Thursday 30 December 2010

The faces of saints

In The Oratory Church, Oxford, the parish of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, there is a great reredos of 72 saints on the sanctuary. It fascinates me. I always want to climb the stairs beyond the altar rail to examine the faces of the saints, but I never dare. It is only recently that I discovered, framed behind a pillar, a mapped key to who is who. I liked the guessing game, but now I can check the answers! I have written before about my attachment to faces. It is the most public and the most intimate part of someone. We only touch the faces of those we love. Faces make their home in our subconscious. They come back when we least expect it. Treasured memories are those when we recall the emotion in a loved ones expression: 'I remember how you laughed'; 'I saw you cry'; 'the look on your face'. Sometimes, after a long absence, waiting to meet someone, we worry about how they might have changed - will we recognize them? It only takes the moment of their appearance for all our doubts to go away. The faces of those we have loved and lost come back and catch us unawares at the most awkward moments, hearing the words of a once shared joke, tasting again a wine used to celebrate a unique occasion. Dusty artistic impressions of saints who lived long ago surely can never have the same effect?

I love the stories of the saints; not always the holy holy ones, but the little accounts of day to day living that give a glimpse of the humanity of someone journeying heavenwards. It is a little bit like when I am teaching A Level Theology I will go to great lengths to get a good picture of the theologians, ethicists and thinkers on the syllabus to show to students. I want to bring their words, and their lives alive again. There is something about images, and about faces in particular, which does that in a moment, creating between strangers an intimate connection. Perhaps that is why religious art has caused so many to be afraid. Maybe it is why I like it so much.

Anyhow, today I found another who shares a little of my peculiar passion for faces and the faces of the saints. It made me laugh out loud, so I thought I would share it. I hope it makes you smile too. :)

Easter Sunday  - 28th March, 1948
In the library I looked at a marvelous book The Faces of the Saints - pictures as near as possible the genuine portraits - contemporary - of saints. Mosaics of the Fathers were some of the most beautiful. Saint Catherine of Sienna, too, and another I have forgotten. More Modern ones - some of the death masks - frighten me. Saint Vincent de Paul looks very real - very much of a Gascon peasant, and as tough as can be, terrific energy in his face, fiery black eyes, and a mouth like a bear trap. The one that astonished me most was St. Francis de Sales - ponderous and unlike anything I would have imagined.
Not Francis of Assisi, but close :)
One that most impressed me - St Benedict Joseph Labre. One that scared me least - John Bosco. Also Saint Catherine of Genoa looked nice and normal for a mystic, and Louise de Marillac was a French housewife in her picture. Saint Mary Magdalene de Pazzi looked a little like my mother. St Aloysius Gonzaga was almost too beautiful. Saint Teresa was funny - a plump little Spanish lady, like an inn - keeper's wife in that picture, with all due respect, but I love her. Saint John of the Cross I knew; looks surprisingly un-ascetic. The saint's face that to me is most completely the face of a saint is the child's face of St. Francis Assisi with big astonished eyes looking out from that over-ample hood - the thirteenth Century portrait.
Some saints I had never heard of I wanted to love as soon as I saw their pictures, like St. Catherine of Ricci. All of them had faces that had suffered: some more, some less, some very intensely.
Thomas Merton
The Sign of Jonas

Journey of the Magi

This image by Bonfigli (1465 - 1475), The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross, is the opening plate to my MA dissertation which rambles on about religious art alongside moral and psychological development. I am fond of the the way it holds eternity in one frame. Human despair and human hope together in one image: in the manger and the cross, the Christ child and the crucified. I like the bull looking in from the corner, creation watches. I think it makes a beautiful visual accompaniment to that most brilliant poem of Epiphany.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

TS Eliot

Eliot reads the poem in this recording.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

