12 September 2022

A day in hospital in
Sheffield looking like
‘The Man in the Iron Mask’

‘Ars Longa, Vita Brevis’ … words from Hippocrates at the Medical School in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I spent today in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, going through a procedure that is known as ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery as a follow-up to my stroke (AVM) six months ago (18 March 2022).

It was an early start this morning, including a Covid test, blood tests, an angiogram and an MRI scan before the actual procedure itself.

As for the radiosurgery procedure itself, who can object to lying back and listening to Mozart for half an hour?

I was back on the ward early this afternoon. I thought I might need to stay in overnight, but instead I am back this evening in the patients’ accommodation on Beech Hill Road, close to the hospital, where two of us stayed last night too.

This evening, there are four ugly bruises or puncture marks on my head where the frame was fixed onto my skull for the procedure. I expect to have some headaches for the rest of the day, and perhaps even tomorrow. But two of us are looking forward to going out to dinner in Sheffield later this evening. Last night, we had dinner in Efes, a Turkish restaurant on Glossop Road, near the hospital.

This has been my fourth hospital visit since that stroke. For most of the day, I seem to have been the identical twin of Alexandre Dumas’s poor incarcerated Man in the Iron Mask – except this was no cruel treatment, no novel experience, no long-term imprisonment; quite the opposite, in fact.

Days like this fill me with awe, wonder, respect and thankfulness for everyone who works in the NHS and hospitals. Everyone was caring and kept me informed throughout the day. The care and attention has been kind, thoughtful and gentle, while remaining thorough and professional all the time.

I was conscious throughout the day not only during the procedures but also of the arrogance of politicians who play to the audience of some voters and business interests who would prefer tax cuts and tax breaks rather than ensuring the NHS gets the funding and investment it needs and deserves.

The Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Walking between the hospital and the accommodation a number of times today and last night, I have passed a sculpted panel that bears the motto of the Medical School motto, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.

The panel came from the Surrey Street building that housed the medical school from 1828 to 1888.

The motto is a Latin translation of an aphorism originally in Greek by Hippocrates (400 BCE), the Greek father of medicine. It means, ‘Art is long, life is short,’ or ‘skilfulness takes time and life is short.’

In fact, the familiar Latin translation, Ars longa, vita brevis, reverses the order of the original lines, but still expresses the same principle:

Ὁ βίος βραχύς,
ἡ δὲ τέχνη μακρή,

Vīta brevis,
ars longa

The lines that follow say: ‘The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals co-operate.’

In other words, in plainer language, it takes a long time to acquire and perfect one’s expertise in, say, medicine, and one has but a short time in which to do it. More generally, it may also refer to how time limits what we can accomplish in life.

In the first-century CE, Rabbi Tarfon, a member of the third generation of the Mishnah sages, said something similar: ‘The day is short, the labour vast, the workers are lazy, the reward great, the Master urgent’ (Pirkei Avot 2: 15).

In the 14th century, Chaucer observed the Parlement of Foules, ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’

A panel in Sheffield explains that this quotation refers to the difficulty in acquiring and practising the art of Medicine: the physician, patient, attendants and external circumstances must work together towards a cure.

Those external circumstances, of course, must include governments and politicians, ensuring the NHS is properly financed and resourced.

Looking like ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ throughout the morning (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2022)

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Monday 12 September 2022

‘Agnus Dei’ is the first section of the cantata ‘Dona nobis pacem’ … the Lamb of God in a Harry Clarke window in Mount Melleray Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield this morning, about to go through what is known as ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery as a follow-up to my stroke (AVM) six months ago (18 March 2022).

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant,’ depicted by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, a 17th century Coptic monk in Egypt

The Gospel reading this morning at the Eucharist in the lectionary adapted by the Church of Ireland is:

Luke 7: 1-10 (NRSVA):

1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Today’s reflection: ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (1, Agnus Dei)

For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For these six days this week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence, listening to one movement after another over these six days of Holy Week.

Although Vaughan Williams is often best-remembered for collecting folk songs that he adapted as hymn tunes, he also wrote many works for chorus and orchestra, selecting and setting great texts for some of his finest works.

The oratorio Dona nobis pacem dates from the early 1930s and was written as a warning against war as another World War seemed to be looming on the horizons. The texts come from the Mass, the poet Walt Whitman, the Bible, and the politician and anti-war campaigner John Bright.

The work takes its name from the concluding phrase in the invocation to the Lamb of God sung or recited during the fraction at the Eucharist:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace

The opening and closing movements take their names from the opening and closing words of this liturgical prayer, so Vaughan Williams, in this inter-war plea for peace, opens and closes this oratorio with the Paschal invocation of Christ, pleading for the peace that he offers to a broken world.

