Friday 27 January 2012

My dumb Ox: the things that we love tell us what we are.

There is not a day goes by when his name does not pass my lips. I cannot claim to be any great scholar, or to have read his work in its original Latin. Nevertheless, Aquinas' thought underpins mine insofar as it is the foundation of most Western Theology. I have my favourite bits of course, mostly remembered from school or university. He says, that because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being full of wonder. I have always treasured that thought, although many might not think it his most important. He also notes that it is the things that we love that tell us what we are. No one ever told me anything wiser than that. 

I daren't say much else. Except to wish everyone a happy feast. To start proceedings, I would offer a glass of Mimosa. Maybe when Aquinas was at Santa Sabina he would have raised a toast with this little tipple too, in honour of St. Dominic, his father in religious life.


Errr, this is easy. 

1 bottle yummy Champagne
1 Litre of Freshly squeezed orange juice (without the pips)

Pour the chilled Champagne into flute glasses until half full. Gently add the freshly squeezed juice, and stir. Excellent over ice. Good for the afternoon.

I chose this, I am sure you know, because of the orange tree in the garden of Santa Sabina. I loved it very much when I was there. Rationally, of course, I know that this is not the tree that St. Dominic brought to the land of Italy from Spain. But, I would believe it to be one of that tree's descendants. Around the base are the words Lignum habet spem: 'At least there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail.'  (Job 14: 7). I did not understand Latin when I was in Santa Sabina. I had to go and ask a friend to explain the saying to me. We sat on the balcony and over looked the 'infernal city' (as he called it). We drank a cold beer and talked about this and that. He said that hope springs eternal. I said I'd drink to that.

St. Thomas Aquinas OP, pray for us.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Convert to hope

St Paul. Sometimes I love him, he is so eloquent and beautiful. Sometimes he is so hard as to be a little more than challenging to a 21st Century woman. He dedicated himself to coping with the human condition and writing about it. Romans 7:35 shows this struggle was real: I have desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do - this no,  but the evil I do not want to do, I keep on doing.

There is an example of what it is like to live the moral life. Saul-Paul does not present the model of the Christian who converts to lead a perfect life. If he did perhaps I would not love him as I do. What he does present is the struggle of being in a continual relationship with Christ. And, what a start that relationship had. You all know the story. He fell off his horse. He was following the voice of religious authority at the time, carrying letters authorising him to arrest and bring back practising Christians to Jerusalem for punishment. How sure of himself he was (Acts 9: 1 - 19). Christ knocks him off his horse, blinds him and forces him to see the kindness of others. He recognises the truth of the situation through the love of anothers' touch, someone willing to give him another chance despite the stories he had heard - Ananias, servant of the Lord. Some might argue that this must be where the phrase, 'the school of hard knocks' comes from. Thereafter, of course, we know what happens. Paul becomes a servant of the Gospel. He has the courage and the confidence to go where no one might have dared to go before. He has a hard time of it, but he trusts enough to walk and talk in darkness, because he carries in his heart the great light, the light of Christ. None of this makes him act perfectly, of course, he is still impossible at times. He does however, have the courage to hope and never give up. That, ultimately, is his conversion. That is his gift.

Rosemary Focaccia, my little suggestion for today, is chosen for its ingredients really: Bread for life, rosemary for remembrance and protection, olives for hope, salt for grace, oil for abundance. Drink it with wine for joy. Ingredients to celebrate conversion.

St. Paul, pray for us.

Rosemary focaccia

To make this loaf even yummier, add a scattering of black olives and some finely sliced and sautéed onion. Makes one loaf.

500g strong white bread flour
10g fine sea salt
5g dried or fast-action yeast
2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
To finish
Rapeseed or olive oil
Flaky sea salt
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves picked and roughly chopped

Mix together the flour and salt in a large bowl. If using ordinary dried yeast, dissolve it in 350ml warm water and add to the flour mix; if using fast-action yeast, add it straight to the flour, then add 350ml warm water. Mix to a very rough, soft dough, add the oil and squish in.

Scrape the dough on to a lightly floured work surface and, with lightly floured hands, knead until smooth and silky – it'll take between five and 15 minutes. It's a very sticky dough, so keep dusting your hands with flour; it will become less sticky as you knead. Shape the dough into a round, put it in a lightly oiled bowl, and cover with lightly oiled clingfilm or a clean tea towel and leave until it has doubled in size; this will take about an hour. Knock back the dough and, if you have time, leave to rise again. Meanwhile, lightly oil a shallow baking tin about 25cm x 35cm.

