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By chance I was in my home town of Harpenden on Sunday, and after the 9.45 Mass many people from the Catholic church went down the road to the United Service of Remembrance round the War Memorial on Church Green.

It’s years since I have been present for this. I have memories of a few hundred people scattered around the green in the centre of town. But this Sunday there must have been a crowd of over two thousand people, spilling onto the surrounding roads. Perhaps it has been growing over the years; perhaps it was particularly large this year.

It was very moving, and very Christian! Prayers, hymns, readings. The names of the dead were read out. And it’s so easy to forget, but the whole town was gathered round a standing cross (see the old postcard above). I’ve wandered across the green a thousand times over the years (we moved to Harpenden when I was four), but I’ve hardly stopped to reflect that the focus of unity for the town was and still is the Cross of Jesus Christ. And when people want to reflect on death and life, remember their loved ones, or just come together as a community conscious of itself and its history – they gather round the Cross.

I’m not suggesting that everyone there had faith, or even that Christianity is on the increase in Hertfordshire (who knows?). But the huge crowds present this Sunday made me wonder if there is a deepening hunger for community and for a sense of connection with those in the past. Maybe we are more aware of our military than we used to be; maybe it’s the patriotism of the Jubilee or the communitarianism of the Olympics and the Paralympics; maybe we just long to feel more connected.

This was civic religion at its best: people still broadly connected with the nation’s Christian faith, even though there would be various shades of belief and unbelief; people finding that this faith gives them a unity with each other, and a way of making sense of their human struggles, that perhaps they wouldn’t find in any other place.

And a final note about purgatory: It was an ecumenical service, but I was fascinated how each prayer spoken was actually a prayer for the dead. We kept hearing phrases like: ‘May they find the fulfilment in God they were longing for’; ‘May they rest in peace’; ‘May they come face to face with the Lord’. All of these ‘may they…’ prayers suggest, theologically, that there is still something to be achieved or worked out for those who have died. In other words, this wasn’t just a service of remembrance – whatever the service sheet suggested – it was also a service of prayer for the dead. I don’t think this was very conscious or theologically explicit, but it shows how hard it is to just remember the dead without actually praying for them – at a psychological level. And a Catholic would add that this makes theological sense as well!

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There are some moments of Olympic glory that could never be caught on camera. Not because they are too quick (the photo-finish shots from the velodrome were at 1/1000th of a second intervals), or too peripheral (nothing seemed to be outside the purview of the journalists and their camera teams), but because they take place in the innermost sanctuary of a competitor’s conscience.

There was a defining moment for Timo Boll in the table tennis. His opponent hit the ball; it seemed to everyone to have missed the table on Boll’s side; the umpire was about the give the point to Boll; but Boll heard the faintest sound as it narrowly struck the side of the table, or saw the slightest movement as it glanced away, and relinquished the point. He went on to lose the match.

What a moment of high drama, what a moment of true Olympic glory: that someone would choose truth over victory, integrity over success. Something so apparently small; unnoticed and perhaps unnoticeable to anyone but Boll himself.

Perhaps I am romanticising. Perhaps he was afraid that the slow motion replays would reveal the truth and expose his complicit silence; perhaps he was more afraid of being caught than losing.

The reality is that these split seconds decisions, when there is hardly any time to deliberate, usually reflect the character of the person – formed over a lifetime of more considered decisions – rather than the impulse of the moment. Nevertheless, he made the decision, and he made the right one – and in my mind his glory is far greater than if he had gone on to win the gold. There must be many other moments like this, completely hidden from view.

This was reported in the Times on Saturday – I’ve lost the paper now so I can’t credit the author. Nor can I find the match on YouTube, so here is an older match against Jun Mizutani just to show you that he is a serious table tennis player as well as a man of honour!

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I’ve been involved in a couple of retreats recently, and one of the themes has been the importance of having a contemplative heart even in the midst of activity, of trying to keep an inner stillness even when you are racing around. Not always easy!

