Dispensing Witan Wisdom Since The Days of King Eggbound The Unready...

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Sunday, 24 May 2015

Epiblog for the Feast of St Joanna the Myrrhbearer

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. Summer still stubbornly refuses to break out, though, and there are only six days left of my favourite month of the whole year. The weather seems to be set at the moment in a pattern of dull starts to the day followed by it fairing up around teatime, when it’s too late to do anything or go anywhere.

Matilda’s now set into her summer routine of going out first thing, coming back after an hour or so for a late breakfast, and then resuming her station on the decking, in any patches of sunshine she can find. In the late afternoons, she comes in, has a second meal, and then puts herself to bed on the settee in Colin’s front room.  Sometimes she comes into the kitchen in the early evening and has a further short outing, via the conservatory door, but more often she stays there until first light, when she gets up and wanders round the house yowling, in order to tell us that it’s light outside.

Misty and Zak ended up last week having done over 50 miles in three days, but this week has seen some backsliding, mainly because Deb was so exhausted at the end of the teaching week that she developed a foul cold, which has curtailed the usual overland expeditions. I had something similar during the week, so I probably gave it to her, which I would have done anything to avoid – but sitting here in this mobile birdcage I’m prey for anything that comes along.  I probably got my dose of it, whatever it was, when I went to the hospital, which is an inherently unhealthy place, full of ill people.

So we’re all feeling a bit sorry for ourselves today. I’ve been dosing Debbie up with Buttercup Syrup, cider vinegar, orange juice, hot lemon and sugar, and garlic soup, but not all at the same time.  The garlic soup worked particularly well for me, I had two steaming mugfuls of it and felt much better the day after. I recommend it for anyone else with a touch of the grimblies.

The pressure was on to get better because Owen was going to drop in for one of his flying visits, and I needed to be on reasonable form if we were going to achieve anything. As usual, he hardly stopped, and in the four or five hours he was here, he banged in a fence post, mounted a hurdle on the wall, so now my rampside garden is finished, and unloaded a carful of books that he’d brought up from Wales. What made this especially welcome and a really brilliant gesture is that he had given up five hours of his birthday to do it. Truly worthy of a mention in despatches.

Armed with the said books, I was able to process some orders that have been stuck in the system, for some days, and I spent a merry three and a half hours packing books, ending up with dust and spiders in my beard.  I had just enough time to tape up the last box and still make the courier deadline on the Parcelbroker web site, in order for the various parcels, boxes and orders to be picked up on Friday.  So I felt pretty pleased with my efforts.  Only to have them completely undermined the next day when only one out of the two couriers actually came to pick them up. UPS did their bit, and DHL didn’t, just so you know who to avoid in the future.  I don’t know what’s wrong with couriers. It’s not exactly rocket science, you pick up a parcel, put it in your van, take it to the depot, where it gets sorted and put on a lorry to another depot, where it gets put on a van and delivered to its destination. What part of that are they struggling with? Whatever the cause, there is a great market opportunity for any courier who can do it right, do it at the first time of asking, and do it without being constantly chivvied to make sure they haven’t dropped your parcel down a bottomless well filled with piranha fish by mistake.

I’ve left the outside world to its own devices this week. I did have an email from the Labour Party assuring me that I would have a vote in the election of the new Labour leader, although there is still no sign of the promised membership pack in the post. I can only hope that they are never invited to organise a social event in an environment where the fermentation of alcoholic beverages has taken place.

Partly, my lack of interest in the news has been down to shell-shock and apathy, partially down to viewing everything through a haze of man-flu. The government failed to meet its immigration targets (or rather its anti-immigration targets) in the same week as Cameron was talking tough and posturing at the EU. No surprise there, then.  Labour has (belatedly) decided, or at least Harriet Harman has, that they will support an EU Referendum after all.  That resounding clang you just heard was the stable door being shut.  Meanwhile the Blight Brigade is pressing on with plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.