On a floured surface, press the dough out into a rough rectangle, lift into the tin and press right into the corners. Cover with oiled clingfilm or a clean tea towel and leave to rise for about half an hour. Once risen, use your fingertips to poke rows of deep dimples over the top. Trickle generously with oil, then sprinkle with salt and rosemary. Bake in an oven heated to its highest setting (at least 230C/450F/gas mark 8) for 15-20 minutes, turning it down after 10 minutes if it browns too fast, Serve just warm, or let it cool.

Monday 23 January 2012

He wishes for the cloths of heaven

Had I the heavens embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths,
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
A friend of mine recently recounted that she once received a postcard from me, sent from Ireland, with this poem written out on the back. She says I must have been about 13 or 14 when I sent it. Apart from this proving that I have never quite got the hang of the "postcard - wish you were here" genre, it has reminded me how much I love this poem. Over the years I have had a strange relationship to it - it is often in my dreams. Sometimes it gets stuck in my head, a bit like a pop song, but I have never known anyone else who gets 'stuck record syndrome' with poetry so I have never found a cure to successfully banish it.

'Tread Softly' is back with a vengeance through my thoughts and dreams, it is so powerful and the words are true. It is impossible to give or receive anything genuinely unless it is wrapped in the vulnerability of prayers, hopes and dreams.

Little Bees...

'When little bees are caught in a storm they take hold of small stones so they can keep their
balance when they fly. Our firm resolution to stay with God is like stability to the soul amid the rolling waves of life.'
 Francis de Sales (1567 - 1622) only lived fifty-six years, but his short life has had a profound impact upon how some approach the Christian life.  Many people sought him out as their spiritual director, and his correspondence with Madam de Chamoisy evolved into one of the most beautiful, simply written advice for Christians living and working everyday - An Introduction to the devout life. By the time this post is published, I will be meeting Section 48 Inspectors at my school. They have come to examine the 'Catholic Ethos', and will be taking a long, hard and detailed look at how my school ensures that we live up to our mission statement to have 'prayer at the centre of our lives'. They will look at our liturgies, our assemblies, our time with our tutor group, how RE is taught, the schemes of work we use in RE and across the curriculum, the extra curricula clubs we run, the charities we support, the way our school uses statues, crucifixes and other visual reminders to encourage us all to remember we are living a very busy life of faith. They will speak to staff and students about how they see the school too, and try to get a feel of how everyone tries to live up to what we say we are as a Catholic place of education. I am scared: terrified actually. I have been unable to sleep much which is very unusual, and when I wake I discover I have been dreaming about lessons going wrong or Inspectors discovering unmarked books! I am new in my post. Preparing to answer questions on your 'management style' all seems a bit grown up to me. It petrifies me. But, to have this process begin on the Feast of St. Francis de Sales is auspicious. If there was a man who offered simple, practical advice about how to 'be good' it was him, throughout his life he had a calm, gentle approach, even when negotiating difficult issues. He always gripped tightly onto the rock, his faith.

Francis' message, really, was that simple things sustain us, he does not over complicate the life of prayer. He does not over complicate God. Tomorrow, I aim not to over complicate a Section 48 Inspection.

A simple and uncomplicated thing then....

Mustard Mash
(Serve 3)

400g potatoes
85ml whole milk
85g butter
1 scallion / spring onion
1/2 tbsp dijon mustard
1/2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
a handful of chopped parsley

Peel and boil the potatoes in salted water until they are soft. Heat the milk with chopped spring onion Drain the potatoes, and then mash thoroughly. Strain the milk and add it to the potatoes. Stir in the butter and two types of mustard, season generously and mash until smooth. Stir in the chopped parsley. Serve with your favourite sausages, green vegetables and gravy. Sorted.

Saturday 21 January 2012

I saw Jupiter for the first time today.

It was awesome. This is not a picture I took of course, I was too busy looking through the telescopes of the University of Oxford Physics Department. But, this is a little like the Jupiter I saw, except I saw three moons. So cool. I saw Andromeda too. And all my favourite normal stars like the warrior Orion, his friends big bear and little bear. I even saw Orion's pet dog, which I can only normally see when it is very dark and there are no lights about. Brilliant.

