FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH

Milan, 19 April 2017

Some forty years ago, when my wife and I were just beginning our journey together through life, I came down to Milan to spend Easter with her. At her mother’s suggestion, we went to a late-night service in the nearby basilica of Sant’Ambrogio.


It was either on Good Friday night or Easter Saturday night (my memory is clouded on this detail). Either way, at the end of the ceremony we all trooped out into the church’s atrium.

There, the presiding bishop put a light to a nice big bonfire which had been laid down earlier, and intoned loudly several times “Christus Resurrexit!”, “Christ is Resurrected!”. Now, since the resurrection of Christ is the central tenet of Christianity – without it, there would be no Christianity – you would think that the bishop would have shouted out this message with joy and gladness, or at least with a mild level of satisfaction. Not a bit of it! The fellow intoned it so mournfully as to make you wonder if he was sorry that the resurrection had ever taken place at all. Or maybe he enjoyed Lent a lot, fasting and praying and beating his breast, and was sorry that it was all over for another year. Or perhaps his hemorrhoids were acting up. Whatever the reason, the three of us agreed afterwards that the Bish had been a douche-bag, resurrection-wise.

Ever since that ceremony long ago, it has been in the back of my mind to attend it again, if only to see if succeeding bishops were a bit more joyful about it all. But as the Italians say, fra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare, between the saying and the doing lies the sea (it sounds better in Italian, if only because it rhymes). This year I thought the time was finally ripe, but alas! either the ceremony was on Good Friday night, when we had just arrived back from Los Angeles and were in no fit state to take part in anything, or some boringly politically correct entity like the City of Milan Health & Safety Services had decided in the intervening years that open bonfires in church atria were a no-no. Whatever it was, the bottom line was that there was no ceremony on Easter Saturday.

My wife decreed that nevertheless we should at least step into Sant’Ambrogio on Easter Sunday – something to do with a sort of atavistic belief that this would be a good day and place to receive a dose of sympathetic magic – and I grouchily agreed. So some time in the afternoon of Easter Sunday we made our way to the church, weaving our way through the few Milanese left in the city who were going for their Sunday stroll. We walked through the atrium where there should have been the bonfire, and we entered the church.

Ahh! My nose was immediately greeted by the smell of incense which had been burned in earlier ceremonies, and I was transported back to my youth. I saw the boy that was me inhaling that fragrance, pungent but with sweet overtones, watching the smoke curling towards the ceiling, and generally enjoying one of the few bright spots during those weekly masses which I had to endure.

I also thought that swinging that thingy (which I later learned was called a thurible) from which all that thick smoke poured out was pretty cool.

In my teenage years, when I was finally considered responsible enough, I got to serve in High Masses as an altar boy and to swing the thurible (the idea being to pass air over the incense to keep it burning). Luckily, I never got into trouble as Edward Norton did in the film “Keeping the Faith”. Readers may remember the scene where as a young priest just starting out he gets to swing the thurible, which he does with such enthusiasm that he sets his robes alight and has to jump into the font of holy water to douse the flames.

A quick search of my favourite source of information – Wikipedia – informs me that the incense used in the Roman Catholic rites of my youth contains a varying mix of frankincense, myrrh, gum benjamin, copal, and a few other odds and ends.

Frankincense and myrrh …

“We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshiping God on high.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Rings through the earth and skies.”
(I have cut the refrain)

That conjures up another image of my childhood, me in the school choir at primary school, doing the rounds of houses in the neighborhood, our choir master ringing the doorbell, and us launching into this and other Christmas carols when the occupants opened.

At the end of it all, we trooped over to the choir master’s house where his wife had prepared a buffet supper for us all, and where we got to taste just a little bit of the choir master’s home brew … Good times, those were.

Frankincense and myrrh …

The gifts, along with gold, that those three wise men with such mysterious names – Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior – are proffering to the child Jesus in those countless paintings of the Adoration of the Magi produced in centuries past.