The two Thomases: a gift of one from the other

I have loved the writings of Thomas Merton for a very long time. His simple humanity shines through everything he writes. He is always worried about something. On this day in 1946, the feast of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Merton was worried about work. His diary reads:
'...Then, yesterday at dinner, when the reader in the refectory was reading some spectacular stuff by Bousett on Saint Thomas of Canturbury, out of The Liturgical Year (the martyr dies, with his tongue still forming the word, 'l'eglise'), Father Prior handed me a telegram. I had been thinking: 'If anything comes for me in the mail, I shall take it as a present from Saint Thomas a Becket'. When I saw the telegram my heart sank into my dinner. The first thought that came to my mind was that the manuscript of The Seven Storey Mountain had been lost. Naomi Burton gave it to Harcourt, Brace only a week ago. I knew quite well that publishers always make you wait at least two months before saying anything about your manuscripts...I waited until after dinner and opened the telegram. It was from Bob Giroux. And it said: 'Manuscript accepted. Happy New Year.'' 
The Sign of Jonas
My heart sank into my dinner. What a simple and evocative description of nervous apprehension that is. Thomas Merton often writes like that. Why use big words when you can use small ones? The Seven Storey Mountain, although not his first publication, was his most popular book. It was with that book he became something he would detest me saying, he became an author. He never wanted to be an author as a monk. He said he felt like a duck in a chicken coup; all he ever wanted was to be a chicken, but he had to go and become a duck.....(to understand some bits of Merton you have to be a bit cracked) :)

Thomas is honest. On the Feast of St. Mark, April 25th, 1947, he writes:
'Typewriter broken. And now the infinite God has to compete, for possession of my mind, with the image of  a beautiful new typewriter with French accents on it...' 
You can't really help but relate to how he feels, can you? Later in the year he turns his dry humour on the liturgical music chosen for the Solemn Profession of two of his brethren. Anyone who has been on a Marian pilgrimage will sympathize with this from June 14th, 1947:
At all these pontifical functions they have been playing some weird music on the organ. It reminds me of the stuff you used to hear at the movies before the silent movies went out and the talkies came in. Now I discover it is the hymn the faithful sing at Fatima. Mother of God, why do you let these things happen?
And with that, I am off. :)

Monday 27 December 2010

So, you are a King? Spiced winter leftovers fit for royalty

I woke this morning to the steady drop drip drop of icicles melting from the roof of our house. The thaw, at last, had arrived; and it was quite noisy. I was delighted, not because I do not like snow, I love it, but because the slight change in the weather was going to give me the excuse I needed to get out and walk. Today was going to be the day for combining a few passions: food, the great outdoors (pictures of my walk included) and a little reveling in the seasons. I looked out the window, and St Mary's Church across the green (pictured) looked great. It is a 13th Century Church, although they say the oldest part of the tower is from the 12th Century, and every Century since has made its mark. But today I remembered, that on that oldest part of the Tower two figures rest either side of the doorway, Mary and John the Evangelist, whose feast day it is today. Christ crucified, who presumably was once above the centre of the arch has gone, but Mary and John still look to the space where he must once have been, and their gaze is a witness the one whose kingdom is 'not of this world'. How come John the Evangelist gets his Feast day in the Christmas Octave? Answers on a postcard please? Is it because he sees the incarnation from the perspective of eternity? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God? Could be. I'll think on that one...
Wisemen on the mantlepiece

I don't know about your houses, but this house has serious leftovers after the Christmas feast. I suppose I must take responsibility for that, since I cooked. But, there is enough turkey, ham, risotto, cheese, cake and pudding in our kitchen to feed an army through till Epiphany. Loving cooking and food the way I do, I hate waste. It is time to get creative. Only one problem, everyone here is fed up of rich food already, and they long for something gentle and healthy. I have turned to the wisemen, still making their way across the mantlepiece, for inspiration.

Wintry walk
Sweet cakes and pastries traditional to Christmastide are usually highly spiced, packed with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, star anise and ginger. These spices are said to be an ancient reminder of the visit of the Magi to the infant King. Spices were an extremely valuable commodity for centuries; they were the traditional flavouring for the food of royalty and the very rich only. To serve sweet spiced food at Christmas is an acknowledgement that the guest of honour is a King. To combine the spirit of 'waste not want not' with the celebration of Christmas and the Evangelist who knew Christ as King, I have decided to bring an element of spiced luxury to some savoury leftovers. There is a certain amount of flexibility to this dish - use what you have in the cupboard.

