the territories ruled by Charles V in 1521 notes that he was “King in Germany, of Castile, Aragon, Leon …”; the text runs to13 further lines and still ends with a breezy “etc”.’

‘[T]he Spanish Inquisition … did its job so effectively that even tattoos were censored.’

‘Over [the entire 16th] century, the output of the printing presses in Lima and Mexico was limited to fewer than 200 titles, most unbearably dull.’

‘Leopold I … is often criticised for spending too much on opera and too little on architecture, but this is unfair.’

‘Dante popped a Habsburg in his Purgatory, Titian immortalised them and Velazquez painted them.’

And the reviewer concludes: ‘Pre-20th century Europe is unthinkable without the Habsburgs – as indeed is 20th-century Europe. For on June 28th 1914 a Habsburg named Archduke Franz Ferdinand got into an open-topped car and went for a drive in Sarajevo.’

The review alone makes me want to get back into the bookshops, and makes want to buy and read this book. And reviews like this make me thankful for the family members who renew my subscription to the Economist.

● Martyn Rady, The Habsburgs, Allen Lane; 416 pp, £30; to be published in the US by Basic Books in August; $32.