Love unknown

Finding himself travelling west on Good Friday in pursuit of worldly business, John Donne imagines himself straining to look east to witness the crucifixion, but also relieved that he cannot look:

Who sees Gods face, that is self life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?

Donne’s response to this impossible sight, this unfathomable love, is to beg for punishment:

I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

Donne is a masochistic soul, so often responding to the generosity of grace with a desire for punishment, as in the Holy Sonnets ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’, ‘At the round earths imagin’d corners’ (here in New College choir’s recording of the anthem by C H H Parry), and, less tastefully, ‘Spit in my face you Jewes’. But Donne’s view of Good Friday is not all that far from our own; so many representations of Good Friday from the last five hundred years are images of desolation and devastation, of torture and trauma and human inhumanity. It is a day of reckoning, a day of discomfort, a day of confronting who we are and what we are capable of doing. On Good Friday hang all of our sins, and all of our woes.

And so, perhaps it should be. We need to reckon with who we are and what we could be. But this year it felt so difficult, to be pulled to the depths of Good Friday without the company of friends, without the consolation of music, without the balm of ritual. We have already lost so much, and it seemed cruel to be forced to reckon yet again with sin and punishment and death, especially when Easter is yet another day when we are without family, without our freedom, and when the deaths continue to come.

Perhaps in this spring of seemingly endless Good Fridays we need something different, not a black Good Friday, but a good Good Friday. There is an older vision of Good Friday not as the descent of sin and death, but the spring of life, the source of Easter joy. Some of the earliest images of the crucifixion, for example, show not the desolate, drying corpse of northern Renaissance paintings, but Christ as a hero, almost smiling and ready to leap off the cross in triumph. This is the Christ of John’s gospel, who chooses to be lifted up to save the world, and chooses to breathe out his own spirit.

Later Christians meditated on John’s version of Jesus’s death by imagining the wound in Christ’s side opening up to reveal the depth of Christ’s saving love. A sixteenth century woodcut illustrating the gospel of John (in an edition of the New Testament in Syriac) shows the tree of life embedded in Christ’s side, the wound torn there by a sword opening up to bring forth and contain all of earthly life.

The fourteenth century mystic Richard Rolle (c. 1300-49) saw Christ’s wounds as a dovecot, with space for each of us to hide as the dove secures herself from the hawk, an apt image for our socially distanced times. Julian of Norwich (1342-after 1416) has a vision of Christ looking into his own side ‘with a glad cheer’ and seeing there ‘a fair, delectable place, and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest in peace and in love’. ‘This,’ she says, ’showed our good lord to make us glad and merry.’ (See below for the rest of this remarkable passage.) The Latin inscription on the woodcut above, from a liturgical chant, reads ‘Who in his hands outstretched upon the cross drew to himself the whole world.’ Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross is an extraordinary act of generosity. It is not self-flagellation, but self-donation, self-multiplication. God gives, that we might be.

There are times in human existence when the Good Friday of torture and suffering is the Good Friday we need, a reminder of what we are capable of, of what we can become. But there are times in human existence when the Good Friday of gift is all that we can receive, a reminder that we are loved and nurtured even at our lowest ebb. God comes alongside us in our sharpest pain and restores us, remakes us, revives us, into a life extraordinary, a sacrifice beyond our imagining for a future that is all our hope, and more, a dance of delight and love and peace.

This joyful Eastertide,
may God give to you and to all those whom you love
his comfort and his peace
his light and his joy
in this world, and the next,
and the blessing of God almighty,
who made us, loves us and keeps us,
be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

From Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Divine Love, chapter 24 (the tenth revelation):

With a glad cheer our good lord looked into his side and beheld, enjoying. And with his sweet looking he led forth the understanding of his creature by the same wound into his side, within. And there he showed a fair, delectable place, and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest in peace and in love. And therewith he brought to mind his dear-worthy blood and his precious water, which he let pour all out for love. And with the sweet beholding he showed his blissful heart evenly cleft in two. And with this sweet enjoying he shewed to my understanding, in part, the blessed godhead, as farforth as he would at that time, strengthening the poor soul for to understand as it may be said, that is to mean, the endless love that was without beginning, and is, and ever shall be.