Spiced Winter Leftovers

You need (for 4):  A tablespoon of Olive Oil
A little Groundnut oil
Snowy Bamboo in a field near my house
2 Onions (red or white)
2 Garlic Cloves
8 Cardamon Pods
2 Cinnamon Sticks
2 teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 teaspoon Turmeric
1 teaspoon crushed Chilies
1 tablespoon grainy French Mustard
1 - 2 teaspoons of vegetable stock powder
200g Brown Rice
Leftover Turkey, duck or goose
a handful of toasted nuts (I have pistachio)
Fresh Coriander (if you have it)
A generous measure of Double Cream

Brown rice takes ages, so I do that first. Rinse the rice carefully. Add the rice to an empty pan and fill with cold water up to about an inch above the level of the rice. Add a teaspoon or so of the vegetable stock powder (be careful, they can be very salty - taste and see!); then 1 tsp of cumin, a crushed garlic clove, 2 cinnamon sticks, 4 crushed cardamon pods and some freshly ground black pepper. Bring the rice to the boil and cook according to the time on the packet, this can be up to 30 minutes depending on the type of rice you use. Keep a close eye to ensure the water does not boil off completely before the rice is cooked. If you need to add a little more, use boiling water from the kettle. Aim to have the rice nicely cooked, with no water in the pan, by the time you are ready to serve.
Lost sheep looking for food

Meanwhile, finely slice the onions and crush the garlic; gently fry them in the olive oil until softened, about 5 minutes. Make a spice paste by crushing 4 cardamon pods and removing their green husks, bash the little black seeds in a mortar. Add  a teaspoon of cumin, a teaspoon of turmeric, crushed chilies and a clove of garlic; continue to pound away, mixing in a tablespoon of french mustard and a little groundnut oil as you go. Add the spice paste to your sizzling onions and garlic and fry for a few moments. Take care it does not burn, spices can do that very quickly. After a minute or two add the leftover turkey (duck or goose) and mix well. Add a generous measure of cream and heat through thoroughly.

Toast a handful of nuts in a dry pan for a few minutes. Combine all the ingredients together, stir through some fresh coriander if you have some, and serve.  Yum.

As you can see, I went out to explore the big wide world whilst I was thinking about this recipe. It was great. And, yes, I always look that silly, I can't help it. I love the fields of Bamboo near my house, particularly in the snow. Sometimes, when I miss the sea, I go and stand amongst the canes because the swishing sound they make has a similar rhythm. It is just about all a landlocked girl can do round here. Today I really loved how incongruous the tall brown crop looked in the midst of a wintry England. I liked meeting the sheep too, although I felt sorry for them because they looked hungry and were hoofing the snow about looking for fresh grass to eat. I hope you have all had a lovely Christmas Day and St. Stephen's day. Stay happy.


PS: My dear vegetarians, this can be done with fennel bulbs too and it is just as yummy. You aren't going to have the fennel pre-cooked though. What you have to do is slice each bulb into four pieces, length ways, season them with salt and pepper and gently fry them in the olive oil, until they are soft (about 15 - 20 minutes) before you add the onion and garlic. Love you!

Wednesday 22 December 2010

For a Peaceful Christmas

The menu is planned for this house. I am not going to bore you with the details. Each family has their traditions for this time of year, favourites that have been improved slowly over generations or passed down by friends. If something works particularly well, I might share it in the New Year, alongside the healing clear soups, fresh citrus juices and herbal teas traditional for January. In the meantime, Cloister is logging off for the festive period. I wish you all a very happy Christmas, and I hope you find some time to enjoy a quiet moment of peace.

