Sunday 1 July 2018

A Latere Dextro

Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, alleluia ...

I saw water coming forth from the Temple from the right side, alleluia ...


I have been reading Thomas Dilworth's excellent biography of the poet and artist, David Jones (1895-1974) - David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (2017). It's a terrific book - beautifully enhanced with full colour representations of Jones's pictures. I was particularly struck by his 1943 painting, A Latere Dextro (a title taken from the Latin Mass antiphon above and meaning 'from the right side.') It is a work of art which gave Jones much trouble. He couldn't let it go, and didn't know when to stop working on it. He did eventually, of course, but a certain 'overworkedness' comes across quite strongly on a first viewing. The canvas feels cluttered and it's hard to see the wood from the trees, so to speak, and work out what the artist is trying to depict.

The reproduction above is far from outstanding, but is the best I could find. It's nowhere near as sharp as the one in Dilworth's book, but I hope it can still convey something of the quality and depth of this work, which becomes more and more apparent the more you look at it. Once you pick out one detail, more begin to follow, until you start to see the painting for the harmonious, unified whole that it is.

What we are looking at is the moment of Consecration in the Mass, the Traditional Latin rite which Jones saw as a unique repository of spiritual and cultural value, a link for him between twentieth century Britain and the country's Roman past. The priest, standing at the altar in the centre of the painting with candle-bearing altar boys behind him, lifts up the chalice in a medieval-style chapel of columns, curving arches and high, vaulting ceilings. We are present at a miracle. Ordinary red wine - the kind we might buy in Co-op or Marks and Spencer - is transmuted into the blood of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

There are many points of technical excellence to admire - the way the candles on the High Altar mirror those held by the altar boys; the flowers on the priest's chasuble blending into those adorning the altar; and the Pentecostal wind (which you probably can't see in this reproduction) that blows through the Sanctuary, making the candles quiver and flicker.

What has impacted on me most, however, is the painting's atmosphere of holiness. The canvas shines with serenity and peace, but there is nothing static or fixed in the way these qualities are depicted. We see a dynamism and fluidity at work instead - a sense of waitng and anticipation - standing on the threshold, as it were - the boundary between Heaven and Earth becoming porous, and the two worlds poised to become one.

I have been meditating on this painting a good deal recently. It has become a kind of talisman in many ways, especially after a brief visit to my home city of Manchester after a long time away. I was shocked by the general air of coarseness and decay that greeted me. Crassness was the order of the day. People were strutting around - as proud as peacocks - revelling, it seemed, in ugliness and degradation. A vast number - young and old - boasted scrawling, sprawling tattoos which were simply worlds away from what I believed were universally-held notions of stylishness and chic. I'm not referring here to the names of loved ones written on wrists and arms. I mean those sinister, semi-Satanic symbols, such as snakes and webs, which we see covering so much of so many people's bodies at the moment. Seeing these images over and over again as one walks around town, has, I believe, a deadening effect on the soul. It has the same corrosive spiritual impact as exposure to those more long-standing urban blights - incessant noise and bad architecture.

Other folk cheerfully wore t-shirts bearing confrontational slogans, 'I ain't got time for that' being probably the most printable. Many more stomped loudly around the city locked into their phones, already embracing transhumanism, it seemed to me, with wires dangling openly and shamelessly from their pockets. Just as Jones in his painting shows us the meeting point of Heaven and Earth, so here, I felt, was a blurring of the lines between the human and the robotic - a celebration of what could soon become the 'abolition of man' C.S. Lewis predicted seventy-five years ago. Maybe I've just been in a quiet place for too long, but town struck me, in short, as an incoherent mess - an incongruous jumble of cultures and fashions with no palpable sense of civic purpose and mission beyond the whirligig of eating and drinking, getting and spending, and leisure and pleasure.

