Down the hatch
I OFTEN take my dinner out of the microwave. If you are a
Carthusian monk, spending your life in solitude and silence, you
take your dinner out of the guichet, the hatch in your
cell wall through which your food is passed to you. The
guichets to the cells of the medieval Charterhouse in
London were curved through the thickness of the wall, so that you
could not even glimpse the hand that served you.
Our good friend Stephen, one of the Brothers whose home is
today's Charterhouse, showed us round. He pointed out the original
guichet by the surviving doorway to the first cell, built
when the Charterhouse was founded in 1371. I wondered about the
monks for whom that small bare cell was an antechamber to
I recalled another who craved such seclusion, but whose doom it
was to be granted celebrity instead. Thomas Merton described the
Carthusians as those who, "for the love of Christ, had thrown away
everything and concealed themselves in the secret of his face".
"The thought of those monasteries," Merton wrote, "those remote
choirs, those cells, those hermitages, those cloisters, those men
in their cowls, the poor monks, the men who had become nothing,
shattered my heart."
Stephen, who explained to us the function of the
guichet, has an eye for the odd. When he was the
arch-ivist for the MCC, he took me to the library at Lord's. He
showed me an immense doctoral thesis, written in German, on
cricket's lbw law. I did not find it a racy read.
MY MARBLES rattle merrily down the road and become lost among
the pebbles on the beach. To arrest this process, I have gone back
to school. Pat and I have embarked on a course at the "City
City Lit is the sole survivor of the Literary Institute movement
in London. Founded after the First World War by London County
Council, it is arguably that lamented council's proudest legacy.
City Lit's index of more than 4000 courses is a humbling inventory
of how much we will never know.
It is too late, we realised, sadly, to take up aromatherapy, or
belly dancing, to master Cornish or Dutch, to indulge our itch to
etch, or to qualify in Gestalt counselling. We settled, less
adventurously, for Art History. Over the weeks, we have learned a
great deal about med- ieval bestiaries.
The medieval mind was sure that the beasts, both familiar and
fantastic, teach us moral lessons. For example, elephants, without
help, cannot get up when they fall over. Nor could Adam, when he
fell. Mermaids warn us to watch out for those who, beneath their
canonicals, are not what they seem. The single horn of the unicorn
served as a peg on which almost any lesson could be hung - the
merits of the monastic life, the consubstantiality of the Three in
One, the primacy of Peter, whatever.
Today, it might represent the peril posed to the environment by
the plastic bag, or the manifold usefulness of a tightly furled
umbrella, or the egregious unfairness of the belly-putter.
Incidentally, any lingering doubts about the existence of
unicorns have now been finally laid to rest. They discovered
recently in the British Museum a medieval recipe book, which tells
you how to cook a unicorn: marinate it in cloves and garlic, and
then spit-roast it on a griddle.
AFTER Easter, we visited our daughter, and her happy family, who
now live in the little village of Cilgerran, in West Wales. On
Sunday, we went to church. Cilgerran Parish Church is dedicated to
St Llawddog, from whom we all have so much to learn.
In the churchyard, there is a standing stone that bears antique
runes in ancient Ogham. Ogham, some say, is a kind of early Es-
peranto, made up by the Scythian King Fenius, who, basing himself
in the half-built tower of Babel, cobbled together his new language
from the best bits of the confusion of tongues inflicted on us
there by an outraged divinity. (Alas, no courses in Ogham are
offered by City Lit.)
A tablet on the church wall told us about Cilgerran's most
famous son, the Tudor polymath Thomas Phaer. Phaer was a lawyer,
physician, scientist, classicist, and poet. Most famously, he was
the author of the The Boke of Chyldren, the first
paediatric text in English. Then, as now, children suffered from
head-lice. One way to deal with them, Phaer says, is for the child
to wear a woollen girdle soaked in pig's grease.
Whether or not this "singular remedy to chase awaye the vermin"
worked, here was a physician with the mind of Christ. His
intention, he tells us, was "to do them good that have the most
need, that is to say children".
To him it will surely be said, "Come, Thomas Phaer of Cilgerran,
blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the
foundation of the world."
THE Royal Albert Hall was packed with 5500 people for this
year's leadership conference organised by Holy Trinity, Brompton.
It is 200 years since Søren Kierkegaard was born. What would he
have made of the success of HTB, I wonder?
I am more kindly disposed to HTB than I used to be, not least
because of the unfailing courtesy of Nicky Gumbel to his waspish
critics - myself among them. But I am still troubled by
Kierkegaard's words: "Woe, woe, to the Church if it triumphs in
this world, for then it is the world that has triumphed, and not
The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has
retired to Brighton.