They are also players in the crèches which appear every year at Christmastime in Italian churches, ranging from the simple

to the very elaborate.

As young children we prepared one at home under the overall theological supervision of our mother – the latter meaning that we were allowed to place in the background other figurines in our possession, such as cowboys and Indians or various animals, but not in such quantities as to crowd out the essential Christian message. The three wise men on their camels were placed far away from the manger in which Baby Jesus lay, and then every day after Christmas we children brought them a little closer, to end up at the manger on 6 January, the Day of the Epiphany.

It all looked all so easy to us, but T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Journey of the Magi suggests otherwise.

‘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.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Frankincense and myrrh …

So desired throughout the Middle East and the broader Mediterranean world that its production centuries ago brought untold wealth to the Yemeni tribes which controlled the resin-bearing trees, allowing them to build cities like Shabwa, Marib, Baraqish.

They also brought untold riches to the tribes which controlled access to the incense route. This snaked its way up the western side of the Arabian peninsula, skirting the Empty Quarter and the Nafud desert, and culminating in Gaza. The wealth generated by the trade built cities like Avdat in the Negev

and helped build Petra in Jordan.

One day, if they stop hating and killing each other in this part of the world, my wife and I will go and visit the groves of frankincense trees.

And we will travel the incense route, preferably on a camel.

____________________

Sant’Ambrogio: http://www.itmap.it/milano/basilica-di-santambrogio/
Atrium of Sant’Ambrogio: http://muse-garret.cocolog-nifty.com/blog/2018/04/index.html
Incense smoke in church: https://www.pinterest.ph/pin/321233385899973661/
Swinging thurible: http://www.diariodejerez.es/semanasanta/Lunes-Santo-Jerez_3_575672440.html
Christmas carolling: https://www.gettyimages.de/video/choir?sort=mostpopular&offlinecontent=include&phrase=choir
Adoration of the Magi: http://en.artsdot.com/@@/8BWV5K-Rogier-Van-Der-Weyden-Adoration-of-the-Magi
Simple creche: https://ask.fm/matteotesselli99_
Elaborate creche: https://collinadeiciliegi.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/er-presepe/
Ruins of Baraqish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baraqish
Ruins of Avdat: http://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/reizen/israel-restaureert-antieke-stad-avdat/diaporama-normal-450517.html
Ruins of Petra: https://magdalatravel.com/detalles.php?id=82
Frankincense trees: http://holistictoolbox.co.nz/product/frankincense-boswellia-rivae-organic/
Camel riding: http://thesandysnowman.com/5-lessons-life-travel/

100th ANNIVERSARY

Beijing, 21 July 2013

I am astonished to discover that this is my 100th posting! It seems only yesterday that, rather like a kid on his first day at school, I was nervously writing my first posting. This milestone deserves to be celebrated in some way. And what better way could there be than by singing the praises of the written word?

In my very first posting, which I entitled Manifesto (and which later became my “About” page, once I’d understood better how all this blog thing worked), I explained why, as I neared my 60th birthday, I had finally decided to take up the pen (electronic in this case) and write.

My decision to write actually flowed from my habit of reading. I’ve always loved to read. I still remember the day I got really hooked. I was maybe six, possibly seven. I was bored, and as is usual in these cases was bothering my elder siblings, who were all reading. In exasperation, one of my sisters gave me a book and ordered me to read it. I complied a trifle sulkily, but before I knew it I was drawn in – sucked in! – by the story. I still remember the book; it was from the Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton, about seven very English children who sluith around solving various mysteries (I’m amazed to see that these stories are still popular!)

secret-seven-adventure

For most of the next decade or so I read only fiction, but then I lost interest with the excuse that I lacked time.  I took up the habit again in my mid-twenties and I haven’t looked back. The contents of my modest library are packed away in Vienna, waiting to see the light of day again, but in my mind’s eye I can still walk slowly, pleasurably, along my bookcases packed with the books which have marked the passing of my adult life. My library always started with a section which I suppose would be called English Literature in a public library, so in my head my hand is now brushing over the spine of the novel “House of Spirits” by Isabelle Allende, which was the first of her novels I read and which led me – and my wife – to read many of her other novels (OK, strictly speaking these are not English literature, but since I read them in English that’s where I put them). They reconciled me with fiction after a long rift I had with the genre.

