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Archive for September, 2009

Guardian by goodonpaper.I had a bit of a media day yesterday, so to save me blogging, here are some links, just in case you are interested.

You are probably sick of discussions about the relics of St Thérèse by now. Simon Jenkins wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago that was very dismissive of the custom of venerating relics, and even more dismissive of the rationality of Christian belief. You can read my response here.

And at lunchtime I was involved in a debate on Radio 4 (You and Yours) about the apparent decline of religious practice in the UK, and particularly about the place of institutional religion in peoples lives. It was a live phone-in, with input from panelists representing various religions, and an atheist who edits a popular philosophy magazine. It’s long – an hour. If you have the time you can listen here. [But the link will die after a week - I presume on Tuesday 6th October.]

telephone dial by Leo Reynolds.

When it is well chaired and well sieved, I like the phone-in format for this kind of discussion. You get a real feel for the cross-section of opinions out there. It wasn’t just people giving out about their beliefs; they were talking about how their religious practice or non-practice had influenced their lives, what it meant to them, how they had come to faith, or why they had left it. And especially about this question of whether faith can just be a personal, private conviction, or whether it needs expression and support in a community, in an institution.

There wasn’t much conversation about the content of what people believe – more about the human satisfactions or not of belonging to a religious community. But it was worthwhile nevertheless. See what you think.

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people in the queue by Kewei SHANG.The two longest queues in Britain last week were outside Liverpool Catholic Cathedral, and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Both sets of people were waiting to see relics: in one case, the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux; in the other, the priceless collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and jewellery just found in a Staffordshire field. It shows that the urge to connect with the past in tangible ways is not just confined to religious devotees.

The breathtaking scale of the discovery has stunned archaeologists and historians – almost 1500 gold and silver items thought to date from the 7th or 8th century. We know so little about ‘the Dark Ages’, and this find promises to open up and transform the way we understand a civilisation that is still largely unknown. You can read more here and here.

The real story for me, however, is Terry Herbert.

Britain also has the world’s most fanatical treasure hunters, who, immune to the ill-concealed scoffing of professional archaeologists, now account for almost all the worthwhile artefacts found around the country. Last week’s disclosure that Terry Herbert, a 55-year-old, unemployed metal-detecting enthusiast from Staffordshire, had discovered a priceless trove of Anglo-Saxon gold and jewellery put the treasure hunters in the national spotlight. But most of them, frankly, would prefer to be quietly tramping the fields.

“Hardly any of these characters are in it for money or glory,” says Julian Evan-Hart, one of Britain’s foremost treasure hunters and author of The Beginner’s Guide to Metal Detecting. “There’s something in their psyches, a sort of acquisitive impulse that make them go out and look for things. When you talk to them you’ll find a lot of them collected eggs or stamps when they were kids. They’ve never quite lost the urge.”

In the hierarchy of despised pastimes, metal detecting must come just a couple of notches below train spotting and stamp collecting. Yet this window onto a vast unknown world was opened not by an expert, not by a team of trained archeologists, not by an American funded research institute, but by a man who wandered around fields on his own looking for buried treasure.

Golden Ticket by Witheyes.It is the attraction of the lottery – that you are an ordinary person, that you have no more right to win than anyone else, but there is the slim possibility that in your ordinariness you can achieve greatness. It’s the lure of all forms of gambling. It’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – with the famished little boy tearing open the chocolate bar in the sweet shop and discovering that it contains the Last Golden Ticket. It’s Lucy falling into the wardrobe and finding a passage to the magical world of Narnia.

It’s also, by a strange coincidence, the spirituality of St Thérèse: Ordinary people doing ordinary things with great love and great care, in the full knowledge that this kind of love is what transforms the world and makes a new one possible. Without a trace of sentimentality. The same ruggedness, resilience, and sense of purpose that sent Terry Herbert across the fields each morning.

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A simple story quoted in a book I’m reading: Fr Victor Galeone was working as a priest in Baltimore, and this is how he described one pastoral encounter in his journal:

Yesterday, after an emergency call at the nursing home, I was about to exit when I noticed a man in the hallway. He was sitting next to a woman in a wheelchair, tenderly holding her hands. Not a word was spoken. He just sat there, looking intently into her eyes. I walked over and engaged him in conversation:

“Your wife, I take it?”

“That’s right, of forty-seven years.”

“Do you visit her often?”

“Every single day. Haven’t missed a day in four years, except for that blizzard last year.”

“She’s not saying anything.”

“That’s right. Hasn’t been able to for the last eighteen months – ever since her stroke. She has Alzheimer’s too.”

“Alzheimer’s! Does she know who you are?”

“Not really. But that doesn’t matter. I now who she is.”

[From Stephen Rossetti's Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests pp. 101-102]

It made me think about all the different relationships we have where the knowledge is not always equal – and how that doesn’t always matter. Sometimes we know someone better than they know us; sometimes someone knows us better than we know them; sometimes someone knows us better than we know ourselves.