Friday 20 January 2012

And what wilt thou do with my heart?

St Agnes (c.292 - 305) may have only lived to the age of 13, but she was not a young lady who could be easily pushed around. Her life, and sadly her death, is a brave declaration of independence. She died because she was not going marry, or sleep with, any bloke who felt he had enough money to buy her off her father. That was the way things worked in those days. She was going to wait for the right man, someone she could fall in love with, and at 13 who could blame her. As she was so beautiful many men did try to persuade her, but to no avail. In the end, a disappointed suitor told the authorities she was a Christian and she was brought before a Roman court. When an offer lavish gifts would not change her mind about the marriage (as if that ever worked), the governor threw her into a house of prostitution so as any man could have her way with her.  The story goes, that she radiated such an aura of purity no man would touch her, and one went blind for looking at her lustfully. Exasperated men sentenced her to die by the sword. They could not possess her. She went to her death, it is said, as cheerfully 'as others go to their wedding.'

Tradition has it that St Agnes is invoked by single women in search of a husband. She sends visions of the man they are to marry on the eve of her feast. Scottish girls would meet in a crop field at midnight, throw grain onto the soil, and pray:

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me.

An old book called "Mother Brunch's Closet Newly Broke Open" speaks of this St. Agnes Eve custom:
There is, in January, a day called Saint Agnes's Day. It is always the one and twentieth of that month. This Saint Agnes had a great favour for young men and maids, and will bring unto their bedside, at night, their sweethearts, if they follow this rule as I shall declare unto thee. Upon this day thou must be sure to keep a true fast, for thou must not eat or drink all that day, nor at night; neither let any man, woman, or child kiss thee that day; and thou must be sure, at night, when thou goest to bed, to put on a clean shift, and the best thou hast the better thou mayst speed; and thou must have clean cloaths on thy head, for St. Agnes does love to see clean cloaths when she comes; and when thou liest down on thy back as straight as thou canst, and both thy hands are laid underneath thy head, then say
Now good St. Agnes, play thy part, 
And sent to me my own sweetheart, 
And shew me such a happy bliss, 
This night of him to have a kiss. 
And then be sure to fall asleep as soon as thou canst, and before thou awakest out of thy first sleep thou shalt see him come and stand before thee, and thou shalt perceive by his habit what trademan he is; but be sure thou declarest not thy dream to anybody in ten days, and by that time thou mayst come to see thy dream come to pass.

Keat's, of course, writes one of his most brilliant epic poems in honour of this Feast: The Eve of St Agnes The evening is so cold, the old beadsmans' hands  are numb as he tells his rosary. He hears music and dancing in the hall of the castle, and prays for Madeline, the daughter of the lord of the Castle, who dances inside. Madeline believes the ancient traditions of St Agnes Eve, and is prepared to go to bed without supper to ensure that she will see a vision of her future lover. Porphyro, madly in love with her, but an enemy to her family, has used to party to sneak into the family home undetected. With the help of his friend Angela, an old nurse, he intends to make Madeline's dream come true. Before she retires, Porphyro hides in Madeline's closet. Madeline comes to bed, says her prayers, and drifts quickly to sleep. Her mind is filled with beautiful visions of Porphyro, immortal and beautiful, and nothing the earthy Porphyro can do will stir her. Eventually, he plays a lute to wake her. As she opens her eyes she is horrified! The mortal Porphyro before her stands in such contrast to her dream she thinks him on the point of death. She prays to return to her dreamlike vision. Her prayer is granted and she and Porphyro enter into a mystic marriage. When the magic visionary state comes to an end, Madeline expresses a fear that her lover will leave her, "a deceived thing; — /A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing." Porphyro, who now addresses her as his bride, urges her to leave the castle with him. "Awake! arise! my love, and fearless be, / For o'er the southern moors I have a home for thee." The two leave the castle, and walk out undetected into a storm. 

