I was blown away by Friday Nights Opening Ceremony. It was beautiful, absorbing and emotional at times. More than once it struck me as transcending mere ceremony to having a liturgical quality to it. Whether it was the children’s choir hymn singing at the start, or the moving memorial to the victims of terrorism in the middle with its reflective change of pace, beautiful rendition of ‘Abide with Me’, or the powerful and symbolic lighting of the Olympic Flame at the end – ‘Easter Vigilesque’ – followed by the angel/bird like cyclist rising towards heaven. These spiritual elements would have pleased Baron De Coubertin, the Jesuit educated founder of the modern Olympics who once said ‘ I tried from the beginning to awaken religious feelings by the renewal of Olympic movement … The sport-religious thought has entered only slowly into the awareness of the sports men and women … But little by little it will be taken quite seriously by them‘ (click here for reference). I think that invoking of the power of the transcendent is when the ceremony moved into liturgical territory.
The religious elements may be no surprise when we take into account that the author of the storyline to the opening ceremony was Liverpudlian Catholic writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. I have been told that Cottrell Boyce is a regular visitor and guest at the Jesuit community here in Edinburgh. His contribution was less hailed than that of Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of the opening ceremony. Danny Boyle was listed in a recent article of the Tablet on Britain’s most 100 influential Catholics. Famously Boyle said in an interview, ‘I was meant to be a priest until I was 14, I was going to transfer to a seminary near Wigan. But this priest, Father Conway, took me aside and said, ‘I don’t think you should go’. Whether he was saving me from the priesthood or the priesthood from me, I don’t know. But quite soon after, I started doing drama. And there’s a real connection, I think. All these directors — Martin Scorsese, John Woo, M. Night Shyamalan — they were all meant to be priests.’ One of my favourite films of recent years was Boyle’s production of Cottrell Boyce’s book Millions, about a young a 7-year-old English boy who talks to saints and comes upon a lot of money which he wants to distribute to the poor. Boyle has since admitted to being a ‘spiritual atheist’, but in many of his works it is clear that there is a deep spiritual imagination and creativity at work.
It was nice that Boyle said that he agreed to take on the difficult task of following on from Beijing’s incredible opening ceremony because he was inspired by his dad who has since died. I still remember him taking his Oscar in a carrier bag to show his dad after sunday mass at his parish social club of St Mary’s Radcliffe. Much has been written about the influence of ‘Catholic Imagination’ – the idea that God lurks everywhere in creation, and so the move to the transcendent or spiritual from the mundane everyday is natural and smooth and almost imperceptible. This is in contrast with another view of God being hidden or in conflict with the world, and so the spiritual is introduced in an explicit way, often jarring , like God is being ‘shoehorned’ in, often experienced in evangelical Christianity. I propose that Friday Nights fantastic ceremony was a product of the Catholic imagination of Frank Cottrell Boyce and Danny Boyle.