Thomas Blackburn: A Broken Image

I recently read a couple of excellent articles (here and here) which brought to my attention the case of the Carrauntoohill Cross, a cross that had been on top of Ireland’s highest mountain for decades, before being sadly cut down by vandals last week. Thankfully, after calls from an atheist group in Ireland to prevent its being re-established on the mountain-top, a group of local people responded to overwhelming public support in favour of the cross being restored and re-welded it to its base. Unfortunately this is only one of a handful of acts of desecration that have taken place in Ireland in recent years, and these sorry affairs have brought many face to face with the state of the Church in Ireland and the growing antipathy towards Catholicism there.

The recent incident concerning the Carrauntoohill Cross brought to mind a poem by Thomas Blackburn (1916 – 1977). Entitled A Broken Image, it describes the finding of a broken and abandoned old crucifix by a couple walking in the Italian Alps, who then take the image of Christ, pulled away from the frame of the cross, home with them and attach it to the wall of their dining room. I know very little about the life of Thomas Blackburn, other than that he had a very troubled life, and know even less about his religious beliefs, but this poem is rich with Christian imagery and speaks powerfully of the patient suffering of Christ on His Cross, as well as the way in which that holy image continues to open up new possibilities for us despite our continual abandonment of the One who we see there:

 

Walking in the Alps, my wife and I

Found a broken cross, half buried under

A fall of rock and turf and red scree.

 

Since it came away, the figure

Of Christ, easily from its rusted

Nail, under a worm-eaten, weather

 

Worn image of wood we transported

From Italy without permission

We drink our wine now, eat our daily bread.

 

Since friends who come here often mention

The great skill of an anonymous

Carver of beech-wood, the conversation

 

Is enriched by his being with us

As at Cana, I’d say, if the bowed head

With any locality or surface

 

Chatter could be associated.

Leaning forward, as it does, from our wall

To where silence is concentrated

 

Outside and within the ephemeral

Constellations of energy,

Because it says nothing reasonable,

 

This image explains nothing away,

And just by gazing into darkness

Is able to mean more than words can say.

 

The opening stanzas, in which Blackburn describes the weather-worn state of the crucifix, and mentions prising out a nail to release the figure of Christ from the frame, instantly bring to the fore the Passion of Our Lord – the image that will play the central part in this poem is of one who has already suffered, and must be taken down from His Cross because He will not come down of His own accord; He stays there, bearing the suffering we lay upon Him, out of love. And despite having been removed from the cross, He will remain in the cruciform position on the couple’s wall – always with His arms spread out, in reminder of where He has been taken down from.

Blackburn then mentions that the figure of Christ is placed in the room where they eat, where ‘we drink our wine now, eat our daily bread’, which language is of course, in this context, deeply suggestive of the consecrated elements of the Holy Eucharist, and the fact that the couple eats in the presence of this image brings to mind something that is more than just a meal, in fact a sharing in the very life of Our Lord. It is as if Blackburn, by placing Christ above the table where bread and wine are shared, is trying to connect His presence in the Eucharist with his continual presence in the midst of our daily lives – a reminder that whilst this presence is very different in kind to the Presence in the elements, we are nonetheless accompanied by Him in all times and places.

The reference to Cana makes this more explicit, recalling the many times Our Lord met and mixed with people during His earthly ministry, and deepens the sense we have that God is indeed in all things. And yet His presence is always as the One who draws us away from the purely mundane and leads us out, through the darkness of the Cross into richer and brighter pastures. His presence is always as One who has suffered and continues to bear the suffering and sin of the world; who ‘explains nothing away’ but patiently continues in His one, self-consistent act of perfect Love, opening up a door to the light in even the darkest corners of our existence. He is willing to be battered and bruised for our sakes, that we might see the way He sees and turn from our sins to a path of true freedom in love.

Those nameless people who sawed down the Carrauntoohill Cross, and those who desecrated other holy images in Ireland (as well as, no doubt, in many other parts of the world that had once been so strong in the Catholic Faith) enable us, in a strange way, to see more clearly what Saint Paul talked about in his famous hymn about the humiliation of Christ in Philippians 2:5-10, and what Our Lord knew of His own fate, connecting it immediately with Saint Peter’s profession of His true identity – because He is the Son of God, therefore He must suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (c.f.; Matthew 16:13-28).

Whilst the guilt of these nameless people is great, their cowardly acts give us cause to think once again about how central a part of Our Lord’s mission it was to become powerless, to give Himself over to a sinful world and allow Himself to be subject to suffering at the hands of evil men. Every act of desecration, every time that His image is scarred or attacked, can only serve to remind us that it was and is by humiliation and long-suffering that our redemption was achieved. This is the power of the Cross of Christ – that whatever you do to it, or to Him who reigns upon it, all you do is to draw attention to the incredible love of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Thus the events at Carrauntoohill and elsewhere, rather than scoring some kind of perverse victory against Christ and His Church, instead only serve to expose the hatred of those who commit them, and give occasion for the light of Christ to shine anew.

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8 thoughts on “Thomas Blackburn: A Broken Image

  1. Beautifully written, deeply moving and profoundly insightful – this is an absolute masterpiece Michael! I shall keep this link to the article in my Word file and come back to it again many times. It is so rich in holy thoughts for meditation.

