Dean's Blog

Dean John Mann



The Dean's "twice a week" blog is published on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Links to monthly archives of the blog are provided at the bottom of this page.




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4th December 2016

This is a little extra blog to recall some of the things happening this weekend. There was a good crowd present to hear the spectacular Elvis tribute star Ciaran Houlihan last night; not exactly my cup of tea, but very popular, and obviously a great draw and ‘could be the real one’ - and another good fund-raiser for the cathedral. It should have made about 2,000. Well done Simon!

The previous night Helen and I missed an excellent Melisma concert, which included Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. We were so sorry that we couldn’t make it, especially as director Tanya Houghton is a member of our choir, and everyone else is well-known to us too, but like some others from St Anne’s who had booked tickets ages ago to hear the exciting Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan, we were in the Ulster Hall, listening to the Ulster Orchestra, under its equally exciting conductor, Rafael Payare.

Khachatryan was to have played the Beethoven concerto, but in a change to the programme he, in fact, performed the Bruch G Minor – the first and best-known of his three violin concertos. Khachatryan has a very upright, un-flamboyant style, often playing with his feet together, almost standing to attention, yet without that patrician look of Yehudi Menuhin, whose equally outwardly-unemotional performance was so characteristic. I have an old vinyl recording of Menuhin playing both this Bruch concerto and the second in D Minor too, an EMI disc from 1973, though I prefer, thinking back to when I last played these LPs, another early seventies performance, this time by Kyung-Wha Chung, whose Bruch No.1 is coupled with his Scottish Fantasia.

The audience clapped enthusiastically at the end, and three times Sergey Khachatryan was brought back to the stage before finally accepting that we wanted an encore (the orchestra was equally as demanding – which is always a good sign) and he played a hauntingly beautiful piece of Armenian music. Every few bars it seemed to die away to nothing, then, as if from nowhere, notes would flow from his lovely 1740 Guarneri violin, this time harmonics, another time double stopping, with a simple, unadorned melody we were sent to the interval with an aura of poignant reflection. It will live with me for many a day.

As we returned to the cathedral it was to waves of greeting from the other recital goers leaving for home, and a, “You missed a great concert, you know!” I fear that we did. How fortunate we are to have the music that we have day by day in the cathedral and such variety for the special events both in St Anne’s and across the City in the Ulster Hall each week. There is more to come!

Today our focus is on John the Baptist on this the Second Sunday of Advent. There are other things to experience too: The “Cash for Kids” Santa Dash begins at 12.00 noon across in Writers’ Square. We will hear a bit of the send-off as our service ends, being led by Downtown Radio and CoolFM, and we wish them well as they raise funds for disadvantaged families this Christmas. Then another carol service at 3.30 p.m. This time we host the NI Prison Service for its annual Lessons and Carols. As always, an important event for the Prison Service and for St Anne’s.


3rd December 2016

I am reading a new book by Terry Waite as my Advent book this year. It is called Out of the Silence and is a series of 27 reflections with poems that he has written from his experiences: of his thoughts and feelings and questions. It is a compelling and deeply personal book from someone who offers it in deep humility.

Last Thursday I had reached the fifth reflection (it being the fifth day of Advent), though only the first day of December. He entitles it simply “Moods”. He writes:

“One of the ways in which I survived in captivity was by taking an interior journey. The danger of such an approach is that as one travels alone through the recesses of the mind one encounters both light and darkness. Memories that are both pleasant and supportive are resurrected along with memories that disturb.”

By coincidence (or whatever) the same day I read these words from Ronald Blythe’s writings, that I am re-reading at the moment:

“When we are alone we dwell continually on some things and never on others, if we can help it. It is not because certain subjects are too painful or awkward to contemplate, but because we don’t know quite what to make of them.” The Circling Year, p.91

These are not saying quite the same thing, nor are they contradictory. Terry Waite is conscious that his is an inner journey with a distinct purpose, “of attempting to find inner balance, inner harmony”; whilst Ronald Blythe is conjuring up the day dreamer, who is blocking that which may ruffle a harmony, that may be disturbed by things that are unresolved, one way or another.

This is not entirely without precedent in Advent. There is a sense of disturbance in the season. The central figures of these days are those who are stirred and given a vision by God, but are trying to find an inner reason why what is happening is happening. What comes out of the process of discernment, from Mary and Elizabeth, in one contained historical snapshot just prior to Christ’s birth, through to thirty years later and the appearance of John the Baptist at the Jordan. One could easily add Joseph and Zechariah; the shepherds and the wise men and even Herod to this mix of people who, from very different experiences and perspectives were turning over the question within themselves, “What does all this mean?”

The Blessed Virgin Mary is one whose inward journey was particularly searching and produced the Magnificat as an outpouring of the response of her heart. As the other men and women of faith found themselves drawn to the stable and to the Christ-child, they were gaining experiences that would live with them forever. I wonder, are we able to undertake to follow their inner journeys, even though we may not quite know what to make of them? It seems that to come to understand how the ‘inner balance’ or ‘inner harmony’ that Mary and Joseph seemed to find, and reflected in other figures around the manger, we need to contemplate carefully what they received by way of visionary words and how they responded so positively to them.


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