And with this, our good lord said full blissfully, ‘Lo, how I loved thee,’ as if he had said: ‘My darling, behold and see thy lord, thy God, that is thy maker and thy endless joy. See thine own brother, thy saviour. My child, behold and see what liking and bliss I have in thy salvation, and for my love enjoy with me.’

And also, to more understanding: this blessed word was said, ‘Lo how I loved thee,’ as if he had said, ‘Behold and see that I loved thee so much, before I died for thee, that I would die for thee. And now I have died for thee, and suffered wilfully that I might. And now is all my bitter pain and all my hard travail turned to endless joy and bliss to me and to thee. How should it now be that thou shouldest pray for anything that pleaseth me, but that I should full gladly grant it thee? For my delight is thine holiness and thy endless joy and bliss with me.’

This is the understanding, simply as I can say, of this blessed word: ‘Lo how I loved thee.’ This showed our good lord to make us glad and merry.

With thanks to Professor Elisabeth Dutton for reminding me of this passage, and for reminding me of many other medieval images of the generosity of Christ’s sacrifice.


Yesterday a colleague sent me the video of our choir singing Parry’s (1848-1918) ‘My Soul there is a Country’ with the Sistine Chapel Choir in front of Michaelangelo’s vast and terrifying Last Judgement.

Parry’s anthem is one of the Songs of Farewell, composed in the final years of his life and tried out in draft form in New College chapel over several years. Parry, poignantly, did not live to hear the Songs performed together; they were first sung as a cycle by members of New College choir and others at a memorial for the composer in Exeter College Chapel in 1919.

I had the immense, almost unbelievable privilege of being at that concert in the Sistine Chapel in 2015, but did not know there was a recording, so clicking on the link was a little like tasting Proust’s madeleine, as I was immersed in the memory of a time so extraordinary that it had seemed unreal.

I was reminded of it this morning as we read Psalm 126 in morning prayer:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
   then were we like those who dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter
   and our tongue with songs of joy.

Our brief visit to the Vatican was hardly a release from Babylonian captivity, but it is a time when we were like those who dream, swept up in the strangeness of it all, from the early morning open-air rehearsal in one of the vast, forbidding renaissance courtyards, organised not for the novelty but because no one had thought to book a large enough rehearsal space; to waiting around in one of the transepts of St Peter’s as the cleaners literally vacuumed under our feet, in the hopes that the Holy Father would grant us a brief audience when he had finished saying the Angelus to the crowds in the square. The boys, still in their robes, played games, and read, and dozed; some of the adults, up since dawn, took the opportunity for a rest. We all got warmer and warmer on a hot June day, and wondered if we were really there.

For his text, Parry chose a poem by Henry Vaughan (1621-95) that offers an enticing view of heaven ‘above noise and danger’, governed by ‘one, who never changes’. For Parry, this was a meditation on what might await him at his time of farewell. But for Vaughan it was, as for the writer of Psalm 126, not only a vision of a gentle end, but a hope in a future after strife. Vaughan wrote the poem after he retired to the country, in royalist exile, after the execution of Charles I. He called it ‘Peace’, and its vision of heaven seems to offer hope for the here and now as well as for the hereafter.

We are all trying, at the moment, to sustain ourselves on dreamlike visions of the simple pleasures of hugging our loved ones and a drink in the pub, or coming together to make music, whether humble or exalted. But Vaughan challenges us to think what it might mean to ‘Leave then thy foolish ranges’ and find peace in the here and now.