Sunday 19 December 2010

In case of emergency: Bread and Butter Pudding

I am snowed in. There is three feet of snow outside. The roads were only cleared this afternoon. I spent the morning digging out cars with the neighbours. It was very convivial actually - I learnt more about the people I live next door to than  I have in a long while: shoveling snow they shared their past, things we had in common and their worries. I walked to the shop later, all the way to the 'big' local shop in Milton Under Wychwood, about a mile down the road. They had no milk, bread or newspapers indicating no deliveries had made it through. In our house supplies are running low. We haven't done the Christmas shop yet, and were running things down to make way for the Feast. There is more than one way to clear a path :)

Anyhow, to cut a long story short, the calorie intake at the household was going to be penitentially low unless emergency action was taken. There was only one thing to be done. I am the child of a mother born in London during the Second World War and a father who 'lived through the Emergency' (WW II) in Dublin. Thus, there is no such thing as 'nothing in the cupboard'. The mantra of 'make do and mend' is sacred in this house. This recipe is a speciality of my Da's.

Bread and Butter Pudding

You need:

3 or 4 large eggs (when I have to post instructions on how to do this with powdered milk and eggs I'll know things have got seriously serious).
50g caster sugar
50 - 75g sultanas
About a pint of milk
Nutmeg, Cinnamon and Mixed Spice to taste (go for it)
4 - 6 slices of thinly sliced bread

So, you butter the dish and preheat the oven at 180C. Cut the crusts off the bread and butter it. Then cut it into quarters. Layer the bread and butter into the dish and sprinkle each layer with the sultanas and some of the spices. Beat together the eggs, caster sugar and about 3 tablespoons of the milk. Heat the rest of the milk in a saucepan, but do not bring it to the boil. Pour it over the egg mixture and whisk it well together - I use an electric whisk. Pour the milk over the bread and butter, ensuring it is well covered. Leave the dish to stand for 30 minutes. Sprinkle some more sugar and spice over the top of the pudding. Bake the pudding for about 45 minutes, or until it has risen well and is golden brown on top.

As a child I used to eat this with whole milk poured over the top. I got the 'top of the milk' if I was lucky, and it was all creamy. When I came to the UK I was teased about this. Apparently it is more usual to eat Bread and Butter pudding with custard. I have never liked that, I find it too sweet. Today my folks had ice cream with it. I stuck with my milk tradition, even though there is no such thing as 'top of the milk' anymore - boo hoo! They complained the ice cream did not go, it was too cold and too sweet. Afterwards they both had seconds with milk. I guess you guys will have to find your own way on this one.

By the way, if you are not cooking this because you are snowed in, but because you just want a taste of home, fair enough. If you get to the supermarket might I suggest cream? If you are going all out - Bailey's in the milk mixture?  Or Brandy? That will sort you out.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Deep passionate flavours for a deep passionate saint

I am sitting on a reception desk of a factory somewhere deep in the heart of Oxfordshire. Occasionally I answer the telephone and put someone through to talk to someone else. Mostly I am reading Dark Night of the Soul. It is beautiful, and so observant of human nature. I like it that he describes so clearly how some people collect books about theology, looking for the tranquility they see in others. I don't know anyone who does that. No one at all. No. Can't think of a single person.  :) He has just started to speak about luxury, but before I get too involved in that series of thoughts I had better share this. It is from Old Castille, although I couldn't promise it was Frontivera, St. John's home patch. It has big flavours which I love. I hope he ate something like this once, even if it was only the once.

Carne adobada y guisada en vino tinto: Beef cooked in red wine

1.5kg top rump or thick flank of beef, cut into 4cm cubes
1 large onion, halved
1 large carrot, thickly sliced
2 bay leaves
1 bouquet garni (fresh parsely, clove, garlic, thyme tied in muslin)
500ml red wine
50ml red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
150g bacon cut into thin strips
500ml hot water
salt and pepper

Put the beef into a deep non metallic dish. Cut up one half on the onion into three thick slices, and along with the carrot, bay and bouquet garni, add it to the dish. Season with salt and pepper and pour in the wine and vinegar. Cover with cling film and leave to marinate in a cool place for 6 - 10 hours (overnight), stir occasionally if you can.

