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31 May 2013


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 eternity.

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.

Perfect beastly

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 Lit".

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.

Saintly nit-picker

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."

Thrice woe

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 Church."

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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