My Soul, there is a country
   Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
   All skillful in the wars,
There above noise and danger
   Sweet Peace sits crown’d with smiles,
And one born in a manger
   Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend
   And (O my Soul awake!)
Did in pure love descend,
   To die here for thy sake,
If thou canst get but thither,
   There grows the flow’r of peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
   Thy fortress, and thy ease;
Leave then thy foolish ranges;
   For none can thee secure,
But one, who never changes,
   Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

Epstein’s Lazarus

I wrote this reflection last year for the University Church’s Passion and Compassion project, a trail of stations of the cross using art objects around Oxford.

The reflection seems especially pertinent now, as we are living in a time poised between death and life, longing for the promise of rebirth.

For the full set of stations see

14th Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb. Object: Jacob Epstein, Lazarus, New College chapel

We have reached the fourteenth and final station. Jesus’s body is laid in the tomb. At the millennium Pope John Paul II added a fifteenth station: Jesus rises from the dead, as a reminder that the tomb is a beginning, as well as an end. This statue by the British sculptor Jacob Epstein poises us in between those moments, in the heartbeat between death and new life, between burial and rebirth. Epstein depicts Jesus’s dear friend Lazarus in the moment that Jesus calls him out of the grave. It is an electrifying miracle, the crux around which the whole of John’s gospel turns, the event that leads the religious leaders to conclude that Jesus must die, that begins the way to the cross. In the story, Jesus hears of his friend’s illness and predicts his death, but dawdles on the way, so that Lazarus will be good and dead by the time Jesus gets there. When Jesus finally arrives and orders that the stone be taken away from the tomb, Lazarus’s sister Martha is horrified. ‘Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days.’ And yet Jesus persists, calling his dead and decaying friend by name. ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And out Lazarus comes, still wound in his grave clothes, a shroud covering his face. ‘Unbind him,’ Jesus says. ‘And let him go.’

If you walk around to the far side of the statue, facing the door, you can see the stark reality of this moment, a body swaddled in grave clothes, all humanity disguised.

But if you come around to the front again, you see the head turned at a sharp, unnatural angle, as if Lazarus has cocked an ear to the sound of his name, although he hasn’t yet opened his eyes. From some perspectives he looks as if he is sleeping, his head cradled in his shoulder. From other perspectives he looks as if he is straining, trying, painfully, to turn from death to life. I have often walked around the statue and asked myself which way he is turning: towards the chapel, towards the east and the rising sun, and away from his bindings, or towards the door and out into the world, whatever it might bring? Where, in his world, is Jesus, and which way is he being called? Epstein originally carved the statue for an outdoor sculpture exhibition at Battersea Park. It was not designed for this space, and its position here, on a threshold, is a coincidence. But it nevertheless provokes the question of which way we are called in resurrection, as in life. Is the pull greater towards the rest of the grave, the sleep of eternal life, or towards renewed engagement with the world? For each of us that pull will ebb and flow with the tide of life, and it is important that we are reminded of it anew each Easter, that balance between ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen’; and the promise of ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Where, today, is Jesus calling you now?

Lord, I have been dead, and long for life, now, and evermore. In your death may I hear you call my name, unbind me, and let me go.

More wisdom from John Donne (1572-1631)

John Donne died on this day in 1631, after a long illness. His literary life is marked by a circling back to the themes of death and decay, inspiration and resurrection, that seem vital to me in these strange times. Here is a small selection from his poems and sermons to give you hope in God’s neverending love for this fleeting world.

Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness

We do not know the date of this poem (as with most of Donne’s poems); it may have been written in any one of several serious bouts of illness.

Since I am coming to that Holy room, 

         Where, with thy Quire of Saints for evermore, 

I shall be made thy Musique; As I come 

         I tune the Instrument here at the dore, 

         And what I must do then, thinke here before. 

Whilst my physicians by their love are growne 

         Cosmographers, and I their Mapp, who lie 

Flat on this bed, that by them may be showne 

         That this is my South-west discovery, 

      Per fretum febris*, by these streights to die, 

I joy, that in these straits, I see my West; 

         For, though their currants yield returne to none, 

What shall my West hurt me? As West and East 

         In all flatt Mapps (and I am one) are one, 

         So death doth touch the Resurrection. 

