St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Glasgow. The cathedral is reflected in the glass of the office building next door. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
On a recent trip to Scotland Bishop Gilbert of
Aberdeen asked me whether I was familiar with the Scottish writer George Mackay
Brown. I had to confess that I had never heard of him. A few days later I was
rummaging through second-hand book stores searching for everything and anything
by Mackay Brown.
Bishop Gilbert had got me hooked by suggesting
I read Mackay Brown’s essay “The Treading of Grapes,” which takes the form of
three homilies on the Wedding Feast of Cana. One is delivered in 1788 by a
classically Calvinist Presbyterian minister, down on every kind of human
enjoyment from wine to party dresses. He uses the story of Cana to berate his
flock about spending too much money on their wives’ wardrobes, and drinking too
much at weddings. He compared their enjoyment of ale to piglets sucking on the
teats of a sow.
The second homily is delivered in the 20th century
by a modern liberal Protestant minister, who uses the homily to explain that
Jesus didn’t really turn water into wine. There was no miracle. Jesus was
simply a good organizer who saw to it behind the scenes that supplies were
Finally, one is treated to a homily by a
Catholic priest delivered in 1548. Rather than berating people as piglets, or
denying the reality of miracles, the priest tells his congregation that at the
wedding feast of the Lamb they will all be princes. Therefore, he says, I will
call you Olaf the Fisherman and Jock the Crofter no longer, but I will call you
by the name the Creator will call you on the last dayprinces! Prince Olaf! Prince
Jock!, et cetera.
If anyone wants to explain the difference
between Calvinism and Catholicism to a class of students of any age, I would suggest
handing them a copy of “The Treading of Grapes.” The contrast between the piglets
and the princes is dramatic.
For those who, like me, get addicted to Mackay
Brown I would strongly recommend the recently published book by Alison Gray: George Mackay Brown: No Separation
(Gracewing: London, 2016).
Gray observes that one of the many literary
gifts of Mackay Brown was that he opened up the pre-Reformation Catholicism of
Scotland’s Orkney Islands. He gave his readers a window into a culture which
has been suppressed and scorned since the Reformation. Brown “glides seamlessly
from the natural to the supernatural worlds. There is no separation between the
profane and the sacred.” Brown reads the
Speaking of that separation, Gray writes:
The splitting of faith
and reason had come from the Reformation, where the fides quae, the religious facts about God, were separated from the fides qua, the way these facts are
lived; the cognitive separated from the non-cognitive, the propositional is
separated from the non-propositional, and this ultimately leads to the
separation of faith and reason that are inseparable in Catholicism. (p. 44)
Mackay Brown was a convert who had rejected
Scottish Presbyterianism and all its dualisms and dour drabness. His gift was
that he was able to write in such a way that the reader is drawn back into a
pre-Reformation world of pristine Orcadian Catholic culture. Again, to quote
attitude finds a “quarry of images” in a pre-Reformation sensorium within which
Mackay Brown embraces not only a wild beauty but also vanished communities; “the
old wals of Churches and Monasteries, the defaced ruines of altars, images, and
crosses do cry with a loud voice, that the Romain Catholique faith of Jesus
Christ did tread this way.” (p. 5)
The feeling that “the Romain Catholique faith
of Jesus Christ did tread this way” is an emotion with which I am quite familiar.
I have experienced it before in places that were once deeply Catholic, such as
Paris, but I have never experienced it so strongly as when in Scotland.
In the Scottish cities the centuries-old
cathedrals were once places of Catholic worship. Now they are under different
management, mostly Calvinist in inspiration, and the faith that caused them to
be built is marginalized as something “foreign.”
The University of Glasgow is a typical
example. It was founded before the Reformation in 1451 by Bishop William
Turnbull. Not only is its chapel now used for Protestant services, but the
“space” also doubles as a venue for student dances.
The student handbook of the university
contains a long list of chaplains representing different faiths, including “paganism.”
There is something quite incongruent about the university’s motto“The Way, the
Truth, and the Life”and a pagan chaplain.
As if this were not surreal enough, I decided
to take a taxi through the fog and rain to see something which calls itself the
“St. Mungo Museum of Religious Art and Life,” located near the necropolis in
Glasgow. The museum had nothing at all having to do with St. Mungo. Apart from
a few pieces of stained glass and pictures of angels, there was little in the
place that was Christian.