isabelle allende house of spirits

My eye is then drawn to the shelves dedicated to detective stories (since those memorable Secret Seven days, I’ve always had a weakness for “yellows” as Italians call them), where my hand falls on “A Morbid Taste for Bones”, the first in the series about Cadfael, the Benedictine monk from the great Abbey of Shrewsbury during the reign of King Stephen.

a morbid taste for bones

I picked up the first out of curiosity at the British bookshop in Milan but it led me, fascinated and hooked, to the next one, which led me in turn to the next one, and on and on like Adriadne’s thread, until one day I had read them all – they always reminded me so much of my school days in a Benedictine Abbey school.

In my library, where space as much as logic has determined where books are placed (my wife has resisted the wholesale takeover of our successive apartments by books), the detective stories are followed by poetry. Here, I pick out the poems of T.S. Eliot, the first poet I came to appreciate, at age 16, during a class at school on English poetry, run by a wonderfully eccentric schoolmaster. The poem he introduced us to was, of course, “The Waste Land”.

wasteland

I always place “The Waste Land” next to the poems by Wilfred Owen and the other First World War poets. I feel that this poem’s sorrowful elegies of times past marry well with the anger that pulses through the war poems, an anger at the sheer futility and waste of that war.  I picked up this particular compendium of WWI poetry in a bookstore on Oxford Street, during a short visit to London.

first world war poetry

The English Lit section finishes with the plays I have acted in and the many more I would have liked to act in (“Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill definitely falls into the latter category; it is a constant wound in my soul that I have never seen this play acted, yet alone acted in it myself).

mourning becomes electra

After English Lit in my library comes History: my passion – if I had not chosen to do sciences in high school, I would  have done history.   Among my many, many history books, I eye with particular fondness “The Pursuit of Power” by William McNeill,  which is a magnificent synthesis of military, technological, and social history over an arc of a thousand years.

pursuit of power

My hand then brushes over “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond, which (I am summarizing here!) tried to answer the question “Why was it European ships that sailed west and discovered the Americas and not the other way around?”. This book gave me the same shock of intellectual stimulation as McNeill’s book did when I first read it.

Guns Germs SteelI quickly jump to a shelf dedicated to histories of War, where I pick out  “The Face of Battle”, by the British war historian John Keegan, a fascinating analysis about how the field of battle has changed over time. I bought this book on impulse in a Barnes & Noble bookshop in New York 25 years ago and I liked it so much that over the succeeding years I read every single book Keegan wrote.

The-Face-of-Battle

History is followed by Other Social Sciences – politics, sociology, economics, and such like – where my hand brushes briefly over Henry Kissinger’s two volumes on his years in the White House.

white house years

I pass on quickly to the Science section, where I stop in front of my small collection of books on the biological sciences and evolution especially. My favourites are the collected essays on natural history by Stephen Jay Gould, whose warm, wisecracking style I find so quintessentially American, and the books by his “competitor” Richard Dawkins, whose coldly lucid style I find so quintessentially English.

Pandas ThumbBlind_Watchmaker

My science books are followed by my books on religion; why not? science has challenged (and in my view defeated) religion. And here my hand falls on “The Faces of Jesus” by Geza Vermès.

changing faces of Jesus

This was one of those books which takes your breath away by its ability to blow old ideas out of the window. It led me to buy several of his books, to explore who the real Jesus probably was once you get behind all the layers of Christian piety.

And finally, squeezed in at the end of my bookshelves, are books on art, cookery books, travel guides …

In China, I have continued the habit of buying books, nosing out where books in English can be found. We came with nearly no books (two compendia of English poetry, a book on Caravaggio, a book or two on Chinese history), now we don’t know where to put all the books that are piling up in drifts throughout the apartment.