Well, that was a quick ramble through an epically long poem! Do read it, it is wonderful. The title of this post are the last words of St John Houghton. Perhaps that does not seem quite relevant, but when I heard them I thought, well that is the point isn't it? You can want to marry someone for their looks, or their money, their power or prestige, but it is never going to work unless you treasure their heart. St. Agnes knew that. From memory though, I think John Houghton said these words as the judge was reading what was to be done with various body parts during and after his execution. I guess St. Agnes would have had  some sympathy with that point of view too.

Today, I think Madeleine's - great with coffee - are a suitable treat for this wonderful feast full of strange superstitions, dreams and traditions.
I ate these for breakfast everyday walking to Santiago!


2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
125g icing sugar
100g plain flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
125g butter, melted and cooled

Preheat the oven to 190 C / Gas mark 5. Grease and flour 24 Madeleine moulds.  Then, in a medium bowl beat eggs, vanilla and lemon zest with an electric mixer on high speed for 5 minutes. Gradually beat in the icing sugar. Beat for 5 to 7 minutes or until it is thick and looks like satin.  Sift together the flour and baking powder. Sift 1/4 of the flour mixture over the egg mixture, gently fold in. Fold in the remaining flour gradually. Then fold in the melted and cooled butter. Spoon batter into the prepared moulds, each about three-quarters full. Bake in the preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until the edges are golden and the tops spring back. Cool in moulds on a rack for 1 minute. Loosen with a knife. Invert onto a rack and cool. Sift icing sugar over the tops or melt plain chocolate and dip the tips in the chocolate. Store in an airtight container. 

Sunday 15 January 2012

The Fourth Wiseman

I am running behind with all sorts of work at the moment, the world is rushing round me. Perhaps it is for this reason that H.F.W Tatham's story of The Fourth Wiseman is one of my current favourites. It sits somewhere round the back of my brain and retells itself in quiet moments, as if it were a record on an old gramophone. It is told in the voice of an old englishman, with clipped consonants and glass vowels - as people used to speak in the 1920's. It begins....

You have all heard the story of the three Wise Men who came nineteen hundred years ago to see the Child that had been born in Bethlehem, and brought Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh, and how a Star led them and stood over the place where the young Child lay. But perhaps you have not heard the story of the Fourth Wise Man. 
He had not seen the Star, and did not go on the journey with the other three. But he had seen a vision in the night, and though, when the morning came, his memory of what it had been was all blurred and faint, and grew fainter as the day grew brighter, as dreams will, and though he told no one of his vision, yet it was enough to make him go forth and sell all that he had, house and lands and goods, and change the money that he received for them and his other moneys for three great jewels that he could easily carry—an emerald, a ruby, and a diamond. These he hid in a belt cunningly made, and started forth upon his journey alone. They were to be given to the King when he found him; that was all that he knew. 
But it was no easy road that lay before him, and the dangers and difficulties were great. At one time he was cast into prison by a ruler of a country through which he passed; at another he was compelled to fight and defend a town beleaguered by the savage natives of the neighbourhood; at another he was seized by pirates and carried off in their ship to sea. Time passed rapidly away, and his adventures in detail would fill volumes; but there were three events which stood out clearly from the rest. 
He had come to a cottage by the roadside one evening, and saw a group of soldiers outside, armed as though for war, and a richly dressed man mounted on a horse, evidently in authority over them; in the midst of the group was a youth, hardly more than a boy. His hands were tied behind his back, his face was bleeding, his clothes were dusty and torn. On his face was a look of despair, but he plainly put constraint upon himself, and bit his lip to keep back the rising tears. But what most arrested the attention of the Wise Man was the loud and bitter weeping of a woman which at that moment burst forth from within a cottage. When the boy heard it he started visibly, and crying, ‘Mother!’ struggled wildly with the soldiers who held him; and at the same moment the cottage door opened and a woman rushed out and flung herself at the feet of the mounted man. 
She was old and worn, and robed as a widow. Her torn and dishevelled hair, her tear-stained face, the hopeless agony written in her strained and haggard eyes were enough to move the pity of the hardest heart. But the man looked down on her and smiled coldly. 
‘Mercy, my lord,’ she wailed, ‘leave me my son, my only son! I am a widow; his father and his two brothers have died in the King’s service; without him I cannot live in this desert, nor without him do I desire to live. Leave him to me, I entreat you!’ 
But the man laughed harshly. ‘You know the price,’ he said. And he named a vast sum; more, far more than it was conceivable that any but the richest could pay. 
A bitter cry burst from the woman’s lips, and, flinging herself down, she beat her forehead in the dust. ‘Lead on,’ said the captain to the soldiers, and they prepared to obey. But the Wise Man stepped forward. His hand had gone to his girdle, where he felt the precious stones press against his side. They were presents for his King—but could he keep them back now? He drew out the great emerald and held it forth to the captain.‘Is this a price rich enough to buy back a soldier for his mother?’ he said. 
The captain laughed. ‘Ay,’ he said, ‘that is enough. But a fool art thou to give thy jewel for such a worthless wretch. Let him go, men; lead on.’ And he rode away. The Wise Man stood for a moment and then softly followed. The mother and son were in each others’ arms. 
The story moves on, and the wiseman travels alone - the three companions who started ahead of him are far beyond his reach now. He stops to help others on his way, buying the freedom of a slave girl with his ruby. Lastly, years and years after he has set out, he sees a man being led out to be crucified. The man falls by his feet, and as the Roman guard rears his horse and whip to beat him, the wise man offers his diamond. The blow falls on the wise man, who remembers nothing more until....
When he awoke he was in a very bright place, so bright that he could not lift his eyes but could only lie and gaze at the shining floor around him. But he was conscious that a voice had been speaking to him, and the sound was as the sound of many waters. And presently he was aware that a man stood near, though he could see nothing but his feet and the hem of his garment. Then the same voice bade him look up. 
Slowly, very slowly, he raised his eyes. The white robe of the speaker dazzled them, but by degrees they reached the hand that hung by the side. On the third finger a green stone gave forth a radiance that he knew; it was his emerald. 
Again he lifted his eyes. The necklace round the throat of the man caught them. It hung low on the breast in front, and in its very centre blazed a great red jewel with a heart of blood and fire; was it not the ruby? 
Then for a moment he saw the face, but ere he could recognise it his startled eyes were dazzled by the intense white light reflected from the great diamond that shone in a circlet of gold around the wearer’s forehead. 
And the face? He knew it now; it was the face of the man who had looked upon him on the road to Calvary. 
And so, after all, the King had received His jewels!
It is a simple little parable really, but I love it. This wise man was late. He got distracted by everyone and everything upon his way. That was what he was meant to do. I take great comfort in that. Single mindedness has never been my forte. For those of you who know my dreams, it was the emerald ring that freaked me out when I first heard this story. It has appeared in my dreams for many years, always in different contexts, and it always causes trouble! I keep thinking on it.

