The great feast has come and gone, and I’ve survived.
I meant to write something before, but I was either too busy or too tried or maybe both.
This year Easter has been very different for me. It has been both more physically demanding and more spiritually intense than any of previous memory. I have never been so directly involved in the liturgies from Palm Sunday to Easter Day.
I suppose Easter begins in my consciousness around the time of my First Holy Communion, I’m about when I was about 7. It was then I first would have become aware of the Easter duty – the time between Easter and Whitsun when we were meant to go to confession and receive Holy Communion. Amongst my Irish family “have you done your Easter duty yet?” was a common parental enquiry particularly to their adolescent sons and daughters. The past is always a strange land.
Indeed, our remembered pasts are but at best the edited highlights and lowlights of our lives much as the face we offer to the public is only a one-sided affair – a mask that covers the more two-faced nature of human character. Therefore, memory plays false.
That said memory of my Easters gone are strange and sweet things. The exotic silence of Good Friday when only the bakers opened to sell hot cross buns and bread. Easter days with Easter eggs. The eggs were plain affairs – though family lore has it that as a two-year-old whilst others went off to Mass I discovered where the family Easter eggs had been put and promptly ate them all and was heartily sick. I own no recall of this event, but I own the truth of it for certain.
I recall in my teen years the first time I went to Good Friday service by myself. Mum was often unwell in these years. I also was a “holy” boy, so I was 12 or younger when I started to go to the Mass of Maundy Thursday by myself – at which I recall also serving – and then cajoling mum – dad had gone by this time – to let me go to the Easter Vigil. I had expected the wonder of the candlelight gradually filing the church but the singing of the Exultet came like a bolt out of the blue. It still sends shivers down my spine.
At University from my second year, I was often in Leeds for Easter. I went to my first Chrism Mass at St Anne’s Cathedral which was by then part of the Paul VI reformed liturgy. Easter Day was memorable for me for Bishop Gordon Wheeler who would process on Easter Day into his cathedral in cappa magna and then vest – including his episcopal gloves – at the altar. Allusions like these to another ceremonial world were rare – frowned upon in certain circles – part of history. The music at Leeds wasn’t great, but the ceremonial was now a plaintiff echo of a religion I had come to love but it seemed was already lost. The early seventies were a time of struggle for me as I could not stomach the new Mass and its ICEL translations which so disfigured the intent of the Latin – but once I got to London, I could at least go to Mass at the Brompton Oratory.
Really from then on if I could not get to a Latin Mass, I simply did not go.
I had first discovered the Oratory in my late teens as a friend from school – Rusty who became a Benedictine – took me one Sunday. The music was amazing and although my heart was in the Viennese style masses of Mozart and Haydn at the Oratory, I discovered the radiance of Tomas Victoria, Palestrina, and Jacob Handl, as well as the adventure of the Dvorak Mass in D. I digress.
My first Easters in London were amazing as I always had friends to go to Mass with – often Philip sometimes Mark, once or twice Ralph, and later Richard would come with me – sometime driving me.
Good Friday at the Oratory was haunting because it was so solemnly austere. The music always bathed in sad harmonies that edge to dissonance. I always have loved the Passion of St John because – I guess this is true of the entire opus – it is so deeply personal. When it is sung, it is spellbinding. My sense of injustice wells up tearfully as the events unfold. John describes the heroic meekness that embraces violence in order to transfigure it. Its powerfully simple and therefore simply powerful. IN the Beginning was the Word – a book about The Word it is aptly illustrative of the power of words to shape our understanding and expand our horizons.
In those days, you had to get there early to get a seat for the great Easter services and often I’d go up from Kidbroke, where I was living with Roger, early in the morning for Tenebrae at 10 and then be back in church by two.
In that hour or so would of sitting quietly would be when I’d go to Confession. Despite what you might think, the Oratory was then a wonderful place for Confession. It is often one of life’s revelations that those whom you might think most inflexible and rigid in their public face can have depths of empathy and kindness of which you would never dream.
Somehow these Easters offered a correction to the paths through which I drifted as my London career took off. I’d lie to pretend I was not putting my hopes in that world and the other Easter that had shaped my life was fading with my faded jeans.
It was the pull of that world that was tugging me away from the world of faith….
The hedonistic eighties were all about the cult of Mammon. Money and power and career success are heady brew, and, in those days, they were intoxicating for good and for ill. For good was champagne all the way. For ill became a synonym for AIDS. Again, I will not digress, save to say my Easters became increasingly secular and marked clearly now I look back a turning away from all those things I had once loved and cherished.
Church now became largely Christmas and funerals. There were so many funerals. I remained one of those spiritual misfits called lapsed Catholics. There were a lot of us, and it had a camaraderie. Some became more agnostic some were Christmas Christians some drifted into an angry atheism often fuelled by a righteous anger at many negative attitudes and many lies peddled by churchmen over HIV, particularly in Africa and South America.
So, Easter was set aside. It felt it had died. It might have been buried deep. But it was certainly lost. It would never rise again.
Yet Easter was still capable of a resurrection far more glorious than my original Easters. Nor was it my many crises of poor health that rowed me back to this other shore I’d left with gay abandon. I cannot ever really find words for this. Damascene seems far too outrageously pretentious and it was less flash and bang than a strong steady incessant tug at my heart. I did not hear voices, but something spoke directly to my heart. I was astounded as much as anything.
Love is of course always an affair of the heart. I will not make this about me, because ultimately, I remain entirely underserving of this gift. I am even from this here as puzzled and perplexed by this turn of events as when they came upon me. For the sake of convenient shorthand, it did feel rather like falling in love in a profound sense. And step by step I found myself eventually stepping over the threshold of Westminster Cathedral around 5 one afternoon as Mass began and the choir singing the Introit. I stayed.
It was easy to step back because Westminster Cathedral was so nearby where we lived in Oval and then I began to take that longer pilgrimage each Sunday to the Oratory. I also found myself picking up Mass on my visits to Liam. By the time I left London I was going to daily Mass like one of those strange figures who populated my childhood memories but who would always be in their same place at Mass on the weekdays I served. I had also discovered the Little Sisters of the Poor in Vauxhall because Liam had gone there.
Easter once more owned me. Standing outside the Oratory in the chill of the night waiting for the great doors to open for the Easter Vigil. I was usually by myself, but it wasn’t long before a group adopted me and kept me a seat. And so, when the time came to leave London, I genuinely believed that I would have to make my Sundays and Easters in a different way. I wondered how this might affect me.
I found my way to St Birinus in Dorchester because I was in the Parish and I had been told by a friend that I’d love as nothing much had changed there since the reign of Mary Tudor.
I had no inkling that this small church set in its glorious place by the Thame would lead to such an apotheosis as this year.
So, as I look back over the last Holy Week and Easter with all the richness of music set within liturgy and of a ceremony on the exquisite scale of a Hilliard miniature in the small Wardell church – I feel I must pinch myself.
I also feel amazed and yet unsettled. I am immensely grateful. “That God is great we often have by glad experience found.”