Yet, during all this reading I have always felt a point of guilt: I was passively receiving these written words without writing anything back. Oh, I wrote a lot, but it was all dry, sterile stuff which I had to do for work; at the best of times clear, precise analysis, at the worst of times bureaucratese of the highest order. And so I started this blog. What a liberation it has been! I feel that I have finally gained my voice, that after all the croaking I’ve done I can finally sing (to paraphrase some lines from the African-American poet Langston Hughes, “now do I wonder at this thing, that I am old and yet can sing”). Of course, I don’t pretend to be writing great literature. These postings are just scribblings. My wife urges me to write a book, but I don’t think I can go beyond these brief notes. I am a sprinter, I tell her, I can only run 100 metres, I’m not a marathon runner. Still, the pleasure I derive from this writing is immense – and I hope my few readers derive some pleasure from reading these posts.

Yet, amidst all this pleasure, I have a sense that all is not well in the world of the written word. I see with dismay that bookshops are closing one after another as if hit by some sort of plague, and those that remain often survive by selling rubbish. To some degree, it is simply a change in venue. The written word is migrating from the printed page to an electronic format – am I not writing somewhere in an electronic cloud? For sure, newspapers have already almost vanished to be replaced by their electronic namesakes. Even books are taking this path. A younger colleague of mine urged me to switch to a Kindle; he even gave me his to handle, rather as you would drape a snake around someone’s shoulders to show how nice they really are. But I recoil from this electronicization of books. I want my books the old way, printed on paper, the way Gutenberg started it 500 years ago.

gutenberg

I sense, though, that the malaise with books goes deeper than a simple migration to the electronic cloud. I truly wonder if books will survive at all. The book I am currently reading, “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt, tells me that books have disappeared before.

the swerve

Greenblatt is writing about the near-miraculous recovery in the 1400’s, from some dark corner of a library in a European monastery, of a mouldering 8th Century copy of the poem “De Rerum Natura” by  the Roman poet Lucretius, written in the first decades BCE. But in telling this story he also tells of the time when books disappeared from the Roman Empire as the Empire slowly collapsed in on itself and Christianity spread. It had seemed to the Roman intelligentsia that books would be there for ever, and then one day they were gone. Many Roman writers we know only by name; none of their works have survived. To a book lover like me, it is a story that sends a shiver down the spine.

Those of my generation may remember a film of the 1960’s, Fahrenheit 451. The story is set in modern times, in a society which has banned books and where firemen are there to burn down houses containing books and not put out fires burning down houses. Through various twists and turns, the hero goes from being part of the system of suppression as a fireman to joining a resistance movement whose members live in the forests and keep books alive by each learning a few books by heart to pass on to younger generations, waiting for the time when books will be accepted again.

Fahrenheit 451

I don’t think that the next time books disappear it will be because society is hostile to them, or because society is collapsing. It will simply be through a collective bout of attention deficiency disorder as our electronic toys spin a web of confusion around our minds. Who will need books when you can slip on a pair of super-cool glasses and take part in a 3-D story peopled by electronic characters and set in electronic simulations of paradises on Earth?

I hope I’m not alive to see that day.