Is the Pacifique Sea my home? Or are 

         The Easterne riches? Is Jerusalem

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltare

         All streights, and none but streights, are wayes to them, 

         Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem

We thinke that Paradise and Calvarie

         Christs Crosse, and Adams tree, stood in one place; 

Looke Lord, and finde both Adams met in me; 

         As the first Adams sweat surrounds my face, 

         May the last Adams blood my soule embrace. 

So, in his purple wrapp’d receive mee Lord; 

         By these his thornes give me his other Crowne; 

And as to others soules I preach’d thy word, 

         Be this my Text, my Sermon to mine owne: 

‘Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.’

* Per fretum febris: Latin, ‘through the straits of fever’

Conclusion of ‘A Sermon Preached at White-hall, February 29. 1627.’

On 29 February 1625 Donne preached in his usual Lenten slot as a court preacher on the text ‘And when he had said this, he fell asleep’ (from the story of the martyrdom of St Stephen, Acts 7.60). The conclusion of this sermon has entered into our consciousness as the prayer and anthem text, ‘Bring us O Lord God, at our last awakening’, with its striking glimpse of the peace of heaven. Note the hope for ‘one equall communion and Identity’, a line omitted from the anthem but with such poignant resonance in our times.

So then this death is a sleepe, as it delivers us to a present Rest; And then, lastly, it is so also as it promises a future waking in a glorious Resurrection. To the wicked it is far from both: Of them God sayes, I will make them drunke, and they shall sleepe a perpetuall sleepe and not awake; They shall have no part in the Second Resurrection. But for them that have slept in Christ, as Christ sayd of Lazarus, Lazarus sleepeth, but I goe that I may wake him out of sleep, he shall say to his father; Let me goe that I may wake them who have slept so long in expectation of my coming: And Those that sleep in Jesus Christ (saith the Apostle) will God bring with him; not only fetch them out of the dust when he comes, but bring them with him, that is, declare that they have beene in his hands ever since they departed out of this world. They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkenesse nor dazling, but one equall light, no noyse nor silence, but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equall communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equall eternity. Keepe us Lord so awake in the duties of our Callings, that we may thus sleepe in thy Peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here, to an Actuall and undeterminable possession of that Kingdome which thy Sonne our Saviour Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible Blood.

Deaths Duell

On 25 February 1631 Donne preached his final sermon, ‘Deaths Duell’, a moving meditation on the powerlessness of the human end and the paradoxical freedom of Christ’s death:

Many waters quench not loue, Christ tryed many; He was Baptized out of his loue, and his loue determined not there; He wept over Jerusalem out of his love, and his love
determined not there; He mingled blood with water in his agony and that determined not his loue, hee wept pure blood, all his blood at all his eyes, at all his pores, in his flagellation and thornes (to the Lord our God belong’d the issues of blood) and these expressed, but these did not quench his loue. Hee would not spare, nay he could not spare himselfe. There was nothing more free, more voluntary, more spontaneous then the death of Christ.

Pizza for dummies

Reflection by Susan Bridge

While we are finding our new routines, staying connected at a physical distance is the current challenge. And so I love hearing about the imaginative and kind and silly things my fellow grads are doing to maintain social connections. Last week there was Virtual Bar Night, when MCR committee members delivered drinks to students in their rooms and then went online to drink together. Now, there is a triumph of the human spirit! On Sunday there will be the two part webcast of Homemade Pizza for Dummies. You can order ingredients and then follow along as your fellow students instruct you remotely on what to do in your kitchen (in the morning, making the dough; in the evening, toppings and oven time). There are also paint-your-own egg kits (‘vegan’ wooden eggs, of course) and virtual chocolate tasting (the chocolates are real, individually delivered by the chocolaterie, the tasting notes streamed). Amid the fun, the committee have also organised generous and practical help, including bulk orders of household staples for students staying in Oxford.

