Language and Mystery

Most people have a favourite psalm or psalms, perhaps one that they have become familiar with at some special moment in their life, or that means a lot to them for some other reason. For many people it might be Psalm 23, just because it’s one of the shortest and best-known. When I was at primary school, many years ago, it was one of the pieces of verse we were encouraged to learn in our English class. (I never learned it: even at the age of 10, I was the bolshy child who wants to learn ‘A Poem of Your Own Choice’, rather than one that the teacher had chosen for us.) Or it might be Psalm 139, at some moment in our lives when it’s especially important for us to learn that God knows us intimately, and values us:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (verses 14-16, ESV)

My ambition is to get to know all the psalms so well, that they are all my favourites for their own unique reason. In the meantime, there are lots that stand out for me. One of the recent additions to my ‘list of favourite psalms’ is Psalm 85. For a number of years, I would say Evening Prayer on Christmas Day, using the Book of Common Prayer order for Evening Prayer. The traditional lectionary lists Psalm 85 as one of the psalms appointed for the day, and I came to love the verses which explain that, in the coming of Christ into the world, God’s mercy was satisfied, and God’s righteousness and justice also.

For his salvation is nigh them that fear him:
that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together:
righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (verses 9-10)

Whenever I say Psalm 85 in the daily course of psalms, it reminds me of that message about the Incarnation. So I have a great affection and concern for these words. Imagine my dismay, then, when I find that the Psalter used in Common Worship Daily Prayer, and the translation that appears in the New Revised Standard Version, reads

9 Truly, his salvation is near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth are met together, *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other;

Where has that his come from? How has it crept in before the word ‘glory’, when my guess is, it’s not present in the Hebrew? And why does it make such a difference to me, and grate so, and feel that it has taken something away from the meaning of the line?

It’s because there is something about modern translation – in the Bible and in liturgy, too – that wants to over-specify, over-define. By making it crystal clear, what it wants you to understand by the words, it takes away ambiguity, and the possibility of reading different things in the text, from what the translators want you to read. This impoverishes Scripture and liturgy, where it is often the ambiguity of a phrase, its ability to bear many possible shades of meaning, that leads the reader or the worshipper deeper into the meaning and reality of God.

Thomas Cranmer, and the translators of the King James Bible, often had a better sense of this. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the different meanings: what they knew was, that if there were several possible meanings, it wasn’t their job to define any single one as the meaning

Clearly, language is supposed to communicate meaning; but if the meaning of a thing is mystery, then it is mystery that the language ought to convey. That’s one of the reasons why I find some of the more traditional formularies of liturgy and hymnology so much more satisfying than modern attempts to update them.

Impossible Gestures in Worship

Somewhere I remember reading an account of an earnest young curate who caused amusement to his congregation by exhorting them: “Let us take our hearts and look them in the face.”

Apparently this kind of spiritual contortion has now become part of the vocabulary of modern worship songs, too. Today I found myself being invited to sing

All who are thirsty,
all who are weak,
come to the fountain,
dip your heart in the stream of life…

Google Images unfortunately couldn’t find an illustration of this startling feat, so this will have to do instead:

Health Update

If you’ve been following the saga of my health problems throughout 2019 – and if you haven’t, you can soon catch up by reading my earlier posts from the end of last December onwards… here is the latest instalment.

The last (I hope) remaining complication of all the complications that followed my RARP (Robot Assisted Radical Prostatectomy – keep up, there) was a hernia that developed at one of the entry points for the laparoscopic surgery. My prostate consultant asked his colleague in endocrinology who does hernia repairs to have a look at it, and he decided it was a hernia (duh). I would get an appointment for a repair sooner if I opted to have it done at the Horton General Hospital in Banbury, rather than in Oxford; so that’s what we chose.

He told me the waiting list was about two months, and in this case, that was pretty accurate: they sent me a letter with an appointment with an appointment for Friday September 20. It meant an early start, leaving at 7 a.m. to drive to Banbury in time to check in at 8. I wasn’t too encouraged when the surgeon who was to perform the operation took a look and said “That’s a bit bigger than we usually like to do as a day case…” but he decided to go ahead anyway. There was then a boring wait for most of the morning – even with the fewer surgeries booked for that morning in the smaller hospital, I wasn’t the top of the list – until I went down to theatre just before midday. And the next I knew, I was being rudely awakened in the recovery room by a nurse asking if I was all right.

So, home the same day, and convalescent again. Not allowed to drive, or carry anything heavy (like shopping, a laundry basket, or a vacuum cleaner), and generally with every excuse to take things easy and be molly-coddled.

Now that I’m officially old, I reckon I’m entitled to show my operation scars to all and sundry. Look away now, or click if you want to see this 4 inch beauty.

Continue reading “Health Update”

Terwilliger bunts one

Image result for tropen 500 fountain pen

I find myself looking back through some of the volumes of journals and diaries I have kept over the years. There are many of them, and I’m never sure how wise it is to read them again. During the 1990s especially, I wrote pages and pages of what was really a kind of spiritual journal, as I tried to deal with my depression, and worked (as I thought) at promoting my spiritual growth towards being the kind of Christian and priest I aspired to be. The reading itself is a depressing experience. Can I really have been such a self-obsessed miserable git as the guy in these pages?

