St Etheldreda's Restored
A sermon preached by Mgr Ronald Knox at the Pontifical High Mass which marked the reopening of the restored church on July 2nd 1952. Mgr. Knox preached on the text: Ecce iste venit saliens in montibus et transiliens colles: See where he comes, how he speeds over the mountains, how he spurns the hills! (Cant. ii)
Those words were read at the opening of today's epistle. If you refer to their original setting, what pictures rises to the mind? A young village girl, carried off from her native home as a recruit for the harem of King Solomon, falls asleep, so it would seem, in the middle of a banquet, with the king himself at her side. And she dreams that he own village lover comes to her, leaping from tussock to tussock on the hill-slopes, to call her back to the scenes she knows. 'Winter is over now', he says, 'the rain has passed by. At home, the flowers have begun to blossom, pruning time has come; we can hear the turtle dove cooing already, here at home. There is green fruit on the fig-trees, the vines in flower are all fragrance; rouse thee and come!'
We read only the other day, in the Divine Office, what the pious audacity of St Gregory makes of that picture. The lithe, bronzed figure leaping across the hillside reminds him, you will hardly believe it, of the Incarnation. 'When our Lord came to redeem us,' he says, 'he came, if I may put it in that way, in so many leaps. He leapt from heaven into the womb into the manger, from the manger to the Cross, from the cross to the tomb, from the tomb back again to heaven.' Oh, it is crude, it is naïf; the taste of the sixth century is not ours. But there is a sense of movement about it which makes all our theologies dull reading by comparison. When Our Lord came to redeem us, He did not hesitate and fumble, as we do, over all the accidents of mortality. He took them in His stride.
And I think that passage in St Gregory's writings is, partly at least, what the Church has in mind when she tells us to turn to these burning verses of the Canticles, in honour of our Blessed Lady's Visitation. It’s true that there is something in St Luke's narrative which recalls to us the same sense of brisk motion: 'She rose up and went with all haste to a town of Judah, in the hill country' – just a couple of words in the Greek to paint in for us the girlish eagerness which makes light of obstacles, not ashamed to burst in with the breathless announcement 'I've come to see you.' But I think the Church really regards the whole incident as an incident in the life of our Blessed Lord. Our Lord, says St Gregory, quoting a well-known verse of the Psalms, exults like some great runner who sees the track before him; the haste is His; even in the womb he cries out, 'There is a baptism I must needs be baptized with, and how impatient am I for its accomplishment.' It is part of the rhythm of the Incarnation, that prophecy yet unborn should greet its yet unborn Fulfilment; the great lover of mankind peers in, like the bridegroom in the Canticles, through the windows of our prison house, and bids us come out to meet the spring.
He does it, says St Gregory, so that we in our turn may be in a hurry; we are to say to him, once more in the language of the Canticles, 'Draw me after thee where thou wilt; see, we hasten after thee.' The Church, in all ages, has responded to that breathless whisper of his, imitated the irrepressible buoyancy of his onward march. This is an extraordinary thing – one of the first impressions you form on becoming a Catholic is that your perspective has lengthened; the events of the moment have less power to agitate you, because you think, now, not in terms of the next fifty years, but in terms of the next thousand years. And yet, all around you, there is a sense of urgency; people, and the most impressive people, are wanting to get things done at once. It's always the same, from St Paul trying to see if he can't fit in a visit to Rome on his way to Spain, to father Peynton with his Family Rosary Crusade; always the same sense of untiring endeavour, the breath of the mountains and of the spring.
