Lure of the unfamiliar
LIKE many of you, I imagine, I have found myself reading things during lockdown that I’d never usually have time for. I’ve been immersed in a book on “bird therapy”, essays on Old English, an epic Norwegian novel, and some taxing Aristotle. I’ve always been a magpie when it comes to reading. It has made my theology a sort of beachcombing exercise, picking up things off the shore, brushing them down, and asking whether they have a place at home.
Back in my usual terrain, recently, reading Bernard O’Donoghue’s Very Short Introduction to Poetry, I enjoyed his insight that English words that end in “ump” tend to be associated with physical crudeness. Naturally, thoughts strayed to the White House. Commentators are now wondering whether it will be occupied by a long family dynasty of presidents. Personally, I’m with St Paul, hoping that, at the last Trump, we shall all be changed.
AS I write, some bishops are in the news for criticising the Prime Minister. Apart from the usual cries that God and politics shouldn’t mix, there seems to be a pleased surprise at the revelation that mitres aren’t necessarily candle-snuffs, and that some humane, reflective types — with not a little courage — happen to be wearing them at the moment
I have always thought that, before being symbols of unity, bishops are called to be symbols of integrity. We need such people. As a Church, the days of relying on authority as a reason to be heard are gone. Our only appeal might be an imaginative, brave, and practical contribution to society and the communities that give it meaning. We are not here to make a point, but to make a difference. Even if our bishops must move diagonally on the board, let’s all help them move forwards, not back.
A “ZOOM-IN” is a slang term, apparently, for an unexpected — and unwanted — kiss. It can feel much the same as I zoom in to yet another online meeting. The most recent felt like an old episode of Celebrity Squares, or a group gathering of Tonsurephobics Anonymous.
I carefully tried to adjust my screen away from the bottles on the shelves behind me. I was too late. “I always judge a person by their bookshelves, Mark,” the Vice-Master of the College wryly observed.
MY GRANDMOTHER has just celebrated her 98th birthday. It was painful not to be able to be with her, but I was moved to learn that, as she made her way to the road that evening to clap the key workers, everyone in the street sang “Happy Birthday” to her and gave her a clap also.
In the year that she was born, the BBC was founded, Gandhi was imprisoned, the Irish Civil war got under way, and Mussolini rose to power in Italy. As a mother, she waved a husband off as he went out on 26 bombing raids in the 1940s; later, she stepped in to look after me as a very young child.
Nearly 100 years in the making, she and her generation deserve more than a moment’s applause. Her name — Dorothy — means “a gift from God”. That is what she is to me.
IT WAS strange to “attend” online the inaugural lecture by my friend Catherine Pickstock as Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity. She opened with reference to Jonathan Swift’s Fable of the Spider and the Bee.
Swift, following Francis Bacon, uses the metaphor of the spider for those who manufacture webs of thought out of their own insides and whose consequent achievement is merely a dusty cobweb. The bee, on the other hand, is happy to drop into gardens, blossoms, and flowers, to create from various and rooted sources the sweetness of honey and the light that comes from wax.
As an end to strict lockdown appears on the horizon, and I see the bees on the lavender outside, I hope that my mind and soul will keep buzzing, so that I can follow Henry James’s advice to writers: “Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”
Taste of memory
I WAS transfixed, the other evening, by the chimes of an ice-cream van — the exact sound that I had heard as a small boy — and I was drawn outside, in my slippers, to go down the street and bask in the van’s warm, vibrating noise, and gaze at the shapes and colours of long ago.
A woman in front of me was ordering a huge Whippy. “I’ve been on a diet for two weeks,” she told me, “and all I’ve lost is 14 days.” She looked happy at her first bite, as the flake hit her nose; and life began to feel just a bit normal again.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.