The Alpha and Omega of Personality Cults

This is another ‘letter from a godless grandfather’. As John Minford noted when we published ‘Easter Resurrected: a letter from David Hawkes’ (China Heritage, 13 April 2017):

In the 1980s, after completing his monumental translation of the first eighty chapters of The Story of the Stone 紅樓夢, David Hawkes retired with his wife Jean to an old stone farmhouse called Bryn Carregog (Stony Hill), in the mountains of Mid-Wales. There they ran a small-holding, and he worked on what he thought would be his farewell to Sinology, the extensive revision of his translation of The Songs of the South 楚辭. At the same time he began teaching himself the Welsh language, and embarked on extensive reading into the history of religion.

His religious studies eventually bore fruit in a series of essay which he entitled Letters from a Godless Grandfather. A year or two before his death in 2009, these were privately printed in Hong Kong, for distribution to friends. It is now hoped that they will be properly published in book form. In anticipation of this, we are sharing one or two individual ‘letters’ with our readers.

To mark the Christian feast of 25 December 2018, we are offering two further letters from David Hawkes’s book on Christianity. The first, Letter 14, on the Virgin Birth and Mariolatry, is produced below (it is reprinted from 22 December 2017, when it appeared under the title ‘Christmas Cheer’). As luck would have it, two of David Hawkes’s grandsons — Arthur and Gregory, happen to be in The Wairarapa for Xmas 2018, and the publication of these two letters is dedicated to them.

Letter 14, below, will be followed by ‘Parthenogenesis’, Letter 15, on 24 December, Christmas Eve.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage,
22 December 2018

Wairarapa Moana. Photograph by GRB


Caveat Lector: the Great Leap of Faith presumably inoculates believers against views of the kind expressed in the Hawkes Letters. Those of less mature conviction might wish to keep the faith and read no further. Despite his forensic rejection of Christian myths, Hawkes, however, enjoyed the season. As he writes in the last paragraph of this letter:

But don’t worry! The fact that Jesus isn’t God and (probably) wasn’t born on Dec. 25th isn’t going to stop me celebrating Christmas.



Dear Tal,

I very much enjoyed your account of the Roman Catholic service you went to with your friend. — Is he the Gordon who did the driving on your camping holiday, by the way? — It would have been a very different sort of service 20 or 30 years ago. Then it would all have been in Latin (pronounced like Italian: ‘chay lease’ rather than ‘see liss’ or ‘kye lease’ for cælis, etc.) and the priest would have spent much more of the time with his back to the congregation. It all changed after the Second Vatican Council when Pope John XXIII summoned all the RC bishops — thousands of them — to Rome to discuss ways of bringing the Catholic Church up to date. He died before the Council ended (some time in 1963, I think) so a lot of what he’d intended to do never got done. One of the things they did get round to doing was throwing out the use of Latin in their services and substituting whatever the local language was in the country where the service was being held.

I think if I’d been a Catholic I’d have felt that being able to go into a Catholic church anywhere in the world and hear the same familiar words was rather a bonus, but obviously the bishops thought that making sure people knew what the words meant was more important. All the same, there must have been lots of Catholics who found the ritual comforting and inspiring without always knowing what the Latin meant; and the words are often pretty repetitive and silly, so you could argue that it might have been a positive advantage not to know what they meant. Anyway, I believe there was quite a bit of resistance to the de-Latinising of the ‘liturgy’ as they call it. There was even a small breakaway movement in France which went on using Latin.

After the Reformation in the 16th century when Latin was thrown out by the Protestants and ordinary people in England were compelled to attend services in which only English was used, simple country folk often felt that the English prayers couldn’t be doing nearly as much good as the Latin ones and tried to recite what they could remember of the Latin ones in private. A country clergyman who lived round about the same time as Shakespeare recorded one of these attempts. Here’s a bit of it I copied out of a book once. It turns out to have come from a pretty impressionistic shot at remembering the Latin Creed:

Ejus amicum dominum nostrum qui sum sops
Virgini Mariae Ponchi Pilati
Crixus fixus morti by Sunday
Father a furnes

The part of the Creed this was based on goes like this:

Filium ejus unicum Dominum nostrum qui conceptus est
[de Spiritu Sancto natus ex]
Maria Virgine passus sub Pontio Pilato
Crucifixus mortuus et sepultus
Descendit ad infernos…

In Archbishop Cranmer’s English translation, which they would have had to recite in church, the corresponding words to these would have been: ‘…His only son Our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into Hell…’ But the rude peasantry obviously felt that Latin gibberish was more effective than English good sense as a cure for the rheumatics. And after all, what is praying for?