This irrepressible energy which is native to the Church, where will you find it better illustrated than in the history of a hundred years ago; the days of Father Dominic and Father Gentili and the Oxford converts? The Second Spring, Newman called it, and it was an apt comparison; as the buds burst in spite of the cold that still threatens them, in spite of the sheathes that imprison them, so the revival of the faith broke upon England, in spite of the influences from the outside that laboured to check it, from inside that thought to discourage it. Men like George Spencer, and Faber, and Pugin, how vast are the ambitions they set before themselves, how they leap over every obstacle in the attaianment of them! Among those memorable names there is one which is less remembered than it should be, but must not be forgotten today: the name of Father Lockhart. Of all the Oxford converts, he was the first; and if he is remembered for nothing else, he should be remembered for having provoked one of the greatest passages in English literature. It was of him Newman was speaking when he preached his sermon on the Parting of Friends. It was Father Gentili who received him, and before he had been a Catholic a month, he joined the Fathers of Charity. It woul be beyond th needs of the present occasion to speak of what he did for the Church or for his Institute. For the present occasion, it is enough to remind ourselves that, but for Father Lockhart, you and I would not be here.
It was only an idea of his, call it a fad of his, if you will, that it would impress the public mind with a sense of our continuity, if Catholics could be seen worshipping in a place where Catholics had worshipped before the Reformation. But how right he was! The English mind is the slave of the fait accompli; nothing has contributed more successfully to the vogue of Anglicanism than its architectural connection with the past. And here was a pre-Reformation chapel, in the very heart of London, which had escaped the Great Fire and stood there, a graceful relic of the Middle Ages, when all the neighbouring parish churches had been humanised, and somewhat dehumanised, by Wren. Father Lockhart, like the giants of his day, took it in his stride; he bought St Ethledreda's. And ever since the seventies Catholic Londoners have been able to hear Mass in the chapel where the bishops of Ely said Mass from the thirteenth century till the Reformation.
We stand on historic ground. The old diocese of Ely was very small; its bishops, as often as not, were men who held important offices in the State. In the house to which this chapel belonged, beyond doubt much of English history has been transacted. It was here, for example, that a royal duke died who, perhaps, had more to say to our destinies that most of the monarchs who reigned in his period – John of Gaunt. As it has been the fate of Father Lockhart to be remembered chiefly by one sermon of Newman's, so it has been the fate of John of Gaunt to be remembered by one speech in Shakespeare:
This royal throne of kings,
This sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty,
This seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-Paradise,
This fortress, built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war
Richard II (excerpts): This royal throne of kings, This sceptred isle
We still quote it; and England remains a sceptered isle, when so many thrones have crumbled. But England is no longer a fortress; the hand of modern war does not grant her immunity. Ten years ago, when London reeled under the German bombardment, Ely Place, that had survived the Great Fire, withstood, but could not escape, the shock.
Let us accept it, then, as a happy omen, expressive of that resilience which has marked the Catholic Church in all ages, that St Etheldreda's should be reopened today on its 700th birthday, for public worship. So little are we, so much at the mercy of our human feelings, that we grieve as at the loss of a friend when something of brick and mortar perishes, because it served to link us with the past. In a world, in a London, where so much is changing, we can rejoice to find the dream of Father Lockhart still true, John of Gaunt's prophecy still justified, after a fashion. Here in the heart of the City we shall be able to find our way to yet another of those little London churches which are so full of atmosphere and of intimacy; Moorfields and Maiden lane and Warwick Street and – Ely Place. It shall be at once a link with the past and a proof of the Church's unfailing energies; here young minds, full of our modern ardours of inquiry, shall graft their new initiatives on the stock of unalterable truth.
And for ourselves – let us take one glance at ourselves; even on such a happy occasion as this, we must not expect to go away from church without a scolding. Don't let us be content to sit open-mouthed in wonder at those giants of yesterday, Father Lockhart and the rest, asking how it was they managed to speed over the mountains, to spurn the hills, in their impetuous apostolate. They were not men of different mould from ourselves; the message they carried with them was the same as ours. The wonder is, rather, that we, with such examples before us, are content to pick our way gingerly among the cart-tracks, apprehensive of the least stumble. Do let us ask our Blessed Lady and St John the Baptist to get us back into the atmosphere of the Visitation, its breathless rhythm of movement; to make us expect great things of God, and play our part as if we were certain that God is doing great things for us, instead of always hanging about, whistling for a wind. 'This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land, Dear for her reputation through the world' – if only this reopening of Ely Place might be the omen that she is coming back to her origins, coming back to the faith of Christ!