For the City Council and the local media, of course, all the above is to be welcomed and seen as evidence of a thriving metropolis. And, to be fair, there were some good things. There always are in Manchester. I saw numerous acts of individual charity and there are still some fantastic places - havens from the chaos and shapelessness - St. Mary's Church (aka 'The Hidden Gem') and The Briton's Protection pub to name just two. But one senses that for the 'great and good' of the city, old-school 'Manc' warmth and friendliness - which, despite everything, is still very much alive - isn't really where it's at any more. Sure, they pay lip service to it, but their hearts are increasingly elsewhere. So while it's stretching a point to say I saw Satan openly worshipped in the city centre, it  really wouldn't surprise me to see a statue of 'Old Nick' pop up one day in St. Anne's Square or Piccadilly Gardens. There'll be no mention on the plinth of 'Satan' or 'The Devil', of course. Not at first anyway. The movers and shakers will dress it up as a tribute to 'energy', 'edginess', 'non-conformity' or some other asinine buzzword. But the intent will be plain enough for those with eyes to see. As will the outcome.


This train of thought led me to reflect more deeply on the Devil and the very active role he undoubtedly plays in contemporary society. We see all around us the fragmentation and inversion of values William Wildblood so expertly delineates here. But I'm thinking too of the marked increase in mental health problems and suicides in the materially prosperous West over the last twenty years or so. It will be argued that these can be explained by a variety of non-demonic factors - economic slowdown, for instance, or the stresses caused by social media - but to my mind such an unprecedented disintegration of long-held objective norms (e.g. the denial of basic, obvious differences between the sexes) and the concomitant rise in disorientation, uncertainty and confusion, eludes a purely social or economic explanation. It is also noteworthy that the Catholic Church has recently been reporting a significant rise in demand for exorcisms. Pope Francis himself has consistently referenced the Devil in his homilies, emphasising his reality and his malign activity in the world. It's hard to pin it down, but my sense is that there has been a clear change for the worse in the mental and spiritual climate of the West, especially since around 2010. Something unpleasant - something profoundly anti-human and anti-life appears to be gathering pace and momentum. 'And what rough beast,' as Yeats asked in The Second Coming, 'its hour come round at last, slouches off to Bethlehem to be born?'

I think I have caught a glimpse here and there in recent years of how this 'rough beast' works. I remember sitting on a bus in South Manchester around 2013 and seeing a poster for a film called 'Horns', featuring the famous Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. The poster had a picture of the actor's face with a pair of horns superimposed on his head and the word 'Horns' scrawled across the top in red. Normally I would have laughed at such a thing or not even paid it any attention, but it really got to me for some reason, leaving my body unsettled and my mind scrambled. I hadn't been thinking about God or the Devil or anything like that on the journey, yet it was as plain as a pikestaff to me, as the bus continued its journey into town, that there was a message from the 'horned one' in that poster. I was also very sure as to what that message contained. 'This is my time,' it said. 'I'm out in the open now. On your streets. On your turf. What are you going to do about it?'

Two years later I was sat in a café on The University of Manchester campus. A man opposite me was reading the back page of a red-top newspaper. Consequently, I could read the headline on the front page loud and clear - three words in big black letters - 'Let Us Die.' This hit me in exactly the same way the poster had done - a mixture of panic, anger, anxiety, and mental discombobulation. Once again, I hadn't been dwelling on anything spiritual at the time, but I felt stone cold certain that this was the work of the Father of Lies. The evil in the headline was so blatant. So 'in your face'.

I had a look at the paper in question later and discovered that the story was to do with an episode of Coronation Street aired the previous night, where a character with a debilitating illness chose voluntary euthanasia at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. In a snap poll conducted immediately after the programme, an overwhelming majority voted for euthanasia to be legalised in the UK. I shuddered and went on my way. And this is the way the rough beast works. Things bumble along in an everyday fashion, or so it seems, until we're brought up short one day by a billboard, a headline, or a great city falling gleefully into Gehenna. That's when the veil is lifted and we see and feel - very clearly and starkly - that there is a mind directing operations here, a mind with a deep and dark agenda.

