memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

An all-seeing God (1)

The idea behind the following little tale I shamelessly borrow from one of my heroes – Roald Dahl.

Once upon a time there lived in Austro-Hungary towards the end of the 19th century a family of five – father, mother and three children.

They lived in a country village near the German frontier, where the father worked as a customs official. The family was staying at an inn, the Gasthof Zum Pommer, with its pretty orchard of apple trees at the back. While the father went to work every day at the frontier post, the three children attended the local village school and the mother, who was very pious, busied herself around the village with good works and worshipped daily at Mass in the church.


One day the mother found herself to be expecting another child.

In those days Society and the Catholic Church in general, and her authoritian husband in particular, all conspired against her to produce babies – a task to which she was neither physically nor temperamentally suited. She was a thin nervous woman and her previous two pregnancies had ended in miscarriages. She decided to visit her friend the priest at the church and confide her fears and doubts to him. She explained about her abusive husband and trembled lest the birth should be problematic.

–          Put your trust in God, my daughter and let us kneel down and pray for the safety of your unborn child.

So she and the priest knelt in the church and prayed fervently and she derived spiritual comfort therefrom. Before she left the priest blessed her and urged her to say a novena of her rosary each day.

(To be continued)

Sailing to Byzantium (1)

Sailing to Byzantium (1).

The Gospel According To Matthew

 The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo) is an Italian film directed in 1964 by Pier Paulo Pasolini.

It is a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, from the Nativity through to the Resurrection.

I remember how struck I was was on first seeing this film about forty or so years ago. At the same time I was seeing such films as François Truffauld’s L’Enfant Sauvage and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre The Wrath of God.

Raised on a diet of Hollywood pap these films opened my eyes to the European Cinema.

The dialogue of the film is mostly taken directly from the Gospel of Matthew, as Pasolini felt that images could never reach the poetic heights of the text.

He reportedly chose Matthew’s Gospel over the others because he had decided that “John was too mystical, Mark too vulgar, and Luke too sentimental.”

Pier Paulo Pasolini was an atheist, homosexual and Marxist.

When commentators evinced surprise that an non-believer like him could make a film with such a religious theme he replied that anyone who thought he was an non-believer knew him better than he did himself.

The film, shot in black and white, is set in a stark bleak desert landscape. Using amateur actors Pasolini stages a series of set speeches from Matthew’s gospel.



The film is devoid of the customary sanctimonious sentimentality of the genre.

Jesus is a stern Marxist Christ who endures his sufferings with a stoical formality.

The score of the film, consisting mainly of sacred music by J. S. Bach (Mass in B minor and parts of the St. Matthew Passion) and the Gloria from the Congolese Missa Luba is unforgettable and indeed for most of my life since, whenever I have listened to the St. Matthew Passion I have thought of that film.

A serious and profound film, I would suggest it merits another viewing.

All a stitch-up?



Here is picture from the British Library called Christ in Majesty from the Stavelot Bible.

Mosan School, AD 1097.

I love this picture. Monks painted this exquisite page patiently in the fervour of their belief in the glory of God. I have always admired and revered sacred as well as profane art, be it the early medieval illuminations of the monks or the Plain-Chant echoing distantly from the college chapel of my school-days or the time when I was introduced (at the age of eleven) to Chartres Cathedral by my father who remarked that it was astonishing that the architects, engineers, stone-masons and glass-stainers who designed, built and decorated what was arguably the pinnacle of Western Art were anonymous.

Neither the great masters of the Italian Renaissance nor the Popes who commissioned their works were particularly devout – the formers’ genius was too broad to encompass such narrow doctrine and the venality, greed and lust-for-power of the latter too great. But The Last Supper and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are marvellous creations, are they not?





But might it not be that instead of being the product of Divine Intervention they are the result of human creativity reaching upwards to the sublime.

In other words instead of God creating us in his own image we are creating God in our image.

I read or heard somewhere that the catholic children who still learn in the catechism (which is a simplistic paring down of an already rather narrow doctrine) learn that if a baby dies before being baptized then he/she is technically denied access to the Kingdom of Heaven; his/her soul is technically transferred to a sort of limbo-créche. One is immediately transferred to a vision of a vast grey vault containing countless little grey cradles silently waiting until … until what … until when? In Zeno-like terms (reductio ad absurdum) the proposition breaks down completely.