Drain the beef and reserve the marinade. Pour the oil and bacon into a large saucepan, and cook on a medium heat for about 4 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the remaining onion and add it to the pan to cook. When nicely brown, after about 8 - 10 minutes, add the beef and cook until evenly browned. Again, after about 10 minutes, pour in the reserved marinade, bring to the boil and simmer until the liquid has reduced by half. Lower the heat and add the hot water. Cover and simmer for 2 - 3 hours, until the beef is tender. Remove and discard the bay leaves and bouquet garni. Serve the stew in a warm deep dish garnished with triangles of fried bread, or mashed potato.

I would eat this with a deep deep full bodied red wine from Castille or Salamanca (where he studied). If there was going to be a salad it would be watercress and rocket, just so as it can set off those powerful perfumed explosions in your mouth with the wine.

St John of the Cross: My OCD Saint

St. John of the Cross wanted to join the Carthusians. I guess that tells you a bit about him: he liked order, routine and silence. No messing around. Before he got to the Carthusians though, he met St. Teresa of Avila. She inspired him with her vision for a reformed Carmelite order. Within a year (1568, as it happens) he  joined the Carmelites and set about implementing St. Teresa's plans. Teresa wanted to run an altogether tighter ship: more prayer, more silence, more discipline, more work. She distinguished those communiites which welcomed her regimen by renaming them the Order of Carmelites (Discalced), meaning 'without shoes' - who needs such frippery? Funnily enough, St Teresa wasn't that popular with her fellow religious sisters. Sometimes they wouldn't even let her in when she came to stay. The shame.

St John OCD (I think the initials are providential) started, easily enough, in one of Teresa's convents, as a confessor. Then he branched out to a farmhouse, where he founded a Discalced monastery. When he went to his brothers to spread the new plans for development reception was terrible. His Superiors in the Order (with shoes) had him arrested and imprisoned in Toldeo. In an ill fated effort to get him to ease up and chill out they subjected him to a brutal routine, starving him and even beating him regularly before the community. They stuffed him a prison cell only just big enough to fit him. Nice. I am beginning to see why they needed reform, and I am not sure why they thought this would work?

The sketch which inspired Dali
It was in this environment that St. John wrote his most famous poem - Spiritual Canticle - on paper passed under his door by a friar guard. Unsurprisingly, John's harsh treatment and its effect upon his soul coloured this, and all his subsequent work, particulalry Dark Night of the Soul. He escaped from prison after nine months, managing to wiggle his cell door from its hinges and, depending on the account you read, either scaling the walls or jumping out a nearby window - hurrah!

Unusually, for a poet, St. John wrote detailed analyses of his work, explaining line by line the theological significance of his thought. Perhaps it is because of this that I can say with confidence this his poetry contains some of the deepest, most beautiful and most sensuous religious language ever written. It is amazing.

It is clear from The World Is My Cloister that I am never going to be an ascetic. I fell in love with St. John's writings walking the streets of Salamanca, eating tapas in smoky bars, sitting amongst the jasmine flowers in the city gardens, creeping round the candlelit cathedral and the great Dominican church of San Sebastian. The truth be told even further, I fell in love with St. John's handwriting before I ever read a word of what he wrote. His letters were held in the Cathedral Museum; they looked like an inky spider had taken a dance across the page, a marvel to behold. I would never attempt St. John's religious rigor - I wouldn't want to. And, I am not sure what he would make of my interest in exploring the world through embracing the excitment of my senses: taste, touch, smell - the brilliance of images, the glory of sound. But, his poetry has a depth and a passion I adore. It is he who would give inspiration to Dali to paint his Christ of St John of the Cross, and who has stood before that and not been moved? He deserves a great  feast; for me it has to be something to reflect his love and his language more than his ascetic nature. I cannot feast on raw turnip. For him today -  a deep, full flavoured, passionate dish from the heart of Spain, and a full bodied red wine to match. Don't tell me: he was a vegetarian who never touched a drop. Well, he must have tasted something like this in his youth,  and I bet the memory of it got him all the way to heaven: Carne adobada y guisada en vino tinto.

