09 March 2007

Sailing to Byzantium

"Sailing to Byzantium" by W B Yeats. Verse III.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

I grew up in an area where there was a large number of Ukranian families. They came to the local Catholic schools, but we never saw them at Mass, for there were several towns locally where the Ukranians had their own churches. The Salford Almanac had every year a Ukranian supplement which listed their calendar and a long section from Canon Law about what had to happen if anybody wanted to change Rite - this was mainly assumed only to happen when Ukranian married Roman.

The first flush of aggiornamento I experienced in the early seventies was an encouragement for a small group of us (I think we were in Lower 6th) to visit each others' churches on successive Sundays. They came to ours first then we went to theirs.

Thirty-five years later I can still remember the impression that an Eastern Liturgy had on me. I wasn't overwhelmed by a sense of theatricality: I had learned to serve Mass in the traditional Roman Rite, after all. What I found was a heady if suffocating mix of the numinous, the Liturgy as Eikon, music which penetrated to the heart, community and solidarity in Faith, and incense as surely God intended.

Even after all this time, I can still catch myself thinking about finding a house more than four miles away from a Catholic church but less than four miles from a Ukranian one. I realise, though, even while fantasising, that I am seeking to miss the point. The Eastern Churches, whether schismatic or not, are local Churches, however widely the diaspora of their faithful has spread their worship. Each one is an incredibly rich cul-de-sac.

I belong to Rome: not Kiyiv, or Constantinople, or Moscow. My belonging is not a matter of choice: I can't pretend that I'm not from Manchester, even if I have now lived away from Manchester longer than I ever lived there. And Rome is not limited: Rome's ambit is universal and orthodox, not local and orthodox.

We are a ragged family: cousins who shout at each other, brothers and sisters who quarrel and argue; big brothers who lay the law down. Amidst all the clamour we sometimes wish that everything could be as nice at home as it is at a favourite Aunt's house. But, for better or worse, we belong to our own family and make our home there.

"For better or worse": we have to hang on to that.

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