I tracked back to the receptionist and asked if
they had any exhibits on St. Mungo. The receptionist looked surprised by the
question, as if no one had asked this before. He politely explained that the
name “St. Mungo’s Museum” was just a nameit signified nothing except the museum’s
location near St. Mungo’s Cathedral.
Prior to the Reformation, St. Mungo’s
Cathedral was a major pilgrimage center, but now it is a lonely place
sandwiched between a Victorian-era infirmary and the necropolis, behind the misnamed
St. Mungo’s Museum. Almost everything about this precinct was dark and creepy.
The Catholic cathedral, called St. Andrew’s,
is a much newer building on the edge of the major shopping mall and the north
bank of the River Clyde. When I Googled “Catholic cathedral Glasgow,” the first
hit I read was a self-righteous article from the Guardian claiming that the place is an eyesore, too Italian, and a
waste of money that should have been given to the poor.
I expected to find lots of pink cherubs in
blue clouds at the cathedral, but instead the decoration is quite minimalist
and uncluttered. The space is suffused with natural light and the pillars have
been painted with ribbons of blue and white flowers, edged with gold leaf, evocative
of Our Lady. There were no fat cherubs, no plump Madonnas, nothing that to me
screamed “Italian.” There was, however, a painting of St. John Ogilvie, which
seemed appropriate given that he is a local martyr.
Interior of St. Andrew's Cathedral, Glasgow. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
I went to Mass at St. Andrew’s on three
occasions and each time heard a seriously good homily. The priest saying the
Mass could also sing. He warmed the place up with his voice.
experience was my visit to Pluscarden Abbey near the village of Elgin in the
Diocese of Aberdeen. Bishop Gilbert kindly took me on a day trip to his old
home. He had been the abbot of Pluscarden before becoming the bishop of
Aberdeen. The weather app on my iPhone said it was 5 degrees below zero. Even
if it had been 10 degrees below zero, the Sunday High Mass was worth the
discomfort. Bishop Gilbert preached a homily in which he said that we all have
a choice between two fires: the fire of hell’s lonely anguish and the fire of
the Sacred Heart. The choice defines every human life.
monks chanted the Mass and the Office in Latin and during their breaks from
prayer they asked after a number of my Australian friends. They were right up-to-date
with what is happening in other parts of the British Commonwealth, even though
they live tucked away on an estate not far from the North Sea.
surprise was my discovery of Baxter, the monastery cat, who is named after the soup
factory in the nearby town. He is famous. Baxter memorabilia brings in more
money at the gift shop than sales of any other item, including Rosary beads,
books, soap, and medicinal products. Baxter cards, calendars, and coffee-table
booklets outsell everything. He is at his best with the many families who
visit during the summer months. He meets and greets and plays with the
children. Even though he has only half a tail, he is not shy or self-conscious.
pleased to hear that the monastery had a pro-cat policy. I said that I thought
Pope Benedict would strongly approve, and I was told that Pope Benedict knows
drove back to Aberdeen through the twilight and as village after village went
by, I thought how sad it was that in many of these little hamlets there is not
a single Catholic church. I told Bishop Gilbert about St. John Vianney’s remark
to Archbishop Ullathornethat he truly believed
that one day the Church in the United Kingdom would be restored to her former
glory. I got the impression that Bishop Gilbert thought that if this prophecy
was true it was not about to be fulfilled any time soon.
was in Scotland to deliver the Cardinal Winning Memorial Lecture I also had the
privilege of being introduced to Cardinal Winning’s successor, Archbishop
Tartaglia. As his surname suggests, Tartaglia is from an Italian migrant
family. To me he combined Italian human warmth and the gift for friendship with
Scottish no-nonsense practicality. In one of the best homilies I have heard on
Catholic education, delivered at the University of Glasgow’s Turnbull Hall, he
exhorted Catholic educators to understand that their mission must be
told Archbishop Tartaglia how impressed I was with the quality of his student
chaplains he spoke of his young priests with deep paternal affection, but lamented
that he did not have more of them. Again there was a sense that the harvest is
there for the taking if only there were more priests on the ground.
can’t be all that difficult to compete with liberal Calvinism and garden-variety
New Age paganism when one has the full treasury of a sacramental Catholicisma
faith for which there is “no separation,” no iron curtain standing between the
sacred and the profane, no unbridgeable gulf between heaven and the Highlands
and the valley of the River Clyde.
the works of Mackay Brown can provide, as Alison Gray suggests, the forecourt
of a Catholic theological revival in the land of Mungo, Magnus, and Margaret.