Sunday, November 23, 2014

Playing Hamlet

Published in the Sentinel (Stoke-on-Trent) 19th November 2014
(Note: this hasn’t really got anything to do with Hamlet!) 

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When I was a child "playing 'amlet" was something my Dad used to berate me and my brothers for when we were whining. It was only much later in life, and long after I had studied Shakespeare for O and A level that I realised that this phrase, so familiar from childhood, was spelt with an 'H' - playing Hamlet - and referred to the whingeing prince of Denmark.  

 

I came across Hamlet again when I was preparing for our Christmas services. Here are words from the first scene of the play, about Christmas Eve: 

 

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes

Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,

The bird of dawning singeth all night long:

And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad; 

The nights are wholesome; 

then no planets strike, No fairy takes, 

nor witch hath power to charm,

So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.


(You can find this on Spotify here: The Young Tradition – Prologue From Hamlet)

 

This got me thinking. Shakespeare speaks of an extraordinary day which cuts across the calendar and disrupts the familiar order of life. 

 

And here we are, in a season of seasons. We are approaching Christmas. Yet we have also had other commemorations: Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday (particularly poignant this year), also Halloween, and the Christian celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, commemorating the holy and the beloved dead. And soon there is the Christian season of Advent, and Jewish Hannukah, and Hindu Diwali, and then New Year and Epiphany. It is why Americans greet one another with the words "Happy Holidays" because there are so many wintertime commemorations. 

 

Yes, these are familiar enough to us, but are we celebrating ideas, or are they special days,  "hallowed and gracious times" which cut into our normal routine? They used to be. 

 

I remember, as a child, shivering on dark, frosty November 5th, huddled around a bonfire of burning leaves and fallen branches. There were potatoes wrapped in foil, treacle toffee, sparklers and perhaps a few roast chestnuts. Fireworks too! A rocket, a Catherine Wheel and a few Roman Candles. Then the next day, in school, we'd exaggerate the extent of the incendiary extravaganza our fathers had provided, competing over the size of our rockets and the colours of the firework smoke. Yet nowadays, Bonfire night is not one night but lasts weeks, from mid October to the middle of the month of November itself. 

 

Hallowe'en too was strictly restricted to October 31st, and was a modest matter of apple bobbing  (certainly no trick-or-treat, which was unheard of). If we bothered with it at all, it was inconceivable that Hallowe'en could take place - as now - over a period of days - and certainly not after the first of November, All Hallows Day itself. 

 

Now Christmas, I will admit, was anticipated a little in advance, by Carol Singing, crackers and jelly. And by Nativity plays, with crying angels, reluctant Josephs, and animals with uncooperative rear ends. Yet, even so, the time of preparation was a time of excitement. We opened our Advent calendars eagerly each morning to reveal the picture (no chocolate!) with keen anticipation. 

We were waiting, hoping, yearning for the big day itself. No such things as gifts in advance, nor presents on demand. Christmas Eve was certainly magical, a hallowed and gracious time. Even if we children waited more for Santa than for the Christ-child, the surprise of the morning was joy indeed. 

 

What has changed is much more complicated than the practice of faith. We seem to have lost the ability to celebrate any days that require preparation, and which disrupt our routine. 

 

We recognise only seasons of celebration, not unique days, which cut into our daily lives; we know how to feast, but not how to fast; we have forgotten how to prepare and anticipate, how to wait and to hope.

 

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The Picture is of Laurence Olivier in the role of Hamlet, (the Film of 1948) in perhaps the most familiar pose from the play. 


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Blessings and Convalidation

I've not written much on my blog in recent times, so I thought I should make an effort.

From time to time I am asked interesting questions of a general kind which I give written answers to (generally by email). I used to include such "answers" in our weekly bulletin. It might be worth including these occasional questions and answers here.

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Question: 

Consider a Catholic couple marrying at a register office. They then ask for a blessing in church. 
I just don't understand why they would ask for a blessing afterwards. If they wanted the church's blessing why wouldn't they just marry in church in the first place?  
If there was a reason they were unable to do that isn't it hypocritical of the church to give a blessing afterwards?