Usain Bolt relaxing before a race

It was fascinating to read this Olympic piece by Andy Bull about the inner peace that needs to be present in great sprinters. At the 1972 Olympics the Ukrainian Valeriy Borzov, like Bolt in 2008, won the 100m and 200m double. In an interview recorded after his victories, Borzov revealed the favourite training exercise of his first coach, Boris Voitas.

We made paper tubes and Voitas would order us to run 100m holding them in our teeth. The one who did not bite or squeeze the tube was considered a sprinter. The rest were considered to be simply runners. This helped me develop the main quality of a sprinter – the ability to relax.

Bull goes on to explain:

Tension inhibits speed. The moment a sprinter starts to worry about what the man next to him is doing, his muscles tighten and he starts to slow down. Lewis was guided by the principle, taught to him by his coach Tom Tellez, that “human beings can run full speed for 10 metres”, which made it pointless to try and run flat out for the full 100. His rivals, he felt, were so obsessed with getting ahead of him at the start that they began to decelerate by the time they reached 90m, and would tighten up more as they felt Lewis come up on them.

“Don’t worry about anybody else in the race,” Tellez taught Lewis. “Just worry about what you’re doing. If they are ahead of you, don’t worry, just keep accelerating through 60m to 70m in the race, they will come back to you at the end.” Bolt has a similar approach. “Last 10 metres, you’re not going to catch me,” he says. “No matter who you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how focused you are, no matter how ready you think you are, you’re not going to catch me.”

“In the 100m,” says Lewis, “a single mistake can cost you victory.” He was not talking about technique – Bolt’s, for instance, is infamously poor, with too much lateral movement, which pushes him sideways off the blocks rather than propelling him down the track – but the negative thoughts that slip into a sprinter’s head during a race. Take this example from the Briton Harry Aikines-Aryeetey at the recent European championships in Helsinki, when he found himself level with the eventual champion, Christophe Lemaitre, in the semi-finals: “I panicked a bit because I was actually with him until about 60m, and I was thinking ‘Oh my God, I haven’t been here for a little while – what do I do?’ I think I tensed up before the end.” He scraped into the final, where he finished fourth.

Bolt has never seemed to worry about anything much, least of all what anyone else is doing. Plenty has been said about the advantage his height gives him – his legs are so long that at full speed he covers 10 metres in three and a half strides. But it is Bolt’s temperament that really sets him apart. Pressure runs off him like water off wax. His shenanigans on the start line at the Beijing Olympics, when he struck poses and played up to the crowd and camera, showed a man at ease with himself and the situation he was in. His finish, when he was beating his chest as he crossed the finish line, was so insouciant that some athletes actually found it offensive.

I’m sure it applies to a lot of other things as well.

It reminds me of one of my favourite poems, by WB Yeats, Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,

Its great battle lost,

Quiet the dog, tether the pony

To a distant post;

Our master Caesar is in the tent

Where the maps are spread,

His eyes fixed upon nothing,

A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

 

That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move gently if move you must

In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle

Picked up on the street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

Her mind moves upon silence.

 

That girls at puberty may find

The first Adam in their thought,

Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,

Keep those children out.

There on that scaffolding reclines

Michael Angelo.

With no more sound than the mice make

His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

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It’s interesting that Danny Boyle has chosen to put Glastonbury Tor at the centre of his Olympic opening ceremony, in his vision of a mythical countryside that will somehow capture the essence of ‘who we are’ as British people.

You can read this in many ways – and I’m sure all will become clear when the ceremony unfolds. On the one hand, Christians should be delighted that a place full of such Christian significance – both in myth and in history - takes centre stage at the Olympics. Glastonbury is where, so the legend goes, Jesus once walked with Joseph of Arimathea. The tree that grew from Joseph’s staff and became the holy thorn is a central part of the Olympic set – linking Jesus’s own supposed international travels with those of the Olympians. And Glastonbury Tor itself has been a Christian shrine for centuries – an outpost of the local abbey, that then became a place of Catholic martyrdom and witness when Richard Whiting, the Abbot, was hanged there for refusing to follow King Henry’s religious reform.

