Saturday, 8 April 2006

The Psychology of an Old Biretta

Here's an article from the Westminster Cathedral Chronicle of November 1926, which I found the other day. I think it deserves republishing in blog form 8o years later:

This is an old, tattered thing, this biretta of which I write, seared and sanctified by long usage; and my thousand and one ceremonial kisses have had their share in dimming the lustre of its primitive respectability. Alas! those hallowed contacts have endued my lips with a grace of which they are utterly unworthy.

When I look at the lining I find it is none of your common shoddy, but a silk of exquisite texture, which proclaims it as something of an aristocrat amongst birettas; befittingly so, for he who had worn it was the very paragon of aristocracy. The initials, worked in red silk on a slender slip of linen, are refined and unobtrusive, like the priest whose symbols they are; and the rents and creases wrought by wear in the tender fabric are as numerous and delicately intricate as the impulses which stirred within his heroic heart.

I know of nothing at once so poignant, so beautiful, so regal-looking, so supremely dignified, as the bepalled bier of a priest, crested with the symbols of his holy office – his stole, chalice and biretta; but the latter has a human and personal significance which makes it appeal to me more irresistibly than the other two. Doubtless other priests’ lips will drink the Precious Blood from that bejewelled cup; probably other priests’ shoulders will wear that frayed purple stole in the blessed act of shriving; but because that old biretta has such a human and personal import, it will escape being ‘pooled’ in the treasury of holy things; assuredly no other priest’s head will wear it, and in all probability it will meet the fate of ultimate dereliction.

Some such thoughts as these gripped my mind in the day when I stood by the bier of the priest whom I loved, and whose heart to me had been an open book; who to me had been friend, companion, counsellor, confessor and teacher; who had been childlike in his great faith and gentleness of spirit; super-sensitive, with a heart brimful of so human emotionalism; white-hot and adamant in his zeal for the cause of God.

It was with a tremulous hand that I lifted this biretta from the summit of its funeral dignity; and when I timidly put forth claim to its ownership, on purely sentimental grounds, my claim was graciously conceded.

When I open the little drawer where that blessed hat finds an unworthy resting-place, I am profoundly moved by what seems to me its utter abandonment; and yet, simultaneously, I am subconscious of the fact that it is not utterly forlorn, for whereas it once did its owner service by covering his head, it was still serving him, but in a subtle and idyllic way; namely, as a relic of, and a tangible treasured link between, our enduring friendship. And I do not think that the dear priest himself would have wished to assign it to a loftier purpose than that.

Joseph E. Phillips
(from The Westminster Cathedral Chronicle, November 1926, vol. XX, no. 11, 217-218)



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