_____________

Secret Seven: http://www.enidblytonsociety.co.uk/author/covers/secret-seven-adventure.jpg
House of Spirits: http://swanyart.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/houseofspirits.jpg
A Morbid Taste for Bones: http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/_b2c/media/cache/44/a4/44a4f75b43b0f8f64547b5fb88d3d63b.jpg
Waste Land: http://www.whitmorerarebooks.com/pictures/464.JPG
First World War poetry: http://ethershop.umwblogs.org/files/2011/10/poetry.jpg
Mourning Becomes Electra: http://t2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQiKE5e4yBs1a08Z3wtMqkMnkbgAmpbLeajHmGMMCFt-_hTQ-hj
Pursuit of Power: http://www.bibliovault.org/thumbs/978-0-226-56158-5-frontcover.jpg
Guns, Germs and Steel: http://www.beyondone.org/images/image/GunsGermsSteel.jpg
Face of Battle: http://www.jamesaitcheson.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/The-Face-of-Battle.jpg
White House Years: http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/NDgwWDMyNQ==/$%28KGrHqF,!osE8Vffrj3DBPOp0ebETg~~60_35.JPG?set_id=8800005007
Panda’s Thumb: http://www.ateism.nu/images/The%20Pandas%20Thumb%20by%20Stephen%20Jay%20Gould.jpg
Blind Watchmaker: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/uk/thumb/f/f8/Blind_Watchmaker.jpg/240px-Blind_Watchmaker.jpg
The Changing Faces of Jesus: http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9780142196021_p0_v1_s260x420.jpg [in http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-changing-faces-of-jesus-geza-vermes/1004427856?ean=9780142196021%5D
Gutenberg: http://www.mainlesson.com/books/bachman/inventors/zpage206.gif
The Swerve: http://media.npr.org/assets/bakertaylor/covers/t/the-swerve/9780393064476_custom-90f41678e2d9b3883ed17ae22fff5d2273ca209e-s6-c30.jpg
Fahrenheit 451: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f0/Fahrenheit451B.jpg

ST. MARY’S GARDEN

New York, 7 January 2013

Several years ago, I had to be in New York for a period of two weeks to cover an international meeting. It was early May, a good time to be in the city. The weather is normally nice and it’s not too hot yet. The first morning, I left early to give myself plenty of time to deal with the wearisome entry procedures. My walk to the meeting took me along 47th Street. As I was walking between First and Second Avenues, I spied to my left the entrance to a little garden, open to the public.

mary's garden-2

Intrigued, I checked my watch and decided I had sufficient time to take a quick look. What I found was achingly lovely: a little pool with the quiet gurgle of a fountain to the side, a small bridge spanning the pool

mary's garden-1

leading to three benches, and planted beds around the pool. Most magnificent of all, arching over the whole, were three dogwood trees. They were in full bloom, and the soft whiteness of their flowers, tinged with spring green, permeated the whole space. I was left without breath and sat for five minutes to absorb it all. Of a sudden, I started out of my reverie, checked my watch again, and hurried off to my meeting.

The garden must be little known, because I was unable to find any photos of it on the web other than the two above. So I later sent my daughter to take photos when the dogwood trees were in flower. Here is a sample.

IMG-20130503-01859

IMG-20130503-01863

IMG-20130503-01864

I went back several times during the next two weeks, to reflect and to rest, watching the dogwood flowers begin to fade. I learned the garden’s name – St. Mary’s garden – and that it was attached to the small church next door, the Church of the Holy Family. I brought my wife there when she joined me in the second week. We sat on one of the benches and held hands.

When yesterday I found myself by chance close by, I could not resist visiting the garden again. Given the season, it was drearer.

garden-winter 002

But it still had a dreamy quiet; the fountain gurgled softly, and a bird sang in the dogwood trees. As I sat there, a fragment of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary floated up out of my boyhood memories, heard murmured by old women in dark, empty churches at the time of the Angelus:

Mystical rose,
Tower of David,
Tower of ivory,
House of gold,
Ark of the covenant,
Gate of heaven,
Morning star,
Health of the sick,
Refuge of sinners,
Comforter of the afflicted …

And then another memory fragment floated to my the surface of my mind, lines from the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday:

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still …

And I sat still.

_________________
Mary’s garden-1: http://www.dkimages.com/discover/previews/739/151269.JPG
Mary’s garden-2: http://forgotten-ny.com/wp-content/gallery/streetscenes_chip_07/11-holyfamily-grotto.jpg
Dogwood in bloom-1: my daughter
Dogwood in bloom-2: my daughter
Dogwood petals in the pool: my daughter
garden in winter: my picture