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Diary: Serenhedd James

10 November 2017


Silence, please

RECENT and ongoing events in Barcelona, unhappy as they have been, have at least brought happy memories to mind. Spurred on by the arrival of their son (Diary, 16 January 2015), my friends have quit their city-centre flat and moved a few miles west, to a house at the seaside.

The hills above El Masnou have been a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city for centuries. The slopes are dotted with the tell-tale towers of monasteries and convents, now mainly defunct. One that survives is the Charterhouse of Our Lady of Montalegre, at Tiana.

And so, all bundled into the car, late one autumn afternoon we negotiated the treacherous hairpin bends on our way towards the gatehouse.

Many charterhouses seem forbidding from the outside — that’s rather the point. The gate was firmly closed; and just as we were debating knocking, an unseen bell began to ring for vespers. As it didn’t seem fair to either party to try and take a talkative toddler into a community committed to silence, we demurred.


Rugged pathway

THE road carried on up the mountainside, and I thought that we might be able to catch a glimpse from further along; so on we went, until we came to the village at the top. The men quit the car and immediately marched off back down the slope in search of a vantage point. After we had hopped over the crash barrier and negotiating a few bushes, some brambles, and a fence, the vegetation suddenly cleared — and there it was.

The high gates, with their cypress avenue beyond, concealed from the world the usual church, refectory, and other ancillary buildings. But, because it was a charterhouse, there, too, were the little houses for each of the monks, arranged around a cloister — or rather, in this case, a splendid double cloister — where they work, eat, and sleep; and all in total silence, with pre-authorised exceptions.

The business end was whitewashed, but the cloisters were done in local red brick. As we gazed on them from a couple of hundred feet up, they burned orange in the sunset. A mile or so beyond, the Mediterranean answered in shimmering blue. We stayed put until the fast-sinking sun had fallen below the hillcrest, and then scrambled back up the slope to the car.

The boy’s mother, meanwhile, had taken him for a stroll in his pushchair, and had found that there was a spot, a minute away in the opposite direction and reached entirely on the flat, where the view was even better. Still, fortune favours the brave.


Symbols and dances

SISTER ROSEMARY’s Church Times diaries are a welcome reminder that we have monasteries in our own communion, too. Over the past decade, many religious communities have maintained an online presence, informing those of us outside their walls of the goings-on within.

On most monastic social-media pages, there are posts with the dates of forthcoming retreats, images designed to foster contemplation, and other bits and bobs of news for people wanting to keep in touch.

Never have I seen things so rare and wonderful, however, as those that appeared on the Community of the Resurrection’s Twitter account at the beginning of October. At first, I thought that the members of a line-dancing club had wandered into church by mistake. But I could not stop watching — which was just as well, since the videos were for some reason removed shortly afterwards.

Silver-headed liturgical troubadours swayed to the music of Karl Jenkins’s A Mass for Peace. They rose and fell, stamped and clapped. Their interpretation of the Sanctus was mesmerising; and I pondered it for a while.

I concluded that it must be the Leeds diocese’s answer to Los Seises, which the favoured children of Seville dance before the Blessed Sacrament in their cathedral at Corpus Christi each year. Who needs Andalusia, when we have West Yorkshire and the Dales?


Fanatical devotion

AT LAST, the quincentenary of one of Martin Luther’s less anti-Semitic publications has passed; and the leaders of the denominations who claim to be influenced by his work can get back to cherry-picking from his output according to their needs.

As far as I can tell, the only thing that the myriad ecclesiological offshoots and branches who claim Lutheran lineage have in common with each other is a greater or lesser historic hatred of the papacy.

At Oxford, the history faculty sent out invitations to a jamboree on All Hallows’ Eve, with the assurance that “while Luther posts his theses, Tetzel will be selling indulgences, a printing press will be working to spread the word of the Reformation, and general merriment will be had with jugglers, ginger beer, and Lebkuchen.”

I emailed the communications officer, asking what provision had been made for the well-being of Roman Catholic students who might be “triggered” by this event. In return, I received a long and earnest response from the chairman of the faculty board.

I do hope they weren’t too rattled: they clearly meant well, and didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition. But, then again, nobody does.


Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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