21 October 2014

Put Not Your Trust In Princes

'Put not your trust in princes.'
So Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, bitterly remarked on hearing that Charles I had signed his death warrant. Or, at any rate, so I was taught when I was thirteen. I didn't know then it was a quotation from the Psalms; I'm not sure, now I think of it, whether I was told that or not.
I have, for reasons I'll not go into here, been pondering that phrase a lot over the last year, and was mulling it over this afternoon when I visited Westminster Cathedral, puzzling briefly as I slipped in over why a Union Jack was fluttering next to the Vatican flag: the cathedral is mother church of England and Wales, after all, not of the entire UK.
As usual, once in the cathedral I turned right to the little chapel where Basil Hume is buried; with its mosaic of Saints Gregory and Augustine, it's always been a special place to me, and is a spot where I made a very important decision some years ago. It came to naught, as our plans so often do, but still, for good or ill it mattered, and pointed me along my path for a few years.

The path ultimately led to a cul-de-sac, but there you have it. These things happen. Still, the old decision was very much in my mind as I knelt down in the chapel and looked up at the mosaic.
The mosaic, as you'll see, is centred upon a picture of Pope St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury, sent in the late sixth century as 'apostle to the English' after Gregory's hilarious 'not Angles but Angels' gag. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, hovers above Gregory, while Augustine is holding an image of Christ, presumably that described by Bede in his accounts of Augustine's dealings with Ethelbert of Kent in 597.
As Bede puts it in chapter 25 of book one of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People,
'Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him.
But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.
When he had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present, the word of life, the king answered thus: ­ "Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."
Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is reported that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah."'

I've always thought of the chapel as being a chapel of Gregory and Augustine, but looking at it earlier it struck me that the chapel's less a commemoration of the two saints than it is of the Gospel they brought. They're very much commemorated as missionaries, as conduits, as mediums for the message. Look at the heart of the image.
Gregory's hand is raised in blessing, but in doing so draws our eyes and thoughts to the Holy Spirit, which seems to be speaking to him, as though his blessing only has merit insofar as he's guided by that Spirit; Augustine points directly at an image of our Lord, directing us to look solely to him. It's as if they're saying that in themselves they don't matter at all, and only have any significance insofar as the grace of the Spirit leads us through the Cross to Christ.
Those of us who find it difficult to trust can sometimes overcompensate, I think, placing our trust in those who haven't earned it, whether princes or priors, presidents or pretenders: in this imperfect world, getting the balance right can be very tricky, but in the meantime, the meaning of the system lies outside the system.

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