How could the interpreters of the Divine Architect get it so wrong?

How could He/She/It make such a hash of it?

Or is He/She/It is just winding us up?

Is this all a cosmic stitch-up?


Mathematicians (and who are we to argue with such purity) propose that in the limitless universe the presence of a planet identical to our world is a certainty.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?



When the stars threw down their spears,

And watered heaven with their tears,

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

William Blake


Sailing to Byzantium (1)

Another grim passage in the history of Christianity was the sacking of Constantinople, the rich centre of the Eastern Byzantine Empire by the Western armies in 1204 after a two-year siege during the 4th Crusade.


The Crusaders mainly composed of Frankish and Venetian troops, looted, terrorized and vandalized Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were either stolen or destroyed.

The famous bronze horses from the Hippodrome were sent back to adorn the facade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where they still remain.


As well as being stolen, works of immeasurable value were destroyed merely for their material value. One of the most precious works to suffer such a fate was a large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of no lesser than Alexander the Great. Like so many other priceless artworks made of bronze, the statue was melted down for its content by the Crusaders whose greed blinded them.

The Library of Constantinople was destroyed.

Despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, the Crusaders systematically violated the city’s holy sanctuaries, destroying or stealing all they could lay hands on.

Nothing was spared. The civilian population of Constantinople were subject to the Crusaders’ ruthless lust for spoils and glory.

Thousands of them were killed in cold blood.

Women, even nuns, were raped by the Crusader army, which also sacked churches, monasteries and convents. The very altars of these churches were smashed and torn to pieces for their gold and marble by the warriors who had sworn to fight in service of Christendom without question.

This was the final nail in the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

We can therefore build up a profile of the western Crusader knights.

They were cruel sociopaths whose value for human life was zero, whose belief-system was completely twisted and warped and whose lust and greed knew no limit. They were narrow-minded xenophobes with minimal aesthetic appreciation for Eastern art.

They were the profane destroyers of Temples and places of worship.

Thus was the sacking of the holy city of Byzantium.



No need for temples

This is my simple religion.

There is no need for temples;

No need for complicated philosophy.

Our own brain, our own heart is our temple;

The philosophy is kindness.

Dalai Lama



Blame the apple

From Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (a copy of which I spotted on Marlon Brando’s bedside table at the end of Apocalypse Now) to Thomas Kennelly’s Blood Red, Sister Rose to that genial culture-for-the-masses concoction, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code the culture of misogyny in the Roman church runs clear like a glowing toxic beacon.

From the time when God, as an afterthought, fashioned for Adam (out of one his ribs) a female companion, there has been nothing but trouble.

He told her specifically to steer clear of the apple tree.

But did she listen?

Did she hell!

She only went and listened to the Devil, didn’t she?

She only went and listened to that snake

The subtlest beast in all the field, innit?

Go on, take a bite

It’s delicious!

You know you want to, really

So the woman bit

Into the juicy red apple

(It’s yer Original sin, innit?)

And dragged her man down with her

Typical! Nothing but trouble,

 Trouble, trouble

We blame it on the apple.

It’s the apple’s fault!


East of Eden

And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years and begat a son in his own likeness and called him Seth:

And Seth lived a hundred and five years and begat Enos:

And Enos lived ninety years and begat Ca-i’nan:

And Ca-i’nan lived seventy years, and begat Mahal’aleel:

And Mahal’aleel lived sixty and five years, and begat Jared:

And Jared lived a hundred sixty and two years, and he begat Enoch:

And Enoch lived sixty and five years, and begat Methu’selah:

And Methu’selah lived a hundred eighty and seven years, and begat Lamech:

And Lamech lived a hundred eighty and two years, and begat a son, Noah:

And Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth.