As this is supposedly a spiritual blog, at this juncture it is probably also apposite to mention that Hull City AFC will need a miracle if they are to avoid relegation this afternoon. They have painted themselves into a corner whereby they have to beat Manchester United (fourth in the league) and Newcastle also have to lose to West Ham, for them to have a hope of survival. They have only themselves to blame. To win the Premiership title, you need to have a mad foreign owner with bottomless pockets who will buy you the players you need to basically buy the trophy.  Hull City only have half this solution in place, they have a mad foreign owner, but their new signings this year have been lacklustre under-performers.

Merely to survive in the Premiership, you have to do two things – score goals at one end and keep them out at the other, and time after time this season, against mediocre opposition, they have failed to do even that. Quod erat demonstrandum, I’m afraid. God alone knows where all the heart and passion and energy that took them to the FA cup final last season, and helped them give Arsenal the scare of their lives has gone, but it’s been missing in action for weeks now.

My attention was caught this week, however, since we’re on spiritual ground, by the proposal that the Catholic church should make Mother Teresa into a saint.  There are some quite vociferous arguments against this – that she opposed the empowerment of women, and by doing so she prolonged the misery of poverty in the areas for which she was responsible. As Christoper Hitchens said: 

Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

I’m not quite sure what Mr Hitchens meant about empowerment of women being the only known cure for poverty, as there are plenty of others: diverting the money spent on arms in the world into the alleviation of disease and the provision of clean water in Africa and India; making sure that aid donations get to the people who need them, instead of being spent on gold bath-taps in the presidential palace; asking India why, when it has a space programme, there are still beggars on the streets of Calcutta, and halting the relentless plundering of the “undeveloped” world and its resources by rapacious multi-national companies. To name but a few.

Yes, obviously, more effective birth control in some areas would reduce the number of mouths to feed, but in those areas there also tends to be high infant mortality, so you can’t really blame people for having a large family partly to ensure that they themselves will be looked after in their old age. Some of the “indigenous” and “tribal” and “primitive” cultures which we in the west like to feel superior about could teach us a thing or two about the importance of the extended family.

But the crux of the matter for me is that it’s probably impossible to come up with any saint who is wholly good.  To be a saint, a religious one at any rate, it seems to me that you have to have been some kind of single minded monomaniac weirdo, probably with a sprinkling of added foibles.  The problem with people like Mother Teresa and indeed Julian of Norwich, whom I wrote about last week, is that they have such a strong belief in the salvation that is to come, that they tend to place less importance on suffering and poverty in this world. Julian of Norwich thinks that sins are mistakes which we have to learn from and overcome in order to get closer to God. Mother Teresa thinks that suffering is a gift from God. Personally, if anyone had told me on Wednesday that my man-flu was a gift from God and I should offer it up in prayer, they would probably have gone home with their windpipe in their pocket. Not all of us are made of such unworldly stuff, and some of us believe in life before death as well as life thereafter.

I’m guessing, therefore, that all saints had off days, and that maybe some of them weren’t the sort of person you’d want to share a breakfast table with.  Plus, the goalposts have been moved (perhaps Hull City, at least, can learn from that). In olden times, all that was necessary seemed to have been to have been hacked to pieces by a Roman, or to have been a hermit, or maybe to have been one of those members of the Royal Anglo-Saxon households of the Wuffingas, or Wessex, or similar.  Gradually, over the years, the idea of good works has set in, as the more supernatural elements of earlier sainthood have receded (miracles, picking up your severed head and walking off with it under your arm, and the like).

Much as I can see the logic in the Catholic post-demise progression from beatification to eventual sainthood and it all being ordered and ordained and all that, I still think, as I have said in previous blogs, that what we need is maybe an order of secular saints, this side of the grave, starting with the people who rescue and rehome unwanted dogs, cats and other animals.