There's nothing in all this that hasn't been said before, of course. The great French metaphysician René Guenon predicted it all in his 1945 chef d'oeuvre, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times. When men and women cut themselves off from God we invite spiritual subversion from below. The gap between Heaven and Earth, which we see narrowing in A Latere Dextro, becomes a chasm and the Evil One takes full advantage. Nature abhors a vacuum, as we know, and the Devil, as we also know, 'goeth about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he will to devour.' To transpose things into Narnian terms for a moment, this is the 'Deep Magic From the Dawn of Time.' It blindsides and scatters you and makes you feel helpless, overwhelmed and weak.


So what do we do? How do we respond? One of the strongest tempations, I feel, is to muddle up our levels and try to find a political solution for what is essentially a spiritual problem. There is a tremendous mania in the West for getting things done, setting wheels in motion, taking concrete steps, and so forth. It goes without saying that this is to put the cart before the horse but it is a temptation which affects us all, I feel, to a greater or lesser degree.

Politically speaking - to put my own cards on the table - I'm a supporter of the Blue Labour movement, which is economically left-wing and socially conservative. I am also a Monarchist and a Jacobite, with a commitment to the restoration of the Stuart line. Now it's very easy for me to think, 'If only Blue Labour was in power and/or the Old Monarchy was restored, then the country would be animated by a vision again and everything would be great.' But whatever our political preferences, we have to grasp - and surely we do deep down - that there won't be any qualitative difference to life in the UK unless and until a step-change in our spiritual understanding takes place first. That's the 'one thing needful.' 'Primacy to the spiritual,' as the French Personalists used to say in the 1930s. 'The political, the social and the economic at the service of the spiritual.'

What we all need, I believe, is an image of holiness embedded and imprinted on our hearts and minds, which we meditate and reflect on day and night until until it seeps into our being, shines forth from our faces, and reveals itself to the world at large through our thoughts, words and deeds. David Jones's, A Latere Dextro has performed this role for me in recent weeks. As a Catholic, it is perhaps natural that I should be drawn to such an image. Readers from different faith traditions might be able to find an equivalent which relates more specifically to them. But this image of holiness doesn't need to be restricted to church life. Those of us who are parents, for instance, will know the potent blend of wonder, joy, awe, relief and sheer rightness that we feel when we set eyes on the new baby for the first time. But you don't even have to be a parent. I would bet that for everyone reading this piece there have been at least ten occasions when the line between Heaven and Earth has at least partially dissolved and a deep sense of blessing and peace was felt. To take three examples from my own life, straight off the top of my head ...

(1) The morning of my last undergraduate exam at Leeds University. A fellow-student panicking as we waited for the exam to begin, then running off along the corridor and down the polished staircase into the Art Deco splendour of the Parkinson Building's cathedral-like foyer. Taking the initiative for once, I followed her down and saw her collapse in a sobbing heap on a bench between two marble columns. I stood before her and spoke - words of hope and encouragement - words that came not from me but from some other place unknown to me - a holy place, a strong place. Slowly her breathing settled, she took her hands from her face and lifted her head. The morning sun arrowed in through the high windows, forming a pool of light on the floor between our feet. And as I spoke, the look on her face changed from despair and confusion to mental clarity and an understated yet unmistakeable self belief. It was a moment of grace, connection and depth, the kind of thing we had all spent the last three years searching for in any number of wrong places ...

(2) You might have seen a similar look on my own face six years previously in my High School library. I had been going through a tough time and my English teacher - who was the very model of an Irish man of letters - took me aside and recommended I read Free Fall by William Golding. He lent me his own copy in fact, as the library didn't have the book.

