Having mentioned an interview between the late Sir Jonathan Miller and Norman Lebrecht in a recent blog on Advent, I am now thinking of another cultural giant who has recently died: Clive James. A friend has drawn my attention to an interview first broadcast in 2001 between James and the novelist Piers Paul Read in the former’s TV series, “Talking in the Library”.
James makes an interesting contrast to Miller, for whom religious belief appears to have been a matter of utter indifference. James, a cultural and literary highbrow – and a serious poet – who spent much of his life and energies in a lowbrow milieu such as television, recognised the power of the Christian faith, even admitting to Read that “If I were capable of belief, I’d be a happier man.” For him, as with so many of those who reject faith, the “insoluble problem” is how to square evil and the God of love: where was God in Nazi Germany, he wanted to know, further stating “I am with Ivan Karamazov” – a reference to the passage in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that always haunts those who read it, whether Christian or not. Describing himself as a Manichean, he believed “Evil has a mind” and that Hitler was “Satan’s representative”. Yet it seems James had not chosen, or been driven, to pursue the matter any further.
Such comments always make me ponder the gap between Christians and someone like James, prepared to go so far in recognition of the mystery of evil, but no further. It reminds one that faith is truly a gift, something utterly outside and beyond mere human and intellectual understanding, however rich and well-informed it might be.
As I am a book blogger I should mention here that I have been reading the third volume of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s trilogy, titled The Day is Now Far Spent (Ignatius). For those who have not come across the first two books, they are God or Nothing, and the Power of Silence. Like them, this volume is framed in a long “conversation” with the French journalist Nicolas Diat, and also like them it is in a different league from almost all current spiritual books, probably because it is written in a very direct and personal style by a man who is patently holy.
Sarah is not writing as a theologian or an academic but as someone whose life is simply immersed in prayer. His triptych (as he prefers to describe his three books) is a profound meditation on the God of love, alongside his palpable anguish at the current sexual abuse crisis in the Church – the “mystery of betrayal”, as he describes it. Indeed, his foreword is headed “Alas, Judas Iscariot” and he calls his writing “the cry of my soul!” It is not the territory of a TV show.
Sarah is conscious that “In a little while I will appear before the eternal Judge…what will I say to him then?” Addressing the faithful directly, he challenges them: “If you think your priests and bishops are not saints, then be one for them. Do penance [and] fast to make reparation for their defects and their cowardice.” Accusations against particular individuals are not part of the Cardinal’s vocabulary, as they might in other hands have been; he writes as a saint would write, asking his readers to become saints themselves, for the sake of the Church. “How much God loves us!” he points out, qnd marvels that “he consents to handing over his Eucharistic Body into the sacrilegious hands of miserable priests.” This is plain speaking indeed.
Addressing in particular the “spiritual and religious collapse” in the priesthood, Sarah makes it clear that priestly celibacy should never be regarded as a discipline that can be changed but “the seal of the Cross on our lives as priests.” He goes on to say that “Anyone who would dare to break and ruin this ancient treasure…by seeking to separate the priesthood from celibacy would hurt the Church and the priesthood of the poor, chaste and obedient Christ.”
On the kind of false ecumenism that appears to romanticise paganism the Cardinal, who was born and who grew up in Guinea, gives a note of warning: “You have to be an African to dare to say…that these pagan “traditional religions” are zones of fear and lack of freedom”. He is also critical of the phrase, “anonymous Christians”, coined by Karl Rahner, stating that it “runs the risk of extinguishing our sense of the urgency of mission. Do we still have the anguish about salvation that gripped St Dominic?” Reminding the lay faithful of how we should participate at Mass, Sarah draws attention to the Our Lady and St John at Golgotha: “They were there, silently allowing themselves to be penetrated, imbued and shaped by the mystery of the Cross.” Such quotations provide a brief taste of the tenor of this profound book.
Cardinal Sarah’s triptych should be on the shelves of every Catholic, to remind us that the Christian faith, unlike politics – of which we have had our fill these last few days – is not about focus groups, Twitter trends and catchy slogans; it is about self-transformation, self-sacrifice and the pursuit of holiness. In a fanciful way, I ask myself: what if Clive James had happened to interview this holy cardinal for his TV series rather than the Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read. As it was, these two clever, bookish men chatted in a cordial and civilised way, comfortable in each other’s company, neither of them seriously challenging the other, though Read did say at one point that he was “very conscious of the grace of God and my need of God.” One had the impression that as a well-brought up Englishman he felt it would not be proper to go into more detail on so personal a subject; and as a maverick Australian polymath, more comfortable in the world of books and authors than any spiritual preoccupations James did not pursue the question further.
Cardinal Sarah, an African who was converted from pagan animism as a child, alongside his parents, would not have played by the implicit rules of the interview format: he would gently but insistently have forced James out from his comfort zone, into the real world of good and evil that Dostoyevsky understood so insightfully. Perhaps even a talker as brilliant as James might have paused to contemplate the meaning of life and mortality; what might lie beyond the blandishments of fame and his millions of fans.
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