As far as religious sainthood goes, whether someone is a deserving saint or not seems to depend on where you stand on the question of whether the possibility of a better life in the next world outweighs suffering and poverty in this one. Atheists and their like will automatically say that this attitude simply helps perpetuate the injustices and inequalities in the world, keeping the poor poor, and buying off their aspirations with a dazzling vision of heaven and the better world a-coming, by and by, where the circle will be unbroken.

I still find myself disagreeing with the view that any man-made poverty and suffering is necessary, let alone desirable. Sister Wendy Beckett said that praying during times of suffering is asking God to come and stand with you and help you get through it, and that seems to me a more sensible, more defensible attitude than saying “Yippee, thanks be to God, I have no money and my children have cholera”. 

So, once again, I’m at odds with established religion (at least the bit of it that’s responsible for turning Mother Teresa into a saint) which comes as no surprise to me, as it’s pretty much my default position these days. I have still been reading Julian of Norwich, and I was bothered enough to find out that, as well as being Whit Sunday, today is also the feast of St Joanna, who was the wife of Chuza, the steward of King Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee.  She was apparently one of the women who discovered the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday, AD33.  In the Orthodox tradition, she is known as Joanna the Myrrhbearer, because she had come intending to anoint Jesus’s dead body with myrrh, though we should perhaps remember that, in the Orthodox tradition, it is also customary to have a beard like ZZ Top and wear a jiffy bag on your head, so it’s not all plain sailing.

The four Gospels don’t agree on the details of the women who were present at the tomb that morning when they apparently found it empty apart from an angel or two:  you can take your pick - Luke names them as Mary Magdalene, St Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and "the others with them".  Other gospels also include Salome (the one who was a follower of Jesus, possibly the wife of Zebedee – time for bed – and not the one who had John the Baptist’s head served up as a centrepiece). 

Whole books have been written by theologians about who was there that morning, comparing and contrasting the texts which have come down to us and positing that there may have been lost originals of which these are but copies, which would resolve the many dilemmas and variant readings of the Gospels as we currently have them.

St Mary Magdalene is a fascinating enigma. There has been so much written about her over the centuries, that even to attempt to summarise it here would mean I would still be sitting here on Wednesday typing this, and nowhere near finished.  Go and look, unless you are already familiar with it, of course.  Coincidentally, this week, I happened to catch a programme on TV about Mary Magdalene, through the haze of cotton wool and indifference which my cold had bred within me. This was in many ways the distillation of all of the various legends surrounding her: that she was the earthly consort of Jesus, that she bore him a child, begetting a bloodline; that she sailed from the Holy Land with various companions including Martha, Lazarus, and her unnamed child by Jesus, in the years following Christ’s crucifixion, making landfall in the south of France; that she is portrayed in The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, as the mysterious feminine figure who is leaning in towards Jesus and making a symbolic “M” shape.  This is all familiar territory, bred out of a mixture of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but I was struck by the strength of the devotion even now to the cult of the Magdalene in that area.

In St Maximin la Sainte Baume in southern France, the church has a life size golden reliquary of Mary Magdalene with a detachable gold face. When the face is removed, there is a glass bowl underneath, inside which is what is said to be the skull of the Magdalene herself. Every year, on the Sunday nearest to her feast day of July 22nd, the relic is paraded through the town.  This tradition dates from 1279, when her sarcophagus was discovered on the site of what is now the basilica, as a result of a prophetic dream.

The presenter of the programme was also allowed to watch some, but not all, of a Cathar religious ritual, and apparently there are still people in that area who follow the (technically heretical) beliefs and tenets of the Cathars, despite their ruthless suppression in the Middle Ages. Whether this is really a continuing, unbroken tradition, a line going back to the time when Beziers was besieged by the Albigensian Crusade, or whether, a bit like Morris Dancing in many English villages, it was re-invented in the 1920s by pseudo-bucolic antiquaries and had a merrie olde gloss painted over it, is immaterial: these people were holding a service based on a text from the Book of Philip, in France, in the 21st century. I’d love to have known what happened in the bit where the presenter was turfed out back into the street and not allowed to watch.

