February 2008


Floating on a cold

Milk-and-water sky, the sun,

Tissue-paper weak.


 As many of you good readers will know, Archbishop Ranjith, Secretary to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has recently expressed his opinion that the time has come to “review” two problematic but widespread (in some countries, all but universal) practices: reception of the Blessed Sacrament in a standing posture and reception of the Blessed Sacrament in the hand (rather than on the tongue).

It seems to me that, if only one of these modern “norms” (Communion standing or reception in the hand) were to be reversed at the present time, it would make sense for it to be the former.

It can be, as a matter of practicality, extremely difficult or awkward for a priest to administer the Host on the tongue of a taller standing communicant. It can be extremely ungainly and awkward for both the priest and the communicant, as it happens.  (Approaching more nearly Zacchaeus than Goliath in stature, this is unlikely to affect me very often…)

However, if kneeling to receive were to be re-mandated (and I should like to see that) it would be acceptable, I think, to continue to permit (but not to encourage) reception in the hand with certain strict conditions applied.

It is possible to receive the Host with reverence and proper care into one’s cupped right hand (“thy left hand forming a throne for thy right” as St John Chrysostom has it) and then to convey It to one’s mouth by bending one’s head and lifting It towards the tongue. The tongue can then convey It safely into one’s mouth, without the ugly necessity of picking the Host up with one’s fingers and popping It into the mouth. Many devout Anglicans have been doing this without incident for more than a century – as I have good cause to know.

However, that particular pitch has been queered a bit, precisely in one of the countries in which this form of reception has become the norm, by a letter of April 3, 1985, from the Congregation for Divine Worship (Archbishop Augustin Mayer) to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops of the USA, which says:

Communion in the hand should show, as much as communion on the tongue, due respect towards the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For this reason emphasis should be laid, as was done by the Fathers of the Church, upon the dignity of the gesture of the communicant. Thus, the newly baptized at the end of the fourth century were directed to stretch out both hands making “the left hand a throne for the right hand, which receives the King” (Fifth mystagogical catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem, n. 21: PG 33. col 1125, or Sources chretiennes, 126, p 171; Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 47: PG 63, col. 898. etc.).*

* In practice the opposite direction has to be given to the faithful: the left hand is to be placed upon the right hand, so that the sacred host can be conveyed to the mouth with the right hand.

With all due respect to Msgr Mayer, that asterisked note is hooey. SS Cyril and John C knew what they were about, and reception from cupped right hand to tongue seems to be implied by their injunction. The other problem, which it is difficult to avoid entirely, with even this form of reception into the hand is that of particles of the Host flaking off and adhering to the hand.  Whilst care must be taken about this, it is not difficult to check for and consume such particles. 

Naturally, however, there is even less chance of accidental mishap (or casual irreverence, or deliberate abuse, or…) with the Host being received ad linguam, and for this reason I think it is to be preferred.  But imagine the uproar and scandal of open disobedience that would be likely to follow if both these practices were immediately to be prohibited in favour of the knee-and-tongue norm.  Making the kneeling posture normative but allowing for reverent reception on the hand as described above as an option would at least be a gentle beginning to stemming the abuses that the current norms seem to be incapable of avoiding.

It’s not often I laugh out loud in an Italian restaurant in Lower Saxony when reading a review of a new translation of the Psalms.  For so many reasons.  However, this is precisely what I did when reading Eliot Weinberger’s review of Robert Alter’s recent effort in the London Review of Books (read the whole article free there – or even better, subscribe!).

Some of my favourite bits:

[Alter] is partial to Victorian language, perhaps in the belief that it is more ‘poetic’.  […]  [T]he famous line ‘I have been young and now am old’ (37) has been turned into A.E. Housman: ‘A lad I was, and now I am old.’

Worse, like many writing poems for the first time, he is in love with inverted syntax: the trees ‘fresh and full of sap they are’ (92); ‘they fix to the string their arrow’ (11); ‘His handiwork sky declares’ (19, better known as ‘the firmament sheweth his handywork’); ‘orphans they murder’ (94). Sometimes he merely inverts the King James phrases. ‘For I am poor and needy’ (86) becomes ‘for lowly and needy am I’; ‘The sea is his, and he made it’ (95) turns into ‘His is the sea and He made it’; or similarly, ‘Thy way is in the sea’ (77) is now ‘In the sea was Your way.’ There are inversions on nearly every page and after a while, wonder, one does, if it’s not the swamp of Yoda the Jedi Master we’re in.


The incessant inversion, combined with the predilection for possessives, leads to many examples of the kind where la plume de ma tante would become ‘My aunt’s is the pen.’ The first line of Psalm 24 is straightforward in the King James: ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ Alter’s line needs to be diagrammed: ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.’

