24 May 2010

We took to arms

The Monday of Whit week, Monday in the Octave of Pentecost, was the day in 1549 when we Anglican Catholics - or at least those of us who lived in Devon and Cornwall - made quite clear to our parish clergy that we did not want the Government's Protestant service (we likened it to a Christmas game) for a second day, let alone a second Sunday (we had experienced Dr Cranmer's matchless English prose and his iffy theology on Whit Sunday, and we thought that once was enough). In fact, we rose in rebellion (and so did people in Oxfordshire and in many parts of England), and marched with our demands, under the banners of the Five Wounds of our Redeemer.

The Five Wounds are a recurrent theme in the surviving late Medieval decoration in West Country churches. It came home to me, during our recent break in Cornwall, that the devotion to the Five Wounds is not an unwholesome preoccupation, somewhat gruesome and probably lugubrious, with the sufferings of a dead Saviour. Pam and I were continuing our readings of the Ordinalia - the Mystery Plays in the Cornish language written most probably by the canons at the Collegiate Church of Glasney in Cornwall. This spring we read the Resurrexio Domini. And I was surprised by the centrality of the Five Wounds to the joyful celebration of Christ's Resurrection. In particular, by the topos that it is by those Five Wounds that the Lord who died on the Cross is discerned as truly risen.

Thus, the Ortolanus, Gardener, who appears to Mary of Magdala in the garden asks her if she would recognise Jesus. She replies that she would - "dhe'n kensa vu", at first sight. Et tunc demonstrabit latus ejus ad Mariam et dicit: "Marya, myr, ow fymp woly! Crys my dhe wyr dhe dhasserghy". Mary, behold, my Five Wounds! Believe that I am in truth Risen! So Mary goes to the Apostles: "y fyrys y wolyow!" I saw his wounds. The motif is intruded into the pericope about the Road to Emmaus; the two disciples do not so much recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread as when ostendit eis vulnera, and one of them says "my a wel dha wolyow warbath a-les": I see your wounds, all together, wide! They depart, saying that they have no time, once they have seen all his wounds, for playing - gwaryow; the word which is used to refer to the 'playing place' (plen-a-gwary) in which these Cornish dramas were probably performed. The playwrite, I presume, is suggesting, not without some sophistication, that the theme he is presenting dramatically is not in fact a drama but salvific reality.

Much of the rest of the play is devoted to Thomas's long refusal to believe the witness of the other disciples; a tortured agon which is ultimately resolved when the Lord appears to him also: "Thomas, rak ty dhe weles oll ow golyow a-les, yn dha golon ty a grys": Thomas, because you have seen all my wounds open, in your heart you believe.

Medieval devotion was, despite the contempt in which it is sometimes still held, a religion of joy and faith in a crucified Saviour alive now and for ever and apprehended by faith in the transfigured reality of those wounds which are, as the Cornish texts repeatedly emphasise, "a-les": wide open.

One of the joys of having the S Thomas's congregation is to know Isabel and Keith Syed. Isabel is Archivist at Walsingham; Keith is equally at home in Classical languages and literature; Semitic philology; and Middle Cornish; and has been very generous to Pam and me with books and loans and tapes. We Anglican Catholics ... considered as a collectivity ... we are not exactly an unlettered people, are we?


Little Black Sambo said...

This is getting like The Lord of the Rings.

Malcolm Kemp said...

Isabel and Keith are incredibly kind and helpful to all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. I know this from persoanal experience.

Fr LR said...

Saint Mary goes a-seeking
Through Jewry up and down,
Until God the Lord she found.

O look, for she has found him;
By Herod's house stood he,
What sorrow for her to see!

The cross, he needs must carry
Through the streets of Jerusalem,
To where he will suffer shame.

O see, his brows surrounding,
The crown of piercing thorn,
The cross on shoulder borne!

O young and old, look to it;
Ye never this forget,
That his wounds set wide high Heaven's gate.

+ Edwin said...

Fifty years or so past, the altar cards at Sutton Bingham Church (near East Coker) were in Cornish. I daresay ACS does not produce them any longer... +E