But all this was long long ago

about seven billion people

and seven hundred thousand years ago

East of Eden

Galileo Galilei (2)

Among the copious foot-notes of one the volumes was a full account of the trial of Galileo in front of the holy inquisition in 1633, which were to be found in the records of the British Library. I quote from the actual accusation:


We, Carpar Borgia, Saint Croix de Jerusalem,

Friar Felix Centino d’Ascoli, of St. Anastatia,

Guido Bentivoglio, of St. Mary del Populo,

Friar Desiderius seaglia di Cremona, of St. Charles,

Friar Anthony Barberini, called Mesroy,

Lewis Zachia, of St. Austin,

Fabritius Verospius, called Prespiter, of St. Lawrence, of in pane perna,

Franciscus Barberini of St. Lawrence in Damaso, and

Martius Ginetus, St. Mary Nuova, deacons, by the mercy of God, Cardinals of the holy  Roman church, and specially deputed, by the holy apostolic see, to be inquisitors against heretical wickedness throughout the whole Christian republic.

Whereas, you Galileus, son of the late Vincentius Galileus, of Florence, aged seventy, were informed against in the year 1615, in this holy office, for maintaining as true, a certain false doctrine held by many, viz. that the sun is in the centre of the world, and immoveable, and the earth moves round it with a daily motion. Likewise, that you have had certain scholars to whom you have taught the same doctrine. Likewise, that you have kept up a correspondence with certain German mathematicians concerning the same. Likewise, that you have published certain letters concerning the solar spots, in which you have explained the same doctrine as true, and that you have answered the objections which in several places were made against you, from the authority of the holy scriptures, by construing or glossing over the said scriptures, according to your own opinions. And finally, whereas the copy of a writing under the form of a letter, reported to been written by you to him who was formerly your scholar, has been shown to us, in which you have followed the hypothesis of Copernicus, which contains certain propositions contrary to the true sense and authority of the holy scriptures.

There follows a point by point refutation, by the inquisitors, of Galileo’s heresy and his attempt to teach it to others, but that he should be absolved:

 Provided that you do first, with sincere heart, and with true faith, abjure, curse, and detest before us the aforesaid errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the catholic and apostolic Roman church, in the form which will be prescribed to you by us.

                But that your grievous and pernicious errors and transgressions may not pass altogether unpunished, that you yourself may be rendered more cautious for the future, and that your example may induce others to abstain from similar crimes, we decree that the book of dialogues by Galileus Galilei, shall be prohibited by a public edict, and we formally condemn you to be imprisoned in this holy office for a time determinable by our pleasure; and we enjoin you, as a salutary penance, that, for the  three years next ensuing, you repeat, once a week, the seven penitential psalms, with the reservation, nevertheless, to ourselves with the power to modify, alter, or remove, either wholly, or in part, the aforesaid penalties and penances.

And so this man, who has been called the Father of modern observational astronomy and the Father of modern physics and even, according to Stephen Hawking, Galileo, perhaps more than any single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science, this man, I repeat, had to eat dirt and to grovel in front of a tribunal of fanatical and reactionary bigots.

The abjuration of Galileus

I, Galileus, son of the late Vincentius Galileus, a Florentine, aged 70, being personally upon my trial, and on my knees before you, the most eminent and reverend the Lords Cardinals, inquisitors-general of the Universal Christian Commonwealth, against heretical wickedness, and having before my eyes the most holy gospels, I touch with my proper hand, do swear that I always have believed, and do now believe, and by the aid of God I will in future believe everything which the holy and apostolic Roman church doth hold, preach and teach. But whereas, notwithstanding, after I had been legally enjoined and commanded by this holy office, to abandon wholly that false opinion, which maintains that the sun is the centre of the universe and immoveable, and I should not hold, defend, or in any way, either by word or writing, teach the aforesaid false doctrine; and whereas also, after it had been notified to me, that the aforesaid doctrine was contrary to the holy scriptures, I wrote and published a book, in which I treated of the doctrine that had been condemned, and produced reasons of great force in favour of it, without giving any answers to them, for which I have been judged by the holy office to have incurred a strong suspicion of heresy, viz. that the sun is the centre of the world, and that the earth is not the centre, but moves…

I, the above-mentioned Galileus Galilei, have abjured, sworn, promised, and bound myself as above, and in testimony of these things I have subscribed, with my own proper hand, this instrument of my abjuration, and repeated word by word at Rome, in the convent of Minerva, this 22nd day of July, anno 1633. I, Galileus Galilei, have abjured, as above, with my own proper hand.

