Book of revelations
All Things Made New: the mysteries of the world in Christ Stratford Caldecott ANGELICO PRESS/SOPHIA PERENNIS, 226PP, £10.95
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This book is doubly welcome. It is welcome because Stratford Caldecott aims to offer an account, or more accurately, perhaps, a reassessment, of what it means to be a Catholic today, at a time when that option is regarded by many as mindless or dangerous. Secondly, it is welcome because too many readers still shy away from the book of Revelation, either fearful (which is silly) or sneeringly contemptuous (which is worse). Not all biblical scholars will be in tune with Caldecott’s reading of the Apocalypse and not all Catholics will share his understanding of Catholicism; but this is a gallant attempt and it demands serious attention.
All Things Made New is about Scripture, prayer, the sacraments, the mysteries of the Rosary, the way of the Cross, and it sees Jesus Christ as “the fulfilment of all prophecies and all myths”: the book of Revelation, Caldecott argues, presents us with a God (and, interestingly, the God of Apocalypse is already thoroughly Trinitarian), who is in complete charge, no matter how bad things may seem. He makes the splendid claim that “The Apocalypse weaves together mythology, astrology, and numerology to make a garment for the Logos Incarnate.”
Caldecott is keen, it must be said, on the numerology of Revelation, and on the cosmic order that in his view it reveals; not all readers will sit comfortably with this notion. He points out that a number of phrases appear seven times: Lord God Almighty, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, for example; and the key title of “Lamb” is mentioned 28 times (which is 7 x 4). The author luxuriates in mathematical symbolism, which for some readers will be attractive, expanding the imagination in unexpected ways. He makes the point that in order to make sense of the book of Revelation, as indeed of the liturgy (and he is rightly insistent that the book is a liturgy), you actually have to live it; and that could be an excellent entry into the text for nervous first-time readers of the Bible’s last scroll.
You might argue that the gloomier the news, the more we should read the Apocalypse, to find meaning in the unfailing presence of God, no matter how bad things may be. The “Wrath of God” runs prominently through the book, but Caldecott explains that the divine anger,
properly understood, is always a manifestation of love, and in no respect like the destructive rage of what he properly calls the “Beastly Trinity”. The book of Revelation, he suggests, may give us the way to live with a major economic crisis, in a world of brutal wars, where a sense of sin is lacking, and people do not take their spiritual living with sufficient seriousness.
There are some interesting reflections on the twelve articles of the Creed, revealing its elegant shape, balancing what he identifies as the 12 Marian mysteries. There is a chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, and on the Rosary, seen as Mary’s meditation on the Incarnation, and on the structure of the Hail Mary. Then there is an account of the Way of the Cross, represented as a pilgrimage, with a numerical shape (2 x 7, if you had not noticed). There are several appendices: one on Revelation as a commentary on the liturgy, another on reading the Bible, and a third (you will need to be feeling strong to read it) on gematria, the mystical structure of numbers. For example, the sentence “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” has a numerical value of 2701 (he does not say whether this is in English or in Hebrew), which is the product of the two prime numbers 37 and 73. A fourth appendix considers Margaret Barker’s unusual Temple theology, while a fifth is on the seven sacraments, each linked to one of the seven petitions that make up the Lord’s Prayer and to the seven parts of the Mass.
The time may be right for just such a book as this, which takes seriously both the book of Revelation and the richness of the “Here comes everybody” that is Catholic culture, which has a lively message to address to our bruised and battered world today. Nicholas King
NOVEL OF THE WEEK
Touch Alexi Zentner CHATTO & WINDUS, 272PP, £12.99
■ Tablet bookshop price £11.70 Tel 01420 592974
It was at a time when gold fever still burned in the untouched wilderness of northern Canada that a boy named Jeannot, travelling with only his dog for company, arrived at a clearing in the forest alongside a river.
He had left it too late to return to civilisation that year and was forced to spend the ferocious winter near to starvation in the small hut he built himself, but he knew he had found what he had come for when the first fish he caught in the river had a nugget of gold in its belly.
This was the start of Sawgamet, the settlement in the forest to which, as word got out, miners came in their hundreds and which, later, when the gold began to run out, became a logging town.
Stephen, the narrator, was born and grew up in Sawgamet, the grandson of Jeannot. He leaves for the seminary but returns as a middle-aged priest to take over the ministry there: writing his mother’s eulogy alone in the snowy night, he retraces the history of his family since Jeannot caught his first fish.
He dwells on the savage winters that had to be endured before modern building and heating came to the rescue; on the day his little sister fell beneath the river ice forever; and on the fantastic stories of the forest told to him by Jeannot. For the forest not only provided a livelihood for Stephen’s family, it was also hazardous, populated by fabulous creatures, both good and evil, such as the golden caribou sharpening his antlers on a boulder of pure gold; or the qallupilluit with milk-white eyes which dragged Stephen into the river; or the malevolent laughing mahaha with its ice-coloured skin.
At first, the reader is unsure whether he is reading history or fantasy, but after a while he stops worrying and lets himself go with the flow of this extraordinary book.
Alexi Zentner binds the stories of the child Stephen’s imagination together with tales of the hardihood of the early settlers and the stark magic of the frozen northern wilderness into a stunning melange of history, memoir and fairy tale. He tells of the winter when there was 30 feet of snow and each family, buried deep, had to fend for itself until the spring thaw; of the vast floats of sawn logs which are sent down the river in the fall, to the peril of the men who ride them; and of the axe in the hand of a man of the forest which is at once an essential tool of his trade and a murdering weapon.
Touch is Zentner’s first novel. It is an enchanting phantasmagoria of the imagination as well as a practical tale of the human lust for gold and the human struggle with implacable nature. All in all, a deeply satisfying read. Clarissa Burden
20 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012