On the other hand, Glastonbury is at the heart of the mythology of pagan Britain, and has become a centre of New Age spirituality and the occult. And surely it is no accident that St Michael’s tower, which dominates the Tor, is completely absent from the models presented to the public by Boyle recently. So I don’t think this will be a nuance-free celebration of the Christian roots of British history and culture.

Paul Kelso writes about Boyle’s presentation:

Revealing details of the opening scenes of a ceremony that will be watched by   more than 500 million people, director Danny Boyle said he was creating a   vision of the “mythic” British countryside that he hoped would capture the   essence of “who we are”.

The main stadium will be transformed into a meadow, with landscaped real grass   laid over the infield and a game of cricket unfolding in one corner. The   theatrical maxim of not working with children or animals will be thoroughly   ignored, as 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine   geese, 70 sheep and three sheep dogs feature in the opening scene.

At one end of the stadium work is already under way on a replica of   Glastonbury Tor, with an oak tree on top instead of the chapel that stands   on the real thing.

In front of the Tor will be a mosh-pit, decorated with the recognisable   Glastonbury flags, where up to 100 members of the public will be allowed to   stand.

At the other end of the stadium, beneath a giant bell, will be the posh-pit,   which will also include members of the public, and reflect, Boyle said, the   spirit of promenaders. In between will stand four maypoles, each styled as the national flower of the   home nations, a rose, a thistle, a daffodil and flax. Overhead on the model unveiled on Tuesday were model clouds, one of which   Boyle said would deliver rain “just in case it doesn’t rain anyway”.

The National Trust, which runs the Tor, explains it’s Christian significance:

For centuries, Glastonbury Tor has been one of the most spiritual places in the world. For many Christians, the Tor was a very important place of pilgrimage.

People have always flocked here to soak up the history surrounding this special site.

Joseph of Arimathea

Some believe that Jesus visited his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who came to the Mendips to trade in lead and silver.

The story goes that when Joseph was walking on Wearyall Hill and planted his staff into the ground, it took root. It grew into the holy thorn, which is still there today. This was a sign to him to build a church on this site.

The church was made from wattle and daub, and was the first church in England. It’s now known as Glastonbury Abbey. The thorn blooms at Christmas and at Easter time.

The Holy Grail

Legend has it Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail with him after the crucifixion. He hid it in the cavern underneath Glastonbury Tor, which caused two springs to form.

You can fill up bottles of water from this spring today at Chalice Well Lane.

Jesus

It’s said that Joseph of Arimathea brought his sister, Anne, to Israel, where she gave birth to Mary.

Jesus wanted to see the birthplace of his grandmother, so he came to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea.

It’s also said he came to Glastonbury and walked among ‘England’s green and pleasant lands.’

St Patrick visits the Tor

St Patrick is also said to have spent some time at the Tor, as a hermit before he moved on to Ireland.

The Tor quakes

There’s evidence that monks were living on the Tor as far back as the 9th century.

We believe the monks came from the local abbey, to be in solitary reflection at the Tor.

At this point, the church would have been wooden. A stone church was built in the 12th century.

After an earthquake in 1275, the church fell down. In its place a much smaller and sturdier building was put up.

St Michael’s Tower was added later and still remains one of Somerset’s most iconic symbols.

Dissolution and danger

Pilgrimages to the Tor continued, but became more difficult due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.

The abbot of the abbey, Richard Whiting, refused to swear his allegiance to Henry. As a consequence, he was hanged from Glastonbury Tor.

His body was then quartered and sent to Wells, Bath, Bridgwater and Illchester. After this, the church fell into disrepair. Its stone was removed, and only the tower remains today.

And if you want to read Simon Jenkin’s guess at where this is all really going, click here.