According to popular legend, after recanting his theory that the Earth moved round the Sun, Galileo allegedly muttered the rebellious phrase … and yet it moves.

All these words, all those ideas – geocentric doctrine versus heliocentric heresy, are reduced to almost irrelevance by the images brought to us by the HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE in orbit around the earth, peering into each sector of the universe and affording us a glimpse of the wonders of the cosmos in all its glory.

Amazing images of nebulae, thousands of light-years away, fantastic explosions of light and colour, a fabulous chaos of cosmic energy; symmetrical and asymmetrical shapes of galaxies and constellations, bubbling oceans of hydrogen, oxygen and other elements – the cradles of stars.


Towards the end of July 2010 we learnt on the news that astronomers in Britain had discovered the largest star in the universe to date, situated in the system next to ours, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Consider this: our sun is twice the size of the average star – this new star is a staggering 320 times the size of the sun and burns a million times more brightly. This monster star, dubbed VY Canis Majoris (Red Hypergiant) has a diameter of about 2.800.000.000 km and yet it is only a tiny dot among the several hundred billion stars that form our galaxy.

And there are a hundred billion galaxies out there!

Could all of this have been a single deliberate act of creation? (I’m with Stephen Hawking on this one – I somehow doubt it).


Oh, and by the way here is a message for that medieval Inquisitionno, we are not the centre of the universe.


Out there on the perimeter there are no stars … out there we is stoned … immaculate.

Jim Morrison of The Doors

Galileo Galilei (1)


I used to take an hour off every day after lunch to go for long walks, prowling round the Baixa section of Porto. At the limit of my range, allowing me only ten minutes over the target, was the old second-hand-book shop at the bottom of the Rua Mouzinho da Silva, which descends from São Bento station to the Ribeira. At the back of the narrow dark shop there was an English section that I used to check out in case there was anything new. I once came across a French book of poems by Baudelaire, lavishly bound in pale blue leather with fin-de-siècle designs in gold tooled onto the spine – divine decadence I thought as I opened it. I immediately noticed the price, really cheap, 200 escudos, then the book fell open at Les Fleurs du Mal – someone had gouged out a hole with fierce slashes of a sharp knife in the next thirty-odd pages as though in a frenzy of self-loathing. Someone doesn’t appreciate Baudelaire, I remarked to the owner of the shop drily. I know, it’s a crime to do that to such a fine book, he replied, I’m hoping that someone will buy it just to decorate his book-case.

Anyway on one particular afternoon I came across, in two half-leather bound volumes dated London 1811,




A native of Colonia-do-Sacramento, on the river La Plata:


To which are added,




For 500 escudos the pair, I snapped them up and hurried back to work. At the weekend I examined the volumes and read the first paragraph:

Three or four days had elapsed, after my arrival in Lisbon, from London, in the latter end of July, 1803, when a magistrate entered my apartments, and telling me who he was ,informed me, likewise, he had orders to seize all my papers , and to conduct me to prison, where I was to be rigorously kept aloof from all communication…

Hang on a minute I thought I didn’t realize that the Inquisition had lasted to the beginning of the 19th century. I turned back to the preface where I read:

From my earliest infancy I had accustomed myself to consider the existence of an inquisition in Europe as a system formed by ignorance and superstition, and therefore I had always viewed it with horror: but little did I ever dream of becoming a victim of its persecution. It is scarcely credible that, in the nineteenth century, a tribunal should exist, that, without any apparent cause, or without any violation of the laws of the country, should feel empowered to seize individuals and try them for offences which must considered imaginary, if they are not to be found, which is the case in the criminal code of the country.  

I skimmed through the two volumes: The narrative of the persecution was not without human interest and I earmarked it as a project for another occasion, maybe a non-judgmental treatment of Freemasonry versus the Catholic Church.

The bye-laws of the (Portuguese) Inquisition I found more fascinating – a list of laws and codes calculated to induce fear and bigotry and fervent anti-Semitism.

To be continued

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