Monday 13 December 2010

Bright breakfasts on dark days

Let's face it, on cold winter mornings everyone needs a little encouragement to get out from under the covers. If someone turns the heating on, that helps. If an angel makes tea and brings it to you, that's good. But seriously, on the coldest, darkest day of the year? You are going to need something special. The professionals at cold and darkness, our friends in the North, the Scandinavians, argue that a candlelit procession to breakfast, with sweet cakes and hot coffee is the way to go. It is not a bad idea. So, to begin St. Lucy's Day - Cinnamon Buns, hot milky coffee and candles.

You need:

Bun Mixture: 650 - 700g Plain Flour
5 - 7g Dried Yeast
240ml Milk
75g Unsalted butter
65g White Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Salt
3 Eggs

Bun Filling:  160g Light Brown Sugar
35g Plain Flour
1 Tablespoon Ground Cinnamon
115g Unsalted Butter (in cubes)
A couple of handfuls of raisins
A generous large tablespoon of Light Cream (single)

Bun Topping:

Mix together 60g Icing Sugar with a tablespoon and a bit of light single cream to make a good drizzling consistency.


In a large mixing bowl mix together approximately half the flour with the dried yeast. Then, in a small saucepan heat the milk. butter, sugar and salt. Stir this mixture constantly with a clean wooden spoon. As soon as the butter is melted, gradually add the liquid to the flour and yeast, binding in each addition slowly. Add the three eggs one at a time, again binding in each addition slowly. Scape all the mixture down into the bowl and combine well. Now, add the remaining flour little by little until you have a soft, smooth, elastic dough - you might not need it all. Knead your dough for 3 - 5 minutes. Place your dough on a clean work surface for a second whilst you wash, dry and grease your bowl. Return your dough to the greased bowl, turning it once to ensure there is a little grease on all sides - it stops it sticking, then cover with clingfilm and place in a warm place to rise for 1 - 11/2 hours. When the dough has doubled in size punch it down (this is fun). Place it on a lightly floured surface and leave it to rest for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in your bowl, place the dry bun filling ingredients, except the raisins. Mix them round. Cut the mixture through with the cubes of butter. You might want to use your hands in the end. It should be all crumbly when you are done.

Roll the dough into a 30cm square. You know how big this is. You used to have a ruler that size in your school pencil case. Sprinkle with the bun filling and top with raisins. I put loads in, you can choose. Carefully roll the dough into a log shape, and pinch seal it at either end to stop the raisins escaping. Slice the roll into eight even pieces and arrange them on a greased baking tray (with gaps!). Cover loosely with clingfilm (they are going to rise).

NB. At this point you can place to dough into the fridge for anything up to 24 hours. I have not been up all night to get ready for the dawn party. I am not completely cracked. Just remember that you need to take them out of the cool to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before you bake them. If you are going to work through the night however, and you do not want to cool the dough, leave it in a warm place to rise for about 45 minutes to an hour before you get them in the oven.

When you are ready to bake have a quick look at the dough. Burst any air bubbles you can see. You do not want an explosion in the oven. Brush the buns with single cream. Bake at 190C for about 25 - 30 mins until light brown. You might want to cover them for the last bit to prevent them burning. To test to see if your buns are cooked, turn them over and tap them on the bottom, they should sound hollow.

Remove them from the oven and brush again with single cream. Drizzle with the icing sugar topping. Eat.

Strong Milky Coffee

Make very strong fresh coffee. Heat some milk in a pan. Mix half a cup of the very strong coffee with half a cup of warm milk. Add sugar. Yum.

Candles - Get nice ones, white ones, light them.

Happy Feast of St. Lucy.

PS. Those of you mad enough to be getting up for the candlelit Rorate Mass at 7am this Saturday morning - this makes a good post- celebration recovery aid. Okay?