It is a source of pride and comfort to me to see how people in college and around the world are looking for ways to help each other. We have to wait for the experts to work on the medical responses, and there are so many things we can’t do, but still people are getting on with practical, do-able things.

One of the most familiar images of love in the Christian tradition is Jesus washing the feet of his friends during his final meal with them, on the night of his arrest. What interests me is that the gesture was not a big miracle. It was a simple and human expression of love and caring. It was do-able by everyone. Jesus chose an example of service that could be followed by his friends. Initially they were a bit embarrassed by it, but then they could make it their own as a way of sharing the divine love.

In our current crisis it is more difficult to help each other: what we must not do is reach out and touch one another. But in some ways helping is easier now. So many are in so much need, and we are less embarrassed about offering, and receiving, help. As countries close their borders and there is an impulse for hoarding and self-protection, the hope that we can help one other is still there. There is the chance to wash one another’s feet by sharing our pizza knowledge. Thank God.

We pray with St Anselm:

Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you;

you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.

Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;

through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.

Your warmth gives life to the dead,

your touch makes sinners righteous.

Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us;

in your love and tenderness remake us.

In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness,

for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us. Amen.

Anselm (1109)

Feeling the joy

I have found it very strange, over the past two days, to move between the rapidly emptying college site and the school, where the boys are darting about the playground, kicking footballs and inventing new games, and once inside cheerfully reminding one another not to touch the handrail on the stairs. In college, I have encountered fellows, lecturers, porters, maintenance staff, and scouts who all stop (from 2 meters distance) to say how strange the world seems now. It’s clear that quite a few of us have not yet understood what is happening, or how long it will last, not because we are incapable of understanding, but because it is just too much to take in. So many things we took for granted, now cancelled or altered beyond recognition. I breezily said a few weeks ago that I’d like to save up the Young Rembrandt exhibition at the Ashmolean so that I would have something to do when I was at a loose end in Oxford; what hubris that seems now! I was meant to go to the cinema on Monday (before social distancing was announced), but my friend had a cold so we stayed away, and yesterday, inevitably, the cinema closed.

But alongside all of those little pleasures that have gone, we’ve also seen the rapid alteration of nearly every mundane aspect of our working life here: no more meeting over a cup of tea, or looking through resources with a colleague, or gossiping over the newspapers after lunch, or, for most of our students and staff who don’t live in Oxford, coming in to college at all. It’s the end of term, and many things–tutorials, student societies, committee meetings, chapel services–were taking a pause anyway. But we are waking up to the fact that that pause is likely to go on, and on, and to take in so much more than we thought it could. At our last SCR lunch on Tuesday one colleague sat in stunned silence, her food untouched, unable to process the news that the Bodleian was closing. Last night I woke with a deep sense of grief as I finally understood that not only is our choir unlikely to be singing together as long as the restrictions continue, but every choir, every band, every orchestra is now in limbo, suspended between movements, unsure when the baton will rise again. There is still music–recordings, and streaming, and spontaneous songs from Italian balconies–but something is lost. I keep hearing, over and over again, the notes of Alma del Core, the last piece I sang with our singing teacher on Tuesday, the rise and fall of the lover’s voice bright, absurd and carefree.

Sarò contento
 Nel mio tormento
 Se quel bel labbro baciar potrò.

(I will be content in my torment, if I can kiss those beautiful lips.)

