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Lift up Your Hearts: Coronavirus Comfort Collection

Written by The Very Revd Prof. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, posted on Monday, June 8, 2020

Locked gates at Tom TowerColleges in Oxford, and Cathedrals all over the country, are doing their best in these difficult and demanding times. I am at home with my wife, two sons, one girlfriend (of our younger son), and two stranded postgraduate student-lodgers from the USA, who had to choose between pandemic management under Donald or Boris.

The girlfriend had visited us just once, before lockdown commenced. As we now joke, she came for interview, and is now on an extended probationary period. So far, so good. We also have for company our dog Lyra, and a cat named Topsy. The latter is technically not ours, but belongs to my mother. We are now in our sixth year of this generous ‘loan’ arrangement. I only mention this because cats do not have owners; they have staff. We are always open to offers on adoption and fostering: no reasonable offer refused.

So, we can hardly be said to be alone. That said, it’s all relative. Christ Church has nearly half a million visitors a year, to say nothing of the worshippers who pack into the Cathedral. The Deanery, our home, hosts around six thousand people a year – comprised of lunches, dinners, receptions and meetings. Now, it is eerily quiet. We live right in the centre of Christ Church in the heart of Oxford. Yet you can hear a pin drop.

My favourite painting is a non-socially-distant crowd scene. Pieter Bruegel’s Procession to Calvary (1564) is a riot of colours and carnival, and complements the wintry hustle and bustle of Census at Bethlehem (1566). Many of Bruegel’s paintings are colourful, crowded Dutch-Flemish peasant panoramas – weddings, games and dances – into which subtle religious scenes have been sewn. What Bruegel does is to paint Jesus into the heart of his communities, amidst the drolleries of ordinary life.  Brueghel often contrives to lose Jesus in the details.  At times, finding Jesus in his pictures is a puzzle – resembling a kind of sixteenth-century religious Where’s Wally?

Bruegel does not allow for social distance between divinity and humanity, or Jesus and ordinary people. No surprise then, that my favourite scripture passage is the Prologue of John’s Gospel. “The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.” God chose to abide with us in our temporality and frailty, so we might abide with God in eternity. This is the heart of revelation. God is ‘with’ us. Indeed, that small word ‘with’ may be one of the most underrated in the scriptures. God always chooses to stay with us; we do not walk alone. We are never abandoned or orphaned. We are loved and adopted.

I rarely read novels, but I do have favourite writers. I love anything by Garrison Keillor – a masterclass of witty, droll ethnographic fieldwork set in Minnesota amongst Lutherans, Brethren and Catholics. It’s small-town stuff, yet all life is there. I have been hooked since I first heard his radio broadcasts from A Prairie Home Companion.

However, for lockdown, you can’t beat John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). The novel is a homage to Günter Grass’s fabulous The Tin Drum (1959). Irving’s novel is narrated by Owen Meany’s friend, John Wheelwright. Meany is something of a miracle, and a vindication of the scriptural witness that says “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (I Corinthians 1: 27). 

That is Owen Meany in a nutshell. He’s a small boy who struggles through childhood with his enuresis and a squeaky voice. Yet his life is a vocation of singular preparation that reaches an epiphany of self-sacrifice. He saves others, but cannot save himself. 

The novel excavates serious spiritual issues of faith, social justice and fate (or rather, the divine orchestration of fulfilled vocations), set against an almost right-wing-racist-like force of hatred. The story is an absurd, outlandish narrative; with quirky, ironic humour and a pronounced left-wing social conscience.

Speaking of divine orchestration, any jazz from bossa nova (e.g., Stan Getz) to the era of 1950s and 1960s ‘Cool’ school will do for me. The easiest, most refreshing album I listen to is Miles Davies’ Kind of Blue. Released 60 years ago, it’s a benchmark of improvisation and composition in jazz: mellow and mild; euphoric and exhilarating.

I’m very choosy about the films I watch. I have to see a fair number on behalf of the British Board of Film Classification, whom I have worked with for the past seven years on sensitive and contentious grading issues. I have seen the good, bad and the ugly – all in a small private studio cinema in Soho.

Colin Firth’s struggles in Hour of the Pig (1993) are comical. He plays a lawyer acting for a pig on trial for witchcraft in medieval France, against the backdrop of plague and brothels. However, the film I’d watch almost any day is the idiosyncratic O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) – a crime-comedy-drama from Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s ‘loosely based’ on Homer’s Odyssey, and has terrific Gospel and Bluegrass music.  Like Owen Meany, it deals with journeys and fate, and is powerfully vindicating.


A common denominator in these choices is secular and sacred being indivisible. Just like night and day, light and dark – all are the same to God (Psalm 139: 12). Which might explain my choice of prayer (if not selecting the timeless BCP Collect for Purity). Namely, Stephen Cherry, Dean of Kings’ College Cambridge, and his “Prayer for Many Gifts”:

Give me, O Lord,

a calm soul and a clear head,

a broad mind and a generous spirit.

 

Give me,

a warm heart and a listening ear,

my true voice and a gentle touch.

 

Give me,

a hunger for justice and a thirst for peace,

a passion for truth and a love of mercy.

 

Give me,

a painter’s eye and a poet’s tongue,

a saint’s patience and a prophet’s hope.

 

Give me,

 a sage’s wisdom and a fool’s delight,

a pilgrim’s purpose and an angel’s content.


John Irving A Prayer for Owen Meany book coverOWEN MEANY QUOTES

“The night she died, Dan found her propped up in her hospital bed; she appeared to have fallen asleep with the TV on and with the remote-control device held in her hand in such a way that the channels kept changing. But she was dead, not asleep, and her cold thumb had simply attached itself to the button that restlessly roamed the channels - looking for something good. At the time, in 1989, it seemed a fairly unusual way to die. Nowadays, I suspect, more and more people are dropping off that way. And we're still looking for something good on television. We won't find it. There's precious little on TV that can keep us awake or alive. Ever the prophet, Owen Meany was right about television, too.”

"If we can do it under four seconds, we can do it in under three", he said, "it just takes a little more faith." "It takes more practice," I told him irritably. "Faith takes practice," said Owen Meany.

“If you care about something you have to protect it – If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”

“The only way you get Americans to notice anything is to tax them or draft them or kill them.”

 “It's not god who's fucked up, it's the screamers who say they believe in him and who claim to pursue their ends in his holy name.”

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

“Every American should be forced to live outside the United States for a year or two. Americans should be forced to see how ridiculous they appear to the rest of the world! They should listen to someone else's version of themselves--to anyone else's version! Every country knows more about America than Americans know about themselves! And Americans know absolutely nothing about any other country!”

“If watching television doesn't hasten death, it surely manages to make death very inviting; for television so shamelessly sentimentalizes and romanticizes death that it makes the living feel they have missed something - just by staying alive.”

“I will tell you what is my overriding perception of the last twenty years: that we are a civilization careening toward a succession of anti-climaxes – toward an infinity of unsatisfying, and disagreeable endings.”

“Owen Meany who rarely wasted words and who had the conversation-stopping habit of dropping remarks like coins into a deep pool of water... remarks that sank, like truth, to the bottom of the pool where they would remain untouchable.”

 “Anyone can be sentimental about the nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the resurrection, you’re not a believer."

“If you don’t believe in Easter,” Owen Meany said. “Don’t kid yourself – Don’t call yourself a Christian.”