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Rebecca West goes East and discovers worship

8 July 2011

Recently I have been culling my books.  There are too many in the house, and far too many to leave to whoever has to clear up when I go.  I take loads of boxes to the excellent Oxfam bookshop in Headingley, so if you want them, you can look there, and when you pay their fair price  – they know the value of books – your money will mostly go to people who need it much more than we do. 

So I sort through my books.  A few are rubbish and I am glad to get rid of them – is it ethical to sell them on?  Some are about matters I have long since worn tired of;  they were good for me once, like so many things in an old person’s life, but there’s no point in hanging on to them – or pretending to, for in truth the tide of time has simply swept them out of my reach.  And there are some books I bought years ago with good intentions, but have never read;  I know I do not have time now to read them, but I feel guilt, as though I have let them down:  buying them implied a promise, and the promise has not been fulfilled.  All I can say now is Sorry, and let them go.

Today I found a book I had marked down for dismissal some time ago.  It is huge, 1150 pages.  I read through the first 200 years ago and then gave up.  Really it is a book that should go.  But before I put it in the box, I glance through it again.  I look up a page I had noted.   That is a good bit – perhaps I should have another go at this book.   I wonder, shall I really commit myself to reading the rest?   I do not want to put it back on the shelf only to see it accusing me of neglect day after day.  It must either be read or dead.   Or is there a third way?  (What a blessing – or is it a curse? – is a third way;  it enables the shilly-shally compromiser to believe he is a decisive creative dilemma-breaking pioneer.)   

The third way would be to share the bit I like with you in this blog.  If I then let the book go, I have given it a decent celebratory farewell.   It might even be that one of my readers says, That book I must have.   

Rebecca West travelled in all the countries that made up Yugoslavia in the 1930s, and she published Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in 1941.    On page 65, she describes the Catholic Mass she went to in the village of Shestine, in Croatia.   I give you only snippets, for reasons of space; they are chosen with motives you can easily guess.

‘There was a lavishness…in the singing that poured out of these magnificently clad bodies, which indeed transformed the very  service.  Western church music is almost commonly petitioning and infantile, a sentiment cozening for remedy against sickness or misfortune, combined with a masochistic enjoyment in the malady, but this singing spoke of health and fullness…..

‘…there came a flood of song which asked for absolutely nothing, which did not ape childhood, which did not pretend that sour is sweet and pain wholesome, but which simply adored.   If there be a God who is fount of all goodness, this is the tribute that should logically be paid to Him; if there be only goodness, it is still a logical tribute. And again, the worship, like their costume, was made astonishing by their circumstances.  These people, who had neither wealth nor security, nor ever had had them, stood before the Creator, and thought not what they might ask for but what they might give….’

On page 80, she picks up the same thought, this time starting with a visit to a hospital. 

‘These people hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it.  With us, a satisfactory hospital patient is one who, for the time being at least, has been castrated of all adult attributes……One of the doctors raised his glass to me; I raised my glass to him, enjoying the communion of the rich world that added instead of subtracting.  I thought of the service at Shestine and its unfamiliar climate.  The worshippers in Western countries come before the altar with the desire to subtract from the godhead and themselves; to subtract benefits from the godhead by prayer, to subtract their dangerous adult qualities by affecting childishness.  The worshippers at Shestine had come before the altar with a habit of adoration, which made them pour out the gift of their adoration on the godhead, which made them add to themselves  by imaginative realization of the divine qualities which they were contemplating in order to adore.’ 

It makes you think, doesn’t it?   What precisely do we think?  

Books – not the physical volumes on the shelves, but what is in them, the whole host of earth and heaven who inhabit and come to expression there – have been for me, as for many, a ‘communion of the rich world that added instead of subtracting’.  

No wonder, getting rid of books is a sad, thought-provoking affair. 

As a result of re-browsing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I have decided to face the daunting task of reading it.

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