He seems to have no ear for American English, from the alpha (2: ‘Why are the nations aroused,/and the peoples murmur vain things?’) to the omega (150: ‘Let all that has breath praise Yah’ – a construct rather like ‘All who is going should get on the bus’). He is oblivious to American slang, not realising that Psalm 66 (KJ: ‘Make a joyful noise unto God . . . Say unto God, how terrible art thou in thy works!’) in his version (‘Shout out to God . . . Say to God, ‘‘How awesome Your deeds”’) sounds like a Christian rock band warming up the crowd. He sometimes slips out of register: ‘The wicked man borrows and will not pay,/but the just gives free of charge’ (37). And he apparently can’t hear that the line ‘Free me, Lord, from evil folk’ (140) is best spoken in the voice of George Bush.

Inversion, the possessive, the unpronounceable and an unfortunate word-choice all converge in Psalm 18, where he transforms a dull line in the King James (‘As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me: the strangers shall submit themselves unto me’) into: ‘At the mere ear’s report they obeyed me,/aliens cringed before me.’ There are many other lines that would cause the meek to tremble, though perhaps not aliens to cringe. Among them: ‘With their dewlaps they speak haughty words’ (17); ‘All day long I go about gloomy’ (38); […] ‘I hate committing transgressions’ (101); ‘I resemble the wilderness jackdaw’ (102); […] and, perhaps the worst of all, the anatomically perplexing ‘The wicked backslide from the very womb’ (58). But fortunately, as Edward Dahlberg once remarked, ‘there are many psalms that even the droning of a priest cannot kill.’


Cut from thick stiff card,

The Pentlands’ inky profile

Blots the dawn-cold sky.


Dusk a soft puce cloth

Draped over the heaped lumber

Of the Pentland hills.


Herewith an excerpt from a genuine piece of local dialogue.  I mean, why would I make this stuff up?

The scene: a suburban café; Benedict Ambrose attempting to order his breakfast.

BA:  A black filter coffee and a bacon roll, please. 

Waitress:  Mug or a cup?

BA:  A mug, please.

W:  A white or a brown?

BA:  Oh, er… What’s the difference?

W:  Em, one’s white, one’s brown… eh…

BA:  The mugs… ?

W:  No, the rolls.

BA:  Oh, sorry, I thought you meant… A-heh-heh.  Er, white.  Please.

Oh, the banter!

Rushton Triangular Lodge

I don’t know.  One day in to blogging and I’m beating a hasty retreat already.  At least the retreat in question’s a directed one to a bonnie Abbey.  I’m no awa’ tae bide awa’ though (unless there’s an awfully big adventure in store for me) – back next week. 

In the meantime, enjoy a picture of the Rushton Triangular Lodge which a pal of mine reminded me of yesterday.  Think of it, if you will, as an intermission test-card.

 These fleeting sketches […] amount to no more than a sort of sporadic diary–a diary recording one day in twenty which happened to stick in the fancy–the only kind of diary the author has ever been able to keep.  Even that diary he could only keep by keeping it in public, for bread and cheese.  But trivial as are the topics they are not utterly without a connecting thread of motive.  As the reader’s eye strays, with hearty relief, from these pages, it probably alights on something, a bed-post or a lamp-post, a window blind or a wall.  It is a thousand to one that the reader is looking at something that he has never seen: that is, never realised.  He could not write an essay on such a post or wall:  he does not know what the post or wall mean.  He could not even write the synopsis of an essay; as “The Bed-Post; Its Significance–Security Essential to Idea of Sleep–Night Felt as Infinite–Need of Monumental Architecture,” and so on.  He could not sketch in outline his theoretic attitude towards window-blinds, even in the form of a summary.  “The Window-Blind–Its Analogy to the Curtain and Veil–Is Modesty Natural?–Worship of and Avoidance of the Sun, etc., etc.”  None of us think enough of these things on which the eye rests.  But don’t let us let the eye rest.  Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence.  Let us be ocular athletes.  Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud.  I have attempted some such thing in what follows; but anyone else may do it better, if anyone else will only try.

G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles, Preface

I am heartily sorry to add to the already large and grossly burgeoning blogosphere – truly I am.  I have no idea whether I have even a fig-leaf of an excuse for this ‘blog at all – we shall see, I suppose. 

I feel especially for those who have stumbled upon it expecting an on-going encomium upon puddings, something upon which I myself should always be glad to alight.  But I have little to say upon puddings except “Mmm-mm,” and “Perhaps I could manage just a little piece more” – and besides, it’s Lent. 

And that’s the other thing I ought to mention.  This blog can be expected to be shot through with the spirit of what Chesterton (the site’s unauthorised patron) called “The Thing” – i.e., the Catholic faith.  Thus it is with Chesterton that I began this ur-post, as he does introductions better than I ever could. 

Be thankful, poor reader, that I abandoned my initial thought of pinning my colours to another Catholic mast – and that you were thus spared a site entitled “WeBelloc”.  If puns of this nature distress you (and whom don’t they?), you may find this site best avoided altogether. 

You are thus most heartily welcomed and duly cautioned.