What was going on? I am reliably informed that this is all a highly crafted – and risky – bit of spin. Two weeks ago Boyle gave a totally different interview about the ceremony, splashed by the Hollywood Reporter. It made no mention of sheep and meadows but said Boyle was “partly inspired by Frankenstein”, about whom he directed a play at the National Theatre last year. The ceremony would be “more like a cauldron, with all the people hovering over and around you.” This implies that something terrible is going to happen to the sheep – and explains the last-minute dropping of pigs as allegedly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The countryside set was a feint, inducing critics into taking it at face value and “the show”, thus to make the eventual spectacle more shocking. This explains otherwise inexplicable references to The Tempest, William Blake and Frankenstein, which are guiding the subsequent “acts” of Boyle’s show. The second act is a total contrast, the dark side of Blake’s vision, a tableau of storm clouds and satanic mills, of industrial Britain as a place of noise and filth, suffragettes and striking miners.

This is to be followed by a pastiche of cool Britannia. James Bond helicopters zoom up and down the Thames while 900 nurses dance in glorification of the NHS and hi-tech “best of British” products. It sounds like loyal workers dancing in honour of a North Korean “dear leader”. We are told that 10,000 people have needed 157 rehearsals to get the scenes right, and threatened with dismissal if they reveal what they are doing to outsiders or to other parts of the show. The set for prancing nurses at Dagenham is guarded like Guantánamo Bay.

The contents list for all might be a script for the BBC satire, 2012. It is a politically correct miasma of Shakespeare and Frankenstein, Trainspotting and Slumdog, humour and irony, ploughmen and miners, all summoned by a gigantic bell, strangely in honour of Caliban. It is as if Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver were asked to cook the same casserole in the same kitchen. The music is by Underworld, who wrote for Boyle’s Trainspotting and Frankenstein. Paul McCartney will rasp the closing number. This could hardly be further from Tuesday’s vision of Delius and Vaughan Williams. In other words, the countryside was an ironic hors d’oeuvre, to be exploded and splattered over the face the Olympics.

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What an amazing day. I was at St Mary’s University College yesterday for the Third International Symposium on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and I saw the fastest man in the world! The fastest man in the world ever! 100m in 9.58 seconds. (I didn’t see him do the 9.58 seconds.)

Let’s deal with Usain Bolt first. He was at St Mary’s for an afternoon of interviews and publicity. I heard this on the grapevine and snuck down to the gym where he was doing a photo-shoot. I don’t have tickets to the 100m final at the Olympics, so I presume this is as close as I will ever get to the legend. It was a sweet moment just to see him in the flesh, and to imagine watching the Olympics on the TV next summer.

Here is the world record run:

And the conference. It’s just getting started, but there were two interesting talks from Michael Waldstein and William Newton. Newton asked a fascinating question: Why does Pope John Paul talk about the spousal meaning of the body instead of the fraternal meaning of the body? There are many different ways of loving and relating and bonding, many different kinds of friendship, so why put the emphasis on the love shared by a husband and wife?

He gave what I thought was a good answer. He didn’t say that spousal love is the deepest kind of love, as if all other loves and relationships were a hidden longing for this – which wouldn’t make sense of the Christian understanding of heaven, and which would seem like a slight or an impossible burden to those of us (over 50% in the UK!) who are not married. Instead he said that spousal love provides an icon of the deepest meaning of all love; it shows with a particular clarity how every relationship – at its best – is about giving oneself in order to deepen the bonds of communion and friendship, a friendship that leads to new life for those in the relationship and for others.

In other words (I’m going a bit further than Newton did in his talk), all relationships, despite their radical differences – think of friends, siblings, parents and children, colleagues, fellow citizens, etc – have at heart an element of giving oneself, and receiving the gift of who the other person is, for the sake of communion and the giving of new life; they are unitive and procreative. It’s not that everyone has a vocation to be a husband or wife; it’s that everyone longs to give themselves to others in a way that has a particular iconic clarity in the love between husband and wife. This is why, according to Pope John Paul, the spousal meaning of the body has significance for all of us – married and unmarried.

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