Saturday 7 January 2012

An Epiphany for the Magi

They arrived in the evening, TS Eliot says, not a moment too soon. There are many traditions for celebrating Epiphany across the world. Cakes feature in most of them, and lost beans in some. The lucky person who finds the bean in their cake is crowned king for the evening. Sadly, I have not had time for baking cakes of late. I did want to make sure I marked this feast though. So, I looked up the recipe for that hot drink which after a long cold, wet day on the Camino de Santiago, when my feet were sore and my bones were aching, and I thought I was mad for ever setting out, put the world gently back to rights. 

Spiced Hot Chocolate (with or without nip)

Dark good quality chocolate broken into small pieces
Cardamom, or a cinnamon stick, or for the brave, dried chilli flakes
White chocolate or honey or sugar (sweetens)
Full fat milk
Double cream whipped (optional)
Brandy (optional)

Gently heat the milk in a pan with your choice of spice (not all three, okay?), and when it is just hot enough to melt the chocolate (I test with my finger - when it burns it is done - I, clearly, am not a wiseman though), add the chocolate. The white chocolate is a sweetener used instead of sugar. If you use this use just a little, and taste, you can add more later if you like. Once the chocolate pieces are added whisk constantly and do not let boil. The chocolate will melt slowly and turn the milk to velvety goodness. In an Irish Coffee glass or large mug, add your nip of brandy if you are having it, and gently pour your chocolate on top. Finish with whipped double cream if you like.

This is a drink to restore exhausted people. It relaxes them to the point of sleepy bliss. The calories are intentional, so don't try and cut them out. This is all about feeling your aches and pains drift away as your body warms up, tucking into a blanket in front of a brightly burning fire and feeling all will be right with the world again soon. Take it slowly. Let it work its magic. Tomorrow you are going to have to get up and walk once again.  :)