When I leave college to walk to the school, the streets are not yet deserted; staff at our neighbouring college stop for a chat in the street, and to say, again, how strange it all is, and students in masks are rushing with suitcases to catch buses and trains while they can. But it is much, much quieter than on a normal day in ninth week, and the screech of playtime at the school is a shock as I turn the corner. There are dozens of boys dashing around, playing football and fussball and a number of other things I can’t identify. A boy runs up to the Headmaster to tell him breathlessly, and incomprehensibly, about a new game they have invented. The teachers know the boys well enough to see at a glance who is playing with whom and what they are playing, but to me they are like bees dancing, groups forming and dissolving faster with a meaning that eludes me. They know that something is happening. The older ones know some of the facts, and even the younger ones have taken in their parents’ anxiety. But a term off school looms like a deliciously long snow day. When we had to cancel evensong and close the school for the first time a fortnight ago, I apologised to the choir when we were able to gather again. The men were grateful; the boys were confused. Why would I apologise for a day off school?

As this strange week continues, I have been so grateful for this daily reminder that life continues, in its joys as well as its sorrows. Children are so good at feeling whatever they are feeling right now, regardless of what they felt this morning, or five minutes ago. As this extended snow day unfolds we are going to have to learn to do the same: to take the joy that comes to us as it comes, amidst the shock and fear and sorrow. This is more than just counting our blessings and storing up gratitude. It is a willingness to live suspended, to tell time at a new pace. Children have so much future in front of them that it is almost impossible for them to see; just ask a small child how old they think the oldest person in the room is, and wait for some astonishing answers. Daily, hourly, we are seeing our adult certainties about the future dissolve into nothing; morning and evening, a new thing we took for granted is gone, and the things we fretted about last week (should I go on that date? cancel that holiday?) seem absurdly naive. And yet there will still be footballs, and friends, and screaming at playtime. And family string quartets and vocal ensembles, and compline sung via an online meeting. And loved ones we will long to touch, and dread to lose, and be oh so grateful to have in the world, sending us penguin videos and smiling, or weeping, from a screen. May God bless you and all you love, and give you the grace to receive the gifts of our life together, whenever and wherever they come. Amen.

Feeling the fear

One of the things I treasure about being a historian (well, a literary historian) is the frequent reminder that nothing is new under the sun. Recently I’ve been re-reading John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which I was planning to use as the basis of the final chapel service this term. Donne’s wild and evocative meditations on his own experience of an epidemic fever are a reminder that others have been through ‘this torment of sickness’ before, and will be again. It’s not the truth that this too, shall pass that comforts me (although it will pass), but rather the fact that four hundred years ago Donne tore through nearly every emotion that shakes us in these troubling times. We, too, ‘wrap a hot fever in cold melancholy’, making our illnesses harder to endure by imagining symptoms that have not yet appeared, and may not appear. We too, lay awake when we should rest, unable to get the sleep that calms and heals. We, too, feel the loneliness of illness and self-isolation, which Donne calls ‘an outlawry, an excommunication upon the patient, [that] separates him from all offices, not only of civility but of working charity.’ And we, too, can in the midst of our worries suddenly remember to feel grateful for the what we have, and recall that there are many who will have precious little with which to fight off this disease.

Social media is currently full of advice about how to cope with coronavirus anxiety. Much of it is excellent: restrict your consumption of the news, turn off alerts on your phone, try deep breathing or mindfulness, go outside and stay in touch with friends. But these are unprecedented times, at least for all of us alive now; the last time a pandemic made such a swift global progress was 1918. It’s important, then, to allow ourselves to acknowledge that our fear and anxiety is natural and normal, something that human beings have experienced in the face of epidemics for many centuries. Trying to cope with our anxiety can become another way of trying to control what we cannot control, and, if you’re that sort of person, another way of punishing yourself for not being strong enough. Yes, most people will be okay. Yes, we will get through this. Yes, the economy will recover, and we may emerge stronger and more resilient as a community. But it is also terrifying. And that too is okay.

God of all grace, giver of every good gift, though we go through fire and water, you hold our soul in life, and will not suffer our feet to slip. When we travel on lonely ways, grant us patience as we wait for your lovingkindness, and the courage to reach out to those in need. For you are our God for ever and ever  our guide in life and through death to the everlasting mercy of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.