On the subject of praying: Catholics believe that you win Brownie points by repeating prayers, the more times the better. The rosaries you mentioned are used for counting them with — a bead for each prayer. As a matter of fact ‘bead’ originally meant ‘prayer’. A ‘bedesman’ was a priest who was hired to say prayers for the dead. The Welsh word betws which comes in place-names like ‘Betws-y-coed’ is the Welsh way of spelling the Old English bedhus meaning ‘prayer-house’ or ‘chapel’. Many Hindus and Buddhists share this belief that prayers are more effective if you say them many times over. Tibetan Buddhists go one better than the Catholics by having prayer-wheels — wheels with prayers written inside them. Every turn of the wheel counts as one recitation of the prayer, so you don’t even need to say anything.

Catholics believe in Purgatory, a sort of halfway house where the souls of people who are not quite good enough for Heaven and not quite bad enough for Hell (i.e. nearly everybody) go when they die. There they are purged by various torments of the sins they’ve committed during their lives. When they are sufficiently purged they can go up to Heaven. It’s a bit like being sent to the laundry. The more sins you’ve committed, the longer it will take to get you clean — it could be many thousands of years. It used to be thought that things could be made a bit easier for souls in Purgatory by the prayers of the living. There was a sort of tariff which told you how much praying it would take to get your own or someone else’s sentence in Purgatory shortened by such and such a number of days. The word for this was indulgences. Reciting such and such a prayer got you an indulgence of so many days.

Popes were making additions to the tariff well into this century — certainly up to the 1920s — but I don’t know whether Catholics still go in for this sort of thing or even if many of them still believe in it at all. They were still doing it in Ireland when I was a young man, but I think quite a long time ago even Popes were beginning to find the whole business a bit embarrassing because it made them look as if they were trying to limit God’s freedom as a judge. They got round it by saying that the indulgences were only a sort of recommend­ation to mercy, but that since God is so merciful anyway, you could bank on his almost certainly taking the recommendation into account — rather like a judge taking a convicted person’s previous good record into account when passing sentence.

Repeating prayers such and such a number of times is also — or at any rate used to be — the usual form of penance imposed by the priest when Catholics had finished making their confession. (They were supposed to do this regularly so as to be in a fit state to take communion.) Generally so many Hail Marys and so many Our Fathers — Ave Marias and Paternosters, to give them their Latin name. I’m sure Gordon would tell you all this if you’re interested. Don’t ever jeer at him about his religion, though. People feel strongly about their beliefs and one shouldn’t go out of one’s way to upset them.

Talking of jeering, I suppose I shouldn’t jeer about the mechanical repetition of set prayers. I’m sure I’d have preferred a bit of mechanical repetition to my Methodist Grandpa Parr’s way of praying. He was a great one for praying in public and would make the prayers up himself. I remember him once, when I was a little boy, embarrassing everyone by rambling on at great length over his birthday tea while all of us waited to begin. For some Catholics I believe repeating prayers serves as an aid to meditation, a bit like doing regular physical exercises — Hatha Yoga or Tai Chi Ch’üan: a sort of self-hypnosis which frees you from tensions and worries and leaves you feeling calm and uplifted. The Muslim way of praying does in fact incorporate something very like aerobic exercises. I imagine it must become quite addictive. Devout believers would probably feel withdrawal symptoms if they stopped doing it.

You said you were surprised to find that Catholics paid so much attention to Jesus’s mother — ‘Our Lady’ or ‘the Blessed Virgin Mary’ as they call her (‘B.V.M.’ for short). This, like belief in Purgatory, used to be one of the big differences dividing Catholics from Protestants. ‘Mariolatry’ (= ‘Mary worship’) is the rude word Protestants invented to describe it. Catholics say they don’t actually worship the Virgin Mary, they only pray to her in order to ask her to pray for them. ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen’ is the second half of the Hail Mary prayer. The first half — ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’ — is made up of bits taken from the first chapter of Luke. Whether you call it worshipping or not, they certainly pray to her a lot — there are ten ‘Hail Mary’ beads to every one ‘Our Father’ bead in the rosary.