Husbands and wives talk about how there are hidden depths (or shallows!) to their spouse that they realise will always remain a mystery. Parents know things about their children that the children won’t discover for years. A child, even a baby at the breast, knows something about his or her parents – as parents – that no-one else will ever know. In friendship, the relationship often shuffles along, a moment of discovery on one side, and then on the other, building into something that is definitely mutual, but not necessarily equal or stabilised.

2008-06-07 Bus 50 (Open-Top Bus, Swanage to Bournemouth) 09 Swanage, Elderly Couple on Hill Overlooking the Beach by that_james.

And in this beautiful example of an elderly couple, one lost in dementia, the “being-known” becomes more than the knowing itself; the lost memory of once-having-loved is absorbed into an ever present reality of being-loved. This can be true of those at the end of life, of the unborn, of the estranged, and of all those who cannot or will not let the love they receive from others grow into a personal response.

Love – and indeed being human, being a person – is not just about your capacity to love or think or act, it is also about the fact that you are loved, by someone, somewhere. And even where that someone seems almost completely absent, it is the fact that you could be loved – that you are loveable. Our dignity is not conferred by others; but we need others to make explicit what is too often hidden and unacknowledged.

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London Fashion Week has just wrapped up. You get a taste of what it’s all about in this “behind the scenes” article. And if you are feeling a bit left-behind you can research the big “25 trends” here.

I’ve not idea whether it was a success or not. The only real piece of non-fashion news that leaked out into the mainstream press was the stir caused by Mark Fast’s decision to use size 14 models. These normal looking women are called ‘curvy’ in the fashion industry.

Over exposed @ London Fashion Week by Swamibu.

Fashion and architecture are probably the two art forms that impinge on our everyday lives more than any others – whether we notice it or not.  There was a lovely scene in the film Coco Before Chanel where the famous designer walks into a crowd of people wearing one of her revolutionary new outfits. She looks simple, elegant, alive; and everyone else around her is trapped in the musty formality of their grandparents. It’s uncritical and overstaged. But in that scene you have the sense that through the creative genius of one individual the world was pulled from one century into the next in just a few dazzling hours.

Some people try, but I doubt it’s possible to opt out completely and escape the influence of contemporary fashion. Our culture, our social imagination, is formed by fashion – it’s the air we breathe. For many, the overriding concern is not to be fashionable but to avoid being unfashionable. For some, the decision to be unfashionable, the commitment to uncommitment, is a way of avoiding the pressures.

I can’t help thinking of the Carmelite nuns that I visit every few weeks. They live in an enclosed monastery in West London, giving their lives to prayer, silence, and contemplation. Part of their commitment to poverty and to simplicity of life is wearing a religious habit. Now, it has its own style and elegance – and its interesting that in the film Chanel’s radical vision of simplicity is partly influenced by her observation of the dress of religious sisters. But the point is that the Carmelite sisters renounce their own stylistic preferences and commit to wearing whatever is given to them. This little act of detachment is not a form of repression, it doesn’t depersonalise them. Quite the opposite: It allows the heart to be free, and the person to shine forth.

St Therese arrives in Birmingham by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

This doesn’t mean that we would all be happier and more truly ourselves if we burnt our wardrobes and all adopted Maoist suits. Clothes can quite rightly be an expression of our deepest personality; they can bring flashes of beauty into the ordinary world. But it does point to an inner peace and intangible joy that can only be found with a certain detachment of heart. If we are free from the need to hold and possess, then we will be more free to give ourselves to what is truly important.

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The first residential internet addiction clinic has opened in the US recently (there are already plenty in China, South Korea, and Taiwan). The case study presented in this article is Ben Alexander, the 19-year-old who was spending up to 17 hours a day lost in the World of Warcraft online role-play game. Now he is learning how to cook and make conversation.

Ben is on the extreme end of the scale, but there are millions of others for whom a harmless pleasure, a late night distraction, has become a compulsion. It’s not just pornography and gambling, but online chat, gaming, and a host of other virtual worlds. If you are wondering whether you class as an addict – 2 hours a day of non-work internet time is meant to be a warning sign.

the internet, a social environment for the antisocial by Will Lion.Most of us struggle with minor addictions. In terms of Christian spirituality it’s when the heart is not free. In our everyday relationships and pleasures, when things are healthy, we choose who to spend our time with and what to give our attention to. But in the experience of addiction, and even in the less serious compulsions, our attention is taken rather than given, and it is as if we have no choice at all about what we are doing. This, of course, is part of the allure: the passivity, the lack of responsibility, and the sense that our own life is defined by something outside ourselves. Addiction gives a strange kind of meaning when life is empty or unendurable.

There’s a connection here with the film I saw last week: Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. It follows a US bomb disposal team in contemporary Baghdad. But it’s not really about Iraq, or even about war. The film focusses so closely (and brilliantly) on the ticking-bomb set-pieces that the political or social context hardly features.