The first German Zeppelin air raids hit England in January 1915. Vaughan Williams, who was then 42, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was assigned to ambulance duties, working with the wounded on the front lines in Flanders.

After World War I, Vaughan Williams held to his belief that music was a means to preserve civilisation, even amid war. He formed a military chorus and went on to dedicate his life to teaching others to make music. He promoted a ‘United States of the World’ where ‘those will serve that universal state best who bring into the common fund something that they and they only can bring.’

His oratorio Sancta Civitas, ‘The Holy City’ (1923-1925) was filled with vision, sadness, and suffering, and the music was ahead of its time in its use of dissonance. His cantata Dona Nobis Pacem has its roots in that earlier oratorio, expressing his anguish over the worsening political situation in Europe that would lead again to war.

When Vaughan Williams was invited to provide a work for the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society in October 1936, he remembered an unpublished setting he had composed for Walt Whitman’s ‘Dirge for Two Veterans,’ a poem in Whitman’s collection Drum Taps (1865), written at the end of the American Civil War.

He now resurrected this composition as the centrepiece of his new work, preceding it with two further poems by Whitman in Drum Taps, ‘Beat! beat! drums!’ and ‘Reconciliation.’

He prefaces this group of Whitman poems with a setting of the liturgical text, Agnus Dei, and followed it with a passage from a speech given in Parliament by John Bright in 1855 during the Crimean War: ‘The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings …’ Indeed, Vaughan Williams claimed to be the only composer ever to have set a passage from the proceedings of the House of Commons.

In the last two sections, he uses a series of passages drawn from the Old Testament which together express optimism for future peace.

The text is rounded off with a verse from Saint Luke’s Gospel, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men’ (Luke 2: 14) and a final repetition of the plea Dona nobis pacem, ‘Grant us peace.’

The whole work is welded together by his sense of urgency. As Vaughan Williams’s biographer, Simon Heffer, said, his main inspiration for Dona Nobis Pacem ‘is drawn not from the soil of England, but from the whole world going mad around him.’

Dona nobis pacem was first performed in Huddersfield on 2 October 1936, with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Albert Coates, and was performed at countless festivals and concerts in the anxious years leading up to World War II.

Dona Nobis Pacem also anticipates by 25 years Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with its dramatic settings of Latin liturgical texts and poetry and its emphasis on reconciliation.

Given its connections with both World Wars, this cantata seems appropriate to revive as the world faces the catastrophic consequences of the Russian invasion of and war in Ukraine.

The work is scored for chorus and large orchestra, with soprano and baritone soloists. Vaughan Williams’s perspective is no longer bound to the geography of England. His empathy now enfolds a world faced with another war. In setting biblical and poetic texts to music, he pays a subtle tribute to Verdi’s Requiem, which he admired – for example, the drop of a semitone on the word dona, bass drum key-shifts by thirds, and wild brass fanfares.

Dona Nobis Pacem opens with a heart-rending cry. This angelic cry from the soprano, Dona nobis pacem, is repeated at intervals, in different settings, punctuating the entire piece. From the beginning, the angel is the first to appear, soaring high and distant, beseeching peace against a choir alternatively gloomy with war, then echoing in serenity.

In the event, Vaughan Williams’s warnings and entreaties went unheeded, and the oratorio's optimism turned out historically unjustified in the short run. Vaughan Williams devoted the years of World War II to helping refugees find shelter and work, providing food by planting huge vegetable gardens and keeping chickens, and helping to stage free lunchtime concerts.

But the oratorio’s hope does not come cheap, and the humanitarian warmth and splendour of his vision remains. With Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Dona nobis pacem remains one of the most satisfying musical answers to the questions posed by war itself. It fills a large canvas and its theme is anguished and impassioned on a cosmic scale as it pleads for peace, tolerance and understanding.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [12 September 2022], I am listening to the first movement, ‘Agnus Dei’

1, Agnus Dei:

The cantata opens with a soprano solo, one voice offering an apprehensive Agnus Dei, a well-known phrase in Liturgical texts. She introduces the theme, singing it over the orchestra and choir.

The chorus joins in her fervent cry for peace. In answer, the drums of war are heard in the far distance, no longer a contagious dance rhythm of centuries past but, instead, the harbinger of war.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Saint John the Baptist (right) with the Virgin Mary and Christ in a stained glass window in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield … the scroll in Saint John’s hand proclaims ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Monday 12 September 2022):

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced yesterday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us give thanks for USPG’s Exchanging Places programme, which is just one example of an initiative designed to encourage more cooperation between countries in the Global South.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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