 

Answer: 

First, I ought to say that I am not an expert on Canon Law, nor indeed civil law - so any corrections or clarifications a reader might give will be welcome. Please don't take this as a definitive guide!

I presume that you are speaking of the UK where marriages can be contracted according to civil law during a religious ceremony. In most parts of the world (including Italy!) the civil marriage takes place before the equivalent of a JP, usually the day before the religious ceremony. In these cases the civil and the religious ceremonies are always separate, so your question does not really apply. In the UK and places with the same practice, a "blessing" would therefore be the names given to some kind of a Church ceremony which takes place after the civil marriage and which would have no (civil) legal standing. 

I know that in the Church of England it used to be common for people to ask for a "blessing" after a civil marriage when the Church's law prevented a marriage taking place in the Church, almost always because one or both of the parties had been divorced. I think the Anglican practice has changed a lot now so that such unions can take place in Church. It may be the case, of course, that the same procedure may be followed in the near future for same-sex couples, where the Vicar is inclined to bless such a "marriage". 

I have never come across public ceremonies of this kind in the Catholic Church. If someone cannot get married in the Catholic Church, then many priests may be prepared to pray privately with a couple, and even bless the wedding rings, if not the wedding. 

In fact, the whole idea of a separate "blessing" of a marriage is wrong, from a Catholic viewpoint, as the Church's role in a wedding ceremony is precisely to bless the marriage after the couple have exchanged their vows. It is the exchange of vows which makes the sacrament, and the nuptial blessing "seals" it, in a sense - so you can't "bless" a marriage which can't take place in Church. 

The kind of ceremony which you speak of is properly called a "convalidation", rather than a "blessing".

A catholic who marries outside the Church without a dispensation is irregularly married. Provided there is no bar to marriage, (such as divorce) such a marriage should be "convalidated" for it to be fully recognised by the Church. A person who is irregularly married ought not to approach the sacraments until a convalidation has taken place. This does not mean - strictly speaking - that the Church does not recognise the marriage (sometimes people say "not married in the eyes of God"). Clearly the Church does recognise it in a certain sense, if not then it would have no impact on the admissibility to the sacraments. 

In the situation which I guess you presume, there's a simple short answer:
If a couple who have contracted an "irregular" marriage, approach the Church to "regularise" it, then provided there is nothing preventing it, a priest would be wrong to refuse.

So in these circumstances the "blessing" (convalidation) is not only permitted, but is to be encouraged.

Hypocrisy raises a few other issues.

The circumstances in which may have led to such a request being made obviously might vary, and it is not always easy to speculate on motives. There may be many reasons why a Catholic might have married in a registry office. It might be because of (perceived) cost. Or sometimes family circumstances - such as difficult relationships between family members. In times gone by it might have been because the bride was pregnant, or because the families disapproved of the union (and the couple went to Gretna Green). Frankly it's unlikely that a couple would ask for a "blessing" (convalidation) on a whim. 

In many cases the request for convalidation follows a long time of absence from the practice of the faith. In such circumstances this is a cause for joy, hardly hypocrisy. (No more hypocritical than the prodigal son, you might say). 

More difficult nowadays is when a couple want a wedding at a smart hotel, or on a beach in the Dominican Republic, rather than in Church, then approach the Church shortly afterwards, or even before such a ceremony. In those circumstances the Church generally refuses to give a dispensation for the marriage to occur outside the Church (allowable circumstances would be in the Church of the other (non-catholic) partner). We do not encourage such arrangements, because the marriage should be seen as a public religious ceremony, indeed a sacrament, not just a moment of private and family celebration. These arrangements - like the practice of "living together" - make the partnership/marriage a private matter, rather than a public declaration of commitment. 

However, even in these circumstances I don't think a priest should refuse, and I don't think the Bishop would normally refuse to give the necessary permission for the convalidation. Bear in mind that the convalidation is generally a very quiet matter and rarely an occasion for all the extravagance of a wedding.