He never said why I should read it, and some of the book's subtleties were beyond my fifteen year-old range, but it's probably no exaggeration to say that it turned my life around. Not all at once, of course, but Sammy Mountjoy's struggles to bring some kind of pattern and coherence to his life gave me a sense of spiritual and emotional kinship which had been lacking before. I wasn't the only teenager in the world to have wrestled with wild emotions and found them overwhelming. There was a lineage and tradition to it, and Golding - who deployed the English language like molten lava - clearly understood. So when I put the book down for a moment and looked out of the window that blustery July afternoon I saw the dour, 1970s school-buildings with new eyes just as Sammy does when he sees the huts in the prisoner of war camp after his release from solitary confinement:

I saw the huts as one who had little to do with them and the temporal succession of days that they implied. So they shone with the innocent light of their own created nature. I understood them perfectly, boxes of thin wood as they were, and now transparent, letting be seen inside their quota of sceptred kings ... Beyond them the mountains were not only clear all through like purple glass, but living. They sang and were conjubilant. They were not all that sang. Everything is related to everything else and all relationship is either discord or harmony. The power of gravity, dimension and space, the movement of the earth and sun and unseen stars, these made what might be called music and I heard it ...

(3) 'Everything is related to everything else and all relationship is either discord or harmony.' It was all harmony when my wife and I stepped inside the 'L'Arche tent' during the Didsbury Festival (Didsbury being my home Manchester suburb) in June 2014. L'Arche is the charity that supports and encourages people living with Down's Syndrome and other learning disabilities. Everything on sale in the tent had been made by members of the local L'Arche community. The quality of the goods - purses, bags, greeting cards, etc - was second to none. Real craftsmanship. But what was especially impressive was the warmth and generosity of the welcome we received. It had a genuineness to it that was missing from some of the other stalls. We were treated as people rather than 'punters'. It was a good place to be. There was nothing sentimental or patronising there. No suggestion of, 'Didn't I do well making this bag despite having Down's Syndrome?' There were no hard-luck stories, no tugging at the heart strings, just a softly-spoken pride in a job well done and a tangible sense of solidarity and fellowship. Everything I had been looking for but never quite found in the world of work. 'The pearl of great price,' in other words.


God speaks to us all the time in everyday scenarios like this. He's constantly sending out signals and messages, but the formlessness which greeted me in Manchester (and is growing exponentially everywhere) mitigates against even being able to pick up the signal, let alone respond to it. It is a great trick of the Devil and can only be combatted, as I propose, by going back to basics and finding and meditating on an image of holiness - bringing it in to the heart, then taking it out to the world. Because let's be honest about where we are. Unless something sensational happens, there won't be a spiritual awakening in this country any time soon. We are at the start of a decades-long endeavour, possibly longer. The odds are that we won't live to see the fruits of our labours. But we have to put our shoulders to the wheel and make a start, and this is the right kind of start, the only kind of start. A stripping away of illusion and wishful thinking and a necessary reorientation towards what is most real and essential in each of us. But it is more even than this. Much more. It is the 'Deeper Magic From Before the Dawn of Time,' and it is stronger by far, though quieter and more unobtrusive, than the other kind. We can rely on it - once we have made a start - slowly but surely to carry out its Divinely-commissioned task of reparation, healing, renewal, and transformation.

Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, alleluia!


Wurmbrand said...

Maybe I'll comment later on something related tangentially to this posting, but I can't do that yet -- it wouldn't be worthy of it. Thank you, John, for this exceptional meditation on the themes of adoration and repulsion.

Dale Nelson

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - That's a fine, rich, wide-ranging and well-structured piece that gets the matter just right; so far as I understand it.

Especially where you emphasise that what we most need are 'images of holiness' - positive and good stuff; that may inspire us to turn from the bad stuff.

I certainly need to be positively-motivated in life --- knowing that something is inadequate, bad, harmful is not enough until I know what to do instead.

And when we know that, it makes much clearer our understanding of wrongness.

William Wildblood said...

That's a very strong post, John. You make it clear that the only civilising force for human beings is through religion or, at least, a proper spiritual sensibility. People thought that art or even politics might serve a similar function but unless these are seen in the light of a higher reality they are worse than useless.

John Fitzgerald said...

Thank you very much everyone.