Mary Magdalen is important to the Cathars because the alleged relationship with the human Jesus is important in re-enforcing their dualistic view of the world.  The Coptic Gospels, the Gnostic texts, the Apochrypha, call it what you will, forms a large body of fascinating commentary on Jesus, his life and times, which has never found its way into the “official” Bible for various reasons, ever since AD46.  Mainly because they ask or pose awkward questions that can only be answered by recourse to potential heresy, and of course, the people who decided what was and wasn’t a heresy, were also the people who decided what went in “The Bible” or not.  So in many ways, it was “Catch 22”.

I seem to have got diverted a bit from St Joanna here: what I was going to say is that she is, I suppose, one of a third sort of saint. You have the early martyrs and the Anglo Saxons and the miracle workers, you have the later saints who actually went off into the jungle and founded clinics to fight disease and then died of it, and then you have the really early saints, who were saints simply by virtue of being “tinged” by association with Jesus during his time on earth.  Sort of automatic sainthood.

Yet clearly, St Mary Magdalene was not all good – at least in terms of conventional morality.  She is a very complex character, even if you discount all the unofficial legends and general hokum that has become attached to her by the likes of Dan Brown.  Were does sainthood lie, where does holiness actually lie? This is one of those questions like trying to pin down exactly where in the human body the soul may be found.  There are probably as many answers as there are saints, which I suppose gives some hope to those of us who are a lot less than perfect and have no idea what we should be doing with the remainder of our lives.  And also maybe we need a standard of sainthood other than the official route of beatification to canonisation.

Today is also Whit Sunday, of course, and as a Larkin fan, (Philip, not Pa) I am unlikely to have forgotten this, but for the last two years I have written specifically about Whitsun, and I just felt like a bit of a change.  That doesn’t mean I have forsaken that reedy river bank “where sky and Lincolnshire meet” – far from it, in fact. In what is laughably described as my spare time, this week, I have been doing some more family history research, and attempting actually to write up my notes of many years past.  This is a bit like a security blanket for me. In adverse times, when I feel under pressure, I always tend to burrow back into the past – it’s like a giant archival duvet where I am safe from all this modern-word stuff that needs sorting out – book deadlines, idiot couriers that don’t turn up, illnesses, packing orders, doing the bank rec. etc etc., If I can take a wander back to Cockley Cley in the 1730s, or even Hull in the 1860s, I quite often return from my historical rambles feeling refreshed and renewed.

And it’s not all been bad news this week. Thanks to Owen’s sterling efforts, the hurdle is now in place, it looks quite good, even though I say it myself, and one of the Litadora is in flower.  So I count that a small victory.  And re-reading Larkin’s poem about The Whitsun Weddings also makes me think yet again about the random nature of life and how there could be saints amongst us even now, that we do not recognise.  Don’t ask me why, or how, it’s just the random glimpses into other people’s lives – someone running up to bowl, and all that.  We meet these people for an instant, and then never again. Read the poem – the descriptions are a succession of what-might-have-beens, each frozen in that moment of time when he actually intersected with them, but carrying on outside of the poem, afterwards, to an unknown conclusion.  Which is a bit like life in general.

Anyway, it’s Sunday teatime and once more I’ve argued myself to a standstill. Debbie is about to take her first tenuous steps outside for a couple of days, on a short walk with Zak and Misty, and see how she gets on.  I have a rhubarb pie to make. I may do some more writing up on the Rudds later. Next week, though, I am really going to have to get my act in gear, and slough off the duvet of genealogy, and strap on the armour of commerce (quite what either of those metaphors would look like in real life escapes me, but you get the idea). In short, I need to stop fannying about and tinkering around the edges while I watch each deadline flying past, and instead get a grip on things. I may, however, find time to plant some marigolds.

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