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's

John Donne, in A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day evokes something of the atmosphere of today's feast. Before the Gregorian calendar the feast of St. Lucy fell upon Winter Solstice, the very darkest day of the year. This year that will be December 21st, but Lucy still gets her feast on one of the shortest days at least, today, the 13th December. Her name means 'light'. It comes from the Latin, lux, lucis. I guess the story of Lucy is well known. She was the daughter of a noble pagan family who dedicated her virginity to Christ. Her parents had other ideas, and had pledged her in marriage to the local rich boy. When she could delay the wedding no further, she finally told her fiancee. He told the Romans who, at the time, were big into persecuting Christians. She was arrested, asked to make a sacrifice to the Roman Emperor as a God and, on refusal, sentenced to live as a prostitute. She is attributed as saying to her Roman judge Paschasius:
No one's body is polluted so as to endanger the soul if it has not pleased the mind. If you were to lift my hand to your idol and so make me offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the sight of the true God, who judges according to the will and knows all things. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.
When the men came to take her away she would just not be moved. Literally. Not even by a team of oxen, which went away exhausted. So, the Romans set about killing her. First, they gouged out her eyes. Some say an Angel of the Lord came down and restored her sight. Then, they surrounded her with wood and tried to set her alight, but the wood would not burn. Finally they slew her with a sword, martyring her. Pictures of St. Lucy are gloriously gruesome, her eyes presented on a platter. Marvelous. 

St. Lucy set herself against the physical violence brought against her, and she gave a good fight. I like that her refusal to be pushed around is recalled so vividly in the stories about her. In his poem, Donne is said to be mourning the death of his wife, who died in childbirth, aged just 31. Perhaps Lucy's story reminded him of the strength and power of women to fight and overcome so much. St. Lucy is one of only seven women, aside from the BVM, who makes it named into the Canon of the Mass. I like that she is there.

St. Lucy's day is celebrated by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox - hurrah, big party! In Scandinavian countries it is marked by making a crown from pine boughs and attaching lit candles; then asking young girls dressed as the saint to wear them on their heads. Sounds like pyromania to me, but it is very beautiful. A festival of light in darkness, of good over coming evil, of life overcoming death.  

To celebrate: A candlelit breakfast, cinnamon buns and strong hot milky coffee

Friday 10 December 2010

Seeing words

I thought about writing this post and decided against it. Then I changed my mind. I am a visual learner, and this most recent experience has brought this home to me more powerfully than any other.

Mary Cassatt
There is a preacher I have been particularly attuned to over the last twelve months or so. For me, the thing about listening to someone particular, is that gradually I build a picture of their theological landscape - a visual image. Each preacher has their own; it reflects their pattern of thought, the way they stand, their body language, the words they use, the images they paint using language. Although friends and acquaintances often have colours and images attached to their words in my mind, with preachers the way scripture is reflected upon provides the contours of a theological worldview, a framework, a landscape. Sometimes I see an impression of their thought, as if a colourful Monet or Cassatt, at other times, someone might evoke just pure and simple colour, like Malevitch, for example. Rarely, very rarely, a realist scene can be conjured up, but more often than not, that is a one off occurrence, for a feast day or a famous scene, not an impression built over a series of homilies. Different preachers have different foci - liturgy, the love of God, the purpose of the Church, the theology of the Gospels, social justice, forgiveness, redemption, living with other people, etc, etc; their own trials and struggles reformed for the public audience. I once heard a preacher who had a gift for creating images which moved and reformed as he spoke - he was talking about the 'becoming of humanity', trying to explain how humanity was reaching out towards an eschatological perfection. His thoughts became an upward moving waterfall; images and concepts forming and falling, only to be replaced by new thoughts which reached above the first, but fell just the same. Bizarre and beautiful.

The first time I ever heard the preacher that inspired this post I was shocked, repelled even. He seemed flat. Black and white. I could not fathom my way through his words, or find a place within them to share the theological vision he presented. Everything, from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation was there, presented in one short homily, but it had no depth, only a hollow authority - 'this is it - learn it, get used to it'. I couldn't handle it. I felt like someone with no imagination looking at an architectural drawing on a board. I couldn't see what it represented, or find any future hope through the words.