But the main reason I was looking back, was to search for a note about when I bought my long-time favourite fountain pen. Most of those journals were written with a fountain pen, though in recent years I’ve been using a ballpoint, rollerball or a disposable like a Uniball Signo or Stabilo Sensor. Even when I’ve used a fountain pen, it was often with an ink cartridge. Now that we live in such a plastic-conscious world, I decided this was too much One of the ways of cutting down plastic use is to get rid of the disposables and write with ‘real ink’. But as I track down my various fountain pens, I find them seized up with old ink, all pretty sick-looking. All now washed and cleaned, they lie on my desk waiting to be put into storage, or perhaps even used.

So: what about that favourite pen? I knew exactly where I bought it: in wonderful Pens Plus on the High. But when? Turns out it was on Tuesday, 30 April, 1996. The more fascinating thing is that my journal records that on the paper I used to try the pen out, I wrote the sentence:

Terwilliger bunts one

I had entirely forgotten this sentence. But at that precise moment it was in my head because I had just read Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood, where she writes this:

So it lived again in Oxford on 30 April, 1996., as my small contribution to the mystery of life. Would anyone see it and wonder? Thinking, What does it mean? Or even recognise the allusion? The world will never know.

All these years, I have never known what it even means. But today I discover to my delight, that bunt is a recognised baseball expression. It means, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: To let the ball rebound from the bat without swinging.

Has anyone proposed, as a remedy for depression, learning a new word every day?

The Shame of American Evangelicalism

Shane Claiborne interviewed in the Church Times, talking about Christianity in the USA:

Evangelicals own more guns than the general population, and 85 per cent of executions happen in the Bible belt. They can be pro-guns, pro-death penalty, pro-military . . . and still say they’re pro-life, because they’re against abortion. For me, being pro-life means ending gun violence, caring for creation, welcoming immigrants, opposing war, declaring that black lives matter, and abolishing the death penalty.

Like he says, they’ve gone a long way from the spirit and the teaching of the guy they call ‘Lord’ and claim to follow.

What do you call a man?

I’ve been acquiring quite a collection of the letters that hospital consultants send to your GP informing them of the appointments you have had with them, their diagnoses, treatments, and discharge notes. Clearly there is a preferred format and style for writing these. They usually begin something like this:

It was a pleasure to meet this pleasant gentleman, who presented with a pain in the lower abdomen that he had had for six weeks, which made walking almost impossible… etcetera.

Some of my favourites include the nurse’s letter which describes me as ‘this gentleman’ in nearly every sentence (I have pretty strong objections to being called a gentleman in the first place: I’m with John Ball on this: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) when a simple ‘he’ or even ‘Mr Price’ would have sounded less clunky. And most recently, the one which began ‘It was a delight to meet this 70-year old chap…’

Apart from the fact that I’M NOT YET 70, I’M STILL ONLY 69! it sounded like something you might (just about) say but not write, or as if English was not his first language — as it probably wasn’t, in this chap’s case. What you call a man is possibly one of the most awkward idioms to learn in a language not quite your own. Like with my American friends who had learned that ‘bloke’ was a common English term for a man, but hadn’t quite grasped that you don’t use it as a direct form of address, as in saying to a barman “A pint of beer, please. Thanks, bloke.”

In any case, I would propose a different style and content altogether. Something more along the lines of:

Mr Price is a miserable old curmudgeon, whose pleasant and cheerful manner is a mask he assumes to conceal his pain and fear, and the fact that he is really screaming inside…

It would be more honest. But I suppose not entirely the kind of thing you’d want a doctor who didn’t know you to be the first thing they learn about you from your permanent medical records.

A Wedding from Hell

I had one of those dreams that clergy have — even retired ones, it turns out. Forgetting my vow that I would never do it again, I had agreed to conduct a wedding. And like all dream weddings, everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong.

It was a church I didn’t know. We were conducting the marriage outside the church door, in the very ancient traditional manner. But because the path from the church door to the car park was a long one, all the guests were standing around in the distant car park, and none of them could be persuaded to come any nearer.

Then there was the trouble with the kitten. So I tied a soft toy to a piece of string to distract it; the kitten leaped at it and held fast and was hoisted to the top of the vestry cupboard, about seven feet off the ground, where it stood for a moment in terror before launching itself off and jumping to the ground.

Don’t even get me started on the problems I was having finding the service books. Surely a church where I had been invited to conduct a wedding would have copies of the service? Surely someone would have thought to put them out? Apparently not. It seems highly likely that in this scenario the organist would not have turned up, the marriage registers would be nowhere to be found, the bridesmaids (or even the bride) would throw up in front of me…

But not waiting to find out, I woke up. Wondering how to persuade my Dream Self to take the same vow as Waking Self. And to keep it, too.