Monday, August 20, 2012

The Pope and 'messages of guidance' from Mary Beard's fortune-telling trick

Prof Mary Beard
Back in the spring, Madame Arcati drew your attention to Prof Mary Beard's party fortune-telling trick.

To find an answer to a question, she opens a book at random and blindly sets her finger down on a sentence. Quite often the chosen words - usually unrelated to the topic in hand - appear to offer a solution or forecast. The 'trick' is called bibliomancy - and to read more about her divinatory experiences (and mine, using the Bible), click here.

If you don't know who Mary Beard is - oh dearie dear! She brought us BBC2's masterly Meet The Romans series. The Cambridge don channelled the voices of Ancient Roman chavs, not by seance but by translation of Latin bio-inscriptions on their tomb stones. We also learnt of the rent boys who serviced the paunchy elderly men of the empire.

Now, here's a funny thing. I'm reading a little-noticed book about Pope Benedict XVI; or Pope Ratzi as I call him. It's called God and the World and is based on extensive interviews with Ratzinger by German journalist Peter Seewald from 10 years ago when Ratzi was just Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Turn to p158 and what do we find? A conversation on bibliomancy, though the word is not used. Seewald reminds the Cardinal that St Francis 'did not just read the Bible, he played a kind of roulette with it. When he was founding his order... [he] opened a page at random and said: "This is how we'll do it!"'

I expected Ratzi to denounce this pagan practice. But how wrong was I! Instead he virtually gossips about the topic.

'That's a very old way of doing it,' the Cardinal says matter-of-factly. He describes St Francis' biblical answer as a 'message of guidance'. Then: 'The King of Belgium, Baudouin, once told me that he used to do that sometimes and that it was incredible how it helped him and amazing how it gave him just the message he needed. In one serious cabinet crisis, when he could hardly see any way he could get another government formed, he went into the chapel, took his Bible in his hand, and found a text  that suddenly told him what he had to do. So it does happen.'

While the Cardinal sniffs at the risk of 'turning Scripture into an oracle', he concedes that the practice works 'to a certain extent.'

What interesting company Prof Mary Beard and Madame Arcati find ourselves in.

Mary Beard's TLS blog, here

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