Over the last twelve months however, I have begun to see something new. The architectural diagram I had first seen and disparaged has grown to become a vision I am able to peer into, to enter and walk around. A detailed cathedral model of theological meanings has emerged: the fall intricately united with the resurrection, Adam connected by a spiders' wisp to Christ. My black and white linear model persists, but now it has jumped off the page. Corners which once seemed dark, and without salvation, have been lifted up and shown to be an intricate web of fine interconnections, filled with light. That light was at first clinical, as if in a hospital theatre, but more recently it has changed to the natural sunlight of a summers' midday. I can see a friendliness and happiness in something I previously imagined could have only been severe and monochromatic. Every sermon preached still seems to be a whistle stop tour of everything that has happened from Adam to Christ, it passes through the present days and whisks you on to eternity. But now, I am beginning to be able to share in a beautifully detailed theological vision, constructed from delicate fine lines and flooded in soft and golden light.

Leonardo Da Vinci - a bit like it is in my head.

My own theological landscape remains like a sunlit, bright foggy day. I can see the shadows of ideas in the distance, sometimes suffused with bright colours, like a rainbow. As I draw closer, concepts and understandings become firmer and can be seen more clearly. But, they often disappear again - a mirage all along. Listening to someone who is, I think, so theologically different from myself has presented excellent challenges and new horizons for exploration. For that, I am very grateful. One thing in particular has caught my attention: if I had walked away on the first day, I would not be able to see now the way I do. I have not learnt to agree with everything this preacher says, and I would be worried if I had. I am quite sure, if we sat down to talk it through, we would find many a theological knot to wrangle with. But staying has leant me his eyes to see with, if that makes sense. It has given me a perspective I would have never had before. And, it has drawn my attention to the riches that can be gained by listening in to a series of thoughts and allowing them to develop. 

Now, it is quite likely that many of you might believe that none of that makes sense. But, for the visual learners out there - that is how it has been for me.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Toad in the Hole - Feed a cold, starve a fever

There are some big saints coming up in the calender, and so, whilst I am not sure I will have time to do justice to them all with a tasty treat, I would like to get this post in before they come along. From the title you will have guessed it. I still have the sniffles. Now it has reached the stage where it couldn't possibly keep you from work, or interrupt your plans in anyway - too minor, but a late night here, a cold winter walk there and generally not taking enough care might send you back to square one. It is at this critical point the old adage 'feed a cold and starve a fever' needs to be quoted. And if during Advent you do not succumb to at least a little sneeze you must be super human.

Toad in the hole is comfort food of the highest order. It is a childhood memory, a winter dream. For anyone who comes home wet, tired and hungry as we used to do as kids, this is the only thing that will cure you. And, it can be made as a vegetarian dish too. Just get some high quality vegetarian sausages. Vegetarians of the world, you know what I mean!

You need:

High quality sausages
Fresh Rosemary (from the garden - window box - no excuses)
Groundnut oil
2 medium red onions
2 cloves of garlic
Some butter
6 tablespoons of quality balsamic vinegar
High quality vegetarian stock powder
4oz flour
1/2 pint milk
3 eggs
whole grain mustard
salt and pepper

(I admit to not having measured anything this evening, therefore this is a guess for 3 - 4 people)

Make your batter:

Sieve the 4oz (4 heaped tablespoons) plain flour into a large bowl, make a well in the centre and add the 3 eggs and the milk. Whisk until completely smooth, add a tablespoon of wholegrain mustard and leave to stand.

Preheat your oven to the maximum temperature - 250 - 280C

Into a baking tray pour about 1cm of oil and put it in the oven to heat. Once hot, add the sausages and cook - keeping an eye to turn them occasionally. When done, carefully remove the VERY HOT pan from the oven, pour on the batter. Add the sprigs of rosemary artistically and return to the oven. Do not open the door for at least 20 minutes; allow the batter to do its thing. After that you will need to check it to see when it is gold brown and cooked through.

Make the gravy:

Add some butter to a pan and add the finely chopped red onions and garlic. Cook gently until sweet. Add 6 tablespoons of balsamic, to taste stir in just a small amount (1 teaspoon) of vegetable stock powder, and reduce till half the sauce has evaporated.

Serve with whatever you please. Green vegetables are traditional. Potatoes are a carb feast. Salad means you are feeling guilty.