It’s really about ‘men on a mission'; and it could be any kind of mission that required courage, teamwork, and resilience. The connecting theme, however, without giving the whole plot away, is really obsession. How one man can become so defined by his work that he is unable to function or even understand who he is outside it. It’s a particularly brutal background, and there are one or two insights into the wider issues of war and counter-insurgency; but really this is a study in workaholism – in addiction. One that is well worth seeing…

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Comic Book Struck by SheWatchedTheSky.With today’s Guardian you get a free facsimile copy of the children’s comic Whizzer and Chips – the edition from 8th April 1978. Holding it in my hands sent a wave of nostalgia rushing over me. I remember racing down the hill every saturday morning to the corner-shop, clutching my pocket-money – enough for a comic and a bag of penny sweets. I’m sure there were others, but my strongest memories are of Whizzer and Chips, Bullet (adventure stories in serial), and then 2000 AD - with the groundbreaking science-fiction art. I have the first two or three hundred copies stashed away somewhere with my old toys and schoolbooks; they must be collectables worth a fortune by now.

 

There is a lot to learn from the structure of the classic one-page comic strip. It forces you to think clearly. You have tVintage Ad #401: How's Trix? by jbcurio.o tell the story in a few simple frames. Each frame has to be clear and interesting in its own right. And each frame has to flow out from the previous one, while still containing some element of surprise. It’s this delightful combination of novelty and inevitability that keeps the story moving. Above all, it has to create a satisfying arc that takes you from A to B in a few simple steps. In other words, the comic strip is an education in how to structure and present a good argument. Most of us teachers would be more effective if we had to learn the discipline of creating a good storyboard.

Powerpoint is meant to help us do this. But for most people its effectiveness is diminished by projecting too many words. A friend of mine who lectures in law has found the perfect solution: She only uses images; ten or twelve for each hour long lecture. She vowed not to use a single word of text on any of her slides. It sounds mad, but apparently it works. Each image represents a single key idea. The result – she tells me – is a presentation that is entertaining and memorable; and the discipline of using only images forces her to tell a good story, and present a sound argument. I wanted to try this in my theology lectures this semester, but I left it too late, and went to the classroom this week with a pile of weighty texts in my hands…

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The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux have arrived in Britain, as they begin a month long tour of the country. They are stopping at numerous churches, monasteries and Cathedrals (including York Minster), with time to take in a hospice for the dying and Wormwood Scrubs prison. They will spend the final week in London, ending with four days in Westminster Cathedral. There are so many articles you can read about the visit – here is a recent one from the Guardian, and from the Telegraph.

St Thérèse in England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

Just to get the facts: These are some bones of a young nineteenth century French nun, carried around in an ornate casket for people to venerate. To any hardened secularists it must be baffling; and to many Protestants it will be a confirmation that the Catholic Church is stuck in an age of superstition and medieval heresy. But to Catholics it is the most natural thing in the world to pray to the saints, to visit a shrine, and by extension to go on pilgrimage to those places where the memory and the mortal remains of the saints are preserved. The tour of St Thérèse’s relics is a pilgrimage in reverse – she comes to us and saves us the bother of taking the ferry to Normandy.

I won’t give a big theological explanation of the meaning of relics. There is lots of information on the official website of the Catholic Church. I just want to point to the sound instincts that lie behind the desire to venerate relics and draw closer to the saints. There is a human instinct to honour the dead, to visit their graves, and to believe that their relationship with us is not just a memory but a continuing presence – one that is strengthened by our love and devotion. There is a Christian instinct to ask others to pray for us, especially those who seem close to God, and to believe that these bonds of prayer and love aren’t broken by death. Why would someone pray less or love less just because they had gone to Heaven?

And there is the instinct of all those in need to seek out help wherever they can find it. The overwhelming evidence from history and recent experience is that people’s lives are changed when they come to the relics of a saint with faith and an open heart. So it is no surprise that ‘the poor’ – whether their poverty is material or emotional or spiritual – are flocking to St Thérèse. It’s not desperation; it’s just an honest confession of weakness and need; and an acknowledgement that here is someone who understands, someone who can help. Not someone who takes us away from God, but someone who helps us draw closer to him. Not someone who distracts us from believing in Christ, but someone who helps us to see what that belief really involves, and gives us the spiritual support we need to live it.

The relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux travelled through Eurotunnel and arrived in Kent today for an historic first visit to England and Wales by Catholic Church (England and Wales).

There are not many places in our culture outside the confessional or the therapist’s lounge where you can express your deepest human and spiritual needs, and believe that there might be a way of meeting them. How wonderful that for a few weeks now people can go to Thérèse, and in her company go to God, with honest and expectant hearts.

[I gave a retreat about the life and significance of Thérèse this summer. Click here if you want to listen to the talks.]

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