According to Mark, which is generally speaking the most matter-of-fact of the four Gospels, Mary — or Maryâm as she would actually have been called — was neither a virgin nor a ‘lady’ but the wife of a Galilean carpenter called Joseph and the mother of at least seven children, of whom Jesus was the eldest boy. Chapter 6 of Mark gives the names of his four brothers: James, Joses (=Joseph), Judas and Simon. James became head of the Christian community in Jerusalem after Jesus’s death and remained so until, a bit like his elder brother, he was judicially murdered (in AD 62). The names and number of Mary’s daughters aren’t known, but ‘daughters’ means that there were at least two of them. If she had as many girls as she had boys she would have been a mother of ten.

The idea that Joseph was an elderly widower when she married him and that Jesus’s brothers and sisters were Joseph’s children by a former marriage first turns up in a work of fiction (part of the ‘New Testament apocrypha’) belonging to the second century AD called the Protoevangelium. Even in Jerome’s time there were still high-ranking churchmen around who didn’t believe it. It was part of a cult to turn Mary into a sort of goddess figure — the ‘Theotokos’ or ‘Mother of God’. It wouldn’t do for the mother of a god to have more than one child, because if she did, there would be no means of telling that her divine son wasn’t, like the others, the child of her earthly husband; and this meant that she and her earthly husband couldn’t have sex, because in a pre-contraceptive age having sex, provided you weren’t infertile, would inevitably have meant having children. So devotees of the Theotokos cult insisted not only that Mary was a virgin when she con­ceived Jesus, but that, like the goddess Diana, she was a perpetual virgin and died without ever having had sexual relations with a man. (Joseph was turned into an old man in an attempt to explain why he had never insisted on having sex after they married.) They even started saying that Mary herself was ‘conceived without sin’. This is what they mean when they talk about the Immaculate Conception. It was made an ‘article of faith’ for Roman Catholics by a Papal Bull of 1854. A further refinement was to claim that Mary’s body never decomposed but, when her life on earth had ended, was carried up by angels into heaven. This was made an article of faith by a twentieth century pope. You can’t get much closer to being a goddess than that! There’s a famous painting of Jesus crowning his mother in heaven while angels look on approvingly. One of the Catholics’ titles for the Virgin is, in fact, Regina Angelorum ‘Queen of the Angels’. Another, Regina Coeli, means the same as Tian Hou ‘Queen of Heaven’, the title given to an important Mother Goddess in China.

This would all have been very puzzling to the group of early Christians — including Jesus’s own family — in Jerusalem, one of whom had given Mary a home. Like Jesus himself they were Jews, and though they had persuaded themselves that Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God, the idea that he was God and that the middle-aged widow living in their midst was the Mother of God would have been so blasphemous that it could never have entered their heads.

To Jewish Christians of the first and second centuries Jesus was a ‘son of God’ only in the sense that angels, prophets and holy men were also spoken of as ‘sons of God’. Jesus himself referred to God as his ‘father in heaven’ to distinguish him from his earthly father, just as Christians do today each time they recite the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Our father which art in heaven.’ To the early Jewish Christians Jesus was the son of Joseph chosen by God to be his spiritual ‘son’ on the occasion of his baptism by John in the River Jordan. For this reason early Christians celebrated the day of his baptism rather than the day of his birth. Up to the end of the fourth century Easter and Epiphany were still the two great Christian feasts, not Easter and Christmas, Epiphany at that time being thought of as the day of Jesus’s baptism and spiritual rebirth — i.e. the day on which he became ‘son of God’.

But don’t worry! The fact that Jesus isn’t God and (probably) wasn’t born on Dec. 25th isn’t going to stop me celebrating Christmas. Before it gets any nearer I want to ask you if you have any idea what I could get for Auntie A. I think I know what I’m going to get you, but I want it to be a surprise.

Much love,