Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Eric Gill, prayer, hysteria and the Beheading of John the Baptist.

Eric Gill, Artist.

An example of his typography.

The beginning of Matthew 14, The Death of John the Baptist.

Tomorrow is the Feast Day set aside for the commemmoration of the beheading of John the Baptist. It is one of my favourite feast days and I never overlook it because of the lovely lithograph that stands at the bottom of my stairs of the beginning of Matthew 14, which I have reproduced above. It is a piece of work by Eric Gill, who is perhaps best known for his Stations of the Cross at Westminster Basilica. Some time after his death, it emerged that he had slept with almost every member of his family, including pets, if I recall correctly and a campaign began to have his Stations taken down, sensibly resisted by the Basilica authorities.

Eric Gill is a fine man to talk about on this festival eve. He clearly was touched by the hand of God in the work which he produced which did, and still does, bring many people to holiness by it's beauty and proper use, ie during Lent in the Basilica. It is symptomatic of the interesting times in which we live that people are quick to condemnation of certain offences, yet tolerant of others. There will come a time when we fully understand the implications of cheap crops from the third world and Value Price chickens from our own country and see the death and destruction which comes from both, yet our newspapers for now are happy to run hysterical campaigns against child abusers and yet are happy to advertise two chickens for a fiver and sixty cans of beer for 20 quid, the latter directly leading to drunkeness and violence. So there is a problem for us, for Eric Gills crimes were also heinous and worthy of contempt if we choose to judge him. Which it is hard not to.

His work, though, as we see, is also beautiful. And I have no truck with those who say that the twisted are not capable of beauty as well, we all have some of God in our souls, we are all capable of showing forth that light. It is no counter argument that eating foodstuffs which have been squeezed out of suffering farmers gives joy to the eater, for by the mere purchase, by the demand, suffering is inflicted.

So whenever I descend my stairs, I have this to think about, and to remind me to look for God in all the people that I meet, no matter who they are and how hard it is to see Him. And I think it would have been hard to see God in Herods wife, Salome, who had been his brothers wife. This incestuous relationship was decried by John the Baptist and in return, as we all know, Herodias , the daughter, danced for Herod and he granted her one wish. In consultation with Salome, she asked for the head of John the Baptist to be brought to her, on a plate. Herod by his weakness therefore ordered John's death. How we see echos in this story of Eric Gills life, of sin and incest yet we immortalise Salome and Herodias as harmless first Century lap dancers.

John the Baptist, the 'reed shaken in the wind' whom Jesus journeyed to the desert to see is one of the most striking characters in the New Testament, simply because, like Jesus, he knows his role before he enters the stage and he has something of the Old Testament prophet about him. He does not have to be convinced by miracle or parable, he sees the Lord and recognises Him for who He is immediately, with no hesitation. He is not afraid of the future, either, you cannot imagine him as St Peter denying Christ three times, you imagine rather that he would shout 'yes, I know him' louder each time instead, as we remember what John tells us he said as he saw Jesus coming towards him, 'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!

So this man who told the priests and Levites from Jerusalem 'I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord' then, when he baptised Jesus, went into obscurity and then was beheaded. He had done what he was sent to do. We are sent, also, to be witnesses to the Light, to cry out in the wilderness and make the way of the Lord known. We can be like John and shout it from the rooftops, or like Mary and ponder these things in our hearts, but we have to do it one way or another. We are called to forgive and redeem people , not to demonise them or do them down. The Christian way is not well reflected in our Media or our Government these days, we are too reactionary and self centred, but we still have to make the effort because unless we are blind, we should be able to read the signs of the coming of the Lord and like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, be filled with praise of He who comes to us in the Holy Sacrament of the Mass.

It is my duty and my privilege, every day, to say the Benedictus, the song of Zechariah. Whenever I say it I think of the old man and the joy he felt, even knowing that his son would undoubtedly come to an unpleasant end. It helps me to think in terms of lives, of souls and of ceaseless praise, rather than minutes or days. Let us pray for all those who walk in evil ways, that we may see the light of Christ who came to heal the sick and free the captives in their souls. Not judging them, but being Christ for them.

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
who has come to his people and set them free.

He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
born of the house of his servant David.

Through his holy prophets God promised of old
to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us,

To show mercy to our ancestors,
and to remember his holy covenant.

This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,

Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.