Virginia Barton

Perestroika, a boat now sunk

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Catholic Herald, 8 February 1991


A window of opportunity that admitted me to Lithuania last September has been rudely slammed. God alone knows when we will be able to wander freely in the quiet streets of Vilnius, or sniff the forest scents of Aukstaitija.

The about-turn by the Kremlin was not altogether unexpected, but the unprovoked violence against unarmed civilians surpassed even the most pessimistic readings of the omens. The smoke-screen from the Gulf, a convenient pall, has been ripped aside to expose the brutal crackdown in the Baltic states.

Cautious people suggest the Balts want too much, too soon, too fast. They said as much when Solidarity dared to show its head above the wall in 1981.

Such doubters are anxious not to rock the perestroika boat. But perestroika is becalmed, if not sunk.

Did it in fact ever exist as a feasible reality – “reconstruction”, I mean? Rather than seek to prop up or prolong a totally discredited system, it might be more to the point to allow its terminal illness to run its natural course.

There is talk of suspending foreign aid to the USSR because of the bloody events in Latvia and Lithuania. Will the West dare to divert that aid to the Baltic states instead? Why not actively align ourselves with their aspiration to achieve their between-the-wars status as independent and successful nations?


Shadow of war

A reminder of the Baltic plight is timely when it is not easy to concentrate on things other than the Gulf. The daily round is eerily haunted by the knowledge that a few hours flight away, our fellow human beings are being locked in a life or death embrace.  The whizz and crunch of deadly missiles, the grim preparations for casualties, and the forlorn images of captured airmen cynically exposed to the world’s media, cannot but cast a long shadow.

An older generation remembers all too well these aspects of war. I just hope that we have inherited some of the true grit that enabled them to hang on through blitz, blood and mayhem.


Traditional ways

I doubt if the threat of Scuds (or worse) deters the Jerusalem Franciscans from following the Way of the Cross every week. Nearly a year ago our pilgrimage joined in, one sunshiney Friday in Lent.

As a devotion, the Way of the Cross reaches back at least to the 5th century. The form has varied since then, and the final selection of 14 incidents was not settled (according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) until the 18th and 19th centuries.

But it is a bold artist who dares to depart from what we have come to accept as the “traditional” version. And it is an imaginative parish committee that orders a series of Stations quite out of the ordinary, even controversial.

station1Corpus Christi church in Headington, Oxford, did exactly that when they commissioned Faith Tolkien to execute her innovative idea of the devotion, submitted in competition with other artists. The work was completed and blessed in 1988. Click here.

Incidentally, this artist’s Crucifixion at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh, was featured in the Catholic Herald on September 28 last.

If, as I hope, you visit Corpus Christi, forget the layout of the Stations of the Cross in your Simple Prayer Book and be prepared for something quite shocking. The confines of the via Dolorosa have been extended to include the major events of Holy Week.

Thus the nature of the devotion has been changed. It has become an invitation to meditate upon the Paschal Mystery as a whole. The passion and death is completed by the good news of the resurrection.

Only four of the “traditional” incidents find a place in this scheme — gone, for example, are Veronica, the mourning women of Jerusalem, and the three falls.

In Tolkien’s vision, the first Station depicts Christ’s entry into the Golden City on Palm Sunday. Instead of closing on the sombre placing of Jesus in the sepulchre, this series finishes with Christ revealing himself at the breaking of the bread at Emmaus.

The three-dimensional effect is very pronounced in these bronzes; one is tempted to stroke the donkey and handle the bread. Equally striking is the artist’s ability to suggest a large crowd within a circle whose diameter is only 16 inches.

The concept is unfamiliar. It forces one to reappraise what may have become a dear but time-worn Lenten devotion. I admire the beauty of these Stations, and the rare opportunity they give to widen one’s winks – spiritually speaking.


World view

For many years Corpus Christi has held a joint ecumenical celebration of the Stations of the Cross, each Friday during Lent at 7.30 pm. You would have an excellent opportunity to visit these unusual works of art and explore a variation on a favourite  theme.

Talking of variations, I wonder if any reader knows of an illustrated book that covers different Ways of the Cross from around the world? I haven’t seen one myself and would dearly like to. It is the sort of title we could advertise in that popular column, Bookery Nook!



No amount of spiritual exercise compensates for an absence of good works. To paraphrase a verse from the letter of St James, faith without good deeds is quite dead.

I can think of few examples that more vividly illustrate the injunction than those who work for life. I need hardly tell you that Life is the organisation that offers a country wide non-directional pregnancy care service.

It is unique. At a time in our history when abortion is so commonplace that we are in danger of considering it normal, the work of Life (and SPUC) is more important than ever.

This year Life celebrates its 21st birthday, 21 years of practical advice and real help for those young and older women who decide, often against tremendous pressure from family, husband, boyfriend, even doctor, to bring their babies into the world.

If anyone is wondering what to do with his or her spare time, I would urge them to consider offering their services to Life. As little as an hour or two a week could make all the difference to a hard-pressed Life centre.

Next month I will describe my visit to one of the Life houses. When bombs and bloodshed shatter the front pages it is good to see tiny babies, symbols of real hope in the future.


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