Notes from a Homily for Holy Communion
with the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Convent, Oxford
Tuesday, 19th of July, 2017
Readings: Exodus 3:1-6, 9-12; & W H Auden "Thank you, Fog" (below)
+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today's reading made me think of a conversation we had last week at the Baptist Church in town where I work. Someone with a strong sense and understanding of the Jewish tradition had written down "G_d", which I remember first reading in the words of a rabbi in a newspaper - the holy name of God is not to be said, nor to be written, not in full.
Today's Old Testament reading has two names for God and that takes you back, if you've done the course, to early Bible Studies. There's "Elohim", which is "God" and there's, well, we don't quite know. It's the name that's given to Moses in the passage after the story we had this morning, and which doubtless you'll have at mass tomorrow. Interestingly, although Moses wasn't told it until tomorrow, it's used today. The Biblical writers had no problem with this. In Hebrew, without its vowels, it's YHWH, "the tetragrammaton", the original "four-letter word". And this is the name God gives to Moses, and it becomes so sacred that the ancient Hebrews won't use it. They substitute different vowels, and they call him "THE LORD", which is how those four letters are rendered even now in many modern Bibles. It is as though God is reaching out to us, making friends, telling us his name - the name for his chosen people, just as the other peoples round about have names for their gods - and yet we recoil from the intimacy, we don't want it, we'd rather give him a title.
And so English Christianity has related to its God as a sort of minor aristocrat. He told us his name, but we'd rather call him "The Lord".
I used to tell my students that this moment in the history of our religion was more like "call me Stan". My more religious students struggled with this, but the others sort of got it. This is God reaching out to us, being intimate. At the macro level, this is immanance and transcedence. We've tended to prefer Lordly transcendence.
And because of this, we've lost the holy name of God. The ancient Jews fitted it with other vowels, and gradually it was known no more. "Yahweh" is how most modern writers think it should be. The Jerusalem Bible boldly used in the 1960s - and the ASB boldly wouldn't use extracts from those bits in 1980, because it was a theory, or a guess. My Old Testament tutor, John Barton, a friend to this place, I think, and supervisor to Sister Edmee for her thesis, said in a lecture I went to in Chelmsford "it might just as well be "Yahoo", but somehow, that didn't catch on".
This not knowing the name of God I think leaves us free to call God by our own choice of name. The conversation in church last week made me think of a collection of poems I read as an undergraduate - I have it here, not the one I read then, which was in Christ Church library, and signed by the author, but by W H Auden, his last collected poems, "Thank you, Fog". The fact that it's the title for the collection, and the first one, gives you a small glimpse into the depth and breadth of my literary understanding. I don't think it's meant to be a religious poem, but he was a religious man, and I can't be sure. The fog is addressed as "You" with a capital letter.
I love fog and mist. My father grew up in the days of the London "pea-soupers" in the 1950s that got the Clean Air Act passed in 1956. He would walk to school with a white handkerchief over his mouth, and it would be black by the time he got there. Fog and mist are rare in these parts, these days, but we have rain, and the last couple of weeks, we've had some glorious rain for a strange person like me to go walking in, and sitting on a park bench, literally soaking it up. It envelopes you, holds you, shields you from the wider, noisy, busy, demanding, world, it lets you be, all alone, yourself, with God.
When I first read this poem, for me it was about God. And "Fog" has been my name for God ever since. When I say thanks for my evening meal, it's "thank you, Fog". And at its end, Auden speaks of the awfulness of life, and the troubles of the world, and how they've been forgotten in the Wiltshire fog of this joyful Christmas meeting. Today is a day of remembering for me, but instead of dwelling on young lives lost, I shall lose myself in the mist, and for them, and for all the blessings of this life, no matter how brief, echo Auden's last words "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Fog".
Thank You, Fog by W.H. Auden
Grown used to New York weather,
all too familiar with Smog,
You, Her unsullied Sister,
I’d quite forgotten and what
You bring to British winters:
now native knowledge returns.
Sworn foe to festination,
daunter of drivers and planes,
volants, of course, will cause You,
but how delighted I am
that You’ve been lured to visit
Wiltshire’s witching countryside
for a whole week at Christmas,
that no one can scurry where
my cosmos is contracted
to an ancient manor-house
and four Selves, joined in friendship,
Jimmy, Tania, Sonia, Me.
Outdoors a shapeless silence,
for even then birds whose blood
is brisk enough to bid them
abide here all the year round,
like the merle and the mavis,
at Your cajoling refrain
their jocund interjections,
no cock considers a scream,
vaguely visible, tree-tops
rustle not but stay there, so
Your damp to definite drops.
Indoors specific spaces,
cosy, accommodate to
reminiscence and reading,
crosswords, affinities, fun:
refected by a sapid
supper and regaled by wine,
we sit in a glad circle,
each unaware of our own
nose but alert to the others,
making the most of it, for
how soon we must re-enter,
when lenient days are done,
the world of the work and money
and minding our p’s and q’s.
No summer sun will ever
dismantle the global gloom
cast by the Daily Papers,
vomiting in slip-shod prose
the facts of filth and violence
that we’re too dumb to present:
our earth’s a sorry spot, but
for this special interim,
so restful yet so festive,
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog
(W H Auden, 1974, the year after he died)