    On another note – yes, it breaks my heart to see the destruction of Our Glorious Faith in Ireland; the felling of the Carrauntoohil Cross being a sign of so much hostility to the Catholic Church among a growing sector of Irish atheists. They are doing the Devil’s work to be sure in their hateful attacks on Catholic symbols.
    I was sent this today: the culprits even had the audacity to send The Journal a video with anti-Catholic messages of the emblematic Cross being brought down with an angle grinder:
    http://www.thejournal.ie/carrauntoohil-cross-3-1810988-Dec2014/
    Now it has been reinstated, I am wondering if they will try again!

    (And by the way, thank you very much for the links to my articles. 🙂 )

    • Thank you Kathleen, and thank you for bringing the story to my attention in the first place. It is a really worrying sign, and whilst I don’t believe that these cowardly customers are representative of the Irish people as a whole (who no doubt are unhappy with or have just walked away from the Church, but are I think still deeply attached to it on some level) it is still worrying as to how active/vocal they are becoming. Of course, if you were to ask them, they’d probably say they were doing it in the name of increased tolerance or something like that! Nevertheless, I do believe that the sort of behaviour they’ve shown can only serve to show the rest of the populace that their path is one of negation and hate, and will show in ever greater contrast the light and love of the Cross.

      • I agree that probably a large majority of Irish still have deep-seated Catholic sentiments (as the overwhelming desire to reinstate the cross of Carrountoohil proves) but it is also a sad fact that there are a lot of cafeteria Catholics in Ireland these days, who neither go to Mass nor seek to know more about their Faith.
        I believe a lot of the problem lies with the weakness of the Irish clergy who behave more like ‘anything-goes’ protestants, and spend far more time preaching about being ‘nice’ and ‘welcoming’ [to all types of sinfulness] than anything remotely resembling Catholic teachings on Faith and Morals. 😦

        • Yes, all of what you write here is sadly all too true (the cafeteria Catholicism, and the priests sending out an essentially liberal-Protestant message to their congregations. The two are also not unconnected I imagine. Maybe one of the things all this terrible business with the desecration of churches etc could bring about is to wake people up to what their heritage actually is, and make them reconsider what they’re gradually throwing away.

          • It is “the pearl of great price” they are throwing away Michael, and they do not even seem to realise it. (Well, not the whole of Ireland of course, but a very large portion of it.)
            What makes it all the more tragic is the great price our Irish ancestors paid to keep the Faith during those cruel Penal Years; so many nameless martyrs died or suffered unbelievable hardships rather than renounce their Catholic Faith… until ‘Ireland’ became practically synonymous with ‘Catholicism’!! It has only taken between 50 to 55 years for this unbelievable turnabout to take place – with no hopeful reawakening of the Faith on the horizon either.

            What Ireland desperately needs right now is some strong Church leadership, courageous Apostles (a.k.a. bishops and priests) who will bring the passion for Our Lord and His Holy Church back into the Irish people. Then “the light of Christ to shine anew” (as you say) will come about.

            • All, sadly, very true – that the Irish fought so hard to hold on to the Faith through all that persecution, only to throw it all away in such a short space of time is very sad indeed. Strangely, it seems to be the way of things that belief thrives more in straitened circumstances (whether that be due to persecution or to a lack of material goods) than times of plenty – when people have plenty of ‘stuff’ it becomes very easy to think ‘well, what do I need all that religion business for now?’

              It is (sort of) in the light of this that I hope change will come about and Ireland (as well as many other places in the West) will return to the Faith. Only by destroying our civilisation from within, which we seem hell-bent on doing will we then put ourselves in the position to see just how much we do need God and what a wonderful heritage we once had. Then, the small remnant who have stayed faithful and preserved the Faith will be there to plant seeds again. It happened with Saint Benedict et al after the pagans sacked the (newly baptised) Roman Empire, so hopefully a new group of Benedicts can do it again after the neo-pagans have sacked their own civilisation!

              Unfortunately we are living in the time of destruction, and renewal may not come for a few generations yet; but who knows, one can already see counter-cultural movements that are rooted in traditional, orthodox belief and practice already, so we may see some sparks of change.

              One final thing though: your mention of the ‘pearl of great price’ is such a coincidence – that is the theme (in part) for my post tomorrow!

              • Michael, you are very perceptive! You’ve pointed out some important things here.
                Yes, too much comfort and good living, plus being surrounded by possessions, can so easily obscure our search for God. God’s material gifts to Man in this world are good in themselves of course, but when we put them above everything else we are surely foolish; they are no more than “vanities of vanities” if they keep us away from God. And we can’t take them with us when we go! 😉
                It is surely one of the ideas Our Blessed Lord had when he said that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. (The “eye of a needle” being the name given to the narrow passageways in towns in the Middle East.) IOW, the camel needs to be ‘unloaded’ of all its ‘baggage’ first.

                It is my fervent prayer for Ireland too – that one day it will return to the Faith. I have quite a few internet contacts from Ireland who are very traditional and fighting hard for a return of Ireland to its Catholic roots. Hopefully some of these wonderful young conservative priests coming out of the seminaries these days in other countries (not many in Ireland unfortunately), will go and evangelise the Irish again, and thus reignite the Faith once more.

                I have just read your beautiful new post about the “pearl of great price”! Yes, a coincidence indeed that we both were using this same descriptive Gospel phrase! 🙂

                • It is indeed! And yes, my hope is also in that small but fervent band of young people going into seminaries now (it seems that the only seminaries and religious houses reporting an increase in their uptake are the orthodox ones, which is encouraging) will be the ‘mustard seed’ for a re-flourishing of the Faith 🙂

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