The Liturgy of the Catholic Church is both Drama and Poetry, honed over many years, drawing liberally from the Old Testament. The psalms are the most frequently quoted, and in the daily prayer of the Church provide us with sentiments reflecting our every emotion and need. The next most quoted is the book known to us in Latin as Ecclesiasticus , so named by St. Cyprian. In its translation from the canonical Greek text of the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach, the original Hebrew verses shine through, forming so many of our prayers, colouring our worship.
“Lex Orandi, Lex credendi” we say, meaning that our prayers reflect our belief, help shape the expression of our faith. It is salutary to recognise how theology and liturgy complement one another, the former associated with divine revelation, the Word of God, and the latter with our human arts, of which the most significant is that of speech. Truly “the Word was made flesh”, God becoming incarnate of the Virgin, and assuming the images and languages of our race, conceived first, said St. Augustine, in the mind of the Blessed Virgin and then in her womb; “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”.
Canon Bill Anderson did not consider himself a theologian. He says as much when speaking of his education and the immense spiritual satisfaction he found rather in the study of the classics, of literature, and especially of poetry. His list of degrees also says as much. While with Bishop Peter, with me and our contemporaries at the Scots College, he was subject to the same team of Professors at the Gregorian, it was in Francis Thompson and Gerald Manley-Hopkins rather than in Fuchs and Lonergan that he found his inspiration, and the vocabulary of his faith, his teaching, his pastoral ministry. Writing in 2010 of what poetic literature meant to him he would describe its non purposive character, a “language free of instrumental purpose” (Nicholas Boyle), its insinuation rather than its self-conscious intent appealing to him. Perhaps we should recognise the same in him, and realise that it was that which made him attractive to us and his ministry accessible.
John Henry Cardinal Newman was both theologian and great literary wordsmith, expressing memorably in “The Dream of Gerontius” the poetry that best furnishes our imagination of what the theologian Ludwig Ott presents as the Eschatology of the Individual Human Being and of the Whole of Humanity in “The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”! In like manner the greatest of all medieval theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, aptly and engagingly spells out the essential ingredients of Eucharistic dogma in the great hymns he composed for the Liturgy of Corpus Christi.
The conjunction of such great talents in individuals is rare. We owe it therefore all the more to such as Canon Bill who demonstrated for us the finding, reciting and elucidating of the fetching thoughts of great writers and poets, and so adding, as he put it, the condiments to the substance of our theology to make the food of the truth digestible and palatable. In thanking God for his gift we need to recognise also the inspiration shown in the placing of Canon Bill in so many influential theatres of communication, from the confessional to the BBC, to our universal benefit.
May I express my personal thanks to Bishop Hugh for having given me the opportunity of contributing these thoughts to those eloquent testimonies which I failed to hear through the hindrance of the bad weather on the day of Canon Bill’s funeral, (added to today by Deacon Tony demonstrating his own affectionate discipleship). They are intended to express my affection for a fellow priest and a dear friend. Will Bishop Hugh allow me to add without further comment this passage from Ecclesiasticus which came to mind when first I received his invitation:
“Let us praise illustrious men, our ancestors in their successive generations. The Lord has created an abundance of glory….
Some wielded authority as kings, and were renowned for their strength; others were intelligent advisers and uttered prophetic oracles,
Others directed the people by their advice, by their understanding of the popular mind, and by the wise words of their teaching; others composed musical melodies and set down ballads.
Their bodies have been buried in peace, and their name lives on for all generations. The peoples will proclaim their wisdom; the assembly will celebrate their praises”. (Ecclesiasticus, 44, vv 1-5, 14,15)
(Archbishop Mario Conti, St Mary’s Catherdral, Aberdeen – 30th January 2018)